Somehow I imagined Lithuania a bit different. The image I had in my mind was a country full of people queuing in front of stores, and big grey blocks as buildings. Sad people everywhere. And imagine, I went there in January, the darkest month of the year anywhere in Northern Europe.
Lithuania, 10 years in the European Union (24 out of the Soviet one)
None of that in Lithuania in 2015 – okay some grey blocks do remain from the Soviet era, and January is still a winter month where rain and mist come quite often. But it has been 24 years since the country broke free from the Soviet rule, those images in my head were from a long time ago. Today, the only queues I could see in front of shops where not because of shortage in basic necessities but because the country just switched to Euros (on 1st of January 2015) and everyone was very confused on how much they actually had to pay in the new currency. It took me 15 minutes to buy stamps because the lady was calculating the price of each stamp in Litas and then in Euros for what seemed an eternity, especially with the queue getting longer and longer behind me. Lithuanians have embraced capitalism with open hearts and open purses, and the free wi-fi in every café of Vilnius would put to shame any European capital.
Lithuania is looking North to Scandinavia
Even more surprising was to see that Lithuania not only looks West by entering the EU (2004) and adopting the Euro, it also looks North. Every major Scandinavian bank is present in Lithuania, whether it is DnB, Danske Bank or Swedbank. But it doesn’t stop there: Statoil is at every corner and people wear Swix sweatshirts (a Norwegian company producing ski-wax and outdoor and skiing clothing). The opening of the first IKEA in the country was live on national news and the President of Lithuania herself proudly cut the ribbon to this temple of capitalism à la Swedish. I have never seen a country with so many Scandinavian businesses outside of Scandinavia.
Also, I learn that Lithuania has 2.6 million inhabitants plus an estimated 1 million more living abroad, especially in the UK and in Norway. Suddenly the cheap and frequent Ryanair flights between Oslo and Vilnius made sense to me. Lithuanians like Scandinavia a lot, and apparently Scandinavian businesses like them back in return.
But do Scandinavian states love them back? “We want a Scandinavian country to adopt Lithuania” says my friend Birute. Yes Birute is a girl’s name which means “snow” in Lithuanian, they have other names which are unheard of anywhere else, such as Aras (eagle), Audras (storm), Daina (song), Miglè (mist), Svajonè (dream). Because Lithuania has its own language, its own culture and its own literature. None of these are common to many other countries, except maybe Latvia. “You see Estonia has Finland because their languages have the same roots, but Latvia and Lithuania are alone. We need a Scandinavian country to adopt us. Do you think Norway would want that?”. Hum I don’t know. I could ask, but I can’t promise anything. Maybe there is a form to fill in on Noway’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs website?
Anything but Russia
“What about Russia?” I ask. A glacial wind seems to have set at our table. “We are afraid of Russia”. Understandably. With its recent intervention in Ukraine (2014) and earlier in Georgia (2008), Russia seems to be ready to take back any part of what was once “their” territory if the chance comes. And Lithuania, jammed between Poland, Belarus and that little piece of Russia out of Russia, is dead scared Russia will turn to them and claim they are Russia all over again. Lithuanian TV talks about Russian invasion as imminent, and prepares people on what to do in case of war.
“Okay okay, so you guys need Norway to adopt you. What are the Lithuanians doing in Norway?” I ask. “Mainly criminal activities”. WHAT? My friends are laughing. “Well, that’s what they are famous for at least”. Criminal activities are not good on an adoption record, especially in Norway, I tell them. After checking, it turns some criminals make the news, but most Lithuanians working abroad are nurses, cleaners, or work in kitchens or in the construction industry.
Lithuania turns out to be full of surprises, and much more complex than I expected. At the end of the 14th century Lithuania was one of the largest countries in Europe and included present-day Belarus, Ukraine, and parts of Poland and Russia. Today they have a Polish minority, a Russian minority, and even a Tatar minority. They used to have many Jews, but 91% of them were killed during World War II. Shit, 91%, that’s really a lot, I think while looking at the little sculpture made for the duty to remember at the entrance of what used to be the Jewish ghetto of Vilnius.
“This country wasn’t great during WWII, but now it came back fighting for human rights right?”. “Yes definitely” answer my Lithuanian friends. “Except if you’re gay”. What about gay Jews I want to ask, but let’s not make this more complicated than it already is.
Lithuanians want everything from Europe and Scandinavia, except for gay rights
“What’s up with gay rights?” I ask. “I thought Lithuania loved everything that was Scandinavian, and that includes gender equality, non-discrimination and human rights for all”. Well, yes, they love the low unemployment rate, capitalism, social welfare, the fact that it’s not Russia.
After making a little research, I find that “gay activity is authorised in Lithuania” (sic) but civil partnership isn’t. More importantly, the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer persons face high social and political hostility. According to national surveys, 62% of Lithuanians object to a Gay Pride parade being held in Lithuania. Jeez that’s a lot of people objecting just for people to have a party in the street with multicoloured flags. What if the survey asked about gay marriage or having kids? “Skinheads came at the Baltic Pride (Lithuania’s first Gay Pride in 2010), but I was with my mum who is a teacher so they didn’t dare to insult or attack us” says my friend. Great.
I have a little bit of a nausea. “The Demonstration for All (against gay marriage, in France) go a lot of media coverage in Lithuania” they add. You bet.
Where does Lithuania belong?
But none of this can deny that this country is beautiful: its lakes, its former capital city Trakai is just lovely with its castle and islands. The amber rings, the Dziugas cheese (I bought a jar of that cheese mixed with honey, nuts and cranberries, a Lithuanian classic apparently), the zalgiris (a local alcohol with 60% of percentage of alcohol, of great interest for the Norwegian tourists coming around here). Its food is so peculiar. I ate there a fermented cucumber soup (warm), deep fried bread with cheese and garlic mayonnaise, a Tatar-inherited pastry called Kibinai, a drink made from bread and a delicious prune cheese.
Despite the wonderful food, I had an after-taste of finding Lithuania in between two worlds: The youth obviously craves for more capitalism, more Iphones, more IKEAs and international companies. Lithuanian society hates Putin yet adopts his values on homosexuality, gender equality and all those conservative measures that don’t have their place in Western Europe, let alone Scandinavia. Where does Lithuania belong?
As I leave Vilnius, I pass by Uzupis Republic, a “freetown” in the old Vilnius that artists claimed as their own, with streets full of graffitis, art and thoughtful sentences. It reminds me of Christiania in Copenhagen. They have their own constitution, which includes among other things “6. Everyone has the right to love; 4. Everyone has the right to make mistakes; 15. Everyone has the right to be in doubt, but it is not an obligation”. Later that day it is snowing beautifully on Vilnius’ churches and streets, and teenagers are gathered on the French square. They ask us to join them in a snowball fight. They already built their ammunition: dozens of perfectly shaped snow balls are posed on all the benches. As we politely decline they start throwing their snow balls at each other, screaming of joy and rolling themselves in the snow.
I don’t think Lithuania needs to be adopted by anyone. Lithuania is its own proud Baltic country, and considering how many changes this country has seen in the past 60 years, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more change in the future. As the Bible says, as long as there is life (and joy, artists and human rights defenders), there is hope.