Well, I’ve now been somewhere I never imagined I’d ever see — Vilnius, Lithuania. I have to say the experience was different, in a good way, and I’d like to visit again.
Growing up during the Cold War next to the ICBM fields in east-central North Dakota, what I knew of Lithuania was pretty limited:
- it was an “orange” country on a map thus meaning it was a part of the USSR and
- one of those missiles buried under the North Dakota prairie was probably pointed at it (and on the flip side, several missiles across the USSR were pointed at my backyard).
Beyond that, we didn’t learn much about the Baltic states in the 1980s as they were behind the “Iron Curtain.”
When my Lufthansa flight touched down in Vilnius, it was obvious that Lithuania was a former Soviet state. With the exception of a portion of the relatively new departures terminal and gate area, everything else (fences, lighting, service buildings, etc.) fit the Soviet stereotype I imagined back in my youth. For me, this was a fascinating experience. Even the arrivals hall fit the image; it was a spectacular structure more reminiscent of a 1910 train station than any kind of airport. At first I didn’t notice but as I ducked back in to get some cash from the ATM, I was struck by the historical grandeur of the space. Amazing.
The taxi trip into the city reminded me of the post-industrial rust belt of the United States. Abandoned Soviet-era factories, worn out and crumbling housing blocks, and tired side streets lined the route. In the distance, the single television spire punctuated the skyline like a rider’s lance in the fog. Architecturally, everything was pretty stereotypical (including the spire), however the sad part was that beyond the buildings things were not all that different in parts of the US. As industry moved out, nothing moved back in. Parts of the post-Cold War East resembled parts of the post-Cold War West.
In a past life, the area around the hotel was some kind of Soviet meeting and recreation area. There was a late-1950s mall, a planetarium, plaza, and a grand green field along the engineered riverbank where people were skateboarding, playing volleyball, and lounging in the sun. Aesthetically, contemporary architecture blended with the old and unfortunately it didn’t blend well. The Lithuanians have stopped maintaining the structures of the 1950s and 1960s. Structures and public works of that era are crumbling away from neglect. There’s a certain poetic irony in having a strip club in an old Soviet building.
After checking in, I wandered across the river toward the old city. What I discovered is that Vilnius is like a sweet onion; peel back the layers and there’s something wonderful inside. As I walked toward the center of town, the socialist architecture began to fade. Vilnius is a beautiful historical city dotted with fabulous churches, delightful architecture, and quaint streets. It is obvious the Lithuanians take pride in their heritage; they’re preserving what’s important to them. Case in point: Vilnius suffers from a pretty dramatic graffiti problem. The thing is that the older the building, the less likely there was any major graffiti on the structure. Recent stuff (and especially buildings from 40 years ago) was covered in street paint.
In terms of the people, they were absolutely charming. I happened to be there during a cultural festival and although I kept to myself most of the time, everyone I encountered during the festival and several days afterward was warm and, well, genuine. I can’t say that of many places and in a strange way the people seemed much like the North Dakotans I grew up with; maybe it is a prairie thing.
The one different trait I noticed among the populace was a distinct lack of a consumerist instinct. Yes, people were shopping, but it was clear they’d rather be outside in the sun rather than looking for a new pair of shoes. That’s not to say they weren’t smart dressers. They just were buying things that would last rather than stuff for the moment. Note: I didn’t see an H&M or a Primark anywhere. This was in stark contrast to London and Amsterdam where shopping areas are the places to be seen on a weekend; not so in Vilnius. Refreshing.
Visiting Lithuania was a total surprise. I didn’t know what to expect and what I discovered was delightfully unexpected. I wouldn’t mind going back.