Letters from Lithuania

Wow. When I look back on the last travel-oriented blog that I wrote it strikes me that I need to get out more. Especially when I write this on a work trip. Ho hum…

But not humdrum. Welcome to Vilnius – capital of Lithuania.

In all honesty, so far I’ve seen precious little of it bar a couple of conference venues where I’ve been talking to groups of educators about technology in UK schools. It’s an odd gig; I’ve been simultaneously translated which means that I have to try to stick reasonably closely to a script, talk slowly and avoid jokes, colloquialisms and digression. I know what you’re thinking. I did my best, OK?

I arrived in Vilnius to an overcast evening that was way warmer than the fur-hatted Eastern-bloc freezer I was expecting. I seem to have brought winter with me, though, as I was checking into my hotel the mercury started to sink and I strolled out on Thursday evening into what seemed to be a commendably enthusiastic attempt to start winter in earnest.

I’m staying in the Old Town section of Vilnius which has its share of handsome buildings and boulevards. There are upmarket shops and restaurants and you could be in any small European city: square cobbles, understated shop signs and incomprehensible traffic signs. Further out and there’s a little more evidence of how things used to be: older buildings showing signs of disrepair, parts of Lithuania remind me of Half Life 2. I’m hoping that the Combine don’t arrive before my flight tomorrow.

I’ve been well looked after so far by the British Council. A friendly but, I think, slightly overworked lady named Dangoule has seen me from venue to venue at a frantic pace and translated to IT support, cab drivers, cafe owners and delegates with questions, whilst helping me to learn more about Lithuania. English is spoken by most people here to an extent but any sophisticated ideas that need conveying in limited time are best expressed in Lithuanian. It’s a pleasant sounding language: similar to Polish and Russian but seeming to have a slightly more singsong quality. I’ve learned to say one word, so far, a thank you that sounds like ‘achoo’. I either appear very polite or allergy-stricken…

My guide told me that the language is very direct and that this can make the people sound impolite. When my cab driver said “Get in the car,” in his Russian-gangster accent I can see how it would sound a little… over assertive? Apparently, though, that’s just the way of the language. I wonder if our slightly more circuitous ways of asking sound absurdly pretentious to Lithuanians? Do we sound like characters from a Bronte pastiche: “I wonder, sir, if it might please you to consider making my day all the finer by accepting my humble invitation to consider stepping into my automotive device?”

Plain speaking aside, it seems a friendly city. Strangers have smiled at me in the street and everywhere I’ve been the staff have been cheerful and helpful, if, it has to be said, not exactly chatty. Socially though, it seems different. In a tapas bar down the road from my hotel, the room was awash with animated conversation and laughter and, I was pleased to note, almost devoid of people staring at phones and tablets and taking selfies. I was also pleased to discover some rather splendid dark beer.

So, tomorrow I get to be a tourist, to walk the streets of Vilnius and try to find its psychogeography. Hopefully, the city will remain as friendly as it has seemed so far.

Lithuania is on the move, I’m told by my hosts. Keen to be seen as a big player on the international scene, to bring in investment.

I hope that, in moving with the pace of the rest of the world, it doesn’t lose too much of its own identity. This is a small city, as a capital, only around half a million people. That’s not much bigger than Swindon. If I’m to wander out on a cold evening in the Old Town district in search of food and friendly strangers, I know where I would rather be.

Neil out.

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