Monday, 28 April 2014

C is for Crisis, Coalitions and (Keep) Calm

A military build up on the borders, a city mayor is shot in the back, sanctions are announced and this evening a fight kicks off between rival groups. It's another (busy) day watching the crisis in Ukraine. 

Watching is exactly what many people are doing - both in Lithuania and the UK. 

Today four RAF Typhoon jets arrived in Lithuania to join six Polish aircraft at Zokniai airbase, just outside Šiauliai, in northern Lithuania. It furthers Lithuania and Britain's experience of working together within NATO and aims to reassure the Baltics' that NATO is taking their concerns seriously. 

It also comes after years of incursions and fly-bys by Russian jets (though the UK shares this experience with the Baltics too). Just days after I first arrived in Lithuania a Russian pilot even crashed his plane while flying over Lithuania and, according to a recent article from Reuters, 

"[T]he number of Russian jets flying close enough to Baltic airspace this year to prompt NATO jets being scrambled has increased to around one a week."1

Until the crisis in Ukraine there were only four NATO jets in total based in Lithuania. With the arrival of  around 100 support staff from RAF Coningsby, plus the Polish forces, one can't help wonder if it will feel a little cramped at at first, and not entirely dissimilar to parts of East London and East Anglia!

The air policing mission marked its 10th anniversary at the start of this year. With the Baltics being part of the economic and security unions of both NATO and the EU for a decade now, the increased NATO presence feels like a slightly bitter way to mark the anniversary.

I seriously doubt Russia will entertain any military nonsense in the Baltics. It will continue to shadow and enter NATO airspace and maritime interests, it will seek to highlight the place of the Russian populations (especially in Estonia and Latvia) and it will probably turn up the price of gas or turn of the tap. All these can be borne out with patience, and hopefully will be. They will also cause the Baltic States to look even more westward and strengthen the economic, military and cultural ties it has established over the last decade and longer.

As this research shows, Poland and Lithuania are the most 'hawkish' when it comes to tackling Russia, but Lithuania in particular has the most to lose economically.

Should there be an attack, the 4 Typhoons and the Polish Mig-29s would be unlikely to repel it, but doing so would invoke Article 5 and we'd all be asking some very tough questions if that happened.

On a happier note, I say welcome to the RAF! I hope you enjoy your stay, I hope it builds even stronger links between Polish and British airmen and that your experience of Lithuanian hospitality will be second to none. I also hope that your stay doesn't last too long, we can all keep calm, and have a nice cup of tea (oh, Brits, you'll need to ask for milk in that).

Friday, 21 January 2011

A is for Arrivals

You have arrived at an A to Z of Lithuania. Welcome. Sveiki Atvyke!
What a suitable way to start an A to Z than with Arrivals!
Please do scroll through other entries on the right hand side. I hope you enjoy. All comments welcome.

“How’s Latvia?”
“Lithuania. I’m in Lithuania, not Latvia, it’s the next country south.”

So begins the typical conversation with people when I return to the UK after spending time in the aforementioned Baltic country which has been my home for the last two years.
With people I meet for the first time the conversation usually begins…
“Oh, Lithuania. How interesting.” Pause. The cogs turn, they try to visualise a map in their head and I see their eyes wandering over Eastern Europe, rather lost and confused. “Where is Lithuania exactly?”

I like that often people use the word exactly. It makes it sound like they do actually have a clue about the existence of a country about one third the size of England. Exactly, as if they know it’s somewhere off a motorway, and is it junction 21 or 22. If you want to know exactly then you might like to ask your Sat-Nav;

If you start in London, then let it be known that your journey starts in a congestion charging zone. After this expensive start, travel to Dover...
Board the ferry DOVER-CALAIS at Dover for the next 1.18 miles.1.16 miles (1,9 km)79.4 miles (127,8 km)
Leave the ferry DOVER-CALAIS and continue on DOVER-CALAIS. 0 miles (0 m)79.4 miles (127,8 km)

I'll spare you the intimate details, but, once in France, you're heading East, through Belgium, the Netherlands and then say “auf wiedersen” to Germany, “do widzenia” to Warsaw and, after being sat behind a lorry on a single carriageway road for 10 hours, you’ll come to Lithuania. This is actually a personal variation on the sat-nav suggested route. She's a lovely voice, but doesn't fully understand the intricacies of European history and politics. Whilst Poland and Lithuania are fully signed up members of the EU and as of last week also the Shengen zone, the Russian Kaliningrad oblast is not. You will need a visa to transit this living reminder of European 20th Century history, so, it's better to head South a little. However, should you drive too far south you will find Belarus. Like it's Russian cousin Belarus won't allow you in without a visa and various other documents, so you may as well turn around and come to Lithuania, where the border guards will (as of last week) no longer ask to see just as many documents, but, thanks to the EU, will welcome you to Lithuania. If you have driven over one thousand miles to Lithuania, they will probably look at you with some bemusement since most people travel the other way, and usually by aeroplane or bus.

Anyway, as you cross the border of North-East Poland into Lithuania you will know exactly where Lithuania is.

If that hasn’t helped, put your fists side by side, the left hand is Germany, the right hand is Poland. Raise your right pinky a little. You just found Lithuania. In case you’re still wondering, raise it some more and you’ll find Latvia, raise it to the full and Estonia will greet you as well!
Welcome to Lithuania!

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Y is for Why?

Why visit Lithuania? Maybe you meet someone on a bus and they’re from a country you’ve never heard of before and you decide to visit. There are worse reasons.

This is what a guy called Kevin has done. He made contact with me recently to ask about LT. He linked to my blog so I thought I would link to his as I’m interested in seeing his perspective. You can check out his posts at and on Twitter at

Friday, 8 August 2008

X is for X-List (Celebrities and a Top Secret Nuclear Site)

This post is a work in progress. If you're in Lithuania, tell me your favourite Lithuanian celebrity in the comments at the bottom.

Here's a quick run down of some of Lithuania's most famous people...

Many of Lithuania's most famous citizens have long since died - most notably MK Ciurlonis, who was a composer and artist in the early 20th Century. Even fictional characters have roots in Lithuania - Hannibal Lector is supposed to be born on the outskirts of Vilnius and the captain of the Red October, as played by Sean Connery is based on a similar story involving a Lithuanian sailor.

However, who's still alive?

Basketball is often described as being like religion in Lithuania. The comparison works if you're religious and most of the country goes to church or mosque and enthusiastically celebrates every religious festival and saints' day. If you're from the UK or the rest of Western Europe and most of the Europe for that matter, let me help you understand - basketball is like football.
Basketball players are the Beckhams and Roonies of Lithuania. Lithuania look promising to pick up a medal in the basketball having already beaten Russia in the Olympics. (Lithuania got its first medal when Mindaugas Mizgaitis took bronze in the men's Greco-Roman 120kg wrestling. Now that's a proper olympic sport!)

Also in sport Žydrūnas Savickas is a big man who've I've seen on TV a lot, mostly lifting blond ladies and advertising some sort of food. He came second in the World's Strongest Man competitions of 2002-2004.

Jurga is one of Lithuania's most succesful music artists. Last November she won an MTV Europe award for Best Performer. Check out her website at and one of her videos below. I saw her supporting Bjork where she danced the robot, heavily pregnant and gave an amazing performance.

Hearts FC, from Edinburgh, Scotland have a number of players from Lithuania.

Also under X-List come Lithuania's Top Secret Nuclear Missile Silos. Hidden deep in the forest near Plunge in North-West Lithuania lies Plokstines Missile Silo, the mouth from which death and destruction would have been spat had the late 60's and 70's ever turned hot. Okay, so they're not secret any more, and for a fee a lady will organise a mini bus to take you there and give you a full tour of the tubes. There are no missiles left as the Russians kindly took them away in 1978 when the CIA discovered the location of the site. A visit here is sobering as you walk around the clammy, rusting control rooms and look down the launch tubes themselves (so I've been told. My friend has been, but I haven't personally).

Thursday, 24 July 2008

W is for Women

M was for men and in V we read about Vilnius having a 20% higher female population than men, so it feels right that W is for Women. Lithuania is of course the land of beautiful ladies (which gives me an excuse to inbed this video again)

There are three main types of Lithuanian woman in common parlance, močiutė, lietuvaitė and everyone else.

A močiutė - or grandma - is what our Russian friends might call a babushka. She's traditonally short, rounded, a little weather-beaten but still has plenty of fight about her. She cares for her family and she can tell you some amazing stories of what it was like in her day.
She can also batter her way onto a trolley bus with no remorse and will doubtless find a bargain everywhere and anywhere.

A lietuvaitė on the other hand is currently living in "her day". Literally meaning a Lithuanian girl/ young woman the name sums up tradition, village life, purity, youth, beauty, singing, patriotism and everything that the illustration below represents.It's this that many people - not just men - have in mind when their first question to newly arrived foreign men is, "what do you think of Lithuanian girls?"

I would have to concede that there does seem to be a higher percentage of attractive women in Lithuania than in other countries I have visited, but it becomes both uncomfortable and almost obscene as people ask your opinion of their womenfolk in the same way a farmer might begin selling his prize livestock.

Behind this pride in breeding stock lies a sadder and much less innocent reality. The divorce rate in Lithuania is perhaps the highest per capita in the EU, yet it is culturally more acceptable for a woman to be divorced than to have never married at all.

Lithuania is in many ways a matriarchal society. Except for politics and big business - where men rule the roost (though I'd be interested to meet their wives) - women often seem to be the ones who lead families, who do the hard graft both at work and at home, who go to church, who get involved in social projects and who want to create better futures. Even amongst students I find it is the young women who get higher marks, who speak more foreign languages, who travel and have dreams and plans for their lives - whereas the young men often seem content with the status quo and even if they're not, who don't seem to want to put in the effort to make any changes, firstly with themselves or with their surroundings.

Many men do have low self-esteem in Lithuania which is partly why many become alcoholics, therefore becoming less useful at work, often unemployed and leaving a wife to look after the house, the family and become a model to her children. I've also been told that because so many men have gone to fight over the numerous wars over the last century and a half, men have become a precious commodity and as a result "mothered" by their wives and mothers - sons treasured and allowed to do what they want while daughters have been made to work on the land and earn their due. This leads to men living in an extended adolesence whereas women mature even quicker than relative to their brothers.

V is for Vilnius, Village and Versions of history

To many urbanite foreigners Vilnius is a small town - 1 airport, 1 train station, 1 bus station and you could walk across it in a few hours. To many Lithuanians, Vilnius is a sprawling cosmopolitan metropolis. For first impressions of Vilnius, and because many of my readers are new, please read
B is for Beginnings.

Since I first arrived in Vilnius a little under three years ago, a lot has changed. There are a lot more new cars, the beer is about 20% more expensive (rising prices and a weaker pound), there's an Irish bar, more of the churches have been renovated, there are more expensive shops, there are more road signs guiding you to nearby streets and there are dozens of new shiny tower blocks being built. Vilnius is a city that is growing like any other (Central) European city. It is swallowing up the surrounding countryside to house more people as people come in from outside or as others move to newer premises. Others buy land just outside the city to build their own houses, in turn creating the beginnings of a modern suburbia.

A recent edition of the Baltic Times had a front page article headlined "City of Women".

High suicide rates, alcoholism and emigration have led to females outnumbering men by more than 20 percent in Vilnius, according to the most recent government statistics. The Statistics Department released numbers indicating that despite similar birth rates, women outnumber men in Vilnius in all adult age groups. Other cities show similar trends.

One woman who recently made big news in Vilnius was Bjork. She played live, outside in Vingio Park to an audience of 8'000, of whom I was one, right at the front. Her final song was Declare Independence, which seemed very fitting as Vingio Park was home to the "Singing Revolution" when even larger crowds (parents of today's young Bjork fans) would gather to sing national and traditional songs during the latter years of the Soviet Union.

This is the official video. There's some live footage on youtube, but it won't let me embed it.


Where Vilnius represents modernity, the future, realised dreams, creativity, (and a greater chance to find a wife?) "The Village" represents something quite different but perhaps even more important in the Lithuanian psyche.
Going to "the village" means more than a trip to the countryside. It means returning to parents and grandparents, to sandy-dirt roads, to wooden houses, stone churches, immaculately carved wooden crosses by the roadside, infrequent buses, clean air, lakes, forests and farms.
One might argue that Lithuanians, deep in their soul are agricultural people. Vilnius itself was mostly populated with Poles and Jews up until the early 20th Century. For Lithuanians the land is important for identity and for life. It's in the countryside and the villages that they fought the Partisan War, the resistance movement against Soviet Union. It's the villages that suffered under collective farming. Returning to the village is returning to the very idea of Lietuva, to tevyne - the fatherland - of their ancestors.

It's also the land of hard work, little profit, unemployment, and alcoholism. It's unsurprising that like most of the world, the young people move away to the cities for education and work. Yet it is those same young people who seem to have a wild glint in their eyes when they tell me they're going "home to the village" for the weekend or for the summer.

Versions of History

Lithuania's history before, during and after World War II is a sad and often complex affair. Recent history never seems far from current affairs and in the last few weeks, as Pime Minister Kirkilas visited Jewish communities in New York. The BBC's Crossing Continents recently reported,"A judicial inquiry into the wartime activities of Jewish anti-Nazi resistance fighters in Lithuania has led to accusations that the small Baltic state is trying to distort the history of World War II."

For copyright reasons and general manners, I shan't repeat the whole article and would rather you read it in its entirety on the bbcnews webpage (click the above quote).

If you want to even begin to try and understand the situation in the 1940's, it's worth asking yourself, especially if you're a young man, this question,

"who am I going to fight for? Hitler's Nazis or Stalin's Soviet Union?"

Saturday, 28 June 2008

U is for Užsieniečiai

An užsienietis is a foreigner, literally someone from behind or beyond the wall. Although it‘s a small country there are many užsieniečiai in Lithuania – okay, so not as many as UK or France, etc, but enough. In my opinion there are three main types – tourists, WEs and EWs.

Just by listening to people speak and looking at the number plates of buses, most tourists to Lithuania are from Poland – taking short breaks in Vilnius and the South East region – perhaps in memory of their imagined empire. There are also many tourists from Germany and also from the UK. I haven‘t actually seen many British stag-do parties this year, but in my previous two years I have cringed to myself as I‘ve walked past such groups.
Stag-do parties tend to be the same everywhere; A football-shirt-wearing, prematurely balding young man, someone dressed as a women, someone with something bizarre on his head and one person looking a bit shy and wishing all of his friends would be a little bit quieter.

There are also other groups of non-Lithuanians living in Lithuania, see Demographics.

Tourists come and go, but WEs and EWs stay for longer.

WEs are “West to Easters”, meaning they have travelled from the West – The USA, Canada, Europe. In more common parlance, these people are called "ex-pats" and are generally people who didn’t need to come to Lithuania, they’re not seeking a better life here, although they might be looking to make a few more Litas.
Some came for love – mostly men – having met a Lithuanian beauty (Lietuvaitė) somewhere else in the world and decided it would be interesting to meet the parents and see what the future might hold in her native land.
Others come for different family reasons. Throughout the 20th Century, thousands of Lithuanians left their fatherland and sought a more peaceful stable life in countries as far away as the USA, Canada and even Brazil. Years later their children or grandchildren return to Lithuania to seek their routes, learn a little bit of the language, and if they’re really cunning, get a Lithuanian passport so that they can study more cheaply in Europe.

By contrast to WEs, EWs (pronounced like a Geordy forming his own second person plural, “youse”) are “East to Westers”, coming from the Middle East, Africa and Asia.
These are people who didn’t need to come specifically to Lithuania, but somehow they found an opportunity to and they took it. Interestingly, these people aren’t often called ex-pats, they’re labelled “immigrants” and have to accept all the charged stereotyped baggage that comes along with such a word. While in the UK people complain of “those Lithuanians, stealing our jobs”, some Lithuanians can also be heard saying the same thing about those of darker skin colour who reside in the same country.
Unlike WEs, EWs don’t often live in the best parts of town, probably don’t own a car and instead of owning cafes, work in their kitchens.

I have friends who left a country in the Middle East because of religious persecution and came to Lithuania in order to work and eventually bring their families to live with them. Despite working nights and living in one cramped room, life hasn't gone according to plan and they haven't achieved the "European Dream". Recently they have been discussing moving on to another EU country now that they have a Schengen visa.

Another group came from South Asia with a view to entering Europe. They originally enrolled as students, though 3 years after arriving, I think only 2 are still pursuing their studies, a few others are working in restaurants and the rest have found their way to Paris, Manchester and Vienna through various and, as far as I can tell, illegal means.