Anything to declare? Yeah, don’t go to Lithuania!
The cold, dark bus hurtled through the Lithuanian countryside. I was heading to Kaunas and not looking forward to my impending homelessness when I arrived at midnight.
I’d arrived in the city of Siauliai earlier that evening, hoping to stay for the night. After searching in vain for a hotel or anything else that was open, I was forced to get back on the bus without dinner or a drink.
I regretted ever leaving lovely Estonia to come to this country full of boring landscapes, unpronounceable words, cold weather, dull old towns, mediocre food, no hot men, and people who would rather scowl than speak English.
A little harsh, perhaps, but I was frustrated.
Short of closing doors right in my face – which one employee at an amber shop actually did – I had been made to feel more unwelcome in Lithuania than anywhere I’ve been.
If reports by Invest in Lithuania are true, and 90% of the country’s 3.4 million people speak a second language, 100% of them apparently weren’t in the mood to attempt English during the week I was there. Everyone I spoke to, from bus drivers to hostel owners, policemen to waitresses, even the people at Tourist Info, either could not, or simply would not, try to be nice or help me. The mere sound of English seemed to infuriate them.
Now, if a Lithuanian came to Canada and expected me to speak their language, I wouldn’t be able to help at all, so I don’t expect people in other countries to speak my language either. But there is a certain level of courtesy that can be expected, and two instances, in the middle of the general unpleasantness, brushing me aside and ignoring me, particularly infuriated me:
1. A hostel owner in Vilnius pleaded ignorance when a group of us complained about the drunken local man passed out in our room, an empty bottle of vodka dangling from his hand and the smell enough to intoxicate us all while we slept. It was an ironic turn of events, seeing as the first thing I noticed in the creepy hostel was the sign stating that no drunkenness would be tolerated. Local drunkenness, I guess, was acceptable.
2. A waitress in Klaipeda looked the other way when a homeless man began to shout at me and other patrons, leaving us to fend for ourselves while he frothed anti-Americanism at the mouth. It was the first time I’ve actually been afraid I might be attacked by a madman while the rest of the town stands around and watches.
An English woman I met in Vilnius said she’d encountered the same rudeness, but she was a little more understanding than I.
“Lithuania has had mass emigration over the past few years,” she said. “Something like 10% of their population has moved away. Maybe all of the people who care to speak English have gone West.”
Before getting there, I’d have been prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt. In fact, I’d been more than prepared to love it.
I had been staring at my European map one day, feeling uninspired because I’d been to most countries already, when I spotted the Baltics and felt excited. I barely knew a thing about the area. I loved the originality of it.
Lithuania does, after all, have a few things going for it. It’s an EU country and a NATO member. It was the first ex-Soviet country to declare independence in 1990, and it currently has low unemployment and one of the fastest-growing economies in Europe. It has 100 kilometres of coastline, rivers, forests, and the highest quality of life in the Baltics.
But no matter how many positive attributes a country has, it’s the people who make the biggest impression. And frankly, Lithuanians dropped the ball.
Three thousand hours into the cold bus ride, I was pissed off at my guidebook for pulling a fast one on me, suggesting that Lithuania was one of the must-see gems in Europe. Moreover, I was pissed off at myself for trying something new when I could have been in Croatia, or London; anywhere but here, barrelling through the Lithuanian night with only bad memories and my originality to keep me warm.
Although it makes sense to see as many places as possible when you’re young, to figure out what you like. Lithuania was my last straw. It was time to either switch continents, or stop my European tourism promiscuity and settle on a favourite.
‘I won’t make this mistake again’, I vowed, still 100 kilometres from Kaunas. ‘That is, if I ever get the chance to do anything other than sit on this bus.’
When I arrived in Kaunas, I immediately liked it. My guidebook didn’t have good things to say about it, but I was determined to make friends with the city.
I loved the surreally beautiful church on the horizon of the long pedestrian street, the cute shops and restaurants, and the quietness of the Sunday afternoon that I spent kicking autumn leaves around the cobblestones.
I finally felt at peace with Lithuania. Maybe I’d been too hard on it? I was ready to forgive and forget.
And then, at 6pm when I returned to the hotel to collect my backpack before hurrying to the airport – after making clear to the owner that morning that I was leaving it behind his desk – I found the place locked and dark. I banged on the window and nearly smashed it, I phoned, I yelled, I rang the doorbell. No answer.
When I went to the police station to file a report they stared blankly at me, not able to offer a single consolatory word of English, not even a “sorry, you’re screwed”.
Maybe it was my fault. Maybe I should have learned Lithuanian before I went to the country so I could communicate with the locals. Maybe I’d unwittingly arrived during Act-Like-An-Asshole week. Whatever the reason, after all of the great travels I’ve had in other parts of the continent and the great people that I’ve met, I can’t personally recommend Lithuania to anyone.
Unless they want to go to Kaunas and pick up my backpack.