About a month ago, Jaime and I visited Lithuania. Similar to how we chose our trip to Romania, Google Flights was showing really affordable flights to Vilnius and we had a long weekend. So we went. Our weekend was really relaxing and mostly uneventful, although I learned a lot about the former Soviet Union and the specific impact it had on Lithuania immediately following the country’s 3 year Nazi occupation during World War II. For some reason I’ve had a really hard time writing about this trip. I’ve tried a few times but what comes out doesn’t feel interesting enough to post. So instead of highlighting our weekend itinerary, I’ve decided to take a different approach to this post and just share my observations.
First a little (recent) history. The Holocaust was a very dark time for Lithuania as Nazis occupied the country from 1941-1944 and during this time nearly all (95%) of Lithuania’s Jewish population was massacred. Our AirBNB was located in the former ghetto which is still identifiable by arched entryways that used to have gates blocking entry from (or to, I suppose) the surrounding main roads. From what we saw, about half of the city looks like it has been in need of repair for a very long time, and some buildings look completely abandoned. So despite our cute, newly renovated studio, it’s hard not to imagine who used to live in that building and what kind of terrible life they faced outside of the walls of their home.
From 1945-1991, Lithuania became part of the Soviet Union, a group of countries under Russian communist rule. The KGB (Russian secret police) had an office in Vilnius which is now a museum in honor of the victims of the genocide. The basement of the museum is preserved to look exactly as it was during the era when it was used as a prison for people arrested by the KGB. The upper floors have lots of information in the form of timelines showing when and how things happened from 1941-1991. The museum is a very solemn and sad place, but it does a good job of portraying how prisoners lived. From what I understood, anyone could be arrested for anything that did not comply with Soviet laws. This included people who were suspected of not agreeing with the form of government, regardless of whether or not they broke any laws. I’m really glad we visited the museum, but my heart felt so heavy when we left. Later we spent the evening bar-hopping and trying the variety of delicious beer Lithuania has to offer. It was a bizarre mix of cultural activities.
After only a few hours of being in the country we noticed something strange that was consistent throughout our trip and can be seen in most of the pictures we took: there are no people around. Walking around at any time of day, you see almost nobody in the streets. Once you enter a restaurant or a bar there are some people around, but still a surprisingly small number. Vilnius in November is very cold and rainy and the sun sets at 4:30pm, so I guess that makes a recipe for quiet streets. It’s a really eery feeling being in a place with no one around, even more so in the daylight than at nighttime.
So where is everyone? My personal thought is that their long history of being under such strict government rule might have instilled a cultural understanding that it’s better to be inside rather than out in public. I can’t be certain whether or not that’s true but it seems to be a likely possibility. It’s also possible that since it’s cold and dreary at this time of year, people prefer not to be outside. But then I think about the winters I’ve lived in Boston, MA or Portland, ME. Lots of people are outside walking around despite the really unpleasant temperatures and mounds of snow everywhere. So is this a cultural norm or just a coincidence?
I would have loved to talk with some locals about this and get their take on the matter. Unfortunately the people we interacted with (although for the most part friendly) were not particularly chatty. I always love asking taxi drivers lots of questions but none of the drivers that we rode with in Vilnius spoke English. On the contrary, anyone I spoke to around my age spoke English incredibly well which tells me a lot about how the education system changed after 1991. But another strange thing I noticed is that I did not see one postcard the entire time we were there, and I only saw magnets in the airport. The lack of what I consider to be the two most commonly seen souvenirs tells me that Lithuania may not be ready for tourism – or they may just not want it at all.
At times I felt a slight tone of resentment in some of the interactions I had in bars or when asking for directions. This is where it becomes really hard for me to articulate my thoughts about our trip. I can’t say I blame them really. After such dark times, maybe they just want to be left alone. I felt completely safe there but I can’t say I felt welcomed with open arms. I don’t necessarily think these are reasons not to go to a place like Vilnius, but it certainly has reminded me how important it is to consider other perspectives when formulating opinions about certain situations.