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2004-05-12

Travel to Lithuania, 1: Descent 

Drowsy from one and a half hours of newspaper reading on the plane, my memory played a trick on me as the clouds below finally dissolved and the countryside around Vilnius airport became visible: „Wow, for the first time I’ll set my foot on the territory of the Soviet Union.” It was a pathetic moment, but I thought I’d let it happen and even save it for blogging – these things need to be worked out of my mind by acknowledging their occurrence, by hitting myself on the head, and by living on as a saner person ever after.

The airport is small and the black uniforms of the young and friendly female immigration officers are full of colourful ornaments, as if to say “Welcome to our fairy tale.”

Everything was organised, I was placed in a modern minibus to Kaunas, 100km from Vilnius. Pity that I couldn’t quite find the energy to break the wonderful organisation of my hosts and go to Vilnius for a few hours of sightseeing, but it was raining, and I found that weather quite adequate for the scenery.

And there they were, a few kilometres past the modern airport complex, the shabby residential building blocks from the communist legacy, although with a lot of lush spring-time greens between them they didn’t look offensive. Our driver was performing frighteningly aggressive manoeuvres on a narrow little road, I think he was angry because his passengers came to witness an embarrassing incident in which a big truck blocked the road. The truck had broken down on a thirty meter climb out of a tunnel – the country is full of soft hills, but to get stuck on a climb here really requires a rather serious technical deficiency. By the way, the receptionist in my hotel was the first person to speak English, so I was left completely alone with my observations until I got there, a useless stranger in a taxi driving through an unknown land.

You see change occurring, and it moves at different speeds. The stones don’t change – the old buildings continue to rot away slowly and they dominate the cities, although what’s built anew is inconspicuously modern. The vehicles are younger, slowly climbing up the wealth ladder. The smaller the vehicles, the easier they climb: We were overtaken by a group of three fat motorbikes, the first painted in screaming orange, the second in blue and the third in neon green. Each colour was repeated in the leather outfit and helmet of its driver. They were a ray of fierceness in the inconsistent landscape of the Vilnius suburbs. But what has changed fastest is the signs, the writing on the shops, the symbolism of capitalism. The most radical object was a dirty dark-blue Ford Sierra, dust coating the metal. The owner had written with his finger in the dust: www.savirainiai.lt – viral website marketing carried by the decay of the Lithuanian motorways (the link doesn't work unfortunately, I must have garbled it up).

Roadside observations:

1. On the dust road between the highway and the forests, a horse pulls a wooden cart in which a whole family is travelling through the rain. Towering above them, a billboard advertises tennis gear with a picture of Serena Williams.

2. In front of us a huge black limousine with a Russian number plate, must be a Russian patron on transit from Belarus to Kaliningrad: 12 hours time to complete the journey with a ‘simplified travel document’. At one place, the owner will pass by a huge, freshly renovated Russian orthodox church standing next to the highway in the open fields - in the distance, an equally big catholic church surrounded by some houses is hiding behind a row of trees. “Must have been renovated by some Russian businessman, there are no Russians living in that area”, our Lithuanian host will tell me later. When we finally overtake the limousine, it turns out to be a Kia model, made in Korea.

3. Why yellow-green-red as the colours of a flag? The highway passes through endless fields in fertile green. On top of the green, large clouds of shining yellow dandelions are kept afloat by the gusts of rainy wind, and below them the soil is reddish brown. Nature here is strong and good.


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