Written By Vagabond Gal…
Modern day Lithuania is the biggest of the trio known as Baltic states and stands out also with clearly pronounced pride of its modern day achievements, along with the mourning of a remarkable past.
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Unless you’d actually take a ride across the countryside, it may remain difficult to understand the claims that back in the Soviet Union years the country was literally feeding Russia together with Ukraine. The territory shows abundance of professionally managed agricultural farms, huge grain and potato fields, and seemingly endless, thick forests. It’s a harsh landscape though, and the weather conditions mostly envelop it in a veil of brownish, muddy colors.
Just like one would expect from the modern day successors of Teutonic Knights and as if to honor the country’s partially Prussian inheritance, middle in the open fields and in the villages, the locals actually leave their houses with the front door wide open – quite exceptional in Europe today… And one of the most surprising experiences was to realize how many young people there are everywhere in Lithuania, and that almost all of them speak good English, or German, and Polish.
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Some years ago, shortly after appointing me, our GM called a prospect in Lithuania and proudly announced that he has hired someone who speaks Russian too, and that we would like to arrange for a visit soon. Although this was meant to ease communication, the lack of understanding for the historical sentiments of some Lithuanian generations has cost us at least six months of business, as the gentleman simply refused to arrange for a meeting.
After carefully building up a relationship based on emails in English, the first meeting eventually took place and, I am happy to say that a very open and warm friendship has blossomed ever since. It was only then that history and politics started delicately penetrating our exchanges, and while admiring the national pride of a glorious past and well-versed memory for facts and events, I kept wondering why Russia seems to be the single topic that would infuse our conversations with true passion and disdain.
At some point, by accident I have stumbled upon Ruta Sepetys’ novel “Between Shaded of Gray”, based on first-hand family accounts and memories from survivors of Stalin’s purges. Only then I have realized the extent of harm done to the Baltic states population and the source of bitterness and sharp awareness, and worry, whenever the political situation in Russia tenses up.
The narrative, from which I’ve learned that the representatives of the cultural and economic elites have been suddenly detained with their families one summer night and hurriedly shipped away – straight to Siberia, a journey that would last more than a year and end in a prison camp beyond the Arctic circle, has prompted me to search for more public records and testimonies that corroborate the story, as if my mind would not accept that what I was reading was actually true… And that’s when the penny has dropped and I have realized why some generations in Lithuania still hold a grudge against Russia and the entire population becomes increasingly worried whenever there happen to be Russian maneuvers in the area, and watches intently the situation in East Ukraine.
The polite communication in English with our business partner carried on and was marked by some more milestones in terms of communication.
Once I was visiting our Lithuanian partner along with a British colleague. After the usual exchange of pleasantries, he gave his presentation and then inquired whether there were any questions. Our host looked him straight in the eye and slowly said in heavily accented English:
“Your English is very bad, I don’t understand a word.”
As you can imagine, this epic statement remains one of our intracompany running gags…
And yet, despite the painful memories and strategic efforts of the Lithuanian state to secure their energy independence and safety through the European Union and NATO, Russia remains an important business partner. Moreover, Lithuania is very important outlet to private businesses in a number of ex-Soviet states that enables less complicated services. It is a logistical hub for transports to Belarus, Russia, and more importantly – convoys into the new independent states in Central Asia; Many businesses in Russia and Belarus have registered companies in Lithuania too in order to ease payments to EU partners and increase their risk management ability.
Thus, speaking Russian is important, though I kept treading with caution with our partner and pretended not to understand whenever he would answer his cell phone in Russian. One day, I was to give training to some of his staff that happened not to speak English. In that situation he was forced to interpret for them and visibly disliked this role. After five minutes he interrupted me and asked sternly “Do you actually speak Russian?”. Given our history, rather hesitantly, I replied “Not much, really..” Though he jumped happily and offered “A little is fine! Then you train them in Russian, it will save us a lot of time!”. Inwardly smiling, I switched to Russian and watched him nod with content while following my performance.
Visiting Lithuania is well worth your while – take some time to get to know the old cities of Kaunas and Vilnius (the latter offers also an unexpected modern skyline), the important port city Klaipeda (one of the few on this side of the Baltic sea that does not freeze solid during the winter), and make sure to visit also one of the most important monuments – the Hill of Crosses. A small trivia fact – Memel is Klaipeda’s old name, and is the cornerstone mentioned in the verses of the German anthem that are not being used anymore after the end of World War II. And speaking of glorious past – I shall only mention the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth that at one point of history happened to be the biggest and most populous state on Europe.
Hotels in the big cities are pleasant and reasonably priced, and in Vilnius and Kaunas there is a huge variety of good restaurants offering superb international cuisine. If you’d rather taste the local food – you will be amazed how many things can be prepared from few basic ingredients – potatoes, bacon, pork, mushrooms, curd and cream, and wild berries.