The Lithuanian word for city (miestas) is masculine but Vilnius is quintessentially feminine. It is restrained in its ornamentation and subtle in the signals it gives off; it pedantically keeps up appearances but is also keen to keep abreast of the latest trends. The city’s Old Town is tantalisingly curvaceous, its narrow streets bending and wending their way to the next meeting, the next diversion, the next hope. The city’s layout unravels rather than conveys; it allows for thoughtful motion rather than channelling you around in a sluice of commotion.
The Old Town – the myth-shrouded core of the city’s identity – is a labyrinth of self-denial (amorous disappointments, the lonely rite-of-passage of staggering home) and self-affirmation (friendly waiters in attractive surroundings making you feel special, magical summer evenings where everything is abuzz with receptivity). Because the Old Town is so small, circular and compact, your experiences will forever resonate there. The past will always trail you as you keep bumping into distant memories, some lovely, some painful.
Vilnius is ambitious. She sports an expensive glass-n-steel skyline (a sleek size 8). Although her coffers are not deep, she lines many public places with flowers (expensive contracts, those). Vilnius likes to look her best at all times. But there is a problem. She is stuck, reluctantly and resentfully, with a wardrobe full of horribly drab outfits from the Soviet era. Like a musty old fur coat she can’t afford to replace just yet, she has to keep wearing her Soviet heritage.
Although most vilniečiai live in Soviet-built housing, the tourist literature never refers to it except in passing. I lived for three years in a Soviet-era neighbourhood widely regarded as dangerous. People would react with a polite ooh when I told them I lived there. But for the most part it was a pleasant experience: old ladies walking their miniature dogs, teenagers playing basketball, harmless drunks in the local supermarket milking their coin to the limit. I met many good people during my time there. But for the upwardly mobile it is a mark of failure to live in a Soviet suburb. For the many who live there, however, it is home; a cosy feeling of down-to-earth gratitude for basic comforts and a little insurance² against disgustingly inflated rents and property prices.
Vilnius has deep social divisions but they are virtually invisible. They are invisible because there are no outward markers to delineate them: the poor dress well, bite their tongue, ride the trolleybus in stoic silence. Low wages, as in America, take on a self-perpetuating logic. Poverty is a personal problem rather than a social issue (except for many older people who get all rheumy-eyed as they remember the security of life under the Soviet system; they momentarily forget the interminable queues and the fact they were ardent supporters of Independence). Warning: nostalgia can be a slippery path to self-contradiction.
Language is the one conspicuous sign of social division. But Russian and Polish mingles freely with Lithuanian at market. This multilingual babble is not dangerously divisive as in Latvia or Estonia. Some Russian-speakers, feeling alienated and unappreciated, might misguidedly welcome a Russian invasion. Many would not. But these tired old ethnic divisions point to a history – histories, really – that forms the astonishing reality behind Vilnius’s calm, sturdy and quietly confident façade.
Between the wars Vilnius was predominantly Polish and Jewish. Lithuanians were a notable minority in their future capital (Kaunas was the country’s capital during the interwar period, long a stronghold of Lithuanianness). Some 90 percent of the city’s thriving Jewish population were exterminated. The Poles either fled from the incoming Soviets or were forcibly relocated. By the end of the war, Vilnius was a ghost town (as well as a city of ghosts).
A new, exclusively Lithuanian population was drafted in from all around the country (along with a sizable influx of Russian-speakers from abroad). The intellectuals, politicians, lawyers, artists, surgeons and other high-fliers of today are all a mere two generations away from the fields. That is simply extraordinary for a European capital. Having been decimated by the Nazis and the Soviets, Vilnius underwent a compressed re-evolution. Perhaps that is why I often get the sneaking suspicion that people are playing a role: they act the part of the legal expert, the knowledgeable professor, the seasoned journalist. Lithuanian men are fiercely proud and will never admit to being wrong or not knowing what they are really talking about. But I often suspect they lack the critical thinking and self-awareness needed to objectively evaluate their professional worth. Just look at all the translation bureaus out there: they are overflowing with substandard translators driving down prices and churning out heartbreakingly poor-quality work.
The tourist literature will tell you that Vilnius is: baroque, Gothic, Neoclassical, renaissance, wooden. Let’s leave such language for the tourists.
Despite its self-confident appearance, there is an undercurrent of profound sadness and confusion running through the city. You can sense it during the rush hour in the searching glances of the immaculately dressed people walking home, in the wheel-gripping tension of those stuck in traffic. You rarely see outbursts of emotion on the street: couples arguing, people storming off, a stranger sobbing on a bench. It is a city where everyone plays their (ostensibly upwardly mobile) part with unnerving self-possession. This is facilitated by the fact that the stage was cleared by mass emigration (around a third of the population). If these emigrants were to return en masse it would be catastrophic for the indebted social security system and finely balanced job market.
Even the most hard done-by vilniečiai bite their lips and get on with it (the city even has a famous homeless man who tramps up and down Gedimino Avenue all day long like it’s his calling). Older people (the divorced, the unhappily married, the emotionally exhausted) can be visibly miserable but they will not freely admit to it. They fixedly gaze (with glazed eyes) into space on public transport. They reluctantly say and do all the right things (at work, on Name Days, etc.). But, like an old pipe, they leak sighs all day long; that is what gives them away.
The young are generically young: they look and behave much like any other young people in a European capital: glib, restless, spasmodically swipey. Many are liquid-smart but lack notional depth to their thinking. I once complained to a friend of mine about the lack of passion (political, social, environmental, romantic) among young people. She laughed and said it was true, ironically, for many well-heeled, outwardly cool and successful young people. But, she said, it is a different story when it comes to older people in the Lithuanian countryside. They are most definitely not lacking in passion. My experience bears her claim out. One of the finest men I’ve ever met lived alone in the deep Lithuanian countryside. Blemba, I loved that man.
B has been to Vilnius several times (she once stayed for three months). She loves the city for its relaxed pace of life, its lack of ostentation, its subtle ambiance (she lives in Rome – when J and I complained to her about the nightmare of driving in the Vilnius rush hour, she became almost hysterical with laughter). Like me, B loves Vilnius. But I wanted to know what exactly it is about the city that seduces her. Her answer was satisfyingly unbullshitty and gratifyingly discreet. “For me Vilnius is epitomized by the sight of an old person sitting on a bench in a park or square. They just sit there patiently looking around them. They don’t look especially sad or happy. They aren’t killing time. They aren’t forcing the situation. They just seem genuinely content to be sitting there and enjoying their surroundings.”
For me, Vilnius is low-lying clouds in summer, and a flocculent grey sky in winter. It is four distinct seasons (for now at least). It is an irritating rush hour that is laughable in comparison with Rome. It is dog-owners bending down to pick up their dogs’ steaming turds. It is lush leafage and intoxicating lilac. It is people minding their business. It is the heartbreaking beauty of a stranger on the street. It is the superhumanly stoical acceptance of things beyond our control. It is the impressive ability to project blame onto external agents (full moons, the cold weather, the hot weather, the mild weather, politicians, the Soviet Union, supernatural entities that steal your socks, etc.). And yes, as I go for my daily 8-km constitutional around Vingis Park, it is the heart-warming sight of a robust old soul sitting peacefully on a park bench.