In February of 1996, I went with some friends from school to Vilnius, Lithuania. Perhaps we should have expected it, but it turned out to be the coldest week of the coldest winter in 60 years.
In Poland, we suffered the Day of Misleading and Just Plain Wrong Information. We were fairly sure that Americans and Poles didn’t need visas, but as laws change quickly in that area of the world we wanted to make sure. We also had Japanese, Swedish, and Korean people with us, and we thought some of them would most likely need a visa.
After being late for the train and getting on with only one minute to spare, we detrained in Warsaw and asked at the information office for the address of the Lithuanian embassy. The woman said, “No problem!” and gave us an address. We consulted the map, discovered it was within walking distance (a bit long, but we were on a budget). A couple of kilometers (1.5 miles) and a couple of wrong turns later, we arrived on the street and found no embassy. We asked a guard outside the nearby Slovak embassy, and he said, “it’s fairly far, in that direction,” pointing in the wrong direction. We went to a taxi stand in that direction and asked them to take us there, and they said “Oh, it’s not far, just walk–just down the street!”
Another couple of kilometers later, we did find the Cuban, Mongolian, Angolan, and Latvian embassies, but no Lithuanians. Another taxi driver said, “no, it’s close, just that way,” pointing back the way we had come. So we tore off up the street in the opposite direction–and found it, just a block beyond the original place. Now the evil Let’s Go, my last use before I completely abandoned it, had said it was open until 3 PM, and we made it with a minute to spare–except that the closing time was actually noon. We asked and found out that only the Swede needed a visa. So he went running off back to the Latvian embassy in the hopes of catching them before they closed (the Baltics have a common visa zone, and the Latvians are the cheapest of the three). He got them after hours, but managed to wake up a guy in the back (I should mention that it was -10 Celsius and windy all this time) and asked if it was possible. “It is possible–but more expensive.” After paying twice the normal price, we were set.
We hurried the four kilometers back to the train station, and caught the next train to Bialystok. We asked how long the trip was, and the ticket lady said about 2 and a half hours. We couldn’t all sit together, so Mietek (the Pole) and I went forward and found an empty compartment. We were chatting and reading when an hour and a half (if memory serves) went by and we pulled into what was obviously a fairly major station. I saw some writing in Cyrillic letters (which didn’t say “Bialystok”) and thought that we might be there, since Bialystok has a sizable Byelorussian population, but it was far too early. So Mietek and I sat and chatted pleasantly. Then William, our Swede, threw open the doors, uttering his now-famous line: “Whatareyoudoing!?! It’s Bialystok!!!”
We made it off the train with time to spare, but no thanks to the ticket lady.
We then lurched off in -25 weather to find the hotel mentioned in the evil Let’s Go, which was out of date, and caused us to ask yet another taxi driver who refused our business again. “Oh, it’s just a short walk, that way,” he said, pointing the wrong way. After some discussion, much walking and freezing and yelling at one another, we found some passersby who actually knew where a hotel (not the one we were looking for, actually, but at this point…). It was warm. There were additional discussions and a suppression of information about lower priced hotels by the manager, but at this point, I would’ve killed anyone who suggested that we go back into the cold.
The next day we set off for Vilnius (yes, I’m actually getting to the country now). An excerpt from a postcard I sent back best describes our initial impressions as we slowly trundled through the outer parts of the city to the bus station. Before any Lithuanians reading this flame me with indignant replies, let me state that my overall impression of Lithuania was quite positive, but this was the initial feeling:
“I’d forgotten one of the omnipresent facets of being in a post-Soviet country: the smell. It’s the smell of decay. It’s the smell of defeat. The smell of a defeated and dispirited people, the stench from the rotting corpse of the Soviet Empire. Anyone who maintains the fantasy that there were no winners or losers in the Cold War or that the West was on the loosing side has yet to visit a public facility in any post-Soviet state.”
The newer, outer parts of the town were the usual Soviet nightmare of soulless decay and impersonalism. The fact that we’d seen an amazingly new Texaco gas (petrol) station on the highway, making me temporarily think we’d been transported to Minnesota by some Twilight Zone-esque contrivance, wore off quickly. I, at least, had the advantage of having spent a month in Russia a few years back. For the others, this was their first experience with man-made desolation on this scale.
As we negotiated our way successfully to a hostel (the beginning of our turnaround of luck) and headed out for a brief tour of the old town by night, our opinion in general and mine in particular was dramatically reversed.
The beauty of the old town struck me immediately, even, or perhaps especially, at night. It was lightly snowing, and the overcast sky reflected the light back to give it an un-Soviet-like brightness (Russian cities are very, very dark at night). Three of us just walked along to see what we could find, especially in the way of food. We came across a pub that was clearly the main hangout for university students. We found out, unfortunately, that it was supposed to be an imitation of an English pub (outwardly, this wasn’t obvious, at least to my TV-only knowledge of English pubs) and thus only had English-like foods (which luckily included a great chicken curry). Even though we couldn’t find Lithuanian fare that night, the food was good, hot, and the real Lithuanian beer was, for a change, quite nice–Poland deserves its reputation on that count. But hey, I’m a snob.
The next day, our mood went back down a bit after we saw one listed “attraction.” Getting there was a little comic, as we were forced to phone ahead. We didn’t speak Lithuanian, they didn’t speak Polish or English, so suddenly I hear, “Ruski? SANDY!!!” I proceeded to have a quick, brutal refresher in Russian.
I remember Lithuania because of a) the coldest I’ve been in my life, b) the change to good food and beer, and c) the Russian who guided us around (in Russian) the KGB’s Vilnius prison/headquarters, in which he was held prisoner for 11 years. He showed us the interrogation room, which still had blood stains and bullet holes in the walls. Unfortunately, that experience really struck me–especially when I managed to understand from my poor Russian that he had been a prisoner and was now showing us around. The guide was a little warped by the experience, even accounting for the cultural differences between Americans and Russians. He would only pose for pictures after closing some barred door, handing one of us the keys, and pretending that he was our prisoner. I sincerely doubt that the majority of folks in the US who virtuously (ostentatiously so) display Amnesty International stickers on their cars have seen the likes of this. It might turn their jingoistic activism into something a little more real. When I recall this old man crazily laughing and showing us how they used to beat him bloody and fire bullets over his head, I have to wonder about those who scoff at “Cold War paranoia.”
In general, I found Lithuanians to be polite, a bit reserved but rarely unfriendly, and, for some reason, tall. We spent the rest of the time running between places to eat, see, or sleep. In the end, we did treat ourselves to a remnant of Soviet times: the Russian-staffed restaurant, clearly a holdover from the nomenklatura, across from the train station. The waiters wore tuxes, there were two other tables in the place full, one with drunken ex-party types and their women and another with the new Russian nomenklatura, the Mafia in trademark track suits. There was a band and bad Seventies decor, and I fed six people for USD 26. One, rather laboriously obtained concession to modernity–I put it on a credit card. A drunken Mafia guy wanted to put me on his payroll, but I managed to extract myself in time to dash over to the bus, cause my momentarily ungloved hands great pain in the below -30 weather, and board the bus for Poland.
But wait, there’s more! As we rode along, some rather obvious smugglers got on the bus at various stops before the borders. Word to the Lithuanian wise: you need to take some lessons from the Russians, this was like watching the Keystone Cops. As soon as we got to the border, they hauled us all into a freezing (or below, actually) cold warehouse with our baggage, and showed them our passports. The American, Japanese, Koreans, Swede, and Pole got sent away immediately. The rest had to show their obviously smuggled possessions, and the Lithuanian customs agents started yelling at them. Finally, though, we got to move on, minus most of the rest of the bus’s occupants.
I had the opportunity, after staying up all night on the bus, to go to some Tartar villages near the Belorussian border. My socks were wet and I simply couldn’t get warm, so I begged off and returned with the larger contingent to Kraków. I think I’m just not cut out for vacations at -30 C.