Welcome to Vilnius

Photos: Ragnar Scheen

You can look, but while you might find seasons in the politics you won’t find politics in the seasons.

Autumn: the tracks appeared to trace a stream below, or several but as the train meandered along hillsides direction was difficult to contemplate.  The morning was reluctant and the wooded valleys were almost drained of colour.  In the yellow of the last leaves and the low grasses was a sense of farewell to the year; and while the white of the birch trunks had momentarily gained prominence and the first snow must’ve fallen by then, winter’s renovation remained awaited.  Primarily it was a landscape descending into brown, into the darkness of pine and wooden Belarusian villages.  It was the story of a border lost somewhere too in the season.

It was rather in the speed of the train, in the slowing, the pausing and the chugging along a little further that the border was at first suggested, as though there might be a schedule to the crossing.  Only when it seemed that the wood and the hillside might stretch beyond the autumn did other evidence appear.  It came in the unlikely form of low concrete posts, set among the trees in pairs, like statues of a long ago out-of-love couple meeting in the forest for old time’s sake, or perhaps to collect wood for the fire of their old age.  In each pair the nearer was painted red and green, for Belarus, while its mate was white with the feature of stripes in yellow, green and red: the stripes of Lithuania.  That old couple came near and withdrew: like the train the border held no steady course.

And it is possible to try to protect the blessings of the past from the uncertainties of the future.  And it is possible to try to safeguard the future from the ravages of the past.

In a pause in the forest the Belarusian guards boarded, to see that the passenger had all he papers they could wish for, including hotel receipts to account for every night in the country.  Beyond the post-couple the Lithuanians boarded, but for them the passport checking felt more as an afterthought, a ‘suppose we should know who is coming into the country.’  Perhaps their preference might more naturally have been to sleep longer, under the blanket away from autumn.

But a passport with a kangaroo on its cover was as the yellow leaves in the woods, it brought a slight energy with it, surprised as they were to see it.  Enquiries were made, assurances came that no visa was required.  Somebody official must’ve checked a nationality list.

The Vilnius station, not an hour from the border, sits upon a hill with the centre of the old town in the cobblestone capital in a small valley below.  There are about 500,000 people in Vilnius, 3 million in Lithuania.

I trailed the other passengers moving down into damp streets.  While for many, they must’ve been coming home; while for others, they must’ve been there a thousand times before: I was busy not knowing where I was going, taking in the charms of history as recorded in the buildings as I followed a random road.  Church spires multiplied as the valley city took over.

Too, I was busy contemplating the need for a scientist, how to, in a new place, locate a pathologist in a diagnostic centre.  It’s not that I’d befallen any illness, fortunately.  I required no tests and indeed it wasn’t just any pathologist that would do.  I needed one called Rita.

Lithuania has a long history.  They say its language is of the Baltic branch and related to Latvian, and that it’s the most conservative language in Europe, the one that’s evolved the least from the Sanskrit roots of the Indo-European language family.  They say there’s a village in Lithuania’s north called Indija, where local linguistic peculiarities have some commonality with languages still spoken in Pakistan’s Baltistan.

Once, at the end of the fourteenth century, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was one of the largest countries in Europe, with territory stretching to the Black Sea.  And in 1991 the country made its mark on history again, as the first Soviet republic to declare independence, a move that cost the lives of 14 Lithuanians when the Soviet Army attacked the Vilnius TV Tower.  But the movement had history’s blessing.  The Soviet break-up started in Lithuania.

In a way it was that transition that paved the way for my need of a pathologist.  When the borders opened, a Norwegian friend of mine Ragnar was sent to the country on business.  As that business over the years developed so did his passion for Lithuania.  He took the country into his heart or maybe it captured him.  But beyond business he contributed in various ways, to promote modernity and development.  He’d taken an apartment in Vilnius and although he wasn’t arriving until the following day I was lucky, because a pathologist called Rita held for me the keys.

I kept in mind my general luck too in finding new addresses in unknown cities.  I kept my eyes on the works of art that were the buildings of the old town.  I took in the signs of each snaking alleyway just as the signs of autumn had taken in me.  There were Northern European style shops playing American background music.  I saw proper supermarkets with metal poles outside to tie your pet dog to.  There were large bookstores, music stores and cafés. 

Although I missed Ukraine already, where I’d been living that year; although I enjoyed Belarus, memories stirred.  It was as though in Vilnius I’d arrived back into a happy Northern European past.  All the same, should a chimney sweep have passed by on the street it wouldn’t have seemed altogether out of place.

There may have been queries with people on the street but I found the alleyway I needed.  Soon I was sitting opposite Rita-in-a-white-lab-coat and drinking a cup of coffee.  There was a book open on the desk between us with multicoloured microscope pictures on its pages.  I wondered how to diagnose my being there: I doubt there are multicoloured microscope pictures that can do that.  Perhaps it was simply the autumn that had taken me in that direction.  Rita picked up the phone and dialled Norway.

When she was able to, she whisked me across the city by car, to Ragnar’s apartment: open-plan, modern and with that wooden, pine-type smell that can easily remind one of Oslo.  It had a peaked wooden roof with no ceiling and on the table was a note, in Norwegian, to me.  ‘Welcome to Vilnius,’ it read, ‘Try the beer in the fridge.  Lithuanian beer is good.’  In retrospect I’d say it was probably the most modern accommodation I’d had for the best part of a year.

The apartment was an art gallery: a fish swimming from a rafter, wooden angels over there and of course, candles everywhere.  I surveyed the room and found again that smile that had been with me since I’d left Belarus, the re-finding of a different Northern European dimension to life.

Ragnar arrived from Oslo the next day.  It was the first time we’d met in five and a half years.  We spoke English, then Norwegian once again, and the hardest part was the ‘yes’, the rediscovering an automatic Norwegian ‘ja, ja, ja’ to replace the Russian ‘da, da, da’ I’d picked up in East Ukraine, although I was never skilled at Russian.

We found a restaurant some floors below street level, in a ‘mind your head’ type of cellar.  They served sausages by the half-metre and beer in tall glasses, by the metre.  We walked around the castle and up the hill to the historic three white crosses that were destroyed in the Soviet era but were rebuilt when the politics turned.

And in the evening we walked to the end of the street to find a forest overlooking a river.  It was a landscape descending into brown, at that time of the year.


“Look! From the glowing west, forceful and angry winds
Are eastward moving with ferocious, headlong haste,
And bringing biting frosts to our Lithuania dear.
My friends, let’s to the house and build a glowing blaze.”[1]

-         From the poem Metai, or The Seasons, by Kristijonas Donelaitis.  This epic poem from about 1765 is considered the first classical piece of fiction written in the Lithuanian language.  From the third part of the poem, ‘Autumn Boon’.

Stay Happily Baltic, with Latvia or Estonia!

Retire eastwards back to Belarus.

This article also published in Star Magazine, here: Welcome to Vilnius

[1] English translation of the poem is here: http://members.efn.org/~valdas/autumn.html
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