In Vilnius, Waiting for the Other Shoe to Drop
Lithuanian women are by far some of the most beautiful women in the world. There is something about the severity of cold climate that creates terrifyingly hot women. In Vilnius I gawked at the kind of beauty I have only seen otherwise in the northern parts of middle America, namely Minnesota. Vilnius and Minneapolis reach the same mind numbing sub-zero temperatures, but the difference is that the Minneapolis cold howls at you, attempting to enter your home, while in Vilnius, it hangs out in empty, movie screen stillness. The breath is taken out of the world.
Winter days in Vilnius are short and the sun rarely appears. The afternoons descend quickly and the light diffuses into a constant gray mush. The dull winter taints the air and rests at the base of your skull like a headache. In Vilnius, seasonal affective disorder isn’t an affliction; it’s a way of life.
The city is split by the Neris River, a winding, birthing waterway that chugs from the countryside into the center of the medieval city, dividing it north and south: new and old. The Vilnia River intersects the Neris at the base of Gediminas’ Tower, the remnants of a castle built by a 15th century duke. To the east of the Vilnia River is the Uzupis district, an artist community, and to the west are the cathedrals of Old Town, which stand as a testament to the blend of Russian Orthodox, Roman Catholicism, and Judaic religions that have been dancing with each other through Lithuanian history.
The result is mongrel architecture. When Napoleon rode his horse into Vilnius, he declared it the “Jerusalem of the North.” Today, New Town is filled with ugly high rises and Soviet-style apartment complexes covered in graffiti.
The statues of Lenin and Stalin mostly came down in the 90s. But an hour southwest of Vilnius, near the Belarusian border, there is a sculpture garden where the Communist heavyweights still stand. Stalin’s head sits in front of the evergreens. In a museum you find Soviet mannequins collecting cobwebs, looking like disused props from a Wes Anderson film.
The challenge of Lithuania is placing it into context. It was once the largest state in Europe. Vilnius has maintained itself through numerous occupations, from the Polish to the Germans to the Russians.
In a last desperate gambit to maintain their waning control, on January 13, 1991, Soviet troops and tanks entered Vilnius and killed and injured dozens of Lithuanian protesters. The January Events, as they were known, came about after Lithuania declared its independence in 1990. The unarmed crowd remained peaceful, not fighting back but not backing down. Ultimately, the Soviets retreated and Lithuania gained its independence for the third time in 20th century.
The truth of pacifism is that one single act takes generations to recoup from. War comes from retaliation and feeds itself. The non-violent stand of January 1991 still pervades the Lithuanian culture. Vilnius today is the hush of falling snow in a globe that has remained unshaken since. Waiting for the other shoe to drop, the ultimate consequences have yet to arrive.
After so much misery, the country is cleaning up shop and attempting to advance their global presence. They pursue this end with such earnest enthusiasm that you can’t help but empathize with them. This past January marked the twenty-first year of Lithuania’s independence; their last stretch of independence lasted nearly 20 years, from 1920 to 1939. But the older generation recognizes that everything repeats itself and have seen this all before.
A young woman I befriended in Vilnius was hellbent on not marrying a Lithuanian. She wanted a Spaniard. Last I checked her Facebook profile it seems like she got what she wanted. Her and her boyfriend share a one-bedroom apartment and I expect they’ll get married soon enough. The irony is that she still lives in Vilnius, and her lover, I can only assume, has to acclimate as best he can.