I have to admit that I was pretty biased before coming to Lithuania. My head was full of expectations based on what I’ve read and heard from others. And thanks to my pre-existing stereotypes, I was greatly fooled.
The problem ended up being more cultural than geographical. Before coming here, I had come to understand, via countless sources, that Lithuania is a very Eastern European country. Glancing at the map of Europe, it sure appears to be in Eastern Europe. But that doesn’t explain the tension that I’ve been experiencing—a tension that gradually grew stronger and stronger until it became all but unbearable—because the longer that I lived here, the less I felt like I was actually living in Eastern Europe.
What are the first images that flood your mind when I mention the words “Eastern Europe”? I immediately think of a country littered with Soviet-era residential buildings and old trolley buses. Lithuania has all that. Solidifying that stereotype is the fact that anyone over 30 (as well as many over 25) speak fluent Russian. Pick any country where such factors are true, and there’s a good chance that the country is in Eastern Europe.
The Eastern Europe Test
It’s a known fact that Eastern European countries are not as economically advanced as Central or Western European countries, but since I can’t calculate per-capita GDP while I’m walking around a city, my personal barometer for determining whether a country is truly Eastern European is a rather obtuse one: the lack of a convenient Western-style supermarket with fresh products in the center of any large city.
Several years ago, when I lived in Barcelona, I usually shopped at a nearby grocery store at a nicely-stocked and nicely-lit supermarket which had fresh vegetables, fruits and produce. Thinking that such stores existed all over the developed world—which includes all of Europe—I naturally took for granted such a convenience.
That all changed once I flew from Barcelona to Bucharest, Romania. Even with Bucharest being a slightly bigger city than Barcelona, no such supermarket was anywhere in sight. I lived in the center, and the only shop I found was a small one with limited choices (they didn’t have fresh produce). I searched and searched for a comparable supermarket that I enjoyed in Barcelona, but just couldn’t find it. In the end, I was told that a larger supermarket exists just outside the city but wasn’t very helpful to someone without a car.
This lack of a well-lit and well-stocked supermarket had been a typical pattern in Eastern European cities such as Kiev, Ukraine and Sofia, Bulgaria. These cities usually have small and badly lit “Soviet style” (Sovetskije magazini) supermarkets mostly stocked with canned goods, some bread and a poor selection of fruits and vegetables.
Being in those cities makes you truly feel that you’re still in Soviet Union more than 24 years after its collapse. That’s like living in Manhattan but needing to go to New Jersey or upstate New York every time you needed to shop at a Whole Foods store.
Not Lithuania. Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius, is blessed with brightly-lit, Western-style supermarkets everywhere. There’s even one right in the center of the city, on the city’s main thoroughfare, Gedimino Prospectas. They make it truly joy to shop and find everything that you need.
But that’s just the start of a solid pattern of things that are done better in Lithuania compared to its Eastern neighbors. Lithuanian cities are very modern, orderly and clean. Contrary to the neighboring Ukraine or Russia, where it’s very common to still see Soviet-made cars, there are no old Soviet or Russian-made Ladas or Zhigulis anywhere in sight in Lithuania.The roads are full of modern cars, most of which are high-quality meticulously made in Germany; all you see are the new or old Audis, BMWs, Mercedes’ and plenty of VWs cruising around.
Even the old Soviet-era buildings are gradually being replaced with aesthetically pleasing Baltic architecture characterized with enormous windows. In some ways they’re reminiscent of the Scandinavian architecture that I noticed when I lived in Denmark.
Eastern European countries aren’t known to be organized, but things are organized here. The parks and streets are clean. There’s no garbage on the streets. Corruption, while it exists, is a tiny fraction of corruption levels in either Ukraine or Russia. Same for organized crime. Lithuania is safe. In another words, there’s pretty much nothing Eastern European about this seemingly Eastern European country.
Even the people, whom, when I initially came here, I considered to be very similar to Russians or Ukrainian brethren, are gradually beginning to be disassociated from that mental image and are becoming to closer resemble their Scandinavian neighbors in pretty much all aspects: looks, attitude, mentality and even their choice of clothing. There isn’t much racism or xenophobia in Lithuania, a claim that you just can’t make about Ukraine or Russia. Lithuanian women—for better or worse (most likely for worse)—have absolutely nothing in common with their counterparts in Ukraine, Russia or Belarus.
To truly understand the term Eastern Europe, it’s more helpful to think of it as more of a cultural instead of a strictly geographical union. This union includes Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, Bulgaria, Moldova and Romania. A country like Serbia has the Eastern European mentality and feel but it’s more Balkan than purely Eastern European. Lithuania and its other Baltic neighbors aren’t part of this union. They’re something different entirely.
In fact, the longer I stay here, and the more I make an effort to mentally disassociate myself from considering this country as Eastern European, the easier it’s becoming to see that Lithuania (along with its Baltic neighbors) is really some kind of Scandinavia-lite. What helped crystallize the belief that a well-off country can actually exist in Eastern Europe was when I thought about Finland, a relatively rich country that’s also in Eastern Europe.
This leads to an even greater question: If Lithuania doesn’t belong in Eastern Europe, where does it belong? I’ve been thinking about this for a while. Yes, I know that Lithuania is part of European Union, but that’s a political and economic organization and doesn’t say much about the cultural aspects of the member country. Norway and Switzerland aren’t part of EU, but that changes absolutely nothing when it comes to the values of the the individual countries.
When I say the word Europe, I’m not referring to a purely geographical meaning. Europe, at least to me, has a more cultural and moral meaning. For instance, I had written before that I do not consider a country like Russia to be European. Russia’s western part may be geographically part of Europe, but all you have to do is actually go there in order to realize that you’re not in Europe anymore; St. Petersburg—one of the greatest cities I’ve ever visited—doesn’t feel European. Russia is many things, but it’s not Europe.
Ukraine, my birth place, is closer to Europe than Russia but unfortunately it’s not there yet. Ukraine lacks many things (perhaps everything) to be considered a truly European country: for starters it has no effectual political and economic institutions. There’s no rule of law. The government is corrupt to the core. People will think you’re joking if you tell them that Ukraine is in the same league as other European countries like Italy or Germany. If you waive visa requirements for Ukrainians who want to travel to richer Western European countries like Germany or England, everyone would immigrate, leaving Ukraine an empty country. Even the quick one hour flight from Lithuania to Ukraine feels like going back in time a generation or two.
Lithuania truly marks the end of Eastern Europe and the beginning of Europe. It’s a European country in the strongest and sincerest sense of the word. It’s as European as France. It’s as European as Spain. It’s as European as Germany. It’s as European as Italy. It’s common for other Europeans such as Spaniards, Italians or Germans to come and study or live in Lithuania. Lithuania is not Soviet Union. Lithuania is not Eastern Europe. Lithuania is not Western Europe. Lithuania is Europe.
I know that there many Lithuanians who immigrate to richer European countries like Denmark or England; after all a Lithuanian has every right to live and work anywhere in European Union. But I’m puzzled by such decisions. I can see a Russian or Ukrainian emigrating to such countries, but I don’t understand why a Lithuanian would do that. There’s just nothing that a richer country like Denmark or Sweden has that Lithuania doesn’t. (The wages are higher in those countries but so is the standard of living.)
Nevertheless, there’s enough of an Eastern European feel to let you know that you’re not in Western Europe anymore—especially if you’ve never traveled east of Germany. If someone blindfolded and airdropped you into Lithuania, you would never think that you’re in a rich European country like Belgium, Denmark or Holland. Nope. Seeing those Soviet-era building blocks and rotting trolleybuses would be an obvious clue.
This is why I believe Lithuania makes a great introduction to Eastern Europe. It’s especially ideal for those who are reluctant or afraid to actually go to Eastern Europe, to places like Ukraine and Russia, and are interested of visiting and perhaps living in a country that more or less resembles Eastern Europe but doesn’t have the real hassles and problems of Eastern Europe.
For maverick travelers, this is the perfect country to rent an apartment cheaply, get cheap and extremely fast Internet (Lithuania has one of the fastest Internet in the world) and finish an existing Internet project or begin working on a new one. I can even see becoming a full time resident here and starting a real company; the corporate tax rate is pretty low and doing taxes is almost as simple as in Scandinavia. And, unlike in Russia, you’re not going to have guys come by and “lean” on you for “protection” if you start a brick and mortar business.
There just aren’t many places in Eastern Europe where you can work out of very cozy coffee shops without worrying that someone will jack your laptop while you go to the bathroom or when you ride the bus home after the sun has set.
Moreover, the grey and depressing Eastern European weather can, in some strange way, be inspirational and increase productivity because you’re not motivated to constantly go outside and enjoy it. The cozy and cheap coffee shops lure you in and don’t let you go until you finish everything you set out to finish.
And, if, one day, you decide that you’re ready to experience the “real” Eastern Europe, with all its unpredictability, hassles, problems as well as the accompanying rewards that will undoubtedly lead to new experiences, you’ll be just a stone’s throw away from all the “genuine” Eastern Europe that you can handle.