The best thing about living at 54° north, is that after the winter solstice passes, every day becomes a little bit longer.
This is very important to remember if you live in Lithuania because, in January, the days can be so dark, it’s hard to tell noon from midnight. The weather certainly does make it hard to motivate oneself to pull on the fuzzy boots and trudge out into the gloomy city, covered in mud and ice, but it’s great for sleeping. My apartment faces east, so in the summer, I’m woken up at 4AM by sunlight flashing in my eyes like a summer camp counselor announcing a secret raid on another cabin—it sounds like fun, but you would rather stay in bed. In the winter, the dense clouds serve as a cocoon to protect you from those pesky sunbeams, ensuring a long night’s rest. This is further aided by the lack of teenagers standing in the courtyard drinking beer and listening to their car stereos. Even during the mildest of winters, it’s cold at 4AM when you live less than halfway to the North Pole.
The groan of the trolleybuses making their way through Vilnius symbolizes daily winter life. Little old ladies inch down the street in 30lbs of fur carrying sacks of potatoes and onions, while young people dart past them discussing skiing vacations in Slovakia and Italy. Businessmen talk on their mobile phones, carefully avoiding puddles, and bums huddle in vacant corners trying to keep warm. One thing that always amazes me is how the women in four-inch heels manage to stay upright as they negotiate the icy sidewalks. This is a phenomenon that must be witnessed, for the Lithuanian women truly possess a special talent for walking in high heels. Life is nicer in the winter because everything moves a little slower. People stop to say hello, and no one is pushing in line at the grocery store because when it’s dark at five o’clock, there’s nowhere to go but home.
In Denver, people give directions in terms of north and south; since the mountains are always to the west and the streets are on a grid, this works. Even if we had mountains in Vilnius, we wouldn’t be able to see them through the thick January fog. Instead, we give directions in terms of landmarks, neighborhoods, and main roads. For instance, someone might say, “Drive out of the city on the road to Molėtai, turn left one kilometer after the new restaurant. When you get to the beehives, take a right. Our house is a few hundred meters down the road, look for the cow.” The good thing about navigating in Lithuania is that even the tiniest village has a sign pointing any potential visitors to it. Driving to Ignalina the other day along a densely forested road a long way from the nearest stoplight, I noticed a sign indicating the village of Vidutienė (The Middle One), 5km. I had to wonder, the middle of what?
The best way to spend the winter in Lithuania is to get out of the city. Just a short drive out of Vilnius and the black roads turn white. Everywhere the trees look like they have been sprayed with a snow gun, each branch so perfectly covered. At dusk, it seems you’re in a fairytale, and the world turns silver as a lone black crow sits in an empty field. In the dark, even the normally drab city of Ignalina looks magical; Christmas lights in the shape of falling stars line the streets reflecting reds, yellows, and blues onto the fresh white blanket of snow.
During the day, the Lithuanian Winter Sports Center is busy with skiers, skaters, and fishermen. To get to the slopes, alpine skiers dressed in outfits straight out of a 1950′s ski movie have to cross the frozen lake. Cross-country skiers fly by them on their feather-light equipment heading out into the forest. Figure skaters take turns with hockey players on the ice rink that has been made by clearing off a section of the snow-covered lake, while the ice fishermen sit quietly in the distance waiting for a bite. Skiers from Vilnius who have often taken a trip abroad for lessons, tend to ski more gracefully than the locals in Ignalina who, dressed either in jeans or leather motorcycle pants, go screaming down the hill waving their arms and more often than not, hitting another skier while trying to stop. All is forgiven though when a glass of vodka is shared over lunch in the kavinė (cafe).
Back in Vilnius, the children start school in brightly-lit classrooms, and the crows have the streets mostly to themselves. Today on my way to work, I noticed the fog hesitantly starting to spit snow onto the muddy streets. On those rare occasions that the clouds do lift and we see the sunset is a few minutes later, we are reminded that winter will be over soon enough, and we had better get out and enjoy it while we still can.