There are a few days per year that are unmistakable. You simply have to look out the window to know what day it is: Christmas and Easter, the Fourth of July in the United States, Bastille Day in France, and in Lithuania, it’s September First, the day to go back to school. Unlike in the United States when the day to go back to school varies every year, state to state, and district to district, in Lithuania, it’s always the very first day of September.
It’s the day to go to school and greet your teacher with flowers. Then you sit down in your classroom, and the teacher makes a little speech. At the local primary school next door to my apartment, they had music playing and I had a sudden urge to sharpen pencils as I watched all the seven-year-old children in uniforms on their first day of school. But, what if the first of the month is on a weekend? I asked around, and the consensus is, if it’s on Saturday, you go to school, but if September First falls on a Sunday, they will probably push the flower ceremony to Monday. Nice of them.
Vilnius is rather quiet in the summer, with the exception of the British stag parties, and the odd football (soccer) game when all the Scots in kilts arrive in to watch their team run circles around the Lithuanians. This year it was particularly hot and sunny, drawing the locals out to the various lakes. From Palušė to Palanga, every summer resort was full from Sunday to Saturday. Somewhere in mid-June, we realized that there weren’t actually any Lithuanians in Vilnius anymore—they had been replaced by busloads of retired tourists speaking virtually every language you can imagine. There was even a huge group of Africans, which must have been pretty shocking to what was left of the local population. The few weekends anyone stayed in Vilnius during the summer were spent watching the tourists stroll in herds up and down Pilies gatvė. Business at the souvenir market was booming as cutting boards in the shape of fish, hot pads made from juniper, wool sweaters, linen tablecloths, Russian matryoshka dolls that look like Harry Potter, and tons and tons of amber were literally hauled off by the busload. All that has changed now, though.
The call back to school brought not only the schoolchildren. Suddenly, the traffic was unbearable, and the bars were full. The recently renovated Maxima on Mindaugo gatvė (think Super Target) was like a war zone around the school supplies section. Sunday was a surprisingly warm day, but while sitting at Čili Kava drinking an iced cappuccino, I noticed Pilies gatvė was unusually full of Lithuanians. That’s when I realized—the universities were opening too.
Vilnius is a city of some 700,000 people, and not more than maybe 50,000 or 60,000 students study at the various universities throughout the city, but since so many of them are situated in the center, it makes a huge impact when they return from their summer holidays. One of the most popular bars, The Pub – Prie Universiteto, has been empty for months. There isn’t one particular day that the students leave, the bars just seem to get more and more quiet, and as the weather gets warmer, we too start to spend more Saturdays grilling sashlykai rather than going out. The day the students come back it seems as if the population had doubled, and in the bars, it’s party ON.
There are still a few tourists left—as there should be, September is a wonderful month to visit Lithuania. The souvenir market is open year round, but business is slowing. And it may only be me, but there seem to be fewer kiosks than there were in August. Despite a forecast for a hot weekend, there is the ever so slight scent of winter in the air, and the tables and chairs will be soon gathered off the patios. The voices of schoolchildren on morning recess fill the courtyard, and a few dedicated tourists linger on the Hill of Three Crosses gazing down at the Old Town bathed in hazy sunshine. Up there, removed from all the noise of back to school, it must seem like any other perfect late-summer day in Vilnius.