When I convinced my parents to buy me a one-way plane ticket to Lithuania in December 2003, I expected to stay six months to two years. Now, four years on, I’m still in Vilnius, going to work every day, making new friends, and complaining about the customer service.
Everything and nothing has changed in the last four years. The government, which I follow from a distance at best, seems to be chugging along at a snail’s pace, but the landscape of the Senamiestis (old town) is hardly recognizable to anyone who spent the summer of 2007 abroad. Roads and sidewalks have been rebuilt, buildings have been renovated and road signs directing traffic through the narrow streets are constantly being reversed, changed or otherwise removed. There are more cars on the roads than ever before which makes for terrible traffic jams and even more accidents. Police presence on the roads is increasing, but other than giving out speeding tickets when it’s to their convenience, they seem to do little else. The post office is now working with computers, but they have done little to improve efficiency; letters and packages can still take more than four weeks to arrive during the holidays.
Since I never thought I would still be here four years later, I’ve tried to figure out where the time went. I travel a lot, but it’s the little day to day things that make the calendar pages flip by so fast. Living and working in the center is ideal. Even in the winter, I’m able to walk to work, up quiet, tree-lined streets. I pass the U.S. Embassy and a Russian Orthodox church with green onion domes on my way, often stopping in one of my favorite bakeries for a bandelė su varske (sweet roll with cottage cheese) or spurga su oboulais (glazed donut with apples inside). At least an hour of every working day is spent in friendly banter with Aidas Puklavičius, a well-known writer and the editor-in-chief of the magazine I work for. The rest of the time I’m either glued to my monitor searching through thousands of photos to find just the right one, in meetings with the editors about how we need to illustrate various articles, or arguing with the designer about which photo is best.
I have spent a lot of time in the last four years “going for coffees” as we say. When I first arrived, the take-out coffee culture was non-existent and I was definitely missing my coffee-to-go on the way to work or while out shopping. Several new cafés and sandwich shops have appeared which do offer not only take-out coffee, but flavored lattes, and iced mocha. I’ve found though that I rarely exercise my right to paper cup coffee as in the last few years I’ve become as much a convert to the idea of taking a break to sit down and enjoy my coffee out of a ceramic cup, maybe even together with a freshly baked cake. No matter the season or the weather, rarely a day goes by when an invitation to “go for a coffee” is not made.
One important change which has taken place just recently completes Lithuania’s quest to become fully integrated in the European Union. At midnight on December 21st, Lithuania closed all border stations with neighboring EU countries (Poland and Latvia) and implemented the Schengen rules, a border-free travel agreement between 25 EU member states, with Switzerland, Iceland, and Norway. On that very day, I was on a bus heading south across Poland to visit friends for Christmas in Slovakia. I woke up as we pulled into the gas station and thought, “this is going to be a long ride.” It was then I realized that the prices were in zloty, and we had long ago crossed the border. The bus didn’t even slow down. I was awake when we drove over the narrow mountain pass to cross into Slovakia. Gone were the lines of cars and customs inspectors in their familiar green jackets and flashlights for searching suspicious trunks. Schengen makes driving from Lithuania across Poland feel like driving from Michigan across Ohio—on small country roads.
I’m asked so often how long I plan to stay in Lithuania that I’ve given up trying to provide a creative answer and simply say, “I don’t know.” There are a lot of reasons to stay, mainly a fun and flexible job, and many reasons to leave such as the high cost of living vs. the average salary. There’s no doubt that a part of me longs to be back in Colorado, surrounded by the Rocky Mountains, where coffees come in to-go cups, mail comes when the post office says it will and the only border to be crossed is into Utah for mountain biking. To the relief of my mother, I do not intend to live forever in Lithuania, but then again, I didn’t intend to be here for four years either. Somehow, if you arrive in Vilnius on a one-way ticket, it’s hard to ever leave.