Introduction to Lithuania
Ireland was a great place to start my big trip and travelling around the island was a very pleasant experience. But there`s an end to everything and I am excited to move on to the next country. I have been using most of today to get myself transported to the other side of Europe: Lithuania. I expected to collect my first pieces of information at Dublin airport, from some of the many Lithuanian people who accompanied me on the flight. Intially, I was faced with some plain `no`s` in reply to my question whether they could tell something about their country. Not very promising, but I still managed to speak to four people who provided me with a wealth of facts and figures about Lithuania.
Lithuania has about the same size as Ireland, but has fewer inhabitants: around 3 million. It gained independence from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s and was the first of the former Soviet states to become a country of its own. Lithuania became a member of the European Union in 2004 and will introduce the Euro as its official currency in 2009.
`Out of all three Baltic states, Lithuania probably suffered least from Soviet occupation`
Sarunas (19) is one of my fellow passengers on the flight to Kaunas, one of three big cities in Lithuania. He is on his way back home after having spent the summer in Ireland to earn money. He is one of the seemingly very many Lithuanians who find their way to Ireland (and the UK) to earn money. Within their home market, their positions are taken over by Ukranians and Belorussians, who in turn can earn more money in Lithuania than they could in their respective home countries.
Sarunas tells me how Lithuania has rapidly developed itself into a modern country, which has more affiliation with the West than with the East. Except the border with the Russian enclave and military base of Kaliningrad, Lithuania does not even share a border with mainland Russia any more. You would first need to cross either Latvia or Belarus to make it to Russia. The Soviet Union used to be the only place Lithuanians could freely travel to, nowadays they can travel everywhere in Europe but need a visa to be allowed onto Russian soil. The Russian influence in Lithuania is limited to the role of trade partner, mainly for energy supply. While older people tend to be fluent in Russian, the younger share of the population prefers to learn English, which is now taught to children from the age of 8 onwards. Russian is optional in secondary school, just like German and French.
Corruption is still an important issue in Lithuania. It mainly concerns the situations where politics meet business interests, but is also common practice in the medical world and to a lesser extent with the police force. Low salaries for public functions, including teachers and doctors, keep the problem alive and well.
The Baltics as a whole
I also want to find about about the similarities between the Baltic States. Tadas (26), to whom I speak while we board the plane, explains that only Latvia is slightly similar to Lithuania in culture and social manners. Estonia is seen by Lithuania as an almost Scandinavian economy that is leaning against the Swedish and Finnish market. Also the Estonian language is completely different from Lithuanian.
While airborne, I use the duration of the flight to talk to my temporary neighbour who happens to also be called Tadas. He is 22 years old and speaks English with a Northern Irish accent. He spent 9 months in Ireland with his wife, seated next to him, and is now on his way home for a quick vacation which includes a friend`s wedding. He is working in Ireland as a lorry driver, while his wife works in a butcher shop. Tadas says Northern Ireland is `better money` for a driver, but he still considers returning to Lithuania and, by then, staying there for good.
Vilda (29, photo) is my host in Kaunas and she picks me up from the airport. During the ride into town, she informs me about the changes that occurred since the Soviets moved out. Altogether, Vilda says, from the three Baltic states, Lithuania was the one who probably suffered least from the Soviets. Throughout the occupation, as Lithuanians call it, Lithuania kept its own language and culture. No need to change traffic signs or eduction methods. The Lithuanians were quick to switch back to daily life when independence had been secured. Some of the many changes that did take place include the creation of hypermarkets across the country, private property being passed from state possessions back to private ownership and to Lithuania dramatically improving its trading relations with the West.
Apart from all the positive stories, Lithuania also faces a set of challenges. Corruption, crime and drink&drive are common practice. I will try to stay away as far as I can from the criminal activities, but the other two topics will for sure be covered on `Us Europeans` during the next days.
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