The essay first appeared in the Lithuanian literary journal Literatūra ir menas. The version published here differs slightly.
Riding the bus a few days before not just my holiday but also the mass drivers’ strike that Vilnians will remember for a long time. I’m still naively hoping to avoid the disruption entirely by flying to a city that has everything but drivers. It has its boatsmen, gondoliers, and captains of all kinds, but no bus drivers. As I’m planning my trip, a man in the back of the bus breaks out in song. A couple of teenagers lurking by my side remark that this isn’t their first time riding with the singer. I don’t understand the words. Hell, I don’t even understand the language. Armenian? Georgian? Drunken Lithuanian? His voice is clean, operatic even. Funnily, the scene reminds me of the viral (locally, at least) clip of an opera soloist surprising a gondolier – in the very same city I’m headed to – with his impressive bass. I can already feel the romance.
The plane lands in a pocket-size airport that services exclusively low-cost airlines. Our flight is fully booked with considerably diverse folk – we’ve got a college girl trying to smuggle four bags for the price of two, culture-hungry tourists with fat Lonely Planet volumes they borrowed from friends, and Italian businessmen returning from their work trips. When the plane lands, no one’s clapping.
It’s probably my first time flying from Lithuania when not a single passenger is clapping on landing. Neither the college girl, nor the tourists, nor the stylish Italians. Nobody. I feel disappointed, as I was ready to roll my eyes and make silly faces to cheer up my wife.
I’m by no means a frequent flyer, so I can’t really talk about shifting trends, but I have one theory. What if we collectively stopped clapping, because we grew tired of eye-rollers and terminally online snobs? Because clapping is yokelish, poor taste, and sooo Eastern Europe (sorry, we’re in Northern Europe, how could I forget?). Because sure, there’s nothing special about the fact that our pilot safely lifted and landed a plane weighing forty-one tons (that’s without our baggage which cost extra). Right? We mustn’t celebrate such miracles, and if we are to celebrate them, we must do so silently, into a paper bag, but budget airlines stopped giving them out a long time ago.
Our shuttle bus is taking us through villages, small towns, and suburbs. Most of the windows are shut – it’s winter, it’s cold and the weather is rather uninspiring. Behind us sits a group of friends, who discuss their holiday plans, their Airbnb deposits and fees, and other earthly matters. They mention studies, academia, and friends who live abroad. True intellectuals. Who else than a Lithuanian intellectual, seeing a black man reading a newsletter on his patio, could spew out something like: “Guys, look, a true Italian. They probably had a hot summer, and he fell asleep tanning”.
My eyes roll so loudly I can’t hear if there’s laughter following the joke.
On our second day, we already feel familiar with the waterways, and riding the vaporetto feels like riding the No. 7 trolleybus in Vilnius. You get in, you count the stops, you look through the window, you get off. An older Italian gentleman, an ornate hat with a feather adorning his head, is riding with us. He talks loudly but not in an annoying way, and even without a good grasp of the language, I get that he is announcing vaporetto stops, adding a few words about each of them.
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People who have lived in Vilnius for more than eight years still remember an old lady with a huge fur hat (there’s something about eccentrics covering their heads), who would argue with bus stop announcements. “Traku stop? No, it’s Felix Dzerzhinsky stop!” “Next stop is called after Maksim Gorky!” I doubt she was nostalgic about Soviet functionaries and writers, but any change is hard to accept.
I haven’t seen the old lady in years, but I remember her every time I suggest someone meet me by the “Children’s World” store or the “Lithuania” cinema – both places don’t exist anymore, but their former locations are still connected to their old names. By invoking them, I’m testing the other person’s levels of being a true Vilnian. What was that old lady testing then?
A seagull snatches a piece of pizza from my hands, as we search for an empty bench. I accept this as a rite of passage. And I like this seagull more than the one eating a pigeon carcass on St. Mark’s square. Unfortunately, I have a video with the cannibal and not the pizza-loving bird.
“The best thing about these sweets is they’re sugar-free,” the British store manager in the gift shop on Murano island chuckles. “But not free!” She’s referring to the intricate pieces of Murano glass shaped like candy. The woman is probably the jolliest vendor I’ve ever seen, and she shares her jokes with everyone in the store. She has been living in Venice for 30 years now, and she looks like she’s enjoying her work. “You can touch anything, and if you break it - we’re fully insured!”.
We take a boat tour to Burano – an island where every house is of a different bright colour. They say it’s for fishermen to find their way home more easily in the fog. Today, there are no fishermen left, only retirees and a couple of digital nomads that only need a few square meters of space and fast Wi-Fi.
There are two British tourists in our group – an older mom and her adult son. They’re weird. Not in an eccentric in-your-face way. No, they’re the vanilla kind of weird. And their train of thought gets derailed too quickly. “The last time I saw a house that pink it was in the Daily Mail,” the mom comments. The son then asks the guide whether there were dogs on the island. Our guide starts telling them how locals love pets, but the mom doesn’t let her finish, as her brain has already jumped to a story about how dogs mauling kids is super common in the UK. I’m no journalist so I’ll leave this fact unchecked.
We’re on our second free walking tour in four days. The guide’s voice gets intertwined with the snippets shared by our other guide the day before: “The city’s built on petrified tree trunks”, “Every town square had its own well”, “No one cared about building bridges, because everyone had boats”. It’s all kind of interesting.
As is common with tip-based tours, our group is fairly mixed, with both solo travellers and couples. One of the solo travelling girls follows every basic utterance of our guide with a fairly loud and earnest “wowwww”. She also shares how surprised she was there was no Uber in Venice. She thinks that the city itself is very much anime-like, and that it’s so weird that tourists pay such high fines for using a camp stove on the stairs of Saint Mark’s square or for swimming in the canals. She’s not the guide’s favourite, and I hope that title is reserved for me.
We’re flying home, and half of the passengers are from our previous flight. A girl behind us looks like one of those kids-pretending-to-be-adults that we see on kids’ game shows (“Welcome 11-year-old Gabija, who has already visited 30 countries”). “Why do we always fly with Ryanair? Ryanair is shit” she complains to her dad. We land in Vilnius, still disrupted by the drivers’ strike. No one is clapping.