di Marie Claire Najjar
If it is true that sports can bring a nation together, create a feeling of pride and belonging… then this is the role that basketball plays in Lithuania. «It is a passion that everyone shares… or as we often say, it is our second religion», explains Mindaugas Svirinas, third-year BIEM student. «And even if you don’t personally play it, you know it’s a subject that can strike a conversation with anyone!» He notes that despite having an extremely low budget, his city’s team, BC Zalgiris, demonstrates impressive gameplays.
But after a brief introduction into the athletic realm, the conversation quickly takes a culinary turn. From Šaltibarščiai (a cold beet soup) to Cepelinai (potato dumplings with meat), typical dishes are a good mirror of Lithuanian traditions and an even better remedy against homesickness. Being surrounded by nature and enjoying Milan’s parks while listening to Lithuanian music can also prove to be quite efficient in transporting Mindaugas back to his homeland. «Among the things that I miss most, I’d list my dogs, the countryside, the ability to joke in my own language… and the calmer driving habits of Lithuanian people!», he explains with a bittersweet smile.
Despite coming from a more relaxed city, «ideal for a retreat», Mindaugas expresses his love for the place that has welcomed him three years ago: «Milan is definitely more crowded than my hometown, and louder because of the intense traffic. But that is part of its charm, and it offers so many advantages… Its international community shares stories and insights that would be impossible to hear otherwise. As for the locals, they are very outgoing, always ready to socialize with foreigners and to host aperitivos… which still represent some of my best memories here.»
This is an aspect that Mindaugas can appreciate, because despite common misconceptions, the Lithuanian population is a very welcoming, English-speaking community, much more open than one tends to imagine, «far from the closed mentality that is often associated with Eastern-European countries.»
So how would a local describe Lithuania? Mindaugas chooses to do it through some of his childhood memories. When he was younger, he would meet his friends for a relaxing walk along Freedom Avenue (in Kaunas) or around Lake Dusia, «the third-largest in the country and one that occupies a central place in the fishing activity.» With over 2000 lakes and a breathtaking natural scenery, Lithuania is becoming more and more popular among traveling destinations. Tourists, who are coming from all around the world to discover the wonders of Lithuania, are finding the country increasingly welcoming and developed. And Mindaugas’ personal advice is to try the traditional cuisine, which he describes as «very diverse, composed of notable dishes such as anthill cake, apple cheese, curd snacks, smoked or cured meat…»
«I come from a city called Kaunas», he adds. «It is home to a wonderful pedestrian street that’s 1.6 km-long – one of the longest in Europe.» Mindaugas is referring to «Freedom Avenue», the heart of Kaunas, which shelters shops and restaurants, nestled in interwar-style buildings. He describes it as a charming street, perfect to meet friends, go for a walk, take in the sights and enjoy the city’s atmosphere. And to be in line with local traditions, «it really comes alive whenever there is a basketball match». Many interesting symbols of the city are located nearby Freedom Avenue, such as the Old Town, the Devil’s Museum or the Cathedral Basilica of St. Peter and St. Paul.
Kaunas is a ‘chameleon’ city, one that can adapt to all seasons and types of weather. «The golden landscapes and cozy atmosphere on rainy days are what makes it beautiful in the fall. And you can really witness the beauty of its nature and its lakes during the summer, a perfect time to practice sports and attend music festivals.» Hosted every 4 years, the Lithuanian Song Festival is an opportunity for people to really come together and watch traditional dance shows and performances. «It is a way for the whole community to connect, to feel patriotic and proud of their cultural heritage.»
Kaunas is in larger part a product of the 20th Century interwar period, a time during which it expanded drastically and was even declared the temporary capital of the country (while Vilnius was occupied). Some remains of the communist era are embodied by several buildings and by the slow pace of the city, «which means it’s not as dynamic as it could be». But the city makes up for this with its many advantages. Not only is it cheaper to visit or live in, but it also benefits from a more relaxed atmosphere and is proud to be called one of the world leaders in WiFi speed. Areas such as the Oak Park, an ideal spot for running located in the City Centre, testify of the town’s efforts to be remarkably clean and green.
While he describes his hometown of Kaunas as «more Lithuanian» (yet quickly developing), Mindaugas presents Vilnius, the capital, as a completely different city, connecting heritage with a strong international presence. «I have truly rediscovered Vilnius last summer, and I have fallen in love with it. Cultural events have become way more frequent, especially during the summer. And Vilnius has changed drastically, yet it has managed to stay a green city. I really appreciate the increasing number of open spaces, for instance in the city center or along the riverbanks, where it is common to go for a run. For a visitor, the centre is definitely the most interesting part of the capital as it concentrates a great part of the activities.»
But if the country is what it has become today, it is due to the many changes it underwent. With a population of around 2.8 million people, Lithuania is observing a decrease in its emigration rate. Investments from international companies have led to the rejuvenation of the Lithuanian economy, observed through an obvious increase of the wage level. All of this has created a feeling of stability, making mobility easier and as Mindaugas puts it, allowing people to «feel safer and part of a community… even when they emigrate».