Lithuania - united we stood

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Forget Catholicism - basketball is the official religion in Lithuania. Besides, we were the last in Europe to be baptized - barely in 1387. Yet one could be totally ignorant of basketball and one will be forgiven. The worst heresy of nowadays is to be an emigrant.

A beautiful yet painful journey towards new beginning

On the 23rd of August 1989, less than three months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the people of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia - three tiny Baltic countries with a total population of about 8 million - joined their hands to form an over 600 kilometer long human chain across the three Baltic states.

About 2 million people joined their hands in this completely peaceful protest. Demonstrators linked hands for 15 minutes at 7 p.m. local time.


Baltic Way. Photo by Z. Kazėnas

This demonstration was organized to draw the world's attention to the common historical fate which these three countries suffered. It marked the 50th anniversary of August 23, 1939 when Soviet Union and Germany in the secret protocol of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact divided spheres of interest in Eastern Europe which led to the occupation of these three countries. The human chain symbolized the Baltic peoples' solidarity in their struggle for more autonomy and eventual independence from the Soviet Union.

Lithuania - a country of which majority of the people living on the other side of the Berlin Wall have never heard before - was the first Soviet republic to proclaim its renewed independence on March 11, 1990. It took nearly a year for a Western country to recognize Lithuanian independence and the first to send a message of acknowledgment was Island - on the 4th of February, 1991. A month before that the world heard about a Singing Revolution and 14 non-armed protesters who died in Vilnius defending the Vilnius Television Tower and the Parliament from Soviet troops and tanks.

The people were united as never before.

A new foe is facing the country

16 years have passed since those events. With fireworks we proudly joined the prestigious club called the European Union. Our economy is improving, there's more and more building sites rising in the capital Vilnius yet for the past 5 years or so another foe - well-known to the countries like Ireland, Norway, Sweden and Italy - has been threatening the future of the country. Since 1990, around 404,000 people have emigrated, driving the population down from its level of 3.6 million people 16 years ago to its present level of 3.2 million. The number of Lithuanians emigrating has more than doubled since the country joined the EU.

Welcome to the joys of freedom of movement, - I say. Loosers, you were not able to adapt in the changing situation, - say those who have remained in Lithuania.

The people are divided as never before.

Life is improving yet people are moving

Every second Lithuanian has a relative or a friend who have emigrated after the restoration of the independence. According to the survey which was conducted in the beginning of this year for Lithuanian weekly "Veidas", another 13 percent of the population claim that they will be leaving the country shortly. Nearly half of them state that if the salaries were increasing more rapidly the emigration might be stopped. The second most important reason which drives Lithuanians to leave their home country is the attitude of employers and officials towards them.

Minimum monthly salary in Lithuania is 174 Euro a month, average (before taxes, there's a flat 27 percent income tax) - 503 Euro a month. During the past year though average salary has increased by 21 percent. As they say in one Russian propaganda movie - life is getting better, life is getting happier.

Propaganda and accusations

Speaking of propaganda, in the beginning of this year a campaign called "Stay in Lithuania" was launched. It aims to encourage young people to seek better living in Lithuania, not abroad. Ironically, the campaign was not initiated by Lithuanians, but by a Canadian and a Danish. Perhaps there's not too many locals who believe the message? Lithuanian celebrities, businessmen and politicians keep repeating the message "stay", yet more than a third of emigrants are 20-29 years old. Yet these are the official figures, but there those who have never officially stated of going to UK or Ireland for a couple of years. Like myself for instance. In fact I don't even know why should I, since I don't even know how long will I be away for.

This is were I face the impossibility of defining who is an emigrant nowadays. My Oxford American Dictionary defines emigrant as a person who leaves his or her own country in order to settle permanently in another. I don't even know were I want to settle yet. Although probably somewhere sunnier and warmer than Ireland, but with white Christmas, please.

I've been away for two years now. I don't know when will I come back, but I am certain I will. I do not despise Lithuania and now and again I send some money home. Like thousands of other Lithuanians who are working abroad. It's been estimated that last year alone over 300 million Euro where transfered from personal foreign accounts into Lithuanian banks - which would be about 1.2 percent of our GDP. Yet those who are away are blamed for wasting Lithuania's budget - especially the resources that have been invested into our education.

Thus the accusations start to flow: we are not patriotic, we don't care about Lithuania's future or about the future of our children who may not learn to speak Lithuanian, we live or get married to the people of other races than white, etc. As if those who remain were chained to their jobs, friends or lovers like Prometheus to a cliff. A toast to them, a gold medal and a statue!

At the end of the day humans are selfish and pragmatic. That's the reason we try to get better education, better jobs, better living conditions. And if somebody has found this in Ireland or Greenland why should one be despised? At the end of the day - wasn't it this freedom that we were yearning for?

Perhaps it is time to encourage to come back rather than to stay and preferably not only by propaganda means? And remember the days when we were like one fist working for one cause - we could achieve much more this way.


PS
I have been trying to look up for some information on whether other countries who ever had to face emigration had so much hostility towards those who have emigrated. So far I've only come across an attitude sported by the Polish president Mr. Lech Kaczyński calling Polish emigrants in UK and Ireland “born losers” or “feckless”. But he shouldn't be an inspiration!

 

Where are you from?

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Deliana had a pale skin and incredibly blond hair. She used to wear a rasta hat and whenever asked she used to say she's from Jamaica. With a slight Eastern European accent. Sometimes she was lucky and even the toughest sceptics would start believing her. In fact she was Bulgarian and had won a green card a while ago. She would assure if somebody was after an honest reply she would definitely tell, but wasn't going to open her heart to everybody. She didn't want to be considered as another girl from Eastern Europe.

I perfectly understand Deliana and whoever has lived abroad should too. Especially girls from Eastern Europe.

A while ago I was strolling the streets of a Jewish quarter in Seville (Spain) with two girls - one from Norway and another from Poland. After getting lost we stopped a passer-by.

Where are you from? - he asked.

Dominica barely mentioned she's from Poland and thus the praises for Eastern Europe and beauties from Czech Republic began to flow. The middle-aged passer-by turned to the Norwegian girl and asked if she's from Poland too. Hilda explained she's Norwegian.

Oh, you're a different story, - said he and I could see disappointment in his face.

Once, after walking into a very dark cul-de-sac in Dublin I came across a sticker saying Eastern European girls looking for fun.

It's no secret that crowds of tourists come to Lithuania thinking it's enough to utter a word in English and the girls will melt like last winter's snow. When in West it is enough to mention the country of my origin and I hear a borat-like reply "Very nice". And somewhere in the back of my head I hear myself finishing his sentence "How much?"

It is true though, Lithuanian girls do tend to dissolve like a spoonful of sugar in a cup of tea without even asking what do those strangers do and what do they like in life - perhaps they are peasants from the most remote of English villages or boring young clerks working in a stuffy London City office and looking for fun and frolics. But look - the girls are already coiling lazily on the dance floor of one of those British pubs we have in Vilnius. There's free fizz flooding and the boys start whispering unheard secrets to them - the girls never got a chance to learn that kind of words in school. It's the body language that helps to communicate...

And one sees our local boys quietly sipping on their pints, but their beer is not smooth anymore, since all the girls care about are foreign boys - they buy the drinks and purchase three red roses from the girl who makes her living selling the flowers in nightclubs. The girl is happy, the lass - giddy and the English boy is stumbling over the words he's txting to the mates back home. Before getting into a cab he takes a leak in front of the Presidential Palace.

And so the story starts to spread about Lithuanian girls looking for fun. As if we would not suite for anything else.

But what should one do if she doesn't wear high-heels, uses lipstick rarely and rather wears pants than skirts? You can say you're from Norway, because you're a different story. Or from Jamaica. But it might be harder to convince...

 

Point of view

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Caricature byRytis Daukantas

The guy on the left:

- Excuse me gentlemen, do you know where are the builders?

The guys on the right:

- We are the builders, man!


I guess this is Rytis' view on the so called New Lithuanians who after working in the UK or Ireland for a couple of years have returned home. Or perhaps it depicts the efforts of the Lithuanian Labour Exchange to convince emigrants that they could be earning in Lithuania as much as in construction sites in London or Dulin. Either way I love it!

 

Why this Blog is in English

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I came up with an idea to start a blog on emigration in English after I realized that some of the issues I try to talk about in my Lithuanian blog would not even be considered as issues in some Western countries. I.e.

* Emigrants - are they loosers who couldn't adapt in their home countries or people who dare to leave everything behind and make a leap of faith?

* Do emigrants owe anything to their home countries? Should I have to pay back for the education I've received in a public university, public healthcare or security guaranteed by our brand new army? And if so how?

* Finally how should one define emigration in a modern world. I don't come from a third world country, quite contrary - it's been known as a "Baltic tiger" and I am not trying to escape war, political situation or genocide. I have left Lithuania not because I can't live there. I have left my country because I believe I can live not only there. So who am I: an emigrant, a wandering soul or a citizen of the world? Besides, I don't even know where I want to settle and for how long...

According to the Lithuanian Department of Statistics as of 1990 over 400 000 people have emigrated from Lithuania and we have the highest rate of emigration per capita in European Union. Yet after joining the EU and plunging into the joys of freedom of movement one could only guess what are the official figures...

The media in Lithuania calls us emigrants although I still think that the vast majority of us will come back - sooner or later.

In this blog I will try to look at the stories hiding behind those figures. At the reasons and consequences. At the freedom of movement and attempts to deprive of it.

I hope my blog will give an insider view of the reality my country is facing now despite being that roaring tiger. And I hope it will reveal how does it feel to be an emigrant or simply a stranger away from home.

You are welcome to make any comments on my posts and to share your views. For any queries please contact me at lina[dot]zigelyte[at]gmail[dot]com.