About a month ago, a guy from my school who I hadn’t heard from since prom night sent me a Facebook friend request. He asked if I remembered him (it might have been eight years, but we’d spent the previous eleven in the same class, and he admitted to having had a crush on me in the ninth grade, so yeah, I remembered him), we casually chit-chatted as you do with someone from your past, and then he popped the question I had been hearing on an annoyingly regular basis for these past eight years — “Are you still living in Vilnius?”
When I tell people that I’ve been living in Lithuania for so long, I either get a frown from confused foreigners scraping off the backs of their minds as they pathetically attempt to recall that one geography lesson when the teacher might have mentioned what that was, or a sympathizing shrug, “Why on Earth?!”
Last weekend I went to a wedding of a friend of mine. While I was looking around enjoying a breathtaking view of the red brick rooftops of the city, the groom was telling the story of how he knew his now wife was The One the minute she first spoke to him. It was so picture perfect I couldn’t stop wondering whether I had been trapped in a “…and they lived happily ever after” Hollywood movie or at least a Pinterest board.
Everyone there on that day was celebrating love, but a different kind of love. While the newlyweds couldn’t take their eyes off of each other, I couldn’t take my eyes off of the only true love I’ve ever had — Vilnius. (And the red wine, of course!)
It wasn’t love at first sight. In fact, for the first couple of years I wasn’t even a tiny bit smitten — my seventeen-year-old self was too busy trying to understand what these grumpy women at the migration office wanted, and figuring out how to pay the bills. But it was a match. Not a cheesy Tinder match made because he was the only handsome guy without a profound quote about travelling or his height measurements in the “bio” section. It was an old-school “their eyes met across the room” kind of match when you’ve already known each other for quite some time but couldn’t care less to ever pay attention, and then suddenly fall in love as an indie song picks up in the background. Okay, maybe it was something a little less romantic. Like, a toilet-line romance after a couple of beers and a shot, but I did fall in love by the end of a song. This song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RSfxlpoPmPg
He was low-key, and smelled like beer and the sea because he just got back from a weekend at the seaside, and his stubble was one day too long. He was nothing like these douche bags in perfectly ironed shirts, who go to fashionable cocktail bars to enjoy their ridiculously overpriced margaritas (and Margaritas). He loved loud crass jokes, and handed me my first joint in the backyard of an art gallery. We would go out “for one beer” and end up at someone’s apartment on the roof in the Old Town at 6 a.m. He set the fire in me, lit it, and it is still burning.
I’m no expert in relationships, but rumour has it that every relationship experiences its downfalls at certain points. Thanks to Beigbeder we know that love lasts three years, some people give it five, and psychologists in unison claim the legitimacy of the “seven-year relationship crisis”. Vilnius and I had them all. I lost count of how many times I threw hysterics, packed my bags and ran away only to find myself in his arms again a week later. Until one day when I knew that the one thing more impossible than staying was leaving. And I stayed.
For years, I have been asking myself the same question others, mostly, those who have never visited Vilnius, because otherwise they wouldn’t ask stupid things like this, — “Why Vilnius?”
When you are from a depressed and depressing Eastern European country, the measure of success is how far away from it you have moved. I once got into an argument — you know, one of those witty and brave arguments that happen in the Facebook comment section — with a friend of my friend’s, who assumed I wasn’t well-travelled enough if I thought that Vilnius was the best city in the world. When you are from a depressed and depressing Eastern European country, the measure of success is how far away from it you have moved. Complaining about where you live has become almost as automatic as breathing: weather, government, economy, language — I’ve been through every bit of it, including sleeping at McDonald’s because I had no other place to stay, and never have I been more certain that Vilnius was worth it. And one can only understand why when they spend some time actually living here. Isn’t it what happens when you fall in love? You stop caring about all and any flaws of your significant other because perfect is boring, and you never settled for perfect or easy in the first place.
Vilnius is not beautiful. Not in a canonical sense. The buildings are half-destroyed, stairways are dark and covered in graffiti, and yes, you will still spot Soviet apartment buildings when you go outside the city centre. Don’t come here if you like all things clean, white, and modern (read: boring, ordinary, and heartless).
I think if I’m completely honest with myself, I’ll admit that secretly I have always wanted to stay in Vilnius for… well, ever. I have been struggling with the feeling of home, because I didn’t feel I belonged in the country I was born and raised in, yet I wasn’t quite comfortable and “homey” here, for a whole bunch of reasons, from the language barrier to social pressure. It was not until I wrote an eighty-something page Masters thesis about the concept of home that I realised that I actually didn’t want to leave for “anywhere further”. Even though it came as a challenge, it also all of a sudden became sort of the psychological treatment I had been desperately craving. It still excites me to an enormous extent, how complex and immeasurable the concept that seems so simple and clear can be. And Vilnius gave me much more than just a roof to stay under.
It shaped me. It broke me down so many times during my “not a girl, not yet a woman” stage, but every single time I stood up stronger than I had been (I allow you to cringe at this clichéd soppy expression). And now it constantly excites, exhausts, and empowers me. Sometimes all at once. Last week, Vilnius was named the happiest city in Europe. I reckon the percentage would go way past the 98% of satisfied citizens it got, if I took part in the survey (in the end, I am a Belarusian — providing unrealistic poll results is in my nature).
Vilnius has changed a lot since we started living together in September 2008, and it’s not only due to the rent and beer prices that went up after the euro had been introduced. The city is not what you imagine it to be. Not anymore, at least. Most people upon arrival are truly surprised by its charms, and when they leave, they leave completely enchanted. It is indeed very easy to fall in love with this small Eastern European (Northern European as people here often like to point out) city, particularly when you come for a drunken weekend.
I can go on forever about the unique and rich history that still lives in every other shabby building in the Old Town, but you can go to Wikipedia and read for yourself. I can show you the most impressive and at the same time scary shortcuts in the very centre of the city while we wander around the narrow streets that sometimes look like labyrinths. I can introduce you to the local looneys, who are the true legends and an everlasting soul of Vilnius. And we definitely can spend nights crawling from fancy cocktails bars to stinky boozers with sticky tables and back again. However, I bet every person who loves the city they live in can do this wherever they are.
What Vilnius has with plenty to spare (and very few other cities can boast) is personality.
It (he) looks all cute and modest at first, but once you get to know him, you see how much more sophisticated, full of surprises, and rock’n’roll with a pinch of fabulousness he really is.
After eight full years, though, it eventually becomes too small. You run out of places. No more ex-boyfriend free zone, no more blank pages. However, this time it is not a sign of another crisis approaching. This time it doesn’t matter. What I thought was about to be a short affair, a fling with no strings attached, turned into the greatest love story of mine. Every day I fall asleep listening to the sounds of the too loud and too drunk for a Tuesday night chats outside my windows, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything else. Vilnius might not be my first love, but I certainly wouldn’t mind if it becomes my last.