Vilnius is a beautiful city (graffiti notwithstanding). I am lucky enough to find myself living in the center of the city, and have spent much of my first week wandering aimlessly around town, gawking at the picturesque gothic and baroque architecture. The churches in particular are a splendid site to see, and they are numerous. Lithuania was the last country in Europe to convert to Christianity, but today nearly 80% of the population are Roman Catholics. The most famous of these churches is The Cathedral of Vilnius, where the patron saint of Lithuania, Saint Casimir, is buried. Luckily, Vilnius presents several tremendous opportunities to view its alluring buildings from on high, such as from the top of Gediminas’ Tower, remaining from a castle that used to stand upon the hill overlooking the city.
Besides the buildings themselves, I have found great pleasure in just experiencing the atmosphere of the city. The city center is always brimming with people, all nights of the week. Every restaurant is predominated by outdoor seating, and many bars are completely outside, and often full. As one Lithuanian told me when we went out to dinner, “We have a saying in Lithuania, the best soup is beer!” The people can seem very reserved with strangers (I have often received bewildered looks when trying to exchange pleasantries with a cashier), but the city still manages to have an energetic feeling. Already in my short time here, I have witnessed Lithuanian youths engaged in a breakdancing contest, several concerts and fairs, and what appeared to be a high school wrestling match in front of the town hall. As someone who has spent his entire life in small towns, the energy is infectious.
It is also an increasingly globalized city. I have Polish in my background and I was expecting food similar to traditional Polish cuisine. Instead, I encountered pizza, lots of pizza. I asked a Lithuanian student where I could find pierogis. He responded that he did not know what those were, but that there was a KFC down the street. The most traditional Lithuanian meal I have had so far, potato pancakes with beef and pork steaks, was punctuated by American pop songs, such as MIA’s “Paper Planes”, coming through on the restaurant speakers. Natives talk about how Lithuania is westernizing and trying to move away from its past as Soviet occupied territory. This shift is evident in languages: young people usually know English, while older people (such as my elderly roommate, who also knows no Lithuanian - translator app a must) speak Russian.
As for the work I will be doing, I will researching and hopefully implementing several projects centered around corruption prevention. I am doing research into anti-bribery and other anti-corruption strategies for businesses to adopt, as Lithuania has strong anti-corruption laws, but weak enforcement. I will also be researching ways to create a culture of pro bono representation in Lithuania, particularly when it comes to protecting whistleblowers, who too frequently lack representation. I am also looking into ways to calculate reputational damage done to a business resulting from violation of an anti-corruption statute, and ways for businesses to recoup that loss from violating employees. Lastly, I have been asked to write an article about Donald Trump’s chances of victory for publication in the local newspaper. Trump is very much a topic of conversation here, as many are concerned about what his relationship with Vladimir Putin might be, a concern demonstrated by the following street art.
There is much more I could say, but hopefully time will lead to more astute observations. Here’s looking forward to an exciting ten weeks in sunny Lithuania!