24 August 2007

Vilnius: More of a City than Tallinn

Of the three biggest children in the Baltic family, Tallinn is the oldest who has gotten everything from his parents growing up. Riga and Vilnius are his little siblings who have not gotten as much. It happens.

While Uncle Helsinki and Aunt Stockholm (both of whom work at the local mobile phone factory) have always sent gifts to Tallinn for his birthday and at Christmas time, Uncle Warsaw (who is still working on his parents' farm) has not been as generous to little Vilnius. Yet, somehow, off on his own, Vilnius has grown up to become more of a genuine cosmopolitan city than Tallinn.

For every souvenir shop in Tallinn's Old Town, there's a business in Vilnius's Old Town. For every skinny, hungover British bloke; every 70-year-old cruise ship passenger; and every well-dressed Finn with really cool eyeglasses, sitting outside underneath an A. Le Coq umbrella in Tallinn, there's a Vilnius resident doing the same in his own Old Town under a Svyturys umbrella. For every costumed Hansa character hocking bags of roasted almonds coated in brown sugar and every six-foot-three, hooded medieval executioner stuffing leaflets about the exhibition of torture instruments at the House of Tourism in your face, there's a twentysomething guy with a rectangluar "pork chop" or "hip bone" bag on his shoulder and a five-foot-tall old woman with big hands gripping a bouquet of flowers from her garden shuffling into a Baroque-style church in Vilnius.

We talk about having had everything fed to him/her on a silver spoon, of having grown up too fast, and of advancing to "c" before you have really fully figured out "a" and "b". My students hate to read an article on Tuesday and then re-read it on Thursday when we meet again. I don't know if it is because they didn't understand it the first time and don't want to be bothered with deciphering new words and phrases or if they thought it was too boring the first time and want to move on to the next inevitably boring exercise. Vilnius, on the other hand, has plodded through, reading the text three and four times, extracting a few new vocabulary words, digesting the major points of the article, and then articulating an informed response.