I’m currently sitting in Melbourne, Australia where I am spending 3 weeks in the offices of a large engineering company who are carrying out works for us in relation to a major project in Nigeria. After the 3 weeks I’ll be going to Phuket for 2 weeks holiday and to remind myself what my wife looks like, and then it’ll be back to Lagos for 3-4 weeks for a handover and what ought to be my demobilisation. The intention is I’ll be coming back to Melbourne in late July or August to live here permanently for the next 12 months or so.
Which isn’t bad.
I flew via Paris where I’d spent the previous week on an excellent and long overdue training course on Interpersonal Skills. Trust me, I needed it. I flew via Hong Kong, the 11-hour first leg on Air France where they gave us a crappy old plane with obvious signs of wear and tear. I was in business class (thank God) and all my kit worked, but the chap next to me couldn’t get his seat to recline properly. Given what they charge, it’s pretty poor service, especially on what must be a flagship route for them. Okay, send a crap plane to Lagos, but not to Hong Kong. The flight was pretty miserable, albeit through no fault of Air France, although they did provide the bottle of Wild Turkey of which I did drink half, fell asleep, awoke an hour later with a thumping headache and remained that way until we landed in the Orient.
The next leg was with Cathay Pacific who were fabulous. The business class seats are less seats than your own personal den, with a bed that lies completely flat. It was the best I’ve been on yet, and knocked Air France into a cocked hat. The stewardesses called me by name and fed me, perhaps sensing that the latter goes a long way to keeping me quiet. It was 9 hours of complete comfort and relaxation, and I can highly recommend it if you have a few grand to spare or an employer with deep pockets.
Melbourne airport was a breeze, especially compared to Lagos. I’m sure the Australians think it a grand facility, but by European standards it’s a small regional airport. Within 20 minutes I’d passed immigration, collected my bags, convinced the quarantine officials I wasn’t carrying seeds, fruit, or timber about my person, and jumped in a taxi which had a meter that worked and was on. Three minutes out of the airport and we passed Sexy Land, the Adult Entertainment Superstore. What sort of perverts do they have down here, I wondered? I hit a snag halfway to the hotel when I discovered I’d left my iPhone on the plane. I was about to fly into a rage but, remembering my Interpersonal Skills training and trying it out on myself, I resorted to quietly kicking myself instead.
When I got to the hotel I called the Melbourne Airport information desk, and somebody answered who was not a complete fuckwit. They put me through to the Cathay Pacific lounge (the office was closed for the night) where the phone was too answered and by somebody who was not a complete fuckwit. That put the score Australia 2 Nigeria 0 so far for each overseas assignment. The Cathay Pacific girl said she’d check and asked me to call back in 30 mins or so, which I did, but they’d not found anything. That made me pretty depressed and I stayed that way for the next 5 minutes until she rang me back and said they’d found it after all and I could collect it from their office the next day! I was pleased as hell, and Cathay Pacific rocketed even further up in my estimation.
I’d never been to Australia before, indeed I’d only briefly stepped over the equator once during a week’s holiday in Bali, so I had much to learn. Or as things turned out, I didn’t. Melbourne city centre looks a lot like that of any British city at ground level, only when you look up you see high-rise buildings you barely see outside of London. The autumn weather was very Manchester-like. We had rain, wind, overcast skies, cold, sunshine, and blue skies in the space of my first few days. Manchester even had a tram system, too. But for all that, the place is obviously foreign – mainly because the shopfronts and adverts are not immediately recognisable, and it just feels different. And this is where it feels strange for me. Jokes about Aussie English aside, and bearing in mind I’ve not been to the US in almost a decade, being in a foreign country where English is the native language feels deeply, deeply weird. I’m a complete stranger – obviously – and hence I need to ask people for help and directions (I did feel particularly stupid asking “Where is the river?”) I’m used to forming a simplified English sentence in my head before asking, and waiting to decipher the garbled reply which comes back. Or forming the question in Russian or French, hoping the reply is simple enough for me to understand. Normally you have to get yourself as close to your goal as possible before asking somebody for help: for instance, make sure you’re in the right shop before asking to buy something. No such need in Australia, you can just go into a 7-Eleven and ask “Excuse me fella, where do I get one of them there cards you use on the trams and stuff?” And you’ll be instantly understood and the answer will be in English. I’m not used to this, and it feels odd.
The other thing I’m not used to is how easy everything is. I call people on the phone, arrange to meet them, and they turn up. They then proceed to do as I ask and provide the service they are supposed to. I didn’t see a great deal of this sort of thing in Russia, Thailand, and Nigeria. Just the array of places to choose from to go to lunch is unusual for me. For my first two years in Lagos our choice at the staff canteen was either chicken with spaghetti or spaghetti with chicken. And the chicken got smaller and smaller as my assignment went on until the situation ended up with a Nigerian sitting above an egg with a hammer waiting to whack the hatching chick over the head.
Making the transition from French to Australian wine might take some doing, though. I normally drink wine which has been approved by my French colleagues or recommended by a French waiter, but last night I had to pick an Australian plonk from a menu. It tasted like boiled gooseberries, and the glass cost about as much as a bottle in a French supermarket.
I can see I’m going to have a lot of fun here. I always wanted to come to Australia but didn’t see quite why I should have to fund the trip myself, and now I’ve found somebody else to pick up the tab, here I am. Some people are saying I am very lucky, which I suppose I am, but given I’ve spent 8 of the last 10 years in Kuwait, Sakhalin Island, and Nigeria I reckon I deserve it!
One wouldn’t expect an engineer to be interested in anthropology – assuming I’ve got the right “-ology” here, for the study of human behaviour – but working in the places I do with such a bewildering array of nationalities, mere observation provides considerable insight into the subject. I struggle to explain why certain peoples behave as they do, but that they do behave in such a manner is beyond question.
One of the things I noticed about Russians back in my Dubai days was their unwillingness to socialise with one another when abroad. There were tens of thousands of Russians living (on various visas) in Dubai at the time, yet there was no Russian bar. There was a sort of Russian nightclub in the Ascot hotel called Troika, but none of the Russians I knew went there, and I don’t think the main clientele were Russian. There were one or two restaurants serving Russian food, but they also served western and Arabic fare. Towards the end of my stay a nightclub opened called Red Square or something, and the few Russians who went there said it was gaudy and shite and I don’t think anything became of it. Outside one or two friends, most Russians in Dubai kept themselves to themselves and had no interest in socialising in “Russian” bars with their compatriots, let alone setting up and running such an establishment in the first place. I remember being surprised at how fragmented the Russian diaspora in Dubai was, and when I learned more about Russian culture I discovered this was not untypical. This unwillingness to form groups left ethnic Russians exposed in two situations I have read about. In the Gulags, the ethnic minorities – the Balts, Chechens, Kazakhs, Poles, etc. – quickly formed groups for protection, and immediately brought any newcomer under their wing. By contrast, the ethnic Russians arrived alone and were the softest target for sadistic overseers or criminal gangs. The same thing gets reported in the present day Russian army where the worst victims of Dedovshchina are almost always ethnic Russians having the shit kicked out of them by their own kind. Rarely is it a Tatar or Buryat who is on the receiving end, they having grouped together for protection. Among ethnic Russians, there seems almost no concept of mutual support or socialisation outside ones immediate friends. Making new friends and expanding the group is almost actively avoided, or at least no attempt is made to further such goals.
At the other end of the spectrum you have the Filipinos. If keeping abreast of the minute details of every friend, family member, and their friends’ work and life is nowadays called social networking, the Filipinos beat Facebook to it by two decades or more. I have a Filipino colleague in Lagos, who told me of the large Filipino social scene in the city which no outsider would even be aware of. He stopped taking lunch in the staff canteen after the first couple of weeks when he was invited into a system whereby one of them brings a whole load of others to his apartment and prepares Filipino food, with somebody else doing the honours the next day and so on. I asked him how he found the other Filipinos in Lagos. He said they found him. If any Filipino is in a supermarket and he spies one of his compatriots (they can spot each other a mile off) that he doesn’t recognise, he will go up and ask him if he “knows everybody” yet, and if he doesn’t he will be provided with the necessary phone numbers to get himself into the next social event. I’m not sure exactly what they do in the evenings, but I heard they have their own parties at the weekends and so have no need to frequent bars or nightclubs. The Filipinos are mad about basketball, and I asked my colleague if the Filipinos in Lagos had a basket team. They have a basketball league.
It was the same in Sakhalin. Every Filipino knew exactly which projects in other locations his friends and family were working on, which positions were available, and how much the going rates were. They shared information in order to get the best deal and get their countrymen on board. They stuck together like glue, even if they weren’t particularly good friends. There was strong evidence that a sauna located not far from the Sakhalin Energy housing complex was actually a brothel catering mainly for Filipinos. I took an 8-hour overnight train ride up to Gastello with a Filipino once, and we were supposed to be sharing a cabin. But as soon as he boarded he went up and down the train poking his head in the compartment doors until he (inevitably) found one crammed with other Filipinos and he returned to me, grabbed his stuff, and said he was going to be bunking down there instead. It’s impossible to imagine Russians doing this.
So where do the Brits fit in? In the oil towns, we don’t actively seek one another out but we end up meeting anyway. Brits don’t necessarily want to hang out with one another, but we do want to watch football, rugby, and cricket and that means going to a pub which, if you’re abroad, is most likely to be an Irish or British pub. And once you’re in a pub watching sport more than two weekends on the trot, you’ve pretty much got your social life sorted out. For me personally, I meet a lot of Australians in Phuket mainly because the best place to watch sport is the Aussie Bar on Bangla Road.
But meeting and socialising with one another isn’t the Brits’ greatest strength. That is our ability and willingness to socialise with absolutely anybody. Even the French.
Regular readers will recall that in early 2010 I was unceremoniously hoofed out of Sakhalin by my former employer, a move instigated by a man who was as useless as he was dishonest. His last words regarding me were “I will make sure he never works in the oil business again.”
This man was booted from his position in Sakhalin on the instructions of the Client, and from what my sources tell me he is now working as a Project Manager for a well-known engineering company in Melbourne, where he lives.
This engineering company has just won a large contract with a major oil company, which happens to be my employer. The work will be executed from the Melbourne offices of the engineering company.
My employer intends to send a Client Representative to Melbourne to manage the engineering company.
That Client Representative is looking very likely to be me.
I’ve writtenbefore about Australia’s muddle-headed approach to developing its oil and gas reserves which has contributed to project costs spiralling out of control. Faced with crippling skills shortages the Australian government, bowing to pressure from powerful trades unions who are revelling in the highest wages in the global industry, refuses to relax immigration laws. As was recently revealed:
Australia and Norway led the world in salaries paid to oil and gas workers in 2012, while skills shortages ranked among employers top concerns for the future, according to a new survey.
Australian oil and gas companies paid their employees an average of $163,600 a year in 2012, highest in the world. Norway ranked in second place worldwide on $152,600.
“Both countries have limited skilled labour pools and significant workloads,” the Hays report said. “The result is very high pay rates.”
Australia will likely end up paying a heavy price such short-term thinking, as two recent stories suggest.
ExxonMobil has confirmed that a giant floating liquefied natural gas vessel will be used to develop the deep-water Scarborough gas field off Western Australia.
The vessel will measure 495 metres in length and 75 metres in width, and have an LNG processing capacity of between 6 million and 7 million tonnes per annum — almost double the production capability of the FLNG vessel that Shell is building for the Prelude project in Australia.
Woodside Petroleum has confirmed it has pulled the plug on the current development plan for the Browse liquefied natural gas project in Western Australia.
Woodside said today it had completed its technical and commercial evaluation of the project and decided the development concept “does not meet the company’s commercial requirements for a positive final investment decision”, which was due by mid-2013.
The operator said the results of tenders for the upstream and downstream scopes “showed that the development would not deliver the required commercial returns to support a positive final investment decision”.
There have been market concerns for a long time that Browse would not be commercially viable in its current shape, and these concerns ramped up last August when Shell increased its equity in Browse.
Shell is vocal about the ultra-expensive Australian LNG market and is looking for more opportunities for its floating LNG technology.
The emphasis on the last paragraph was added by me. For the layman, there are two options for developing Australia’s offshore gas fields: build an LNG plant onshore, or use a floating LNG facility (FLNG). FLNG is new technology, and none is yet in operation. Shell is leading the way in this area with their Prelude FLNG project offshore Australia, ExxonMobil is following closely, and the other majors are watching how things develop with considerable interest. FLNG represents a far greater technological challenge, and in theory should also be more expensive. But due to the market conditions in Australia, where skills are in short supply, strikes are common, sites are remote, materials are expensive, environmental and indigenous community consultations are lengthy, and immigration laws strict, the costs of building an LNG plant onshore are pushing project planners to adopt the FLNG concept whereby a vessel is built in Korea and simply floated into position offshore Australia. All the hurdles one faces in doing works on Australian soil are thus avoided.
That major oil companies – even its homegrown one – are increasingly looking to an unproven technology built abroad rather than carry out standard engineering and construction works in Australia speaks volumes about how that country is set up to develop its oil and gas reserves. The Australian government should have relaxed its immigration laws and allowed engineering and construction firms to import skilled labour 4-5 years ago, but took the short-term view that spiralling wages for a small minority of its workforce was a good thing. Even worse, the government does not seem to have woken up to the problem even now, and instead we get politicians making up nonsense about FLNG.
A decade or two from now, Australia is going to wonder why it took careful aim and blew its own foot off.
Amid all the speculation, I found this most interesting:
In an informal interview with journalist Ilya Zhegule on the eve of his death, and published on Forbes’ Russian language website, Mr Berezovsky reportedly said his life no longer made sense and spoke of his desire to return to Russia.
“There is nothing that I wish more today than to return to Russia,” he is quoted as saying.
“I had underestimated how dear Russia is to me and how little I can stand being an emigre.
In this respect, Berezovsky is far from alone. Many a Russian has left the motherland and found they missed it terribly, which often surprises them. I’ve heard stories of Russians fleeing the Soviet Union who return to face execution or imprisonment rather than stay out of the homeland. Something to do with the “Russian soul”, I believe.
The five goats arrested by the Osun State Waste Management Agency (OWMA) in Osogbo last week were on Tuesday dragged before an Osogbo Magistrate Court along side their owners. Three owners of the goats including Mrs. Aduke Adetona, Mrs. Esther Ibikunle and Adedoyin Adetayo were docked, while the goats were not allowed into the court hall but kept in the premises of the court.
The court presided over by Mrs. A. O. Ajanaku discharged Mrs. Adetayo, who had already lost her goat in the custody of OWMA and ordered other accused persons to pay N2, 500 fine to the coffers of the state government. The court pardoned one of the owners, Mrs. Adedoyin Adetayo whose goat had died, but warned her to comply strictly with the provisions of the state environmental laws and the rules of OWMA.
The court ruled that the accused persons violated article 101, cap 11 of the laws of Osun State, which prohibited birds and other animals from straying into residential areas. The prosecutor, Mr. Femi Ogunbamiwo who is also the Director of Environmental Management and Sanitation in OWMA told the court that the accused persons committed an offence contrary to and punishable under the environmental laws of the state. Mr. Ogunbamiwo told the court that the accused persons committed the offence on January 5, 2013 by allowing animals under their control to stray into public domain in a manner that was injurious to the health of the public.
Counsel to the accused persons, Mr. Jimoh Daramola pleaded with the court to be lenient with his clients and temper justice with mercy, adding that the accused persons would henceforth obey the laws of the state. Article 101, cap 2 of the 2002 Laws of Osun State, which was passed by the state House of Assembly states that: “No bird or animal shall be allowed to stray to any road or public place or urinate or defecate in any public place in the state.”
The Special Adviser to the governor on Environment, Mr. Bola Ilori who spoke with reporters after the court session urged residents to keep their pets in a cage to prevent violation of the state environmental laws and guide against transmission of diseases from animal to man.
This one was emailed to me by a recruitment company that really ought to know better:
Field engineer – oil + gas leader Rotation 35/35 Turkmenistan $7k p/m
[T]he role would require the following experience:
• Degree/Diploma in Engineering.
• Should possess sound knowledge in process engineering, plant operation, production, maintenance, planning and multi-disciplinary coordination in a wide cross-cultural working environment.
• Over 10 years of experience with various International Engineering Consultancy firms associated with Oil & Gas Industry.
• Good Exposure to multi discipline activities (Piping, Process, Structural, Instrumentation etc.)
• Work independently and handle multi tasks or projects.
• Planning & Presentation skills.
• Team leadership skills.
So, working in Turkmenistan, degree and 10 years’ international experience required, must be be able to handle projects independently and demonstrate team leadership skills, and we’ll pay you $400 per day worked.
To travel from Riga to Vilnius I once again booked a seat on the Lux Express bus, costing me 23 Euros and taking four and a half hours. The bus was identical to the one which carried me from Tallinn to Riga, and once again the atmosphere, for the first hour or two, was not tranquil. Some utter penis was on the bus in the form of a middle-aged man who looked every inch the stereotypical Jewish guy who still lives with his mum. He was bald, had milk-bottle glasses, and was wearing Ugg boots with his jeans tucked into them. If he wasn’t still a virgin then I’m the Queen of Sheba. Anyway, no sooner had we set off when he made a series of long phone calls, some personal and some work related, during which he bellowed in Russian at the top of his voice. You couldn’t hear yourself think, and I was unfortunate enough to be sat opposite him. This went on for well over an hour, him treating the bus like his office and yelling down the phone without an iota of consideration for anyone else. The only other passenger at the rear half of the bus (in the first class section) was a Swedish lady who didn’t seem bothered, or was too polite to show it. I put up with it for about forty five minutes before I gathered my stuff and stomped off to the back of the bus and as far away as I could get in lieu of punching him in the side of his fucking head. Once I couldn’t hear him so much, I calmed down and enjoyed the rest of the journey.
As with the last bus ride there wasn’t much to see, and again the most interesting thing was whizzing past the old border control buildings and checkpoints as we crossed into Lithuania. It was dark by the time we reached the outskirts of Vilnius, and we passed one or two giant shopping centres before the coach pulled up in a sizeable bus station and we all got out. It took a few minutes to find a cash machine (Lithuania has its own currency as well, Litas, which are about 3.45 to the Euro) and then another few to find the nearby taxi stand, during which time I was joined by the Swedish lady from the bus who was as unfamiliar with the place as I was. I jumped in a taxi, and asked what language the driver spoke. It turned out he preferred Russian, which apparently is pretty common for taxi drivers in Vilnius, with a lot of them coming from Belarus. So off we went to the Novotel situated just on the edge of the old town, but on the other side from the bus station. it was about 5pm, and for the first time since I’d left St. Petersburg I saw traffic, and we were stuck in it. Fortunately, my driver must have learned his trade in 1990s Russia because he mounted pavements, jumped lights, and went the wrong way down streets, huffing and puffing and swearing in Russian. It was all very nostalgic. Even with the traffic (which, to be honest, wasn’t a patch on traffic you’d find anywhere else) we got there in about 30 minutes, and I went to check in. Thanks to several lengthy business trips and the Accor hotel group, by virtue of their being French, being the preferred hotel chain of my employer I hold Platinum membership at the Novotel which means I am likely to get an upgraded room if I ask for one. So I did and I got it, and damned nice it was too!
My room overlooked a large square boxed in by official-looking buildings, and beyond to a reasonably sized city which had several modern office towers and other modern buildings, with a row of small hills in the background.
Looking out of the window and driving from the bus station, I got the impression that Vilnius was much larger and more modern than Riga, although it turns out that Riga has the larger population. Nevertheless, Vilnius looks and feels more like a medium sized metropolis of the sort you can find anywhere in Europe. Indeed, it didn’t feel uniquely Baltic in the way Tallinn or Riga did, and seemed more mainstream European. All the usual retail outlets were there, including a Marks & Spencer, and it looked as though investment was not as limited to Scandinavians and Finns. Whereas Tallinn was a small medieval city, and Riga was an industrial city with a strong bar, club, and backpacker scene, it was harder to pin any particular label on Vilnius. As I say, it was more like a mainstream European town, and you’d have to look pretty hard to find any evidence the Soviets were ever there. Admittedly I didn’t explore much outside the old town and the area immediately north of it where my hotel was located, so maybe I missed something. But what it did have in common with the other Baltic States was that it was clean, organised, cheap, and safe and a very pleasant place to spend a few days. It was also bloody freezing.
It had occured to me that I hadn’t really gone out and enjoyed myself (meaning, get blind drunk) since I left St. Petersburg, tending to hang around quiet-ish bars and strike up conversations. So when I saw Vilnius had a hustle and bustle about it which I hadn’t seen in Tallinn or Riga, I decided it was high time I checked out a club or two. Sitting in my hotel room and skimming the internet, I discovered a club called Tamsta on the other side of the old town which is a dedicated live music venue and came well recommended. There are usually established bands playing at the weekends, but Wednesdays was apparently an open mic night, so I thought I’d go down and check out the local amateur musicians. As you may have gathered from my last night in Tallinn, I like this kind of thing. To get there I had to walk about 25 minutes through the old town, keeping an eye on the GPS to navigate the narrow streets.
The old town of Vilnius is nice, lots of narrow streets giving onto squares with churches, an old university, or the town hall.
It was not as quaint as the old towns of Tallinn and Riga, and modern buildings had crept in to a much greater extent, although in a tasteful manner (with some exceptions). There was plenty of snow lying around, and often I had to walk in the road as the pavements were either too narrow or blocked altogether. By the time I went out, the traffic had mostly died down, but there were still noticeably more cars than I’d seen in the other cities. I was feeling hungry, and so when I happened to pass by a restaurant called Meat Lovers, I decided to give it a try. It turns out this place is fairly well known, and it was pretty good. It was almost full, but I persuaded the waitress to allow me to take one of the reserved tables on the condition I was out within an hour. The menu was on a chalk board on one of the walls and judging by its contents, the place was well named. I ordered a huge burger of some sort and a large local beer. The other patrons were, in general, young, attractive, and having fun.
Once fed, I walked across the town hall square and along a very narrow street until, after a bit of looking around, I found the place I was after. I went inside and paid a tough looking Russian the equivalent of 5 Euros to go inside, and put my coat into the cloakroom. Finally, I had found a venue with a cloakroom (of sorts). This was one of only two I saw on my whole trip, both of them in Vilnius. I continued up some stairs and entered into a purpose-built venue with a stage at one end, a bar running down one wall, lots of chairs and tables in the middle, and a veranda running around two sides. I headed for the bar. I asked the barman, in English, to pick a language in which I’d address him from thereon. He laughed, and said “English, of course.” Like Latvia, it appears the only people who speak Russian in Lithuania are old or have a Russian parent. I found that even my attempting to speak it didn’t go down too well on occasion. So I parked myself at the bar with a drink and waited for the performance. It was obvious from early on that this wouldn’t be an open mic night as there was a full set of equipment on stage and the place was filling up rapidly.
On the hour, whichever one it was, the curtain was whipped back and a band consisting of middle-aged men launched into some serious rock music to huge cheers from the crowd. I joined in just for the hell of it. They belted out a decent rock song, sung in Lithuanian, and went straight into the next one without pausing for breath. When they stopped to let their front man address the crowd, he did so in Lithuanian, and as such I had not the faintest idea what was being said. But the music was good, the sort of 80s rock you’d hear the Russian bands such as Mashina Vremeni or DDT play in their early days (although probably not as good). I noticed the crowd was either folk in their 50s or people in their 20s, with a generation in the middle missed out. I spent the first set trying to work out if this band was playing its own stuff, because everyone seemed to know the lyrics and was singing along enthusiastically, yet the crowd and venue seemed too small for a famous band.
The answer was supplied between the sets by a chap who I’d heard speaking English at the bar earlier, and so to whom I put the question. It turned out the band was Poliarizuoti Stiklai (tr. Polarised Glasses) who made it pretty big in Lithuania in the 1980s before tailing off thereafter, but apparently still draw a reasonable following from people who were (presumably) young, drinking, and getting laid during their heyday. That certainly explained the age of the crowd (the younger lot were probably those who had grown up listening to their dad’s records). One of their biggest hits, which they played twice for us that night, is in the clip below.
The chap at the bar was an American working for the US embassy in Vilnius and turned out to be a top bloke who invited me to join his table, made up of other embassy staffers. He told me Vilnius was a pretty good place to be sent with the US diplomatic service because it was quiet, safe, the Lithuanians are generally pro-American, and Vilnius is a fun place to live. A lot better than Lagos or Islamabad, I’m sure. Ironically, the lead guitarist of the band was working in the American embassy: when the band declined in the early 90s he figured he needed a more reliable source of income so took a job with the Americans, but still playing with the band once or twice a week. Because of this connection, one of the Americans from the embassy managed to get himself on stage and sing two songs - Whiskey in the Jar and Everything About You, the only non-Lithuanian songs sung all night – and did an exceptionally good job of it. It was quite obvious he’d been in a band before, and when I asked him he confirmed as much. When the second set ended, a good number of the crowd rushed towards the stage to get autographs and photos with the band, so although I suspect their fanbase is small, they still have a passionate following. For my part, they were well worth the 5 Euro entrance fee. If I’m ever in Vilnius during one of the summer music festivals, I’ll see them again for sure.
The band wrapped up and everyone started to leave at about midnight. I left with the Americans, walking with them as far as the town hall square before they left for home (unlike me, they had to work the next day). However, they did point me in the direction of a nearby club which was, they said, my best bet for a decent night out. I was in no mood to go home. I followed their directions and as I stood outside where I supposed the place to be, a young chap dressed up against the cold gave me a big grin and asked if I wanted to go into the strip club in the same building. I didn’t, but decided to stop and talk to him anyway. He was a friendly chap, and did his level best to get me inside before admitting, having been prompted by me, that the place was empty, the drinks extortionate, and the girls very, very ordinary. He was one of the few people I met in Vilnius who spoke Russian, and we chatted for a while. He said the club I was heading to was good but empty, and I’d be better off coming back in an hour or so. He pointed to a bar across the square and recommended it as a good enough spot to wait, and suggested he might be in the club once his pimping duties wound up and we could get a drink. Which sounded fine by me.
The bar was located only 100m or so away, and it turned out to be full of Russians. I sat down at one of the only free tables, right in the middle of the room, and took in various couples or small groups of youngish people enjoying what looked to be the last of several drinks (most of them had got up and left within 30 minutes of my arrival, I hope not on my account). They all looked a bit rough, as in not too polished, an image not helped when a group of two Russian couples came in with one of the girls wearing what looked like a set of pink pyjamas. At best it was a fluffly aerobics tracksuit, although God knows why she was wearing it to a bar. Still, it wasn’t a bad place to swallow vodka and coke for an hour while I was waiting for the club to fill up.
I eventually wandered over at some hour which might have been 1am. You tend to lose track of the hours when it gets dark at 4pm. Salento, as the club was called, was much like any mainstream club you’d find in Russia or elsewhere in continental Europe, with the same music you can hear anywhere. It wasn’t busy, maybe 40 people in a club which could take four or five times that number, and most of them were young girls in their 20s, dancing badly in groups. For my part, I headed straight to the bar and started drinking vodka and coke. I think it was quite cheap, but by the time I figured out what this Lithuanian money was worth I was back in Nigeria and by then I didn’t care. I know I went out with a fistful of notes, anyway. I’d not been at the bar long, not long enough to finish my first drink anyway, when I started talking to a girl stood nearby and who, she told me later, thought I was a local. I blame the haircut and underfed look.
Sadly I wasn’t a local and instead she found herself talking to a Brit who lives in Nigeria. She had dropped into the club out of boredom, I think, after having been out buying groceries, including a jar of olives which she still had with her. She was intent on dancing to every other tune, during which I remained rooted to my place at the bar and drank. But she was matching me drink for drink. More people arrived, but people were leaving at the same rate, meaning there was a steady turnover of people and the place never filled up. There were still quite a few young women, and several men in their 30s, including an Italian who was absolutely enormous and looked as though he’d take ages to beat up. Fortunately that wasn’t necessary (never mind doable) as his brief conversation with me was friendly enough. I didn’t budge for hours, never stepping onto the dance floor save for once brief and misguided instant, and just ordered drink after drink and Rasa, my friend with the jar of olives, kept pace with me right up to me leaving sometime around 4 or 5am. At some point I ran out of money, but Vilnius being civilised and not full of thieving bastards, I was able to pay by credit card. Only in order to avoid the transaction fee, I decided it was better to buy four drinks at once. I vaguely remember the walk back to the hotel through streets narrow, twisting, and frozen, although how I navigated them is anyone’s guess. The streets were utterly deserted, quite unsurprisingly, so I couldn’t have asked for directions. At any rate, I had fulfilled my mission to find a club and get hammered. And I never did see the pimp again.
By this time, I had had enough of doing touristy stuff, such as wandering around old towns taking photos (which is why I have so few of Vilnius). So I decided to relax and, also because my head was pounding from the night before and it was afternoon anyway, I decided I’d spend what was left of the day in bed. Only there was some bloke in the square outside busking with a concertina, and the noise of those things could penetrate lead. On and on he droned and had I a rifle I would have shot him from my window, which would have been a shame because he was very good and he knew a lot of songs. Only these things aren’t appreciated when they are outside your window and you have a hangover.
When I woke up I found a text message from Rasa asking if I wanted to go to a traditional Lithuanian restaurant that evening. I did. So later on I found myself being led sheep-like into a restaurant situated in the basement of what must have been a very old building. From a small entrance lobby you had to go down a very steep, twisted flight of stairs, ducking under a very low beam, which brought you into a low-ceilinged corridor with several rooms branching off in which the tables and chairs were located. After a bit of wandering around poking our heads into various rooms (the place was a rabbit warren) we settled on one location where we found a free table and waited a while for the waiter to turn up. It was all done up in an olden style, but the details escape me. But it was very nice, only there was no obvious way out if the place decided to suddenly catch fire. Thinking it unlikely, I didn’t worry about it.
The menu came around and all of it looked good. It was quite exotic, with most dishes claiming to be the product of a hunter’s encounter with something that moves fast through a forest. I settled for a soup made from beer followed by wild boar goulash. I felt like Obelix. The soup arrived and it was superb, but it was pretty filling (as soups in these sort of countries tend to be), which meant that when the wild boar goulash came around I couldn’t eat much of it. I was terribly disappointed because it was really, really nice. I don’t think I’ve ever been more upset about not being able to eat something before. The whole lot was washed down with a fine Lithuanian beer which, according to the menu, comes from a brewery in Klaipėda which was set up in the late 19th century by a chap called Reinecke, which went a long way to explain its quality. It was an excellent choice of restaurant.
Afterwards we went to a street full of bars, where Vilnius’ 25-40 crowd was out in force. There was no shortage of bars, most of them ranging from very busy to packed to the rafters. We went into one which slotted nicely into the latter category, where I managed to find 2 square feet in which to stand wedged in the corner while Rasa got some drinks in. Of course, for a bar made for 60 people 3 small coat pegs had been attached to the wall so unless you could find space to add yours to the enormous leather, fur, and nylon tumour that was protruding from the far wall then you had to stand about in your jacket, allowing you to experience how the Michelin Man feels when he takes the London Underground at rush hour. I stashed mine beside some hippies who were sitting on the windowsill, and eventually stopped complaining. The crowd was mixed, but one chap I remember, because you see him in every bar in the western world which caters to the thirty-something crowd: thick glasses, a beard, wearing a funky t-shirt, and without a shadow of a doubt in his fourth of fifth “final year” of a music or modern politics degree. At one point he set off on a quest to find a pen and paper with such determination that I was curious enough to peer over his shoulder to see what he was going to do with them once said objects had been obtained. He drew a Chad. We proceeded through another one or two bars of similar nature, and everyone seemed to be having a good time. Certainly the atmosphere was good, and everywhere was packed. I went home with the impression that the nightlife in Vilnius is pretty much what you’d find in any decent European city, and there was plenty going on.
In Lithuania I did detect a certain attitude towards Russia (or at least the language and its connotations), but I’d stop short of describing it as hostility. I was more like “Russia was then, and it was shit, and now we have moved on, and it is better, so why would we be interested in anything Russian?” And as I neared the end of my trip through the Baltics, I began to think that they might have a point. I remember years ago talking to an Uzbek girl in a dodgy club in Dubai who complained that the Russians had come to “their country” and taken all the resources, money, etc. This is hardly a novel complaint, I hear people whining about it all the time (ironically Russians too, in the context of the international oil projects on their territory). But if you were to take an objective look at what the Soviet Union did for the regions which became the independent Central Asian states, you’d be hard pushed to deny that they didn’t bring with them a lot of development and improvements. When the Tsarist Russians first moved into what is now Uzbekistan, the place was unbelievably backward. Petty tyrants ruled small pockets of territory in the manner of medieval lords, often unaware of the regions beyond their borders, until deep into the 19th century. Literacy, numeracy, and all the other indicators of human development were practically non-existent outside a very select elite. By the time the Soviets left a hundred and something years later, your average Uzbek, Tadjik, and Kyrgyz was literate, numerate, more often than not well educated, and could expect to live as long as his comrades from the west of the empire. Secondary industries had been introduced, cities built (and in the case of Tashkent, rebuilt following the earthquake of 1966) which were not exactly modern by western standards but were as good as the Russians enjoyed in Europe, cities equipped with schools, hospitals, universities, and other marks of development and civilisation, from which the population would without question benefit greatly. Not that I am endorsing the Soviet regime and its policies in Central Asia (many of which brought about abject misery); but that the Russians brought certain, major benefits which the regions would otherwise never have had is to me pretty incontestable. When you look at their neighbours – particularly Afghanistan – it is hard to imagine that a Central Asia without Russian involvement would have resulted in anything which could be regarded as an improvement on their status in 1990.
But when you look at the Baltics, it is extremely hard to make the same argument. Had the Soviets not imposed themselves for half a century and more, would independent Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have nonetheless enjoyed the rewards of modern cities, industry, electricity, health, education, and transport systems? Well, yes they would. Unlike say Tadjikistan, the development of Lithuania was not dependent on being ruled by a government in Moscow. Debates may be held over whether the independent Baltic states would have prospered more or less than as part of the USSR, but an independent people free of idiotic communism would unlikely have done much worse. In my opinion, the Baltic states would have done just fine on their own, even better if they’d formed a loose federation among themselves, and joined Nato and the other European institutions. I’m sure many Russians, if they were to read this, would point to the Baltics’ lack of resources – meaning oil, gas, and timber – as a reason why they could never have prospered, but that can easily be dismissed by pointing to the fact that Finland had vastly fewer resources than the USSR yet enjoyed a much higher standard of living. Plus, as a cursory look at Nigeria will tell you, having oil, gas, and other primary resources is not in itself a guarantee of prosperity. I don’t see any reason why the independent Baltic states could not have developed and prospered along the lines of Denmark, Finland, or Norway following WWII. And from what I can see, the Baltic people do have a useful resource: themselves. Small, well-educated populations tend to enjoy high standards of living, as Scandinavia and Finland demonstrate. And, again from what I can see, the Baltic people tend to have more in common with their western neighbours than Russians in that they don’t seem to fuck each other over at the first opportunity. When money arrives in a government account in Tallinn, Riga, or Vilnius to fix roads, the roads get fixed (even if perhaps some gets skimmed off). When money arrives in a government account in Russia to fix roads, the money turns into a fancy dacha for the mayor built in full view of everyone and the roads stay broken. I’m being a bit simplistic here I know, but I have written at length about the importance of trust in making a country rich, and I don’t believe that the Baltic states are cursed with the same degree of corruption, bureaucracy and greed which has perpetually condemned Russia to fall way short of its potential. Interestingly, I reckon that the Russian populations of the Baltics would realise this very quickly were they to ever be transplanted to Russia, and would likely find they have more in common with the non-Russians they left behind than their new Russian neighbours. I know this was the case for one Russian woman pushed out of Lithuania following independence, and found her new neighbours in Sakahlin to be a pretty hopeless bunch.
In short, the educated child of a Kyrgyz engineer who had been through the Bishkek Academy of Sciences would be hard pushed to claim that he doesn’t, in some small part, owe his status to the Soviet Union. But it would be very hard to make the claim that the educated child of a Lithuanian engineer would, were it not for the Soviet Union, be eking out a living in the forest and unable to read. And that, I think, explains the attitude which I felt in Latvia and Lithuania towards Russia and the aspects of Russian culture imported during the Soviet era; it’s not hostility, it is one of utter indifference or, when faced with it, slightly irritated contempt. The Soviet Russians were never needed or wanted, nothing is owed, they just want to be left alone. There were no chips on shoulders that I could see.
Estonia is probably the exception because the politics there has made the problem of cultures and identity more acute, but I didn’t see much nationalistic fervour in Latvia or Lithuania. Certainly they’re a proud enough bunch, but they don’t seem to have adopted the overly patriotic stance of the younger generation of Kazakhs, for example, which seems artificial and ever so slightly forced, as if they are trying too hard. Quietly confident, they define themselves as who they are rather than who they are not, which was good to see.
Being small countries, the future economic development of the Baltic states will depend on the fortunes of the rest of the world, especially Europe. But I don’t see any reason why their futures should not be bright, with the only dark spot being the identity politics being practiced in Estonia which is driving a wedge between people who, if just left alone, would probably work things out for themselves.
As for Vilnius, it is a city in which Europeans would perhaps find it easier to live than Riga or Tallinn, it being (seemingly) larger and more cosmopolitan than the others. I’m sure I’ll go back to Lithuania as I would like to go to the Curonian Spit, for no other reason than it looks interesting, a bit like the Outer Banks of North Carolina or the lagoons at the north end of Sakhalin Island. And I’d like to go to Klaipėda, probably at the same time, for the single reason that a terrible battle was fought there in the closing months of WWII, when the town was called Memel, and is described in harrowing detail in The Forgotten Soldier which I read in my teens and never forgot.
But – and I think you’ve all got the message by now – I’ll make sure I go in summer.