How Lithuania is more and more like Britain
Kalba, pasakyta Britų Tarybos (British Council) 20-mečio proga / Speech delivered at 20th Anniversary of the British Council in Lithuania
Vilnius, British Embassy, 12 December 2012
Ambassador, esteemed guests, ladies and gentlemen.
We are supposed to be talking about British Council today, but that would be a wrong thing to do.
It would be very un-British to glorify structures and bodies, this is how the French would behave, with all due respect.
This is why today, celebrating the anniversary of the British Council in Lithuania, I want to talk about its achievements in my country.
Some of you know – that while you, the British Council people, were in Lithuania working hard at communicating British values and ideas, I spent a bit less – almost 17 years – in Britain, trying to become an adopted Englishman so that when I go back I could be annoying and patronizing to my former compatriots and to people who used to call themselves my friends.
I did succeed: the time spent in the Royal County of Berkshire formed me into an insufferable commentator and social nuisance, not to mention TV personality, a newspaper columnist and a food reviewer that we all know and love today.
I am the subtle revenge that Britain sent back to Lithuania to pay back for all the drunk-driving, thieving, fellow-stabbing characters that invaded the happy isles of Britain over these decades. Mission accomplished.
What is less known and not so readily discussed is that those two decades turned Lithuania into a country which feels more and more like Britain. In a good way.
I am not talking about being able to buy Marks & Spencer foods in the centre of Vilnius, although this is a good thing – apart from, of course, the imported the habit of staffing only half of the tills at any given time, except before Christmas, when only one-third of all tills are staffed and extra tea breaks are introduced.
I am not even talking about being able to get a cup of milky tea or that The Shakespeare Hotel in the street where I live, the epitome of British style and tradition, is internationally considered to be the best hotel in Vilnius*. It is actually one of those imitations of Britishness that turns out to be better than the original.
This is not about Barclays logo being visible much of central Vilnius, although it is a great deal to boast about.
It is not even about the amazing ability and readiness of Lithuanians to use the English expression for finding something cute – going awww – for the lack of adequate sound in the Lithuanian language.
No, I think it is about the things that we have collectively learned as a nation. I am talking about habits and learned behaviours that are here – they were not around two decades ago.
First of all, Lithuanians now know and recognize the value of understatement. This was a long cultural journey, and not everyone has arrived yet, but we are getting there. This was a massive departure from the Soviet habits and, worse still, peasant vulgarity which is erroneously revered as a truly authentic way of being Lithuanian, much like the dismissive approach to body hygiene.
Being subtle rather than bold, making and taking hints and being more suggestive than descriptive is a peculiarly British trait, and I think we Lithuanians have achieved a huge progress in taking this on board.
I think that those Lithuanians who are choosing the UK as a country for their studies are also demonstrating the best in motivation.
As opposed to studies in countries like France, Spain or Italy, which are seen as a neat way to extend the freeloading period of your life, I see young people who go to study in Britain as result-oriented individuals. They are thinking about what skills and knowledge they are going to sell and how.
This I admire as a fantastic transformation, as opposed to the old way of worrying about getting your diploma and assuming that someone will take care of you, eventually.
Lithuania today does not have one-quarter of its young people out of work thanks not only to countries like Britain and Ireland importing our surplus talent but also thank to a more mature thinking about our future, and in this I see a purely British influence.
I think contacts with Britain modified our social habits and aspirations – in terms of what behaviour is considered desirable. Stiff upper lip, ability to persevere, shut up and bear it are the most impressive changes in terms of how Lithuanians increasingly want to see themselves.
Loud, in your face, overt display of emotion is – especially for the class of young and successful – becoming an increasingly unrefined and undesirable social fault. Vulgarity is out, gentle and soft power is in.
Lithuanians – especially the younger generation – are visibly reforming even their approach to humour. Once considered a narrowly defined and dangerous concept, appropriate only perhaps on April Fool’s Day, the sense of humour is increasingly becoming a necessary attribute of a well rounded character**. You now are expected to be able to shrug your shoulders and joke when you occupy a certain position in life. If this is not a British influence, I don’t know what is.
This about this. When the prime minister, when criticized for introducing the cost-cutting measures at the expense of the people, replies that he would have loved to do this at the expense of the little green men from Mars, but unfortunately budgets of the humans can only be cut at the expense of the humans, I think that ten years ago it would have been unimaginable to hear a senior government figure saying this. This is a true British style.
I accept that Lithuanians have a long way to go before they learn to perfectly emulate the British, and it would take many decades of effort to reform all the habits (and believe me, the ability to signal before manoeuvre, when driving a motor vehicle, will be the last bit of learned behaviour to be transferred) – but the other day I realized that nothing can stop the progress when I saw that we Lithuanians learned to do what I thought we never will: we can now queue patiently and without complaining. I blame the British for that.
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* Tripadvisor ranking.
** Such as myself.