I could have chosen to live anywhere in the world, but I am glad I chose Vilnius

From Carlow to Lithuania with its love for the quirky

Brendan Harding is originally from Carlow town, but has spent the past six years living in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania

Brendan Harding is originally from Carlow town, but has spent the past six years living in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania

 

Brendan Harding is originally from Carlow town, but has spent the past six years living in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, where he works as the senior copywriter with Avia Solutions Group, one of the largest aircraft and aerospace companies in Europe

Ever since I moved to the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, the same question has been repeated over and over again. In almost six years since moving from my hometown, Carlow on the banks of the River Barrow, where I was the youngest of nine children, I’m pretty sure that I’ve been asked this same question over 100 times. It’s been framed in as many different ways as the locations in which it was asked; bars, restaurants, workspaces, meetings, and even by strangers in parks. Although the wording may vary, the essence remains the same. “You’re a travel writer, you could have chosen anywhere in the world to live, but you picked Vilnius, why?”

For me the answer was simple, like an old and trusted pair of shoes, Vilnius felt comfortable and right. The city itself is compact and ringed by living forests, it has only half a-million inhabitants, everywhere is close by, the public transport is cheap and easy to use and the city with its red-tiled roofs and mediaeval Old Town full of cobbled streets and artisan-filled lanes, is a picturesque delight. When the sun shines in summer and the streets are full of outdoor cafes and bars, there really is no place like Vilnius.

The Irish translation of the Užupis constitution’s articles - Everyone has to right to look after a dog until one of them dies. A dog has the right to be a dog. A cat is not obliged to love its owner, but must help in time of need - would stand besideHindi, Russian, Spanish, French. The whole tongue-in-cheek concept intrigued me.

As a travel writer and journalist, I had seen my fair share of the world. I had done bird watching in India, rounded Cape Horn in a Chilean naval cruiser, spent time with the Bedouin in Jordan, tracked leopards in the Kenyan bush and done husky sledging in the Arctic Circle. I probably could have chosen to live anywhere, but for some reason, the moment I first set foot in Vilnius everything felt right.

In 2013, I was sent on assignment to Lithuania for the first time, writing a series of articles for the Lithuanian Tourist Board. To be honest, I knew very little about the country before my arrival, but I could say the same about more than a dozen other countries I had visited.

Whether by design or chance I’ll never know, but on the first day of my visit there was an informal ceremony in the city’s bohemian quarter, a small and quirky self-proclaimed republic called Užupis, where the Republic’s bizarre constitution was being unveiled in the Irish language. The Irish translation of the Užupis constitution’s articles - Everyone has to right to look after a dog until one of them dies. A dog has the right to be a dog. A cat is not obliged to love its owner, but must help in time of need - would stand beside those translations whose words were engraved in Hindi, Russian, Spanish, French and a host of other languages. The whole tongue-in-cheek concept intrigued me.

After the ceremony, I was taken to a small bar called Špunka where the clientele all appeared to be artists, dancers, musicians, writers, and a collection of weirdly wonderful people. I remember remarking at the time, that if I were ever to live in Vilnius it would be there in the Republic of Užupis and that this Špunka would be my local bar.

Eight years later I am no longer a full-time travel writer, instead, having moved to the city in 2015, I now work as the senior copywriter for one of the largest aviation and aerospace companies in Europe, Avia Solutions Group (ASG). Although my job no longer entails travel, dealing with aviation companies around the world keeps me travelling virtually, at least. The company is continuously expanding and growing its network globally. It is one of those large organisations where everyone is thoroughly engaged and engrossed in their job process, but not in a Google, Microsoft way, in a family-run business way. Like one of the articles in the Užupis Constitution, everyone has the right to lead, and everyone has to right to follow.

Throughout the winter, which was long and cold this year, working from my apartment with spectacular views across the city made the whole process bearable

Before working with ASG I worked for another company that specialised in travel experiences around the world. The concept was wonderful and still is, but unfortunately, the arrival of the Covid-19 global pandemic resulted in the company downsizing.

At first, the pandemic didn’t appear to hit Vilnius hard. The first lockdown was short-lived, though, and as summer approached people were back on the streets in full party mood enjoying the sunshine in the multitude of outdoor terrace bars which lend the city an unequalled vibrancy. At least we got the summer.

Throughout the winter, which was long and cold this year, working from my apartment with spectacular views across the city made the whole process bearable. But, despite the architectural beauty outside my windows, the city seemed lost and sad without its usual vibrancy.

But at the first signs of spring, it appeared that the city was demanding to be set free and its inhabitants demanded to emerge from a winter of hibernation, regardless of the outcome. The government relaxed the laws and for the second year in a row vowed to make Vilnius a living and breathing outdoor café where people could gather in relative safety and in compliance with the rules.

The Lithuanian people have known many hardships in their long and unique history and have survived admirably throughout them all. This, in their stoic philosophy, is just another hardship to be endured and conquered. Like all of us at this point, I don’t know what the future holds. But, I do know that I chose a remarkable place to live, doing a job that I love, with the city outside my window, and that quaint little bar from my very first day just across the street.

If you live overseas and would like to share your experience with Irish Times Abroad, email abroad@irishtimes.com with a little information about you and what you do

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