S ex clubs are a bit different in Lithuania. You don’t
walk down some dark alley, knock three times and ask for Lulu. Here they come and get you. I dump my suitcase, crack open the mini-bar and pick up the usual hotel spam about pay-per-view and fine dining. And out fall all these glossy leaflets featuring high-class escorts crawling on all fours. Call to our club for free taxi!! they urge. Outside my hotel window, I see the narrow streets of Vilnius Old Town are deserted apart from cruising stretch limos, awaiting the call from lonely foreign businessmen. And I wonder — do they also bring you back? Or do you have to get a Lithuanian minicab? I’ve got those lonesome book-tour blues, and I wouldn’t mind a quiet beer. There’s a gaff that’s less obviously a knocking shop called the Eden Club Night Club. But even the Eden Club Night Club sounds as though it could be a bit too hardcore for a Monday night. Cozy environment, promises the brochure. Hot show featuring confidentiality. Sauna, swimming pool, services 24 hours on order open anytime! Call to our club for free taxi! Hmmm. Better not. Probably end up with all my money gone and my trousers around my neck. But they are definitely getting the hang of this freedom lark.
ATV breakfast show. The same questions come round on these book tours and I find myself repeating old lines about the self-inflicted wounds of men who have known nothing but 50 years of peace and prosperity. But the usual spiel does not work in Lithuania. Outside this TV studio prodemocracy demonstrators held hands in January 1991 and were crushed by Mikhail Gorbachev’s goons. Just months before independence, the Russian tanks killed 13 and injured 500 more. Fifty years of peace and prosperity? Not here.
This is the coldest place I have ever been. It is absurdly, shockingly cold even in March Vilnius can get down to –30°C. The wind comes directly from Siberia and goes straight up my trouser leg, as persistent as a high-class escort at closing time. In the market I buy a woolly hat in the colours of the Lithuanian flag — yellow, green and red. I wear it to the Vilnius Book Fair and the crowd go wild. They weep, clutch me to their heaving bosoms, and buy lots of books. ‘Not used to seeing our national colours,’ my publicist tells me. ‘Still shy to do so.’ I try to locate my cynicism, but I have misplaced it somewhere. It is pro foundly moving to be in a land where their freedom is still so new.
The days are full of young people — publicists, publishers, journalists, photographers — and they all have a wild optimism about them. They know that the future will be better than the past. But the old people walk around as though they have the weight of the world on their shoulders and a Russian boot on their throats. There is a real generation gap here. It’s like our Sixties, when fathers had landed at Normandy and their sons wanted to drop acid with the Beatles. The young of Lithuania are the happiest people in the world, and they fill the economy seats of the daily flight from Vilnius to Gatwick. ‘In UK, you all think we are Poles!’ one young man laughs.
Ido an event in Kaunas, the Cambridge of Lithuania. There’s a woman standing at the back of the crowded bookshop who looks exactly like Julie Christie in Doctor Zhivago. I mean exactly. Like a golden-haired angel trying to keep warm. She even wears a fur hat and fur-trimmed coat. ‘We all want to find that one person who will make infidelity unthinkable,’ I tell the audience, and when I look up she nods and smiles, raising a flaxen eyebrow. The women here are the most beautiful on the planet. Tall, brown-eyed blondes, lean and leggy, like a nation of dancers. Good Catholic girls who believe in true love. When I was growing up they always told us that the women in East Europe looked like hairy-armed Russian shot-putters. And it was a lie as heinous and wrong as anything that was ever printed in Pravda.
Idrop my room key-card on the reception desk. ‘It doesn’t work,’ I say. ‘Please give me another one.’ ‘ID,’ barks the clerk. ‘Passport.’ ‘In the room,’ I explain. ‘Which I can’t get into. Because the key doesn’t work.’ ‘ID,’ insists the clerk, and our little waltz goes on for quite a while. In the end a security guard with a passkey escorts me to my room and checks my passport. He is actually very nice about it, but there’s an institutionalised bossiness that persists in these former Communist countries, and you never feel more like Ronald Reagan than when you encounter it.
Vilnius airport has the biggest lounge I have ever seen but it is empty apart from me and a few German businessmen scoffing as many free sandwiches as they can before they board their flight to Frankfurt. Lithuania is trying so hard to be a participating member of the developed world. But when it is time to get the flight to glorious Gatwick, we are kept waiting for 20 minutes on the tarmac, with the testicle-shrivelling temperature somewhere in the minus twenties. There are women with tiny babies. Yet still we stand on the tarmac and wait for permission to board. But I don’t care. I love this place. That breezy contempt for the individual is nothing to do with the Lithuania of today. It is merely the death rattle of the old ways.