DAVID COMMON: DIARY
Land of flammable cocktails hosts pricey NATO convention
February 12, 2008
It really is the last thing you expect in a tourist brochure. There I was on a flight from Amsterdam to Vilnius when I picked up the seatback guide to the Lithuanian capital. The first section is on alcohol — perhaps because it's alphabetical, perhaps because the Lithuanians are proud of their association with the drink. Here's the entry (and yes, this is serious):
"Go Easy. Lithuanian beer is all light and bright in terms of taste and texture, but packs a punch. It seduces you like Lolita in a summer dress and then takes you down like a body slam from Jabba the Hut."
Sure Lithuania offers a 75-per-cent alcohol drink but there's much more to see in Vilnius (unless you actually drank the hi-test, in which case seeing anything at all could be a problem). On the outskirts of the city, a former KGB prison has been converted into an adventure museum. Visitors are issued heavy Soviet-era parkas and then yelled at by prison guards in Russian, whether you understand the language or not.
Short time, big changes
I am always amazed at how much has changed in former Soviet satellites not even two decades after the Berlin Wall fell. On the drive into the city from the Vilnius airport, it looks like little has been altered: giant, bland apartment blocks still stand along the main road. But the rest of the city is filled with skyscrapers, Marks and Spencers and BMWs.
I'm here for a NATO meeting of defence ministers. These affairs usually see journalists arrive in a city at the last moment, leave at the first opportunity and spend most of their time in a large hall talking to one another and seeing little of the city itself. This being my second visit to Lithuania, I felt compelled to get out and see a little more. The old town in Vilnius is spectacular, though largely rebuilt after the Second World War bombing runs leveled virtually everything.
With a group of Canadians, we made our way to a restaurant — a nice place offering local cuisine including "Home Made Jelly of Pigs Ears, Knuckles and Tongues." I'm told this is simply the Lithuanian equivalent of head cheese. I ordered the goose instead.
Costly to be a host
All the fun stuff aside, this is a great place. But with so much more investment needed in the local infrastructure, one must wonder about the wisdom of these NATO meetings, and others of its kind. Defence ministers are whisked around in motorcades, police are deployed everywhere. There are huge costs for security, a major burden for a small military and all the costs for the summit are borne locally. I wonder if NATO couldn't just do a conference call. Of course, if they did, I wouldn't have ended up in Lithuania so I suppose I should be thankful.
And, if there's a next time, I've promised to try the "half metre sausage with pickled vegetables."