Nightlife in Lithuania: call it night, but life???

When you go out in Lithuania in summer, prepare to dance in plenty of space and give yourself a moment to carefully pick your shoes! Adequate shoes may be key to a good party. I know all too well that after returning from Tel Aviv, where everything is open all night long and summer stands for more clubbing and better roof parties, any Northern European country might seem a little gloomy.
However, as unprejudiced as can be (after all, I’m returning to my home country, my usual one) and open for new experiences, I set out to see some nightlife in Vilnius and Kaunas through the eyes of a tourist with my friend I. His visit was a good chance to see things anew, and use the opportunity to enjoy the shortest nights of the year exploring my hometown, Kaunas, and my current city of residence, Vilnius.

Watered-down (literally) midsummer

Since I. was very curious to see Lithuanian midsummer, I started scanning for interesting events that would be easy to get to, fun and safe to bring a foreigner. After some consideration, remembering that my friend liked some songs of this year Lithuania’s Eurovision contestants, InCulto, we picked a concert in the Vingis Park. As soon as we saw that InCulto is in, we didn’t really check the other bands too much. I saw that participants of a recent TV project, a choir competition, were in, and thought that by that time their singing must have become quite good. So here we were, on the shortest night of the year, expecting to have fun the Baltic way.

Rain modified everyone’s plans. It seemed that many people decided to stay at home. As we came in, an hour after the official beginning of the 4,5-hour-long concert, InCulto were, surprisingly, warming up the crowd. It was an exciting beginning – young (perhaps school-age) kids, hipster couples, and a bunch of various other people made the right preparations: put on colourful rubber boots and bright raincoats, and jumped straight into emerging puddles to dance. InCulto were as good as before at driving their audiences wild, albeit trying not to slip at the already wet front of the stage. Everything looked informal and youthful.

Then after some time the pre-show was over and a break was announced until everything is set up for a live TV broadcast to begin. The show was organised by one of the main TV channels, TV3. I. and I, in regular shoes, holding umbrellas, had to be a bit more cautious than the dancing youngsters. Yet we used the break to walk around and get some drinks and snacks from a variety of food stands (they served nostalgic sugary mushrooms that I remember from my childhood, adapted fast food developed by the Karaite ethnic minority, not very good quality Asian stews, and lots of pork in different shapes, which I. at first did not really feel like looking at.

Finally the concert began. The choirs took over and did not want to let go of the stage. It seems that TV3 opted for a cheap solution for their show, as all participants of reality shows, idol-type competitions and other similar programmes have to sign a contract to take part in the events of the channel when requested. There’s no denying that the choirs became very professional and their singing was nice. However, the classical pop they chose to sing was completely inadequate to the midsummer night. Obviously, none of the songs were their own. Then the leaders of the choirs (professional singers) picked a few from the choirs to form small bands, but the style remained more or less the same. Twice during the show they gave the stage to Eglė Jurgaitytė, who was very successful in Junior Eurovision Song Contest in 2008. She is very talented for her age, and her first song was (finally!) quite cheerful. However, for her second song, she (or her producers perhaps) chose to sing the classical “Baltoji varnelė“, a beautiful children’s song. Bad choice. I had never heard anyone killing that song so badly. The song was totally inadequate to the starlet’s character, and her attempts to show off her voice were anything but to the point.

Finally InCulto got back on the stage. We were excited and rushed to the dancing area. InCulto were the only band singing their own songs. Unfortunately, they only played two songs, and the choirs were back. As the concert was over, there was a beautiful award-winning firework. The organisers said that rain would not stop them from giving their audience a traditional midsummer fire – in the sky. “That’s where all the money went,” – we concluded. As much as we liked the firework, we would have enjoyed to see more, better and more adequate bands.

The clubbing scene: dance all you like, nobody’s watching

After the concert we went downtown to compensate for the rainy gloom in a closed space filled with dancing bodies. We met my other friend, J., to check out “Artistai”, the club of my student days. It looked rather full and lively, but not like before, as most students were probably out of town. Some people were dancing on the extra-small dance floor (in the past you had to watch out not to have your teeth too close to some hyperactive ‘neighbour’s’ elbows), but my friends absolutely hated the music. We went to have a drink at “Amatininkai”, the place where all parties would end (this one or “Čili pica”) before public transport resumes. A few tables were taken, a drunken guy was trying to walk and falling down on other tables.

The next night we were about to check other clubs, but the truth is, I do not know anymore what is popular. Everything seemed dark and deserted. We entered “Woo”, the hipster hub, where about 15 people were moving on the dance floor, carefully picking their moves. As far as I know, “Woo” has a staff photographer who uploads photos of the clubbers to the place’s Facebook page. People consider it to be an honour, but this fact makes the young hipsters of Vilnius even more concerned of what they look like to others. I. found the music boring, so we left. So did I, but with all this extra energy brought from Tel Aviv I would have tolerated it.

Even the previously trendy green bar on the Neris river looked abandoned. The upper-class “Pabo Latino” is generally a pleasant place to be (despite the fact that, from my first memories of it, waiters do not hide the fact that they look down on modestly dressed female students who are unlikely to pick up one of the young businessmen who attend salsa nights in the club) and plays good music, but the guard sincerely admitted that there were not so many people that night. As we walked around, I told I., “You know, there’s one club where one goes to pick up Italian tourists/Erasmus students. It might be anthropologically interesting.” And so we stepped into “Prospekto”, which is now open until 6. “People are gathering,” the guard told us.

Imagine my surprise: about 70% of all clubbers there were men, most people were sitting at tables and watching others. Only about 7-8 were dancing to the usual MTV/radio pop. A group of guys, perhaps British, took shots of sambuca one after another, but did not accumulate enough courage to hit the dance floor and eventually left. A group of people in their 30s seemed the most active of all. We stayed for some time and danced, but as time went by, no new people joined.

Kaunas: beware of dress codes

As we went to Kaunas, I had to trust Google to see what was happening that night. If I remember correctly, I have not been out in my hometown for five years. Eventually I came up with a list of several clubs. “Are you joking? This is a place where people go to pick up fights,” my brother warned me against two of them. OK. In the end the list thinned down to two options: the new cocktail bar “BarBarA” and an alternative club, “Pasaka”. “BarBarA” was closer to where we were, so me, I. and J. trotted down its stairs happily, ready to enjoy what Kaunas has to offer. Despite my modest clothing, the guard did not say anything. Yet as I. was about to pass, his face frowned. “What’s this, I won’t let you in like this, in trainers.” Big sports shoes in Kaunas were widely used by some aggressive sub-cultures and trendier, more upper-class people would like to see such shoes exiled to gyms.”I’m very sorry,” I said, on behalf of I., “but these two are foreigners, we were travelling all day and had no time to change. They won’t cause any trouble, they just… well, they didn’t know.” Very unhappy, the guard let him, a serious-looking guy with glasses, through. As we were almost paying the compulsory wardrobe fee, I realised that J. was not with us. As I ran back to the entrance, J. was smiling at the guard, and the guard was frowning at him. “What’s the problem?” I asked. “I let the other one in, he had dark trainers, but white ones – do you want to get me in trouble???” “They are foreigners, unaware of the rules, please forgive us,” I tried the old tune. After some apparent hesitation, the guard cut it short. “No, I won’t let them in.” “Guys, you didn’t fit the dress code,” I had to inform my guests.

“Pasaka” was closed and silent. I could not understand if it went out of business this quickly, or if it opens on special occasions only. Eventually we picked a bar with colourful pillars and watched Spain vs. Chile, tasting the newly revived pre-war beer “Volfas Engelman” and creative snacks of the bar (their fried cheese is very recommendable).

All in all, I had nothing positive to show my friends. Of course, it is a whole set of coincidences. Midsummer is a public holiday, so many people left to visit their family or party in the nature with friends. Some also left for the annual festival “Be2gether”, which we also considered going do, but I failed to find a lift on time and did not buy tickets early enough. In addition, the economic crisis shapes people’s party preferences. A survey showed that on average, Lithuanians were prepared to spend 20-30 LTL (5.8-8.7 EUR) for their midsummer festivities. This is about a meal and a drink. It seems to me that people started gathering at home or in village tourism places with their friends more than before. I kept repeating to my guests that the situation is like this only temporarily. Yet at the same time my intuition tells me that there must be new great places out there that I do not know of, because I did not hear them opening and do not hang out with the people who could show them to me. So readers, please speak up! What are the new cool places in Vilnius and Kaunas?

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