Representing the Queen and growing vegetables

  • 2011-06-29
  • Interview By Linas Jegelevicius

When Lithuanians flee for the United Kingdom in search for a better life, the youngish 51-year-old Mark Uribe, British Honorary Consul in Klaipeda, has seemingly settled in the Lithuanian seaport for good, with his Lithuanian wife bringing up two little kids, while he represents here the Queen’s country in public events, assists the Brits with necessary consular services, promotes British business interests and consults Lithuanian businessmen who seek to open up the British market. Over nearly 17 years in Lithuania, he has managed masterly to polish his Lithuanian to the extent where it, so smooth and folksy, confuses one over its descent. As I provoke Uribe to cross the glitzy-glossy diplomatic boundaries and pour out his gall over life in Lithuania to The Baltic Times, he chuckles in an undeniably Westerner’s way, promising, “I will try. I hope I will not get reprimanded by the British Embassy.”

Can you, please, explain what duties and privileges being the UK Honorary Consul involve? When were you appointed to the position? Do you get compensated for your work?
I was appointed to the position in 2004. I am not employed by the British Embassy in Lithuania. This position in voluntary, however, I get a symbolic honorarium every year, just symbolic (smiles). My main duty is to help here British people that find themselves in a difficult situation while travelling in this part of Lithuania. In addition, as a part of the functions of the British Embassy’s Commercial Department, I provide certain commercial services in developing trade and relations between Lithuania and Great Britain. In this case, I act like a business representative, trying to look out for opportunities for British companies in Klaipeda or providing them with certain information on Lithuanian laws and regulations. And, third, I represent the British Embassy in public events in Klaipeda.

What kind of problems do Englishmen run into in Klaipeda?
To be honest, this happens not often, mostly related to loss of personal documents or obtaining Lithuanian documents. It was starting to creep up a bit before the crisis, which has had an ill-effect, but, overall, fortunately, British people encounter serious problems here seldom. I have to admit that local authorities handle any problems of my compatriots very well.
How long have you been in Lithuania?
I have been here since 1994.

It is a long time, you have to admit, especially, for a foreigner. Can you tell how you ended up being here?
To be honest, I have spent a lot of my life abroad. Actually, I was born in Africa and grew up, mainly, in Italy. I have spent quite a while in Scotland and Germany. Among other things, I have studied Spanish. However, honestly, I have never felt particularly rooted in any particular country. I would say I ended up in Lithuania by a coincidence.

What was it?
Back then, in the early 90s, I was looking for an English-teaching career. After Lithuania proclaimed its independence, there was a big demand of native English teachers in this part of the world, particularly in Poland. So I came to Lithuania, Kaunas, where a completely brand new school was in need for English teachers. Then I thought, “Oh, it is going to be fun to teach here.” That was the start.

I have heard many positive comments about your teaching abilities.
Thanks. I am glad more and more people here are having a good command of English.

How has Lithuania and, particularly, Klaipeda, changed over the 17 years?
Obviously, Lithuania and Klaipeda, in a sense of development, leisure and recreation, have changed a lot over time. No doubt, Lithuania has become a place of a much better and convenient life, with all those new shopping malls, new infrastructure projects. I still recall those Soviet-era shabby shops with only tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and pickles available in their vegetable sections. Now you can buy essentially everything you need. So life in that sense has become boringly similar to Western Europe (smiles).  I should say, unfortunately, Lithuania has caught up with the Western commercialism as well.

Is there anything else you dislike about Lithuania?
I had hoped that Lithuania would develop politically, economically and socially a little bit faster than it has. I can admit honestly that the service sector is still weak.
Do you mean sloppy?
Yes, kind of that. Western European countries have largely developed their economies based on the service sector. In that sense, Lithuania seems to me to be lagging quite a lot.
Do you see that only in the Klaipeda region or in the entire country, including Vilnius?

Vilnius is a step ahead in the sense of providing services. As a rule, all capitals are better at it. However, if you walk a bit more away from the center of Vilnius, and walk into a bar, restaurant or shop, you often will not get quality service you desire. I think there is some kind of lack of leadership from the authorities that are in the position to take things forward.

What Lithuanian laws and regulation, in terms of British business in Klaipeda, do you find to be unfavorable?
I do not think that there is anything wrong with the existing laws. On the contrary, I think Lithuania was quick to adopt the EU laws and regulations. Even those laws that restrict somehow foreigners’ abilities, like the foreigners-focused ban to buy land in Lithuania, are quite mild, as, in the case of land, the restrictions in practice apply only to strategic land. I think implementation of laws could be crisper. Sometimes it seems to me that Lithuania, having inherited the heavy Soviet bureaucracy, still has not got rid of it completely. However, the advancement in that field is obvious.

You mentioned that your duties involve representation of the British Embassy in public events in Klaipeda. What kind of events do you attend or are being invited to? Why are they of an interest to the Embassy?
There is quite a wide range of events that I am being invited to, such as the Sea Festival, the Mayor’s Ball, company anniversaries and other ceremonial events. For example, I was invited to come to an art exhibition that will display works of some British artists.
How big is the British community in Lithuania and, particularly, in Klaipeda? Can you discern any trends regarding the British people who stay in Klaipeda?
The British community is really small in Lithuania, and it is particularly small in Klaipeda. Are there any specifics about the Brits in the Western part of Lithuania? I guess I could not discern anything special, apart that many come over here by a mixture of coincidental meetings back in the UK and prospects of new opportunities. Few of British citizens come over invited by UK-based companies who may need their representatives here. I would say there are from 10 to 15 British people, whom I know, in Klaipeda region. Some British people enjoy here their retirement, however, for the most part, other stays are work-related.
Is the number of British people here fluctuating due to the political and economic facets like Lithuania’s ascension to the European Union, or the recent crisis?
Yes, certainly, we could speak of certain ups and downs in the numbers in relation with the major political and economic events, like the crisis. When I came to Klaipeda first, there were quite a number of British people. That was because all large companies, like Phillips Morris, Siemens, Mars and some large transport companies were setting up here, and they were sending here all their senior management from Western Europe, the United Kingdom included. Having finished their set-up, the companies do not need any more Western European management, as Lithuania and the region can provide them with skilled local management. Basically, the companies are now locally managed. That is the present policy of the companies to rely on home-grown management. The younger-generation Lithuanian management, one acknowledges, is quite good, as they are generally well educated, trained, motivated and hard-working. They might just be lacking experience of working for big international companies. Therefore, with the quality local management available, the foreigners, including the British people, have moved away. On the other hand, on the level of smaller business, there are still many individual business visits by British people to Lithuania.
Let me ask you frankly. Was it was easy for you to adapt yourself to Lithuania and the Lithuanian way of life? What are the essential disparities of the Lithuanian and British ways of life?
I would say it was easier for me than for a typical British man here, as I, as I said, grew up basically in Italy and lived in several countries, which have rewarded me with a good deal of experience. As I said, Lithuania has evolved into a more-or-less Western country over the years. However, when I just arrived to it, it was rather chaotic, and you had to find out how the things work here. From what I hear from the British people here is they often lack a certain organization and information, particularly in official governmental bodies. In that sense, my life in Italy often seemed lacking an English-type organization, and all my life in the West has helped me a lot throughout the years in Lithuania. What I learnt here was to make contacts, and not to be afraid of asking people for information. Generally, Lithuanians are helpful.
I know that you are heading a Business Club in Klaipeda.
It is an international club, uniting quite different people of different backgrounds – Germans, Danes, Brits, Finns, Swedes, Hollanders, Americans, a few Greeks and a Canadian. We started it very informally, as being very busy with our work, we would get together once in a while, talking about the community of foreigners in Klaipeda, whom we may know, and who is involved what with, etc. Eventually, we would arrange some common events, inviting more people from the community. We have, I guess, 25 very active people in the club, while another 10 or 15 join us occasionally. Our future plans include forming a business association and even introducing a membership fee some day in future. Even some local businessmen are eager to join our club.

Let me get a bit personal. I know you are married to a Lithuanian woman, and you both are raising two kids. How much British-ness are you trying to infuse into their lives? What language do you speak at home?
When my children were born, I spoke English to them. When they grew older, they, obviously, mingled with other Lithuanian kids and went to a Lithuanian school. I kept repeating to myself: “Oh, there is no way I will start speaking Lithuanian to them!” So, for a while, our communication was quite interesting as they were speaking to me in Lithuanian, and I was responding in English. However, I thought it would be nice if I started speaking to them in Lithuanian, so it is what I did. The predominant language at home is Lithuanian; however, I do encourage my kids to speak more English. I am not trying in any way to bring more English-ness intentionally into my family’s life. Being an Englishman is a part of me and who I am, and I want my kids to understand that.

Do your children score well in English at school?
(Laughs) Could be better!

Let me ask you this final question very bluntly. As you know, hundreds and thousands of Lithuanians flee the country in search of a better life abroad. Obviously, the United Kingdom is their most sought destination, ensuring a decent life, attractive social care and respectful approach to everyone. Do you ever consider coming back to the UK, with your family, of course? What would those circumstances be?
I guess, probably, under the same circumstances that send all those Lithuanians to the UK, which, of course, are financial. Frankly, it is not easy to make a decent living in Lithuania. The costs of living here are not cheap, and I know that, for a lot of people, is very difficult to make their ends meet. Basic food, clothing, entertainment or children toys are cheaper in the UK than in Lithuania. Here in Klaipeda, I used to go to a local swimming pool until one day I stopped. I realized how much money it cost me. I realized it cost much more than getting dolls for my kids. I just said to myself: “I cannot allow myself doing this!” To make a living in the UK is really easier. By saying so I am not trying to encourage everyone to immigrate to the UK (grins).

Receiving what you call “a symbolic honorarium” for the consular services, obviously, is not enough to support your family. I have heard you juggle several jobs in Klaipeda to rack up some more bucks…
I came here as an English language teacher and teaching is my main source of income. I have been working in the field for over fifteen years now. Besides that, I work a lot with companies that want to enter the UK market, providing them with international marketing and business consulting, as well as helping them with international branding and finding necessary contacts. Also, I am growing a few vegetables in the garden (chuckles).

Good luck, Mark, in spreading the British spirit in Klaipeda and giving it some international flavor.