No fun at the border

  • 2001-11-01
  • Kjeld Friis-Hansen
This summer my wife and I traveled through Lithuania and Latvia with a couple of friends. This was far from being our first trip to the two countries, as we have been regular business guests and also sometimes traveled as tourists since 1992. So we knew a little about what we could expect.

But we were forced to change our expectations - for the better.

We met so many kind and open-minded people, able and willing to speak English or German. A brand new way to be treated in restaurants, hotels and shops, by helpful, smiling and competent staff almost everywhere.

The towns and cities look better and better, the roads are improving their standards, and the sign posting on the roads in the countryside will not let you down, so you will easily find your way. If it happens that you are lost somewhere, somebody will show you the way - not on a map, but driving in front in his own car.

It was a pleasure to see foreign diplomats in Vilnius drive in the streets without having to be escorted by police, and it was a pleasure to see Mr. Vytautas Landsbergis cross Gediminas Avenue and walk to his car without any security guards and even take the time to pose for the camera.

And the girls on Laisves Aleja in Kaunas can compete with those in France or anywhere else in the world.

We walked in the old streets of Vilnius, celebrated a joyful Ligo with friends in Daugavpils, cried over the tale of Turaida Rose in Sigulda, almost scratched a bear behind the ears in the Gauja National Park, drank good Aldaris beer in Riga and, of course, saw some of the monuments there.

We visited the Hill of Crosses near Siauliai and gave up counting them, and experienced the extraordinary coastal landscape of Neringa. We did what we expected to do, and we enjoyed it.

But! And this is a big but.

Before coming to these paradises, you have to cross borders. We did so, over and over again, from Poland to Lithuania (Budzisko/ Lazdijai), from Lithuania to Latvia (Zarasai/Medumi), back again (Meitene/Joniskis), back into Latvia (Palanga/Rucava), and ending the whole trip by leaving Liepaja ferry port.

No problems with the Polish borders. Well educated, nice officers took only five minutes to finish the passport check.

But now to the Lithuanians! Why are these people allowed to act as if any foreign car is stolen and any foreign drivers and passengers are criminals? You are met with a harsh and commanding attitude. You are not asked for your passports and car documents, but ordered. Never the phrase: "Passports, please." Just the demand: "Documents!"

Unfortunately I went one meter too far and crossed a line. I was ordered this one meter back, and then ordered to open my trunk. Obviously this could not be done according to regulations when standing one meter too far. This kind of act showed that here we had to deal with a little man with too much power and too little brains to mange the power.

Never a smile was seen on the faces of the Lithuanian border guards. Only rude attitudes, uneducated posturing, and a lack of knowledge of foreign languages.

They were in no way what they should be: their country's visit card at the border, welcoming every guest as the ambassador of a foreign country. It felt like we were intruding on a former Soviet country.

Thanks to these so-called "civil servants," we managed to use up one hour for every crossing.

As Lithuania is an eager candidate to for the EU, maybe some money should be used for a study trip for these people to European border crossings, so they can take a look at how border crossings are managed in a decent and respectful way. Another sum of money should be used to teach them good manners.

But much better advice would be: sack the whole gang and recruit new officers. You can find them all over Lithuania, smiling and competent, only not at the border!

The Latvian border guards seemed much more open-minded, using the greeting "Labdien" and smiling. The bureaucracy was the same in both Lithuania and Latvia, but it was over with much quicker with the Latvians and with a complete difference of attitude to their Lithuanian neighbors.

And still I wonder when will these border officials be aware that new times are here, and no truck driver expects to spend more than 15 minutes max. at any border.