23 January 2018
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I will become a resident of Vilnius – again, after 17 years abroad

My name is Andrius Užkalnis, I am 40 and later this month I am coming back to Lithuania after a long time in England.
Photo: Otto Kylmala.

By best-selling writer Andrius Užkalnis

In three weeks‘ time, I will become a resident of Vilnius – again, after almost 17 years.

I was asked to write this for VilNews – where not many people know me. My name is Andrius Užkalnis, I am 40 and later this month I am coming back to Lithuania after a long time in England.
I moved to UK as a very young man, back in 1995, to work for the BBC, where I spent over 16 years – initially as a linguist and then as a manager, working in various parts of the world.

A few years ago I started writing – first for various magazines, both glossy and intellectual, then for national newspapers, then I published a few books and they were not entirely unsuccessful. Actually, all three went to be multiple-print-run bestsellers, one of them got translated into Latvian and published there too, so I suppose this counts as being an author of international acclaim, sort of.
I did bits of work for the Lithuanian national radio, commenting on various things British and international, and about a couple of years ago, a decision started to crystallize that it would be a good idea to go back.

Why? Because I can, because I can afford to, and because I felt I could do more in Lithuania, achieve more, be recognized and also enjoy a better living standard for my family and myself. In Vilnius, we can afford to live centrally – very centrally. In a house built in 17th century, in the very heart of Senamiestis, the Old Town, so that the closest patch of greenery would be Šventaragio slėnis, right behind the Cathedral, where they buried dukes and kings. The gothic marvel of St Ann’s will be my closest church. My girl’s school will be three minutes away, overseeing the ancient church spires and monasteries in a picture-perfect postcard view out of their classroom windows.
This would be an equivalent of living across the road from St James’ Park in London. I could never afford to have it in England. It would not be a realistic prospect. In Reading, Berkshire, where I live, there are people boarding a train to Paddington every morning, with Savile Row suits, going to their £200,000 jobs in London. They are easily in the top 2% of the population, income-wise, and they still have to commute to work.

My wife, Lina, is Lithuanian too, she is a linguist specializing in legal documentation and has her own practice and can work from wherever she wishes. More importantly, she also wants to live in the Old Town. She was born in Vilnius (I wasn’t – I am a Kaunas boy and moved to Vilnius when I was six), and the pavement stones and the old spires and terracotta roofs and the courtyards mean as much to her as they do to me.

When I write for the Lithuanian papers, people comment a great deal online, and because my writing is often provocative and edgy, a lot of people feel they have to have to try and insult me, which is not very easy because I am not a very sensitive person and when they spit fire, it amuses me.
One thing they sometimes say, trying to be sarcastic: “Why won’t you write for any English papers then? They won’t publish this crap, eh? But in Lithuania, anything goes, right?”

There is a degree of truth in that. Even if I were to get my articles published in UK, I would be one of the many, many columnists, and would have to compete with the Titans. My books would have to compete with thousands of books that hit the shelves here, and many of them are very good books. The chances of hitting the “A” list would be very slim.

So I figured I can play my game where chances of winning are higher. I do not think there is a shame in that.

Other people say: “So, the BBC must have kicked you out. You are just a loser, then. You now come back, having achieved nothing.”

The BBC did not kick me out. I left on my own accord, with no regrets, but with no hard feelings, either. I had sixteen incredible years doing very exciting work for arguably the biggest and the most respected international broadcaster in the world. I travelled the world and hired and trained people on three continents.

I flew a helicopter to work once. In Russia, I drank vodka on business to appease an apprehensive and make him trust me, even though the next morning I had to fly to Osaka and then to Chicago and all the drinking felt like I was not getting paid enough to do this. I commuted in Japan from one airport to another by train, straight after a 12 hour flight, for an onward flight to Russia’s Far East, arriving half-dead, knowing I had meetings in less than nine hours next morning, and then the hotel bar staff in Khabarovsk made me and my colleague sing karaoke in English for them. I flew a Boeing 747-400, converted to a commuter short-haul plane and painted in Pokemon colours, from Tokyo Haneda to Sapporo Chitose, as part of my job. I commissioned desks and shelves for my office from a workshop in Ghana where the main line of business was coffins, and when a man died, the supply of furniture would be delayed. I took a tour of duty to a small radio station near the Volta River and people accosted my car selling tiny fried fish – to them, a white man was a wealthy customer – and that was my business lunch. Not a lot of people can say this about their jobs. I often felt I had the best job in the world.

I have met very talented individuals and I largely did not have to compromise my beliefs and principles: the less attractive part of the BBC was not closely related to the job that I was doing. I am talking here about the institutional left-wing bias of the programme-making frontline staff, the health and safety paranoia, the political correctness, the risk aversion, the clinical Euro-enthusiasm and rabid pro-federalism, the relativist multicultural claptrap and the treatment of the global warming hysteria like it was science and not religion. I did not have to be complicit in any of this, and for this I am grateful.

There is also another aspect to my desire to come back. In England, I felt I would always, always be a foreigner (and, being a Lithuanian, with a clear mark of Gastarbeiter at that). England is one of the most open societies that I know, and no-one ever gave me hard time because of my origins, but I was always an outsider. Not that I was very concerned about my status. I knew who I was and what my family was, I knew my girls went to a private school, the house that we lived in and the car we drove and the holidays we took were nothing to be ashamed of, but I just did not feel I was one of the people who ran things in this country. Not at the forefront of everything. Not a household name.
In Lithuania, it is different, and I am not ashamed to say that I am looking forward to this too. People in Lithuania know my name and even sometimes say hello in the street. People come to meet me when I go on book-signing tours. Producers invite me to their talk shows on TV and journalism students email me and ask for my opinions. My daughters know that their Dad’s books are in every bookstore. I would be lying if I said it was not gratifying. Or that I would forgo this and choose anonymity.

I am leaving England with a sense of gratitude. I learnt a lot here and I would be a very different man without this experience. If I were 23 now, I would again sign a contract and go to a strange country to work. I would do it again.

But now I feel it is time to try something else in life. Because I know that I am incredibly privileged for having an opportunity, at the age of 40, to try something else in life. Other people at this age would try a new spouse or at least a new car. Or a hair colour. My family and I can try the whole new life. If that is not an opportunity, I don’t know what is.

And because of this, I am going to become a resident of Vilnius in three weeks’ time.

Category : Featured black / Lithuania in the world
  • Leo

    Andrius, I came back to Lithuania from London after 12 years. As you said, the chances of succeeding here are higher than abroad. I got a job in the media, which I probably wouldn't get in London. But after more than two years in Lithuania I still feel like a ''foreigner at home''. People just dont want to understand of all the "reasons" that you have mentiones above. For most lithuanians, UK is a heaven on earth where money grow on trees and will probably stay that way for a long, long time.

    July 15 2011

    • […] Article ref: […]

      July 01 2011
      • Nomeda Repšytė

        A repatriate is an outsider too, a foreigner at home.

        July 01 2011
        • niex

          welcome back :))

          June 30 2011

          • LOL :)))

            Goodby English rose, hello Lithuanian thyme… or thorn… or…

            Užkalnis forgot to mention, that he has some quite good friend here (Lithuania) also (I’m not talking about me, I mean I just think so, I mean I know that).

            July 01 2011
            • E_J

              goodbye England's rose…

              June 30 2011
              • Jurate Kutkus Burns

                It seems to me that not only will you enjoy your native culture in the magnificent Vilniaus senamiestis, but you are bringing something valuable back home. You can add to the richness and diversity of a small, but great country which is well-loved by so many of us scattered across the globe.

                June 30 2011
                • good girl

                  Good luck to you and your family! I wish you to soar smoothly and elegantly and make Lithuanians think and re-think and to look at the things from a different corner and with eyes widely open to the world not only their village called Lithuania.

                  June 30 2011
                  • Gintautas Kaminskas

                    Well, good luck. Hope you try to find some way of using what you have learnt abroad to help Lithuania get rid of its Soviet mentality. And hope you keep sharing your thoughts with Vilnews.

                    June 30 2011
                    • GK2500

                      Just curious, Tomai – do you live in Lithuania or elsewhere (an English-speaking country)? If the latter, I can understand you wanting to write "Chepaitis", so that people will know how to pronounce it. But Užupis is Užupis – there's no such place as "Uzhupis". How long does it take for an intelligent tourist to learn how č, š and ž are pronounced? There is no need to write them as ch, sh and zh. Another reason for not doing so is that not everybody who visits Lithuania comes from an English-speaking backround, and the sounds represented by č, š and ž are not necessarily written ch, sh and zh in their native language. French, Germans, Scandinavians, etc. do not shy away from spelling their names properly using their own letters. They do not anglicise them. There is no need for Lithuanians to do that either.

                      July 01 2011


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