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I think I can… I think I can… 50 litas please

The absolute worst cab experience was in Athens at the first IGF where the taxi drivers were so bent that they would drive you the wrong way around town in order to get a bit more money.

I had one who pretended not to know where my hotel was, and drove around in a big circle, appearing back in front of the venue (I wasn’t paying attention, reading my Blackberry) and making a pretence of being lost. He then asked me for the full fare (he received three coins and some south-London advice).

The cabs in Vilnius were not quite so bald-faced but the seemingly accepted system of taxi drivers decided which rate to charge you based on how they are feeling that precise moment was not popular with attendees.

In broad terms, the cheaper the cab, the most likely it was to have wiring hanging down from the ceiling, upholstery from the Stalin era, and a gearbox with an identity crisis.

Here are my three favourite Vilnius cab moments:

  • The most brazen: the meter says 25 litas as we stop outside the hotel. I’m in the back in conversation but make a mental note of it. The cabbie turns the car off, immediately turns the meter off, jumps out to helpfully open the door and informs us the fare is 50 litas.
  • The most hilarious: I genuinely gave it a 50-50 chance that the cab wouldn’t make the 10-minute journey. At one point he gets out to check the exhaust – which was clearly dragging on the road and making a terrible noise – appeared to tie it up with something and then gets back in. The gearbox was entirely unpersuaded about going faster than 20 miles an hour. And the suspension and steering was eerily close to a bumper car. The driver, god bless him, was clearing no more certain of his car making the distance but he did his best to hide it with some blasting Lithuanian folk-pop. At one point, I involuntarily burst out laughing, but fortunately he didn’t hear it over the exhaust. Good price though.
  • The most frightening: This actually came mid-range of all the cabs – 30 litas – but only because the car was going so fast that even on setting “6” (sucker in suit) there wasn’t enough time to get it into the forties. I haven’t seen such recklessness in years. In fact, not since I was a teenager and we all thought we were invisible in our new cars. At least three cars beeped their horns at us – all of which he seemed to take as a sign of appreciation or encouragement. I actually made a note of his face when I got out the cab so I could make sure I didn’t mistakenly get into his cab at any point later that week.

Hard hit

Vilnius is really rundown in a way that you just don’t see in Europe anymore. It looks exactly like Eastern European countries just after the collapse the Soviet Union – bleak, unmaintained, most commercial outlets closed, lines of people at bus stops.

Apparently this has come as a bit of a shock to people that were here five years ago – then Lithuania was rocketing, a part of the new Europe, big billboards everyone, energized people – the capitalist dream. Who knows what happened in the meantime, although you suspect the global economic crisis hit Lithuania hard and fast.

But it does cause me to reflect on the prime minister’s speech earlier in the week, which comprised of two things: an effort to build national pride in the national basketball team’s recent victory, and an almost desperate plea for investment in the country from the big Western countries present. I wish now I had gone and shaken this man’s hand. He was bigger than all of us in the room.

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