Comparing the Baltic states

Kaunas' ubiquitous balconies and Catholic churches reminded me a bit of New Orleans. Photo by Steve Riddle.

At 10 p.m. on Friday night, I finally got the chance to explore Kaunas.

Lithuania’s second largest city — its onetime capital in the 1920s and 30s — left a bad first impression. I walked to my hotel across a city that seemed underpopulated. There were so many buildings and so few people. Where could they be?

In the center of the city I was greeted by ruined wooden buildings that looked that they had been evacuated suddenly and left to rot. I wondered if their former owners now reside in south London or south Chicago. Uneven sidewalks guided me past disappointing facades and bland Maxima supermarkets. The truth is that such sights exist all over Estonia. It’s just that I have gotten used to them and they tend to disappear over time. But in Kaunas I noticed few signs of construction — I only saw two houses with scaffolding on them during my trip — and I felt as if Kaunas was stagnating.

The old city, though, was a different world. Cut by a snaky cobblestone walking street, it was fun to explore, and helped rid me of my initial dissatisfaction with Kaunas. Though it was similarly empty (and this was on a Friday night) the ubiquitous balconies and Catholic churches reminded me a bit of New Orleans. I could imagine Fats Domino in one of those corner cafes, munching on some smoked pig’s ears and singing, I found my thrill, on Šiauliai hill.

Suddenly I was glad I came, even if I never really had any plans to visit Lithuania. That’s the funny thing about the concept of the Baltic countries. These countries are right next door, but too often there is absolutely no reason to visit your neighbors. It’s like the little old lady who lives behind our house here in Tartu. Technically, we are neighbors, but I have only spoken to her one time when her cat got stuck in our tree.

Last year, I met a Baltic enthusiast who told me about how much she loved Riga. I wish I could have shared her sentiment, but I’ve only been to Riga twice, both for extremely limited amounts of time. Almost anyone you meet will tell you its a divided city groaning under immense social and economic pressures. The international media is currently tearing Latvia’s image to shreds. All I can really tell you is that the bus station looks exactly the same as it did six years ago.

Riga supposedly is a jewel, if you take that scenic photo of one of its old squares from the right angle. It’s a diverse, cosmopolitan city of Letts and Latgallians and Livonians and Russians too. It does feel more worldly than most of Estonia. I can see why they think they are the center of the universe. Estonia meantime is the windy-headed land, the home of the stubborn peninsula people. Of what is Riga the center? Latvia?

I want to respect my Latvian and Lithuanian hosts, but I’ve never gotten used to the names of the Baltic currencies. Lats? Litas? Could you imagine Portuguese Portas or British Brits?

“Fish and chips with extra vinegar, please.”

“That’ll cost you 10 Brits, mate.”

And see, there you have it again. The Balts speak Baltic languages and have Baltic currencies. They live on a sea they themselves call the Baltic. The Estonians? They’re a little different. They call it the West Sea.

The Estonians had warned me that Lithuania — Leedu in their cutesy Finnic tongue — was an especially boring place.

Even the teenage girl who babysits my daughters informed me that it was an igav maa (“boring country”), chock full of Maxima supermarkets — and this was a comment from a human being that has spent most of her life in south Estonia.

So, I was prepared for boring. What I got was central European. Yes, I know, everyone hates it when you try to break out of the Baltic straitjacket, but I am an observer, and I don’t feel much more different here than I did in Prague or Ljubljana. It’s humid, cut by rivers, and populated by ladies who somehow manage to walk over cobblestones in yellow high heels.

What’s the difference between Estonia and Lithuania? Well, Stereotypes are nasty little things but we DO rely on them to find our way in foreign surroundings. I asked my seatmate on the bus if there were any especially dangerous pockets of Kaunas, you know, something like the Baltimore City Bus Terminal at 4 a.m. of the East. He said no, and, so far, he has been proven right. But my stereotype of Kaunas, is that there seems to be no innate rush among the populace to give the place a facelift.

In Estonia, I feel as if there is a collective determination to exterminate every last outpost of shitty Soviet-created ruin and replace it with something shiny, efficient, and new. Nothing is ever finished, but one day, one glorious day, all of Estonia will beam with buildings refurbished with materials from Ehitus ABC or Bauhof. Old monstrosities will be demolished and replaced by modernity. Ancient farm houses will receive a fresh coat of paint. Everything will be as it should be and there will be free wireless Internet.

In Kaunas, I get the feeling that people are happy with the way things are. Unkempt grass? Dilapidated buildings? Eh, what the heck, let’s grab a Švyturys and go watch the game at the bar. This city feels like it is what it is. The Lithuanians just happen to live here. That’s how I feel right now, at least. But who I am I to arrive at gross generalizations after spending one day in a place?

Here’s another observation. Lithuanians have funny names that bring to mind some Roman epics. Consider: “Eimantas sat in his cashier seat at the local Maxima, plotting his revenge against his cruel manager Daumantas for stealing his fiance Jadvyga’s heart. I know what I’ll do, thought Eimantas. I’ll put poison in Daumantas’ pierogies!” Or something like that.

Last year I attended a panel that included the Lithuanian minister of foreign affairs was asked by an MEP-elect from Lithuania about the future of the Baltic region, which to them meant Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia (there were no Finns or Prussians on the panel). Despite being distracted by their Lithuanianness , I noticed that both of them mentioned the same fellow: one T.H. Ilves of Estonia, who once had some wacky ideas about rebranding his nation as the only post-communist Nordic country.

I asked the panel why it was that Ilves gave his speech 10 years ago and people are still talking about it. They informed me that the Jõulumaa reference was strictly humor, yet it doesn’t seem to die.

The Lithuanian foreign minister made some salient points. The Baltics must cooperate because they have mutual interests, interests that concern energy, security, energy security, and historical truth. I agree with him. I think all these identity issues should be left to work themselves out. We don’t need to argue about what Ilves said. Common interests should define cooperation rather than cooperation for cooperation’s sake.

Justin Petrone is an American writer living in Estonia and the author of the best-selling travel novel “My Estonia.” He publishes one of the best-written blogs in the Baltic states, Itching for Eestimaa.

Disclaimer:

Views expressed in the opinion section are never those of the Baltic Reports company or the website’s editorial team as a whole, but merely those of the individual writer.

3 Responses for “Comparing the Baltic states”

  1. Maik says:

    Not to defend Lithuania – but honestly: Your opinion is not really representative. You went to Kaunas during summer (all students are either in the UK, US or picking strawberries in Ireland. Go there during the academic year – you will get a totally different opinion :) PS: In case you want to see Italian Beach Life, you will also not go there in February…or? ;)

  2. Vytis says:

    You gotta forgive this guy. If he’s from Baltimore that’s the armpit of the East Coast so he’s been scarred for life. Sounds like he’s got zero appreciation for history and a minimal understanding of economics for a country that’s been raped by Russia for fifty years. No building? Really. Try America pal. Not much going on here either. It’s called a depression.

  3. Vidas says:

    Sure, July is a slow time for Kaunas. Schools are out, many others spend time at rural homes – but, as Justin points out – there’s still alot to see there.

    I appreciate that Justin points out that Kaunas is in real need of some sprucing up. Laisves Aleja needs a coat of paint badly – as does the Soboras. I’ve heard tourists refer to it as abandoned. The area around the Prezidentura is a mess.

    Justin wrote a book about tourism in Estonia. I find his observations valuable and hope that maybe after a few other articles like this – Kaunas’ municipal leadership will pay attention. Getting Ryanair to fly into Kaunas was a nice start – now it’s time to present Kaunas as a destination city.

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