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 pigs ears and singing, I found my thrill, on Siauliai 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 inly 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.
Last week, 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 TH 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.
It's true the outside world looks at the three countries as a contiguous unit. If Latvia is forced to devalue its currency, so the logic goes, then of course Lithuania and Estonia will follow. It's fate. The fiscal management of sovereign countries cannot withstand the underlying Baltic bedrock that joins these three sisters together, with a common capital in Riga. We all know this isn't true. The world doesn't stop in Tallinn harbor or at the Curonian spit. It keeps going.
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.
As my bus headed north from Kaunas, I kept waiting for something resembling Estonia to appear. Outside Riga, I saw my first thicket of sparkling birch trees. As our caravan rolled into the wooded hills of northern Latvia, I considered how batshit crazy those Teutonic crusaders must have been to invade such an impenetrable fortress of greenery all those centuries ago. I conjured images of Estonian sumo wrestling star Baruto or Olympic discus champion Gerd Kanter armed with axes and paganism. Scary thoughts.
Our bus pulled into the Tartu station at 10 pm and it was still light out. I stood amongst buildings -- the Tasku shopping center, the new Tartu Kaubamaja -- that did not exist that last time I went to Riga six years ago. Walking through the city, I was suddenly overwhelmed by throngs of Estonian ladies and gentlemen in folk costumes. There were Setos and Mulks and other varieties of Estonians. They were coming from a song festival and they were happy. It felt good to be back.