esmaspäev, juuni 15, 2009

kiri kaunasest

At 10 pm 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 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.

14 kommentaari:

Lingüista ütles ...

I made a comment in the thread at your Lithuania post, and I feel like asking it here again, in case nobody looks at old comments threads: do you think then that the notion of "Baltic States" isn't really meaningful? In the way that "Eastern Europe" was more of a political thing -- the countries in the Soviet sphere of influence (who would put, say, Romanians and Czechs together for any other reason?)

Maybe, as I said, it depends on whether people want it to mean something or not. If Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians don't feel any connections (other than the pragmatic ones the Lithuanian minister mentioned -- shared history, similar problems, etc.), then I suppose "Baltic States" will end up being meaningless.

For some reason, I find this a pity. Latvia and Estonia shared a major part of their history (since the Teutonic order); the first chapters from any book on the history of either country look so much alike. Latvia and Lithuania share a common pre-history, visible in their related languages (I remember Peteris Cedrins saying that Latvians call Lithuanians "the brother people", since they're their only surviving close relatives).

I don't know, maybe the Baltic Way just looked so cool I feel these countries ought to stick together. But of course it's entirely in their hands; if they don't want to be close neighbors, they won't be.

(A comparative note: the three Guianas in South America are reminiscent of the Baltic states, in that there are surprising similarities between them and some shared history and many of the same problems too, but they've been clearly drifting apart for quite a while. "The Guianas" only makes sense as a reference to the fact that they're all on the Guianas plateau.)

Kristopher ütles ...

There's not a great deal in common, Latvia and Estonia share saldie sierini (kohukesed). Political parties in Estonia have been known to center on and rally around the kohuke, so I think it is a strong enough symbol for Latvian-Estonian unity.

It's not such a frivolous example (besides the fact that it is powerful comfort food). There is a lack of strong Latvian-Estonian joint ventures. I think this could change. Baltic economic cooperation is contaminated by the globalist model (an Estonian company will have Baltic subsidiaries and vice versa). Eesti Energia is expanding to the Latvian market, for instance, with a goal of selling electricity to Latvian consumers? Why? It's globalist in form but me-me-me in spirit.

Taking the example of the kohuke, instead of worries about whose exporters are going to get a leg up or screwed if devaluation takes place, you could have one single company with a shared interest in exporting sierini (e.g. getting the Scandinavians addicted to them).

Giustino ütles ...

One difference I noticed is that Maxima in Kaunas had no 'riisipirukad' (rice pastries). In Turku they sold them, but they were called 'karjalanpiirakat' (Karelian pastries).

Bea ütles ...

There's not a great deal in common, Latvia and Estonia share saldie sierini (kohukesed). Political parties in Estonia have been known to center on and rally around the kohuke, so I think it is a strong enough symbol for Latvian-Estonian unity.
Lithuanians have sūrelis/sierinš/kohuke, too. In Soviet times my mum brought it to me once, and then they became my dream although they were almost as rarely seen in shops as bananas were. I eat them everyday now. Many Lithuanian varieties, but there were some Latvian and Estonian, too. We had a sūrelių karas/sieriņu karš - a war caused by export of kohukesed - with Latvia when Latvians said our things were "infected" or vice versa (?). Their special small sieriņi disappeared from IKI here then, and ours, of the very similar shape and taste, stayed. That was one the few LT/LV mutual trade wars to mention.

Bea ütles ...

Maxima is meant to be, more or less, a cheap shop. Depends on its size, how big the variety of products there is.
We also have Rimi, IKI and some Norfa in LT.
You went some strange roads and I could not recognize the place that you first called center of Kaunas already.

Did you go right from the Bus station, through that messy park? Is that there the grass was unkemped?(The park has two small Ortodox churches and a small Mosque from the time between WWI and WWII in there, btw.)
And the woden buildings? Was that the one or two big ones? (the Russian tsarist military lived there before WWII when Kaunas was the empire's citadel-town and higher than two story buildings were banned).

Many active Kaunas' people are by the Baltic sea in summer-weekends, btw.

But yeah, the place is still quite dead and boring. Vilnius was constantly, for some 10 years trying to demean it, so that everything new, shiny and expensive would be doubtlessly concentrated right where the power is concentrated. Vilnius is an impressive city and it really needed a good facelift, because it's old town was even more pommiauk-ish than what Kaunas' center now is, and Kaunas shined with order in comparrisson, lol. At least 1/3 of Vilnius oldtown buildings were in ruins and looked [nearly or really] like right after the war. Now they shine morethan they should, but most of the courtyards are tiled way too heavily, because dwellers of that city weren't ever expected to cut their grass or do something like that, lol.

And you haven't been to much of Lithuania yet, it seems. Come again. :) It's not that welcoming right away, but you'd get used after some time and notice more things in common when relaxed.

Giustino ütles ...

You went some strange roads and I could not recognize the place that you first called center of Kaunas already.


I walked from Gertrudos Gatve to Donelaicio and Gediminio. I am not trying to criticize the place. The vibe reminded me of Italy a bit -- a little dirty, but lived in.

And you haven't been to much of Lithuania yet, it seems. Come again. :) It's not that welcoming right away, but you'd get used after some time and notice more things in common when relaxed.

I am sure I'll be back. I am going to have to spend more times on those names though. It's not easy to tell the difference between Vytautis and Vygaudis, or Mickevičiaus and Mackevičiaus right away.

Bea ütles ...

Gertrūdos gatvė is very dirty... Some Gipsies maybe live there, I never walk there, except then I need my cat clipped fro the summer, and nobody does because the dirt comes from cars and maybe chimneys, and the much nicer, central pedestrian streets go in parallel and very close. in fact, I know the way to walk through the whole city in calm, interesting, green or interwar built areas... That's exactly what reminds me of Tartu, its hills and cutesy private or central areas.
There's a whole park or square or yard of interwar Lithuanian Freedom fight memorials there..., also the Vytautas Magnus University, some other interwar buildings and yeah, the tsarist Russian wooden houses, lol.

You can criticize that all as much as you wish... Who hadn't and who wouldn't? I'll still think Kaunas can be cute if you know where to go and what are you passing by, and what is it's greyness/brownness/boringness and messiness about. :D

Ah, you are not the first to have problems with the names either... lol
And Mackevičius/Mickevičius are both Polish names Lithuanians are confusing themselves as streetnames, lol. The first one was leader of a resurrection in 1863 Lithuania, the second one is that now called Polish poet Mickiewicz who wrote a poem about his faterland - the Grand Duchy of Lithuania that he was expelled from by Russians. There was Mickevičiaus where you passed by from Donelaičio, lol. But there is Mackevičiaus on a hill near the city center and Gertrūdos gatvė as well.
Forget it.

Vytautas is the one who tried to reach the Black sea. His name means - "he who saw the nation", and Vygaudas has to do with our foreign afairs now.

And as for litas, latas. I don't know what did that mean to foreigners back then, maybe they had suggested these names as well. :D Lietuvis/lietuvietis or leitis and latvis/latvietis are the Baltic male names of nationalities in Lithuanian/Latvian, so for our villagers Litas/Lats didn't seem too ridiculous everyday.

Bea ütles ...

Vilnius has some 40+ various Catholic churches. It's ubiquitous then. Kaunas has some 10, no many more, most are so simple and you can see max 3 at once if not from the special review place. Kaunas is really empty and boring in that respect. :(

LPR ütles ...

Latvians and Estonians have the same word for a belly button. Oddly, the words denoting bed are completely different. I gather that if there was some quid pro quo going on, it was done in a forest since these words are similar.

Bea ütles ...

More about the Lithuanian money names. I remembered about a trila-trala songie they sang after getting the last money change in October 1922.

Buvo rubliai/ there had been Rubles,
buvo markės,/had been [Ost]marks,
buvo auksin-ėli-ai,/had been the lovely Auksinas,
o dabar – litai, / and now, so there are Litas,
litai – mūsų pinig-ėli-ai./Litas are our lovely [or tiny] money

I took the diminutive suffix -ėl- between the "-".

Auksinas is the Lithuanian name for the country's historic money (first issued in 1564-65, once again in 1666, last issued in 1922 as renamed Ostmarks). The name Auksinas indicates the same as Polish Złoty or Dutch Gulden - that it's golden or has a value of gold (auksas). Would that be more convenient for Lithuania or less ridiculous to the foreigners if we had this name for our money instead? No.
Well, Estonians and Latvians
would at least know how to pronounce the au and the rest of the word, others would certainly misread.

Also it's interesting that Finns didn't choose the name of their money to be some krooni, and Latvians or Estonians didn't choose theirs to be mark[a].

Giustino ütles ...

Estonians had the marka until 1928. The kroon does remind me of the other nordics though: SEK, DKK, NOK, ISK, EEK. Let's see how many of these currencies are still around in 10 years!

Meelis ütles ...

"The kroon does remind me of the other nordics though"
Kroon is used as name of currency in other countries too. Kroon (koruna) in Czech Republic and Slovakia. In Austro-Hungarian Empire name of currency in 1892-1918 was Krone

Troels-Peter ütles ...

Hello Giustino, sorry to use your blog for privat correspondence. If you're at home by the beginning of July, I'm passing through Tartu on my way from an acquaintance in Warsaw to Tallinn and the XXV Üldlaulupidu. Maybe we can have a beer somewhere.

Unfortunately my telephone can't be used outside Denmark, but I'll try to get near a computer when I get closer.

Tymen Ferron ütles ...

If Estonia really wants to have the image of a Scandinavian country, maybe it's time for them to give up their social darwinist philosophy (being poor is your own fault, the flattax-rate,...) and work on a decent social welfare system.