Bugging out in the Baltics

  • 2004-02-26
Day-to-day life in the Baltic states can sometimes be a very trying affair. The unwitting foreigner has to negotiate his way through a whole range of quirky (to put it kindly) social conventions and cultural hazards that can at times leave you wondering how there can even be such a thing as day-to-day life in this part of the world.

So TBT's staff pooled its ample resources of grievances to come up with this - the definitive list of the most irritating, irksome things about life in the Baltics.

Ice and slush For too long each year the streets are sloppy minefields of wet slush, half-frozen puddles and deadly patches of ice. Dirty water dribbles from rooftops overhead, forcing pedestrians off the sidewalk, giving them the added fun of dodging traffic and hopping around to avoid car splatter. The only way to move with any speed is to walk about like a retarded penguin. And the damage done to shoes is inestimable.

Bad service Unsmiling, zombie-like waitresses are bad enough, but the worst of the worst has to be the bar staff. They seem completely bored until you reach the bar, and then they suddenly either disappear into the kitchen or turn their backs to you and start cleaning an imaginary spot. Some manage to ignore you even when you're the only customer there. If Estonian bar staff spent half the energy they did in ignoring you on just being polite and pouring beer, Estonian bars would be the toast of Europe.

Cuisine The menus are made up of pork followed by pork followed by pork. The old national dishes aren't much more thrilling - marinated eel, blood sausage, jellied meat and everyone's favorite, "mulgikapsad," which can only be described as "sauerkraut surprise" (surprise, more pork!). It's a wonder that Porky the Pig hasn't been adopted as a national symbol.

Mobile phone snobs The rule is simple - the smaller, newer, sleeker the model you have, the better the person you are. Try having dinner in a posh restaurant, and as everyone conspicuously takes out their mobiles and places them on the table, plonk down a big, clunky "old fashioned" Nokia 3310. Watch as an embarrassed silence falls over the crowd and see how quickly you're whisked away by security.

Taxi Drivers You have accent. You stupid, rich foreigner. I press button, make meter fly like Olympic stopwatch. What? You no pay? You get out! I very busy. I go to port, find more stupid foreigner.

E-mail fanatics Nobody wants to give out even the simplest information by phone. Instead they say, "Send me an e-mail." If they bother to answer at all, their answer comes way too late and it turns out they misunderstood the question. It would have been so much simpler for them to say, "No, we are closed on Sundays."

Hot water shut-offs Life in those Soviet-era apartment blocks is bad enough without having your hot water shut off for several days each summer - a strange practice for a budding, 21st-century European state. At least it explains why your neighbors smell that way. Actually, they smell that way all year round, but at least this time they have an excuse.

Gender roles Some people believe that Latvian women are at such an advanced stage of self-realization that they are post-post-feminist. Our experience, however, says otherwise. Many Latvian women seem to have derived their sense of feminine self-awareness from a Tarzan and Jane film. Gender roles are primitive, to say the least. "Me woman, me look beautiful, you man, you pay," she says. She swoons when she gets flowers, spends half her income on cosmetics and looks away when the bill comes.

Trolley-bus conductors It's true that they're paid subhuman wages, but do they really have to be quite so vindictive? Unless you have ample pocket space, never give a trolley-bus conductor anything but the correct change. If you give her a 1 lat coin, she'll almost certainly offload a pouch full of santims on you, delighting in your grimace as she carefully counts them out one by one. You'll not find a more menacing strain of granny in Europe than that of the disgruntled trolley-bus conductor and her pouch of santims.

Bell ringing There is an extraordinarily irksome custom in Latvian bars, whereby bartenders loudly ring a bell every time a customer leaves a tip. It doesn't exactly take an anthropologist to explain why. Whenever you hear a loud clang, it basically means, "Tips are lovely, tips are good, have YOU left a tip? If not, you really should."

Foreign words Is Latvian so unable to assimilate foreign influences that it has to butcher every name that enters the language? Was it really necessary for William Shakespeare to become Viljam Sekspirs or for Jean Baudrillard to become Zans Bodrijars? The grammatical need to add an 's' to names is also extremely dangerous for schizophrenics. Imagine a man with a multiple personality disorder called Fred. In Latvian he'd be Freds. "Hello Freds," you'd say. "Which one?" he'd reply.

Traffic lights Latvians can be bizarrely subservient to the rule of law. Take traffic lights. They'll patiently wait for the lights to turn green even when there's not a single car visible in either direction. Some Latvians disdainfully claim that only Russians cross the street on a red light. Others say they wait there because they're afraid of being seen by a policeman and fined. If anything is testimony to how docile Latvians can be, it's the way they stand there and wait for the little red man to turn green. And how happy they are when he finally does for then they can get on with their lives.

Normal It's normal in Latvia to say that you're normal when asked how you are. "How are you?" people ask. "Nor-mal," one replies. Ugh. It sounds like a defiant denial of abnormality in English. But in Latvia it's just...normal. Well, if it's normal, that's okay then. All good Latvians aspire to a state of blissful normality.

Dill Latvians garnish just about every dish on the menu by putting a piece of dill on it (salt and pepper is optional). You can just picture the proud chef, with a bucket of dill at his feet, diligently putting the final flourish to his work of haute cuisine. And just as Latvians standardize foreign words into Latvian, so they tend to dillify foreign cuisine. Please, we are begging you to consult a cookbook. There are other ways of dressing food apart from tossing a piece of dill onto it.

Wimpy napkins Trees are everywhere in the Baltics. But look at any restaurant table in the Baltics, and you'll most likely find an anemic-looking napkin. This conundrum has baffled many a Baltic expat, most of whom were probably raised on a healthy diet of plump serviettes capable of absorbing even the most unbecoming flecks of food from around the mouth. Why exactly Balts have been unable to transform their ample forests into sufficiently sturdy napkins, when other countries less blessed with such foliage do a much better job of it, will perhaps remain a mystery forever.

Expensive connections It's a well-known rule of capitalism that rich people get more things for free than poor people do. Just compare the frequent customer programs of the Ritz Carlton New York and the corrugated aluminum beer kiosk down your street. By this rule, it is only logical that Balts should have to pay a lot more for their plane tickets and international phone calls than Westerners, who can actually afford such things. While a call from America, where GDP per head is about $35,000, to Lithuania, whe-re it is not, costs around $0.26 per minute, calling in the opposite direction is roughly five times as expensive. Thank you, market forces.

Trolley-bus odors Lietuvos rytas, the main Lithuanian daily, recently ran an article alleging that trolley-bus safety is only one step above that of a moving electric chair. While there have been few incidents of electrocution on trolley-buses in recent years, fatalities due to their stench are alarmingly frequent. Generally speaking, a trip on this most Sovietic of vehicles subjects one to a nasty cocktail of unwashed clothing, B. O., farts, burps, and, if one rides later in the evening, possibly vomit.

Bagged milk In theory, it's a nice idea. Instead of purchasing a bulky and expensive carton that will take decades to decompose in a landfill, why not buy your milk in a lightweight plastic bag? Why not? Because as physics would have it, liquids don't keep a shape of their own, and a flimsy plastic bag does little to help matters. The unsuspecting consumer will discover this fact once at home, when the opened bag has leaked throughout the refrigerator and perhaps even onto the kitchen floor. In this case, it is neither the consumer nor the environment, but the family cat that most benefits from this fundamentally flawed experiment in milk packaging.

Dubbed television The expat's frustration at listening to a heavily dubbed cheesy American medical drama goes without saying. But the epidemic of dubbing foreign programming has unhappy consequences for locals as well. The last generation of Balts perfected their Russian by watching subtitled programs. But while the former hegemony of the Russian language led to the current laws restricting subtitling, there's plenty of quality local language programming around to counterbalance the strain that could be caused by allowing people to watch Skippy the Bush Kangaroo in the original.

By Steve Roman,
Tim Ochser and Steven Paulikas