A few of our favorite things

  • 2004-04-01
When TBT published the article "Bugging Out in the Baltics" several weeks ago, in which we listed some of the most annoying things about day-to-day life in this part of the world, we received several letters of strongly worded complaint (ahem, all from Latvians). So to show just how fair-minded our publication is, we decided to publish a list of the things that most endear us to the three Baltic states. We wanted to avoid the usual tourist book spiel about song festivals, storks and the like, and to come up with a list of those small, special everyday things that can make living in the Baltics such a pleasure. So here it is - these are a few of our favorite things.


Gorgeous women
It's impossible to broach this subject without sounding like a testosterone-crazed sex pig or a tourist from Devonshire, but let's face it, what foreign men really love about this country is that it's overrun with heart-stoppingly beautiful females. Every street, every shop and cafe, and yes, even the libraries are chock-full of drop-dead-gorgeous supermodel types. While the more diplomatic of us might take a break from our ogling to make stuffy proclamations like, "true beauty is on the inside," most of us prefer to simply stand, stare and drool like idiots.

All-day crepes
Enlightened Estonians have wisely freed crepes from being confined to breakfast. Traditional, jelly-filled crepes still make a great start to any day, but there are also substantial, meal-type varieties available ranging from bacon and cheese to tuna fish to smoked turkey. When you wake up at 2 p.m. after a night of heavy partying, there's nothing that cures a hangover like a cheese-filled crepes. And when you go out drinking again the next night and get the munchies, what do you do? Hurray, more crepes!

Hi-tech chic
Sure it's convenient to do your banking online, use your mobile phone to buy condoms from vending machines and whatnot, but it's in the wireless arena that Estonia's obsession with high-tech has really helped out us nerd types. In Tallinn alone, there are over 140 Wifi "hotspots" - cool cafes, bars and restaurants where trendy people actually show off by working away on their laptops and PDAs. No longer do computer users have to feel like outcast freaks.

No dubbing
In most cases Estonia doesn't dub TV programs, and that makes a huge difference to the quality of life here. The simple joy of being able to watch "Ally McBeal" or "The Simpsons" in the original may sound trite, but non-dubbed TV has also meant big improvements to the locals' English skills. Just beware when your Estonian boss rubs his hands together like Mr. Burns and belts out an evil-sounding "Excellent!"

One degree
of separation
Trying to track down an old friend? Just ask a random person on the street. Chances are that if they don't know them, they know someone who does. The advantage of being in a country this small is that everyone is easy to find. And you rarely have to introduce anyone to anyone else since they usually already know each other. "No, you don't have to tell me about your new girlfriend. She's my sister."

Sang froid
Foreigners often complain about Estonian's seeming lack of emotion and poor communication skills, but it's not always a bad thing. It also means no screaming matches or fistfights. At worst, an altercation will end with a wry insult, delivered so subtly as to be almost invisible.

The upside of having to spend the entire winter in a long, batlike twilight is that we get to enjoy the superlong summer nights. Once summer gets into its stride, it feels like there's a whole day ahead even after work hours are over. (By Steve Roman.)


Public ashtrays
Latvian streets must be among the cleanest anywhere in Europe. Much of the credit for this immaculate state of affairs must be given to the army of (straw) broom-wielding babushkas deployed on every city block. But it's also down to the fact that garbage bins-cum-ashtrays are simply everywhere. The result is amazingly few cigarettes butts on the streets. Just flick...and go.

118 is perhaps the most omniscient telephone directory service in the whole of Europe. They don't merely give out phone numbers and addresses, like most ordinary phone operators do. No, they'll try their best to answer any question you care to throw at them, be it about astrophysics, the whereabouts of the nearest dry cleaners or the teletubbies. "Hello operator, what's the meaning of life," you say. "Hold the line please sir, I'll just see if I can find it on my computer," she'll eagerly reply. What a bargain for 10 santims a minute.

Forget all the poisonous lies being propagated by those with a political agenda. We believe that Latvia is a paragon of multiethnic culture. Sure, there are problems, but when do you ever see ethnically inspired violence, which is an all-too-common occurrence in those very Western countries that preach human rights to Latvia. Most young people can effortlessly speak Latvian and Russian, and are also competent in a third language (usually English or German). And Latvia is much the richer place for it.

Looking good
Latvians are pretty much always immaculately turned out, whatever the weather, and whatever the occasion. Indeed, going by appearances, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the majority of Latvians were seriously loaded. It's a wonder people don't put on their tuxes when they go to the cinema. Grunge? Ugh, pass the sponge.

We just love this word, which means "okay" or "well." It's incredibly soothing to utter, like an incantation, so that you just want to say "labi, labi, labi," regardless of whether it's actually labi or not. Worried? Stressed? No worries, just give yourself a labi-otomy and everything will be fine. Labi? Interestingly, there's also a chain of porn stores called Labi. Cunning word play or what?

The butterfly effect
Latvia's turbulent history serendipitously left it with a border that resembles a butterfly (albeit with one wing bigger than the other). It thus has the rare distinction of being one of the only countries in the world whose landmass makes a pretty picture (Italy being a Caka Street-style boot and Norway a giant El Grecoesque bowling pin). It's also an interesting way to put chaos theory to the test. You know, if a butterfly flaps its wings in the Baltics...

Latvian is the gentlest of languages on the ear. Where Italian is vulgarity itself, and French sounds like chronic logorrhea, Latvian is delightfully mellifluous. Someone should table a U.N. motion to make it the international language of diplomacy. Then the world might be a more labi place. (By Tim Ochser.)


Convenient airports
The cab from the center of Vilnius to the airport costs about 10 litas (2.50 euros), roughly the equivalent of one mile of the journey on the filthy train you'll take to the center of London once you land at Gatwick. Of course, for those who enjoy stuffing themselves onto overcrowded inter-terminal railway systems or walking several miles from one gate to the next, airports in the Baltics are probably a bit of a disappointment.

Fresh berries
and mushrooms
It starts with the red currants in late July. Then, every week brings a new treat-blackberries, raspberries, black currants...until the gooseberry harvest signals the end, that is, until the mushrooms pick up. Ah, it's good to be a Baltic hunter-gatherer.

Yes, it may come in bags here, but even poorly conceived packaging can't detract from the joy of Baltic milk. Milk is to the Baltics what wine is to France (that is, minus the ageing process). Each dairy produces its own subtly different version of the stuff-and if you're a true diehard, you can buy it directly from the farmer in the countryside.

Creative television
Monday night: intellectual talk show. Wednesday night: biting political satire. Saturday night: girls wrestling in honey. Why is it that a country like America, with a television market about 1,000 times larger than Lithuania's, can't come up with stuff like this?

Lots of space
Okay, "lots" is a relative term-apologies to Alaskans and Laplanders for stealing their thunder. But for countries entirely located within a bearable climate zone, the Baltics are anything but crowded. Just ask a Belgian living in the Baltics what he thinks of not being squeezed in like so many moules in a can.

For those who don't know it, the Vilnius theater scene is happening, a fact that's all the more pleasing because it's not something one would immediately expect. Even better yet, the low-key nature of theater here means you don't have to listen to snobbish commentary from the row behind you during the performance.

Lake swimming
When the glaciers said goodbye to the Baltics, they left a dandy parting gift. The lake swimming season in these parts may be short, but it's sweet indeed. And best of all, of the thousands of lakes to choose from, most are totally unspoiled. (By Steve Paulikas.)