***I implore you to take your time with this blog and play the videos embedded within it. Don’t worry, it’ll be fun. Start the fight against A.D.D. now!***
Unlike Scandinavia, the images I had of the Baltic before I arrived were provided by Lonely Planet Eastern Europe and Wikipedia: Orthodox spires, Catholic monoliths, gingerbread trim, and a Soviet hangover. But much more than that – and the images that made me most curious about this part of Northern Europe – was Eurovision. I’ve been a fan of the trashy pop phenomena for years now, and I’m always much more curious about what comes out of the smaller, unknown countries of Europe – especially those that are relatively new nation states. I pay close attention when the host country crosses to each faraway, elusive capital, and study intently what the ‘ambassador-of-the-douze–points’ is wearing, how thick their English accent is, and how much their lost-in-translation gags dumbfound the glitzy presenters on the other end of the line.
Arriving in Vilnius (Lithuania), I was slightly disappointed. This year they presented the following song to the world:
And yet, I saw no plaid trousers, no foam instruments, and nobody randomly stripped down to sequin hot pants at the intro to a chorus. (I bet that made you play the video.)
This song, however funky, is actually a good tongue-in-cheek introduction to the region. In it, the five singers tell us that Eastern Europe isn’t as dirty and backwards as we (us in Western Europe Australia) might have preconceived (they “wash their kitchens and their hands are squeaky clean”). In fact, when I explored the supermarkets in Vilnius (my favourite pastime when travelling), I discovered a bigger range of products than I’d seen in Warsaw, Berlin and Copenhagen – and what was on offer seemed more international too. I guess when a country has been kept in the dark for such a long time; it plays catch-up with gusto. Just look at the transformation of Shanghai in the last 20 years. These cheeky Lithuanians are known as the ‘Italians of the East’, and as I continued exploring the streets I discovered a colourful, subversive young culture bubbling underneath the grey, stony face of its past.
I must add here that every local I spoke to rolled their eyes when I mentioned Eurovision; in the same way an Australian would if some traveller said they loved watching Hey Hey it’s Saturday. They insisted that most people are unimpressed by the event, but I did hear the 2010 winner in almost every public space with a radio. So, jury’s out on that one.
What I deduced from Eurovision before I went to the Baltics was that they must fetishise late 80s/early 90s pop – the first Western music available after the Iron Curtain was ripped from its railings. On the bus from Vilnius to Riga, I couldn’t help congratulating myself on the observation: the TV played a loop of solid gold, cringe-worthy ultra-pop from the time. I do realise bus companies have limits to what they can play. (Like the bus ride in Brazil, watching Beverly Hills Cop III: We’re All Out of Ideas.) I’m just happy I had four hours to revisit classics such as:
…and in a part of the world where the hairstyles haven’t progressed from this ‘Golden Era of Hairspray’.
I arrived in Riga (Latvia) and it was raining. I didn’t mind, though. I was going to have a private room for the first time in almost 2 months, and I dragged my bag to my immaculate hostel with a spring in my step. Despite the rain, Riga seemed a little bit more run-down than Vilnius: relics of communism had been transformed or were still in use. Car parks crumbled. The juxtaposition of how city council spending was poured into the centre – the Disneylandesque Old Town, the restored art nouveau district, and the modern shopping malls – compared to the concrete jungle of the suburbs was much more pronounced than in Vilnius. But it could all wait to be explored. As I closed the door to my hostel room, I dropped my bags and danced, punching the air in celebration of having four walls I could totally relax in.
Riga is half Latvian and half Russian: the population almost split 50-50, which means you hear equal amounts of each language. Not wanting to offend anyone (but offending everyone by the same token) I didn’t learn ‘hello’ or ‘thank you’, lest I said it in the wrong language to the wrong person. [In Lithuania I enjoyed saying “Achoo” when I thanked someone.] With this confusion of languages in mind, pay attention to the lyrics in Latvia’s entry in the 2010 Eurovision competition:
Only Mister God knows who translated that song into English.
I enjoyed four more hours of pop on the bus from Riga to Tallinn, though I noticed this time the songs were a bit “cooler”, like someone had chosen them with a knowing ear. (Until these songs joined the loop of songs I’d seen on the previous trip, and I realised it was the same tape. I was wrong. I was just projecting what I wanted to discover about the region’s poor taste in music onto the Eurolines megamix.)
What I’d read, though, was that Estonia was the most developed of the three Baltic countries – the most ‘Scandinavian’ (whatever that means), and the smallest in population. In fact, Estonia has less people in it than South Australia. I also discovered the factoid that it was here that Skype was born. Who knew? Another great idea from Northern Europe. And as you can see from their entry into Eurovision 2010, they’re certainly the most unique.
In fact, Estonian is the closest related language to Finnish – which, if you’re a cunning linguist you’d know, is an oddity, closer related to Hungarian in grammar, and singular in many other aspects.
The centre of Tallinn looks the most modern of the Baltic capitals, with new steel and glass office buildings and interesting contemporary architecture; and I spotted a few Euro-hipsters almost immediately as I got off the bus.
I wasn’t looking forward to staying in a dorm again [and was reminded exactly why two nights later when I endured the German woman above me in the bunk bed receiving cunnilingus at four in the morning], but was pleasantly surprised that the owner of the hostel, an Australian with an ex-Estonian girlfriend, was an interesting, and interested guy, who really knew his way around the more hidden parts of the city. Almost straight away he sat me down and scribbled on a map all the places I should see, and told me the stories of many of the sights I’d normally glaze over because a church is a church is a church. He told me about the superstitious Estonians and the myths they believed shaped their nation and the capital. For some stories, click here.
I also had the luck to meet some real, live Estonians who could tell me more about their city and the country they had seen change over the last 20 years. This is what travelling is all about, and no amount of travel literature or other traveller talk can give the insight (beautiful and subjective) that a local can. So I imagined life during the occupation: rationed food, no food, newspaper for loo roll, concrete blocks for houses, with no running water; Soviet occupation, then Nazi occupation, and then Hello Stalin!
In August 1989, the Baltic states organised a peaceful protest against the Soviet occupation: a demonstration to grab the attention of the West to show they wanted independence. Over two million people held hands to form a chain called ‘the Baltic Way’. It was an inspiring sight – in some parts of Riga it was five people deep. Six months later, Lithuania became the first to gain independence.
In Estonia, they had already started another type of peaceful revolution. With singing.
The first Song Festival began in 1869, and it was created to reawaken Estonian identity. From 1947, the Soviet authorities forced their own political songs into the repertoire of the festival. To counter this, Estonians changed the lyrics slightly so that the songs became subversive criticism of the agenda, and because the Russians didn’t understand Estonian, they got away with it. Now the Song Festival is held every five years (the last one was in 2009) and, like how Australians suddenly become patriotic during the Olympics, literally every Estonian dons national costume and sings (everyone knows the words) for the four days of the festival. They congregate at Lauluväljak (the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds) and together they celebrate the traditions of one of the smallest ethnic populations of Europe. Here’s an example of one of the hymns, and I dare you not to be moved by the collective mourning/nostalgia (the Portuguese have a better word for it, Saudade) of a nation:
I sat where there is a statue of the creator of the festival overlooking the grounds. Last year there were over 200, 000 people in and around the area. I couldn’t imagine that many people singing.
I stood up and started mumbling the words to a song I had stuck in my head about stolen kisses and giving in to lust. Not so political, but then again I felt grateful for it at that moment.