In recent years, the Baltic states have become more well-known travel destinations, but people still tend to not know too much about them. What are the Baltic states? Where are the Baltic states? Should we be afraid of them? Do they get Game of Thrones?
Those select few travellers who have reached the shores of the Baltics tell tales of a mysterious and magical land inhabited by three ancient and wise peoples who mostly like to make fun of each other and drink too much beer. But, the stories aren’t always true and there’s still a fair share of misconceptions out there about these fair lands.
What follows is a list of six things people typically assume about the Baltics, each of them commented upon and either disproved or confirmed by a lifelong Estonian and passionate Baltics fan – Martin.
1. Everybody speaks Russian
Photo credit: Andy House Photos
In all fairness, it’s not difficult to see why people tend to think this. The Baltic states were part of the Russian cultural space for a long time and still have a fairly sizeable Russian minority.
It doesn’t really matter that when I try to speak Russian I kind of sound like Brad Pitt in that scene from Inglorious Bastards where he pretends to speak Italian. The belief is still going strong. If I had a penny for every time I heard this stereotype, I’d likely have enough pennies by now to take a Russian course and finally learn the damn thing!
It’s important to point out that Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian are actual languages and not some weird mumbo-jumbo Tolkien made up to make his race of magical badger people seem more authentic. While the older generation does speak Russian fairly fluently having grown up in the Soviet Union, younger generations are definitely more oriented towards English.
Everything is in English nowadays, and with everyone from the weatherman to Tony Stark shouting at us in this language, even the slowest learner will pick up some eventually.
2. It’s always cold
Photo credit: Anita
It can’t be warm in Eastern Europe, right? After all, it’s right next to Russia, a country where temperatures above 0 °C have been outlawed since the dawn of time. And the Baltics are right next to Russia, which means that the only things the locals do are drink vodka, go ice fishing, get into fist fights with polar bears, listen to “Ice Ice Baby” by Vanilla Ice and then drink some more vodka. Which is totally not true! “Play That Funky Music” is a much more refined tune and should be considered the epitome of Vanilla Ice’s refrigeration-themed musical career.
But, I stray from the point. What people often fail to understand is that while the winters here can indeed be pretty harsh, it’s entirely possible to come over and not immediately die of hypothermia while waiting to claim your baggage. In summertime, it’s fairly common for temperatures to reach 25 °C or even 30 °C. You can leave your sweater behind in July – you won’t need it!
Old habits do die hard, though. Last August we still had Brits walking around in beanies and coats when it was 30 °C outside. Maybe they thought that the warm weather was just a hoax conjured up by the locals to help them sell more amber and that it would disappear immediately once the quota had been filled.
So, feel free to leave your coat at home and hit the beach. Grab an ice cream and enjoy the sun. You can tell people back home that you actually swam in the sea in Eastern Europe! They’ll most likely imagine you wresting a Russian submarine with your bare hands in steely grey waters while wearing Speedos with Lenin’s face printed on them. Which is not a bad look, if you ask me.
3. It’s scary Eastern Europe
Photo credit: Peretz Partensky
We’ve all seen American action movies. Taking centre stage is Captain Freedom-Person beating some honest-to-God liberty into baddies with his Democracy Stick. And the baddies? They’re usually from “The East” and that’s a scary place. It’s filled with abandoned grey buildings and irrationally large numbers of Kalashnikovs. The local guys are always sporting Adidas sweatpants, driving old BMWs and speaking with Russian accents that have about as much to do with real Russian as the things I just described relate to the Baltic states.
Well, I’m proud to say that I’ve managed to live to the ripe age of 25 without having seen a single Kalashnikov! While crime was a big problem in the Baltics in the 90s, nowadays it’s one of the safest regions to travel around in Eastern Europe.
Visitors are often pleasantly surprised by what the region has to offer. They expect everything to be old, falling apart, grey and Soviet. Instead they find beautifully maintained medieval old towns, shopping malls and modern technology.
So, don’t be alarmed when your loved ones say that they’re going to take a quick trip to the Baltics. The locals are way too busy hating each other to pay your sons and daughters any attention.
4. People are quiet and shy
Photo credit: brett jordan
This is one of the most common stereotypes that even the newest editions of tourist guidebooks mention. Apparently, when you go to the Baltics, people never smile, rarely talk and always seem like they’d rather jump off the nearest bridge instead of saying hello. The situation seems to be so bad we’re approaching Finnish levels of introversion (sorry Finns, please don’t stop buying our cheap booze!)
It’s possible that the stereotype stems from the early 90s when the first foreign tourists started arriving in the Baltics after the fall of the Soviet Union. During Soviet times it definitely mattered what you said and to whom you said it. Nowadays things are a bit more lax, though. I bet you didn’t even read the Terms & Conditions of this blog post. Just don’t look at your bank account once you’re done reading.
Of course in the Baltics, like anywhere in the world, you’ll find people with varying levels of quietness, but I think that the stern and stoic Easterner is largely a thing of the past. Locals are absolutely fine with being open about their emotions. Say you meet a local in a bar in Tallinn and want to strike up a conversation. Just casually mention Skype and you’ll melt the heart of even the coldest Estonian.
In Riga, they’ll be more than happy to honk their horns and yell at you when you drive around downtown like an idiot, and in Vilnius they’ll merrily lynch you on the nearest lamppost when you mention that their basketball team sucks. Anyway, so what if we don’t smile all the time? You try tolerating an endless stream of British stag parties and let’s see how jolly you are after the last batch of vomit has been cleaned up.
Seriously, though, don’t mess with the Lithuanian basketball team. They will find you and they will end you.
5. We’re living in the Stone Age
Photo credit: Raul Pacheco-Vega
Nothing quite beats the experience of standing on the main square of Estonia’s capital, Tallinn, and being asked by an American lady whether or not I have electricity in my country. Maybe she thought we were using ancient ritualistic blood magic to power that Apple Store over there. We can’t really do that anymore since joining the EU, though.
“Do you know what the Internet is?” is another classic from Riga. And one of my favourites from Vilnius, “Do you have running water here?”, also holds a special place in my heart. Yeah, dude, we have running water.
You really don’t have to worry about whether I’ve ever felt the rush that can only come with opening a browser window for the first time. In fact, my Internet connection is most likely better than yours, since Estonia is currently one of the leading IT countries in the world. We invented Skype! We vote online! In Latvia, Walter Zapp invented his miniature Minox camera, which was an integral part of life for every self-respecting Cold War-era spy. As for Lithuania… umm… Well, you’ll get there one day as well, I’m sure!
The point is that everything over here is more or less the same as in your home country. We have shopping centres, you can pig out at McDonald’s and there are actual working toilets (with running water) to embrace when you’re finally done with your Happy Meal! And at the end of the day, that’s what modern civilisation is all about.
6. The women are drop-dead gorgeous
Photo credit: Mait Jüriado
Nope, I got nothing. It’s absolutely true.
Opening photo credit: Pablo Andrés Rivero