6 Things People Assume About the Baltics

Martin Liivand • 31 May, 2016

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

MakdonaldsPhoto 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

coldPhoto 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

CrimePhoto 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

IntrovertPhoto 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

NeandertaalPhoto 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

WomenPhoto credit: Mait Jüriado

Nope, I got nothing. It’s absolutely true.

Opening photo credit: Pablo Andrés Rivero

Martin Liivand
Martin is studying history, so he could go on for hours about different invasions, treaties, movements, spheres of influence and assassination plots. If it’s old, chances are he’s heard about it.

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    There is one mistake. Latvija is not in Eastern Europe, Latvia is North Europe!!!
    Hmmm • Jun 03, 2017 • Reply
    Great article, but... you got this sentence totally wrong as it relates to Estonia: "The Baltic states were part of the Russian cultural space for a long time and still have a fairly sizeable Russian minority." The way it's written, your words normalize the brutal times when Russia historically and then the Soviet Union occupied Estonia. Truth is, Estonia was illegally and brutally occupied by the Soviet Union for 50 years from 1941-1991. Historically, Estonians have NEVER CHOSEN to be a "part of the Russian cultural space". Any and all Russian/USSR influence has always been forced on Estonia by militarily occupation, or by Russian land owners in prior centuries. Words matter. So please... "The Baltic countries have had a justifiably bitter historic relationship with their much larger and oppressive neighbour, Russia/USSR. Each country still has a fairly sizeable Russian minority".
    Kadi • Jan 19, 2017 • Reply
    I'm (American) traveling the Baltic area for a few weeks now and this is all so true. Also, I want to live in Tallinn.
    cat • Dec 13, 2016 • Reply
    Vienreizeeji! Vienkaarshi nav komentaaru. Paldies par sho rakstu 😘
    Dace • Jun 12, 2016 • Reply
    There are no Baltic states, but Baltic countries, they are all independant. Americans invented this term "states" for Baltic countries, even defined it in Wikipedia.
    Viktorija • Jun 05, 2016 • Reply
    Some people confuse the Balkans with Baltic States..
    Markas • Jun 04, 2016 • Reply
      NOT states! We don't have any states in EU. They are independent countries!
      Emily • Nov 03, 2016 • Reply
    Everything you wrote is true. My Father is Estonian and I have been back to my roots so many times I have lost count. Maybe its a good thing that visitors from space and America still ask these crazy questions. It makes it more magical when they realise the real Estonia and Baltics may be more advanced than the country they came from. Keep up the good work. I am passing your scripts on to my English and Estonian friends. Good luck.
    Leonard Iisak • Jun 04, 2016 • Reply
    Its a bit like that here in Australia. The Americans think we have kangaroos hopping down the streets of Sydney. I am an Australian born Estonian. I love "coming back" to my country of ethnicity.
    pille puvendi • Jun 04, 2016 • Reply
    Wrll Martin, why don't you mentiin that Lithuania leads the world in laser development and manufacturing, and that Lithuania has the fastest internet speed in the world (sometimes Japan tries yo compete on that)? Instead of saying you'll get there? Thanks
    David • Jun 04, 2016 • Reply
      No, actually in the Baltic`s Latvia has the fastest internet and it is the 4th fastest in the world. Estonia and Lithuania is not even in Top 10. Check you facts.
      zuze • Nov 15, 2016 • Reply
    What was that about Lithuania in 5th? This is stupid. Lithuanian internet is most fast in the world by statistics, in real life all baltics have more or less. But that makes a badass inernet in any case for all of us. In my eyes author of that sentence is no better than that american lady with electricity question.
    Tomas • Jun 04, 2016 • Reply
    Very entertaining.I have been to Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia and loved every minute of it. They are treasures!
    Wanda • Jun 04, 2016 • Reply
    Bloody excellent! And so true. The women ARE gorgeous...!!! 😁
    Mārtiņš • Jun 04, 2016 • Reply
    Thanks. I enjoyed this. I am 85 years of age, English, and was married to an Estonian for many years and we have one son. Sadly my Husband died too early at 59 years of age. He too was extremely intelligent and told me so many things about Estonia. Nothing you have written surprised me although lots of it amused me. There are, as you say, many preconceived ideas about Estonia and the Estonian race. I met so many Estonians when I was young and liked and admired them. Sadly I never visited and am now to old and somewhat handicapped to be able to fulfil that wish. My son posted this on his FB and I am so glad he did. My sincere good wishes to you and yours. Elizabeth.
    E;izabeth Poland • Jun 03, 2016 • Reply
      Elizabeth... it was lovely to read your commenT... well done! Let me clarify one point, though. Both my Estonian expat parents visited Estonia many times since the Soviets were kicked out in 1991. I was lucky enough to travel twice to Estonia with my father, in 2010 and 2013... when he was 90 and 93 years old! I can assure you the accommodations, transportation and restaurants in Estonia are very welcoming and accessible for Elders. Please do not give in to your age by holding yourself back from travelling there for a once in a life time experience. Your sparkling spirit shines through... go for it! :-)
      Kadi • Jan 19, 2017 • Reply
    Nr6 is totally true. goes for most of eastern Europa actually
    Mike • Jun 03, 2016 • Reply
    Very good read and very true
    Aidan Brophy • Jun 03, 2016 • Reply
    As for nr 5 Lithuania is already there, Vilnius has the FASTEST broadband in Europe ;)
    Paule • Jun 03, 2016 • Reply
    Well, according to data from 2015, Latvia has the 7th fastest internet connection in the world (outranked by South Korea, Sweden, Norway, Japan, Netherlands and Hong Kong). So we're doing pretty well there. :)
    Also LV • Jun 03, 2016 • Reply
    Well, Lithuanians are good at optics and lasers (https://ec.europa.eu/digital-single-market/en/news/lithuania-leading-light-laser-technology). Also, Lithuanian app Trafi is to be official public transportation app for Rio 2016 Olympics (nothing much, but still something).
    simas • Jun 02, 2016 • Reply
    Well, Walter Zapp was a German born in Riga and he invented the Minox while he was living in Estonia, but Latvian company VEF was the one who agreed to start its production. So, technically your sentence "In Latvia, Walter Zapp invented his miniature Minox camera" is not correct.
    LV • Jun 02, 2016 • Reply
    I've booked to see Lithuania and Latvia this June. I'm travelling on my own(1st time) Nervous been alone but so excited to see these countries.
    Marie • Jun 02, 2016 • Reply
      Glad to read you're about to visit our country. Myself I am from Lithuania however I study in England. In two weeks time will be back home to Lithuania for all summer, if you're planning to visit Lithuania in the second part of June please let me know if you would need any help, might be I would be able to help you out. If you need anything just let me know! Wish you to have a pleasant holiday :)
      Diana • Jun 02, 2016 • Reply
      I'm from England, I'll be going back to Lithuania in August (8th or 9th time I've visited now) and might briefly see Latvia for a day or so. The whole of the Baltics are beautiful.
      Markas • Jun 04, 2016 • Reply
    To be fair, the men are quite shy - though very friendly and loud, once they open up (gross stereotyping, though, to tell the truth). It's the women that are quite outgoing. Which is a good thing when you're a foreign male. Going to clubs in Vilnius and Tartu was great when I visited - first time women came up and talked to me and not the other way around!
    Saint Facetious • Jun 01, 2016 • Reply
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