Lietuva (Lithuania)

I've heard it said -- and I'm sorry I can't tell you by whom or in what context -- that it's better to leave the table a bit hungry than a bit stuffed. That's certainly the case with Lietuva (which is what Lithuanians call their country) and probably true as well for the other 3 nations I've visited thus far this trip.

I've spent about the same time traveling here as in Latvia (9 1/2 days each), 2 days more than in Estonia, and 3 more than in Russia; yet I've cycled a far greater distance -- 37% more kms than in LV and 46% more than in Estonia. LT is the largest of the Baltics in population and land mass, and it probably fits statistically between the other 2 in terms of level of development and quality of life/cost of living; all three seem to me quite similar in these regards, however.

I've seen much more of LT in terms of kms, and because it's the third Baltic I've visited, I am noticing more. I am disregarding similarities with the other Baltics -- things that seem 'old hat' and picking up on new phenomena (which may exist in EST or LV but which I didn't notice). Perhaps if I had visited the Baltics in reverse order, EST as the third visited would have presented me more curiosities.

As it is, LT seems richly full of oddities. For example, the cows are often not fenced in; rather they are on leads that are anchored to the ground. Each morning granny comes to the meadow to milk them. I've often seen cows waiting on granny at their pales (one for the milk, the other granny's seat). Then the milk tanker arrives at each farm to fetch the receptacles.

Some farms have fences but most, which seem to be family farms, do not. The fields now at hay harvest are dominated by older women, who shuffle and dry the haystacks that their men have composed with a horse-drawn cutter and rake. This is the lowest technology farming I have ever run across in Europe; the counterpart of rice farming in China or Vietnam. It's quaint, of course, but in this era of globalization, it seems unlikely that LT's farms can muster sufficiently high levels of productivity to compete with agribusiness. There's much LT could grow for export to China - in the next decades China will need wheat, soybeans, meat, fruit, just about everything except dairy products. I fear LT agriculture will miss this opportunity.

I had an unplanned visit to such a small farm. When I cycled from Nida on the Curonian Spit (a 100 km by 204 km wide pine-forested sand dune, unique ecology and the former summer home of Thomas Mann), where I visited a SERVAS host, on the way to Vente, where I was to camp, I ran into thunder and lightening. Getting wet is part of the cycling experience (I keep telling myself) and electrical storms do not especially scare me, and I only stopped because I do not want my obituary to read: He died of stupidity. I sought cover in a farmyard and met the family. Granny served me coffee and the son asked if I spoke Russian. No, English. They called in his 17-year- old nephew, granny's grandson, who served as my interpreter, his 5 years of English affording him an ability he didn't know he had. Their life seemed more or less basic. For good luck, as is the local custom, they kept a pair of roosting storks who lived atop the barn and returned each summer from north Africa to raise their young. The family had a beat-up car and an old tractor. They did not have much of a material economy, but seemed quite content, if one can judge contentment in such a brief visit. There were 5 grandchildren; this is perhaps unusual in a country with negative population growth. I am not sure the farm will survive the next generation. The son and various grandchildren were all visitors; granny lived alone. I gave them some Chinese coins; they gave me a kilo of cucumbers.

In LT I've started to better appreciate Baltic food. It is a basic meat and potato fare, but there are gems. LT ranks near the top in world per capita beer consumption; they have developed some great beer snacks. Deep-fried brown bread sticks with garlic or mashed peas with bacon bits (zirniai su spirgilikais). There is a potato pastry called kugelis and its relative the infamous cepelinai - zeppelin-shaped potato dough meat-filled concoctions that my guidebook described as 'once eaten, never forgotten.' I also visited some restaurants that were experimenting. The French may have the greatest number of cheeses, but the Baltics and Russia are vastly superior in terms of other dairy products. The Baltics are extremely creative with cows' milk: kefirs, white cheeses, sour cream, cream cheeses, frozen desserts, etc. I can't even find cottage cheese in French markets! So when Baltic chefs blend these bovine gifts into sophisticated cuisine, the results can be impressive.

By the time I finished LT, I was a bit cultured-out. My last two roofed museums, in Kaunas, were superb, but I felt myself dragging -- maybe the result of almost 2,500 kms these first 4 weeks. The Devil Museum featured what must be the world's largest collection of carved or ceramic devils, extraordinary and overwhelming. I also visited the collection of M.K. Ciurlionis (1875-1911) a major symphonic composer who was an accomplished painter, whose work another of my guidebooks characterizes as "a cross between Monet on acid and Dali on valium." Some of his paintings correspond to his music; an artist who achieved great heights in two fields, perhaps if he had been born in Paris or New York, Ciurlionis would be a household word around the world. Now, he's just a LT national treasure, rightly deserved.

The last museum I visited was the Open-Air Lithuanian Country Life Museum near Kaunas, similar in concept to those in EST and LV. I was permitted to cycle around the villages, reconstructed from various regions of LT. Its collection and the emphasis on crafts and arts give it a different feel from its Baltic cousins. I didn't spend the time it deserved; I was cultured out.

So when I visited Vilnius, the capital, I did little more than spend the day cycling around the old town and visiting other parts of the city in a vain attempt to find a tube for my 26 inch x 1.35 tire. I camped two nights on Lake Galve, in view of the red brick Trakai castle. I was too cultured-out to visit the interior, so this castle is on my ever growing list of places to visit next time around. My basic advice, therefore, on visiting the Baltics is to tour each on a separate grip. Their individualism and cultural & gastronomic richness will become more apparent than on a single visit. Ah well, bye-bye Baltics. Until next time.

2 August 2003

Suwalki, Poland