Exploring the Baltic States…

October 25, 2011

After a lovely week exploring the Baltic states, I am back in Moscow and back on the blog!

My absolute first impression of Riga was that it was small – after the vast expanse that constitutes Moscow, I doubt I will be struck again by the size of a city… We spent most of our time walking around and exploring, although we also took in an official tour of each city. The Latvian Natural History Museum, a contemporary classical music concert in Tallinn (which encored with an awesome fiddle-piece from a Scottish composer) and a medieval castle outside Riga rounded out a wonderful break from the Moscow bustle.

For a trip meant for us to practice our Russian language skills in another area of the region/world, the Baltic states turned out to demand more English usage than my typical life in Moscow. I usually feel somewhat uncomfortable travelling and speaking English to locals, as if I am assuming that they should speak my language, and the American accent doesn’t help with the overall imperialistic feel. In both Riga and Tallinn, I felt like asking, “which imperialistic language would you like me to speak with you?” In a bar in Riga, approximately one hour after our arrival in the country, one student in our group was given a rather drunken but very emotional lecture on the topic of the Latvian language. This lecture was given to us in English, made all the more strange by the fact that the man (because of his age) definitely spoke perfect Russian, which he knew we were speaking with each other. While not actually constituting an aggressive encounter, it was certainly unsettling enough for us to speak very quietly and quickly switch to English with locals for the rest of the trip. Our tour guide in Estonia was not the only person whom we encountered on our trip that warned us about relations between Russian-speakers (25-30% of Estonia’s population, heavily concentrated in Tallinn) and Estonians, relations which are icy at best and outright confrontational at times. In Riga this was less evident, and the woman at the enormous Central Market, from whom I bought the best apples I’ve tasted outside of Vermont, was more than happy to speak Russian with me, as were other vendors there. (For you linguists out there Latvian and Estonian are members of the Indo-European family, although Estonian is very closely related to the ever-elusive Finnish language. I understood absolutely none of it. Depending on the region, dialects might include Russian or German influences).

Both Latvia and Estonia bear the cultural influences (clothing, food, and language) of the various powers that occupied the Baltic territories over the centuries. Our tour guide in Estonia happily admitted that the Estonian national cuisine doesn’t actually exist – it’s straight-up German sausages with sauerkraut and potatoes. Funnily enough, the restaurant serving “Latvian fair” in Riga boasted the exact same dish. The extremely strong (wasabi-like in impact, though not in taste) mustard was a particular treat. Rigan balsam is the liqueur specialty of the region, while in Tallinn there is a Kahlua-like “wine” that is drunk with coffee.

The architecture in both Riga and Tallinn was the biggest treat for me – after Moscow concrete, even the overly quaint buildings in the Old City in Tallinn were lovely. I preferred Riga and its architecture in general – and the simply enormous quantity of coffee shops only supported this positive impression. Coffee in both cities was a sight less expensive than in Moscow – a treat for most of us on the trip. We flew into Riga, and then travelled by car to Tallinn, which was a long but lovely route. I noticed the many gorgeous farms and plentiful gardens outside of houses along the way – and even a new farming technique I remembered my brother explaining, when smaller plants are grown beneath and between trees in an orchard. Tallinn struck me as a very fashionable and stylish city – many of us agreed that we preferred the Scandinavian sweaters and funky sneakers to the fur and heels of Moscow. It seemed to be the Scandinavian influences were much stronger in Tallinn, which is not surprising considering Finland is a two-hour ferry ride away.

And of course – I took plenty of pictures! My camera is still waiting to be recharged, so a slideshow of my favorite photos will be up soon. Note to future students and travelers in general: an adaptor is difficult to find in Moscow, so don’t forget one like I did!

Thoughts on my first play in Russia (Chekhov’s “The Seagull”) to come,

Hillary

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One Response to “Exploring the Baltic States…”

  1. In both Riga and Tallinn, I felt like asking, “which imperialistic language would you like me to speak with you?” – that is really absolutely great!!! Love your blog and your view of Russia 🙂

    You know, I too feel tired of Moscow heels and fur.. lately wearing jeans, shirts and HM sweaters most of the time, though before I used to be quite a “moscow glamorous girl” with makeup and dresses and shoes.. Maybe that’s american and european young people influence)

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