icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Adventures in the Baltic

Hubby and I are travelers, not tourists. We don’t play well with others in terms of wake-up calls, getting on a bus, and seeing predetermined sites. We’d rather do things the hard way to keep our independence, even if it results in some discomfort -- which usually happens. So except in Korea, where they absolutely refused to rent us a car, we always get one. We not only want to avoid schedules, we especially want to drive around the countryside and see what the farmers are doing. Actually, even in Korea this worked out, as the university that invited us was in a rural area and provided a student driver.

I’m a farmer at heart, and as cities internationalize, I think it’s important to see the farms and villages for a better picture of what life was like when immigrants to America left a century or so ago. Immigration, you may know, is the subject of my first book and where my historical heart lies. We also want a car so that we can stop when we see something to photograph or when we spot a welcoming café with nice flowers.

We just finished this kind of trip through the four nations on the south side of the Baltic Sea: Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, as well as Poland, where I spoke at the University of Bialystok. Well, technically it was five nations: we went a tiny distance into Belarus, until the border guard made it clear that we were on the wrong road. We hadn’t intended to visit this still very totalitarian nation, and he quickly and politely understood that. (Actually, we were on the right road, but going in the wrong direction, as none of these nations include directional signs with the road numbers. We really regretted lacking a compass, and the GPS didn’t work outside of Poland.)

It’s a nine-hour flight to Warsaw, but my Minnesota-based nephew frequently does business there and gave us a good hotel recommendation. After a couple of days there, especially in its delightful Old Town, we rented a new Volkswagen (with features I never did figure out, but no compass), and then went north to the small and lovely town of Kausas, just across the Polish border in Lithuania.

Like many medieval settlements, its ancient fortress was built at the junction of two rivers, the Neris and the Nemunas. Parts of the castle still are there, and we watched teenagers, both girls and boys, playing soccer in the moat. Founded about 1030, Kausas is proud to be the only Lithuanian city that was part of the Hanseatic League. You may remember from your World History classes that this league of cities on the Baltic was the first serious attempt at peaceful regulated commerce, as businesses from Amsterdam to Helsinki traded with each other. Tampa’s Mayor Bob would have been a natural back then.

This portion of the trip was on a heavily traveled road, with many trucks going from the port city of Riga, Latvia, to deliver goods to Warsaw. Most were Mercedes-Benz or Volvos from Germany and Sweden, and drivers were polite but fast. The road was deemed a motorway on the map, but it in reality, it was two lanes with little opportunity to pass. I was scared to death the first time we discovered their create-a-lane system: in certain marked zones, vehicles can come at you head-on, and you are expected to pull off to the right to let them by. I thought I was a goner the first time a big truck headed straight at us, but we soon got used to it.

* * *

So roads are not what that they do best, but they are working on them. More on roads later, especially in regard to Latvia, which is the most Soviet-like of these former Iron Curtain republics. But first some things that they do better than we do:

Cleanliness! In hundreds of miles in all four nations, I didn’t see as much litter as I easily can when driving a hundred yards in Tampa. Trash is virtually unknown, and no one tosses it from a vehicle. Cigarette smokers (who were much less numerous than I expected) walked out of their way for a trashcan rather than grind the stub into the sidewalk. Public rest rooms invariably are shiny clean. There was only one point when I expected a different situation: we took a break at a café connected to a gas station, and I could see that at least a dozen people had used the unisex restroom – but when I screwed up my courage to also do so, it was fine. The man who preceded me even put down the lid.

He probably had a beer with his lunch -- and yes, as in western Europe, every convenience store also sold hard liquor. The Baltic nations aren’t as in-your-face as Spain, which has bars (without food) in the median of motorways, but it was easy to obtain any sort of liquor at gas stations. But we never saw anyone drunk. We rarely do outside of the US. Children elsewhere learn early that alcohol is part of life, and when I tried to explain Prohibition to the university audience, they had difficulty grasping the concept.

Nor do people try to sell you things you don’t need. Unlike many other places, especially Caribbean port towns, there were no street vendors and not even many souvenir shops. Every city has a tourist-attracting Old Town, of course, but even there, legitimate antique stores were more common than the tacky shops you’ll find here in Florida. And every Old Town abounds with flowers. I’ve never seen such beautiful petunias, lobelia, geraniums, and more. The cool, damp weather suits them well.

Waiters also tried to hold down our bills. We often order more than we can eat because we want to try new things, and several waiters used their broken English to warn us that we were spending too much. In one case when we ordered three entrees, the waiter took it upon herself to deliver just two. After a while, we stopped trying to explain about tasting a variety and just said that we would take our leftovers with us. They accepted that, and we left the food in the hotel refrigerator for housekeepers -- but if we weren’t going directly to a hotel and left leftovers on the table, waiters seemed to think it was their fault for allowing us to order too much.

It’s probably a holdover from World War II, when many people in these nations literally starved after Germany invaded. Obese people also were much more rare than in America, probably because fewer people have cars; they walk and bike instead. We saw several men and a few women on bikes with things that they intended to sell. One guy even had an array of plastic pipes that he was transporting on his bike. Lots of people were selling garden produce, especially cherries, by the side of the road.

Yet hotels serve huge amounts of food at the buffet breakfasts that come with your room fee. We had discovered this in Norway in the 1980s, and that influence appears throughout the Baltic. These breakfasts aim at international guests, with the herring and pickles that Scandinavians prefer, even at breakfast; the multiple kinds of peppers that Hungarians like; and the British tradition of baked beans, baked tomatoes, and bangers-and-mash. If American bacon and eggs aren’t on the buffet, the kitchen will gladly provide them at no cost. There’s always an array of cold cuts and cheese, fresh fruit and fruit juices, porridges and pastries, and sometimes sparkling wine in an ice bucket.

* * *

So more on what they do better than we do. The most innovative things we saw:

A lighted closet rod in the Warsaw Softel, which is a French hotel chain. Never saw a lighted closet rod before, and I like it.
Electronic signs on some motorways that told you the air and the road temperatures – handy when anticipating ice in winter. They were in Celsius, of course, which is the only part of the metric system I find less informative than our measurements. But the temperature settings in the Volkswagen (separate for driver and passenger) did measure by half-degrees, which is closer to the precision of Fahrenheit. The lowest it got while we were in the car was 9 degrees Celsius, or about 48. That was in Estonia, and it was windy, too; although it was late June, the heat was on in some places. I definitely failed to pack enough warm clothes, and we returned south sooner that we had planned.

Still innovative in America, but routine in Europe for a long time: energy-saving lighting systems. Not only modern bulbs, but also motion sensors that turn on overhead light as you move down unlit corridors in shops, museums, everywhere. Hotel room electricity does not turn on until you insert your room card, which means that when you leave and take your card, you automatically turn off the TV, lights, and everything else. (We’ll not talk about that re computers and chargers, nor about the fact that American appliances such as hair curlers cannot be plugged into outlets without a converter. These regular electrical interruptions may also explain why no hotel room anywhere had a clock.)

Another impressive thing was the attention to bus stops. Buses for adults and those for schoolchildren generally run on opposite sides of the road, and even in rural areas, they are well maintained (complete with trash cans). We saw occasional adults by the side of the road without official stops, but they may have been waiting for some farm or corporate transportation – they all had lunch buckets and other work-related items. Most bus stops, though, have roofs to protect waiters from rain and snow, and all have lengthy paved spaces for the bus to pull off the road. We saw a few buses with decorative curtains, but the most innovative thing was outside of Warsaw, where there were lights embedded in the pavement on crosswalks for school children!

How many lives could we save here in Hillsborough County by emulating this? (Of course, we could just start school later, but you may have heard my harangue on that.) These nations are in the far north: go to your globe and find Tallinn, Estonia, and you’ll see that it is north of most of Canada and about midway in latitude with Greenland. Winter sunlight runs from about nine to about three, so children pretty much have to go and come from school in the dark -- and lighted crosswalks are an excellent idea! Not necessarily bad for us seniors, either. As both pedestrians and drivers, lighted crosswalks would make it easier to prevent accidents caused by darkness. Our engineers could go to work on that now that we will be saving some money from winding down military adventures. I hope.

Speaking of schoolchildren, I never saw a misbehaved child until I was back at O’Hare in Chicago. And I saw lots of kids – in groups at museums and individually in parks and playgrounds. Every city had several big parks, and smaller towns at least one. Often both mom and dad hung around while the kids played in the long summer evenings. Speaking of parks reminded me that in seventeen days, we saw black people just twice: a businessman in our Warsaw hotel, and a little girl happily maneuvering her aluminum scooter in a university area park; she probably had been adopted by the young white couple watching over her.

Also never saw a mean dog, nor a stray. Virtually all were well groomed and friendly, and those in parks wagged their tails and hoped I would play. This was very different from Portugal; although we lived there for three months, the neighborhood dogs continued to bark menacingly whenever we walked by. That would be an interesting phenomenon to study.

* * *

Finally, the State Department’s American Forum and the University of Bailystok paid for my speech, but there was no reimbursement for our venture into the other Baltic nations. We wanted to do that and were beyond delighted when our friends Kay and John Sullivan, who own Winthrop Village in Riverview, offered corporate sponsorship. The Sullivans are wonderful people, truly committed to the causes they support, especially Brandon and its arts community. (Yes, Brandon has art! Come visit Center Place, a visual art facility as good as anything you’ll find in South Tampa. And there’s drama and dance, too, some of which takes place at The Barn at Winthrop.)

The Barn is called that because the Sullivans preserved the dairy barn when they bought a farm at the corner of Providence and Bloomingdale. They developed Winthrop Village slowly, with advice from nationally known planners to create a place where most needs can be met within a walkable distance. There are single-family homes, apartments, offices, an elementary school, and a shopping complex anchored by Publix, as well as a medical clinic, a bank, and a range of restaurants. They have planted many trees for open-air seating, and art abounds. Winthrop employee Bryant Martinez has an especially keen eye for interesting sculpture, and they sponsor regular festivals of art, old cars, and other attractions.

John is both a lawyer and a CPA, while Kay was a social worker. Her father, an attorney and judge, was a leader in St. Petersburg’s racial integration. She is a Lifetime Member of the Girl Scouts and led a troop to which her daughters belonged. Daughter Sarah now works in the White House, while New Yorker Katharine produced an off-Broadway play that won critical praise. The girls remain committed to Winthrop and democratic ideals, and Katharine will have her September wedding at The Barn. The Sullivan family also adopted a boy from Russia who turned out to have learning disabilities, so John and Kay play major roles in Pepin Academies, perhaps the best local institution for such kids.

More next time on other aspects of Eastern Europe, including the Summer Solstice, family values, churches and monasteries, and especially the American Forum.

Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
Make a comment to the author