My Scandinavia (I)

Lithuanian novelist and playwright Marius Ivaskevicius is highly popular in the Baltic States, Poland, and Hungary for his humorous observations of contemporary life. Now Eurozine publishes, in English translation, his seven-part Scandinavian travelogue. Here, he contemplates latter-day Vikings (they play jazz), and why Lithuanians don’t like getting their feet wet.

Before we had the opportunity to travel freely around Europe, the only opportunity for travel was through our imaginations. I would lay out a map of the world on my desk. Scandinavia looked like a huge apple-tree branch, bending downwards from the sky, hanging over Europe. Finland was the trunk that held up the heavy branch; Denmark was the apples that had fallen into the orchard, and the branch itself was Sweden and Norway. To make my picture of the world fuller, I’d imagine the Faroe Islands as the moon and Iceland as the sun.

When the borders opened up, and I began travelling around Scandinavia, it turned out that this apple tree was populated. All the places I visited and all the people I met gave me the opportunity to get to know it. Then a new type of tree formed for me – a Christmas tree decorated with the faces of new friends and hung with wreaths made of the names of Scandinavian towns and villages. In other words, “my Scandinavia” found a home in the branches of that tree. First of all, that “my” refers to an absolutely subjective and personal view of this huge section of Europe. But it also represents my fondness for Scandinavia. I like this part of the world.

Sweden attacks

During the first year of independence, the first official recognition of statehood came from my “Scandinavian sun”. It came from Iceland. A tiny distant Scandinavian nation tucked safely between Europe and North America. After that, Denmark followed. These small nations started to build bridges with the Baltic States. At the same time, they also taught us an important lesson about the significance of tiny nations in our contemporary world. In other words, by their example, these nations showed us how we could be useful in the future. Small nations that don’t have much military strength sometimes can allow themselves much more than military giants that play for high stakes. It’s not likely that Reykjavik would have had to worry about Moscow’s revenge. They’re simply not in the same weight category.

Sweden behaved like a bigger political fish. They stalled; they were more careful; they didn’t want to stand out. But later, Sweden smothered us much more than all the other Scandinavian nations put together. Swedish culture bore its way into our lives methodically, intensely; so many Swedish crowns were spent on translating Swedish classics, on translating contemporary Swedish literature, on bringing over Swedish jazz musicians, on screening Swedish films, and so on, that we, accustomed to being suspicious of our neighbours and their motives, began to think that Sweden was trying to occupy us culturally and turn us into a province of Sweden. What a tempting opportunity? You are rich and you buy yourself a quarter of a million new readers, listeners, an entire audience across the sea in a newly formed nation. When that nation finally lands on its feet and grows wealthier, Scandinavian literature would be as natural a part of its culture as its own authors. And so why not colonize a culture? Why not have a cultural invasion and occupation?

A few years ago, I shared these musings of mine with a German translator, on a beach on the Faroe Islands. She took my ideas very seriously. And why shouldn’t she have? Those European provinces, she explained, need to realize their ambitions; what better way than to seek out countries that are even more provincial than they are? Provinces that could become cultural centres.

That was the first time I became aware of Europe as having a centre and periphery. During the Soviet era, there was no difference between Sweden or France, Finland or Great Britain. Everywhere, I imagined a single Europe as a pulsating ball, moving closer and closer towards us on one side and then the other. And if you please, Sweden, a province, a periphery. It was catastrophic. If Sweden is a province, then what are we?

Of course, that was only one German’s opinion. Looking at Scandinavia from Berlin, those huge northern expanses can seem like the very edge of something. But what? Western Europe? But Scandinavia didn’t always compare itself with western Europe. It’s true that those familiar European values took root here, that the European democratic model functions here, that three out of five Scandinavian countries are members of the European Union. And still, these countries – more or less – differ from continental Europe. Maybe that’s why Sweden is a province in a European context. But maybe that is exactly why these countries are trying to form their own context – Scandinavia as a union of northern countries or as a Baltic region. A place where Sweden could play first violin.

Other Scandinavian nations are not as ambitious. Denmark is somewhere on its way (geographically and spiritually) out of Scandinavia and into Europe. Norway feels just fine on its own; and Finland sometimes feels insecure because it doesn’t fit into Europe’s meteorological maps.

Scandinavian temptations

To tell the truth, before, I understood Scandinavia’s history only one way – the Vikings lived there. They lived there from the end of the ice age right up to the twentieth century, until they finally put away their weapons, burned their boats, and began manufacturing Volvos. Really, the Viking era only takes up a few hundred years in the first thousand years of our era. At one time, northerners, hardened as they were to the elements, saw that they had a good opportunity to rule the seas. It would seem that they almost wouldn’t need to learn navigation what with such a long shoreline and so many thousands of islands. Our forefathers had the opportunity to meet with these Swedish and Danish Vikings. One of those meetings resulted in the first written record of a Lithuanian place name. In 853, Swedish Vikings, ruled by King Olaf, fought the Kursius tribe in the Apuole Castle. When they finally captured the castle, the Vikings demanded they be paid a ransom. Here’s a perfect fact that both sides could be proud of: they were equals. We can brag that at the time we were able to hold our own against the almighty Vikings. The Swedes can brag that at the time they had forced us to our prayers. But was it really us? The Kursius people lived by the sea, and not only did they defend themselves by locking themselves in a castle, they also went to sea themselves, organized attacks, and battled the Vikings. They were Baltic Vikings, but somehow we didn’t inherit their spirit. It has faded away. It went somewhere else or was taken as ransom by King Olaf. After this incident, there is no significant mention of Lithuania in Scandinavian history right up to Carl the Great’s time. And probably for the same reason – the sea. We live beside the Baltic Sea, but we don’t even stick our toes in it. But for centuries, the Danes and the Swedes fought over who would rule it.

The sea means a lot to all the Scandinavian nations – it was and still is everything, and if not everything, then a lot. The Finnish city of Tamper calls itself the largest landlocked Scandinavian city. Tamper has a population of less than 200 000. Two other large cities in Finland are Helsinki and Turku – both ports. The largest cities in Sweden are Stockholm, Gothenburg, and Malmo – all ports. Copenhagen is a port. Oslo, Bergen, and Tronheim are ports. Reykjavik is a port. All Scandinavian life took place and still takes place on the sea and by the sea. In this regard, Latvia with its port Riga, and Estonia with its port Tallinn, are Scandinavian-style nations. At one time, Russia had become a Scandinavian-style nation – when Peter the Great established a passage into the Baltic Sea, named it St. Petersburg, and made it the capital. However, Lithuania was always different. All of our main cities established themselves far from the sea, on dry land, as though we didn’t want to have one more thing to worry about – the sea. And today, Vilnius is so far away from that great waterway that if we were to follow Estonia’s example and name ourselves a new post-Soviet Scandinavian nation, we’d rob Tamper of its title. Vilnius would be the largest landlocked Scandinavian city, and Kaunas, according to size, would be the second largest. Maybe even Panevezys or Siauliai could compete for landlocked status.

Maybe this is the reason why Scandinavians know the least about Lithuania out of all three Baltic States. They are accustomed to travelling by sea. And that travel often means not just conquering the sea, but loving it as well. The Estonians understood that first, then the Latvians, but the Lithuanians still have a long way to go in this regard. The only cruise ship that we have, which was converted from a cargo ship, that travels from Lithuania to Scandinavia, is not a very tempting prospect. Especially when compared to the liners that travel back and forth between Sweden or Finland from Riga, or better yet, from Tallinn. And once that Scandinavian got here, he wouldn’t find much. Contemporary Klaipeda is still light years away from Tallinn or Riga.

That’s why so many Scandinavians are confused about Lithuania. Someone in Norway bought some cheap wood from Lithuania; therefore, they think that Lithuania must be similar to Finland, where there are incredibly rich forests – only Finnish wood is of poor quality and only good for burning. Most of them don’t know Vilnius, but they all know about Ignalina. Seemingly, they read an article or saw a television show about our atomic reactor. They were frightened, and for good reason. Lithuania looks to them like a country sitting on a tinderbox. And when we blow, we’ll take all of Scandinavia with us. Many Scandinavians think that Lithuanian is similar to Finnish. A few Norwegians who knew Finnish tried to impress me with their language skills. And they stood there, satisfied with themselves, waiting for me to reply in a tongue similar to Finnish. One Lithuanian woman, studying Economics in Stockholm, added a small questionnaire to her thesis. She asked, “What do Swedes think about Lithuania?” The answers were varied: the people were very poor, the cities hadn’t been rebuilt since World War II, and so on. Of course, you can find people everywhere who don’t know much about the world. We’re always surprised when some uneducated Lithuanian starts saying that to the west, Lithuania borders with the United States and to the east, with Afghanistan. There are probably many people like that in western Europe. However, this lack of knowledge about Lithuania, or rather lack of interest in Lithuania, in Scandinavia is not linked with people’s limitations. While in Copenhagen, I visited the offices of Politiken, one of Denmark’s largest dailies, known for its accurate analysis of foreign politics. I asked the editor if they had been following the presidential scandal in Lithuania. The answer was: not at all. No one in Copenhagen was interested in the impeachment process because no one in Copenhagen is interested in Lithuania. The only time we’d been discussed there, or even considered, was during the events of January 1991. But because afterwards nothing more was said about it, people think that Lithuania to this day is surrounded by barricades.

And so therefore the only way to talk about ourselves in the future is to become suddenly wealthy and return a big cultural punch to the Scandinavians. To bury them in our books, our theatre, our jazz concerts. To attack them so intensely that they wouldn’t recover their breath and would only come to after they knew everything about us. It’s all because we never found our way to that place where all of Scandinavia meets – the sea.

Sex and vodka

By placing all of our wealth so far from the shoreline we lost a lot, but we also gained a lot. The first thing we didn’t gain was sexual tourism and an invasion of a certain kind of Scandinavian tourist.

When two countries that are not economic equals meet, which is what happened when Scandinavia and the Baltics met, one cannot expect to receive the most morally upstanding tourists. The average man from a wealthy country first of all is tempted by the cheap alcohol and readily available women. Tallinn and Riga have been centres for sexual tourism for such a long time that, for a long time now, men who come over from Scandinavia to buy cheap alcohol are called “Elks of the North”. You see, these men, who liked the idea of buying cheap vodka, were afraid of crime in post-Soviet Tallinn. They’d walk into a bar in a large group and would leave in a large group, always making sure not to leave anyone behind. That’s why they were called “Elks of the North”. You can even buy t-shirts in Helsinki with this slogan on the front. Come over with that shirt on, and you won’t leave anyone with any doubts as to why you are there.

In Sweden, people are seriously worried about sexual tourism in the Baltic States. The young Swedish documentary film director Pol Holender participated in a Swedish “Robinson” show, and for a while was much loved by his countrymen (like our Rimas Valeikis). He became the bad boy and put together a controversial film on sexual tourism in Riga. I heard a lot about this film and its creator in Sweden, Denmark, and Norway. Some people criticized him, while others considered him a strong contemporary critic. The thing is that in his movie he doesn’t only talk about this problem and about his countrymen’s lack of morals; he also films himself having sex with a prostitute.

While in Oslo, in an elite club for journalists, the type of place that is not accessible to most, where you can’t just walk in off of the street, I told one older, but very drunk, Norwegian woman that I was from Lithuania. “I saw your girls,” she answered. “They stand around here, just a few blocks away. Why don’t you do something about it? Why do you just leave them at the mercy of fate?” She finished screaming, “Why?” So the next night I went to take a look for myself. But I met just two Spanish girls, who offered me oral sex for a thousand cronas.

There’s no doubt that Lithuanian girls work as prostitutes in Scandinavia, and not just a few, but many. But that’s not just a problem between Lithuania and Scandinavia. It’s a problem between the wealthy world and the poor world. And if the first Scandinavians who came to the Baltic States came there looking for local vodka and women, then Lithuanians, as befits the traditional opinion of us, headed over to try their luck on Scandinavian soil.

Published 3 October 2005
Original in Lithuanian
Translated by Laima Sruoginis
First published by Siaures Atenai 24.04.2004 (Lithuanian version)

Contributed by Magyar Lettre Internationale © Marius Ivaskevicius/Siaures Atenai Eurozine


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