Vilnius, Lithuania

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Vilnius, Lithuania. As my good friend and fellow student of international relations put it: “the EU Orient.” Fittingly enough, seeing how the city of 540,000 is 30 minutes from the Belarusian border, and a mere 180km from Minsk. Vilnius was a city I visited with next to no expectations. Simply put, I saw its relative proximity (to Riga) and thought it would make for an opportunity to explore another somewhat hidden and mysterious Eastern European capital. I am glad we went ahead and visited. Vilnius has proven to be one of the bigger surprises in all of my European travels.

Vilnius is a charmer. Exceedingly cozy and walkable, the city is provincial in its charm and feel. The neo-Baroque, church spire-studded city center is, for a lack of other words, adorable. And a bit reminiscent of Rome - or even Lima - with all of its grand, imposing Catholic churches. Rest assured, though, for all of Vilnius' beauty, my first impression was an older, cigarette-smoking city bus driver speeding down a small street, rosaries dangling and all. For all of its economic growth and modernization, this still was, after all, the former USSR. 


In light of the sometimes negative stereotypes Lithuania has in Western Europe - mostly pertaining to criminality - it is refreshing and somewhat necessary to visit and see the country first-hand. While Vilnius is certainly more run-down and neglected than any number of wealthier capital cities, it is nevertheless modern and contemporary in aesthetic, and is years away from the corrupt, dour, and dowdy capital some make it out to be. I don’t think many Europeans, and especially non-Europeans, realize how modern and up-to-date parts of Eastern Europe really are. Yes, the cool coffee shops (two of them, lol), trendy art spaces, craft beer and cocktails, and minimalist locavore restaurants are all there. But that Lithuanian beer, tho. At €2.50-3.00 for a local IPA, there wasn’t a beer I didn’t enjoy. The strong and flavor-forward craft beers were a refreshing change from the weak, watered-down pilsners you come across in much of northern Europe.

Looking from abroad, Vilnius felt much more certain and defined in its Lithuanian identity versus Riga and its conflicting Latvian/Russian identities. And even amidst record levels of mass emigration - Lithuanians are the fastest-growing immigrant group and third-largest immigrant group overall here in Norway, and Lithuanian healthcare workers and post-grads are already very well-known in the UK - I was happy to see that people, particularly young people, still took pride in their country and its customs, even if there still remains great uncertainty regarding its future. EU statistics confirm what I think largely seems to be true: Lithuanians are the among the most-educated nationalities within the 28-country economic block, and are 1st in the EU for mathematics, science, and technology graduates per-capita. 

With its useful geopolitical location, I believe the educated, multilingual Lithuanian youth generation can successfully leverage their invaluable position between Brussels and Moscow. Perhaps not now, given the political-economic crisis and malaise, but in the future, Lithuanians (and Latvians) will certainly represent a valuable entry point to the large Russian and Russian-speaking population in the former Soviet Union. Regarding tourism, as more and more tourists visit Vilnius - which, right now, remains a hidden gem - and word spreads about the city and its charms, the city’s standing and image will only strengthen. Get in quick, though: Lithuania recently made it to third place on Lonely Planet's "Best in Travel 2015" list.

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Overlooking central Vilnius.
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Charming, cozy Old Vilnius.
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Looking towards Old Vilnius.
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One of the many picturesque, church-anchored vistas in Vilnius. 
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Clean and quaint Old Vilnius in all of its neo-Baroque glory. 
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Cepelinai, a typical Lithuanian dish of stuffed potato dumplings with a minced/ground meat filling and sour cream topping. 
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Cozy and Catholic, Vilnius is a city of alleys and courtyards, many of which are often hidden.
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The sole remaining Jewish synogauge in Vilnius. Upwards of 90% of Vilnius' once-vibrant Jewish community was killed during The Holocaust, one of the highest kill rates in all of Europe. 
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The Lithuanian National Gallery of Art (1980), known as the Museum of the Revolution in Soviet times.
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The "golden hour" at a square in the city center.

Riga, Latvia

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

A beautiful, intriguing, and somewhat unknown part of Europe, I have long yearned to visit the Baltics. Closer to my heart, being a student of international relations (and now international business), the rich architecture, cheap prices, chaotic and often tragic histories made visiting a real priority. Finding tickets for €30, visiting, however short the notice, turned the idea into a reality. Riga, Latvia with its stunning, vast expanses of 19th-century architecture, mind-bogglingly cheap beers, murky Soviet past, and legions of tall, fake blonde women clad in rainbow-colored coats and knee-length leather boots, would be my first stop. For the above reasons and others, Riga endures in my imagination as one of the more mysterious European capital cities. 

Riga is a lovely and underrated city - certainly one of the most in all of Europe. An Art-Nouveau masterpiece, Riga is one of the most attractive cities I have come across. Detailed guilds, scrolls, and ornaments dominate even the most meek and humble of buildings in the city. The medieval core is a delight, even if full of budget airline tourists and Erasmus students. Indeed, Ryanair and the elimination of visa requirements have almost single-handedly spurred tourism in the Baltics. It is unfortunate, as Riga certainly has the amenities to appeal to and attract a more cultured and responsible traveler. 

The Art-Nouveau district, among the largest and best-kept anywhere, is a stunner and is unique for any city. The scale of it is impressive: it goes on and on, and easily puts Paris to shame as the preeminent Art-Nouveau destination. A bit sad, though, to see much of it in various states of dilapidation and disrepair. Accordingly, the further one leaves the historic center, the more run down and typically post-Soviet things become. Still, there is a magic in Riga - one that would only become more apparent if things were better taken care of. Were these buildings renovated, I have full confidence Riga would be among the great centers of European pre-war architecture. 

Surprisingly, Riga is a mostly Russophone city, even 25 years following the dissolution of the USSR. In spite of Latvian’s status as an official language and efforts to de-emphasize or weaken the Russian language, a slight majority of Riga’s citizens appear to use Russian in everyday conversation. There is still considerable tension regarding the status of both the language and its speakers, and some 300.000+ persons are stateless in Latvia, largely the result of Soviet-era migrants refusing to adopt Latvian citizenship. Russians still call the shots, and oligarchs and other banking industry refugees can be found speeding across town in their Mercedes GL-class SUV’s and long-wheelbase BMW coupes, while Latvians scoot around in more modest Skodas, or take the bus. 

Indeed, the Russian population in Riga more or less exists as ethnic Russians who happen to “live in a foreign country”, than say, Latvians of Russian ancestry or Russian-Latvians. Precisely because of this, parts of the city felt more like an outpost of gaudy Russian oligarchs abroad than the capital of an independent country. Troublingly, a sister party of Putin’s Russia United party won recent elections. Given this lack of concrete Latvian identity, and its confusing history of Swedish, Polish, German, Russian and Soviet occupations and influences, Riga is akin to a city “somehow” bestowed upon the Latvian people moreso than being the center of that people and their civilization. Vilnius, Lithuania, my other stop on this trip, felt much more organic and Lithuanian in identity. 

This is not a problem somehow unique or limited to Riga, though - which, btw, is a city I enjoy and look forward to visiting again. Throughout the former Soviet sphere, national and ethnic identities are seemingly constructed out of thin air, given the Soviet-era suppression of language, religion, and national histories/cultures. While understandable, some of this national identity searching is so top-down and fabricated that it borders on cartoonish. While “Latvian” culture doesn’t have the questionable and haphazard selection and reincarnation of national heroes in, say, Kyrgyzstan or Kazakhstan, it does seem a bit at odds with reality, in light of the Russian-dominated status-quo.


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Oslo at the two-month mark

Friday, October 31, 2014

Oslo is charming, prosperous, and quaint in its Scandinavian simplicity and functionality. Things get done here. Things work here. People are attractive, well-educated, and usually proficient in English. Taxes and most items cost somewhere between 1-1.5x the price of things back home, but the salaries are much higher - median income in Norway recently surpassed $106,000. For me, the main attraction is the nice, Scandinavian balance of work and pleasure, along with a sky-high standard of living. With its exorbitant salaries, functional government services, and First World quality of life, Norway is a nice place to live, if an occasionally boring one. That, of course, is to be expected when there is no risk in life here - only reward.

The main drawback, in my opinion, is the fact that, among other things, alcohol is inexplicably expensive. Scarily enough, the most basic and ordinary of beers costing $13-15 at a bar. This is due to the Norwegian government leveraging the same taxes on beers as they do more expensive distilled spirits, such as vodkas, whiskeys, cognac, etc. It’s unfortunate, and punishes regular people more than anybody else. Unsurprisingly, most people cook and drink at home - alot of fun can be had at dinner parties, pre-game parties, Christmas parties, etc. Indeed, a stroll into most private kitchens will reveal a modern and often top-of-the-line array of knives, pots, and pans. On a more personal note, cooking everyday, my cooking skills feel more refined than ever.

The city itself is highly walkable, and districts are in close proximity; close enough that borders are blurry and poor-defined. Most of the central city is defined by 1890s-early 1900s tenement blocks, similar but smaller and less ornate than comparable examples in Berlin and Vienna. Architecture is generally more grand on the western side of town. While the east/west split is not nearly as pronounced as it previously was, a divide still exists, even if only in the minds of provincial locals. Traditionally, districts west of the Akerselva (the river that bisects the city in two) were better off and from more of a middle/upper class provenance. People jokingly refer to people from West Oslo as “soss” (snobby), and there is certainly a demographic that lives up to the stereotype. Neighborhoods further east were typically more working class and industrial, and as of late, have become the primary entry points for the large numbers of immigrants pouring into the Norwegian capital.

Most non-Norwegians would be surprised at the level of diversity here. Stereotypes of Oslo as placid, lilly and homogeneous place - one where polar bears can be found on the street - couldn’t be further from the truth. Today, Oslo is over 30% foreign-born, with most immigrants (controversially, I might add) coming from poor, developing world nations. Pakistanis, Somalis, Kurds, Eritreans, ex. Yugoslavs, and increasingly, Syrians and Afghans, are common in the Norwegian capital. Closer to home, there are sizable Swedish and eastern European communities, namely Poles and Lithuanians. In line with other European capitals, these people and their children reside not in the city itself, but rather its (admittedly dreary and segregated) post-war suburbs.

The cold nature of Norwegians, I am afraid, is a stereotype both accurate and well-deserved. Neighbors don’t speak to each other, much less people on the street. However, that is not to say that people are not nice or are mean - Norwegians prefer to socialize (or really, acknowledge) people behind closed doors. Casual or street interaction certainly isn’t a thing here, and the suggestion of such would incline people to think of them as invading a stranger’s privacy. Quite literally, I was horrified the time I accidentally bumped into my neighbor waiting for the elevator, or the time a girl smiled at me on a bus. 


Excellent mass transit makes Oslo a relatively easy place to live. Numerous buses, subways, trams, regional trains, and even ferries, blanket the city. In stark contrast to Los Angeles, the buses here are actually pleasant, and are not (for the most part), the domain of transients and vagrants. And there are all on time. In fact, Ruter (the mass transit governing body) offers riders a 500kr (roughly $83) taxi refund if they a bus/train/tram/ferry is more than 20 minutes late. Coming from fatalist and every-man-for-himself America, I am not used to government agencies caring anything about me, much less going out of their way to help me. Parks and green spaces are also easily accessible and in abundance, something not common in LA, unless you are lucky (and wealthy) enough to live near the mountains or beaches.

With just over 630,000 people, is just big enough to feel like different, diverse possibilities await, but small enough to feel cozy and human-scaled. Mostly the latter. Rather tame, the city lacks the decadent indulgences found in Berlin, or the center-of-the-world feeling of London. Even nearby Copenhagen feels cooler and more city-like. Oslo is a bit of a sleeper, and is certainly one of the more underrated European capitals. It is not without its own affable, approachable charm and relative lack of pretense, though. The restaurant scene, although prohibitively expensive, is on a major streak, with numerous high-quality additions opening up throughout the city. My only gripe is that a disproportionate amount of the new openings are very polarizing: abstract and molecular-driven New Nordic, or greasy, American-style junk food.

Chief among my favorites in Oslo are Tim Wendelboe, a specialty coffee shop known for its meticulous, ethically-sound sourcing practices and unique, lightly-roasted coffee. Paul’s Boutique, a cozy neighborhood bar on Alexander Kiellands Plass, is another favorite. I love its tight, curated drink menu. Bettola, an Italian cocktail bar decked in mid-century furniture, is another such favorite. Åpent Bakeri, a Norwegian bakery by day and pizzeria by night, is also worth checking out. Munchies, an upscale take on, say, Five Guys, has good burgers, reasonable prices, and a festive atmosphere. Generally, though, eating out is a cost-prohibitive proposition. Shopping at the ethnic markets in Grønland, a rough-around-the-edges Somali and Pakistani neighborhood, cuts down on dining/cooking costs significantly, and is something I would recommend to anybody here. Maeemo, a Noma-inspired “New Nordic” restaurant that won two Michelin stars in its first year of operation, is perhaps the best example of the $$$ dining scene here: a tasting menu dinner costs in excess of $650 (4000kr+).

Overall, Oslo is a nice place to call home. Calm, relaxed, cutting edge, and with the Scandinavian quality of life everybody adores, by any means, it is far from being a bad place. And while not the most exciting or vibrant of cities, life here is pretty good, even if Norwegian culture and its fascination with skiing, hiking, chewable tobacco, Snapchat, Tinder, Fredagstacoen (box-kit taco dinners on Friday), and tacky, alcohol-themed trips to Spain can take some getting used to. Men, jeg elsker Norge, og jeg trur Norge er mitt hjem her i Europa.