Dateline: Vilnius, Lithuania
The other day I stumbled on a post from some European travel blogger who described Moldova as “a hidden, must-see gem in Europe.” A “must-see gem” that’s also the poorest and most destitute country in Europe?
Such serious praise should probably belong to Lichtenstein or Andorra—not Moldova. Moldova is certainly not “a must see” country by any stretch of imagination.
This is Moldova. Does it look like a “must-see gem” to you?
Having grown up in Eastern Europe and having returned and lived here for the past 3 years, it got me thinking about the region as a whole. I realized that most often than not, the region is portrayed as some paradise on earth instead of being depicted closer to reality.
But make no mistake about it: paradise it is not. Just like any place, it has its pros and cons. And after living here for a while and going through another extremely depressing Eastern European winter, I’m starting to wonder whether the cons really outweigh the pros.
Here are some factors that are either fully ignored or are majorly downplayed when describing this region:
1. Crappy weather
Let’s start with the things that directly affect your psychological well-being: weather. Eastern Europe has four distinct seasons. The difference between seasons is not moderate but extreme: very hot and humid summers and very cold and freezing winters.
Not only are the summers scorchingly unbearable (especially in the southern regions), but to add insult to injury, you don’t really have a nice beach where you can cool off. In the north you have the Baltic Sea but the water is cold year-around. That leaves the warm shores of the Black Sea as the only viable option. But as someone who was born in a major city there, I can assure you that Black Sea beaches truly suck and come nowhere close to the pristine Mediterranean beaches.
Then the gruesome winter arrives. Temperatures start to drop fairly rapidly around late September or early October. In the peak of winter, it’s common to experience at least a foot of snow (and often much, much more). And if you’re in northern Eastern Europe (e.g., northern Russia or Baltic states), the days become very short and you can completely forget seeing any sun at all from late October to late March.
Apart perhaps from Antarctica or Siberia, I can’t think of a more depressing part of the world to spend the winter. Maybe that partly explains why Lithuania ranks second on a list of countries by suicide rate. Don’t forget to pack plenty of Prozac.
2. Unfriendly people
Just like it’s possible to meet super friendly people, it’s also possible to meet unfriendly people. Yep, unfriendly people do exist. The friendliest people I’ve ever met were in Brazil. Other super friendly nationalities are Mexicans and Colombians. People from the Balkans and Southern Europe are also pretty friendly.
But friendliness is definitely not how I would characterize Eastern Europeans. Not even in the most liberal use of that term. Eastern Europeans just aren’t huge fans of smiling and having friendly chitchats. They don’t act warmly to people they don’t know and sometimes even people they do know. Aloof. Reserved. Tough. Capable. The preceding adjectives more accurately describe Eastern Europeans.
The amount of friendliness varies across Eastern Europe: Bulgarians are friendlier than Estonians or Russians, but even Bulgarians or Romanians do not come close in friendliness of the Latin Americans. The good news is that after getting to know you, Eastern Europeans tend to open up and become a bit friendlier.
Nevertheless, the problem of being surrounded by unfriendly people is further compounded by not being able to communicate with them (see below).
3. Difficult to communicate
The majority of Eastern Europeans (except perhaps the young people from the Baltic countries) simply do not speak English at a very high level. Some don’t even speak any English period.
I’m not saying that young people do not speak any English—they do. But unless the person has lived extensively in foreign countries where English is commonly spoken (that’s tough because Ukrainians and Russia need a visa to visit European Union countries), their English would be extremely rudimentary. They wouldn’t know the Western euphemisms, jokes or anecdotes. You certainly won’t be able to hold any level of a deep conversation.
This is slowly changing as countries like Moldova and Ukraine are being oriented towards the West, but it will take another generation for them to truly reach their Western European counterparts.
4. Impossible to find specialized items
When I was in St. Petersburg last year, I decided to purchase one of those digital travel scales in order to weigh my luggage. It’s a useful device because by weighting your luggage before checking it in at the airport, you can save money in overweight fees.
I think I spent around around four or five hours scouring every travel store in the city only to come back empty handed. The stores I visited sold all kinds of luggage, but not a digital scale. And this is St. Petersburg I’m talking about—a city of over 5 million people—not some little village in the middle of nowhere. I can’t imagine having better luck in the smaller cities in countries such as Ukraine, Romania or Bulgaria.
Perhaps it’s a luxurious item that Eastern Europeans simply do not need. Perhaps such items exist in Eastern Europe, but I didn’t go to the right stores. Both of these are plausible possibilities. The bottom line is that I couldn’t find something in a large Eastern European city that’s readily available in most mid-size department stores all over New York.
This isn’t limited to specialized gadgets like digital travel scales; it affects all kinds of non-essential goods that you take for granted in the West. Whereas in America, you can walk into a large supermarket like Walmart and buy everything you need, or you can hop onto Amazon.com and order cheap gadgets, you simply can’t do that easily in Eastern Europe. And if you get lucky and discover that such an item is available, there’s a good chance that it’ll cost you twice or three times the amount you’d pay in America (or Western Europe).
The flipped side is that this new life without “luxury items” could be a good thing because it will mean saving money by spending it only on the very essentials.
5. Poor infrastructure
I’ve never before considered European countries to be part of the third world. “The third world” is typically associated with underdeveloped countries of Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia. But if it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, quacks like a duck, then shouldn’t be a duck? Using that argument, Eastern Europe can easily be considered as undeveloped as any third world country.
For instance, outside of the Baltics, you can forget about doing mundane things such as drinking water from the tap. In St. Petersburg, I spent a week in October with absolutely no hot water. Not able to drink tap water or consistently enjoy hot showers is something I can understand if I was in Kenya or Mozambique but not in a European country.
6. Ugly, crumbling architecture
Travel bloggers love to sell you Eastern Europe by showing pristine pictures of picturesque old towns with their beautiful architecture and narrow cobblestone streets. They are right: the old towns are truly fantastic gems. Here in Vilnius, the old town is nothing short of magical. Same goes for Latvia’s capital, Riga.
What they don’t tell you, however, is that these old towns are tiny; they can be easily covered in an hour or two by foot, and then you’re suddenly located in another world, a world of crumbling Communist era “building parks,” a world of rusting trolleybuses that look like they’re about to break down any minute, a world of broken street pavement, a world devoid of street lights, forcing you to reach for your flashlight as you walk home in the night—a completely different world that unsurprisingly doesn’t make it to the laminated travel brochures.
While I liked Bulgaria as a whole, I was so disenchanted with its capital, Sofia, that I decided to award it the prize of “one of Europe’s most ugliest cities.” Sofia is grey, ugly, the street pavement is broken, giving the whole city a kind of permanent “unfinished and abandoned” feel. That was around two years ago, and I still stand by what I’ve said. St. Petersburg is a gorgeous city, but step outside the city’s bounds and you’re pretty much in the middle of Soviet Union.
But Bulgaria is in EU and St. Petersburg is one of Russia’s richest cities, so I can’t even (or don’t want to) imagine what rural parts of a poorer country such as Ukraine, Belarus or Moldova look like.
The harsh reality is that apart from the charming old towns, which are usually too small and insignificant to serve as anything meaningful beyond the initial touristy sightseeing or eating at overpriced restaurants with crappy food, you’ll be living and seeing the “true” Eastern Europe—most of it frozen in time, Soviet Union time.
7. Unpredictably dangerous
Having been to some seedy areas of the world (e.g., parts of Brazil, Central America), Eastern Europe is certainly not the most dangerous region on Earth, but that doesn’t mean it’s extremely safe either. The Baltic countries are pretty safe for the most part, although there are seedy areas. Russia and Ukraine are definitely more dangerous. They’re simply more unpredictable.
Things that I don’t think twice about doing in the West, such as carrying my laptop around in plain view (in a laptop case) at night, are some of the things that I would think twice before doing in countries like Ukraine or Russia. There’s simply no guarantee that someone will not stop me on the street and demand my valuables, especially valuables that constitute a considerable chunk of the average person’s monthly salary.
One important accomplishment about the Western world is its victorious fight against racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism. Scandinavia is the most “progressive” in this regard because you can be a Somali immigrant who’s literally fresh of the boat and you won’t be treated any differently than a native Danish guy with spiky blonde hair.
Eastern Europe is far from being this “progressive.” The culprit is both cultural and economical: its inhabitants have far too many problems—such as putting food on the table—to concern themselves with such mundane problems as racism, xenophobia or anti-Semitism. Every prejudice associated with a particular ethnic group or race that has ever been known to man is alive and well in these countries.
8. Food sucks
Eastern Europe isn’t known for its variety of exquisite dishes. Most of the dishes are a combination of three ingredients: bread, potatoes and meat. While it’s very hearty, it’s also very flavorless. If you’re there on a short trip or in the beginning of a more extended sojourn, you might find the food interesting and even exotic, but I can guarantee that you’ll quickly get tired of it.
Once you get tired of going out and eating bland local food, you’ll have two options: go to restaurants that serve international cuisine or cook your own food. The problem with the first option is that the international restaurant scene is rather limited in Eastern Europe. While there’re plenty of international restaurants in huge cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg, you won’t have many good options in the smaller cities.
Here in Vilnius, Lithuania, a mid-sized city of half a million located in the European Union, my only reliable option is to have a decent, albeit pricy, burger. There are a couple ethnic restaurants that serve Mexican or Greek food, but they leave a lot to be desired; the Mexican food is bland, the Greek food is not only bland but also expensive. Don’t get me started on the crappy pizza or flavorless Italian food. As a result, I simply all but stopped going out and now mostly cook my own meals.
It’s situations like these that I miss living in New York. There, I can leave my apartment and eat any kind of food from pretty much any country I want, any time of the day, any day of the week, and within any price range. I also remember fondly my days of living in Brazil and Argentina, where I constantly ate fantastic churrasco or juicy steak, respectively.
If you like food with flavor (please remind me how spicy food tastes) or are a vegetarian, you’ll have a pretty difficult time in Eastern Europe.
9. No handholding
One of the biggest cultural shocks that I experienced in Russia was the complete lack of lack of customer service or basic handholding. I asked someone on the metro to explain to me how the metro card works (it’s more complicated than a MetroCard or Oyster Card). The reply was very blunt and obvious. In other words, the guy told me that I already knew without being helpful at all.
The guy wasn’t rude of disrespecting. He was simply communicating as he normally would. If you go into a Eastern European restaurant, point at a meat dish, and ask them what kind of meat it is, they would simply tell you it’s meat. On the other hand, in America, the person behind the counter would easily use at least twenty adjectives to describe the meat (i.e., how it was cooked, how it tastes, etc.).
This applies to pretty much everything. Various explanations, assistance and handholding that you’ve previously taken for granted will simply be met with one or two word “obvious” answers, answers that you already knew, answers that make you feel like an idiot.
At first you’d take this as rudeness and lack of helpful customer service, but after a while, you’ll toughen up and become more independent and sovereign. Oh, and perhaps this might push you to realizing that you were treated like a dumb and clueless automaton in your native Western country all this time.
10. Women aren’t as easy you think
One of the biggest reasons (maybe the biggest reason) that single men travel to Eastern Europe is for the affectionate and feminine women—all but an endangered species in the consumer-driven West. There’s some truth to that. The women can be described in one simple word: traditional. They behave how all women have traditionally behaved in the past before the toxicity of Western “values” began to seep into their brains. (For a fun experiment, observe what happens to a Eastern European woman who has spent many years in America.)
But it’s not all peaches and cream in paradise. Traditional women means traditional relationships. And that means you have to forget about Western inventions such as “sex with no string attached” and start reacquainting yourself with the lost art of actual dating—you know, such as opening doors, going out to dinners and actually paying for them.
So, if you don’t want an “independent” woman because she’s so independent that she doesn’t need to you, and, instead, you want a traditional woman, you’ll have to actually learn to devote time to her before you’re rewarded with her feminine charm and gifts.
And for all the guys who think that Eastern Europe is overflowing with easy women (not true), and that alone compensates for everything that makes Eastern Europe suck, my response is always the same: I shrug and realize that I’m dealing with someone who simply has never been to Eastern Europe.
11. There are no rules
Many words and terms are used to describe Eastern Europe: corruption, nepotism, kleptocracy, lack of rule of law, etc. Those are all accurate. The reason they’re applicable is because Eastern Europe is a place without much rules or laws. It’s like the Wild West: anything can go and does. Depending on how you look at, that either makes Eastern Europe so fantastic or so nightmarish.
Few years ago, I was chilling with a good American friend (born in Ukraine) who has a business in Kiev. One sunny day, about 15 police offers entered, told everyone to stop working, and then took away all the equipment. It’s only because my friend knew some people in the city government that he was able to retrieve the equipment and resume work. I have many other examples of similar situations.
This is something that just wouldn’t happen in America, Netherlands or Denmark. There are various rules and laws that protect you, as a private individual, against unlawful seizure by the government. Sure, the authorities can attach claims to your private property if you fail to pay taxes or lose a lawsuit, but you would have adequate warning and a chance to appeal the decision.
In Eastern Europe, things are, shall we say, “closer to the metal.” Someone can come and take your stuff. Just like that. And you won’t have any recourse unless you knew someone high up on the authority food chain. The good news is that it saves the economy valuable money that would otherwise go to enrich the endless armies of lawyers. The bad news is that if you don’t have the right connections, you’ll have an array of problems.
12. There’s a real war
Eastern Europe has experienced countless wars throughout its history interrupted by brief peacetimes. Well, the peacetime is over and the region is being torn apart by another war. This time it’s a war between Ukrainian rebels and Ukrainian government in Eastern Ukraine. Many media outlets are portraying it as some “anti-terrorist operation,” but it really isn’t: it’s a true full-fledged war between two different sides and ideologies.
Many might not believe that there’s an actual war happening in one of the world’s richest and developed continents such as Europe, but I’m really surprised that the peacetime managed to last as long as it did. The only thing on my mind these days is how far this war will last and where will a new conflict arise—and the latter is not a question of “if” but of “when.”
13. Super depressing
When you take everything that I’ve written—the unbearable winter, the bland food, the unfriendly people, the crumbling infrastructure, the dire poverty, the war, regardless if the people are affected directly or indirectly—and combine it all together, what you get is a super depressing region. There’s just no other way of saying it. It’s really fucking depressing.
This is much more than just some poverty; many places are poor but the fantastic ambience and friendly people much than make up for it. Brazil may be a country with a huge income disparity, but you don’t feel this when you’re in the country, regardless if you’re in a super wealthy area like Ipanema or some poor favela. The weather is amazing. The food is savory. The people are happy and full of joy.
Unsurprisingly, I’ve always experienced a huge relief every time I returned to Western or Central Europe. I remember how much happier I was when I first flew from Kiev to Venice. As I stepped outside the Italian airport, I felt as though all this huge weight was lifted from my shoulders. I could breathe easier again. I finally saw people smiling and enjoying themselves. I experienced the same thing when I flew from Bucharest to Barcelona. Even landing in Belgrade (not a wealthy city by any stretch of imagination) after a flight from Moscow recharged me in some mysterious ways.
Matches your values
Having said all that, I’m not bashing Eastern Europe. I don’t hate Eastern Europe. I don’t have a grudge against Eastern Europe. Eastern Europe is a place where I was born and is still more or less my spiritual home. I actually deeply respect Eastern Europe and its people.
My reasons for appreciating and respecting Eastern Europe go much further: it suits my personality. I can deal with crappy weather and depressing people. I can deal with being surrounded by ugly 5-floor Communist buildings that all look the same. I’m the kind of guy who’ll have no problems living in Siberia somewhere. I enjoy “rugged” environments. I’m not used to luxuries or conspicuous consumption.
But if it didn’t suit my personality—if every day felt like a colossal struggle where I contemplated the most effective method of suicide—I would certainly have a hard time justifying spending my time there, especially when there are so many other fantastic and bright destinations in the world such as Brazil or Thailand.
After all, that’s just one of the innumerable joys of being a maverick traveler: you’re not limited to a particular country or continent to spend your time in and the world truly becomes your oyster. You’re free to live, thrive and prosper in the land whose values match your own. And that’s the difference between actually living and merely being alive.