False news, world literature maps, and why not anything goes for small countries

Culture reporting is every bit as serious as war reporting.
– My friend Alexandra Belopolsky, a culture reporter

Several of my Facebook friends shared this map, which claims to represent each country’s favorite book. How does one measure that, the creators did not bother to explain too much. A reddit list became the primary venue to crowdsource this information, but clearly the author came up with the list out of the blue and did not quite respond to comments. Some of my friends were pleased to find respectable works of literature representing their ancestral or adoptive homelands. Lithuanians, it seems, were left puzzled. Continue reading

Visiting the South-East of Malta: Marsaxlokk and Birzebbugia

The best excuse to explore more of one′s country of residence is teaming up with people who are there for a very short visit. This is how I set out to explore the famous South-Eastern areas on a warm and lazy Sunday. Specifically, the fish market of Marsaxlokk has become a popular tourist attraction, and as for Birzebbugia, I did not know what to expect at all.

My first impression of Marsaxlokk was that it was shockingly hipster. I realized that I hadn′t seen such a concentration of hipsters anywhere in Malta. Whatever their lifestyle, the faux-lumberjack look is not popular with the Maltese at all. Accordingly, hipster men were in a company of colorfully dressed women, who would otherwise not stand out as much. There were many elderly tourists, too, probably English, given how much they had undressed for the bright but still not so generous Mediterranean sun. And some local families, too, looking for a bargain.

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Hiking in Wied Babu and a new mission

I was among, apparently, around 170 people who signed up for a free tour by Nature Trust Malta to explore Babu valley (Wied Babu). When people sign up to an event on Facebook, one must divide the number by three and extract a square root to know the realistic number of attendees, but hiking tours in Malta are different. When people click they will attend, they actually show up and bring their friends. This is the scale of the ‘invasion’ in Wied Babu.

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Two carnivals, a year apart

It has become a tradition for me to seek a Mediterranean escape around this time, when Southern countries get ready for the carnival. I did not grow up with a similar tradition. There is a festival (called Užgavėnės) with scary masks and pancakes, but it is very different from the colorful costumes and street music of the South. I grew up hating Užgavėnės with a passion. My first experience of it was at primary school, when older kids stormed our classroom with cans of paint and threw it at our faces. I spent the next hour or so trying to rinse my eye. In middle school, we were paraded to a nearby forest in makeshift scary costumes to make campfire and play games – a tiring and quite pointless trip. And let′s not forget that people still make derogatory masks depicting Jews and Roma in the Lithuanian version of this festival, two generations after the genocide of these populations. Needless to say, the only tradition I respect from the Lithuanian festival is making pancakes.

Last year I spent the carnival days in a small town in the region of Murcia (Spain). Although it wasn′t quite warm, it was sunny enough for the whole town to be on the street. The local school paraded its children, dressed in various costumes. Parents didn′t have freedom to choose the costume – it was decided top-down. In my friends′ son′s class, all boys had to be nutcrackers, and girls had to wear ballet costumes.

After the procession ended, many girls were sitting around and posing for photos with these short skirts and heavy make-up, which in the adult world would be considered ′slutty′ if seen outside of the carnival. Mothers, many in hijabs, proudly took photos of them with their cellphones.

This year I attended the carnival in Malta.

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Prague, second attempt

Kinetic head of Kafka by David Černý

“…And if you′re planning a stag party, have a nice stag party,” a flight attendant said on my Amsterdam-Prague flight. To me, putting the words ′nice′ and ′stag night′ in one sentence is a sign of out-of-the-box thinking taken to the extremes, but I smiled to myself. This sounds very Dutch. After all, Amsterdam ran an information campaign for purchasers of substandard  drugs to seek medical help immediately. What else could the service industry wish typical tourists in Prague, I wondered, remembering my first trip there in 2011. “May the content of your stomach be easy to clean?”

 

I went to Prague to attend a conference, and decided to stay the weekend after with friends. I was highly motivated to bust the myths I created for myself last time and to enjoy a completely different experience.

 

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Always on alert, or A few observations about sidewalks in Malta

I like my cities walkable, so as much as I like the Mediterranean island of Malta, sidewalks are something I still cannot get used to. Not only because they are often sloping – this is not different from Vilnius old town. In British English they call them pavements, so there is not even a promise of walk as in ‘sidewalk’.

My experience on the island reminded me of my first day in Cairo, when my friend G. instructed me to walk on the side of the road at all times. “You are much safer on the street than on the sidewalk,” he said, contrary to my habits and intuition. Sidewalks there were a colonial imposition – just like traffic lights. They were not used the way I′m used to. I had to accept it – this is simply a different culture, and this is how they do it. I must adjust my mind this way here as well.

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How to survive the cold in the Baltics

Two annoying cliches I keep hearing in my travels are: “Are you saying you’re cold? But you must be used to it!” and “Lithuania? Is it cold over there?” Northern location plus climate change mean that it may or may not be cold in the Baltics. It depends on winds. I never ask Americans if they have tornadoes all the time. But if you happen to be traveling in the Baltics when it’s cold, it’s always good to be prepared. The ever-changing weather in late fall and winter comes with many dangers.

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