The dangers of NOT being a happy camper while living abroad

One day I was browsing the Expats Malta Facebook group, when a discussion about pros and cons of living in Malta caught my eye. The group is too active for me to find it again, but basically (<- that′s a strongly beloved word among the locals) it was a flood of reactions to a British person criticizing healthcare, streets, and people′s attitudes in Malta. Soon enough she was told to go back to her country.

It inspired me to draw this comic. Continue reading

Typical vs. traditional food

In Budapest, where we had a much-debated international festival, my Latvian friend once told me a funny story about his exchange semester in the US. When asked to make typical food for some kind of food day on a warm weekend, he didn′t hesitate to bring some meat skewers. To the shock of his Armenian colleagues, he made shashlik. “It is the most typical dish we eat in Latvia,” he later explained to those who contested it on the grounds of cultural appropriation. He did not read into the expectation of something ‘unique’ and ‘exotic’ in the request to cook typical food.

Answering questions about “typical food in your country” is a compulsory part of expat life, and it often happens in travels, too. I often have to explain that typical and traditional Lithuanian food are completely different, and both categories are entirely different from what I normally eat. Continue reading

Hot & cold, or how a New Yorker article explained Malta to me

When I came across an article about a glossary of positive emotions in the New Yorker, the idea was far from new to me. But this important quote is worth rethinking:

Lomas has noted several interesting patterns. A handful of Northern European languages, for instance, have terms that describe a sort of existential coziness. The words—koselig (Norwegian), mysa (Swedish), hygge (Danish), and gezellig (Dutch)—convey both physical and emotional comfort. “[…] In contrast, more Southern European cultures have some words about being outside and strolling around and savoring the atmosphere. And those words”—like the French flâner and the Greek volta—“might be more likely to emerge in those cultures.”

This theme comes up in many of my conversations about perceptions of cold with Mediterranean people. I certainly relate to the Nordic idea of doing one′s best to feel hyggelig as much as possible, if not most of the time – this, however, doesn′t apply to British people, who seem to like exposing themselves to cold as long as the sun shines on them.

The pleasant temperature range would be around 20-25. This does not mean that Nordic people never challenge themselves with extreme heat or cold. In fact, it is quite common to train children to deal with the cold, and when they grow up, Scandinavians often smoke outside in their tank tops in freezing temperatures. People from the North are also happy to challenge themselves while traveling, and they seek out hot places for vacations. However, they/we use state-of-the-art technology and other achievements of civilization to stay hyggelig in private space, which extends to the office. Scandinavian companies especially invest in physically and emotionally comfortable environments, and Lithuanians, too, are picking up the trend. The inadequate infrastructure at Lithuanian schools, hospitals and universities is not considered a part of national heritage at all, and it is fortunately giving way to technologically sound and energy-efficient solutions. When it is cold, Northern people mobilize technology, clothing and their individual routes in space to stay cozy.

Not so in the South. In the Middle East (I never visited Spain or Italy during the hot season, and I don′t remember suffering from this in Greece and Turkey), people seem to believe that extreme heat is best countered with extreme cold, so they don′t mind wasting energy to at least halve the outside temperature in every closed space, including buses. This applies not only to oil-rich countries of the Gulf, but also to Israel. I was sick most of the time in May because of this contrast until I pulled out my winter clothes and started carrying them around. In Malta, I am still to experience this habit, since temperatures have not soared to such levels yet.

Despite my personal discomfort, I always feel very curious and struggle to understand why people do this to themselves when they could just tune their technology to stay hyggelig. Japan is a long archipelago that spans from similar longitudes as Lithuania to tropics, but Japanese people are masters of staying hyggelig – not only have they historically used kotatsu (a heated sitting table with a blanket), they have easy access to such inventions as feet-warming stickers for winter. I often use Japanese items to protect myself from cold and stay cozy – including in the Mediterranean.

Interestingly, in the Mediterranean, cold is not met with such a vigorous attempt to counterbalance it with its polar opposite. When cold comes along, they tend to just accept it and at best wear more clothing. In many of my conversations with Mediterranean acquaintances, the topic of being accustomed to a certain climate often came up. I got an impression that unless they traveled to a Northern country, they thought that when winter descended on those latitudes, people simply stayed in the cold, rather than use technology to protect themselves and stay hyggelig. In fact, some of my most hyggelig childhood memories are from these very rare cases when extreme cold (under -20) exempted us from going to school – looking at frozen landscapes from a warm, comfortable room without any duties to attend to is exactly what Northern coziness is about. On the other hand, the most un-hyggelig thing is when the weather barely warms up to a point when it would no longer be necessary to take a sweater for an evening out, but businesses and indoor public places like libraries immediately start freezing their premises. In Israel, a woolen scarf was as necessary in May as it was in January. Even in Malta I have already had to regret not taking a scarf to a conference.

I first started contemplating it when my former employer hosted a delegation from Indonesia. Although it was freezing outside, our guests did not  button up their coats and walk faster – I believe they thought it would impede their enjoyment of a new city. Which links to the observation from the New Yorker – being outside and looking around is key to enjoyment of a new place. I am very critical of my cultural biases and I am not saying that one or another way is better. The proliferation of Danish vocabulary in English simply allows me to describe how I feel in the Mediterranean without a strong value judgment – un-hyggelig. Whether to expect and value coziness is appropriate or not is another question.

What put all these things into perspective is a remark by a Maltese travel companion about his trip to Latvia in winter. He said, confirming the New Yorker quote, that perhaps the city was nice, but it could not be experienced as such in the cold: “What about the customary window-shopping?” he regretted. The pleasure of being outside and peeking in through windows and cracks, the enjoyment of eating and drinking outside – all these joys were not available, and this lack leaves an impression of an unwelcoming, unpleasant travel experience. Not being able to enjoy the street is likely to make travelers and migrants feeling the same in the North as I feel about not being able to enjoy my living room or a conference venue.

This has obvious consequences on tourism in the North. While people from there have coping strategies for dealing with heat (our press considers it its duty to remind us every year about the importance of hydration, staying in the shade, etc), being deprived of the pleasure of enjoying the street is likely to discourage tourists from the South. Let′s not forget: in their home countries, they can only enjoy being outside well after sunset. In effect, be it hot or cold, most people stay indoors, where temperature can be controlled (homes, offices, libraries, malls or cafes, even cars) most of the time. So it′s mostly the exceptionalism of travel that constitutes the whole difference. Denmark is marketing hygge quite excessively at this point, but tourists know that they are unlikely to get to experience home environments. The main puzzle for travel industry is how to extend these environments to travel situations.

It seems to me that people in the North, at least in the Baltics, have read and traveled so much that they perceive the Southern lifestyle as superior. Thus, businesses and consumers are looking to extract that savoring of the street whenever possible. Outdoor cafes are booming, exploratory city walks are fashionable. Will we see comparable cultural learning on the other side?

Read my post on how to survive cold temperatures in the Baltics here.

A short trip to Rome with good tips

Ah, work-related travel… Anything is better than those single-day trips to Brussels I was made to take at some point, but I′m sure that everyone who travels for work is struggling to strike a balance between being fresh and alert in the morning and seeing as much of an unknown city as possible during the limited leisure hours. I stayed in Rome for four days and three nights, with a very busy schedule, but not only the organizers made sure that we see something, but also I was blessed to have a companion who has lived in Rome, as well as a colleague who grew up there and generously shared tips before I went.

I was prepared that if I do not manage to see the famous landmarks, at least I will enjoy charming urban landscapes.

Yet I managed to see everything I wanted – Rome is really easy to navigate, walkable, and has efficient public transportation, given its size and Mediterranean culture.

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New ‘Love in Malta is…’ series, musings with a graphic tablet

I wanted to draw this couple since March, when I saw them in Msida. At the same time, I′m trying to master a graphic tablet, which makes my drawings quite rough and primitive, compared to drawing by hand on paper. I am trying a mixed technique – drawing on a photo I took, inputting text with a text tool for better readability.

I hope it will at least remind you those nostalgic stickers we used to get with chewing gum. I have one more idea for ‘Love in Malta is…’ Yet this is the most extreme manifestation of romantic feelings I have seen in Malta so far, because buses are rare, unreliable and unpredictable. Missing the bus meant that the man will have to wait heaven-knows-how-long. Continue reading

Maltese festival, Armenian violinist and habitus questions

Social theorist Pierre Bourdieu famously defined the sum of acquired tastes and various dispositions as habitus – not exactly an over-structure where individuals merely participate, but neither an individual portfolio of competences, crafted upon a free choice among components. Although this theory is about everything and anything, I find it very useful both academically and in my own observations about societies.

On April 20th a friend and I went to see a free concert in Valletta – a part of the Malta International Music Festival. The concert hall, hidden somewhere inside the Mediterranean Conference Centre, looked long and small, and we wondered where we could enjoy the best acoustics. The crowd looked cheerful, and there were several dressed-up children with excited parents, suggesting that the Russia-based duo, Karen Shakhgaldyan (violin) and Natalia Sokolovskaya (piano) are not the only stars of the evening for some.

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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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