Category Archives: Analysis and commentary

Building Friendships event in Msida

The first day of September was rich in intercultural events: Appogg (the governmental youth agency) and UNHCR Malta brought several communities together to share food and traditional music in Msida, targeting mostly families in their Building Friendships event, and Spark15, a young migrants’ NGO, publicized a contemporary music and games event in Valletta. It was a tough choice, but Msida and Valletta being relatively close, I expected to make it to both. The first one was attractive for the opportunity to meet organized diaspora communities in Malta. The second one promised an energetic and youthful vibe.

Msida, home of Malta’s junior college, is a well-connected town by the sea. With the event taking place opposite the church, there was a good chance that passers-by would spot it and spontaneously decide to join. The center of the square was kept free for folk dancing performances, and several food stalls were arranged in a semicircle, offering Palestinian/ Levantine, Bangladeshi, Ghanaian, Maltese and Somali food, with face-painting and drums workshops in between. Continue reading

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

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.

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

Open day at Kaunas mosque

The community of Kaunas mosque provided an opportunity for anyone interested to go inside the unique Tatar mosque of Kaunas, to see a Muslim prayer, look around and enjoy food from various countries and cultures. The mosque has become an important contact point for old and new Muslim communities, the latter consisting of foreign students, workers, spouses of Lithuanians, expats and local converts. The 3000-strong Tatar community has been around for centuries and is can help their sisters and brothers in faith with accessing Lithuanian institutions, networking and, most importantly, feeling at home in this relatively homogeneous European society. Other functioning mosques are in distant small towns. Vilnius doesn′t have a mosque, and the current mayor, Remigijus Šimašius (liberal) made it clear that he will not do anything in his power to help establish one, even though, when Syrian and Iraqi refugees are resettled according to the EU scheme next year, the Muslim community in Vilnius will grow. There is not a single Shia mosque (most Shia Muslims are apparently from Azerbaijan), but Shia believers can attend Sunni services.

The weather is ugly in Lithuania, so I'm using a photo I made in spring

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Cyprus impressions: ancient ruins at your fingertips

As my travel companion Ugnė wrote (in Lithuanian), Cyprus is rich in well-preserved and accessible ruins, particularly in Famagusta, which she calls the capital of antique ruins. As I wrote in my earlier blog post, people interact with objects in a very direct and laid-back way. Sterility of museums seems to be alien to the local culture. There are museums, of course, but even in them visitors can come closer and interact with objects more directly.

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Cyprus reflections: a Middle Eastern collage

I continue blogging about my recent trip to Cyprus: all posts can be found using this tag. This post is inspired by my considerations as to where to put Cyprus on my travel map. It’s beyond geographical Europe, but South Cyprus is in the EU, so I categorized it as Europe. Still, traveling there made me think about the position of Cyprus in relation to its Middle Eastern neighbors.

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Cyprus reflections: relating to objects

The trip to Cyprus was long and adventurous enough to prompt all kinds of thoughts. But before I start describing specific places visited, I am planning to write a few posts on general observations from both sides, the North and the South. One of the observations I made during the trip is about how people relate to where their stuff comes from. I thought this relationship was more direct and genuine than I’ve seen in most of my travels. In Cyprus one is rarely too far from the source of things.

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2014 in review

My high school principal, who is a known blogger in Lithuania, says that to be liked, blogs must be personal. When I check readership stats, I see that my blog enjoyed much more popularity when it was more personal. I also enjoy blogs with a personal touch. So this year I’m planning to continue posting old and new travel diaries and various stories I encounter. For the first post of 2015, I’ll use this questionnaire as a basis (here are  2010 and 2011 in review). Continue reading