Through the Eyes of Foreigners
Each visitor leaves with a variety of different personal impressions
Every country interested in attracting foreign tourists tries to highlight its assets. This means knowing what is unique about it, and creating an inimitable and appealing image. Often things that seem extraordinary to us hold no interest for foreign guests, and vice versa.
According to the British tourism expert Charles Oswin, there are three things that Lithuanians usually emphasise when presenting their country to foreigners: history, nature and culture. But none of these, even if used with the adjectives “interesting”, “unspoilt” and “unique”, provides any specific information that might show how Lithuania is different.
What catches the attention of foreign visitors? What surprises them? What is it they like or dislike?
After talking to 100 foreigners of various nationalities, from different educational backgrounds and of various ages, and after listening to their comments and impressions, we can say that some of their remarks were quite unexpected.
What you can expect
from the people
It is human nature to label things and events. This is a way of arranging everything into a system, which makes it easier to understand the world. This is how stereotypes about nations are born. Hence, Germans are considered pedantic, tidy and organised, Finns shy and quiet, Italians impetuous, and the Dutch rather stingy, but talented negotiators.
How can Lithuanians be labelled? What features set them apart from other people? If this question were put to Lithuanians themselves, the vast majority would start by enumerating all their negative traits. They would not fail to mention that they are jealous complainers, and would only talk about their more positive traits at the end.
Although we like to criticise, and are especially critical of our fellow countrymen, foreigners notice quite different features in us. Or is this because we only show the brighter side of our natures when dealing with foreigners?
It is true that hospitality is an inborn feature. The guest always sleeps on the most comfortable bed and is served the most delicious food that the hosts can provide. Foreigners notice this and emphasise that Lithuanians are friendly and always try to help.
According to Jozef Miscovich, 28, from the Czech Republic, “Most travel guides to countries claim that the local people are friendly. In Lithuania’s case, however, this is not just a cliché.
“I have made several trips through the countryside and each time I was surprised at the friendliness of the people. They kindly allowed me to put up a tent on their land, provided me with fresh vegetables from their gardens, and even gave me handmade souvenirs.”
After getting to know Lithuanians better, visitors from other countries see them as open, communicative and honest people. Christa and Johan Legrand from Belgium were staying on one farmstead and in the morning their hosts went to work and simply left the keys to the house with them, complete strangers as they were. They were shocked.
Foreign visitors say that Lithuanians seem to know how to enjoy life. German Dego Ilado Brito, a 31-year-old engineer from Mexico City, came with the intention of staying for ten days. He was so fascinated by the hospitality and friendliness that he ended up staying a month and a half.
“I think that the typical Lithuanian is a very friendly and generous person,” he said. “Inquisitive, keen to learn and to discover new things, very intelligent and intellectual.
“Lithuanians are very interesting people with strong personalities. I think that these features developed as a result of the hardships they have experienced over the course of history. I have also noticed that they pay a lot of attention to their history and are proud of it.”
Although we call ourselves a constantly whining nation, some think of us as constantly smiling people! When Marie Claude Morin, 47, a tourist from France, tried to persuade me that Lithuanians smile more than the French, I just shrugged my shoulders in disbelief.
But when all the members of a delegation from Thailand, a country that is referred to as the Land of Smiles, explained to me that Lithuanians and Thais are similar because they smile a lot, only then did I start to believe it. Nevertheless, I would never have imagined that our smiles could be one of the reasons for choosing the country for business.
Vinod K. Gupta is a vice-president of Indorama, an Indian company registered in Thailand that is intending to build a plant to manufacture plastic granules in the Klaipėda Free Economic Zone. He assured me that the decision to come to Lithuania was made not only because of the excellent location and the developed infrastructure, but also because of the enthusiastic and smiling people.
What everyone notices
Besides the friendliness, almost all foreigners notice several other things: the beautiful women, the clean streets in the cities, the fantastic beer and the wild drivers.
Not only men but also women notice the beauty, grace and femininity of the girls. Many are surprised that, despite their relatively low incomes, women take good care of themselves, wear fashionable clothes, and look very elegant.
They are truly creative and inventive. Many can make a dress, knit or crochet. Their ability to walk gracefully and effortlessly along the cobbled streets of the Old Town in high-heeled shoes provokes wonder and admiration. It is true that women choose elegance over efficiency or comfort.
Foreigners who have lived in Lithuania for some time speak very positively about the characters of the women. Gudmunt Boye, a Norwegian who has been working here for more than ten years, said that the most appealing features of the women are their strong will, their ability to express their own opinions and their independence.
Even Lithuanians themselves know that their beer is good. Awards won at international contests serve as proof of that. In 2001 the Ekstra brand from Švyturys came first in the Dortmunder category at the World Beer Championship, and was awarded the gold medal.
In 2002, the Švyturys brewery won another prize. Its Baltijos beer was awarded the bronze medal at the World Beer Cup. This year, luck was on the side of the Kalnapilis brewery. Its Original and Kalnapilis 7.30 brands won gold medals at the World Beer Cup 2004, the most prestigious beer competition in the world.
For many foreigners, however, the quality and taste of the beer is a discovery. Horst Plaster, a Canadian who has been president of the German Wine Association, said he was sincerely surprised to find that excellent beer is brewed not only in Germany but also in Lithuania.
There is no doubt that the words of Henning Baek from Denmark will come as music to the ears of every brewer: “After tasting Lithuanian beer I am really not looking forward to going back to Carlsberg and Tuborg.”
There is one more good thing that foreigners notice: the clean streets in the cities and towns.
Kathi Goller, 21, a student from Austria, said that she had read so much about ecological problems that she expected to find heaps of rubbish; and what she actually found was quite the opposite. Olivier Olde Riekerinch, 23, a visitor from Holland, noted that although Lithuanians smoke a lot, the streets are not littered with cigarette ends.
Foreigners also praise the excellent roads, but wonder why drivers cannot be more polite.
Juho Vuolteenaho, a Finn who has come to Lithuania several times, kept asking again and again: “What happens to the friendly Lithuanians once they get behind the wheel of a car? They speed like crazy and disregard not only the traffic regulations but also basic rules of conduct.”
Many foreigners stressed how dangerous the roads are. You will never hear these comments from people from southern Europe though. This is because the chaos on their roads is at least as bad, and if not worse.
Emilio d’Alesio, 48, an architect from Italy, pointed out that in Italy the traffic lights do not have amber, and said that he was surprised to see it here. “Italians are probably too impatient. A yellow light would be too much for them.
“That is why I was so relieved when I saw people crossing the road here on a red light. This means that although Lithuanians are disciplined, they are not obsessed with discipline. As for drivers who are constantly tooting their horns, they remind me of drivers back home.”
The most delicious treats
Foreigners say that although people here eat a lot they still manage to keep slim. If we look at the figures about how much money Lithuanians and residents of other countries spend on food, we would find out that the Germans spend only 14 per cent of their incomes on food, the lowest figure among the old EU members. The Portuguese spend more than any other, at 22 per cent.
The Lithuanians, on the other hand, spend 32 per cent. It may look as if we are gluttons, but let us not forget that the average hourly wage in Germany is 26.34 euros, and in Spain 14.22 euros, while the average Lithuanian earns only 2.71 euros per hour.
Foreigners who come to work in Lithuania find it strange that people here often go out for lunch. A German or a Dutch worker who earns a much higher salary in his own country usually brings a packed lunch from home.
What dishes should a visitor try, and how do foreigners describe Lithuanian cuisine? While we still cannot agree on whether cepelinai (large potato dumplings stuffed with minced meat) is our national dish or not, most foreigners have usually already heard about it before coming.
Susanna Fanani, 31, an Italian currently living in London, admitted that she knew about only two things, the Curonian Spit and cepelinai. The dish, however, for some people comes as a disappointment. Although it is very popular with Germans, visitors from other countries, after trying it once, do not usually wish to order this “interesting” meal again.
Jerry Moynihan, 29, an Irishman, had an original remark to make: “Potatoes are Ireland’s national dish too. Only here you can find meat inside. This is really fantastic!”
Those who are not especially fond of potato dishes consider cepelinai rather heavy and greasy food. However, most foreigners stress that nowadays it is not a problem to find a restaurant that serves good food. There is now a vast array of eating and drinking establishments.
Foreigners like the black bread, the high-quality dairy products and the smoked meat. Even a dish like šaltibarščiai (cold beetroot soup) is popular with many. We also found that it is one of the favourite Lithuanian dishes of Mart Laar, the former prime minister of Estonia.
Many visitors say that they are surprised to find such a wide choice of snacks to eat with beer. All noted in particular the garlic bread. Most find smoked pig’s ear, which locals like so much, disgusting. Tongue, no matter how it is served, hot or cold, is also unacceptable to many.
Westerners point out that in restaurants the prices are half what they are in their own countries; but visitors from East and Central Europe are surprised to find that the coffee is rather expensive compared to the prices for meals.
Cities and villages
According to data provided by the State Tourism Department, 1.49 million foreign tourists came to Lithuania in 2003. Visitors from Russia accounted for 28 per cent, other CIS states 25.2, Germany 7.2, Estonia 6.1, and Latvia 5 per cent.
Citizens of West European countries are surprised to find a high standard of living, modern shops, a large number of cash dispensers, and trolleybuses. Many notice that modern lifestyles have not yet come to the rural areas.
However, foreigners consider this a positive fact. They feel nostalgic when they see a farmer working his land with a horse and plough, or cutting grass with a scythe.
Many say that it is regrettable that with advances in the economy these phenomena will inevitably disappear, and the countryside will lose part of its attraction. The harmony between untouched nature and man that can be seen today is something that they always admire and envy.
Every foreigner interviewed had positive words to say about Vilnius. They were surprised to see so many churches, and such a large old town. Alain Rohan, 41, an engineer from France, said that it is most interesting from a historical point of view, and that it takes more than a month to familiarise yourself with all its historic sites and landmarks. Comparing Vilnius with other cities, visitors said they were glad to find so many places for socialising in the capital.
In Klaipėda, meanwhile, there is a shortage of venues. Germans wonder why its Old Town is so empty. They notice that though there are few people in the centre, life in the so-called dormitory towns is swinging.
However, Klaipėda is situated on the sea, and this outweighs all its shortcomings. The closeness of the sea is especially important for those who come from Austria, Switzerland, and other landlocked countries.
Germans are interested in the historic sites of Klaipėda, but the city has too few churches to make the skyline interesting. Latvians usually come to Klaipėda with one purpose, to visit the Sea Museum and dolphinarium. Guests from other countries rarely pay a visit to the museums.
They prefer to stroll along the streets, and drop into an art gallery or a café.
Visitors from Holland find Klaipėda boring. They think there is too little entertainment and the restaurants are empty. Americans feel almost at home. They go bowling and party at night clubs.
According to Alfred Stutz, 31, from Switzerland, Kaunas is the most European city in Lithuania. Americans like Laisvės alėja, and say that it feels like Rome. Germans say that Kaunas gives the impression of being a rapidly developing city.
In the summer, a number of foreign tourists choose the coast as a holiday destination. Nida has already become a mecca for German holidaymakers. They themselves, however, are not happy with this.
In the words of Gaby Colde-way, a representative with the German travel agency Statt-Reisen Berlin, those who come here want to find Lithuania, not a German colony.
They are excited that a walk through the woods offers the opportunity to see deer and to smell the fragrant pine-scented air. Most guests note that the Curonian Spit is more suitable for elderly tourists, and that Palanga is better for young people who do not mind the noise.
Tourists from the Scandinavian countries like to come to Palanga. They think that the lively, crowded centre and the quiet botanic gardens are a perfect combination. Besides, prices are incredibly low compared to the prices on the other side of the Baltic.
Gunhild Kuolsrod, 36, a visitor from Norway, was the only one to express a criticism of Basanavičiaus gatvė: “Palanga is too loud, both in terms of noise and in terms of colours.”
The marketplace is one of the most important sites in any town, and tourists visiting a new city always try to seek it out. It is a sort of mirror of the city. Of course, Lithuanian markets can hardly compare with oriental bazaars, both by the amount and the choice of goods. Besides, it is not customary to haggle.
However, foreigners like the Lithuanian markets because of the variety of colours and the sincerity of the country people selling their produce. You can find old women with wise faces selling small bundles of medicinal herbs. You can buy freshly made curd cheese or a jar of honey. It is not unusual to see a group of French tourists buying pickled cucumbers or freshly grated horseradish.
Many West Europeans fear that with the European Union the markets may disappear, but for the time being they are no less interesting than the museums.
Every foreigner sees Lithuania in a slightly different way. There are many things that depend on the experience of each individual, his interests, and even on his mood, and on a whole chain of coincidences: the weather, the people, even public transport. And the picture that stays in the traveller’s mind always depends on each of these.
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