Use of the labels ‘Nordic’ and Baltic’ suggests that these groups of countries are defined by their common traits. However, despite intensive programmes of assimilation under the Russian Tsars and the Soviets followed by 12 years of “ever-closer union” through EU membership, the main trait shared by the Baltic States is their uniqueness. Likewise, the Nordic region encompasses diverse histories, cultures and languages. Therefore, fleeing from the challenges of sociopolitical analysis, I limit myself to presenting some odd, random facts encountered during my travels.
-Estonia and Latvia have been independent for less than 50 of the past 800 years since they were first mentioned in medieval texts. Successive occupations by Teutonic Knights, Swedish Kings, Russian Tsars, Soviets and Nazis have all left their mark on the countries’ architecture, art, culture and politics.
-In contrast, Lithuania’s Jagiellonian dynasty was among the most powerful in fifteenth century Europe. Through conquest and marriage treaties, the Jagiellonians came to preside over an Eastern European empire stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea.
–Bus stops are ‘hairy’ in Norway! To be more precise, they have turf roofs, a traditional construction technique favoured since Viking times due to its insulating properties and abundant materials (sod and birch bark).
-Bergen, Norway, is the rainiest city in Europe, with 235 days of rain per year on average (six of which were during my brief stay). So why does poor old London have such a rainy reputation with a mere 145 days per year?
-Estonian, Finnish and Hungarian form part of the same Uralic language family. Most scholars believe that speakers descend from Uralic tribes whose homeland was in the vicinity of the Ural Mountains in Western Russia. As far back as 98 AD, Roman historian Tacitus probably refers to at least one of these tribes.
-Estonian words can contain many consecutive vowels. Try pronouncing ‘ÕUEAIAÄÄR’, which means ‘edge of a fence surrounding a yard’!
–Medieval buildings are like members of the family in Estonia and Latvia, especially when they come in rows. Tallinn has the Three Sisters – three fourteenth century merchant houses – whilst Riga has the Three Brothers – the oldest medieval dwellings in town.
-Accustomed as we are to cute images of Rudolph and his colleagues on our Christmas cards, it may shock some to learn how ubiquitous reindeer is on Scandinavian menus. Along with moose and elk, they are served as steaks, hot-dogs, meatballs, and burgers. I am afraid to report that the reindeer hot-dogs in Bergen are simply delicious!
–Mushroom picking is the favourite pastime of a third of Latvians according to a recent poll, which explains why I bumped into figures with baskets lurking in bushes whilst I was hiking through forests. Should it ever be introduced into the Olympics in the wake of non-traditional sports like skateboarding and climbing, Latvia would surely win gold.
-The reason Norway’s landscape is strewn with wacky rock formations is that so many trolls were caught out in the sunlight (according to local folklore at least).
-Many trades essential to the orderly functioning of medieval Livonia (modern-day Estonia and Latvia) seem strange today, like: coopers to make regulation-size barrels; boatmen to tow ships to their place of anchor; draymen (cart drivers) to collect cargo from boatmen at the pier; barber surgeons to do anything from cutting hair to dentistry and amputating limbs; or latrine cleaners to perform medieval Europe’s most foul duty.
–One of the largest mass suicides in European history took place at Cēsis Castle, Latvia, in 1577 when around 300 people blew themselves up to avoid falling into the hands of the brutal Muscovite forces of Ivan the Terrible that were besieging the castle.
-Simple acts of daily life can differ wildly between regions. In the Baltic States, many was the time I held my hand outstretched to receive change that never came. Instead, it was slammed down on a coin tray, seemingly in a dramatic attempt to educate the tourist.
–Pine and birch forests dominate the Baltic landscape and, in popular imagination, are more powerful than the works of man. In poet Imants Ziodonis’ Green Tale, the forest prevails in its battle against the city: “One night the forest came into the city…it crawled through the open windows, the chimney and air vents in rooms…”
-Ask English people who their national hero is and you may receive various responses, including Admiral Nelson for defeating Napoleon’s fleet or Churchill for his leadership in World War II . A Latvian’s response is easier to predict but far more colourful: Lāčplēsis, the son of a man and a she-bear who used his superhuman powers to fight Estonian giants and German knights imposing Christianity on pagan Latvia.
–A merchant denied entry into Riga’s Great Guild devised a unique and original way of sticking two fingers up to them: he adorned the turrets of his art-nouveau home with two black cats and pointed their anuses directly at the Great Guild’s headquarters across the street. This offence led to a court battle and the final settlement allowed for the merchant to be admitted to the Great Guild in return for turning the cats around.