A Baltic Travelogue of Little Importance

We travel not to change the world, but to change ourselves. I have learned a great deal in my Baltic travels of the past ten days, and it has changed me in small ways. As I haven’t had time to do much more than sleep in a warm, soft bed that doesn’t move since I returned late last night, this entry will be more observational and episodic than usual.

First, it is possible to survive and be happy without connectivity. Naively, I had assumed that those clever Finns and Swedes would have wired the entire expanse of the Baltic by some means so that wherever we moored our yacht I would have access to the internet. It isn’t so, and that is a good thing. I was forced to go for over a week without internet, between a bar in Estonia near the site of the 1980 Soviet Olympics sailing venue and a public library in Vaxhamn, Sweden.

Second, as obsessed as I still am with news and global events, I find that I didn’t miss much in the time elapsed since I lost access to newspapers and web. The dollar is still weakening (losing 41 percent of its value since Bush took office), oil is still at a new record price (approaching $146), there is still a risk that America or Israel will start a war against Iran (although the US military is now warning about opening a “third front”), and the global banking crisis continues to erode balance sheets and investor confidence. Only my perspective has changed, so that I now regard these data points as clustered on a much longer continuum of empire building and debasement, prosperity and famine.

Third, I learned that post-Communist countries can create economic prosperity much more rapidly than I suspected, being amazed at the apparent wealth in Estonia. There may be poor people there, but we didn’t find any – even moored in a less prosperous port. Everyone we saw drives newish cars, lives in comfortable and well kept housing, enjoys a balanced lifestyle of work and leisure, and seems proud and enthusiastic about Estonia’s opportunities as part of Europe. The coming global downturn will no doubt hit Estonia too, and perhaps the ex-Communists there as in Russia have been a bit loose with accounting and legal practice, but it is an amazing transformation in just one generation all the same. The general rule of second languages is that anyone over 40 speaks Russian and anyone under 40 speaks English. Imagine that generational divide!

Fourth, the tribe memory of thousands of years of violence and bloodshed in the Baltic as aggressive neighbours invaded, slaughtered, pillaged and occupied various bits of every nation right up to and including modern times hasn’t dissuaded the populations from being generally pacifist politically and socially. If anything, the result is a determination to live harmoniously, equitably and sustainably. I will admit to being largely ignorant of Baltic history when I flew in last month, acquiring such knowledge as I now have piecemeal as we travelled from Estonia up the Finnish archipelago, through the Aland Islands – now an autonomous and tax free region of Finland – and over to the Swedish archipelago. These stony, frigid shores have witnessed serial brutalities that we could not begin to imagine. Whether it was Vikings, Danes, or Tsarist Russians in times past or Germans and Soviets in times recent, the islands were targeted as outposts for strategic control of this mass of water – a critical artery to regional economic prosperity and military security. Empires came and went during these times. Tallinn was once capital of the prosperous Hanseatic commercial and military empire, but is now a quiet backwater. The highest point in the old town is the Russian Orthodox cathedral built by Tsarist Russian occupiers directly opposite the Estonian parliament building to symbolise the finality of the shift of power away from the Hanseatic Empire – a vivid red symbol of occupation that still irritates Estonians today even as they promote it in their tourist guides. Of course, the same guides also point out the KGB headquarters which saw many thousands of Estonians tortured and exiled to Siberian workcamps as “enemies of the state”.

Fifth, I learned that socialism can indeed work and create prosperity, but only in a highly conformed polity with shared values. We asked a Finnish waitress whether she too, had her own island in the archipelago. She quite seriously replied, “No, I am too poor so I have only a house on a lake.” In Sweden, even public housing estates have waterside saunas and marinas. A Swede was explaining to me why the Swedish system of enlightened, generous socialism fails wherever it is emulated. She said that common values among the population, and prizing conformity in particular, were central to the system’s effectiveness as democratising prosperity without sacrificing productivity. The day we spoke, the bus drivers of Stockholm were striking to work “normal hours” so that they too could spend more quality time with their families and work predictable, sympathetic schedules. Money wasn’t an issue as compensation for lost hours of children’s company, fishing and sailing couldn’t be measured in cash wages. My friend observed that other European admirers of the Swedish system often failed to live happily in Sweden, chafing at the petty rules and unwritten expectations that curb individuality and rebellion in favour of family, productive labour, stability and social equity.

Finally, I was both amazed and appalled to observe how homogenous life has become even in the outer reaches of the globe. Just about every community I visited in my travels – whether large or small – could be theoretically transported and dropped somewhere into Midwest America without raising much contrast. Houses are comfortable. Stores are big boxes with signs in primary colours. Cars are shiny and efficient. A sizeable minority of people are overweight. Youth hang out in the town centre clustered around burger joints with uniform rebellious rude t-shirts and vivid hair. While each nation and polity celebrates its unique history and culture, they are all seemingly converging on a modern era of comfortable living to a single pattern. Whether that pattern will prove sustainable when challenged by rapidly changing economic and environmental factors will be the interesting test of the next generation.

17 Responses to "A Baltic Travelogue of Little Importance"

  1. Rich R   July 4, 2008 at 6:41 am

    Nice post with subtle observations. How incredibly lucky we were to have been born in a largely peaceful and prosperous time. Long trips away from the wired world are most useful for seeing what is important. A safe place to live, time with family and friends and the realization of the good fortune we have. All of us could have been born in Africa or another part of the world where death, disease and intolerance would have a much higher place in our psyche. This world still exists with little prospect that the same being, born in such a place, could ever enjoy the freedom and indeed pleasure to just think and sail.To think this privilege we have enjoyed in the West has been squandered via a failed experiment that a deregulated, anything goes business environment, run for the short term by people with no regard for the next generation’s well being is the sad reality. We’ve been eroding the protections afforded our waiters and waitresses lives for more than 20 years here in the US. Live by a lake is not in their lexicon. Schools are largely a failure for the working poor. Productive communities and pensions were raped in the worship of money and short term gain. When we were younger surely no one would have dare thought to dump workers and shutter plants while reporting record profits! Nor would anyone be allowed to buy a house without 10 or 20pc down. Our love affair with debt has brought us a huge hangover and that we will likely see socialist tax rates without most of the benefits one would expect (mass transit, pensions and health care). Thanks to plain out lack of common sense, empathy and fraud by folks both the poor and those who were from a comfortable upbringing and had a fine education are in largely the same hole. I don’t think that is the equality for the Swedish model of a socialist system! Welcome back, Sir!

  2. London Banker   July 4, 2008 at 7:10 am

    @ Rich RMany thanks for your kind words. Indeed, we are privileged to have lived in an era of peace and prosperity unrivalled in human experience in our parts of the world. I’m still marvelling after nine days at sea in the rock strewn Baltic at the wonders of my home – comfortable bed, flushing toilet, plentiful water for a bath, freshly ground coffee with fresh milk, the Financial Times through the mailslot, and many other attributes of civilisation.On the other hand, privation now holds less fear for me too, as I know that a small team of like minded people can achieve great things working together, sharing small space, a single sea toilet, and a swinging galley stove. We crossed hundreds of miles of sea under varying conditions, and still ate well and enjoyed our own company despite the absence of comfort or luxury. That too holds a lesson worth learning.

  3. hazleton   July 4, 2008 at 7:53 am

    @London BankerYou have a gift. Your way with words and your intuitive sense is amazing. I am always mesmerized by your posts.

  4. Hazleton   July 4, 2008 at 8:00 am

    @Rich HVery profound.

  5. OuterBeltway   July 4, 2008 at 8:15 am

    LB:It’s always enjoyable to read what you post. The part I liked the most was your subsequent remark about having some fun, doing the tribal rituals with a small group in challenging circumstance. In a word, Adventure.Don’t leave life without it.

  6. Guest   July 4, 2008 at 8:35 am

    What are the risk of a hard landing in Estonia and other Baltics? Here this is the main concern of markets. It looks like Estonia and Latvia are already in a recession

  7. Rich R   July 4, 2008 at 12:15 pm

    Well said! I enjoy your postings. Perhaps we’ll have a pint one day when I’m over!!

  8. London Banker   July 4, 2008 at 1:11 pm

    @ OuterBeltwayI took a picture of myself next to grafitto in Vilnius, Lithuania, on my first visit to Baltic regions some four years ago. It said, "Your Life Becomes More and More of Adventure". Indeed, I hope so.

  9. lenny   July 5, 2008 at 1:31 pm

    …another great post…reminds me of my three weeks in riga for an anti-consumerist art project…ended up being stuck there for a while after 9/11……we had adbuster style billboards and posters in bus stops depicting broken coke bottles cutting lips and mach 13 razors ripping into skin…posted all over the city……the city was also plastered with stickers of a consumer dreaming of more briefcases and briefcases dreaming of more consumers…paint was spraying freely as well……the art group had taken the seats out of two trolley cars and rode around the city for a week showing films and giving away books and magazines…at that time there was no latvian word for consumerism…no awareness of the dangers……i’ve always found it a strange coincidence that the economist felt the need to devote a cover responding to naomi klein’s "no logo" with the same font and colors on the cover switched to "pro logo"…right when we were having this citywide action (i was standing in for klein)…and then 9/11 happens……i found out later that there was a big stink about the event…firms depicted in the posters were reluctant to invest in latvia…the artists were demonized…moved to the countryside and eventually to london…i’d like to go back as the latvians were so gentle and polite…my friends tell me not to bother… the women, they say, aren’t as beautiful as they were before consumerism set in deeply…

  10. Guest   July 5, 2008 at 3:38 pm

    LB,I always love your posts, no matter what they are about.May I recommend The Northern Crusades by Eric Christiansen for some undestanting of how forced Christianization (convert or die) affected the peoples living in the area now called Germany, Poland, and the Baltics. To my mind it explains much of the "madness" of the Hitler era.KS

  11. RGE 1   July 5, 2008 at 6:37 pm

    It’s been years, but I believe I sailed those waters with Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin in Patrick O’Brian’s The Letter of Marque. A good book, good friends, and a sense of adventure in all things it’s important to keep perspective. When your sailing, rock climbing, or anything where you are fully engaged it’s like rebooting a computer, you eliminate everything and then slowly add things back. Great post – like a blast of rain soaked wind.

  12. London Banker   July 6, 2008 at 4:17 am

    @ RGE1I have the entire Patrick O’Brian series of Aubrey/Maturin novels in my library, and there were four aboard the yacht in the Baltic (but not The Letter of Marque). I have enjoyed these novels again and again over twenty years of imaginary sailing with Captain Aubrey and the natural philospher Dr Maturin since being lent Master and Commander in the mid-1980s.@KSI would like to learn more of the history of Northern Europe, but for the moment am finishing the delightful and much less serious To The Baltic With Bob by Griff Rhys Jones.

  13. RGE 1   July 6, 2008 at 2:49 pm

    London Banker, I also have the entire collection and have much enjoyed reading them. I pulled out my copy of the Letter of Marque and though most of the novel takes place elsewhere there is a bit at the end where Stephen sails to Sweden looking for Diana in the Leopard and the Surprise meets him there after picking up stores in Riga (or something to that affect). The Letter came to mind because of the mention of Riga. I know its silly talking about these things, but I wouldn’t want you to lose a bar bet over this in the future. What a great Wimbledon final.

  14. Greg   July 6, 2008 at 8:08 pm

    LB,As usual, another excellent well written blog. I have been reading NRs blog for almost 2 years (with an occasional comment) and I always enjoyed your comments (among some others OR, PeteCA, MA…). I even have some friends who don’t follow business/investing reading your blog. It is something I always look forward to reading. Keep up the good work and as one other said, write about any topic, they are always interesting!

  15. Guest   July 8, 2008 at 2:45 pm

    So LB, what do you conclude?Can you really outmanoeuvre a mid-life crisis by running away to sea? (credit to Amazon synopsis for putting it succinctly re Bob)KS

  16. London Banker   July 8, 2008 at 3:35 pm

    @ KSWhy would you want to outmanoeuvre a mid-life crisis? If it permits running away to sea, I intend to have serial crises. I am either working hard or hardly working, so I enjoy my retirement on the installment plan while I am still young enough and fit enough to derive pleasure from leisure.As a European, I don’t have to feel guilty about taking six weeks of holiday per year and enjoying the adventures that such an entitlement affords.