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.