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If your quest is eating and drinking well, Lithuania is just as good as the other “food-and-beer” countries in Eastern Europe: Hungary, the Czech Republic, etc.
How is the Lithuanian economy? Very well, thank you. Rising like a rocket. Is there any food fit for us westerners? Hey man! Lithuania is a western country. You will find most dishes that you are used to, although differently styled. Shopping for food like the locals can be an adventure. The market places are much more interesting and content-rich than you are used to. The middle class Lithuanian leads a very good life. A travelogue I once read, dealt with a trip through Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, and the writer finished off by observing: “Ah, Vilnius. Back in civilisation!” But let us not forget those who do not ride high on the new economy. But they know how to cook. Some Lithuanian recipes are available here (in Swedish and Lithuanian only).
|1992 - in the old days
The new Lithuania
Fear of Photographers
| Chicken fillet
Spare ribs skewer
Smoked pig ears
Soup in bread
|I started out as Lithuanian photographer in 1992 during what I thought was an isolated trip.
Being a well-fed Swede I was horrified over what I saw, and thought: “Poor people living like this I better shoot
now, like crazy, because I won’t ever see this again.” And I wouldn’t. Not because I didn’t return to Lithuania,
but because the country has changed so profoundly. Mostly by its own force. There has been support from other countries,
but mostly for humanitarian reasons, no massive EU money. Then, the dollar was hard cash, today it’s more like
a slap in the face.
These are unique pictures from a bygone that will hopefully never return!
|A supermarket on Gediminas prospekt, Vilnius’ most fashionable street. The hall, with its half-empty, warped, rusty shelves, was lit by wretched greenish fluorescents. In the afternoon the place was usually empty, with only some random milk bottles and...||... a loaf or two available. The only thing available in relative quantity was vodka. 1993 they had a famine. Each till had two cashiers. One who added all the merchandise on a rattling cash register (behind pillar), the other checking on an abacus.|
|Lithuania is still very cheap for westerners (2005). If you avoid the absolute population centres and eat in the countryside, like in Ignalina for example, you can easily have double main courses, and soup, and a lot of beer and lots of snacks with it, for the same prices as for two ice creams in downtown Vilnius. After you have seen enough of Vilnius, get out in the country.|
|Lithuania is mainly a country of breads. The amount and varieties surprises us Swedes, mostly used to one type only, non-tasting white bread. There is light bread, half-light, medium brown, brown, medium black and black, in lots of tastes.||The cake counters are pure art. Again, Swedes are poor with only marzipan and strawberry cakes. Here are armies of red, green and yellow cakes, round or figure-shaped.||Surelis is chocolate-covered cottage cheese, healthy goodies that Lithuanian kids down in large volumes. You can have them with strawberries, cherries, lemon, poppy seeds, anything|
|Get out in the country and get better food than in the cities. Like here in Ignalina, where food is only one tenth of the big-city price.||The bar and restaurant life is much like everywhere else.||And you can eat Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Indonesian, French and everything else you don’t need, when there is Lithuanian food!|
|So where do city-dwellers go? Pizza has become very popular. The are so many add-ons on the tables you can hardly fit the food.||The Lithuanians are café-goers of Viennese calibre. Skanaus Café (“Bon appetit”) in the Old Town.||The cafés are very well stocked. Much of the filling is varske, various kinds of cottage cheese.|
An elegant party at home
|The Lithuanians are smart and they take after the surrounding world. If you had thought of eating only in Vilnius’ Old Town, or at Trakai Castle, or live in the city centre hotels, then you will have to pay through the nose. And there is no shortage of hotels. Novotel, Radisson, Holiday Inn and others are very good at keeping the prices up. The price for a rental car almost makes your heart stop. Western cars, that is. But try a small, local company with not so new shiny models, and the prices are lower. It’s OK to travel in an older car, too.|
|Beer is a chapter all of its own in Lithuania. I have never seen any product being marketed as mercilessly as Svyturys (Lighthouse) beer. The yellow beer tents, yellow aprons, hats and posters are everywhere, especially on TV. You could be forgiven for thinking you are in Svyturys country with Utenos for capital. The McDonald’s and Coca-Cola marketing disappear by comparison. Svyturys also sponsors most events, culture as well as sports. Snacks is another chapter, worthy of close scrutiny. See also Pas Juozapa .|
|A very active beer tradition. Enormous beer tents the size of sailboat sails are quite common in the big cities in summer. They kind of change the cityscape, but people like beer...||All other beer brands, like Utenos or Kalnapilis are underdogs. Western breweries like Pripps, Carlsberg and Tuborg will have problems.||You might find a bowling alley and a full-blown bar in an ordinary supermarket. Seeing children bowling in this environment upsets no one. The kids have soda. It’s that simple.|
|Lovely smells, big tomatoes, knotty cucumbers, all-natural strawberries in uneven, non-fantastic
sizes and colours, wild strawberries, camomile, real cherries, eggs without any form of stamp on them, and unmarked
butter. Here, people buy loose herbs and cucumbers whose straightness does not follow EU’s strict regulations,
and the merchants haggle about prices. This might sound like we are in some exotic Arab country, but it happens
to be turgus, one of many market places
There we are, stupid Swedish, with our terrible, un-tasting ”tomatoes-on-a-twig,” cheering at the high quality. I reality we are duped in our super-hygenic supermarkets with green spotlights in the grocery department to make everything look better. In Lithuania things are really better!
|Ordinary people buy their food on turgus, and get home with products that taste better than what we can get in Coop Sweden, and to far lower prices.||You smell dill and parsley, someone fries bread with garlic, and the smoked chicken is seducing. The tomatoes are 3 litas a kilo, the potatoes 1.50.||And it’s not “potatoes,” but seven different types from all the regions of the country. The farmers trade themselves, and the farmers’ wives remove the bad ones for you. Here are big sacks of peeled walnut, Brazil-nuts, cashew and the like, the we are only able to buy in little 50 gram bags to frightening prices, in Sweden. In Lithuania the farmers are tired of giant co-operative organisations, middlemen and someone else taking the profit.|
|And there is no shortage of flowers. Right beside are the herb salespeople.||The clothes market is fantastic, with prices we cannot understand. And yet it is the Lithuanian knitwear factories that supply the Swedish fashion chains. By then the prices have gone up ten times. But clothes are no fun, so I didn’t make any pictures there.|
|We had open meat markets in Sweden before, but not any longer. Here the pork lies in rows on a stone counter around the room and all small slaughters have their own refrigerated counters.||Know-all Swedes may have doubts about hygiene, but things have been working this way as far back as anyone cares to remember. So it can’t be all that dangerous.||They have a lot of interesting, smoked products we haven’t even seen in Sweden. Smoked chicken, spiral sausage, dark, lovely beer sausages. The house is 300 metres of meat. The smoked meat is tied with string in a haphazard fashion - hand made. And everywhere they let you taste the ham and sausages. Just show some interest and the assistant is fast to cut some for you. Thin slices of dark, salted, spiced, smoked fillet of beef, heavenly. Who’d let you taste that in Coop Sweden?|
|The little dog sitting in the main aisle was probably in heaven. “Did you buy a sausage for it,” a friend asked.||Turgus has always been the farmers’ market and chicken, hens and puppies are still sold in the middle of town.|
|Little yellow chirping chicks, ducks and crowing roosters.||Outside the fence is the grey zone of tools and electro-things. You look at the car stereos...||...with oddly snipped-off cables, old electricity meters, spanner kits, drill bits, grinding wheels and milling tools, and wonder how much of it is actually legal.|
|It’s a strange mix. Among the water taps you suddenly find a 10 GHz 20-element yagi antenna for satellite television, a budget alternative to a parabolic. Close by, other water-tap-salesmen are selling other types of TV antennas. It seems like part of the plumbing business, selling TV antennas.|
|They warn you of taking pictures on turgus. People are still scared despite Communism disappeared long ago. Touring the chicken and cheese house, the old distrust comes out anew.||If you’re going to photograph on turgus, learn a Russian phrase: “Look out, he’s got a camera!” Another good, frequently used word is “durak”, stupid. Had I stayed any longer in the cheese house, I had been chased out.||I little, crooked old lady sitting, selling dill wanted money to be photographed. All right, some need to take extra care. Selling pirate CD’s...|
|...fake perfume and “brand name” shoes hasn’t decreased at all. You can get some real good games and software real cheap, without fattening the already too fat game producers.||“Ikra” (NKPA), caviar, especially sturgeon, that has been standing in the sun for a few hours, how good is that? And who caught it? How many sturgeons are left?||If you accompany a Lithuanian on turgus, do them a favour and stay a few metres behind, so they can shop to proper prices. If you stand right behind, tourist with your gleaming camera, the prices double in a hurry.|
A Russian drunken brawl is another thing you just gotta see, as it rolls along the street. You get to learn a lot of good words.
|20 minutes outside Vilnius is a market place big as an airport, with tens of thousands of cars packed side by side, and the electricity work’s cooling towers behind. It has ample room for 100,000 people and it sprang up outside the Communist economy. The Lithuanians call it “The largest market in Europe”, and considering its size, it may actually be true. People come there from all the Baltic States, from Poland, Russia, Byelorussia, Western Europe, Asia, all the way from Vietnam and the Arab world to sell and buy things. In all eastern European languages.|
You can find anything from cheap detergent, children's clothes, car spares, stolen car stereos with the characteristically snipped-off cables, knickknacks, to software and all-new ex-Red Army night-vision telescopes, everything!
|And wristwatches. In 1996 I bought a Russian POLJOT with POM indicator and all, but that was a mistake. The first day the winding screw fell out, a few months later the date-ring started lagging, showing only half days, and one morning I discovered cracks in the glass. “Strange,” I thought, tapped it and bang, had my bed full of broken glass. It was the same with everything made in the Soviet Union. If it wasn’t broken when it left the factory, it would break a few months later.|
|Roadside restaurants are quite popular in Lithuania, and I’m not talking about plastic places like those along the Swedish highways, serving pop music and sour coffee, I’m talking about Dining Palaces!|
|To say it’s popular would be wrong. People stand in line to eat plain food in a rustic setting.||Inside it’s very rustic, with naked rafters and a lot of old farming tools on the walls. The have dancing in the evening.||Food is served as rustically as possible. This is kugelis, a baked potato dish with chicken legs and sour cream on top.|
|This is stuffed cabbage rolls, just like we do at home, served with potatoes on a rustic wooden plate.||One very special dish is soup inside bread. You can see the expectant, hungry people lifting the lids off the soup of the day.||The same soup, close-up. They bake their own black bread with cumin, cut out the centre, pour in the soup and put the lid back on. You spoon up the soup and then chew the bread. You can take the “bowl” along to munch during the rest of the drive.|
|Deivina, another place on the road between Vilnius and Kaunas.||Across the road lies Tevyne (the fatherland). The Vilnius-Kaunas road is a popular commuting trek. All large food joints has something rustic for the kids to play around in.|
Pas Juozapa (Joseph’s Place)
|Pas Juozapa started out as a small family restaurant, but the business idea hit bull’s-eye and it soon grew to a whole amusement park, popular like none else.||Again we see Lithuanian plain food, this time from the Zemaitia (the lowlands), i.e. ordinary farmer’s food in rustic, impact resistant country environment...||...where people will line up for hours to get in, despite it’s in the middle of nowhere. Everyone tucks in, except the poor photographer, who must to stand and look, as the food grows cold.|
Below is a cutaway view of the Zemaitian food. You always start off with a few large beers. The only beer available is Juozapas own “Jouzo HBH”, dark or light, filtered or unfiltered, and it tastes really great. There is no advertising in the restaurant, and no Svutyrus tents either. It feels quite unusual. With the beer comes the snacks. The Lithuanians are masters of beer snacks. While the rest of the world chews peanuts with their beer...
|...the Lithuanians order big plates of fried bread with garlic, cheeses, smoked eel, smoked shredded pig’s ears (yes!) and soft-boiled yellow peas with bacon.||Cepelinai, potato dumplings filled with mashed meat or cottage cheese. Probably the most beloved Lithuanian dish of all.||Blyneliai, (little) crepes with mashed potato filling.|
|Tender woman, sumptuous, grilled filet of chicken with carrots and potatoes in white sauce.||Skewered spare ribs with grilled potatoes and sauerkraut is not bad.||Zemaitiu blynai, zemaitijan potato-filled crepes. Zemaitija is a potato district.|
|Lithuanian karbonadas, a large slice of pork coated with egg and breadcrumbs, somewhat like a pork schnitzel. But the fries are un-Lithaunian.||Studentiskas, student food, i.e. lots and very cheap, potato mix and mashed meat baked in the oven.||And the Clou: Whole smoked pig’s ears with pickled gherkin and diced beetroot. Yum-yum!|
|No Lithuanian meeting-place without wooden sculptures. A mean Mongolian warrior and a woman bringing beer. Very fitting.||There is an amusement park where the kids can ride horses and scream their heads off before dinner. If you want, you can wash your car and buy souvenirs, too.||Veteran car collection: Finest Russian quality cars. Old memories, hopefully gone forever. Trabant, Vaz, Volga. The kids can jump around without damaging anything.|
|Jouzas’ prices are fantastic, perhaps some 10% of the Swedish, despite top notch quality and fast service. There’s
something wrong with Sweden.
The idyllic atmosphere fades somehow as the staff pumps up the volume. That cursed rock music you can’t seem to escape anywhere. 2005 still saw the same great food and the same great prices, but the music has become so obtrusive that it is now unpleasant to eat in those spots where you can’t avoid it. If it continues like this Juozas risks getting a McDonald's image that cold be difficult to get rid of. The playground, which rang of children’s laughter, now has a loudspeaker in each corner, pumping out blaring rock music so you can barely hear the kids. Except for the days when there are live concerts. Then, it’s unbearable. There are also televisions mounted in the roof everywhere, making the kids watch TV instead of eating the food. And that’s real bad, considering the high quallity.
Juozapas was offered millions to start a similar eating place near Moscow, but he declined. Perhaps he didn’t want to feed the Russian Mafia unnecessarily.
|Something fantastic has happened in Lithuania during the last five years (1999-2004). Around
Vilnius, supermarkets has sprouted that we well-off Swedes could only dream of, with bowling alleys, ice-skating
rinks and lots of cinemas, apart from the restaurants, electronics shops and food halls. And it’s not only one,
but many, in this little itty-bitty 300,000 inhabitants town. Three ice palaces. Open around the clock. And it’s
full up! If they weren’t, these places would soon go bankrupt.
The new Lithuanian capital just sits waiting out in the boring, macroscopic Soviet-built suburbs. The old Vaz and Ladas will soon be history. Now the streets are full of Volvos and Japanese minicars. And we’re not talking about the hyper-rich driving around town in those absurdly long, white limos. There just aren’t that many managers and Mafia bosses with unlimited economic means.
|Typical macroscopic Soviet-built suburb with typical capital waiting.||There are many giant centres meant for amusement and purchasing, but let’s take Akropolis as an example, sporting ten thousands of square metres of spending surface.||The electronics departments usually indicate the country’s income level. No problems here, it seems.|
|We have all seen salmon and cod before, but there are a few fishes we’ve never tried, like carp and sturgeon, fresh from a fish-tank.||The sausage industry is booming, it seems. This is what happens when each little village has its own factory, and not one big co-operative force ruling everything.||Less dilly-dally with alcohol than in Sweden brings wine departments like this. Well-kept and well-stocked.|
|Food items are found in giant food hall chains, such as Maxima. The row of check-outs shows the size, some 46 in all.||It’s mostly horribly Americanised shopping-corridors with fashion, fashion and fashion, but then a glint of true Lithuania shows through in the decor.||And everywhere it’s hyper-clean. Some difference to the old times. Now, after the gloom has released its grip on the ordinary Lithuanian, and he has crawled out of the Soviet mud, he can return to his earlier habits of being a cultivated human.|
|Seeing the Lithuanian diversity in a supermarket in 2005 makes me feel sincerely sad for the Swedish food marketplace,
and for the shopping Swedes, thinking that we are on top of the world. Let’s take a detail like the buns, for example.
In-shop bakeries is nothing new, but what have we here? Buns with some 46 different fillings, like apricot, cherry,
blueberry, mashed meat, pear, apple, cottage cheese, chocolate, orange, strawberry, wild strawberry, poppy seeds,
sausage, vanilla or mixtures thereof. There are lots of koldunai (potato dumplings), Lithuanian national
food, in the freezers. The salad counters are overflowing. The cake counters are like rainbows. They have no near-monopoly
on dairy items like in Sweden. They have 25 kinds of milk. Each city with self-esteem has its own dairy. Milk in
five-litre bottles is a fantastic idea that hasn’t reached Sweden yet.
Any Western woman would be at ease in the well-stuffed makeup departments. Middle-European dessert cheeses have finally made their way into Lithuania. Earlier they had only traditional cottage cheese, but now the counters overflow with Brie, Camembert, green, black, blue and all other kinds of moulds you can think of. And the Lithuanians have started making their own French-style dessert cheeses.
The book shop is well-stocked, and I am impressed by the adorned, translated luxury issues of, for example, Egyptology for kids, costing only 50 litas. They would cost upwards of 400 crowns in Sweden. Looking into a furniture outlet I feel that IKEA will have problems establishing in Vilnius.
But let us not forget the downsides:
|The Kiosk Economy
The Baltic countries had a flourishing kiosk economy. In all suburbs, right where they were needed most, there were long lines of rusty kiosks. From their dark innards you could buy most necessities, such as bread, milk, vegetables, soda, beer, bus tickets, newspapers, etc., but they were more or less gone in 2005. The competition from supermarkets and the fact that most people now own cars, has erased this form of distributed micro-shops. They were very useful when you ran out of beer on a Saturday evening. In 2004, 165 of them were closed in Vilnius alone, due to economic irregularities.
|The banks are wiser
The Lithuanian banks have risen from absolute wretchedness to nice shiny offices with marble floors. They have learnt a lot from Swedish banks. You can now wait in line for an eternity because the physical customers are to be “phased out” in favour of Internet banks and ATM:s. The fees are increasing. The bank offices are filled with people waiting in line, and behind the desks elegantly dressed girls rush to and fro, doing, seemingly, nothing. Welcome aboard! You better change your currency in a currency exchange.
Ancient Cult Place?
|An ancient cult place? Almost. A Soviet failure: a half-finished sports stadium. A dinosaur of bad concrete, slowly being devoured by nature.|
|The Soviets were building it as the Soviet Union was crumbling. No one has continued building it.||Instead, it crouches, crippled by the new symbol of capitalism, the Supermarket. This may look like a lot of images of large concrete chunks...||but I am just so amazed by the whole thing, that they started building something so grand, and then just disappeared.|
|It is kind of like the Toltecs or some other strange, ancient culture, which built grand structures and then just disappeared without leaving any other traces.||I want this last image to show the old and the new together, a stadium built by a fleeing people, while the TV tower, that saw hideous scenes of massacre, remains like a monument to the success of the new Lithuania.||And the Lithuanians don’t give up easy. The stadium was meant to be a giant, the biggest in the Soviet Union. Now, there are plans to actually continue building, and make a modern stadium out of it. Or just topple what’s left and build a better one. Many emigrated Lithuanians that have become sports stars in the U.S., mostly in basketball, return to their home country and invest big in schools and sports centres.|
|Oil pumps whirr along the coast. They don’t make much, but enough to be noted by the CIA World Factbook.||But the new, shining prosperity isn’t for all. The pensioners still suffer from a wrecked pension system, even if the system actually demonstrated some profit in 2004. Neither are the students very prosperous. And, as usual there is a division between town and country.||A poor neighbourhood in Vilnius, whose citizens are despised. But that is unfair, because the poor people living there cannot roll themselves in luxury like the new rich.|
|Now, let us not deny the Lithuanians the good things that they have fought so hard for. Had Sweden developed with the same pace, instead of reversing, we might have been able to re-take our title as the world’s richest country. Now we are at 11:th place, and the trend is not what one would call “hausse”.|