The Baltics and Poland, some cultural surprises or just my stereotypes?
When I was planning this trip I wanted to have an idea of the route I was going to take and the people that I wanted to meet. I did not want to just visit the capitals, but also some other smaller places and a good diversity of the conversations and people. I thought I had to plan it out in order to make that happen. But soon after I started travelling I found out that a lot of the good experiences I had, weren't the ones set out in a plan. Those good experiences can be stimulated but not forced. Finding the cute little alley with the nice bars is much better when it is a surprise, than when you know it will be there. The same goes for cultural experiences, interviews and conversations. Lucky for me I had a great many experiences the first 20 days of unexpected live music events, street exhibitions, locals in bars telling me their life story and of course interviews that turn out much better than expected.
So after 20 days of surprises everywhere, I was looking at my ideas about the Baltics and Poland from before I went, versus now. I came to the conclusion that a lot of the surprises were only surprises because of my stereotypes and expectations of these countries, people and their culture. I already had my ideas about Poland and the Baltics and they were not very accurate, I can tell you that. Though the goal of my trip is to counter these stereotypes that are planted in my head, I will never be able to look completely objective to a country, city or community. So I must highlight that the rest of the article will be written from my subjective perspective of what I was thinking to see in this area to what I actually have been seeing. My enthusiasm about the cities and places where I have been up till now, is definitely a result of my not so positive stereotype ideas about Poles in general and the Baltic countries. Luckily stereotypes aren’t that much of a problem, as long as you are able to realize your ideas and certain stereotypes are outdated and not applicable to everyone. Thus you need to be open to be surprised and surprised you'll be.
Poland and the Baltics are not high on the bucket list to visit of Western Europeans and especially the Dutch. It is very recent that the rest of Europe, America and the Australians discovered the Baltics and Poland as pretty good destinations for travelling and holidays. That is the part of the reason that the tourists are still treated very well. They are still appreciated and you can feel while wandering through the cities, that you’re welcome. Especially in the Baltics I felt a form of proudness among the people to show you how modern they are and how historical relevant. All the old towns of the Baltics, are UNESCO protected and that means a big deal to them. While most of their cities have been destroyed multiple times by so many wars. It is a shame that most tourists only take a tour along the Old Towns of the capitals and hop on to the next city.
So as I do not have the best experiences with tourism in Amsterdam, I asked the guides of the tours in the old towns, how they experience the growing tourism in their old towns and if they feel like it is still a place for locals. The guides in Tallinn, Riga and Warsaw did experience that the Old Town was mainly for tourists. They did not really care much because the community established a new centre of town for the locals and besides the tourists are only around in summertime. These centres are exactly what you would expect of any other European capital. A food truck festival, some burger bars and streetfood, a good coffee place with a bike on the wall and some industrial buildings reused for cultural quarters. The only difference here is that this gentrification just started and hopefully will take a different direction than the gentrification in the metropoles of Western Europe.
Vilnius, łódź and Wroclaw are really interesting in the different paths of how to treat your heritage and how to modernize cities. The locals still live, party and visit the city center. The cities are less big than capital cities which plays a part in it, but another part is for example the location of the university (Wroclaw), an independent cultural republic and many cultural events (Vilnius) or live music events at empty spots in the middle of the city (Łódź).
Because the university in Wroclaw is spread around the Old Town, there are still a lot of bars, cafes and restaurant focused on supplying for the students. The presence of the students and their teachers in the Old Town results in a feeling that the Old Town is still alive. When we went out with the Hostel receptionist he took us to the main square to have some beers. Which feels very counterintuitive to me. He told me that the bar we were at was actually one of the cheapest in the city, and very loved among the locals for its traditions.
They are not only very successful in using the Old Town and remaining it as center, there is also a lot of renovation and constructing going on in Wroclaw outside of the historical center. I was very impressed by the combination of new modern lofts next to the old architecture from before the Soviet. On the riverbanks these differences were very visible but still felt natural, at least to me. While deeper into the city the difference between these big Soviet block buildings and the new modern flats, were uncomfortable and raised questions on the standard of living in these Soviet blocks. All together I think the city is doing a good job climbing the ladder of well respected cultural cities in Europe (they were the European Cultural Capital in 2016) without losing its authenticity.
In 2016 I was doing my masters European Studies: Identity and Integration. Part of this master was to visit one of the two Cultural Capitals at that year. The students had to decide but the teacher spoke out that he would prefer the Bask San Sebastian, so the decision was easily made. Someone in the classroom said: ‘Who wants to go to Poland when you also can go to Spain?’ I think that sums up really well the standard idea of planning a holiday, even for European Studies students. In the end I found San Sebastian and their program pretty disappointing and now after visiting Wroclaw, I’m sure we would have had a much better time and cultural program if we had decided to go to the Polish city.
The old factories are turned into cultural centers, exhibition spaces, malls, museums, schools, clubs and bars. Keeping the old heritage in place for the memory, tourists, and historical sites but at the same time organize development in the cultural, touristic and hospitality sectors. That they are good at this process of modernization can be seen for example when looking at the street art. During the Soviet period the city gained many grey Soviet buildings and many empty parking spots between those buildings. In order to brighten up the place they started the program of Urban Street Art and let designated artist paint their buildings. At some of these empty spots are now parking spots, which have been brightened up by these artworks, or they have turned the spots into outdoor event places. In the city there are a lot of these hidden places that you can only find if you decide to be adventurous and get off the main road. It gives a very artistic feeling throughout the whole city and does really light up the historical parts.
In Lodz the center is a bit different, as it is one long road of 4.9 kilometers (which makes it one of the longest commercial streets in Europe). There is not one big main square or round Old Town where all the tourist gather. Along this road the main activities are spread connecting two different parts of the city. The tourist sites, the cultural centers, the movies theatres and the film school all have a place along this road. It used to be a city known for its factories and industry but during the Soviet period these factories did not survive. Afterwards the city invested in the movie sector and is now the most important city for the movie industry of Poland.
But Łódź consists of two different cities and styles. At the moment they are building a new modern city center that has to be done in 2022 and will be the location for a big exhibition conference. At the moment it looks very surrealistic, as for example the newly built station is so big that it looks like you’re the only traveler. At the station there is only one place to get coffee or a sandwich and there are no shops, toilets, snack bars etc. When you get out of the station you arrive in an open space that definitely still needs some filling up. They are making big plans, so let’s hope that they will succeed in filling these gaps, just has they have done with the old ones.
While in Vilnius this development is again totally different. As the city is growing and becoming more relevant for the region and connection between Russia, Kaliningrad and Poland, the city is also being modernized but not by constructing modern offices, but by turning the now still empty riverbanks into new neighborhoods. The interesting thing is that these houses are actually going to be granted with a beautiful view along the river, I was just really surprised that they hadn’t built there in the first place.
After the year in which Vilnius was Cultural Capital some of the new established programs for that year, remained intact and working. For example the Cultural Night. This is one night during which the cultural organizations, schools, bars and municipality work together to bring an amazing night for its citizens. All the programs are for free and everyone can propose a program. The stages are either at one of the institutions or just on the street. With an online map the citizens navigate themselves from program to program, young, old, teenagers, children and parents make their way through the Old Town and experience the cultural night. And though this involves a lot of dancing and music, it was only after midnight that I spotted the first drunken people on the street and before I spotted the first people even walking with a drink in their hands on the street. The beauty of this night, it is all for free and a way to involve the citizens in the cultural sector of the city. Some Lithuanians told me later in the bar that what they like the most about it is that all different disciplines coming together and people are triggered to experience something they would never buy a ticket for.
But it is not the only thing that they do in Vilnius when it comes to culture. I already wrote about the cultural state that declared itself independent in the middle of the city. These artists make up for much of the cultural events and happenings around the city and within their independent state. Walking through their area there are many statues, slogans, street art and nice bars around. At this place it was not hard for me to run into some Vilnius musicians who told me that there is live music somewhere every weekend. I don’t know what I exactly expected of Vilnius, as Lithuania was so mysterious to me. But I certainly did not expect to find such a beautiful, peaceful but at the same time lively city. And did you know that Lithuanians have an excellent sense of humor? For example their mayor who run over a car because it wasn’t parked in the right spot? https://youtu.be/91W3Ys_cSkU
Filling up the gaps
As wars have left huge gaps in much of the city centers, they can either rebuild the old city (Warsaw), use the empty spots for cultural quarters (łódź ) or rebuild modern buildings (Wroclaw and Vilnius). The direction these cities have chosen, will determine their future and how they will be able to grow and become a metropole. But it can also turn the other way around. In Riga for example caused the crisis a shortage on the Real Estate Market. Not because the buildings are gone but because the owners don’t want to put them on the market because the prize will drop.
In Riga I had the feeling that there was not much movement happening of redeveloping and inventing while in the other cities you felt the change and discoveries they were going through. It was later after the interview at Free Riga, that I realized why I had this feeling. And as I also discussed in my previous article, the suppression that the generation had been through is hard to shake of. Therefore the buildings in Riga that are not used, will not be squatted and used for temporary use for cultural institutions. Alexander Lielgalvis, could be an example of the potential success of Riga if the cultural sector will get the change to redevelop these areas of empty old factories. But with a mayor that is Russian speaking and not to interested in the cultural blooming of the city, it is still very peculiar if that change will happen from the top. It would be interesting for the cultural activist in Riga to seek advice from their peers in Vilnius, łódź, Tallinn or Wroclaw.
Westernization and Easternization
Somehow unfortunately, for this process of cultural and modern development they are very focused on the West. In all countries the conversations are a lot about being part of the Western world and compare their modernization with Europeanization, associated with Western Europe, away from their Soviet history. Though I have to conclude though that it is much more interesting the other way around. The West should visit the Baltics and Poland to see how they have redeveloped and are bypassing the West in many ways as well. I walked on the street from live music event for free to another live event for free. People were dancing at the rivers all over the Baltics and in Poland. This is possible without a budget, it is a matter of wanting to organize it. And as the Western cultural sector is hiding behind high prizes and a small budget for free events, in the cities I visited in the Baltics and Poland, culture is perceived more as a common good. The cities and their accessible culture is very much alive and not yet monopolized by the fortuned of their country and city.
But still the idea of the Western civilization is attractive as it is profiled as the ideal free place to live. I think it is about time to realize that in these cities and countries, things actually do work differently which they should not compare with the West, and the other way around. As the idea of the perfect West is starting to crumble more and more, I think the new generation has to look towards the East and be inspired by these developing states and their cities, to form new ideas and systems of regulating the European world.