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2004-05-12

Travel to Lithuania, 2: Saturday Night Heartbreak 

After hours of rain, the weather dried up just in time for a Saturday evening walk on the search for food. I confess: one of my original ideas for this series was to comment on how the trips of business travellers lead to more or less the same experiences wherever they go, that the specialness of each place is filtered out of their experience. But here I was and looked intently for the familiar, for legible signs and landmarks that would prevent me from getting lost. Signs with street names were sparse, I didn’t have a city map, and my confidence in finding people who would speak English had decreased (in the end orientation turned out to be rather easy).

Kaunas has long, wide boulevards, and on this Saturday evening they were full of people walking in couples or in larger groups up and down the whole length of this track, seeing and being seen, glancing and evaluating here and there, and chatting the hours away. I didn’t meet a single other person who looked like a tourist, and people walking alone were also in low numbers.

It was mostly a pastime of the young, and many of them were following fashion styles unfamiliar to me, mixing sports clothes of the old eastern type with jeans wear and leather, and with the odd H&M element. The broadest boulevard was getting ready to look like any European high-street, with glitzy chain-stores and cafes in between, yet it began to dawn on me that these shops were not just shut because it was Saturday evening; rather, their stock of goods was also not representative of the clothes of the people promenading in front of them, quite different from the situation you’d find in most places where such crowds parrot the shopping windows behind them. Even the cafes were half empty and visited mainly by people above 25. Closer to my hotel and off the main streets, there were noisy places with ‘beer’ in their name that seemed to be the more affordable meeting points of the teenagers. I saw surprisingly few restaurants, and the ones that were there were even emptier than the cafes. There was, miracle of miracles, no McDonalds (at least where I walked). Apparently these generally handsome youngsters who seemed so conscious of what they wore and how they combined fashion items were too poor to buy the things designed and displayed for their consumption, not to mention the billboards with their faces and subjects from ‘Bold and Beautiful’. Frequently, a café would play loud pop music, the latest stuff tastefully mixed.

This young generation is as versed in global pop culture as any in the world; they know the contents, the style, and the aesthetics. On average they had surprisingly good looks, with high cheek-bones and often slim, athletic body-shapes. What they lack for a happy life of pop is but one thing: an economy that spits out the money to be able to afford this culture. They are consumerist but can’t afford to. They talk the talk and walk they walk – but the stupid, cruel money machine is not there. Their perspective seems to be the one of a post-industrial society with its emphasis on self-design and expensive consumer goods, except that the economic fundamentals haven’t come along.

It’s a brutal situation and it broke my heart, once again. I sat down in one of the quiet pizza restaurants and watched, drank Kalnapilis beer and slowly started to feel comfortable again. But there is no reason for complacency. The waitresses were too good for their job, yet I preferred not to imagine how low their salaries would be. Now from my hotel room, from memory I guess that salaries here are at around 30% of the EU average, while the price of my meal was at maybe 80%.

I’m trying to console myself with stories of fast economic development, thinking that once the skills and motivation of the people are comparable, the level of wealth will eventually equal out. But there is no reason why this must be so. Equally possible, because of the uneven distribution of capital, and the entrenched positions of multinational corporations, catching up of the former communist countries might take place only in niches and only up to a certain level. In the end, these national economies might get locked in at a point where the ever increasing amount of consumption prescribed by pop culture is still unattainable for most individuals. I don’t know how these societies would react to such a result. Politically, it sounds like a recipe for trouble.

I can accept that global pop culture is the medium for massive commercial interest of the music, movie, and fashion industries. But I want that this culture becomes more sensitive to wealth differences of its target audiences. It should be equally possible to live a satisfying consumerist pop lifestyle (whatever that is) as a heavy-spending brat of a Hamburg lawyer and as an average young person in Kaunas. I believe that even from the egoistic perspective of a global fashion brand this must make sense – a bit more ‘glocalisation’ is in order.

Second, and this is where I really have no clue what should be done, the desire to buy has been exported much faster than the economic development that is required to fulfil this desire. As a consequence, these young people full of consumerist desire are working very hard and are bending themselves to the limits of ‘flexibility’. In the interest of the whole of Europe, they should not get disappointed.


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