Saturday, February 15, 2014

In Praise of Unconventional Travel Guides

There are some standard travel guides that do a wonderful job of identifying the natural and cultural treasures that need to be seen in Lithuania.  We’ve relied on Giedrė Jankevičiūtė’s guide, a gorgeous tome in the grand style.  It’s big on cathedrals, art museums, and UNESCO world heritage sites.  Pretty much everything else is ignored.

Jankevičiūtė’s magisterial book isn’t what anyone would consider informal or quirky.  And so while it’s authoritative, it’s not nearly as much fun as Columbia J. Warren’s Experiencing Lithuania:  An Unconventional Travel Guide, which speculates on some really big cultural questions unrelated to the field of art history, such as, how big a tip should I leave in a Lithuanian restaurant?  Should I take the train to Riga, or go by bus?  Or, just what is it about Lithuanians and basketball?

Warren is a practical-minded fellow, and we have found him an amiable travel companion because he’s not inclined to over-intellectualize things.  He’s the kind of guy who would love a place like Šiauliai’s central market (see photo above), or the local chocolate museum.  Every city should have a chocolate museum.

One of the things we’ve learned from Warren is that Lithuanian cities like Siauliai are typically served by three grocery-store chains, each of which has multiple outlets in or near the city center.  They are called Maxima, Iki, and Rimi.  Our favorite is the XX Maxima on Rūdės gatvė.  It’s a bit of a hike to the eastern edge of the pedestrian district, but we don’t mind schlepping our groceries across town to get the value and selection we desire.

Unfortunately, there are still quite a few things we haven’t found in our XX Maxima.  Some are mentioned by Warren, and some aren’t.  Here are a few of the voids we’ve encountered.

1.     Canned soups and broths.  No Campbell’s, no Swanson’s, no Progresso.  Nothing packed conveniently in a can for use as the basis of various sauces.  Nothing to heat up and serve along with a grilled cheese sandwich or a nice plate of Kraft mac and cheese. . . .

2.     Kraft mac and cheese.  What do little kids eat in this country?    

3.     Kleenex.  Call it facial tissue or what-have-you, but the stuff is hard to find, and it’s expensive when you do.  The one brand we have found delivers its tissues in a psychedelic profusion of colors out of a fuschia and lime-green box.  One could, I suppose, blow one’s nose in toilet paper or something a little less abrasive, such as emery cloth.

4.     Colanders.  Is it possible that people in Lithuania don’t eat spaghetti?  On the other hand, Lithuanians certainly have discovered pica (pizza), and it is excellent.

5.     Kitchen tongs.  And so we have learned to use the tines of our forks to turn the bacon in our skillet.  

6.     Measuring cups.  Jane is learning to eyeball it, though it goes against her grain.

7.     Decaffeinated coffee.  Here, decaf seems to mean water-soluble crystals made by a food-manufacturing giant like Nestlé.  And so you can’t find a bag of ground decaffeinated coffee beans at any price in any of the grocery stores.

8.     Lithuanians seem unwilling to sacrifice good taste on the altar of good health.  There’s no skim milk or “lite” beer or anything else.  I salute them for maintaining high culinary standards, but then it makes me wonder how they’re willing to get along without Kraft mac and cheese.

9.     Night lights.  What do people in this country use in lieu of that simple little beacon that plugs into a bathroom outlet?  I guess I should have packed a flashlight.



  1. Seeing the picture of sausages in your post I was reminded me of that great mecca of public markets, The Westside Market in Cleveland. Is there a public market, full of all kinds of meat? Jane - as to measuring cups, if you're not baking you will do fine guessing. However you will no longer be a cook, but rather a chef.

  2. Good one, Michael. She's been a reluctant chef for a long time.

    Yes, we were reminded of the Westside market, in part by the sausages, but also by the showcased women making pierogi, though they're not called that here.

  3. You are right, Michael. I am spreading my culinary wings! Jane

  4. Dry soups, mac&cheese and kleenex on the way. Expect them in a week or two. Shall I send decaf?

  5. No decaf, please. We found a Triple-X Maxima at a suburban shopping mall and splurged for a can o' decaf. Thanks for the other stuff, Kate.

  6. Thanks so much, Kate. A care package to be savored! Jane XO

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  8. Thanks, moon thoums. Welcome aboard. Hope you enjoy the ride.