“She deploys a squadron of teeth in an ironic smile, under covering fire from steely serious eyes.”
FROM LITTLE LITHUANIA
Michael Tarm in
Chicago looks for traces of the Baltic states in the United States
If there’s one place in the United States where things Baltic are part and parcel of daily life, it’s here in the neighborhood skirting Marquette Road and Western Avenue on Chicago’s southwest side.
The Antano Kampas Lithuanian Deli presides over one street corner. Next door to it is the neo-baroque Lithuanian Catholic Church that could have been plucked from old town Vilnius.
A block away is the Seklycia restaurant, where the smell of fried zeppelini wafts in from the kitchen to mingle with sounds of impeccable Lithuanian—and broken English.
But walk a block in any direction from the heart of Chicago’s Little Lithuania, and you’re harder pressed to find traces or knowledge of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.
For all many Americans seem to know about them, the Baltics may as well be on the dark side of the moon.
That, however, isn’t to say there are no traces of the Baltics outside ethnic enclaves—or that they are off every average American’s radar. A walk into many trendy American bars or nightclubs these days proves the point.
At Jack’s Nightclub Blues, one of the bottles of vodka on offer—contained in sleek, silver-tinted glass behind the bar—is called Türi. It’s made in Estonia.
The bartender says he didn’t know that. (He asks if Estonia is in the Balkans.) But he does know that the vodka is selling well.
The brand even made a cameo appearance on the top-rated American TV show 60 Minutes in July in a report on innovative marketing. The U.S.-based marketers of Türi don’t employ much traditional advertising. Instead, they’ve tried to create a buzz about Türi by going to online chat rooms and dropping ever so subtle references to the vodka.
In some of the traditional advertising they do employ, Türi’s marketers heavily flaunt the Estonian connection, saying the vodka is made from “natural Estonian rye and spring water only.” One of Türi’s labels features three naked blondes sitting in what appears to be a make-shift hot tub.
In addition to 60 Minutes, Estonia also made a recent appearance as a multiple-choice question on the popular U.S. game show Jeopardy. The question: What country is on the Jutland peninsula? A. Sweden B. Denmark C. Norway or D. Estonia (The answer’s B.)
During his televised eulogy at Ronald Reagan’s funeral in June, George Bush Sr. made a passing reference to Estonia as a nation that benefited from the collapse of communism.
And in his best-selling autobiography released this summer, Bill Clinton refers half a dozen times to the Baltic states, going into detail about his efforts to pressure the Kremlin to withdraw its Baltic-based army in the mid 1990s.
In the mainstream American media, Baltic-related stories are few—but hardly non-existent.
Latvia and Estonia have the dubious distinction of showing up in running tallies of coalition soldiers killed in action in Iraq. They’ve each had one killed.
The only bonafide national newspaper in the United States, USA Today, recently did a three-page spread on the Baltics as a tourist destination. (The article made several references to City Paper.)
And the main Chicago dailies—The Sun and The Tribune—also wrote at length about the return to the Lithuanian presidency of Valdas Adamkus, a former resident of Chicago. Several national newspapers also ran an article on the Estonia-brand grand pianos that are selling like hotcakes in parts of the U.S. (City Paper had the same article in its previous edition.)
The Baltics arguably get their best exposure via several celebrities. Estonian supermodel Carmen Kass can grace the covers of several leading fashion magazines on any given week. Few Americans, however, would be aware of her Estonian connection.
Far more would know the land of origin of Zydrunas Ilgauskas, probably the best known of the native Baltic celebrities living in the United States. The highly touted center for the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers— called “Z” by fans and teammates—is often referred to as hailing from Lithuania.
The second best known Balt is another Lithuanian basketball player, Arvydas Sabonis. He played for the Portland Trailblazers until last year and is widely regarded as the best European basketball player ever to have donned an NBA jersey.
Latvian NHL hockey stars Sandis Ozolins and goaltender Arturs Irbe are also known to sport fans. In the cities where they play, they’re household names.
In classical music circles, Estonian conductors Neeme and Paavo Järvi are well known. Neeme heads the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and son Paavo is credited with turning the fortunes of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra around. Their repertoires often included music by Estonian composers, like Arvo Pärt.
Americans of Baltic descent also often hold prominent positions in communities across the country. A cursory glance through the city government blue-page listings in Chicago reveals a handful of Lithuanian-sounding names.
The abundance of Lithuanians with positions in Chicago’s powerful city government probably accounts for the streets with geographical references to the Baltic states.
There’s an Estonian Lane, for instance.
And the Lithuanian church, restaurant and deli in Chicago sit along a street called Lithuanian Plaza.
Stepping inside Antano Kampas Lithuanian Deli is like stepping into Lithuania itself. There’s Lithuanian-made Korona chocolate, Lithuanian Kalnapilis beer and black bread made by the Baltic Bakery across town. They also sell a Canadian-made Kefir with pictures of Estonia on its label; it’s oddly named “Talinsky.”
The descriptions of goods are written in Lithuanian and the sales attendant breaks into English only reluctantly.
But there are some things typical to the Baltic states that might be better kept from the general American public.
The meat counter at Antano Kampas, for example, shows off a variety of delicacies used in traditional Lithuanian cooking.
On one end of the glass display, gleaming proudly in the midday sun, lies a pinkish-gray, foot-long cow’s tongue.