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A Dip in The Baltic
by Francisco Martín
from IVU Newsletter, October 1995

Representing the International Vegetarian Union at a conference in Lithuania in February was a voyage of self-discovery. My first experience of the language, culture and people of the largest of the Baltic States led me to conclude that we are indeed the product of our life experiences and, consequently, travelling and inter-acting with other cultures and environments must be important factors in shaping our identity and defining our place in the scheme of things.

For a vegan living only on raw foods, when the national airline's idea of a suitable meal turned out to be a plate of smelly fish, the prospect of finding edible food in the days ahead seemed bleak indeed. I was therefore pleasantly surprised to find a wide variety of grains, roots and other vegetables available, as well as the popularity of sprouted seeds and legumes, which provided a cheap and healthy source of protein and other nutrients in a country with an average wage of about 60 UK pounds per month.

In Vilnius, the capital, where some 600,000 of the country's 4 million people live, I spent a few days as the guest of the secretary of the Lithuanian Vegetarian Society. Any language difficulties were more than made up for by the friendliness and enthusiasm of my hosts; moreover, as I began to guess at much of what was being said with such passion, I realised that language need not be a barrier when goodwill and the desire to communicate are strong. The language was also a symbol of the long struggle for independence and there was even a monument to those who had secretly taught their children to read and write in their own language and alphabet at a time when native literature had to be smuggled in from East Prussia.

During my stay I was shown memorials to the country's turbulent history, some dating back to the uprising of 1863, others as recent as the battle for control of the television tower in 1991, and many people told me of their friends' and relatives' involvement in such events. We also visited the cathedral, which had served as a picture gallery during the Soviet period and was built on a site dedicated to Perkunas, the ancient god of thunder.

At a Valentine's Day gathering of more than 50 members of the vegetarian society I received a warm welcome and, with the help of an interpreter, I spoke of the need to be more confident and assertive about the vegetarian way of life. which could easily become far more widespread if we dispensed with myths and self-doubt and started asking those who eat meat why on earth they do such a thing; rather than reacting defensively when others challenged our way of life.

Afterwards we tucked into a banquet fit to satisfy the most finicky raw food eater, with sprouted wheat, apples, raw pumpkin, raw peanuts, carrots and many other root vegetables. Before I left we exchanged small gifts, for me some souvenirs of Lithuania; for my hosts, the "Animal Eyes" cassette of pop songs promoting respect for animals (available from me in Spanish and English or French and Spanish).

My next stop was Kaunus, the second largest city, where I visited the veterinary academy and met the president of the Lithuanian Society for the Protection of Animals. We were shown around the clinics and classrooms and also the museum, which contained some curious old farm tools including a muzzle to stop cows from sucking their own milk. I gave them some anti-bullfighting badges in English and a copy of "Animal Eyes" to add to their collection of items from abroad. We then visited the old town, where many of the old German houses had been restored, and the town hall which now served as a "wedding palace".

The following day we set off for Palanga, the country's main seaside resort and venue for the conference on health and harmony. People come for mud baths and other forms of therapy. The train journey was enlivened by the conversation of a group of sympathetic young people, one of whom had recently become a vegetarian. In Palanga, we saw the museum of amber consisting of fossilised pine resin, very common around the Baltic coast. Although most of the conference participants were not vegetarian, there was much sympathy for the message I was trying to convey.

The next morning I showed the vegan video "Truth or Dairy" and talked to the fifty or so participants about the benefits of a plant-based diet. We visited Nida, a resort on the Russian border where we had an interesting discussion with the mayor about vegetarianism and related moral issues. Back in Palanga we heard a lecture by the rector of the medical academy about the need for a health strategy in a country where a high fat and cholesterol diet and considerable alcohol consumption were taking their toll.

The next day, under the title "Health, Harmony and Ethics", I gave a talk stressing the way in which a vegetarian/vegan diet nourishes the spirit as well as the body, resulting in a non-predatory lifestyle for the benefit of the whole planet and including those with whom we share it. I pointed out that daily slaughter of 20 million animals was a cruel and unhealthy luxury that neither the planet nor most of its population could afford. If whole grains were directly consumed, rather than fed to animals bred for slaughter, there would be food for everyone and far less pollution.

Meanwhile, about 600 so-called "seal people" had turned up for the traditional February swim in the Baltic. Having argued the healthiness of the vegan diet, I felt that I should prove my point by taking the plunge and testing my resistance to the freezing temperatures. At 4 degrees Celsius, the temperature of the water was quite a shock to the system and left me momentarily speechless (yes, really!) [a very rare event!! Editor] but I soon warmed to the challenge and splashed around for ten minutes or so. The result was further publicity for the vegetarian cause in the shape of a report and photograph on the front page of the Lithuanian Echo and an interview for the American ABC television news.

There was another opportunity to address nearly 400 people about the benefits of the vegetarian way of life. Then back to Kaunus for a three hour session with an audience of more than one hundred people. Their keenness and desire to ask many questions made them the most enthusiastic audience so far.

Back in Vilnius there was a visit to the vegetarian cafe, an interview for a Sunday television programme on health, some sight seeing and a talk on vegetarianism to a Rotary Club dinner.

On saying goodbye to the new friends I reflected on my visit with renewed confidence in the human potential for positive change.

Francisco Martín

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