THE VOICE OF INTERNATIONAL LITHUANIA
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In the 1960s, several new suburbs started developing in Vilnius, and it is today
estimated that more than 70% of the city’s population lives in blockhouses.
Above: View from Antakalnis towards the (by then) new district Žirmūnai.
Photo: Antanas Sutkus, 1964
Many foreigners think that the majority of townspeople in Lithuania live in dreary grey Soviet blockhouses. They are right, but of course only to a certain extent. What most people in the West do not know, though, is that the Lithuanians and other peoples in Eastern Europe are living a double life. For while blockhouse apartments in the urban peripheries are the city dwellers habitat through the winter months, the gardens houses take over as the families’ main homes once the snow is gone. These gardens are in Lithuanian language called a ‘sodas’ and the very garden house a ‘sodo namas’.
Most garden houses are built on land plots just outside the cities. Most were built during the Soviet era, when many city dwellers were given free land by the authorities. This principle is well known in the west, as the so-called allotment gardening principle, but while it has a limited scope in the west, it is in this country and other East European countries very popular and widespread.
Allotment gardens are characterised by a concentration in one place of a few or up to several hundred land parcels that are assigned to individuals or families. In allotment gardens, the parcels are cultivated individually, contrary to other community garden types where the entire area is tended collectively by a group of people. The individual size of a parcel ranges between 500 and 1000 square meters. The individual gardeners are normally organised in an allotment association.
The 1980s saw the peak of the ‘sodas’ boom with virtually every affluent family in the country having a ‘sodas’ of their own or spending weekends and holidays at friends' ‘sodai’. Often ill-equipped and without indoor plumbing, garden houses were nevertheless the ultimate solution for many working class families to having an inexpensive summer retreat. Having a piece of land also offered an opportunity for city dwellers to indulge themselves in growing their own fruits and vegetables.
The collapse of the Soviet Union saw the return to private land ownership. Most gardens have since been privatized and Lithuania is now one of the world nations with the largest number of owners of second homes. The growth of living standards in recent years allowed many ‘sodas’ owners to spend their discretionary income on improvements. Thus, many recently built ‘sodo namia’ are fully equipped houses suitable for use as permanent residences. The market-oriented economy transformed the ‘sodas’ into an asset, which generally reflects the prosperity of its owner and can be freely traded in the real estate market.
It was in the 1960s that the allotment gardens outside the major cities of Lithuania really took off. My in-laws
garden ('sodas' in Lithuanian) is a very good example. Their 'sodas' has over the past 30 years evolved
into an incredibly lush, green oasis where family and friends very much enjoy the summer months.
My in-laws were among those who were allocated a land plot outside of Vilnius. Here, they have over the last 30 years developed a truly wonderful oasis of fruit trees, vegetable fields, berry bushes and a fine garden house that has gradually become more and more a house you really can live in the year around.
This is a garden where it really grows during the
summer months - in greenhouses and in the fertile soil.
It is when I come out to my in-laws garden that I really understand that Lithuanians at the bottom of their hearts are genuine farmers who know how to cultivate the rich Lithuanian soil into marvellous harvests.
It is out here I think I'm starting to understand more of the folk soul of this country.
Saslykai - cubes of meat, marinated and prepared over a fire indoor or outdoor
– is always the most popular ‘sodas’ meal.
There are those who say that Lithuanians are cold and unapproachable people. But those who say that have never been on a visit to a 'sodas'. For here is rife not only for flowers, but also people. When you come out here you will experience unique friendliness, neighbourliness, and much good humour. You will smell the food cooking in the fireplace fires or out on the many ‘saslykai’ barbecues. You will hear laughter, and in the evening you will see family after family unite around the dinner tables to enjoy the food that was just prepared on the flames, along with newly picked, fresh vegetables, berries and fruits.
What could be better than enjoying a tasty garden meal with good friends?
My children love their grandparents' garden. Here they can run happily barefoot in God's free nature. Here they can play with their many good friends from last summer. Seen through children's eyes who cannot wait to have the season’s first dive into the river, the Neris River not far away, offers a quiet pool which is very well suited to swimming when the ice has gone and the temperature outside has become blazingly high.
It is not always easy to explain why Lithuania is such an incredibly special place on this Earth. But words are not really necessary if you first get out to a 'sodas' area outside one of the nation's cities. Do not miss the opportunity. Summer is here. Right now…
My kids simply love playing in their grandparents’ garden oasis.
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