Aug 8 2010

Farewell, Estonia! (Subtitle: This Post’s For Doug)

I cannot believe that it has already been more than a week since water aerobics (thank god I didn’t read this article before attending). Peter and I are now in Helsinki, Finland, contemplating whether it is really a good idea to follow through with our plan to go to Moscow on Wednesday, given that the city is not just in the midst of its worst ever heat wave, but is also blanketed by what’s being referred to as “choking smog,” thanks to hundreds of wildfires burning near the capital. (According to Russian health authorities, an hour outside is the equivalent of smoking 60 to 70 cigarettes.)

This could be us.

This is a photo from a Moscow webcam this morning. I am not kidding.

It’s giving me flashbacks to our night spent downwind of the Iceland volcano. Except, oh, wait, we escaped the ash cloud by driving for ten minutes. Apparently all of Moscow is covered. What’s funny, though, is that I’ve been emailing some Moscow hotels, trying to place some place that’s air conditioned, and they make no reference to what’s going on. “Hello, Catherine! Yes, we have a room available. You may choose from a deluxe room with king bed or standard room with queen. Thank you for your inquiry!”

Now, I understand you don’t want to scare off your potential customers, but given the current situation, wouldn’t a little acknowledgment be nice? Nothing too dramatic — maybe something like “I am typing this email with a wet rag over my face” or “I must go now for the air is too thick to breathe”? I mean, come on, people. There’s a smog-choked elephant in the room.

Anyway. We’re going to see what to do about that. But first, our Baltic finale. After Riga we took a detour to the Estonian islands of Muhu and Saaremaa. It’s been a couple days now, and my memories of being in spandex shorts are quickly fading, but here is what I can tell you about them:

We spent our first night in Muhu, in a random guesthouse on the side of the road run by an Estonian woman who spoke absolutely no English. With her daughter-in-law translating, we established that Americans do not often come to Muhu (“An American? It is like you are from Mars!” she exclaimed), that she had an abundant supply of cucumbers and fresh peppermint that she was willing to share, and that she had a surprisingly nice badminton and volleyball court in her yard, along with a water feature, that is apparently used by people who rent the guesthouse for family reunions. We really liked this woman, who wore a smock-like dress and was so generous with her vegetables. She apparently liked us, too, and as she showed us around her miniature sports complex, we all engaged in a very peculiar human behavior: continuing to speak our native languages to each other even though we had no idea what the other person was saying. Perhaps this says something about the superficiality of most human conversation, but the fact that we didn’t understand one another didn’t really matter.

Her: Estonian Estonian Estonian Estonian [pointing at a swing set] Estonian Estonian.

Us: What a lovely badminton court that is. Do your grandchildren know how to play?


I don't think she was used to having strangers in bike clothes put their arm around her shoulder.

The previous evening the bike ride from the bus station to her house had been beautiful — except for one part where the GPS led us through what was basically a bramble (Peter was eaten by mosquitoes; I ended up with leaves stuck in my gears and a very confused inchworm on my water bottle).

This is a road?

Having planned a route on mostly paved surfaces, we thought the ride to Kuressaare, the capital of Saaremaa, would be beautiful — if, at 100km, a bit long. Oh, but we were wrong. The road was mostly just through trees, with no view on either side. Far worse, though, was the wind: Saaremaa is hit with powerful winds from the southwest, and we were biking right into them. .

The causeway between Muhu and Saaremaa. The prettiest part -- and also the windiest.

Oh, the wind. It’s funny – when you’re in a car, you don’t think much about air resistance. But trust me: when you’re biking, you think about the wind. And when it’s blowing in your face for 100km, it sucks. Making things worse, part of the road we were supposed to bike on was in the process of being repaved, which meant that for the time being, it was only partially covered in asphalt, leaving behind patches of rocky gravel that got kicked up by passing cars. What’s more, for reasons I haven’t figured out, it smelled like beef jerky. For at least 10km, I felt like I was in a Slim Jim factory.

After a light lunch of boiled frankfurters, sauerkraut and potatoes (for me) and beef stroganoff that Peter referred to as “cow snot” (for him), we were back on the road, into the wind, for a few dozen more kilometers to Europe’s most accessible meteor crater. Left behind a couple thousand years ago, the spot is now marked by a small round pond, a deli and a long hallway of local women selling handicrafts. I bought a doily.

We pulled into the island’s capital, Kuressaare just in time to get caught in a downpour on our way to dinner, where we engaged in one of my least favorite activities in the Baltic States: trying to get the attention of the waiter. I’ve come to the conclusion that there must be some sort of regimented training program here for people in the restaurant business called “Never Make Eye Contact.” It does not matter how long you sit at your table. It does not matter if you turn yourself around in your seat, disengage from conversation, and devote your entire attention to trying to bore holes in the waitress’s back with your eyes. She will not look at you. Nor will she bring you menus. Despite this, when she finally does stop by your table – fifteen, twenty minutes after you have sat down – she will try to take your order, then act irritated when you point out that you have no idea what the restaurant serves (what a horrible feeling it is to see her walk away). But if you get up to fetch your own? Forget about it.

This skill even extends to counter service. Peter and I have both taken turns standing in front of a cash register as the person behind the counter – literally two feet away – makes cappuccinos, rearranges chocolates in the display case, washes dishes, all without ever acknowledging that you are standing there. In the worst instance, I made the mistake of asking a young woman if it was all right for us to sit down before waiting the requisite five minutes until she maybe decided to look up. She became gravely offended – who did I think I was? A paying customer? — turning her back to me, finding solace in the espresso machine, and refusing to turn back around even when specifically ordered by her boss. (We then waited a half hour before someone arrived to take our orders.)

But anyway. Kuresaarre. A nice town, made even nicer when we decided to ditch the bikes for a day and rent a car so that we could see the other side of the island. Go Estonian coast!

Still windy.

Our prepubescent sense of humor are in full force

And then, thighs still aching from our adventure in the wind, we took a bus to the town of Haapsalu, a former spa resort favored by the Russian monarchy that is now best known for its impressive castle.  What I know it for, however, is its spiders. As we walked around on our first evening in town, I made the mistake of looking up at a lightpost. There, stretched between it and a nearby wall, was an intricate web. And on that web clung not one, not two, not three or even four, but upwards of 20 spiders. Big spiders. Meaty spiders. The kind of spider that can make you worried, even if you’re not usually particularly arachnophobic, that one is going to crawl up your nose in your sleep and make a little nest there before biting you with poisonous venom that travels straight to your brain, leaving its countless babies to devour your corpse from within. Or, you know, something like that. (It does occur to me that the main reason I’m not normally scared of spiders is that I’m not usually surrounded by them.) And it was hardly just that light post. Rather, there were spiders everywhere we looked – hanging in door jambs, off bus stops, clinging to walls. We were staying in an ancient guesthouse which we’d previously considered charming and quaint for its rough wooden walls and exposed brick. But those nooks now seemed like nests; I made Peter thoroughly check the area around our tiny bed to make sure there wasn’t anyone who might be tempted to take a nighttime stroll across our sheets. Luckily – and truly bizarrely – there wasn’t. And I will say this: Haapsalu did not have many mosquitoes.

Those black dots are all spiders.

Big ones.

This is before we noticed the spiders.

And so we were off to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, where we spent several days relaxing in the cobblestoned streets of its Old Town and wondering where the hell all the Americans had suddenly come from. (Cruise ships, it turned out.) I also made a point of finding a local gym and signing up for a “Body Combat” class (Peter politely declined), where a young blonde woman led the class – all female – in rounds of punches and kicks narrated mostly in Estonian, but broken up by key phrases that suggested that aerobics might really be the next universal language (“Thai box!” “Tai chi!”). Most of my attention was taken up by trying to kick myself far away from the woman next to me, who had body odor so bad that it eventually infused the room – but I was still surprised when our perky and friendly instructor pretended to hold someone down on the floor and punch them in the face (we followed along to the beat). I have gone to many an aerobic boxing class in my day, but that is a move I have never seen.

Next up was Helsinki, which we got to via a 3.5-hour ferry, with its very own karaoke bar on board. (My favorites were a very gruffly sung “My Way” and “Hello? Is it me you’re looking for, though this kid’s Elvis gave them a run for their money.

Helsinki is a city known, at least by me, for its salmon soup and exorbitant prices on, well, everything. Dear lord, people – it’d have been expensive in dollars, let alone Euros. Inspired by hotel rates, we decided to make our first foray into “Couch Surfing,” an organization in which people volunteer to let you stay a night or two, for free, in their homes. We happened to get lucky – after a meterologist didn’t get back to me, I found a couple right in downtown who enjoyed good food, good company and, most importantly, were willing to let us have the keys to their apartment for two nights. So nice! We spent yesterday taking a walk around the city, and were surprised to meet these guys, a group of young men dressed up as tuba-playing babushkas who we had seen before both in Riga and in Talinn (they must have been doing their Baltic circuit).

And then in the evening, we met our hosts for dinner at their country cottage, which was located pretty much in the middle of the city.

Let me clarify: apparently at some point in Helsinki’s past, maybe the 1920s, the government decided to set aside some land so that poor people could grow vegetables on small plots of land. Tiny, tiny cottages were built, surrounded by vegetable patches and fruit trees, and while the rest of Helsinki was modernized, these enclaves were not. So a twenty minute tram ride from the heart of downtown will now take you to this sunken green area (apparently it used to be a swamp used to bury horses) where narrow gravel paths lead past these tiny red wood homes, each with little outdoor cooking areas and beautiful flowers and vegetables. I have never seen anything like it. I have also never seen a wild hedgehog – but as we walked up the path toward their house, there one was.

Well, hello there.

The house – which is basically one room – was so small that there was no running water inside or, for that matter, toilet (there was an “eco-loo” up the path), which I suppose might get annoying if, like our hosts, you spent the summers there. But it was lovely for a night – and despite the modern buildings around it, it only took a few minutes to completely forget where we were.

I like food.

And now we are on the train to St. Petersburg, technically already in Russia. We just got our first whiff of the so-called “acrid smoke” blanketing much of the country – and, I’ll admit, it wasn’t particularly pleasant. Here’s hoping for rain.

Our first moments in Russia.

Aug 1 2010

Aqua Aerobics in Riga

There are countless reasons Peter is the perfect husband for me. Here is just one of them: he came with me to a Latvian aqua aerobics class.

As previously noted on this blog, one of my absolute favorite things to do is going to exercise classes in foreign countries. So, naturally, when we pulled into Riga (the capital of Latvia) for a few days off the bikes, I started looking up local gyms. It wasn’t long before I’d discovered “City Fitness,” a New York Sports Club-esque chain with branches throughout the city. Putting our cell phone to good use, I called three of them to see what classes were on offer – and discovered that, in addition to usual standards like “Fitness Yoga” and “Total Body Workout,” one branch offered aqua aerobics.

Now, after my traumatic memories of high school swim (I still have dreams about my co-captain berating me for skipping practice in favor of cabaret rehearsal), one might think I’d have gone for “Abs and Back” instead. I did not. I have done everything from Cardio Striptease to some weird fad, popular in Berkeley CA circa 1999, where you wear slippery booties and pretend to speed skate in place. But I have never in my life done aerobics in a pool.

It’s safe to say that an obsession with fitness classes is not something that Peter and I share. In fact, on the rare occasions when I have strong-armed him into joining me, disaster has ensued – most notably when we attended a Croatian pilates class on our honeymoon and Peter lost the use of his left thumb (he needed emergency hand surgery to get it back). I was sympathetic, but still wanted him to come to kickboxing. What is it they say about physical exercise? “No pain, no gain”? I mean, come on. It was his left hand.

Regardless, I was very surprised when Peter did not immediately recoil at the idea of joining me in the pool. In fact, he said that, if pushed, he “might actually do it.” That was all I needed. I settled on a class at six o’clock the next day, timed so that if I really wanted to, I could join yoga at 7:30 as well (“I’m only going to one class,” said Peter preemptively, upon seeing the look on my face). And then began 36 hours of anticipation.

When we got to the gym – a later one than planned, since while I knew the club was in a Radisson hotel, I hadn’t realized that Riga is home to four of them – the woman behind the desk assumed that I was just signing up for me.

“No, two people,” I said, gesturing at Peter, who was standing directly beside me with swim trunks in hand.

Two people?” she repeated, ignoring Peter as she glanced around for my mystery companion.

“Yes,” I said, “Two.”

The look she gave Peter made it pretty clear that while Abs and Back might be co-ed, aqua aerobics was not. In fact, I got the sense that never, in the entire history of pool-based fitness classes, had there been a male participant under the age of 85. But money was money. As we waited for her to give me change, I noticed a closed-circuit television on the desk, the camera for which was trained on the pool. The screen showed a group of grainy black and white heads bobbing in the water, arms splashing as they tossed plastic balls in the air – the 6pm class that we had missed (there was another class at seven).  I told Peter to look away.

We emerged from our respective locker rooms to the sounds of Cher’s “Do You Believe In Life After Love,” accompanied by the sounds emanating from the teacher, a blonde, spandex-clad woman named Olga who bounced energetically on the edge of the pool – not in the water herself —  as she demonstrated moves to the class. She appeared to be yelling things in Latvian, though given the acoustics of the pool, it could have been Russian, Lithuanian or even English. I couldn’t tell. But I did know this: she was yipping.

I mean that exactly as it sounds. Whenever she wanted the ladies in the pool to do a differerent move – and they were all ladies – she made a high-pitched barking sound, the same timbre and intensity usually associated with a chihuahua. When demonstrating a favorite exercise – say, extending the ball to one side and your legs to the other – Olga let out an entire series of yips, occasionally finished by a blood-curdling “yoooo!”

Aqua aerobic spy cam

Though she was not actually in the pool, Olga never stopped swimming. When it was time for rest between sets, she shifted her weight from side to side as if kicking, swirling her hands by her hips to keep herself afloat – an aqua-aerobic tic that I wondered if she were able to control in the rest of her daily life. Did Olga tread water in line at the post office? Did she practice her flutter kick under her restaurant’s chair? Who was this woman? And how had she come to this career?

Regardless, she seemed to be enjoying it. We watched as the class ended with a series of easy-looking exercises – the tossing of beach balls back and forth, a series of choreographed stretches set to the Latvian equivalent of Leonia Lewis, a round of yips and applause. And then it was our turn.

The previous class was barely out of the pool before Olga began again – no rest for the weary – restarting the same cd and beginning her side-to-side faux-water-treading move with a smile beaming from her face. Our class, made up of a combination of young women in bikinis and several rounder women in one-piece suits – and, of course, me and Peter — followed along as best we could. But it quickly became apparent that moves that are very easy in air become much more difficult in water – and there was no way to keep up with Olga’s pace. Grinning, she began doing front kicks while simultaneously swinging her arms back and forth at her side, timing her moves to the music’s pulsating beat. I tried to do the same, but failed – not only was the water too thick to maintain a speed anywhere close to that of Olga, but it was difficult to move all of my limbs forcefully through the water without, well, actually swimming somewhere. My kicks pushed me backwards; the awkward movement of my arms kept throwing me off balance.

Olga did not care. Now we were to use two feet at once as we kicked to the side, to the front, to the side, to the front. Too fast! Too fast, Olga! What do you think we are exercising in? Air? I felt like I was doing aerobics in a vat of Jello. I tried using just one foot, balancing my other on the ground so that could perform both movements without dunking my head underwater. Olga saw me, held up two fingers, made a telescoping gesture toward my legs. I see you, she mimed. Two feet. Two! She sat on a stool to demonstrate.

Oh, I got what Olga was saying. I just couldn’t do it. Bizarrely, though, given my clumsiness, I had also begun to develop a fantasy of becoming a professional synchronized swimmer. Wouldn’t that be an unusual skill? I thought, trying to perform front to back leg sweeps without getting water up my nose. And such a good workout, too.

It turned out that Peter was having the same thoughts. From my perspective, he was giggling as he, too, attempted to kick his feet front and back through the water without drowning. But that’s  not how he described it afterwards. “I was really good,” he said, as we walked back toward Old Town. “Did you see me? Did you see me do those kicks?”

Whatever kicking glory either of us achieved was short-lived; Olga was now tossing small, rainbow colored balls at us, the same balls that had looked so ridiculous in the hands of the six pm class. I had thought that perhaps they were medicine balls – you know, the weighted ones so popular in American abdominal classes. But these were simply filled with air – and, weighing about five ounces each, seemed like ridiculous accoutrements for a class already taking place in the buoyancy of water.

Oh, Catherine. Yes, it’s true that tossing the balls out of the water might be pointless – especially when Olga had us do a 360-degree turn before catching them gain, which  just made me dizzy and got water in my eyes. But holding the balls under water was a different story. The balls did not want to stay under water. They protested, fighting for the surface as if they were small animals we were trying to drown. Olga, not satisfied with just having us row with the balls – a more challenging exercise than you might think – demonstrated that we were to hold them between our thighs while peforming two-legged side kicks, side to side. This awkward movement was too much – the balls rebelled. The pool began popping with rainbow explosions as, one by one, they escaped from our thighs.

Undeterred, Olga held a ball in one hand and began to run in place, high knees, moving her hands up and down in rhythm with her legs. It looked ridiculous but, as I realized as my ball escaped to the surface yet again, that most movements that are funny on land are even more ridiculous when attempted in water. Olga may have looked silly, but we were the clowns.

As all this was going on, I noticed that Peter – who was high-stepping with the best of him (he claims his larger hands helped keep the ball submerged) – was no longer the only man in the pool. He had been joined by an older gentleman who, but for the fact that he was wearing reflective goggles and a bathing cap, bore a striking resemblance to a walrus. A dirty walrus, it turned out, who decided that of all the times he could take a swim, he would show up when there were a bunch of bikini-clad women in the pool doing side kicks. He was soon joined by another goggle-wearing younger man, and the two of them paddled in slow circles, lurking like sharks, until the churning of our movements made it too hard to see.

I thought aqua aerobics was an hour, but at 7:40 Olga changed the music to what I recognized as the “warm down,” and began what was clearly her favorite part of the class: synchronized stretching. Or, rather, synchronized arm positions. The moves – extending our arm into Vs above our head, touching one shoulder and then the other – did not relax any muscles that we had been working, but it did provide the temporary illusion that Olga was the captain of a particularly untalented synchronized swim team.

As I swooshed my arms through the water, trying to imitate Olga’s hand positions, I had a sudden flash to what Olga’s past might have been: a promising synchro performer under the Soviets whose chance at Olympic glory had been snatched away by the movement for Latvian independence. And now? Reduced to teaching aqua aerobics classes four times a day at the Radisson Blu Daugava. Cruel world!

Then again, Olga seemed quite happy; it was I who was wondering whether the wardens at Karostas Cietums had ever considered water ballet as a form of re-education for their prisoners. And yet, I loved it. The class ended the same way as the one before: with a round of yipping (on Olga’s part) and applause (on ours).  We left, hungry and wet and – on my part at least – willing to do it all again.

Jul 31 2010

Dinner With Ivars

There are many times so far on this trip that the Lonely Planet has led us astray. First was the day trip to the Russian missile silo that has been closed for the past two years. Next, a promise of a beachside restaurant that, if visited during berry season, would serve us a ticket to “gastronomic heaven” – but turned out to serve us just pancakes stuffed with cheese curd, no berries in sight. There was the restaurant “worth the trip out of town” that had been closed for so long there were weeds growing from under the door, and the “coolest teahouse ever” that appeared not to exist. But one place mentioned by the guide book actually exceeded expectations: a restored manor house south of Kandava, where the owner’s “piece de resistance is [his] made-to-order dinner menu, which caters to very guest’s whim and only features locally grown organic produce.”

After two weeks of potatoes and pig ears, this sounded like true gastronomic heaven – so we programmed the restaurant into the GPS and planned our itinerary specifically so that we could stay in a nearby village for the night. We’d spent the previous two days in Kuldiga, a charming town where we’d had the misfortune of arriving in a rainstorm — leading us to agree, out of drenched desperation, to stay the night in the only Soviet-era hotel in town. (As the Lonely Planet rightly pointed out, the bathrooms had not been renovated since the Russians left in 1991.) We spent several days tooling around Kuldiga, including a misguided excursion to a local sand cave where I realized, as soon as we entered the narrow subterranean passageway on a 20-person tour given entirely in Latvian, that caves make me claustrophobic (go figure).

Please get me out of here.

So we were excited for our 70 km ride to Kandava. En route, we stopped by Renda, a small town noted by Lonely Planet for its organic garden (which we couldn’t find) and dropped by Sabile, home of the world’ northermost vineyard. (You can only taste the wine during the yearly wine weekend – which that weekend happened to be – but all the wine had been drunk the day before.)

Sabile was also home to a weird open-air art museum.

We arrived at Kandava just before a thunderstorm, and upon learning that the restaurant was 10 km away on an unpaved road, made a clever arrangement with the inn’s bartender to have someone drive us there. It was a brilliant move. Our chauffeur – a guy in Umbros and a backwards baseball cap named Boris – picked us up as scheduled, and, after 10 kilometers on the gravel equivalent of a washing board, dropped us off in front of a mansion in the middle of nowhere. “I think this is it?” he said, as we pulled into the driveway of a yellow stucco building backed by a private lake.

It was indeed. Inside, a young man – whose name turned out to be Ivars – was giving a tour to a group of open-shirted, mustacho’ed men. He fetched Daniel, the owner of the mansion who also was its cook, whom we’d been speaking with on the phone. True to Lonely Planet’s description, Daniel greeted us by asking what we felt like eating that night.

Peter didn’t know this, but I’d actually been thinking about the answer to that question since lunch, when I’d eaten an artery-clogging fried egg sandwich at a weird open-air art museum in Sabile.

“Fish!” I announced decisively, before he had a chance to think.

“Fish it is,” said Daniel, and instructed Ivars – who clearly preferred giving tours in his native tongue – to explain the house to us in English. Ivars, a neatly dressed, gay-seeming young man with a small stud in one ear, sheepishly obliged, telling us he was “shy” before proudly showing off a case of crystal glasses and a set of living room chairs with golden arms carved to look like swans.

It didn’t take long for us to become quite enamored of Ivars, whose English was actually quite good, and who had the cute habit of asking for new words when his vocabulary faltered. I never knew that one could bond over “tapestry” and “last will and testament,” but by the end of the tour  we had moved beyond 18th century furniture to the subject of Ivars’s personal life. How had he ended up here, as the guide and maitre’d to this estate?

It turned out that Ivars and I had more in common than would at first appear – for before working at the mansion, he had been an inspector for Latvian wastewater treatment plants. In fact, he still gave lectures on environmental responsibility twice a week to local schoolchildren. “No kidding!,” I said.  I had spent a year working on an article about American wastewater treatment plants — we had so much to discuss!

It’s important to note here that Ivars was about as unlikely a candidate for a wastewater treatment plant inspector as could be imagined – a fact that he owned up to himself. “My boss, he was always teasing me,” he explained, as we stood in the foyer underneath a glittering chandelier and a wall hanging known in Latvian by a word that sounded like “goblin.”

“I was supposed to be stern, you know, when I delivered the . . .” he paused.

“Fines?” I suggested.

“Yes. Fines. But instead,” Ivars grinned impishly, “I was always smiling.” He wagged his finger at us with mock opprobrium. “For this . . . violation? Five hundred lats!”

But before I could ask him more – what kind of wastewater treatment plants were there in Latvia? Did they have secondary treatment systems? Tertiary? – it was time for dinner.

Effortlessly switching from wastewater enforcer to host, Ivars led us to a bright blue dining room decorated with water buffalo horns and presented us with a basket of warm bread and a bottle of sauvignon blanc. As for the meal itself? Suffice it to say that it was indeed a slice of gastronomic heaven – homemade goulash followed by a salad with the “special dressing of the chef” (it involved strawberries), then trout garnished with local chanterelles, then a break to tour the upstairs of the mansion (see photos) and finally, a dessert to end all desserts, fresh strawberries, raspberries and blueberries with some sort of vanilla cream concoction that left Peter saying it was the best dessert he had ever had.

“This cream, it is from our neighbor’s cow – it is very fresh,” said Ivars, using code-speak for “it is not pasteurized.” We nodded in approval – hell, we just came from a dairy farm where we drank milk straight out of an udder. Ivars smiled, our bond sealed.

“Good,” he said. “Because some city people – they do not like this kind of milk. You know, from Riiga.” He stretched out the name of the Latvian capital – clearly the home of germaphobic snobs. None of those at the estate tonight! If Boris hadn’t been waiting, I would have hugged him.

Peter making himself at home.

At the end of the evening, Boris met us in the driveway and took us back to the guesthouse, where we collapsed into well-deserved sleep.But heaven can only last for so long and the next morning, the guesthouse’s complimentary breakfast jolted us back to earth: a plate of shredded cheese and sliced tomatoes, slathered in a mixture of ketchup and sweet cream and – for good measure – garnished with a flower.

This old thing?

We loved everything about this.

Shredded cheese with ketchup sauce. Make it stop.

Jul 27 2010

A Place Not To See Before You Die

Ever since my travel book, 101 Places Not To See Before You Die, came out in June, I’ve been fielding a lot of questions about what criteria I used to pick the entries on the list. I got a very sweet email from the marketing director for the Blarney Stone, for example, asking if I were aware that there were many pleasant attractions at Blarney Castle beyond the stone itself and, besides, I didn’t need to worry about kissing the same stone kissed by hundreds of thousands of people, because it was cleaned each night. How was it cleaned? She couldn’t divulge the secret. But she did emphasize that the truly germaphobic visitor could ask for a special cleaning before their smooch. (I’m sure that’s a way to ingratiate yourself to the hundreds of people behind you in line.)

I fielded similar questions about Mt. Rushmore and, bizarrely, late night at Chicago’s Wiener Circle, where people engage in the charming pass-time of eating hotdogs while hurling racist slurs at each other. But despite my confidence in my own personal need not to visit these places, I felt a little bad about criticizing them, especially those I’d never visited myself.

So earlier this week, when Peter and I found ourselves in Liepaja, Latvia for two hours (we were waiting for a bus transfer) I knew there was something I needed to do.

One of the entries in the book is titled “Any Hotel That Used To Be A Prison,” and it focuses on Karostas Cietums prison in, you guessed it, Liepaja, Latvia. Or, more precisely, Karostas — a suburb of Liepaja that used to be a soviet military base but is now a crumbling neighborhood north of the city proper marked by wide boulevards and regal buildings in various states of decay. So despite our limited time — not to mention ominous gray skies overhead — Peter and I grabbed our bikes and headed north, stopping en route at St. Nicholas’s cathedral, an orthodox church next to some Soviet-style apartment buildings that said Soviets turned into a movie theater and, bizarrely, a sporting center (now it’s back to its original purpose).

It took longer to bike to Karostas Cietums than we’d anticipated (what do you know, most military prisons aren’t located in the center of town) and by the time we finally arrived at its imposing metal gate, we only had time for a quick photograph before heading back to the bus.

I ran quickly inside the gate to see if I could find out any more details for the road, and found a man standing by the door wearing a guard’s outfit, smoking a cigarette. In addition to an official-looking cap, he sported the sort of mustache that parents teach children to run away from — which was fitting since, as I explain in the entry for the book, the “guards” at Karostas Cietums are no ordinary prison docents. Part of their job is to act like they actually *are* guards, and subject you to verbal and faux-physical abuse — sort of like a sadistic version of Colonial Williamsburg. So I was a little worried to go up to the guy and ask for an informational brochure — let alone inquire about the so-called night time “surprise tour” that required signing something known as The Agreement. (For more information, check out their site — warning, there are gun shots.)

Luckily, this guard was actually just selling tickets. “You want tour?” he asked in a thick accent, holding the cigarette between his lips.

“Yes,” I said, “But I do not have time. Do you have information?” He looked at me quizzically. “Maybe a pamphlet?”

I glanced inside, but found nothing but a rack of fake rifles. The guard shook his head. “Only tour.”

“Okay, then, never mind!”

I jogged back to Peter and, after a brief moment of indecision — we had just enough time to make it to the bus if we biked quickly, we hopped back on our bicycles and started pedaling toward the station.

It only took me about 2 seconds to feel regret. I mean, come on. I was in Liepaja, Latvia, mere *steps* away from one of the places I had written about. What use was it to merely stand outside? What story comes from “I biked all the way to Karostas Cietums . . . and all I got was this lousy photograph?” No story. None at all.

One of the many reasons Peter is so wonderful to me is that he picks up on such emotions, even when they are behind him on a bicycle. We got to the bridge leading back to town when he made a hand signal indicating that he was stopping.

“Are you cultivating regret?” he asked.

“Uh huh.”

“Let’s go back.”

And so we did, trying to ignore the irony of not just going, but returning to a place supposedly not worth seeing.

Leaving our bikes outside, we raced into the dark building, and caught up with our tour guide (tour guard?) just as he was putting on a gas mask.

He stopped what he was doing to collect our 2 lat entry fee, then gave us a quick run-down of what we had missed so far. The gist? This was not a normal prison; it was a place to punish bad soldiers (not criminals or political prisoners). This statement was repeated back to us numerous times, in the form of call and response — “And why were there no beds in the cells?”

Because this was not a normal prison.”

“Very good.”

Our guard did not appear to care that this answer did not actually make sense. Instead, he recited facts about the various militaries that had used the compound — the Latvians, the Nazis, the Soviets, and the Latvians again (it was finally shut down when Latvia decided it might like to join the EU) — and explained the tenants’ daily routines: one hour of political study, three or four hours of running around in the courtyard, often wearing gas masks and/or pushing baby strollers full of bricks, more hours of work, and then a relaxing six hours’ rest in a small cement cell shared with ten other inmates.

“And after you stay here, two weeks, maybe three, you are re-educated,” said the guard, making me think for a moment that maybe it wasn’t so bad — unlike some of the other former prisons we’ve visited, he hadn’t mentioned any actual torture. Maybe this was more like a military retreat where you worked on your aerobic conditioning while studying up on propaganda before being released back into your normal life.

“Or, also, you could be shot,” he continued. “But not here. In forest across street. Follow me.”

As the tour continued, it quickly became apparent that our guide particularly enjoyed:

1. Rhetorical questions posed to us individually that had answers none of us would ever be able to provide. (“Who is this?” he asked, pointing at a portrait of Lenin and then at me. “Lenin?” I tried. “No!” said the guard. “Your best friend!”)

2. Referring to various rooms in the prison as “beautiful.” Sometimes this was combined with habit #1: “And what is this room?” he asked, in front of a closed door. “A beautiful toilet!”

3. Picking on me. “And so you each have five days of ‘education,'” he said, checking to make sure that we didn’t have our hands in our pockets — a prison no-no. “For you,” he said, pointing at me. “Maybe seven.”

Luckily, our tour was not a “reality tour” — one of the prison’s more popular programs in which the guards really do pelt you with abuse — and so the guard stayed safely on the side of being playful rather than terrifying. Nonetheless, it wasn’t hard to imagine him relishing the idea of chaperoning an overnight stay at the prison, which offers guests the opportunity to sleep on wooden planks on the floor. (Unpleasant, but a better choice than spending the night in pitch-black solitary confinement, which is another option offered.)

I will not be sleeping here tonight.

At the end of the tour, the guard finally offered us the opportunity to ask questions of our own — and then didn’t actually answer them. “So what led you to be the captain at this prison?” asked Peter, hoping to elicit some explanation for why a presumably sane guy would take a job as a faux-sadistic prison guard (then again, unemployment is high). Misunderstanding the question, he instead protested against Peter’s use of title. “I am not captain,” he insisted. “I am guard.”

Just before the tour ended, the sky erupted with a crash of thunder and rain began pelting down — leaving us with the unsavory options of biking through a downpour or staying in Karostas Cietums, whose unlit hallways and dank cells became no less creepy when illuminated by lightning.

As we contemplated our options, Peter glanced out the window and noticed that, given where we’d placed our bicycles, we might as well suck it up and head into the storm.

We couldn't have placed this better if we'd tried. (Note the crowd in the background.)

And so we did, arriving at the bus station dripping wet to discover that the next bus didn’t leave for another two and a half hours. Luckily, no one seemed to mind us pulling our bikes into the departure hall and sipping powdered cappuccino mix while waiting for our pants to dry — so that’s exactly what we did.

Would I visit Karostas Cietums again? If I happened to be in Liepaja with a bicycle, a clear weather forecast and several hours to spare? Why not — it was interesting.

But there’s still no way in hell I’d stay the night.

Jul 25 2010

The Cold War Vs. A Cold Lake

Here is what the Lonely Planet guidebook has to say about the abandoned nuclear missile site in Zemaitija National Park:

“Deep in the forests of Zemaitija National Park resides a former secret Soviet underground missile base that once housed nuclear missiles with enough power to destroy most of Europe. . . . Tours, which take about 30 minutes, explore the heart of the base: you see the control room, heating room, enormous diesel engine used to power the place and, most disturbing of all, one of the 27m-deep silos where a warhead once stood ready. It is cold underground so bring a warm jumper. Sturdy shoes are also recommended; 30 years of abandonment renders the bat-infested site hazardous.”

Considering that we’re a. supposed to return our bicycles to a shop in northernmost Estonia on August 1st and, b. we’re still in Lithuania, we’re a little pressed for time. But how often does one get to see abandoned missile silos, let alone ones that are infested by bats? We decided the detour was worth it, and woke up early yesterday morning to take a day trip to Plunge, a town about 25 kilometers south of the national park where the base was hidden.

Thanks to a local cycle map, we knew that there was an untrafficked way to get between Plunge and the park. We hopped off the bus, got onto our bikes, set out for the road . . . and discovered it was unpaved. Not like, unpaved in a hard-packed dirt kind of way (those aren’t too hard to ride on). Not even unpaved in a random-pockets-of-wheel-catching-sand way (those can be treacherous but are manageable). This road had occasional sand patches, but worse, it was ridged. You know the rumble strips on the sides of the highway, which are designed so that their vibration will jolt you awake if you start to veer off the road? They were kind of like that, except much bigger, bumpier, unavoidable, made of gravely dirt, and were on a shadeless road that was eight kilometers long. There weren’t many cars, but the few that did roll by left behind large clouds of lingering dust. Needless to say, I was eager to get to the park.

Once we were on paved road, the route took us through beautiful pine forests, between sparkling lakes, and past innumerable signs for guest houses. We had planned to ask for help from the park information office, but after passing a guesthouse on a shore of a particularly attractive lake, at the edge of which we could see a row boat and a swimming pier, we decided to stop, you know, and just see if they might have a room.

They did. What’s more, it was cheap, it was cool inside, there was a shared kitchen, a lovely yard and, oh, wait, according to the friendly English-speaking owner, a woman from a local hospital was coming by that evening to give massages to the guests. “They are 20 litas, maybe 30,” she said. “Not much at all. You want, she can give to you, too.”

Oh, we wanted. Convinced we had discovered paradise on the side of a Lithuanian road, we dropped off our bags and biked the remaining six kilometers into town, plotting what the fastest possible route would be between abandoned missile silos and our bathing suits. Our guidebooks had warned us that we needed to make arrangements for an English-speaking guide, so we popped into the National Park information office, where a friendly, English-speaking park employee informed us that the missile site was closed.

You mean like, for the day? No. For two years. Apparently they are “renovating it” (one hopes not too much) and turning it into a Cold War museum. Interesting – and relevant – information that would have been even more useful had we known it say, before we took a two-day detour to a random Lithuanian lake town. Now, given the guesthouse situation, I wasn’t complaining too much (in reality, a refreshing swim sounded great). But I would like to point out to the research team at Lonely Planet and Rough Guide that if you come out with a brand-new version of your guidebook (published in 2010 and 2009 respectively) and you have a half-page feature about a particular site in an otherwise unremarkable location that is a pain in the ass to get to, you might want to check to see if it’s still open. I know their manuscript deadlines were probably a while back, but the museum isn’t scheduled to open till the fall of 2011 – unlike the original existence of the base, I don’t think its closure was kept secret.

But anyway. We recovered from our pseudo-sorrow by buying groceries at a local shop, stopping for gross gyros on the side of the road (dear Lithuania: sometimes it’s okay to not put sugar in your garlic yogurt dressing), and then high-tailing it back to paradise. The lake lived up to its promise – we floated around happily for a half hour before retreating to our room for a quick shower before our other mandatory activity of the day: our massages.

Peter went first, and when he returned, the look on his face told me that something had not gone according to plan. (No, not like that! This woman was a nurse!)

“How was it?”  I asked. “And why were you only gone fifteen minutes?”

“It was an hour-long massage squeezed into fifteen minutes,” he said. And then, in response to my questioning look, “You’ll see.”

Now wary, I found the woman waiting for me in the main area of the guest house, a massage table set up at the head of the room. She, speaking about as much English as I speak Lithuanian, motioned for me to take off my shirt and lie down. I gestured toward my shoulders and back and she nodded. Then she grabbed a bottle of baby oil.

As soon as she began the “massage,” I knew immediately what Peter had meant. You know how Swedish massages are always described as having long, smooth strokes? This was not a Swedish massage. The woman took to my back like I was a piece of particularly dirty laundry that needed to be scrubbed. First, she ran her hands up and down my back, quickly and hard, spreading the oil around as she summoned the first of many rushes of blood to the surface of my skin. Next, she switched to her knuckles, running them up, down, and occasionally over my spine, using the same quick back and forth motions you’d use to get out a tough stain. The massage table creaked from side to side as she worked; from my face-down vantage point, I could see the ground shift beneath me. Who was this woman? I wondered. And what kind of nurse? I suppose I could see this “massage” technique being a good way to increase the circulation of bed-ridden patients, but I couldn’t believe that they enjoyed it. I imagined my white-clad assailant as a sort of Nurse Ratched patrolling the halls, bottle of baby oil in hand, as her victims cowered in their beds. “No, please! Not my daily massage!”

Or maybe that’s just what was going through my head – for the first time in my life, I was actually yearning for the massage to be over. She had moved on from her laundry work to a quick up and down the spine sweep that reminded me – in speed and technique – to a pizza cutter slicing through a pie. Up, down. Up, down. My neck, which had been mildly tense, was now rigid, achieving approximately the same degree of relaxation one would expect to have if anticipating being rubbed with a sharp blade. Just when I thought I might have to actually excuse myself from my massage, she stopped what she was doing and paused, hands in the air. And then? Hitting!

It says something about the massage that being pummeled by her fists was actually the most enjoyable part of the treatment – but unfortunately, it didn’t last. Instead, she went for a finishing round of briskly rubbing my back with the palms of her hand as if trying to start a fire. My spine was aching; my skin felt like it was developing rug burn. When she finally finished — indicated by a slightly lighter touch and something chirpy in Lithuanian, I leapt off the table as if recoiling from a hot stove.

This morning, when I got up and touched my back while applying sunscreen, I noticed that my upper spine is bruised. I’m glad I tried my Lithuanian spa treatment, but I think I agree with what Peter said when he returned to the room after his massage: “Fifteen minutes is long enough.”

The guest house had a rowboat.

And the rowboat attracted swans.

Mean swans.


Jul 24 2010

We’re Not in Kaunas Any More

Traveling always requires a certain comfort with uncertainty. You can plan all you want, but there’s always something  unexpected that happens – say, your luggage gets misplaced in a Latvian airport – and if you don’t find the humor in it (or at least obsessively blog about it), then you’re setting yourself up to not have a good time.

I’m used to that general idea. But this section of our trip – the whole “biking through the Baltic States” part of the itinerary – is an entirely different level of unknowns. First was the question of whether, after my lengthy email exchanges with a mysterious Vilnius man named Frankas (and his colleague in Talinn, Toomas), we would actually have bikes waiting for us upon our arrival in Lithuania. Once that had happened, we had to drop off our luggage – the very luggage I had worked so hard to retrieve from Baltic Air – at the office of a company called Cargo Bus, so that they could deliver it to Toomas, who was to hold onto it until our arrival in Estonia. (Nothing encourages confidence like arranging for a package delivery with someone with whom you don’t share a language.) I was already reciting comforting lost-bag adages to myself (“If you love something, let it go. . . .”) but by the following day, Toomas had emailed us to say that it had arrived. Next was the question of how to take Frankas’s lovingly written – and completely incomprehensible – bike guide and translate it into how to actually get out of Vilnius.

Et cetera, et cetera. It’s been about a week on the road (the biking road, that is), and we’re at a point where we have no idea where we’re staying tonight, and . . . I’m not really worried. Take yesterday, for example. We’d spent the previous afternoon in Nida, a small village at the very tip of the Curonian Spit (a narrow tongue of land and sand that extends off of Lithuania’s west coast, and touches that bizarre Russian outpost on the Baltic, Kaliningrad). We’d arrived there with no place to stay as well, but within five minutes of arriving in town, we’d met a local woman, dressed entirely in blue with a white purse, who offered us a room in her apartment. Whereas that’s the kind of offer one would never say yes to in, say, New York, in Lithuania, that’s just how things are. From what I can gather, there are plenty of reasons to be happy that the Baltics are no longer occupied by the Red Army. But from a tourist’s perspective, capitalism is a big one, since it encourages locals to start cottage B&B industries out of, well, their cottages. And so, after inspecting the woman’s apartment – which was quite nice, and relatively cheap – we dropped off our stuff and spent the rest of the afternoon tooling around the Curonian lagoon, checking out the dunes and – most amusingly – some guys who were charging people 10 litas to spend ten minutes floating around in a giant inflatable gerbil ball.

Is it just me, or is there something existential about this picture?

We watched the sun set at a waterside cafe, and the only blemish on an otherwise perfect afternoon was Peter’s decision to sample another local delicacy: smoked pig ears.  (At least he didn’t get the trotters?)

You can’t see it in this photo, but some of them still have hair.

The next morning we set off biking our way back up the spit, 60 kilometers or so on a lovely paved path through the woods and dunes to Klaipeda, where again we didn’t have a place to stay. (Lest this seem overly carefree, I should point out that we actually did try to call a hostel, but our phone didn’t have any reception – that’s what you get for buying the cheapest SIM card you can find.) But no problem. That’s what tourist offices are for – and we soon were being led down the street by a hyperactive woman named Irena, on her way home from the market with a large plastic bag of nothing but cucumbers, who rented her spare bedroom to guests from out of town.

As we hurried behind her, she yammered at us in a combination on Lithuanian, German (Klaipeda used to be a German town) and the occasional word of English. “You live here!” was one of the more understandable sentences she said, pointing at a street sign next to what turned out to be her house. We followed her up several flights of stairs to take a look at her apartment – and immediately realized that we had lucked out. She lived on the top floor of a three-story walkup, a light and airy wood-floored apartment with family photographs on the walls and skylights open to let in the breeze. Our room was large and comfortable, a small vase with two roses set on a coffee table next to a wraparound couch and wooden built-in shelves stocked wtih books. We set down our bags and tried to thank her, but Irena was not about to let her hospitality end there.

“Bitte, bitte!” she said, gesturing for us to follow her to the bathroom – where she showed us how to turn on the shower and explained that the water took a while to heat up, then left the faucet running while she beckoned us back to the bedroom to make sure we understood that there were blankets in the corner in case we got cold, then back to the bathroom, where she grabbed a bucket of water from the floor of the tub and took it – and us – to the kitchen, where she tossed the bucket onto a small balcony, grabbed some laundry off of the line hanging outside and sniffed it before pulling open the freezer and frantically gesturing toward several water bottles that sat frozen beneath tupperware containers of frost-bitten dill.

“You! For biking! Hot! Put here!” she said, explaining (I think?) that we were to put our bottles of water into the freezer so that we would have cold beverages for the next day. “And here! Food!” she opened the refrigerator. “Coffee. Tea. Drink! You!”

Over to the sink: “No good!” she said, gesturing toward the regular faucet. “Here, good!” she said, showing us a special faucet with distilled water. “Here! More!” Over to the fridge again to show us a bottle of cold water, presumably from the distilled tap. “You!  Finished biking. Have martini!”

She now grabbed a bottle of a dark brown liquid from the shelf next to the water bottle, took out three glasses and put a little of it on the bottom of each before filling the glasses up with chilled water. “Welcome!”

"Martini"? Don't mind if I do!

And with that, she gestured us back to our room, where we sipped our “martinis” and changed out of our sweaty bike clothes as Irena rushed around the apartment, then ran out (“I be back, 10 o’clock!”) to see her son.

Still recovering from our Irena whirlwind, we relaxed for a while, before suddenly loud pop music began to waft up at us from somewhere outside the window. What was it? A public dance class? I peered outside and discovered that, of all the places we could have stayed in Klaipeda, we were directly across the street from an aerobics studio. Through its open window I could see a room full of spandex-clad women with plastic bands around their legs squatting to the remix of “Forever Young.” As most people who know me are aware, I love aerobics classes, especially in foreign countries – and if we had not already biked 60 kilometers that day, I would have been over there in a heartbeat. But as it was, I simply stood at the window, sipping cold water as I watched them sweat.

This morning, we awoke to find Irena in the kitchen, busily making us pancakes for breakfast (“Peter! Katrin! Bitte!”), which we ate as she scurried around the apartment across the hall, which she also rents. When we left for the bus station, she pressed a business card into my hand and bid me farewell with a kiss. The next time you’re in Klaipeda, Irena Kraniauskiene is your woman. (+370 680 58165 – you won’t regret it.)

And then, it was back to the uncertainty. At the bus station, despite having checked the bicycle situation at the tourist office yesterday, the woman at the counter informed me that she couldn’t sell me a ticket – we had to check with the driver himself to see if he were willing to take us. Sounds to me like a good set-up for a bribe, and we would have been a little screwed if the guy had said  no – but we waited patiently at platform 4, and when the bus arrived, the driver let us (and our bicycles) on without so much as a grumble.

And so here we are, somewhere between Klaipeda and Plunge, trying to go to a national park where, in addition to a gorgeous lake, you can see old nuclear missile silos left behind by the Russians. (This is likely to be more creepy than cool, but I still think it’ll be interesting.) We’re not sure where we’re staying, or how exactly to get to the park – but I’m confident something will work out.

Look, Dad -- no cars!

The Baltic Sea

The dunes at Nida, looking toward Kaliningrad

Happy in Klaipeda

Jul 21 2010

The Long Route to Kaunas

When I was making the reservations for our bicycles, I decided to include a GPS system as an afterthought.  Granted, a Garmin system once guided me through Los Angeles traffic without harm, and for that, I will forever be grateful. But come on – we’re on bicycles. It’s not like it’s hard to pull over when you’re lost. We have maps. We would have had a cycle computer. Did we really need to fork over an extra 25 euros per week for a handheld device that would tell us our precise location on the globe?

Answer: Yes. Yes we did. Peter has been doing most of the route navigation so far, and I think it’s safe to say that were it not for the GPS, we’d be stuck in a field somewhere outside Lake Trakai. Not because Peter is a poor navigator – far from it – but because our biking maps are, to put it mildly, fucking confusing.

I'm sorry . . . what?

Adding to the difficulty, Lithuanian roads are, well . . . let’s just say that the quality varies. We just finished cycling between the capital, Vilnius, and Lithuania’s second-largest city, Kaunas (it’s only 100 or so kilometers on the map, but our route was closer to 225), most of which was on pleasant, paved roads without too much traffic. After all, there aren’t many highways in Lithuania, and there are a ton of small roads. But if you look closer at a map of the country, you’ll notice that while some of the roads show up as red, many of them appear in shades of yellow. And if you look even closer, at the key that defines the meaning of these colors, you will see that yellow indicates an “unpaved surface.”

This is where the GPS comes in — there have been some roads on our route that have turned out to be gravel tracks through the woods, and there’s no way in hell I would have followed them had we not had confirmation that they were correct.

However, even with the best laid GPS plans, we still go astray. Take yesterday, for example. We were biking from the small spa town of Birstonas to the aforementioned Kaunas, a distance that I thought was supposed to be about 45 km. Not bad. (We’ve discovered that it sounds a lot tougher if you list distances in kilometers instead of miles, so I’m not going to include any conversions.) But problems quickly arose: first, Birstonas is on the bank of a river, which you have to cross if you want to get to Kaunas. We knew that there were ferries at 7:30, 8, 8:30 and 9, and so, when we left the hotel at 9:15, we weren’t particularly worried – surely there would be one at 9:30 as well. But there was not. The ferry – which was actually a blue dinghy that looked like it might have been sunk by the weight of our bikes alone – sat empty, bobbing up and down on the river’s slow-moving current. There wasn’t another one till noon. So we decided to take a bike path – lovely and forested – to a different point of the river and try to cross it via bridge. That was fine until the bike path merged with the main highway, a road frequented by logging trucks. We turned around. Took another bike path and managed to make it to the other side of the river. Wheeled our bikes through a construction site. After a brief stint on a relatively big road, turned off onto a smaller road – per our route’s instructions – which turned out to be incorrect, and allowed the GPS to guide us back to the correct path.

But there is a problem with our GPS: it, too, has difficulty calculating between pavement and sandy gravel, and led us onto another rough gravel track with pockets of sand deep enough to catch a bike tire. After several false starts, we eventually reached the road we were supposed to be on. This was about two and a half hours into our journey.

We’d probably gone a total of ten kilometers, but I, driven by the power of wishful thinking and a sign I’d seen on the main highway an hour and a half earlier that said that Kaunas was 28 kilometers away, decided we must be right on the outskirts of town. Untrue. We soon passed a sign announcing that Kaunas was actually 30 kilometers away (I nearly cried) and then, five minutes later, 33. Another 15 minutes and Kaunas had magically dropped to 10 kilometers away, then 9 – making me thrilled, ecstatic even, until a new intersection announcd its distance at 23. By this point, I decided, Lithuania was just fucking with me.

Oh, really?

So I kept my head down and kept biking, a seemingly endless distance through open fields and pine forests, all while wondering when I’d gotten so soft. Particularly unhelpful was the fact that we kept passing these magnificent storks, strolling through the fields or sitting perched atop their wide, flat nests (Lithuanians think the storks bring good luck, so they help them out by building nest supports on top of old telephone poles).  Why did these storks make me feel bad? Because they fly from Africa to summer in Lithuania. Seeing how difficult it was for me to pedal for four hours to get between two Lithuanian cities, I think it’s safe to say that I’m grateful I’m not a bird.

Note stork nest.

Eventually, finally, we reached Kaunas, a city whose main claims to fame include a Devil Museum (tons of devil figurines),  a zoological exhibit of thousands of stuffed animals, and the fact that, during World War II, the locals aided the Germans in exterminating the city’s 35,000-member-strong Jewish population (according to one Nazi leader, the availability of trained and willing locals made Kaunas “comparatively speaking, a shooter’s paradise”). I’ll admit that I was not enthralled by the city.

A church in Kaunas, transformed by the Soviets into a stained glass museum.

We did, however, stop for a snack at a restaurant that exemplified why – with the notable exception of cold beetroot soup – Lithuanian cuisine is not something I plan on bringing home. It was a place that featured homemade beer, and the menu  had a snack called “fried bread with cheese.” That sounded to us – as it probably does to you – like a food that must be both artery-clogging and amazingly good. Fried bread? With cheese? How can you go wrong?

Here is how: take sticks of stale bread, fry them in oil, and let them cool to room temperature (making sure that the bread loses its crisp). Dip the end of the breadstick in slightly sweet ranch dressing. Using the dressing as adhesive, roll the now sticky breadsticks in flavorless grated cheese, creating a Snowball-esque savory snack food that manages to be fatty, salty, and completely disgusting, all at the same time.

Potato pancakes, on the other hand, are delicious.

No, really. Take a good look.

Beetroot soup. Pink and delicious.

Complaints aside, the route was beautiful.

Jul 18 2010

Talking the Talk

When we were on the dairy farm in France and went out with the farmer, Laurent, on one of his weekly delivery runs, we had a conversation about what we’d like our secret super power to be. Laurent, being Laurent, smiled and said, “How can I tell you? It’s a secret.” (An hour or so later, he admitted that he would like to be able to take the most arid, inhospitable land and make it fertile — an appropriate goal, given his line of work.) Peter and I failed to reach consensus on what our one superpower would be, but decided that it would be pretty cool if we were able to speak every language in the world fluently.

It would definitely be a nice skill to have in Lithuania. Want to hear the extent of my Lithuanian so far? “Achoo.” No, it’s not a sneeze (nor is it spelled right). It means “Thanks.”

I’m achoo-ing left and right, hoping that by being effusive in my gratitude, I might distract people from the fact that I don’t know how to say “hello.” (Smile and nod, this is my strategy.) I know, I know — I should put some effort into this. But here are my two justifications for why I am not going to (except, perhaps, to memorize the words that mean “pig trotters” and “blood sausage,” so as to avoid them on restaurant menus):

1. We are here for about four days, and then will be in Latvia. Want to know another language I will never be fluent in?

(You’d think that the two languages would be mutually understandable, sort of like Czech and Slovak, but they’re not. And don’t even get me started on Estonian.)

2. According to my Lonely Planet, Lithuanian — another surviving language of the Baltic branch of the Indo-European language family that is very important to linguists — is “said to be as archaic as Sanskrit in its grammatical forms.” Now, granted, I know nothing about the grammatical forms of Sanskrit. But I’ve heard some of it in yoga classes, and it sounds hard. So does Lithuanian pronunciation. Here, for example, is how I am supposed to say “Call a doctor!” in the case of emergency: “Issaukite gydytoja!” (with accents that this keyboard is not capable of typing). I hope we don’t need medical help.

It’s also an interesting area of the world to consider the politics of language. A lot of people speak Russian, for example. But given the Baltics’ er, sensitive history with their eastern neighbor, you need to be careful where you speak it, lest you be greeted with an even frostier reception than if all you know how to say is a word that sounds like a sneeze. (That’s not entirely true — I have been amazed by how friendly people are here, despite the fact that I am helpless in their language.) We are incredibly lucky that most people under 30 seem to have some knowledge of English — and a willingness to try it. But woe upon the Lithuanian who comes to the United States only knowing how to say “Thank you.”

(Important side note: Peter has just found a television show called “Lithuania’s Got Talent.” The first competitor was singing opera while dressed as Dracula, followed by a man doing a sword dance in an attempt to woo a blanket-wrapped Barbie Doll. Thank god Simon Cowell is not here.)

It’s difficult enough to figure out what foods to order — but I’m struggling with a bigger challenge. Here’s what the Lonely Planet has to say about bathrooms:

We hope you’re not busting for a pee, as working out which toilet door to enter may require some thinking time. The letter “M” makrs a men’s toilet in Estonian, “V” in Latvian or Lithuanian. “N” indicates a women’s toilet in Estonian, “S” in Latvian and “M” in Lithuanian. Some toilets sport the triangle system: a skirt-like triangle for women and a broad-shouldered, upside-down triangle for men. To add even more confusion, in Lithuania (as in neighboring Poland), male toilets may be indicated by a triangle and female toilets by a circle.”

I may never pee again.

Upon our arrival in Birstonas, the "Big Balls" boules team was waiting.

Jul 17 2010

To Birstonas With Love

Here is my primary impression of Lithuania at the moment: it is hot. I keep thinking of that line from “Good Morning Vietnam,” when Robin Williams does a fake weather report, and asks a guy (also played by Robin Williams) what it’s like out, and the guy goes, “It’s hot! Damn hot. Real hot. Hot enough in my shorts, I can cook things in them. A little crotch pot cookin’.”

Don’t worry — it hasn’t quite gotten to that point. But it is apparently the hottest summer Lithuania has had in recent memory, and we have been biking through it, during the prime daylight hours of 11am – 2pm. (To all my dermatologists, past and present, I am sorry.) I am religious about sunblock, and yet I have a definite farmer’s tan going on on my left leg. But that’s not as bad as Peter — he has several sunburned spots, plus a head cold. Poor guy.

But other than our various afflictions, we’re doing well. We spent yesterday in a town so small that it didn’t appear in either of our guidebooks, and stayed in a guest house — which we found through a special biking pamphlet, given to us by the bike shop owner in Vilnius  — that was just listed as someone’s first name. We were a little worried, but no need: it was amazing. Granted, at first we couldn’t find the right house, having been led astray by a man in a miniscule black bathing suit standing on his deck who gestured us toward his neighbor’s home, where an irascible dachshund loudly protested our arrival. Turns out that his neighbor did indeed have rooms, but she wasn’t the same person we’d spoken to earlier — our guest house was just down the road, on a street with the same name as the one we were on. (I still don’t quite get that logic.)

Anyway, the correct street and house were both located on the shore of a large lake, bordered by a small dock off of which were jumping a swarm of local children. It took approximately five minutes for us to join them, jumping in with our bike clothes still on (it was as close to a wash as they’ve gotten to recently). And immediately, the heat and fatigue of biking/dragging forty pounds of luggage melted away, as we paddled out to the the lake and stared at the pine forests on the opposite shore, the sound of happy children behind us.

When I did my post-college bike trip, I remember being amazed by the range of emotions I could go through in one day — or even five minutes. Exhaustion was a constant,  frustration common, and a feeling of despair certain every time we hit a hard hill — but then thirty seconds later we’d crest the top and start rolling down, and I’d think that biking was just about the best thing in the world. Then another hill and the cursing would begin again. And then, finally, the end of the day, when we got to take a much-deserved shower (or swim) and I would wonder what could possibly be better.

At the moment, I’m somewhere between those two points — very grateful that we’re doing this bike trip and also very grateful not to be biking at the moment. (Though side note to the diabetics out there: four hours of exercise per day gets you a free pass on an ice cream cone.) We’ve decided to take an extra day here to explore the local river, forest and (most excitingly) spa center and water park — which sounds like a great plan to me. Then it’s on to Kaunas, a bus to the Curonian Spit (which sounds amazing) and after that? Who knows. For now, I’m looking forward to some sleep.

Jul 15 2010

Biking the Baltics

First, the good news. After writing that last post — the one where I found out that Air Baltic had lost the bag containing all of my non-diabetic belongings for a second time, I fell into a restless sleep, full of dreams of luggage and frustration. I really thought the bag was gone. But then, surprise of surprises, I awoke in the morning to find an email from the Vilnius airport saying that my baggage had arrived. No mention of what might have happened to it in the 24 hours since last it was seen — but whatever. By lunch time, I had new pants.

I also had my biking clothes, which meant that we were finally free to set off on the next stage of our adventure: biking to Estonia. I should probably point out here that this is not the first long-distance bike ride I’ve done — after college, I biked from Connecticut to San Francisco with a bunch of college friends. But there are several important differences between that trip and this one. First, it was ten years ago. Second, we had a support van — which meant not only that we didn’t have to carry our own luggage, but that on the days when I didn’t want to bike, I could get a ride. Third, we knew where we were going. And fourth, we had a place to sleep at night.

This trip? Well, it’s a little different.

Hello, panniers! You weigh a lot!

We’re hauling our own luggage, to begin with, and aside from a stack of maps and (thankfully) a small GPS device, we have no idea where the hell we’re going. Oh, and also, everyone here speaks Lithuanian.

Nonetheless, we somehow managed to make our way to the lakeside town of Trakai, 25 or so kilometers from Vilnius (or 35 kilometers, if you take our route). There’s water everywhere you look, a beautiful castle, and lots of Lithuanian men in small bathing suits. We celebrated our arrival by going out for kibinas, crescent-shaped dough pockets that are similar in theory to a calzone, but come stuffed with ground meat and cabbage. This, combined with a national love of the potato, is not making Lithuania the most diabetically friendly country to visit.

Three of these were mine.

After dinner, we strolled along the river bank to check out the castle and, perhaps more importantly, to see what was going on with the two stretch-stretch-stretch-stretch white SUVs that had passed us as we ate. Turns out it was a wedding — as evidenced by a group of flouncily dressed young women who responded to Peter’s request that “Everyone, get together!” not by shooing away the creepy foreign guy, but by posing for a photo.

My outfit didn't quite match.

So here we are, at the edge of a Lithuanian lake, with tired thighs, sore butts, and a hell of a long way to go. Stay tuned.

The Trakai castle

"Catherine! Make a shadow puppet!"

Not bad.

Totally unrelated shot of a woman in Vilnius who makes handmade wedding sashes.

Very cool.