Thank you, Latvia

Here is something Peter and I learned last night: it is very difficult to sleep next to the train tracks in a hostel on a busy street. All night we wrestled with the choice of whether it was better to keep the windows closed — leaving the room hot, stuffy, and smelling vaguely like truffle risotto because of a bag I’d stashed with my diabetes supplies — or opening the window, letting in Baltic mosquitoes and, more importantly, the sound of traffic.

We tried both and were successful with neither, so when it came time to head to the bike shop this morning to pick up our transportation for the next month, we weren’t in our finest condition. Nonetheless, we set off through Vilnius’s old town (lovely, I’ll have you know) in search of a bike shop next to St. Ann’s Cathedral, one of the largest and best-known churches in the town.

That sounded easy enough, except for one thing: Vinius is overrun with churches. The woman at the desk in the hostel, who clearly knew of St. Ann’s, couldn’t find it on a map — the entire thing was dotted with crosses (it was like trying to find something in New York based on how close it was to a hot dog stand). But eventually we succeeded, and discovered that what had been advertised as a bike shop next to an artist’s shop was actually a guy with a couple of bikes sitting *in* an artist’s shop — and by artist’s shop I don’t mean some place selling hand-crafted souvenirs. I’m talking like, paper and pastels.

The bike "shop"

Nonetheless, the owner greeted us politely — surprisingly so, given how many questions I’ve been emailing him over the past several weeks, and cheerfully began to detail — in detail that was both too detailed and yet not detailed enough — several of the seemingly infinite ways that we could get from Vilnius (Lithuania) to Talinn (Estonia) on our bicycles. As our pile of maps began to grow and his directions became more elaborate (describing particular left-hand turns we were to make two weeks into the journey) a woman popped her head in to see if he were going to take her on the bike tour he had promised nearly an hour beforehand, when we had arrived.

“Let’s go!” he said. “Do you want to come on a city tour?”

In reality, Peter and I just wanted to take the maps and go to sleep — we were working on about 10 hours over the preceding two days. But since we still had questions, we had to join them. And so we set off on a four-hour tour of the city.

Some quick thoughts: Vilnius is really pretty. There are areas where you can see traditional wooden homes on dirt roads with modern office buildings two blocks away in the background. Also, Lithuanian food is going to be diabetically challenging. They are very into dumplings here — at lunch, Peter and I made the mistake of ordering a traditional food whose name translates to “Zeppelin” — as in, the blimp — two enormous, butter-soaked potato dumplings with unidentified ground meat inside. Definitely going to stick to the beet soup.

I'm happier than I look.

After a brief jaunt up to the top of a parking garage (which happened to offer a lovely view) and a pass by the Genocide Museum (we may still visit it — but it sounds horrible), I took a shower with my pants on and got on with the process of trying to find my missing bag.

Oh, the missing bag. As mentioned in the post below, I still had my diabetes supplies, but that’s about it — one pair of pants (sweat-soaked, hence the shower), one shirt, and one pair of underwear. Not exactly the supplies one wants to have to bike across the Baltics. The office in Vilnius said they had no idea where it was — they had sent emails to Milan and Riga and had not heard back, and claimed to not be able to make a phone call because it was outside of the “system.” As anyone who knows me is aware, I do not like “systems.” And so, after thanking them profusely for trying to help, I decided it was time to go Catherine.

This can be a frightening thing to see. Thanks to years of practice with my health insurance company, I have developed what Peter might call a terrifying ability to deal with phone trees. You can try to dissuade me with automated answering services, confusing keypad prompts, hell, even busy signals in Latvian.  I am like a dog with a bone — and the more you try to shake me, the more I will not let go. I will be polite. Oh yes, I will be polite. But I will also get my way.

There was a time tonight, however, when I was not so sure. I had managed, after several tries, to successfully place a call to what I thought was the Riga  baggage office, who told me that their system was down and that they couldn’t check on my bag for at least another two hours. I then spent the next hour battling with what has to be one of the most formidable nemeses of them all: Malpensa International Airport in Milan. I had to call three different people to get the number for the airport itself, got diverted to a phone tree that wanted a code that I did not have in order to track my bag through an automated system (I do not do automated), got back on the line with an operator, convinced her to tell me the shortcut so that I could speak to a person, called that line, got punted to a holding pattern that played the first four measures of Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” over and over again before apologizing that it was going to have to hang up on me, called back enough times to get someone to pick up, learned that it was not the Air Baltic number, was given another Air Baltic number, called it three times, got someone to pick up, learned from her that it was the wrong number, got a different number that was clearly not in Italy, asked her what country it was, who she was, what department I had called, succeeded in getting her to hang up on me,  called her back twice more and let it ring just to annoy her, called the main number again, no luck, waited for another hour, called Riga back, discovered that they had given me the wrong number as well, got the right number, called it, reached a woman who asked me why I had not tried Vilnius, agreed finally to go look to see if she could find my bag herself, was put on hold and . . .


My bag is in Riga. I don’t think I’ve ever considered that the sentence, “My bag is in Latvia right now” could have a positive meaning, but it does. Providing that it does not get lost again (and that they are able to find this hostel), by this time tomorrow night I will be wearing a new pair of socks.

So relieved.

These are just some of the numbers I tried.

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