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

One Response to “We’re Not in Kaunas Any More”

  • Beth Says:

    Just google mapped Klaipeda. So that’s the Baltic Sea. I’m loving your blog. Every time I read it I smile for the next hour thinking of you guys!

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