Wide Awake in Wonderland

We’re only dancing on this earth for a short while

You’ll never (want to) work in this town again September 23, 2008

I had one of those days where things just come into focus. That’s more than a little ironic, because I also have a killer migraine (is there any other kind?), such that literally nothing is in focus. When I get them, they are relentless. They last at least three days, which renders me half-blind and flinchy. I’m having to squint my eyes down to pin pricks to tolerate the light coming from this monitor as I write this. How I suffer for my art.

Anyway, I was looking at a calendar last night and realized it was almost October. This got me thinking about the ‘real world’ and my eventual return to it and actually making money and punching a clock and all that fun stuff. Meanwhile, even though I am largely out of touch, by simply logging into my Yahoo mail, I am bombarded with dismal news about the short-term financial outlook for the U.S. Being an expert in the banking industry (payments and credit cards, specifically) one can’t help but muse that all this probably lessens my options for a simple return to the type of career I once knew.

When I set out into the city this morning, some of these thoughts came back to me, and I remember wondering for a moment if I should get into contact with some of the people I know in the industry and start to put out some feelers. I also noticed the thought of that turned my stomach. If there is one thing I learned in hypnotherapy, it’s that if you realize that you feel bad or uncomfortable or just ‘wrong’, to stop and check it out. There’s important info (usually that you’re getting off your path) in the rotten feelings. What I realized in that moment was that banking consulting makes me want to puke.

Meanwhile, one of the main north/south drags in Florence pretty much shares its name with my old boss (for those of you that weren’t around in the summer or have bad memories, I’m referring to the sniveling weasel who would never talk to me again after I told him I was taking this trip). It didn’t bother me or anything, but perhaps that’s why I got a hankering to log into the e-mail I use for sending out resumes and pretty much nothing else? This is an account that, from the looks of it, i haven’t been in since I left on this trip. .

Anyway, in with some notices from LinkedIn and some receipts rom PayPal, there were two e-mails from the ex-boss’ secretary. Seriously, junk mail and something from them (and I never gave them that e-mail. They must have dug out my old resume or something to find it?). Color me stunned.

I suppose it goes to show that I never learn, because I didn’t feel the least bit of trepidation or fear or anything as I opened it. I should have, because here’s what i found:

On Wed, 9/3/08, The World’s Worst Secretary> wrote:

From: The World’s Worst Secretary>
Subject: Next time you are online, please answer below;
To: VW
Date: Wednesday, September 3, 2008, 1:24 PM

_____________________________________________
From: The World’s Worst Secretary
Sent: Thursday, August 21, 2008 9:23 AM
To: VW
Subject: Business books purchased

V-
The ex-boss asked me to check with you in regards to any books purchased by or for you for business during your employment w/us that they be returned to us

Also, all binders, books, documents that were given to you by the ex-boss should be returned to him.

Please advise.
Thank you
The World’s Worst Secretary

I don’t even know where to start with this. Ticking down the most obvious:

1. Who asks for shit back over a month after an employee is gone?

2. Who bothers them on a trip overseas – said trip over which a dispute caused them to quit in the first place?

3. Nothing he gave me was valuable or irreplaceable or even all that interesting. Half the time I would leave stuff in the hotel room because it was too heavy to lug home, and I knew I’d never look at it again anyway.

4. Is it me, or is this like asking for all the Christmas and birthday gifts you gave back after you break up with someone?

5. I will never answer this e-mail. Hell will freeze before I reply to this crap. I might burn the handful of books and papers and send them a video of me dancing around the tiny pyre, but I won’t send them a single scrap of paper.

However, the one upside is that this little incident has solidified a reality in my mind: I can’t go back to the kind of work I’ve done for the last eight years. It’s like a sign. .Like when you go into the Amityvillle Horror House and a voice says, “GET OUT.”

Plus, the mere thought of it makes me nauseous, and – and perhaps most importantly – I simply don’t want to. Life is too short to be miserable, and my talent is wasted on that boring bullshit anyway.

I met some people tonight who asked me what I would do when I got home. Although I used to murmur about how could probably go back to the type of work I had been doing, the answer I gave is the only answer I can give, “I don’t know.”

I guess I’m just going to keep writing this blog and writing my book and putting feelers out there and focusing on this trip while I’m here now, and trust that the rest will fall into place when it’s time. I may not have a good plan, but I’m okay with that. I am pretty sure that no one has ever looked back on a situation and said, “Wow. I’m really glad I worried about that!”

 

My Super Dolce 16 September 22, 2008

First off, I would like to suggest that we give me a small pat on the back and perhaps a moderately loud round of applause for not once utilizing the phrase “when in Rome” while in Rome. This is not to say it didn’t occur to me. A lot. But I am ever-conscious of you, the reader, and thus try to maintain some high standards. This, of course, does not allow sinking to or utilizing that which is cliche, trite, predictable nor mundane.

You didn’t know this about me? Well, bion giorno, and welcome to the brave new world. Now finding myself supersaturated in the super powers of the glorious works of the Renaissance masters, I too am now an artiste. Oh yes, gone are the stories about fears of peeing on myself in creepy bus station bathrooms. We will only be talking about reliefs and frescoes and Machiavelli and Medici and meringue and merengue and creme fraiche. That’s right. Bust out the good china, because it’s a whole new fancy ball of wax.

This new leaf turned, you might be surprised to learn I just spent the last half-hour watching “My Super Sweet 16″ on Italian TV. This is 100% because there is a TV in my room, and – from there – 99.9% because it was the only thing in English. And for the first five minutes, it was a treat to listen to someone talk without having to concentrate.

But then what they were actually SAYING started to get processed. “Ummm…did you just say someone was coming to give your dog LOWLIGHTS!?” “Can you repeat that? If Kanyae West doesn’t jump out a cake at your 16th birthday party, you’re going to take a semi-automatic weapon to your private spoiled monsters high school and kill everyone?” (Although, upon deeper analysis, this might not be such a bad thing…)

I can only hope this show is kind of a joke. Something like, “I know that you know that I know that you know that I know that you aren’t really a sociopathic self-centered waste of space like you’re portrayed on this show.” I hope… If not, then I guess this starts to solidify some of the reactions I get when I reveal I’m from the States. It also explains the “Shot at Love with Tequila Tequila” graffiti I saw in Poland. I’ll confess, I’m familiar with that travesty. I was – until it ended – a major “Rob and Big” fan. I have a deep appreciation for the absurd, and there ain’t nothing so absurd as keeping a mini horse in your house.

Anyway, a few weeks ago I saw “A Shot At Love with Tequila Tequila ” spray painted on a wall in either Prague or Warsaw. At the time, I wasn’t really sure what it meant, and kind of forgot about it. However, combined with “My Super Sweet Sixteen,” I recognize it as the Eastern European shorthand for, “REPENT. THE END OF THE WORLD IS AT HAND.” You mix this stuff in with Iraq and Jerry Springer, and it’s no wonder the world thinks we’re a bunch of war-mongering psychopaths…

So getting back to my small world, I almost bypassed Florence today in favor of Milan. Somehow I had the very inaccurate sense that it took three or four hours by train from Rome to Florence. I caught the 10:38, and I suppose I thought I’d get there around 14:00. So when the trained pulled into some station around noon and the lights turned out, I didn’t even look up from “Snowball fight”. I fought on, in vain.

You see, snowball fight is this extremely crappy game on my otherwise useless cell phone at which I am utterly hopeless. I slowed the speed down to 2 (out of ten), but I still get clobbered by the little jokers nailing my poor kid with snowballs. I can’t even figure out what I’m supposed to be doing to triumph in this situation. But I digress…

We’d sat there a couple minutes and my cellphone screen inevitably flickered, “YOU LOSE.” Out of curiosity, I glanced out the window. “Firenze.” Hmmmm…. Firenze. What’s that? Wait a minute… FLORENCE? FIRENZE? Florence = Firenze!?!?!?

I started frantically putting my stuff away, realizing that (I was pretty sure) this was my stop. As with my near miss in London, I leaped off the train right as it started to leave the station.

And thank god, because I’m damn tired, and it’s nice to have a room to myself, no matter how much it’s an amalgam of “Things IKEA didn’t actually think anyone would ever buy.” You see, the last three nights in Rome were rougher than I let on: The first I was fairly sick and could barely breathe, the second I was kept awake by the snoring of an inexplicably loud Australian woman (what is up with these log sawing ladies!?!?), and last night I was a plain old paranoid wreck. I got up no less than five times to violently shake out my sheets (top and bottom) and perform a bed bug exorcism.Actually, it may have worked. I’m damaged, but no worse feasted upon than I had been the day before.

Anyway, as is par for the course, Florence is lovely. The Duomo is like some kind of birthday cake I would have pined for as a little girl. My cold is fading. I have a vague cough, but nothing worse than anyone else in ‘smoke ‘em if you got ‘em’ Europe. And I’m dog tired, so off to saw some logs of my own, and talk to you tomorrow!

 

Never trust a bedbug to read the fine print September 21, 2008

I said they could bite so long as they didn’t bite me. I suppose it wasn’t the most clever approach to hope they would all vacate the room and head out with the grouchy Mexican girl. They didn’t. A few stayed behind and had their way with me. They feasted on my tender flesh, and I hope they all get food poisoning. Regardless, one more night, and I’m on to new things.

Otherwise, I’ve got no complaints with Rome…except maybe that it’s too damn good looking. I’m talking really, really, ridiculously good looking. And all of this breathtaking architecture and endless grandeur and utter magnificence and plain old splendor leaves me EXHAUSTED. I came around a corner on my way home today on a street called “Grecca” I believe, and there were a couple ruins and a magnificent fountain, and I found I couldn’t do it. I had lost the ability to pull my camera (now giving me the flashing empty red battery warning sign) out and take yet another shot of something remarkable. Rome has officially supersaturated my senses.

I’ve had all I can stands, and I can stands no more. I’m just going to hang out with the bed bugs in this dingy hostel until I can look at something carved or marble or Roman again without flinching.

In other news, I started my day with a long run. I’m a firm believer in sweating out what ails you, and I spotted a park-looking area to the south of where I’m staying (by the Coliseum). I found a nice long stretch of grass and dirt and like-minded folks. Plus, along the way, I was able to observe some authentic Roman exercise, and all I can say is yikes. I saw more strange things today than I know how to articulate: Not one but TWO men running with a body posture somewhat like that used to go under a limbo bar. A very heavyset man running with hand weights and flailing them about like you might if you were practicing really telling someone off for once and for all. Head to toe shiny spandex outfits straight outta ‘Xanadu.’

Then there was this jungle gym/obstacle course area, and all these super macho guys were there doing all sorts of goof ball stuff, but looking super-serious about it: Pull ups, flips, hanging from the knees, some primitive form of Jazzercise, etc. My favorite was the shirtless guy throwing punches in the air with intense ferocity. And me without my camera…

Afterward, I went to the Coliseum, and got a good jump start on my visual overload. I am so completely and utterly taken with the Coliseum. I could sit there and stare at it for hours. If I were a billionaire, particularly a super-eccentric one, I would build a Coliseum replica somewhere. I think the world could handle two of them. Put it somewhere like Flint, Michigan, where they could really use the tourism revenue.

So anyway, as I was wandering away from the ruins in pursuit of some pizza in the Travestere, I spotted a Peruvian band (of course)…and then another across the street. Dueling wind flutes. You ALWAYS see Peruvian bands. There must be a Peruvian band on the moon. You don’t always see them set up shop across the street from one another – it’s like Jets and the Sharks.

Anyway, the second band was blocking some particularly nice ruins, so I paused to walk behind them and take a picture when I heard an American ask one of the band members how much their CDs were. “10 Euro,” he replied. The questioner wandered away, and an unmistakable Long Island accent asked, “What’s the matter? You couldn’t Jew them down?”

Hey lady, you kiss your mother with that mouth? I’ve just spent the last three weeks knee-deep in the history of the six MILLION Jews killed during the Holocaust, and I think you can come up with a better verb (negotiate, bargain, haggle, compromise) than that. Yikes. Embarrassing. The next confused Italian who asks if I’m from England is going to get a proud, “Yes!”

I wandered for a solid eight hours today, and it was at around hour six – at the Pantheon – that the overload started to kick in. There were simply too many people, and they were pushing and elbowing their way into this ancient building like an angry mob. Someone gave my back what felt like a serious two-handed shove, and I had some uncomfortable memories of the Gimme Shelter movie. I don’t have any need to be part of an Italian reenactment of the Stones concert at Altamont. Especially not at a building that’s been around for 2000 years, and will most likely be here on some future visit. Thus, at this point some some temporary agoraphobia set in, and I bolted off to the Trevi Fountain.

God help me, the Trevi Fountain. It’s unreal. Have you SEEN this thing!?!?! The closest comparison we have in America is Caear’s Palace in Vegas (I know, that’s sad…) but Caesar’s doesn’t even come close. It’s glorious, and if it weren’t in a city with two hundred other amazing things, I might have even heard of it before yesterday.

All this gushing aside, I promise to get some pictures of these marvels up in the next few days, provided I can get through the night without requiring a blood transfusion or a gallon of DDT.

 

Let the bedbugs bite September 20, 2008

(So long as they don’t bite me.)

So file this under ‘extreme coincidence':

If you ever go to the main page, WordPress has about eight blogs they’re promoting under different topics. I occasionally check out the one for “Travel”, just to see what they’ve got that I don’t.

So today, the featured ‘travel’ bit was some kind of entomology report about bed bugs. It had a 12-step program for examining your hotel room (and I was literally lying in a hostel bed as I read it – many, many steps down from a hotel room and very intimidating as my mind started to process the odds). Seriously, as I glanced through, I felt my skin literally come alive and start creeping and crawling. The power of suggestion.

Then I got up and went through the copious and extensive and gross exam (looking for blood stains, checking my own self for 3-pronged bites, etc.) It all looked okay. I felt creeped out and vulnerable and someone had left a comment about waking up in a room alive with cockroaches and I HATE cockroaches, but as for bedbugs, it looked okay.

So anyway, I’m kind of under the weather. I have the full-bore stuffed up nose, headache,and general malaise of the slightly ill. I put in a full day at the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s Basilica. After a bit of a struggle with the subway system (i.e. went the wrong direction for three stops), I got to the museums around 9:15 and got in line. By 10:05, I had my ticket in hand and made a bee line for the Sistina Capella. I even snapped off a couple photos before they started screaming at me that photos weren’t allowed (oops. Who knew!?).

It’s a weird thing, but the place is so incredibly amazing and grandiose and ornate, that after about three hours, you really can’t take it any more. The sight of more marble mastery and ancientness and genius and attention to detail makes your head hurt (or maybe that’s my cold or flu bug talking?) Seriously though, I took about 2.2 million pictures, and then I literally couldn’t stand the sight of it for one second longer.

By the time I got to St. Peter’s, I was so overwhelmed that I was like, ‘Yeah. There’s Michaelangelo’s Pieta. Nice.” I’m a bad tourist like this. I tend to get somewhere, get overwhelmed or bored or underwhelmed, and a small voice in my head announces “Eiiffel Tower. Check.” and I’m kind of done.

Okay, so I interrupted myself on the extreme coincidence part of the story: I read this horrific bedbug thing on WordPress (always trying to figure out what makes certain blogs do so well. Blackcelebritykids, for example. That has been the top blog since I joined in May. Gives me little hope that I have anything to say that the masses want to hear. Seeing as I’m not currently stalking Will Smith and his family, nor do I have any kind of dirt on 50 Cent’s numerous bastard offspring [I don't actually know that there are any. Just assuming]…I may as well throw in the towel!) Anyway, read it around 6pm, checked the bed, felt itchy and generally unnerved, slept for an hour, and went out in the common area.

Around 9pm one of my roommates – a very grouchy Mexican girl living in Spain – came home. If I needed to do a brief synopsis for a yearbook or something I would say: Adamantly unfriendly, and a snorer. She completes my unbroken streak of Central and South American girls snoring like men. You pay extra for the all-female room, and they carry on like that. It ain’t fair…

Anyway, she came home and went in the room for a while. About twenty minutes later she came out and showed one of the hostel owners some kind of damage to her person. I was too far away to see, but she presented him her arm and leg and said, “I’m like this all over.”

He looked at me. I assumed we were talking bugs (and the weirdness of the timing started to hit me).  “I’m cool.” I confessed. “Maybe they don’t like me?” Anyway, he tore the bed apart, and was really clearly concerned (and I was, for about the tenth time today, spooked), but he didn’t find anything. And the snorer left (for the mixed gender room), leaving me by my lonesome.

The way I see it, if the bedbugs liked her last night, they’ll just track her down next door. And if they didn’t like me, they’ll keep leaving me alone. The power of attraction (or repulsion, in this case) and positive thinking. No worries. Plus, for tonight anyway, I have a single room.

Well, sort of single, Just me and a few hundred of my closest blood-sucking friends…  Buon Appetito!

 

Arreverdici, Riga September 19, 2008

I’m blowing this frozen pop stand. Thanks for the memories of torture, apathy, hostels only sightly less worse than the one in the movie ‘Hostel’, and sub-par customer service! If I ever decide to write horror films of my own, you’ve provided plenty of mental imagery for the cause.

Speaking of which, it’s a sure sign you’ve been to too many torture museums when you look out the window of the plane, see the propellers start up, and imagine what a mess it would make if a Soviet soldier or Nazi policeman forced someone into it. It could happen. Hell, it probably did happen. That was likely detailed in the parts of all the museums where I finally and inevitably decide I’ve seen enough photographs of bloated dead bodies and head for the nearest exit.

Anywho, I flew from Latvia to Lithuania and Lithuania to Italy this morning in the pre-dawn hours. I am really not a morning person, so this was harder on me than I’m making it sound. Plus, the Baltics and their hostel-dwelling homeless got their head cold/flu claws into me, and I’m fighting something that’s making my throat sore and my ears hurt and my shoulders ache and my skin sensitive. And my ears hurt. Did I mention that? Ah, yes I did. (something tells me this blog is not going to be as sharp as some of the others…)

However, despite the seemingly mundane circumstances of getting the hell out of Dodge, there were still many puzzles presented as I bid my adieu. For instance, the announcements by the airline staff in “English.” I first got an earful of this on the flight from Warsaw to Vilnius. It was as if I were to construct a sentence of the ten words I know in Italian and string them together with a babble of sound that I think kind of sounds like the language.

“Signore e signori blahblahBLAHblahBLAHBLAHblah BIGLIETTO blah blah AUTOBUS PREGO SCUZI blah blah blah blah GRAZI!” In Poland, that means you’re fluent.

Anyway, I don’t understand a word of any of them, but I imagine that Polish, Lithuanian, and Latvian are spoken very, very rapidly . I base this hypothesis upon their slander of my mother tongue: Fast, slurred, and incomprehensible. It’s as if Bullwinkle’s Boris and Natasha got jobs as auctioneers.

Meanwhile, I’ve had two weird (one was more alarming than weird, actually) run-ins with old ladies in the last few days. I’d be open to your input here (particularly advice on how to avoid future-such incidents):

  1. Lost in Riga with backpack in tow and searching for my boondocks hotel. I had been wandering suburban streets for about fifteen minutes. I turned the corner and came upon three goats tied to one another (and struggling in a three-way goat tug-of-war) on the sidewalk. One was eating some grass in the area between the street and sidewalk, and on the other side of the sidewalk was a school playground where children were playing. All was normal but for the bondage goat menage a trois.

    It was so gosh darn weird, that I put down my messenger bag and began rifling through in search of my camera. Then I noticed a shadow fall on me, and looked up to see a 110-year old woman – straight out of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. But the kicker was, she was looking at me as though I’d just stepped off a spaceship. Seriously, I could not have been a bigger oddity had I been dressed as a member of Kiss and levitating three feet off the ground with fire coming out of my eyeballs. Here I thought these goats (and their ancient caretaker) were a sight to behold, but it seems – as always – the joke was on me. Stranger in a strange land, for sure.

  2. Then, late this morning in Rome, I was marching down the street in search of my hostel (notice a common theme? Alas, it’s true, a lot of time is spent looking for stuff – mentally, physically, metaphysically – and great weight is carried while these searches occur. Hmmmm…). Anyway, I’m tramping down the street minding my own business, and I jump about a foot as my mind tries to process the sight of this older woman coming at me with her mouth open like she’s going to bite my messenger bag (that I carry in front). Seriously, this scared the living SH*T out of me. I cannot accurately convey how truly alarming a sight this was. It was a massive adrenaline punch, and I felt immediately poised to start running. It was so random and bizarre, and it totally brought to mind imagery from that movie “The Grudge”. Her mouth seemed so BLACK. This photo is not quite as scary: http://www.allmoviephoto.com/photo/2004_the_grudge_011_big.html Then she screamed at me in Italian until I got far enough away that I couldn’t hear it anymore. Probably a good thing I don’t really speak Italian, or this might give me bad dreams or something???

Seriously though, when has THAT ever happened to you????

Do you think when we die all the answers to these WTF moments are cleared up?

Speaking of WTF, on the back of my seat on the first flight was this cartoon picture of two pilots saluting. They were both overweight, one notably so. The fat one (it amused me that they took the care to give them both love handles) had a Hitler-esque (Hitler in need of a trim shall we say) mustache and was holding an ice cream cone with three scoops in the hand that wasn’t saluting. The thinner, younger-looking one was holding an apple, but staring at the ice cream. Wha…..?????

To the left, it said a bunch of stuff I don’t understand in Latvian or Lithuanian or the like. I will say, my favorite words (I jotted them down) were nesunegaluotu (do you think that means ‘glutton’?) and papasakok (I just like saying that).

Now you, too, can share in the confusion and speculation...

Now you, too, can share in the confusion and speculation...

This raises many possible interpretations. I posit to you a few of my own, but seeing before you the picture, feel free to share your own:

  • Ice cream makes you fat

  • Lithuanians have apples, but gelato (like the Italians have) is better

  • Hitler liked ice cream. A lot.

  • You, passenger, are in back hungry, while we – the pilots – are in front gorging

  • We salute you, but we also salute the four food groups – minus meat (unless you count my pudgy coworker here)

  • I would kill this guy with just an apple to get my hands on his ice cream

  • Ain’t dadaism grand?

Oh, and I finally figured out how to get soap out of the Lithuanian soap dispensers – they’re like MILKING A COW (funny that this should NOT occur to me, as I have exactly zero cow milking experience). Actually, everywhere you go, there are little mysteries to figure out like turning on the lights, flushing the toilets, and getting to the soap. In America, so much is automated. In Europe, it’s like an IQ test. You do things like pulverize a bar of soap in the spirit of an organ grinder’s monkey – Germany, utilize a “soap on a pole” (like soap on a rope, but on a big metal nail thing) – France, and, as previously mentioned, work an udder.

I remember when I was working as a banking consultant I went to this one credit union where they had all this hand washing propaganda in the bathroom about how there are more germs on your hands than there are people in London. And about how some horrifyingly low amount of people wash their hands after using the bathroom (and it’s DEFINITELY lower in these parts – people crap on a cookie sheet and go out and get themselves a Big Mac without pause), and – most importantly – that’s how you get sick.

Basically, that credit union gave me Obsessive Compulsive Disorder that afternoon. The whole bathroom was one big scare tactic – and it worked. On me, anyway. I still do all of it:

  1. Soap up and scrub for at least 30 seconds

  2. If you have any rings, take them off or slide them around and get under them with the soap.

  3. Rinse with hot water

  4. Don’t touch anything once you’re clean! Hang onto your paper towel when you’re done drying and use it to open the door to get out.

#4 poses a particular challenge in a land of heated hand dryers and the “infinity towel”. That’s when (I suspect) there’s like three feet of towel turning over and over everyone uses it. I thought these things went extinct in the 1980s along with the Dorothy Hamil haircut and Nehru jackets, but apparently they were just shipped to Italy and Minneapolis.

In those circumstances, I dry my hands on my pants and use my elbows to open the doors. I’m like a veritable Christy Brown.

However, perhaps the most unusual thing I saw on my way out of the Baltics was a beautiful, happy, laughing little girl on plane. In stark contrast to her parents, she was friendly and sweet and full of smiles. Their younger child was an angry little man, so they plopped her out in the aisle while they attended to him, and as I was in the row behind them, she promptly gravitated my way. I mixed up some Emergen-C in front of her eyes like it was a magic trick. She looked at me with as much wonderment as the goat lady, Only a lot friendlier.

I have all these different colored pens in my bag, and I got them out and she was coloring with me (I was in the aisle seat). At one point, her mother got up, looked at us, made a face, and then just sat back down. I’ll throw down that any American (British? Australian? Irish? Swiss? Scottish? German? Canadian? etc. etc.) mother would chat and be slightly friendly to a woman entertaining the child she’d tossed in the aisle. Maybe at least smile?

Anyway, whatever with her. I was just hoping to leave a positive impression on the next generation so maybe they can learn to be a little less cold.

Thus, I hope my re-education efforts don’t cause any trouble. Hopefully that little girl isn’t thrown in the gulag wherever she’s going.. At two and-a-half or three years old, she’s too young to have been fully programmed with the official sneer, or maybe just doesn’t understand yet that smiling is illegal in the Balkans? ;)

What a strange world, my friends…

But nothing I will figure out tonight or while feeling so whipped. Ciao bellas and bellos! Sleep tight and wish me luck fighting off this cold!!!

 

The horror… The horror… September 17, 2008

Just me and the Baltic Sea

Just me and the Baltic Sea

Small Lithuanian market's vast ketchup offering

Small Lithuanian market's vast ketchup offering

Having never been the kind of girl that ‘gets around’, I can recall very few (if any) experiences in which I awoke in a strange and repugnant place early, quietly packed up my things, and burst through the door into the cold morning air feeling as though I’d just pulled off a prison break. This was such a morning, and I don’t think I would’ve felt more relieved had I just swam to shore from Alcatraz.

I’ve never slept in a homeless shelter, but now I kind of feel like I can say I have – only I paid good money for the experience. Old men continued to pile in throughout the night (one arrived at 2am, two more at 3am), each adding their own brand of phlegmy cough, chainsaw snore, urine-soaked smell, and moaning – moaning like you might imagine in a medieval dungeon – to the terrible symphony. To my own utter amazement, I managed to think myself asleep by practicing some relaxation techniques I know from hypnosis. Admittedly, I was still awoken every couple hours and it would always take another 45 minutes to work through the range of emotions (horror, disgust, fear, misery, despair, etc.) and fall back asleep again.

It was also incredibly cold, which didn’t help. The hostel had no heat (of course not. It wouldn’t qualify as the single worst lodging on earth if it provided any kind of human comfort), and I don’t remember being so cold in the night except for a couple times I went camping without proper equipment. I used to have this 1971 Volkswagen Westfalia and one time my boyfriend at the time and I went to a Native American ceremony up on Orcas Island in the San Juans. After a really long, strange, nauseating 18-hour ‘ceremony’ in a smoky teepee (the fire wasn’t set up right, apparently), we stumbled back to the van to sleep. I woke up many hours later and my hair had frozen. Condensation had built up in the van from our breathing and gotten in my hair and it was like a solid block of ice in some places. This hostel was not quite, but almost that cold. And louder.

Anyway, when I woke up I saw that one of the guys had opened the windows. It was 6 Celsius out last night (about 40 degrees for those of us, such as myself, that know all but nothing of the metric and Celsius systems. I know that 40 celcius is over 100 and the Europeans consider that the same as melting in hell and 0 is freezing. Does anyone know: Why do we still use all those antiquated systems in the U.S. – ounces, miles, degrees?? Because we’re stubborn?). Anyway, it was damn cold out there, but someone opened a window anyway. It sounded to me like some of those guys had emphysema or at least tuberculosis, but it’s their funeral, I guess.

The worst of it – and I hesitate to mention this because the emotional scarring is still quite raw – was something I saw. For those of you easily nauseated, you may want to skip ahead. Okay, last night I left the room and went into one of the bathrooms to wash up, brush my teeth, and change into pajamas. At the time, the two men I originally mentioned (down and out Dennis Hopper and his friend) were not on the premises, It was my goal to get to bed before they returned. I had heard Dennis Hopper wheezing on the couch earlier (while he was awake), and figured we were in for a loud night.

Anyway, the door to the room (a room for ten people, despite the fact that my reservation was for the four-person room, and I’d paid extra for that) was ajar, and I walked in to find the two men standing there in black briefs (the cousin of tighty whiteys – tacky blackies?). and with obvious boners. As if just seeing them naked but for their underwear wasn’t bad enough.

The calm before the storm...chilling by some Lithuanian dunes

The calm before the storm...chilling by some Lithuanian dunes

After I got over the relief that witnessing such a horror hadn’t immediately turned me to stone, I realized they were talking to me in German and giggling like schoolgirls. I averted my eyes in what was intended to be a VERY obvious “I am so disgusted it is all I can do not to throw up” kind of way, put my toiletries in my bag, and climbed up to my bed (in a first, I moved myself to an upper bunk. I figured it would be harder to mess with me – the only woman in the whole joint besides the very heavyset and unfriendly Lithuanian girl in charge, now locked safely in her private heated room).

Okay, so do you ever have nightmares where something bad is happening and you cannot scream? Someone has come up on you in the stairwell of the hotel (this was a common one for me when I used to travel a lot for business, I would always take the stairs, and I guess on some level I was always a little afraid that something bad could come of that?) and you know you have one chance to alert someone else before this goes bad, but you can’t make a sound? This is, of course, because your body paralyzes you while you’re asleep so that you don’t act out your dreams and hurt yourself.

Anyway, last night I dreamed that those two horrible old black underwear boner men were trying to molest me. One of them was reaching under my blanket and the other was climbing up the stairs to the bunk, and I tried and tried to scream and nothing would come out, and I was so disgusted and horrified and violently opposed to this that I put out one final effort and let out a blood curdling scream IN REAL LIFE. I swear to God. I screamed like I was being murdered at around 4am in a hostel bedroom because I’d seen two sleazy old men in their underwear five hours earlier.

I was asked in about six different languages if I was okay. Thankfully, I was. Moments later, the snoring and hacking and nose blowing and moaning recommenced.

So I’m out of there now, and slowly calming down and feeling better. There are some fun British people on the bus singing, “Riga, Latvia” to the ‘Viva Las Vegas’ tune. It’s a rare and pleasant treat to be in an English-speaking majority (and a bunch with such sly senses of humor), and I’m relishing it.

When we got on, the local newspaper (Bakaru ekspresas) was in all of our seats, and the woman across the aisle from me was leafing through it. One of her friends asked what she was doing, and she replied, “I’m catching up on a bit of the local news. I’m looking at the pictures, if you must know.” Then she flipped to the back page, “Look, the stars! Diane, I’ll read them to you!” Apparently my sign, Libra, is called “Svarstykles” in Lithuanian. I recognize one word in the last sentence: “Taclau vakaras zada romantikos.” I’m assuming that means, “You are not feeling the least bit romantic” or maybe, “You have just suffered unspeakable torment and may never experience romantic feelings again.” Either way.

As for Lithuania itself:

  • They have a real thing for miniature Yorkshire Terriers. It’s like the national dog or something. Every third person has one – in a basket on their arm, trailing them in the grocery store, under the seat on the plane, perched on their arm like a parrot. If only I could’ve borrowed one for a few days, I could’ve really “gone native.”
  • The ketchup obsession continues. Latvians have it too. I’ve started collecting photographic proof.
  • I went to the “Curonian spit” (the peninsula of land between Klaipeda and the Baltic Sea, where they bandy about the word ‘spit’ as if it’s a common term we use for land). The area is famous for the amber that washes up on the shores and the extensive sand dunes along the coast. Apparently it’s a big vacation spot in the summer. However, as you can see, it’s vacant come winter…uhhhhh, September.
  • I stand by my earlier post – friendly these folks are not. However, I’ve given it some thought and I offer them an out: For the last 225 years, the Baltic countries (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia) have suffered greatly at the hands of Russia and Prussia (Germany). As near as I can tell, those who weren’t rounded up and killed, rounded up and put into concentration camps (and then killed?), rounded up and sent to Siberia, or rounded up and put in Russian prisons (and then killed?) still didn’t have it very good. I have kind of a mental image of some guy toiling on his farm and a truck comes by and someone screams out “You are Russian now!” and then fifteen years later they come back, “You are Lithuanian again!” and then ten years later, “You are German now!” and then again, “Lithuanian!” “Russian!” “Lithuanian!”

All this with a lot of bloodshed and suffering and loss and they’re kind of a people that have hardened their hearts. They see any obvious signs of outsiderness, and they don’t like it. Sometimes they’re a little extreme in their reaction – I met a couple guys from Hong Kong who were chased down the street with people screaming at them in Riga. (They could only figure it was because they were Asian.), but we’ll give these battered souls a couple generations to (hopefully) soften and come around.

Eastern Europe is a constant reminder of the worst of humanity (Hitler, concentration camps, the KGB, Siberia, communism, the Holocaust, etc.), and I can only hope that what I take away from all this horror could somehow contribute something good back to the world.

Case in point: I walked around the Pokrov Cemetery in Riga today, and there was a group grave for about a dozen orphans who died because the Nazis drained all their blood. I feel sad because the really nice guys from Hong Kong (who looked out for me last night in the weird hostel turned homeless shelter situation) were made to feel so terrible by people who probably didn’t realize how racist and thoughtless they were being. I don’t even know how to process people torturing children.

This I suppose, is both a good and bad of travel : Getting up close and personal with horrible things you kind of didn’t want to know and the related desire to make a true positive difference in the world.

 

You say bulviu, I say potato September 16, 2008

A Chinese restaurant in Klaipeda, Lithuania might seem an odd choice for lunch, but I was kind of feeling like having something besides dumplings, potato pancakes, and fried cutlets. Plus, there were some actual Asians sitting by the kitchen door and the ambiance looked nice (and it looked like it would get me out of the outrageously bitter cold immediately, which was the primary goal), so I figured what the hell.

After five minutes of being ignored and a minute or two of confusion about the seating, I settled into a seat with my Lithuanian/English menu in hand. It’s kind of amazing, but apparently there is not a single restaurateur in all of Europe with a native English-speaking friend. Every last one of them produce menus with this awkward, fumbling English which sometimes serves to charm, but more often leaves one baffled.

So as I’m working my way through, the descriptions either sounded gross (“Fried chicken, persimmon, and corn”) or plain old baffling (“two dragons meet in the forest”). I was seriously tempted to order that one just to see what would ensue…

Meanwhile, other menu descriptions were suspiciously vague. What was it they didn’t want me to know? In Lithuanian, the description is three sentences long, and in English it says “Fried Shrimps.” Fried shrimps WHAT? Fried shrimps dredged from a swamp and slathered in a toxic level of Chinese Five Spice Powder and fried up last month and left out to ferment by the light of the full moon, and then carefully placed on a bed of noodles that taste both familiarly and alarmingly of spit?

Or just fried shrimp?

If you’ve ever read Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, you’re already suspicious of everything coming out of a restaurant kitchen. Even if you haven’t, you just never know in these circumstances. Thus, I decided to go with something that sounded suitably reminiscent of American Chinese food I have eaten and contained a similar level of detail to the Lithuanian version – fried eggplant in oyster sauce. How could you screw that up?

Happily, it wasn’t screwed up, but it did contain some extra ingredients not mentioned on the menu. First off, thank god I’m no longer vegan or vegetarian, because there were quite a few little scraps of meat in it (I’d guess pork) even though it was in the “vegetable” section. Second, there was a heaping helping of red and green bell peppers. Lovely to look at, but I don’t eat them. They dislike me immensely and wreak unimaginable havoc on my digestive system. In fact, there were just enough in the sauce to throw me into a state of intense distress about an hour later, but we don’t need to talk about that. Let’s just say I was glad I was near a bathroom that had more than a broiler pan nailed to the floor…

Anyway, and not to mix bathroom talk and food, but, strange translations on a menu are a veritable godsend when compared with facing a foreign grocery store. This is particularly compounded when in a country with a language based in the Roman or Cyrillic alphabets. You may as well just let a toddler do some scratching on the packages for all I know.

At the same time, it’s something of a gamble and yet an exciting one, and for this reason, I love – love, love, love, love, love – going to the grocery store. It’s a guaranteed adventure. The marvel, the wonderment, the baffling mysteries wrapped in dough or hidden in a can. I could quite possibly purchase, bring home, and eat a tin of cat food and never know the difference. For all I know, I’ve done this, and – come to think of it – my hair has never been shinier.

Obviously, certain sections are easy – produce and raw meats, in particular. That’s a good opportunity to jot down the mix of symbols that mean “chicken” or “potato” or “apple”, which could come in handy in a future situation…the kebap and schwarma stands, for instance. Other sections – particularly anything concealed in a can, frozen in a package, or prepped and shrink wrapped by the store itself (my favorite for wild experimentation) – are a total grab bag.

I still recall my total horror in a Hungarian supermarket in 1992. It was something of a trifecta of confusion:

  1. I was vegan, so I was SUPER picky about what I ate.
  2. There was pretty much nothing in the store. It was like a supermarket in Florida right after they announce a hurricane warning – bare aisles and some boxes of Tide.
  3. I bought and consumed a pastry that was a complete and utter mystery to me to this day. All I know is that the contents were black and gooey and had no flavor. Not sure what that fruit (?) is, but I’m glad we haven’t embraced it in the U.S.

Anyway, the good news is that I am now a lot less picky, because in the last month and a half I have started chewing something up, and upon examining the flavor thought, Thank god I’m not:

  • Vegetarian
  • Muslim
  • Lactose intolerant
  • A Recovering alcoholic (this in response to a pastry I bought yesterday. It was a super cheap .99 LT – like $.35 – and looked like a chocolate donut hole, only three times the size of a normal donut hole. So I figured it was a big, round brownie or chocolate thingie. It turns out it was a rum ball – heavy on the rum. It was good, but a small child would’ve been three sheets to the wind having eaten the thing. It should’ve had a “Mister Yuck” sticker on it or something to warn parents!)
  • Jewish
  • Squeamish (this after some pirogies ordered from a non-English speaker in Poland. Gee, I didn’t know they made pirogi in ‘ground up bones and lint’ flavor.)
  • Allergic to fish, nuts, animal parts no one in their right mind would eat, etc.

In other words, if you are any of the above and have plans to come to Eastern Europe and buy your own food or venture into places without an English menu…hire a translator.

Meanwhile, I had a nice day in Klaipeda. It’s cold as hell, but I won’t focus on that and whine to you. It’s the Baltics, what did I expect? Tomorrow I have a long bus ride to Riga (five hours – need to take it easy on the morning beverages!) where there is a hotel with a sauna on the premises and wifi in the room awaiting me. I’ll write you a nice, long post about what I’ve seen here in the fatherland (besides grouchy people) and post some photos of me freezing my @ss off by Baltic Ocean.

In other news, and not to always have a cloud in the silver lining, but after getting back from my day out on the coast, two guys in their late sixties (at least) have checked into the “youth” hostel. Go ahead and call me elitist, call me a snob, even bitchy, I can take it. I still think I have the right to say that 70 is too old to be youth hosteling.

They have the look of the homeless to them (everything but the shopping cart full of cans) or maybe just Hells Angels kicked to the curb (or dropped off at the nursing home), and I am wee bit spooked, especially since discovering they’re in the bunk that touches mine (although I plan to move. Screw it.) The hostel is practically in the parking lot of the train and bus stations, so I guess it has an “anything goes” policy with respect to guests. One of them looks like Dennis Hopper if Dennis Hopper had lived the same wild life of drugs and booze, but without any money or proper nutrition, and lost some key teeth along the way. Right now he’s eating a piece of bread like it’s corn on the cob, while reading a magazine called “Fighters”. “Fighters” features a woman in nothing but a camo print thong straddling a vicious motorcycle-like thing that may have been swiped from the Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome set. It’s in German, and the top banner says, “100% EDELBIKES, 100% ACTION, 100% TUNING, 100% SZENE.”

Creeeeeeee-py.

Presuming I get through the night in one piece (ah, who are we kidding? I’d fight like a demon if it came to it. For many years I had a vivid dream [nightmare] life in which I killed thousands of undead, zombies, and vampires every night. I’m ready.), I’ll catch you up tomorrow from Riga!

 

 
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