Wide Awake in Wonderland

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

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!