Wide Awake in Wonderland

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

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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Six reasons Lithuanians are jerks September 15, 2008

Greetings from the bus to Klaipeda (the coastal region of Lithuania). i had actually planned to take the train (takes 6.5 hours instead of 4, but was cheaper by about $8 US, I can keep an immediate eye on my luggage, and it has toilets), but when my alarm went off at 6:00 a.m., I realized I needed more sleep. Everywhere I go lately, people are coughing and sneezing and hacking up a lung and not covering their mouths. If there’s one thing I know about getting sick, it’s that inadequate sleep is very hard on my immune system.

I wish I was one of those people that slept five or six hours a night and felt super, but I’m not. On six hours of sleep, I feel like there’s sand in my eyes, and I start a task, go into a room, stand there stupefied and wonder, “Why did I come in here?” With just five hours and at a really boring meeting (or watching a colleague do a sales presentation I’ve seen a hundred times before), I’ve been known to actually nod off – like when your head starts falling forward and the sudden motion causes you to jerk and wake up. Like it or not, I need a solid eight hours to function properly.

I remember reading that Donald Trump sleeps something like three hours a night, and regards sleeping as a waste of time (of course he does). I suppose that’s just one of many reasons why I’m on a public bus and am now on my way to a crappy hostel in the middle of nowhere, and he owns half of Manhattan. I have better hair though. And I bet he feels really damn tired sometimes.

I’ve noticed that my dreams all seem to have travel themes lately. Last night I dreamed that people were coming up to me and smelling me. At first I was really worried about it (Like, ‘OH no!? Do I stink!?”), but then I realized I smelled quite lovely., so they were just drawn to me and taking it in – kind of alike a smell-based siren’s song. In real life, as you’ve probably picked up, I’ve become relatively neurotic about icky human smells. I’m no hypocrite, this includes my own. I’m not a super clean freak, but I’m turning into one. Thus, when I’m in the retail part of a city or going by the duty free shop in the airport, I now go in and give myself a nice dose of Coco Chanel or another perfume that I have back at home. Usually, I rarely wear it and it takes me a decade to go through a bottle of perfume, but I’m also not typically carrying 40 pounds of clothes and gear while running through subways. Anyway, I’m somewhat hellbent on not becoming Europeanized in the stink department.

My obsession with cleanliness has also spread to my clothes. Whenever I can, i like to do my laundry, partly because I don’t have that much stuff, but also because I love to just sit there and smell it when it’s clean. I stick my face in a big pile and just breathe deep. Of the few things I’ve purchased and have added to the weight I’m lugging, one is a pack of moist dryer sheets (fabric softener, but the sheets are wet like a baby wipe). The one challenge to this new-found passion is that there’s not much I hate more in the world than laundromats.

In my early 20s I put in more than my fair share of time in laundromats, and with each passing visit, i grew to hate them more and more. The dryers that take your money, but don’t work. The dryers that burn everything to a crisp. The machines where someone has just finished doing some tie-dying or batik art and now everything you own is a muddy red. I remember Matt Groening (creator of The Simpsons) had a cartoon series “Life is Hell”. One of the featured characters were a gay couple, Jeff and Akbar. They both wore little fezzes and in drawings were kind of reminiscent of a primitive Bart Simpson. Anyway, a regular feature was that Jeff and Akbar would open a business together, and the whole frame would feature the store and the little signs and notices they’d hung up – like Jeff and Akbar’s Falafel Hut. However, the one that sticks with me most was Jeff and Akbar’s Laundromat, where posted in the window was a sign that read, “Suicides no longer permitted on premises.” That pretty much sums up how I feel about laundromats.

Lately I’ve been in places where they do the laundry for you and return it piled up. Prices can be hilariously high (around $10 US for a load), but what are you gonna do? Despite my strong feelings about laundromats, I don’t really like other people doing my laundry. Not because I have anything special or delicate (it can all go in one load together without issue), but because I’m sensitive that it isn’t clean and…it stinks. (See? What did I tell you? I really am developing some neurotic tendencies here!) Moreover, the stuff I run in smells REALLY bad, and when it’s all in one bag together, then it all smells bad. Basically, i feel really awkward handing someone a big bag of my stinky clothes and asking them to deal with it.

However, $4 is a deal in the laundry world and all my pants were dirty, so I filled a bag and brought it to the girl. Last night I needed to get it back so I could pack up, but no one was around at the front desk. When I finally found an employee, she took me down to a basement room that I hadn’t realized existed. It was a common room with a small TV and a computer, and there were a number of people gathered down there. All over the room, drying on any object with a flat surface, was my laundry.

it was like some kind of demented Easter Egg hunt, going around and gathering up my stuff while these people watched TV and played on the internet and looked at me bemused. For example, my socks were drying on top of the TV. My panties were hanging on doorknobs and hooks on the walls. My pants were suspended a few feet from the ceiling all across the room (kind of like streamers) on a line that would have been a proper clothesline, if it weren’t in a family room. But my stuff was clean and it smelled nice and that’s all I care about anymore.

Meanwhile, I am 25% Lithuanian and our last name is (allegedly) Lithuanian. Actually, I’ve come to be convinced that it was significantly altered when my great-grandfather hit Ellis Island. Or we’re not Lithuanian. I don’t know what he was up to, but he apparently decided it was a good time to invent a new identity. All the last names are these super long things ending in “kas” or “ics” or “ski’ and not one surname is just six letters long. With six letters, they’re just getting warmed up. There’s still a “obieski” or “warsowkas” or something to be added on. I spent some time in the graveyard – just browsing – and didn’t come across a single name that even reminded me of ours.

Although my dad remembers quite clearly that his paternal grandparents were Lithuanian, I’m developing a secret hope that they were lying. The people here are JERKS. Serious, serious jerks. I need to talk to him and see if he remembers his grandmother (with the suspicious first name of Stephanie) as a brutal, angry, non-smiling shrew. if so, then we may be onto something. If not, maybe we’re from some friendly land like…??? Who’s friendly besides the Irish? (which I already know I’m half, from my mother’s side where she’s 100% Irish).

Anyway, here are some of the intriguing little tidbits that have caused me to draw this conclusion about the fatherland:

  1. Much like Poland, if you ask someone if they speak English, they ALWAYS say no. However, if you just keep talking to them anyway (in English), they understand. THEN, they make fun of you.

This morning I asked these two girls if the building behind me or the building across the street was the bus station. They stood there and repeated “Bus, bus, bus” to me (in my American accent – where we say “Buhs” and not “Boose”) over and over, laughing and laughing. “Yes, it’s very funny,” I said to them, “But is it this one or that one?” One of them pointed across the street, “That one.” and I could hear them behind me, “BUS STATION” in an over-exaggerated and super-slow version of my accent and chortling and guffawing as I walked away.

This brings to mind a different angle: If they’re this starved for entertainment in Lithuania, you could make a real killing with some half-assed stand up comedy here. Hell, just bring in someone with a Boston accent or a New York Jew to talk about nothing, and you’d have them rolling in the aisles. Sheesh!

2. If they want money from you (panhandling, begging) or to bother and hit on you, they speak great English. Until you say no, and they get pissed. For a split second, I thought this one guy (about my age, and kind of pudgy around the middle – who wanted money for ‘the hospital’) might spit on me.

3. The streets are very narrow and almost always made of cobblestone. The sidewalks are literally 7 inches wide, and no one will ever yield the right of way. In three days, I was always the one who had to step out into the street. In all fairness, the women here all wear 3 and 4 inch stilettos – even the old women and even in 40 degree weather and rain. They’re quite the fancy dressers, maybe they’re trying to compensate for the sixteen different patterns at once folk outfits of 100 years ago? Anyway, I love high heels and miss mine, but stilettos in a town of nothing but cobblestone? Even I would not be so bold.

    So back to the jerks: The first day I got there it rained like crazy and was no more than 45 or 50 degrees. As I was walking down the road back to the guest house, people were coming down said narrow cobblestone roads in their cars at like 50 or 60 mph. I swear I’m not exaggerating. You would hear the engine gun and it was like a drag race. The cars (always nice ones like BMW or Lexus or Audi) would cut extremely close to the sidewalk, hit the giant puddles gathered there, and unload a wave of filthy puddle water onto my pants. This happened THREE TIMES. It was like the scene in the opening credits of Sex and the City (the early years), except it wasn’t warm out, I wasn’t wearing a pink tutu (thankfully), and by the third time it didn’t seem to be accidental. Now you can also see why I had to go ahead and hire them to do my laundry.

    4. They act as though you’ve come to rob them blind. I saw these Lithuania baseball caps in a shop window and went in to see how much they were (I’m fairly convinced I won’t be back any time soon, so figured I might break my ‘no space or weight capacity for souvenirs’ rule and maybe get my dad, my brother, and I some gaudy hats. The Lithuanians share their color scheme with the Jamaicans – so you can imagine these are some pretty tacky numbers in red, yellow, and green). Anyway, I get in there and this young woman is right up on me within seconds. I mean she was within a foot of me, staring me down. First I smiled at her. No reaction. Then I said, “Yes?” Nothing. “Do you speak English?” Nothing. Then I started inching back toward the front of the store, darting looks over my shoulder, and she stayed on me. They had a whole section where they were selling all this amber jewelry in lit glass cases as if amber were really precious and not super cheap (HELLO) and everywhere I went, she stayed on me. I mean, the stupid stuff was behind glass!? However, when I went back outside she stayed put, presumably off to make someone else so uncomfortable that they decide not to buy anything. Hopefully she’s not working on commission…

      This trend continued at the National Museum. In every room, there’s a woman working on her knitting or standing in the corner looking harmless enough…until you pull out a camera. They had these cool Lithuanian folk outfits (some really fun and funky get ups), and i thought it would be neat to take a picture of them, and about four middle-aged women came at me and nearly tackled me to the ground. A simple picture of a camera with an “x” through it would have sufficed. They also had these cool dioramas of the log huts where people used to live until the turn of the century [so my great-grandparents would have likely lived in a place like this] and English captions, so that was really interesting and photo-worthy. But alas…

      Unfortunately, after that I was branded a criminal, and I had my own personal attendant with me through the entire museum. No matter where I went, she was within two feet of me. At first I felt self-conscious and would stare at the old books (under glass) and since the captions were in Lithuanian, muse to myself that I don’t really know if I could tell the difference between a book from 1902 and a book from 1616. ”If I found this in an attic, would I recognize it as museum-worthy?” Or I would study these millions of boring paintings of monks and priests by “artist unknown” and try to look intellectual. Then the pressure started to get to me, and I turned rebellious. There was this inlay table from the 1700s that some guy maybe signed some religious proclamation or something on, and I touched it. Not a little bit either. I ran my hand across the whole top, and turned to the woman and smiled, “Nice table.”. She looked at me, aghast. I had to fight back urges to tear some ugly painting by “artist unknown” off a wall and run for the exit as fast as I could just to show them who’s boss, and I put my hand through some KGB prison doors (I really wish pictures were allowed, because standing behind one clutching the bars would be a good one) and realized I could unlatch the thing. Now, if there’d been a padlock on it, that’d be another story, but my hands and forearms are small enough I could wriggle them through the bars and get to the latches. She didn’t like that either, and said something angry in Lithuanian. Seriously though, they had about ten of these doors hanging around and they were just welded re-bar painted gray. Give me a blowtorch and I could probably make one of them myself. Seriously.

      5. The toilets. I know they know about real toilets because my hotel has them. Normal human toilets where you can sit down and there’s a lid and running water and toilet paper mounted somewhere in the vicinity. So that’s why it baffles me that I had to pay about $.80 US today at the bus station to basically pee on a broiler pan. A really, really, REALLY bad smelling broiler pan. Oh, and I had my frigging bag on, so crouching down super low like that is INCREDIBLY hard. You will only find that move in the most advanced of strength-training classes. Since I’m a total freak about personal cleanliness now, I got all worried about splash back. I was freshly showered and laundered and feeling fine…I don’t want to spend the day with my own pee on my legs. I briefly eyeballed the trash can (paper would absorb. No splash!) but decided to crouch even lower. it’s not easy to relax when your thighs are trembling with strain, but I toughed it out and get my $.80 worth. But I had to work for it, and I think in that case it should be free.

      6. They stole my damn guidebook.

        However, I’m off to a new part of Lithuania, and maybe things will improve? It was raining in Vilnius, and now that we’re about halfway there, the sun is out. No one is bothering me on the bus, I don’t have to pee, and in the big picture, things are looking up…