Wide Awake in Wonderland

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

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…

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        Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet September 13, 2008

        I swear, on a daily basis this trip seems more to me a test of my own mental attitude. It’s like the world throws me a daily curve ball, while snickering, ‘How ya like me NOW?’. Anyone that tells you that traveling – particularly traveling by yourself to countries where you do not know a single syllable of the language – isn’t tough is lying. But tough is okay. Tough is what helps you realize what you’re made of, and what you’re not willing to get upset about, and what won’t break you, and in a stupid way, defines what really matters.

        In the same spirit, I found this quote from Helen Keller the other day, “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” There are probably good arguments against this – suffering probably isn’t necessary – but I will say that trial and suffering can be deeply soul strengthening, and there aren’t a lot of deeply nuanced, empathetic trust fund babies out there.

        As for suffering, so much of eastern Europe is haunted by WWII and the millions (millions. Can you imagine!? MILLIONS) of Jews that were killed during the Holocaust. There were entire neighborhoods, even cities, emptied out. Of those that survived, I have always been profoundly impacted by the writing of Viktor Frankl (Auschwitz survivor) and his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning.” Not to get all over the top on you here, but if you have never read this book – and particularly if you are in the midst of any circumstances that seem unfairly harsh or are just plain overwhelming – I urge you to get a copy (I’m sure your local library has several) and check it out.

        My enthusiasm has to do with the cornerstone of his beliefs (he was a psychiatrist and doctor before being imprisoned). To quote, “There is nothing in the world, I venture to say, that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one’s life. Meaning can be discovered by three ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.” In short, just about anything can happen to us, but ultimately we are in control of our reaction to it and our attitude about it. Even in a concentration camp, they cannot control your attitude. Thus, to try to bring this convoluted point home, travel puts you face to face with some tough situations (I wouldn’t call them unavoidable suffering, but…) and provides an opportunity to experience and, if necessary, get your own reactions in line. And really, if you ask me, that’s an amazing gift.

        So that stated, I got to Warsaw just in time for the cold snap. Personally, having been in mid 80-degree weather in Berlin the day before, I was unprepared for the brutal shift down to the low 50’s. It seemed, from the looks of things, the locals were caught unexpectedly as well. People were hurrying down the street cringing and rubbing their arms, and as the day wore on, poring out of the shops with newly purchased coats. I even had to break down and make a purchase – a pair of mittens. I had some when the trip started, but somewhere along the way they disappeared.

        Meanwhile, I walked as much as I could bear with the Siberian winds whipping across my face, and took in the sights. As you may or may not know, Warsaw was bombed within an inch of its life during WWII, and just about everything was reduced to piles of rubble. If you think about the mess to clean up the World Trade Centers in 2001, you can imagine the same kind of debris covering an entire city.

        In the case of Warsaw, the residents themselves pitched in to clear away the mess, and ultimately they rebuilt their old town in the fashion of the original, complete with lopsided buildings (if you study the picture I will upload of the old town square, you can kind of see what I’m talking about. In actuality, I have no idea if this was intentional or just sub-par craftsmanship). So, in all actuality, old town is actually pretty new. In the U.S., the only time you’d see such a thing is in Las Vegas or maybe Disney’s Epcot Center, but considering that they lost their entire cultural identity in just a few weeks of bombing, you have to admire their spirit.

        The other thing I’ve learned is that the Polish really love ketchup. In their grocery stores, you can find no less than twenty different kinds. At one point I was given a little meal of bread, cheese, ham, green bell pepper, and pickled sweet potato (or at least that would be my best guess as to what it was)…and three packets of ketchup. (?) Heinz, no less.

        On the other hand, a great many of them don’t or won’t admit to speaking English. This was never more prevalent than during my search for the airport-bound bus this morning. The girl at the hostel showed me the bus stop on a map. However, as seems to happen all too often, she put a big “X’ on the right side of the street, and said something about the left.

        “So, right or left side of the street?” I asked her. She looked at me quizzically.

        “Should I catch the BUS on the RIGHT or the LEFT of the STREET?” I restated, while pointing at the map.

        “Go here.. Go here. Right. Left. Right.”

        Ummmmm…. Not sure what that meant, I figured I’d go down there and work it out. However, when I got to the proper corner, I realized this was going to be a little messier than I planned. First off, no one would admit to speaking English. I found bus stop featuring the #175 bus, but it wasn’t clear whether it was headed to the airport or in the other direction. No picture of an airplane for the stupid among us (me), and that’s always worrisome.

        I started approaching the people at the bus stop itself…to no avail. Then I started bugging people just trying to walk down the street. Then the bus itself pulled up. I tried to ask the driver, but he just shook his head at me. I can never tell if thats an answer or a “I don’t speak English,” so I turned to the crowd and yelled, “IF ANYONE SPEAKS ENGLISH, CAN YOU TELL ME IF THIS BUS GOES TO THE AIRPORT!?” and then smiled brightly, hoping to diminish the effect of being a totally obnoxious.

        Thankfully, a voice from the back said, “No. Other side.” So I got of the bus, and tried to figure out how to get to the other side of the street. This was one of the those intersections where the light rail/trolley comes through, so they don’t allow pedestrians to cross on the street level. As a result, there are some underground tunnels where you go down and pop up at varying sections of the street (on one side, in the middle, on the opposite corner) like a human “Whack a Mole.”

        I finally figured out how to get to the other side of the street…but couldn’t find a bus stop. Again, i started stopping people – mostly young people – trying to find someone that both spoke English and understood the bus system. Suddenly I noticed a bus coming down the street…MY BUS. #175. I ran toward it, and the bus driver gave me a look like, “Better luck next time, sucker.”

        However, he underestimated my pluck. I started chasing him down the street, waving my arms in what I hoped was the universal symbol of, “Where do I go to get on this bus?” He looked at me again and shook his head, “No.”

        At that moment, he hit a red light, so I did what any experienced Whack-a-Mole player and semi-desperate to get to the airport individual does…I dashed down the stairs, ran through the underground hallway (this with my 40-odd pounds of backpack and other dead weight on) and came up on the other side. I started running again down the sidewalk – backwards – trying to make eye contact with him and waving my arms, as he began again down the street.

        Gesticulating like a madwoman – and prepared to run all the way to the bus stop, wherever the hell it was, if that’s what it took – I ran as fast as my overloaded frame could take me, slowly losing ground, until finally he stopped and opened the doors. He was laughing a little bit as I staggered in, “Do you speak English?”

        “No.”

        “Does this bus go to the airport?”

        “Yes.”

        (You gotta love the non-English speaker who understands that question.) Anyway, I paid him and collapsed into the seat, and noticed his rear view mirror gave me a perfect view of my disheveled shelf. At this point, in addition to sweating like I’d just finished a marathon, I noticed that my hair looked like it had been braided by chimps. It’s kind of a new look I have going – “Monkey Chic” – which features some key elements such as totally unkempt hair, wearing the same pair of jeans three days in a row, absolutely no makeup of any kind, and a nasty hangnail issue getting the better of both middle fingers. Is this a vitamin deficiency? If anyone knows how to address this (a weird affliction that only seems to strike my father and me. It’s hangnails that hurt and bleed and continue to get deeper and deeper on your finger. Sorry if that’s gross. I wouldn’t even explain it, except that they’re really obnoxious – especially if they bonk into anything or when you put gloves on, and I’m not sure how to stop it), please let me know!!!

        To my relief, I made it to the airport a solid two hours before my flight. European check-in lines are always outrageously long. You can count on burning up a good hour just waiting to check your bags, and security is a wild card too.

        So I got off at the wrong terminal (of course), but eventually got in line for my LOT flight to Vilnius and within a few minutes a man who managed to smell EXACTLY like an overstuffed, abandoned ashtray came up behind me. The smell was remarkably indelible. Normally the “I just had my fix” smell dies down after a little while, but not on this guy. A few minutes later, his wife appeared, and quickly it became clear that they didn’t have the same sense of personal space that I do. Although they made up the end of the line an had meters and meters of empty space behind them, they kept crowding me. If I’d creep forward an inch or two to maintain a slight gap between us…they’d close it.

        Then I started putting my backpack behind me to create a personal space barrier, and the woman would lean on it. After a couple occurrences of this, I put it next to me…and the same thing happened. I started experimenting, and no matter where I put it, she’d get right up on it and lean on it. More than once, she came up right alongside me and even in front of me to get some leaning in. Neither of them ever looked at me (that I noticed), so I figured this wasn’t personal, just cultural or individual weirdness or ???

        Regardless, after a while (remember, I mentioned this standing in line business goes on for a good hour) it started to get on my nerves. I started working on a look where I would shift my gaze between my bag and her body with a facial expression that would hopefully convey “Leaning bad! Stop it! Back off!” I considered grunting or even a low growl, but didn’t know how that would go over. Unfortunately, since I don’t know how to say, “Can you please take your crotch off my backpack?” in Polish, I just had to live with it.

        After a while, they were joined by a third ‘zero sense of personal space’ accomplice, who I guessed was their son. He was in his late 30’s or early 40’s (or the way they all reeked of smoke, maybe he was a mature-looking 14. Who knows?), and at that point I noticed they were all wearing the exact same shade of seafoam green from stem to stern. I mean everything – pants, shirts, jackets – was seafoam green. I vaguely recall reading this travel advice from a woman with four or five kids. She was saying when they all traveled together, she would dress all of them (and herself) the same, so that it was clear they belonged together. That way, if someone got separated, it would be easy to explain how to find the straggler. Also, it may cause onlookers to speculate that perhaps you are a family band, on the road to a big gig. And who doesn’t love being mistaken for a celebrity? So maybe I got Ashtray, Leaner, and Adult Son all wrong? Maybe they weren’t just inconsiderate space encroachers leaning on my gear, but the Von Trapskis, anxious to share their groove with the world?

        By the way, when we got to the final finish line, the mother pushed ahead of me to get to the available check-in clerk (technically, my available check-in clerk). Probably the old me would’ve been upset, but I’m so used to being befuddled and bewildered by the events going on around me, that I really don’t care about such petty matters anymore. If you’re in that much of a hurry, have at it. In fact, if you’d like me to come with you and set my backpack up so you have something to lean on…just let me know.

        As I reflect on all this, it strikes me that in less than two months I have gone from being a fairly polished American businesswoman, always in a mad rush and checking my Blackberry every 2.2 seconds, yet who could effortlessly assist you through the nuances of the American TSA policies and procedures, to a frazzled, frayed, and sweaty loonytoon standing in front of a busload of Polish strangers screaming, “Does this bus go to the airport!?!?!?” Alas, and as always, from my seat here on the flight to Lithuania, none of the specifics as to how that was made possible matter. What is important is that somehow I once again pulled it of, and I can’t help but feeling a wee bit proud…if not downright triumphant.