It is very alarming to receive a government emergency alert on your phone. Even more alarming when it’s in a language you don’t understand. From the alert arriving to us gaining and understanding of what it meant, took at least 30 very stressful minutes but more of that later…
(Article photo: Make Everything Great Again – Vilnius, Lithuania)
What kind of man leaves his wife and newly born child at home, to go off and travel on his own? I’m sure Paul Theroux would argue that he was working, when he wrote ‘The Great Railway Bazaar’ but as a self-employed writer, why create your schedule that way. It just seems disgraceful.
It is supposed to be one of the great travel books but reading it made me dislike him. Theroux was rude to many people he met and always seemed to have a bottle of wine tucked under his arm. I found his complex writing made my attention wander but I wanted to read the book, as it was based on a trip not unlike ours.
I guess we are just different people. I was travelling, albeit in a roundabout way, to get somewhere – not just for leisure’s sake. Theroux was supremely confident, in that way that tourists from the United States often are, as they travel – I was hesitant and unsure. Theroux loved to pontificate over his adventure – I like to speak plainly, rather than appeal only to wordsmiths and bookworms. After all, I was not from Massachusetts with it’s world famous universities but from Glasgow, with it’s world famous comradery.
I guess back when it was written, travel was the preserve of a privileged few and that shows in this book. Now, anyone can fly all the way around the world for as little as a thousand pounds and you have to put up with poorly educated idiots from Glasgow spouting about how amazingly cheap the beer is, as we go.
I was coming to the point where Theroux crosses from Europe into Asia, in Istanbul, and not sure if I would continue reading it. Kate and I were also nearing the end of our Europe section but before Russia and a continental shift, we had the small matter of crossing the Baltic regions, having just left Poland.
Peppered with silvery lakes and a blanket of trees, the garden states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia at first glance, looked like a model for how European countries should be developing. These modest little states had so much nature, even in the centre of their cities, along with Scandinavia, they were the lungs of the continent.
One of the reasons we’d wanted to travel overland, was to reduce the heavy impact that flying would have had on nature and this topic had been on my mind for some time. The earth was warming and maybe we’d all have to stop travelling? No, probably just start travelling differently, I reconsidered.
“rewilding they call it” I said to Marta, the hostel receptionist, I’d struck up a conversation up with. She was short, with a kind face and the type of sandy blonde hair that’s very common in Lithuania.
“You plant lots of trees and they suck up lots of carbon, so that there is less going into the atmosphere.”
“Trees, we have lots of. About half the country is covered” she said and she was right. As we’d rode into Vilnius that afternoon, we’d past rows and rows of thick, green pine trees and silver birch stopping only to give way to lakes that shimmered in the sunlight. The trees were tall and thin, with branches that began half way up the trunk, as if they’d been fed on the tree equivalent of an athlete’s diet
I already liked the Baltic regions before I’d arrived here. They were countries I was most familiar with through international football and they were amongst the few in Europe that the Scotland team would have a chance of getting a result against. I thanked them immediately with a toast of with my first beer in each country.
We should have thanked the weather too. It was perfect for spring and I was moved to wear shorts for a couple of days. I noticed that I was the only one however – is 18 degrees not warm for Lithuanians?
When it’s cold in Scotland, it’s often referred to as “Baltic”, so I was surprised to find the region so warm in April, and their inhabitants indifferent at the temperature. I then stopped wearing my shorts after a few days, because I’d become a little self-conscious of being the only one.
I go from one battle to the next like this. Never being aware of the customs and habits of a place is a heavy burden. I discover from a guidebook that whistling indoors is not polite here. Lithuania was one of the last countries to embrace Christianity and still carries many of its preceding paganistic traditions. Many Lithuanians believe that whistling calls on ghosts to appear and as such, don’t want it in their houses, for fear of a ghoulish encounter.
I catch myself whistling at least five times each day and kick myself each time. Maybe I’m whistling even more because I’m trying not to do it. Maybe because I feel awkward in my unfamiliar surroundings – I feel like cutting my lips off.
On the Baltic coast, once again we are reminded how strange the earth can be sometimes, as we reach a funny slither of land, called the Curonian Spit. It’s basically a huge sandbank, that’s developed in the Baltic sea, over time. Being located where it is, the island was divided 50/50 between Lithuania to the north and the Russian outpost of Kaliningrad to the south. It is a great place to lie and read for a while, or giggle at the hilarious misconception in Scotland, that the Baltic is always freezing cold. It’s disorientating to think that misconception could exist today, with only a thousand miles between us.
It would be nice to write a postcard home, informing Scotland of its wrong-doing but I can’t work out how or where to buy a stamp. The souvenir shops don’t seem to stock them.
“it’s like a coffee shop without any cups – no method of delivery.” I say with a cheeky smile. It’s an anecdote that goes down poorly in each of the shops visited but still I keep on with it.
We roll out of Lithuania feeling as calm as we have all trip but drama is never far away in unfamiliar places. My phone becomes a source of panic, as it lights up with some kind of message, the likes of which I’ve not seen before. A succession of vibrations of two large exclamation marks in yellow, make for worrying reading. Worrying particularly as I can’t read a word this clearly urgent warning is saying.
I start to panic, thinking my phone has been hacking in some way. Has my bank account been drained? I have a banking app on the phone. Maybe all my travel fund has gone in the blink of an eye. Maybe this is some kind of scam? Do I now have to negotiate with organised criminals?
I type out the message into my phone, so I have the characters and we enter them into Google translate. It says something about military intervention and knowing that a navel base was only a few miles down the road, was not a source of comfort. There has always been tensions between Russia and the EU but I though it was limited to shows of military strength and showboating? I was sure it was something that was played up in the media, simply to sell newspapers. Putin the tough president, playing cat and mouse games around the borders with the EU.
We contact a friend of Kate’s from Lithuania and it takes a while for her reply. The message says; “Military exercises on the coast of Lithuania today. There is no reason for alarm but you may experiences some delays on roads and in shipping lanes”. We are reminded that the world is fraught with tensions and that to relax too much anywhere might be to fall into complacency. Tensions are still high between Russia and Lithuania, as you can see from recent news stories.
Metropolis Riga is several times bigger than the boutique city of Vilnius, but no less nice. Sometimes the bigger cities are a welcome break, as they are more international, are more anonymous, you can blend in. In smaller places, things are more colloquial, quiet and exposed. You stick out like a sore thumb – or in my case a sore pair of bare white legs.
Latvia has just as erratic a history as every other country round these parts, including Polish, Scandinavian, German and Russian rule at various times. I guess that’s why their sovereignty is so important to them, as indicated by the imposing Freedom Monument, on the edge of their charming old town. They were a country of inner conflict during world war two, split over which side to join. When you are less powerful, you may need to make unhealthy alliances to survive. In the end, the Soviet Army took the decision out of their hands and drove the Germans out.
Tallinn probably sits somewhere in between the two, in feel and style. To be frank, if you’ve seen one Old Town, you’ve seen them all and so we spend a good amount of time in the Talliskivi area. Estonia’s youth have taken the derelict factories of old and returned them to glory. The modern bars, café’s, art spaces and restaurants attract the generation of tomorrow, and they are hungry for change and egalitarianism, as much as they are for spray paint, Saku and sharing platters.
Although it’s nice to learn the history of places, being present in the moment feels important too. That is where the mind can wander to a kind of oasis that this part of the world could soon create. Idyllic green spaces with unrivalled connection to nature. Countries that place the social welfare of it’s inhabitants at the top of their agenda. Where economic inequality can be reduced because people don’t care for the standard of their living – consuming endlessly as they go – but the standard of their life. Maybe. Lets hope so.
On we go.