Swimming in the Baltic

It’s a warm sunny day. I’m sitting at a table outside a restaurant, on a terrace with a fountain. A man takes a photo of his son wearing a red baseball cap side on, like a ten-year-old rapper. There are roses in the fountain. Birds search for food beneath the tables.

I’m in Nida, on the Curonian Spit.

My phone rang just now. There’s a party in Vilnius but I’m not going.

I took a walk through the pine forests to the Baltic, having just gone to the tourist office and secured a room here for tomorrow evening. Tonight I’ll go back to the hostel in Klaipeda. The beach was crowded. A number of people were in the Baltic. According to a sign on the lifeguards’ building the water temperature was 17 degrees. I’m now in another outdoor restaurant, drinking a beer and waiting for the 20:00 bus back to Klaipeda. An old fashioned sailing boat drifts by on the stretch of water between the Curonian Spit and mainland Lithuania. From here the mainland is only barely visible, a lumpy strip along the horizon. Walking through the town of Nida just now I passed a young woman from the Cafe de Paris in Vilnius. She was with an elderly couple – her parents I assume. I looked at her and she looked at me but we didn’t speak. Like me she was a regular at the Cafe de Paris. We’d occasionally acknowledged one another but had never spoken. Nida is a popular Lithuanian tourist resort. On the walk to the Baltic there were a number of hotels. I was lucky to find a room here. The very unfriendly though helpful woman at the tourist office spent ages phoning around. After a few unsuccessful calls she told me I would be lucky to get anything for less than 50Lt a night, but in the end she found a place for 15Lt – about 4 Euros. I haven’t seen it yet though. At that price I can’t expect too much. It has an outside toilet and a shower in a separate building.

It turns out to be a tiny room, about 5 feet wide, containing a single bed and a camp bed lying end to end, plus a small table at the end and some wooden chairs by the single bed, arranged like you might arrange chairs by the bed of a sick person.

The owners barely speak English. I went to the house and found the front door open. There was a net curtain across the doorway. Since there was no door bell I knocked on the door, though not too loudly in case someone might hear me. Nobody did hear me so I knocked again on a different part of the door, still not very loudly. The door, like the rest of the house, was made of decaying wood, perhaps pine since that’s what they have a lot of around here.

I sat down on the bench outside the house. I wasn’t going to go through the net curtain. It was someone’s private house and they weren’t expecting me. The tourist office had tried to phone earlier but got no answer. Now I tried phoning on my mobile, wondering if I would hear the phone inside the house ringing. I didn’t, but a woman answered in Lithuanian. I asked if she spoke English and she replied in Lithuanian so I took that as a no. I spoke to her in English, trying to explain that I was sitting outside what I thought was her house – number 11? I can only count up to three in Lithuanian, and I only know about 10 words: good day, hi, seeya, thankyou, beer, orange juice, bill please, yes, no, okay. The woman was speaking in Lithuanian but I had no idea what she was saying. She wasn’t using any of the words I knew. Since she hadn’t hung up on me and was clearly trying very hard to communicate I assumed she knew who I was. I tried German but couldn’t think of how to say I am outside the house. I said: I am here, now, but though the woman had said ja when I asked her (in German) if she spoke German, it sounded like her German was even worse than mine since she was still speaking to me in Lithuanian.

In the end I gave up. I still didn’t want to go through the net curtain into the house so I walked back to the tourist office and got the unfriendly woman there to phone. She said the woman had phoned her just now. I started to explain what had happened but she wasn’t interested so I didn’t bother. I went outside and waited for the woman from number 11 to show up in her car.

And now I’m sitting on a bench by a clump of trees in the midst of the sand dunes that lie between Nida and the Russian border. There’s a fence that I thought was the border though on going up to it I saw that the sign, showing a stylized person with a red diagonal line through them, reads GROBSTAS STRICT NATURE RESERVE – VISITING PROHIBITED. I saw some people walking on the dunes on the far side of the fence just now. I’m wondering whether it is actually the Russian border but they don’t want to advertize the fact. Perhaps it is actually a nature reserve but it spans the border.

I would need a visa if I wanted to go into Russia legitimately, and that can take a couple of weeks to be processed. The part of Russia I’m now next to is the enclave of Kalingrad, separated from the rest of Russia and now bordered on both sides by EU states: Poland and Lithuania.

I was wondering about getting a boat to Poland the other day, since it’s quite awkward to take the train from here, but it appeared there weren’t any ferries going to Poland, though it was possible to go to Germany, Denmark and Sweden. I went into a travel agent in Klaipeda to check this and the woman said yes, that’s right. You can’t go to Poland in a boat. Why? I don’t know. Perhaps there’s no demand for it, she said, but someone back at the hostel, a Belgian woman who had taken the ferry from Germany, suggested it was because a ferry going down the coast to Poland would have to pass through Russian waters, whereas the one to Germany could skirt around them and stay in international waters.

This town is full of couples and families, even more so than most towns. There appear to be two families staying in the room next to mine, or perhaps they have two rooms, or perhaps it’s just one family staying there and the other family was paying them a visit. Either way, it’s a small room for one person, so it must be really cramped with three or four or more. Also, I find when I’m in the room I sneeze a lot. Must be the dust in there, or something in the bedding. There was a spider dangling above my pillow last night.

This morning I woke up at about 7:30. It was raining. There was thunder. I lay in bed until 9:50. I could hear movement and voices from the next room, and outside. I decided not to take a shower this morning since the shower is in the house, behind the net curtain. Not having any language in common it’s awkward meeting the couple who own the place, though the husband does speak a few words of English, but not enough for any kind of conversation, and once I’ve said good day and hi I’m out of Lithuanian, though I say thankyou a lot because they are very helpful. I think their son speaks English. They dragged him out of the house yesterday when I was there. The husband had been trying to explain to me where Thomas Mann’s house was, and I was trying to tell him I already knew because it’s clearly marked on the map I got from the tourist office. Thomas Mann used to stay here each summer, when presumably it was a lot quieter. Tell man where Mann house, the man said to his son, but the son, about ten years old, said nothing.

Yesterday evening when I went past the house they were doing a barbecue with my neighbours. I was worried they might invite me to join them, but fortunately they didn’t.

This morning I found a back way out onto the street so I don’t have to pass the house and walk through their back garden – and a few other people’s I think – to get to my room. There doesn’t seem to be such a strict concept of private property here as there is in Western European countries, or in North America. People’s gardens and properties seem to merge into one another. The landlady had to go to another house to get the key for my room, so perhaps it doesn’t fully belong to her and her husband. Perhaps that sharing, if that’s what it is, is a remnant of communism, or it may predate communism.

I’m sitting in a cafe looking out onto the harbour where there are a number of yachts. There’s obviously money here. Food is more expensive than in other places in Lithuania, including Vilnius which is considered expensive by Lithuanians.

I’ve just made use of the toilets in the cafe, since the outside toilet where I’m staying is a hole in the ground and I’m not in the mood for a squat and drop, even though it may be more environmentally friendly. Flushing uses a lot of water.

I go back to my room to do some work but the electricity is off and my laptop is out of battery so I decide to head down to the beach on the West side of the spit, the side facing the Baltic. It’s warmed up quite a bit after the rain this morning, and after the 3km walk through the pine forest I’m hot enough to go in the sea, which isn’t so bad once I’m in there and swimming. It’s a long wide beach and it’s quite densely populated. It’s hard to believe there’s room for all these people in the town, but as I neared the beach I passed quite a few large modern hotels, and I guess there must be several other hotels dotted around amongst the pines that I haven’t seen yet.

A kid walks past with a Union Jack towel around his shoulders – then looking more closely I see it’s actually a skinny woman wearing a baseball cap. Britain seems to be quite trendy here. I’ve seen a number of men in England football shirts, and there was someone on the beach earlier with a Liverpool FC towel.

The wind has picked up and is blowing from the North West, making it feel a lot cooler. People are starting to leave. Soon I’ll put my shirt on.

Back at my room I see the electricity still isn’t working. I hunt around for the owners but can’t find them anywhere. I call through the next curtains, and peer behind them, but no one there. I go back to my room and try the light switch again. Still nothing. It’s not the light bulb because I tried the socket as well, plugging in the kettle they gave me. The neighbours are there. I wonder if their electricity is working, but don’t ask them. I go back to the house and walk around it. Just as I’m walking off they appear, with a couple of other people – their neighbours I think. I say no electricity. There’s a look of horror on the woman’s face and they say things to one another in Lithuanian, then we all march off to my room, though they stop off a the toilet on the way, to check the light in there I think. I get to my room and try the light again and now it comes on. I go back and ask the guy if he did something because now it’s working, but he doesn’t appear to understand and comes to my room and turns on the light. It wasn’t working 5 minutes ago, I say, holding up 5 fingers. Penki is the word for five. I remember that now, from yesterday when the woman didn’t have a penki Lita coin for my change and I said that’s okay, but when I saw her a bit later she was saying penki and handed me the coin, along with a roll of toilet paper.