All Posts Filed in ‘Europe

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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.

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Paluse, Lithuania

Sitting in the cafe in Paluse, eating what was described as roast chicken with stuffing but isn’t quite, a guy arrives and asks in Lithuanian if he can pull over a bench and sit down. I understand what he means and say yes in sign language. I’m sitting in front of my laptop, trying to catch up on the news. Britain has a new Prime Minister. The guy, in his late fifties or sixties, sits down and says some things that I don’t really understand. I stare into the screen of my laptop, even though the new prime minister story isn’t very interesting. Another guy sits down opposite me, saying a few things to his friend, which seem to translate as “what the fuck are we doing here?”, and he indicates me. I ignore him. The first guy is more friendly. He tries to speak German to me, which I speak a little, though no more than him it seems. He says “beer” and “camarades”. Then he says “rauchen?” – smoke? – miming smoking, and I say “ya” (yas). Camarades. Rauchen. Beer.

Trinken, essen, they say, as I eat and drink. I try to hide behind my laptop screen but the second guy objects to this. He asks me, in sign language, to close it, suggesting that he’ll hit it shut if I don’t. So I do. There are some attempts at communication, them speaking Lithuanian with bits of German, me saying in English and German and sign language that I don’t have a bloody clue what you’re saying so why are you even bothering? It seems they’re impatient for the waitress to arrive, sitting there watching me eat and drink, encouraging me to eat and drink more quickly. When the waitress does arrive she sets two pints of beer in front of each of them. They seem to think I’m a bit pathetic only having one beer in front of me. There is some sign language and words I don’t understand. It seems like they want me to drink up, perhaps because they want the table to themselves.

The first guy gets on his mobile phone, saying something about English. I think maybe he has an English dictionary on there, but then he makes a call and I realize he’s going to hand the phone to me, which he does. I say hello. A female voice says hello, and then, my father wants to know what your name is, what you’re doing in Lithuania and how you like it. I tell her my name, and that I’ve been in Lithuania for two months, living in Vilnius (it takes a few attempts before she understands my pronunciation of Vilnius) and working on the internet. I then hand her back to her father. After the call I shake hands with him and re-introduce myself. I don’t catch his name. He says something but I’m not sure if that’s his name or something else. I shake hands with his friend. His friend looks at my hand, as if to say what’s this. He then squeezes my hand tightly, staring at me and smiling. His hand is about twice the size of mine. His eyes are glazed and vacant. I pull my hand away and he hardly seems to notice.

His friend, the first guy, says we’re kamarades. And the other guy is his kamarade, his guten kamarade. He’s the Chief of Police for Ignalina, the main town where I got off the train. I’d noticed his blue shirt, with some writing on the pocket. He was obviously something official. I thought he was a postman. I mention that I was in Ignalina, but the first guy is disagreeing. This is also Ignalina. Zona, I suggest, trying to remember my limited German. Ya, zona! His friend is the Chief of Police for the region that we’re now in.

The chief of police seems to be suggesting that I’m a wimp for only having one beer in front of me. He calls over the waitress and says something to her. I know she speaks English so I ask what’s going on. He wants to buy a beer for you, and she’s already on her way to get it.

The beer arrives, and the old beer which I haven’t yet finished is pushed to one side by the first guy, as if it’s bad form to keep on drinking your first beer when the second has arrived. I say “Isvikata” = cheers, one of the few Lithuanian words I know. We clash glasses quite violently.

Then three vodkas arrive. And they’re quite large vodkas. I pick mine up, waiting for someone else to start drinking, wondering if it’s a down in one kind of thing. It is. The first guy downs his, and I down mine, though more slowly. The chief of Police downs his, but doesn’t quite get to the bottom of it. It looks like he’s had a few already. I go outside for a cigarette and the first guy joins me. I give him a cigarette, which he smokes about halfway down then drops on the floor. IO pick it up for him but he doesn’t want it.

They’d just ordered food, but the chief of police wasn’t eating any of his. He was just looking at it, and fingering some of it. His friend was trying to get him to eat his food, a slab of meat with chips and sour kraut, but he looked like he was about to use it as a pillow. The friend said “essen” to me, forgetting that I’d been eating when they arrived. When I went back in after my cigarette I saw there was a plate of food sitting in my place, but then my phone rang and I went outside to take the call. It was a long phone call. It lasted until the bar closed. I was still on the phone when the police arrived and carried their unconscious chief out into one of their cars. The first guy wandered off. At the end of my phone call I went back into the empty bar, paid my bill, picked up my laptop and asked the waitress what had happened. Was that really the chief of police? Yes. And was that the police that came to take him away? Yes.

And it was not even 10 o’clock. It was still light outside. I could have sworn I put my cigarettes in my back pocket, but they’re no longer there. I was planning on quitting anyway.

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Cafe de Paris, Vilnius

The new Turnpiece Web Design website is now working, though probably needs some images on the front page, just not sure what of. (People seem to like images though, even if they’re totally irrelevant.)

It took ages to get it to display correctly in Internet Explorer because Microsoft don’t bother to follow web standards, but think it’s okay now. If you use Internet Explorer you should get rid of it and start using Firefox – it’s much better.

There’s now a portfolio page showing some of the gallery websites, though quite a few new sites have been created since I set it up. Have a look at the most recently uploaded images or set up your own portfolio website.

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Lithuanian TV

Now that I have a flat I have a TV, but can only pick up Lithuanian channels. There was quite a bit of singing and dancing,

Singing on LIthuanian TV Dancing on Lithuanian TV

some American and Russian programmes

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Uzupio Kavine, Uzupio

Sitting in the Cafe de Paris yesterday drinking a coffee and old Lithuanian guy sat next to me and started talking to me, in Lithuanian at first. He asked me if I was writing a book on my laptop, and then started talking about rock music. He said he got lots of emails telling him the latest rock music news. I asked him what kind of rock music and he said the old stuff. I said like what and he said donovan. But then he mentioned Steppenwolf, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and Nazareth. Nazareth were Scottish, he said. I looked up their website – www.nazarethdirect.co.uk – and found out they are indeed Scottish. I’d vaguely heard of them and always thought they were American. The old guy also said they were jewish, but I’m not sure what point he was making about that. He said something about Gershwin. Possibly anti-semitic but I’m not sure. His English wasn’t that good.

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Kavine Uzupio, Uzupio

It’s French election day. I got an email from a French friend here attaching a cutting from a newspaper about a couple of French kids, 8 and 11 years old, who were arrested for some petty crime and told they would be photographed, fingerprinted and also their genetic “fingerprints” would be taken – “empreintes génétiques” in French – thanks to a law presidential candidate Nocholas Sarkozy brought in in 2003, which most French thought was just to be used for sex offenders but which is actually being applied more widely and has no age limits.

I was listening to some of the French people talking outside Café de Paris the other night, which is where they stand when they want to smoke (which since they’re French is most of the time so they take their drinks out with them), and from what I could pick up from their French none of them were Sarkozy supporters.

But I’ve never met any Americans who have admitted to voting for Bush. From reading the newspapers it sounds like there are quite a lot of French who support Sarkozy. Most of Le Pen’s supporters will vote for him.

Sometimes it feels like there’s a parallel universe where all these Bush and Sarkozy voters exist and when there’s an election that universe, with its own laws of maths and physics (where 1 + 1 = 11 of course and quantum mechanics is a load of intellectual nonsense) encroaches on the universe that I exist in and exerts its imperial muscle.

Being here is a bit like being in Paris only cheaper, so I’ve decided to stay a while longer. From tomorrow I’m renting a flat for a month. It’ll be good to have some stability. I’ve moved about four times in the last three weeks because the places I’ve been staying in have always been booked up so I’ve had to move out and go somewhere else.

The music outside the Café de Paris last night was good, on the building site that had been concreted over the day before, I think by offering the workmen a bottle of vodka. Something like that wouldn’t have happened in old Europe where there would have been regulations against running cables across pavements and putting a stage on a public highway, all enforced by the police, but things here are a bit more flexible. When one of the DJs was playing a gypsy woman wearing a headscarfe and holding a blue leaflet, which she kissed at one point, started to dance and then a load of other people joined in. The DJ was playing a kind of trance reggae gypsy kind of music.

In Gedimino, the main street in Vilnius, the more official part of the music festival was happening. I stopped off there to get some food: sausages, potatos and I think what is called saurkraut, which I’ve had a lot of here. It seems to come with everything. There was a terrible Lithuanian rock n’roll band playing, and singing in English. When the singer started doing “I did it my way” I downed the rest of my beer and left.

I’m now sitting on the terrace of the Uzupio Kavine, by the River Vielnele down which a basket ball is floating, a guy in cycling gear running along the opposite bank with a stick chasing it.

There was a band playing here on the terrace just over a week ago. A Lithuanian ska band, with trumpets. It was packed. There was a crowd on the other side of the river and on the bridge. Someone who had been showing his bare chest to the people in the posh restaurent spoke to me in Russian. He wanted a swig of my beer. There were many blond dreadlocks, but now it appears to be tourists who are in the majority. Germans on one side of me and Americans on the other.

The lights have just come on. It’s started to get cold. I took the lining out of my jacket again today. A car alarm goes off. Car alarms here sound the same as they do in other places, and seem to go off just as randomly.

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Café de Paris, Vilnius, Lithuania

Reggae music is playing just outside the café on the unmadeup Didzioji street. There’s some development work going on in this area so the street is closed to traffic and usually fenced off, but the workmen put some concrete down yesterday and now there’s a sound system on it with a DJ on a small raised stage. There’s some kind of music festival happening all over Vilnius this weekend.