All Posts Filed in ‘Europe


JNN Hostel, Vilnius. Lithuania

My coat has a detachable fur lining that I have detached and then re-attached several times since leaving Britain in February. I went away with it attached but then for a while in February it was quite warm and I had to detach it, though when I met Mr and Mrs KarmaBanque and we talked about environmental holocaust it was cold and rainy and I had it attached again. Bergen in Norway was not as cold as you might think it would be and so for a while there I was sans-lining, but not when I went North of the Arctic Circle in March, where it was around zero, but people said it would usually be 10 below at that time of year. There were then a few warmish days in Helsinki, but moving South to Tallinn it was cold and windy so the lining went back in. And then last week it was pretty warm here in Vilnius so the lining came out again, and some people were out in T-shirts, but then some people will be out in T-shirts whatever the weather, and if they’re women there will usually be a fleshy gap between their T-shirt and their skirt or jeans. And then a couple of days ago, when I went out on the evening of April 30th / morning of May 1st, having heard that Britain had just had the warmest April since records began in 1659, here in Vilnius it was snowing.

Cold weather here usually comes down from Russia. Warm weather comes from the West.

I’ve just downloaded some news from the web, realizing I’ve been a bit out of touch. A British weather man said it was too soon to say whether this April’s record breaking temperatures were linked to global warming, but if the records kept being broken for another ten years then it would seem that there was a link. By which time it would be too late to do anything about it – though he didn’t say that.

Another article I downloaded was about Lydd Airport, near Dungeoness, owned by a Saudi businessman. He wants to take advantage of cheap flights boom and increase passenger numbers by a factor of 100, from less than 5000 a year to half a million, and then to two million.

I discovered 10 Downing Street’s petitions website the other day and put my name to a few of them. The one I think should have been top in number of signatures was the one saying: “We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to Drop all plans for airport expansion and take steps to substantially
reduce airport capacity.”
And the one to scrap VAT on bicycles and bike parts is a good one and that one’s here –
But the one with the most signatures is the one asking the government to scrap inheritance tax, which must have been signed by a load of dead people. Or nearly dead people. Do they think they’re doing their descendants a favour by leaving them their estates? Perhaps they think that by leaving their descendants lots of money this will make up for the kind of environment they’re leaving them. Or perhaps they don’t really believe they’re really damaging the environment. They’re just turning up the thermostat a bit.

Listening to a conversation going on in the hostel I stayed in in Tallinn. A Norwegian woman mentioned global warming and an American talked about how he’d been harranged by an angry Swede at his country’s failure to sign the Kyoto protocol, to which he answered well, what’s the point if China and India don’t sign it? Then he said he didn’t think global warming would be a major catastrophe. There wouldn’t be loads of people dying.

Perhaps not a lot of Americans, nor a lot of Europeans, and even though there have been droughts in Australia probably not a lot of Australians either. The rich countries and their populations will be better able to deal with the changes to their environment, and their wealth will means that as food and water supplies diminish they will ensure they have more than their fare share. But people in poor countries…? (Or poor people in rich countries – New Orleans?) I haven’t heard much about the causes of the famine in Africa in the eighties that started the Live Aid campaign. At the time global warming wasn’t a phrase most people were familiar with, but I remember Africans at the time saying their crops had failed because the rains didn’t come. They were living in areas where there wasn’t much rain, but where what little there was was essential to their survival. James Lovelock in “The Revenge of Gaia” says the expansion of the deserts will be one of the effects of global warming. Less fertile land for growing crops means less food and so more famine. Or perhaps more chopping down forests to create farms in which case even you get even more global warming. Meaning even less food…….

Where the thermostat analogy breaks down is that with a thermostat you turn it up to a certain temperature and then when the temperature reaches the thermostat’s setting that’s it, it stops rising. A thermostat uses negative feedback. When the temperature drops below it’s setting the heating switches on, increasing the temperature, and when the temperature rises above it’s setting the heating turns off, allowing the temperature to fall. Me and the lining of my coat is like that, along with my sweating and shivering, all negative feedback mechanisms to keep my body temperature more or less constant. If I can’t keep my body temperature constant, like if I “have a temperature”, then I’m in. With the earth it’s seems we’re reaching that point. The negative feedback effects it used to use to regulate its temperature have either been destroyed or become ineffective in relation to positive feedback mechanisms. So rather than the increase in temperature settling down at some point a bit warmer than it is now these are mechanisms that will cause the rise in temperature to accelerate. For example, the melting of the polar ice caps. White reflects light and therefore reflects heat. Much of the heat of the sun striking the earth is reflected back into space by the ice caps. Smaller ice caps => less heat reflected => more warming => smaller ice caps => ….

That’s the trouble with a phrase like global warming. It sounds quite pleasant if you live in a generally cold country. (Britain will be like the Med – under water.) And it is mainly the people in generally cold countries who are causing global warming. Even if China’s emissions are about to overtake America’s, China still has about 5 times the population, so the carbon footprint of the average American is five times the size of that of the average Chinese person.

Climate change as well sounds a bit lame, whereas environmental holocaust (used by KarmaBanque) I think is too loaded, though closer to the truth. The word holocaust has too much emotional resonance for a lot of people, and the use of that word could just become a distraction. Though they used to talk about nuclear holocaust and that was okay, though it never actually happened so maybe that will be in the back of people’s heads when they hear the term environmental holocaust. Like Christopher Walken playing Russian roulette in the Deer Hunter, once you’ve survived a couple of holocausts you don’t take warnings about the next one so seriously.

Or it could be a Freudian death drive kind of thing.

Perhaps there should be opinion polls asking people what we should call these things.

I listened to The Boycott Coca Cola Experience on KarmaBanque radio last Saturday, which was good. Not often you get to hear a song about gas and discussion of Darfur, corporate occupation and snooker on the same programme, but then I don’t often listen to the radio. Sitting in cafes I don’t like wearing headphones. I feel like I’m cutting myselff off too much when I do that, but in the back room of the Café de Paris almost everyone sits with a laptop and headphones, and often they’re talking to their laptops as well. (I’ve not started doing that yet, but did download Skype the other day.) There’s a good internet connection. It’s free, though someone here was talking about the internet company that provides the wifi for most of the local cafes and restaurants, Zebra, wanting to start charging people. They already are in one place I went to the other day, so I won’t be going back there again. (The same place where the waitress never brought me my change once.) I was talking to someone about how it is in England where there are a load of different wifi providers in different cafes and almost all of them expect people to pay quite high monthly rates, sometimes forcing you to sign up for a year, so then you have to keep going back to the same cafe or the same chain of cafes – unless you’re wealthy enough to be able to subscribe to a number of different service providers. It looks like things might go the same way here.

The weekend before last I went to a place called Paneriai, 10km outside Vilnius – 40p on the train. I got out at a deserted and closed station building, having to walk across the tracks to get to it. There were some run down tower blocks, with washing hanging out on the balconies and graffiti on the walls. Then a bit further up the road some wooden houses. Someone the other day was telling me that the wealth gap between Vilnius and the rest of the country is growing. I think the average salary in Lithuania is about £3000 a year, but I’ve been trying to rent a flat here for a month and finding they’re wanting almost London prices. Though I’m having to pay a bit over the odds because i only want a place for a month, it looks like I’ll have to pay £100 a week, and if I pay it I guess I become part of the reason why the gap between Vilnius and the rest of the country is growing. This is becoming a trendy city. Many flats advertize that they welcome stag parties. I was listening to some Irish property developers sitting in the Cafe de Paris the other day. One of them was talking about how he hasn’t been able to find decent furniture for his places here and is shipping (or flying) it over from Italy, and another was talking about philanthropy, wanting to give something back to the country.

I didn’t go to Paneriai to see the poverty though. I went because that’s possibly where the holocaust begin. It was a Nazi extermination camp. There’s a small museum there, but it was closed, and then there’s a memorial park. It’s about a 1km walk from the station, along a tree lined road. Someone who I think got off the train I was on was walking ahead of me but he turned off and went into what looked like a village of garden sheds. I couldn’t make out if they were for storage or whether people lived in them. There were no signposts and no one to ask so I wasn’t sure if I was going in the right direction, but after a while I got to a compound of white buildings that looked like a concentration camp. I thought that must be it, but there was a gate, some insignia, not Nazi but a bit fascistic looking, and some words but nothing in English, and it was all closed up and no one appeared to be around. I walked along the road a bit further and that was where I found the actual memorial. I just hadn’t been sure what I was heading for. In Lonely Planet it just recommends a visit to the place but doesn’t say much about what’s there.

Paneriai, Vilnius, Lithuania Paneriai, Vilnius, Lithuania Paneriai, Vilnius, Lithuania Paneriai, Vilnius, Lithuania Paneriai, Vilnius, Lithuania Paneriai, Vilnius, Lithuania Paneriai, Vilnius, Lithuania

Apparently the holes in the ground were initially dug by the Russians as fuel dumps when they were occupying Lithuania just before the Germans invaded. I think that’s partly why they chose this location. It would save them having to dig fresh holes.

It was only afterwards that I did a search on the internet and found the Wikipedia page (of course) and this US Government report, so when I was walking around I didn’t really know what I was looking at. Sometimes it’s better to go to places without knowing much. Sometimes not. I was the only one there. I walked around taking photos. Lots of photos. There was a light rain in the air, then as I stood at the rim of a large pit the sun came out briefly. The compound of white buildings was visible through the trees. I took photos, zooming in because I didn’t want to go up to the fence just in case there were people in there. I didn’t see anyone, but as I was leaving I did hear and then saw a dog. An alsatian I think. I was sure that must have been the concentration camp, though a search on the internet later, Googling in the name of the place, it turns out it’s the HQ of a company of military clothing manufacturers. Their website doesn’t mention whether the buildings of their HQ were once something else, but I guess it’s not the sort of thing you would put on the “About Us” page of your website.

The Wikipedia page says:

Out of 70,000 Jews living in Vilnius, only 7,000 would survive the war; the Jewish culture in Vilnius, one of the greatest in Europe, ceased to exist.

Timothy Snyder, The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569-1999, Yale University Press, ISBN 0-300-10586-X Google Books, p.84-89


Cafe in JNN Centre, Vilnius, Lithuania

The present seems to last a long time here. Things happen very slowly. I’m in a cafe in a sports centre which has a hostel attached with rooms to rent, waiting for the hostel administrator to appear from wherever it is that hostel administrators appear from. According to the sign on the hostel admnistrator’s door her name is Trix.

I’m also waiting for a salad. Don’t don’t what kind of salad because the woman serving didn’t speak enough English to be able to explain, though someone in the queue was able to translate orange juice, which I now have. A few minutes ago in the past I was standing in a queue waiting to talk to someone at a reception desk to ask where the hostel administrator was but was waiting behind a woman taking ages to fill out a form, or maybe it was the receptionist taking ages on her computer. And yesterday I waited about 10 minutes behind one person in the tourist information office.

This place is a little way out of town, but at least I’ll have my own room tonight. Last night when I went to bed some of the Russians (who may not actually be Russian since I think I heard them speaking to one of the hostel workers in Lithuanian) were snoring very loudly, and then this morning when they got up at 8 or 9, they sat in the dorm and chatted, rather than going to the lounge or kitchen. There were still a few of us trying to sleep.

The salad has arrived: Lettuce, olives and radishes. Doesn’t look as big as it did in the picture.


Vilnius, Lithuania

After a gruelling nine and a half hour bus journey I arrived in Vilnius at 6:30 this morning. I had about the worst seat in the bus since sitting behind me was a Russian guy who for the first two hours was talking to his mobile phone. I know he was Russian because he was saying things like “da” and ‘nyet”. Once he’d finished on the phone he spent ten minutes kicking the back of my seat and then fell asleep and snored for the rest of the journey, with brief interruptions at the two border crossings: between Estonia and Latvia then between Latvia and Lithuania. Since they’re all EU countries I hadn’t expected much of a border, but at each a customs official got on the bus and looked at everyone’s passport, and for the non-EU citizens, who appeared to mostly be Russians, their passport was taken away and we had to wait ten or fifteen minutes, presumably while checks were done on them, though it felt like a way for the Baltic countries to get back at the Russians.

Yesterday I went to the Linnamuseum in Tallinn, a museum on the history of Tallinn, which was very good, but particularly when it got onto the 20th Century and dealt with the Russian occupation, describing the influx of Russians who moved in after the war as not having the same manners as Estonian people, which I read as meaning they had no manners. It also said that the Russians got all the best jobs and the best flats, but what it barely mentioned was the German occupation from 1941 until they were driven out by the Red Army – 1944 I think. After the Russian revolution and the end of the First World War Lenin gave Estonia its independence, which lasted until 1940 when the Russians returned due to a clause in the pact between Stalin and Hitler. The museum said that when the Germans drove out the Russians in 1941 they were greeted as liberators, which it said was understandable given the hard time they’d had under the Russians. But I find it hard to see how they could have viewed the Germans as liberators, since in 1941 they must have seen what had happened to France, Poland, Czechoslavakia etc. and they must have know what the Nazis were about.

According to WikiPedia Estonia had a Jewish population of 4000 before the Germans arrived.

Round-ups and killings of Jews began immediately following the arrival of the first German troops in 1941, who were closely followed by the extermination squad Einsatzkommando (Sonderkommando) 1A…

I’d heard before coming to Estonia that they really don’t like the Russians, and this museum seemed to confirm this. 40% of the population of Tallinn is Russian apparently. It would be good to hear their take on things. I get the feeling there was something being glossed over in the museum’s account around Estonia’s stance during the war. It complained that before the Germans arrived many Estonians had been conscripted to fight alongside the Russians, giving the impression that if they hadn’t been conscripted they wouldn’t have agreed to fight the Germans, or maybe even would have fought alongside the Germans. Maybe some of them did. If that’s the case then, particularly given the number of people Russia lost during the war, it’s as understandable as to why Russians may dislike Estonians as it is that Estonians apparently dislike Russians.

Then there were pictures of the singing revolution of the late eighties, and the human chain from Vilnius to Tallinn. Estonian people in stone-washed denim jackets with padded shoulders, and some TV footage of debates and demonstrations, up to when Estonia finally declared itself independent in 1991. For that they had a couple of T-shirts from the time hanging on the wall and then drawn on the wall in black marker pen were two happy smiling faces. It was a good museum still, but very much from Estonia’s point of view. It showed the period of independence between 1918 and 1940 as a golden age of Estonian arts and creativity. Before 1918 it hadn’t really been independent at all, being passed between the Swedes, the Germans, the Russians, and then going back further, Tallinn was an important Viking port.

Sitting on the bus listening to this Russian talking to his phone I couldn’t help wondering about Russian manners. But people everywhere talk into mobile phones. There’s something about listening to someone talking to a mobile phone that’s far more irritating that listening to two people talking to one another. Even when you don’t understand the language, a normal conversation has a rhythm, like the sound of a tennis match, but when it’s a person talking to a phone there’s some asymmetrical about it which is quite disturbing. To me at least. I was wondering if people from large countries are less polite than people from small countries. That would explain Americans, and Chinese. Being from a large country is a bit like being from a large city. It doesn’t matter if you piss someone off, it’s a big country so you’re not likely to meet them again. In a small country maybe there’s more of a small town feeling, the sense that if you do bad things word will get around and you’ll get a bad reputation.

But I’m sure there are many exceptions to this rule. England isn’t such a big country, and Lithuania is very small. When I got to the bus station I went into a coffee shop but I didn’t have any Lithuanian money and I hadn’t spotted any cash points, but I wanted a coffee and asked the guy in there if I could pay on my card. I asked him in English but he shouted back in LIthuanian with a bit of German I think – I heard zwei. Apparently he didn’t accept payment by credit or debit card.

I got similar responses trying to get a map and then trying to ask which bus I needed to take to get into town. Obviously was quite different to Tallinn and very different to Scandanavia. I’ve gotten used to just going up to people and speaking in English and getting replies in near perfect English back. So here I’ll have to start saying “Ar kalbate angliskal?”

I walked into a coffee shop this afternoon and bumped into a couple of Canadians I’d met in Helsinki. Canada is a big country, but it has a small population. They’ve been here for the past two weeks but are now ready to leave for somewhere more normal. This is the wild west, one of them kept saying. it certainly looks pretty rough in many places. There are crumbling buildings which remind me of India, and the prices are almost as low, but I don’t get the impression there are that many tourists here. Certainly not as many as in Tallinn. But this place isn’t Tallinn. Ryan Air don’t fly to Vilnius yet. When they do they will probably be many more drunken English people like the ones I saw today sitting outside a bar. It was a warm day. Many people were sitting drinking outside bars, but these English ones were shouting and running up to groups of girls.

Forget what I said about people from big countries having no manners. It’s people from rich powerful countries when they go to poor countries who have no manners and treat the country like they own it, expecting its people to serve them… Which is happening outside now as someone is trying to get the woman working in the hostel to call him a cab again after she’s already called one once and she’s telling him he has to be waiting outside otherwise the taxi will come and then it will go away, which it sounds like is what has happened… And expecting them to speak English. Perhaps it would be better if people in the richer countries I’ve been to – Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark – weren’t so ready to speak English and didn’t speak it so well. More like the French. Or the Italians. Then people like me wouldn’t come to places like this assuming people will speak English.

I think they’re Danish, or maybe Germans, outside waiting for the hostel worker to call a taxi to the casino, but they’re speaking to one another in English, talking about how beautiful the women in LIthuania are, and how tall they are. One of them was trying to chat up the hostel women, who is now telling one of the others off for drinking in the hostel again.

The Canadians were going to a club tonight. A place call Broadway-jus. (Lithuanians add jus onto the end of loads of words for some reason. It must mean something.) They told me where it is but I’m quite a way out of town and don’t want to get a taxi. It’s only about a 20 minute walk, but after not getting any sleep last night and only a few hours during the day here today – thanks to more Russians talking in the dorm while I was trying to sleep – I think I need an early night, though it’s gone midnight now. For me anything before 2am is early. From what the Canadians were saying today it sounds like anything before 7am is an early night for them.

One of them has been taking Lithuanian lessons from a Lithuanian woman. A Lithuanian pop star with the number one hit single here. He was talking about Lithuanian customs. They regard talking in the past tense as a sign of weakness. To appear strong you must just talk in the present tense and you shouldn’t ask for things you should demand them; I am here, it is now, I am doing this, I am having this, etc..

It is 00:43. I am sitting on a leather sofa listening to the sound of the tall Lithuanian hostel worker typing on her keyboard as she listens to music – an English language song – on the radio.

It is 00:46 and I am wondering whether or not to write what I just wrote again but now I’m thinking that to wonder is a weakness and wrote is past tense. Strength is certainty, even when you’re wrong. An appendage to a statement is weak. Trust the statement. Commas are a sign of weakness. No more commas. Only full stops.

It is 00:49 and this is the last sentence of this post and I’m thinking it’s weak to refuse to speak in the past tense just because someone tells you it is.


Jazz Lounge, Tallinn, Estonia

This is one of the posher places in Tallinn, but still a bowl of soup with bread cost less than £2. Red armchairs, fake flowers and soft music – not jazz.

Here’s a couple of photos taken on my mobile:

Strange how it’s not possible to get from Tallinn to Vilnius by train. I’ll have to take the bus. I went to the bus station earlier but couldn’t buy a ticket. I didn’t see anywhere that was selling tickets, just buses and a shopping centre. I found an information desk, though I think it was information for the shops, and asked. They directed me to a place called R-Kiosk, a newsagents type of place, where I had to queue behind a 10 year old paying for an ornage juice on a credit card, and then a woman paying for cigarettes on a credit card. I asked for a bus ticket to Vilnius and was told it would be 10 krones, which is about 50p. To Vilnius? The woman got confused and told me I was in the wrong place. They only sold local bus tickets. But she wouldn’t tell me where I had to go. A guy in the queue behind me with an American accent said I had to go to the international bus station, and explained how to get there, but I haven’t been yet.

Tallinn web cam.


Cafe Moskva, Tallinn, Estonia

Sitting in a window seat of Cafe Moskva with my laptop on my lap, having just had two double espressos and a plate of pasta with sun-dried tomatoes and chicken. The waitress, wearing a tight black mini-skirt, just asked me if I wanted anything else. I’ve been here for a few hours, browsing the web, trying out different templates on thios blog and getting rid of the adverts I put on it the other day. Meanwhile in the real world jazz music is playing. The cafe is quite full. There’s a cold Baltic wind blowing outside. Last night I went to the Von Krahli Theatre Bar where I thought there was going to be live music but it turned out to be live DJs, but very good ones. Something or someone called Tallinn Express, someone sitting in front of a laptop creating images on a screen and all the bar staff wearing headphones. It was quite loud.


Tallinn, Estonia

Last night I had dinner in a mediaeval restaurant but tonight I bought a tin of tuna and some mushrooms and did that with the spaghetti I already had in the hostel kitchen. That’s one big advantage of staying in a hostel rather than a hotel: you get to use their kitchen, but while I was eating I had to listen to two English women talking as they lined their stomachs with vodka and coke, presumably before going out on the town:

I only found out today how old my mum is. She’s 55. That’s only 5 years away from 60. So if she’s 55 and I’m 20 how old does that make her when she had me?

Well, 55 minus 20. Whatever that is.


From Cafe Esplanad, Helsinki, Finland to Tallinn, Estonia

I’m feeling a bit weak after a night out experiencing the dark side of Finland, the side that drinks to excess and then keeps on drinking.

Cafe Esplanad is the other side of Finland. People eating salads, drinking coffee, reading newspapers, two people holding what looks like a business meeting: a woman sits at a laptop and types as a man speaks.

When the beer isn’t getting you drunk fast enough you order a round of fisherman’s friends: shots which smell and taste like the sweets but are made from vodka. A deep dark red colour. You touch glasses and say skol then knock it back in one.

A drunken Finn stands outside a taxi. The driver winds down his window and says something in Finnish. The drunk looks at him. I think he’s asking where you want to go. I want to go home, he says. I think you have to tell him where home is. He says home, and gets into the taxi. It drives off.

A waitress clears the tables in the cafe. I go for another cup of coffee, my third. Refills are free here. It’s more of a cold than a hangover that I have. It’s still sunny outside but the weather feels cooler than it has over the past few days.

It was 20 degrees in Rome. I went for a beer with an Italian who’d just arrived at the hostel. He really wanted cannabis rather than beer and he thought I might be able to help him find some. I told him I wouldn’t. I hadn’t noticed anyone smoking while I’d been here. I said I thought this was more of a drinking culture.

They seem to like drinking coffee almost as much as they like drinking beer. It’s weak coffee though, American style.

A couple of guys with skateboards choose cakes.

There’s an academic bookshop next door with a large range of English language titles. It’s a very good bookshop. As good as any in London. One of the best in Europe, the Finn said. He had a lot to say about books before the fisherman’s friends arrived. After the second round of friends all he could do was shake hands and ask for more. He got angry when I said, after the first round of friends, now I understood why I’d seen so many Finns lying on the ground. A couple of nights before someone standing in front of me had lent back and fallen into me. I’d pushed him away and he’s gone down on the ground, somehow managing to keep his beer upright. No one bothered helping him as he struggled to get up.

Last nights Finn was actually half Finnish, half Irish and half English. He’d grown up in England but when he first spoke neither me nor Il Italiano (who was half Mexican) understood what he was saying. It took three repetitions before I understood that he was asking us to join him at his table. I asked him why he didn’t join us sitting at the bar but he wouldn’t. At the time he didn’t come across as drunk, but seeing how he got later I think by then he must already have had a few.

The fourth and final cup of coffee has just been poured. It’s my last day in Finland. I’d like to go out and see a church made of stone that I’ve heard about but not yet got around to going to. I’ve not been to many places. I’ve spent most of my time here in front of the computer, either in the hostel or in cafes, and then I’ve been to various bars. I’ve also had a look round some bookshops and been to supermarkets. Just day to day living. Not a lot of sight seeing, apart from the christening I saw at the Uspensky Cathedral and the wander around the park.

It’s getting crowded again in the cafe as people get their late afternoon cakes.

In the stone church a saxophonist and a pianist rehearse. Some tourists listen and take photos. The pianist switches to the organ. When the music stops and the musicians leave, the church is quiet, apart from the sound of tourists whispering. The baby that was crying during the music now left.

I sneeze quite suddenly and quite loudly. That seems to be the cue for some camera flashes to go off. A man in a dark suit lights some candles and sets up a microphone. A brightly coloured woman dressed like a model from Millets crouches down in the aisle. At first I think she’s praying but then the flash goes off. An elderly lady looks like she might be praying, but she might also be sleeping. A woman with noisy heels walks in and sits down.

I often feel like slapping people who use flash photography in public places. The Irish Finn from London said he felt like slapping French people because when he was there and he spoke French they answered him in English. They’re another nation of arseholes, he said. I can’t remember what the first nation of arseholes was. England perhaps.

The church is starting to fill up. Some people look like they’re dressed for church so I guess a service is about to begin. I should probably get out of here before the singing starts. The black suit is putting numbers up on a rack on the rocks: 71, 73, 65. An old lady in black says something to him. She sounds angry. Perhaps she doesn’t approve of his selection. She goes off and speaks to a couple in the congregation then takes her seat on the front row. The saxophonist comes in with the pianist and they get ready to start. I get up and leave.

Back at the hostel I have an orange juice, an aspirin, a cup of Earl Grey tea and a couple of chocolate biscuits. I sit down with my book and as I shift my weight to get comfortable I feel a rip in my jeans. There was a small rip already between the legs but this one is much larger. I have another pair and should be able to get back to the dorm carrying my book behind my back without it looking strange. People often walk around carrying books.

I was talking to the women on night duty here the other night, showing her my photos of India. She said she runs a Vipassana meditation course here in Finland in June. I remember talking to people who’d done that in India. It’s ten days with no talking, no communication at all, not even eye contact nor smiling in acknowledgement of someone. No text messaging, emailing, blogging and no reading either. No computers… Pen ran out just now. (I’ve been writing this by hand.) I’ve borrowed one from the hostel. The woman on duty (a different woman) told me I could keep it. Apart from the building workers working on one of the shower rooms, I’ve only seen one male member of staff. He’s an Indian (or Pakistani) guy who sometimes does the night shift. I heard him watching cricket on TV once – that is, I heard the sound of cricket coming from the office, English language commentary, and thought it curious that a Finnish person should be interested in cricket, not realizing the shift had changed while I was sitting at my computer. The best wifi is transmitted from the office so I would sit just outside the office with my laptop to get the best reception.

There’d be no computers on Vipassana. No wifi. No alcohol, cigarettes or cannabis. Just 12 hours a day of meditation.

A Japanese guy who’s been here as long as I have, which is almost two weeks, walks past holding a tissue over his nose. Il Italiano comes in and sits down with his quantum mechanics text book. He’s a physics student here to see a mathematics professor at Helsinki University. I told him I studied physics 20 years ago. I have a look through his text book and a lot of it looks familiar: a particle in an infinite potential well, solving Schrodinger’s equation for a hydrogen atom etc. It’s an old book. The colour scheme on the cover looks familiar. It could be a book that I used. Wiley?

I gave Ms Vipassana the address of this blog and then remembered what I’d written about Finns on the ferry over here from Sweden and wondered whether I should edit it, but decided not to. Last night’s drunken Irish Finn got angry when I mentioned Finns’ reputation for being heavy drinkers. He thought it was racist. Irish people also had a reputation for being heavy drinkers, but he said the English were just as bad. I’d been keeping pace with him, though I’m sure he’s had a head start. But the reason I met him was because I was in a bar, and the reason I’d been able to describe loud drunken Finns on the ferry was because I was sitting in the bar on the ferry. If, like many people, I’d been going out sight seeing during the day, visiting churches and museums, and then going to bed before midnight instead of staying out in various bars until 3 or 4am, I would have very different impressions.

In quantum physics there’s no such thing as a passive observer.

The Vipassana website says Vipassana is about seeing things as they really are. That’s what the word means, it says. Il Italiano sits with his head in the Quantum Mechanics book. He was saying he needed cannabis because physics leads you into such a strange world, you need cannabis to make sense of it, to see the whole picture. In India Swami Dharmananda warned students to stay away from the chillum smoking babas who sat outside the ashram. The drunken Irish Finn thought it was all a load of crap, except for literature. Before the fisherman’s friends he was talking about Phillip Roth’s book on the plot to overthrow America. What’s it called? I asked. “The plot to overthrow America,” he answered. It was an alternative history, like a parallel universe.

On 21st May last year I was sitting in a restaurant in Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh, India. I’d spent the day on the internet. 8 or 9 hours in front of my computer trying to transfer a load of websites from one web server to another, which had to be done before the 24th, the date I was due to leave India as well as the date on which the old web server would go offline, meaning whatever data hadn’t been copied to the new server would be lost. It’s hadn’t been a good day. The internet connection had been going down every half and hour or so. I needed at least an hour of uninterrupted connectivity and more likely two or three to do the backup. Each time the connection went I had to start again.

I gave up when the internet cafe closed at ten and now it was around midnight. I’d just finished eating pasta and mushroom sauce and was drinking a coffee. An English guy was standing at the counter next to me, paying off his tab. He was holding a joint. Do you want to finish this off, mate? It was a pure grass joint. I smoked some of it then offered him the rest. No no. You finish it. I’m going to roll another. I joined him and his Israeli friend at their table. We were the only ones left in the restaurant.

Before he’d finished rolling the next joint, which he was taking a long time over, I realized I wasn’t going to be able to smoke any more, but it would be rude to walk out now. Still, I needed to lie down for a while. I knew there was a covered terraced area with cushions on the floor just over the road that belonged to this restaurant. I told them I was just going to have a lie down, picked up my laptop bag and went out, wondering if they might be thinking I was untrusting not to leave my bag with them.

As I lay on the cushions I dreamt that my right knee was in pain. I could feel the pain quite intensely but knew it was just a stoned dream and that all I had to do was open my eyes and wake up and then go back into the restaurant , or more likely just go back to my hotel, but that would mean walking through the woods in the dark so perhaps I’d better just lie here and continue with this dream for a bit longer. As the dream went on, there were a number of voices talking about controlling pain, how pain was imaginary and could be switched off if you had the willpower, but the pain itself became sharper and more intense until my own voice drowned out all of the others. I was saying: This is real pain! And I was being picked up off the street by the English guy, the Israeli and the Indian restaurant owner. Once I was on my feet and supported by one under each arm the remaining one of the, the restaurant owner I think, picked up my laptop bag that was lying on the rocky unpaved street next to where I had been.

Back in the restaurant I lay down on one of the benches but I kept my eyes open and made an effort to listen to the conversation. After a while I sat up. I wanted to check the laptop was okay. I’d dropped it once before and it had broken. I’d been lucky then that I could get it repaired without having to pay anything, but that was in Canada. Getting an Apple Mac repaired in India might not be so easy, and certainly wouldn’t happen within a few days, even if I was in one of the major cities, which I was. Delhi was a 12 hour bus ride today. That was something I had to do on the 23rd.

Before I’d gone outside the English guy had been talking to me about how terrible it was to be going back. I’d been away from England for almost a year, but in less than three days I’d be getting on a plane and as soon as I was on that plane it would be as if I was already back in England. Reality would hit me in the face, he said. He was dreading having to go back and having to face up to reality again, having to go back to work, pay bills, have all these responsibilities. It sounded like if he could he would stay in this restaurant indefinitely, chatting to whoever would listen and rolling joints very slowly. Eventually he lit up and after the Indian and the Israeli had had some it was passed to me but I declined.

There was a universe in which I’d made it to the other side of the road and was now lying on the cushions, but I’d chosen to exist in the reality I was now in. The lying on the cushions reality would have been an easier one, and in a way I envied the me who was now experiencing that reality, but I told myself the one I had chosen was more interesting. I’d witnessed the universe split into two universes, something that happens all the time but usually without us noticing it, and I’d realized that which universe I found myself in was down to me. If I was lying on the cushions I might now be dreaming what I was currently experiencing, but I’d probably forget all once I woke up, or if I did remember it I’d tell myself it was just a dream and not take it too seriously.

communing with goats

Two days previously there had been another turning point, where the universe had split into two. I couldn’t see why I had chosen the universe I had chosen. I’d spent the past two days trying to build a time machine.

On the boat to Tallinn, in the bar sitting on a wobbly bar stool at a wobbly table that a bunch of people at the other end keep wobbling. On the stage a band starts to plat soft music. Old people fill the dance floor.

gambling machine on the Helsinki to Tallinn ferry

They wouldn’t let the Irish Finn into Lost & Found, the late night bar / club in Helsinki we went to after the first bar. There was an exchange in Finnish. I asked what was going on. He’s not coming in, the doorman said. Why not? He’s caused too much trouble here before.

I might have told him to fuck off once, the Irish Finn says as we leave and go to a place up the road called Inferno, a heavy metal bar where we’re the only customers, though later a couple of bearded bikers come in and sit at the bar and two goth women sit at one of the other tables. Lost & Found is the place that seems to get virtually all of the late night business in this area.

Walking through Tallinn Old Town looking for the hostel where I’ve made a reservation I pass an old guy who says something to me in Estonian. I’m holding a map so I think maybe he’s offering to give me directions but then I notice he’s holding what looks like a small axe. As I walk on I look round to see him charge at the large wooden door he was standing in front of.

A bit further on I take a look at the map and realize I’ve gone too far. I’ll have to turn back, back past the guy with the axe. He’s now on the other side of the road shouting through a window. He crosses the road, back to his big wooden double door, a door that many horses and carts must have passed through. This town is said to be the best preserved old town in Northern Europe. It dates back to the 14th century. As I get closer I see that what I thought was an axe is actually a broken piece of pipe. He’s trying to lever one of the doors open. Some of the wood of the other door has been worn away, either by him or by someone doing something very similar to what he’s doing.


Helsinki, Finland

French films from the 30s and 40s showing today in Helsinki.

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