“I must svim in ze Baltic”

At the end of the last post, Pol-Ewen and I were hung over on a train headed out of Poland- a true testament to the power of the nation’s fine vodka. Our destination was Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, but unfortunately there were a few transfers that needed to be made. Usually transfers aren’t such a big deal, but when the language looks like gibberish and, despite knowing the spelling, you have no idea what the name of the station actually sounds like, it becomes a game of spot-the-name-as-far-out-as-you-can-and-be-ready-to-move-quickly. Of course, when you’re hung over, half awake, and the last thing you want to do is move quickly it becomes even more tricky.

But we did alright. Except for a terminus where the conductor didn’t realize we were still in the process of gathering Pol’s baggage and proceeded to park the retired train. In that case we were the crazy foreigners running along the tracks, back towards the station where our train was about to leave. We had to sacrifice a seat post to save a tent, but eventually we made it to Vilnius.

In Vilnius we were hosted by Karolina and Benas, an awesome couple that Pol-Ewen met studying in Prague. Vilnius is a refreshingly small capital, so we didn’t have any trouble seeing the sites of the old town on foot. Our hosts showed us a few cool spots in town, and helped line up an interview with a Lithuanian man who had some interesting things to say about his failed urban gardening project. We also had the privilege of seeing the countryside for a few days at Benas’ grandmother’s house. A jolly old lady who wanted nothing but to feed us- we found ways to connect with her despite the language barrier. She spends her summers without running water or electricity on her land at the edge of a tiny lake outside the town of Ukmergė. In this silent slice of heaven she catches fresh fish and harvests an incredible number of vegetables. It was amazing to experience living life off the grid, just for the pleasure of it.

After Vilnius we visited Kaunas, the second largest city in Lithuania where we met some of the many workers of the ‘Fluxus Ministry’ project. What started as a squat in an old shoe factory warehouse, the ministry is now a budding conglomerate art project- complete with a concert hall on the first floor, art gallery on the second, and rooftop garden. Our interest was mainly in the future for the garden, but we certainly enjoyed all the interesting people we met at the sunset jam session. We scored a free place to sleep in the ceiling above the office of our host.

From there we took a morning bus to Riga, Latvia where we had a nice lunch along the banks of the Daugava River and walked through parks in the old town. Without a destination in mind, we ended up spending a while at a café where we had internet and shelter from the rain. Just as we were beginning to get annoyed with not having any idea where to go or what to do from there, we got a text from Artūrs- a friend of a friend of a friend. As is often the case, the tide seemed to change completely once we found a friend.

Artūrs met us when he got off work (he’s Riga’s finest hairdresser) and once again we all hit it off. We found a bike I could use and biked all through the city making it out to the big shipping port to enjoy the sunset. We surfed Artūrs’ couch for a few days, staying longer in Latvia than we thought- but when you have a great host it’s always hard to leave. We again made it out to the countryside, this time with some of our host’s coworkers, to see Latvia’s tallest mountain (a hill at best). We also scored some haircuts, which we got a chance to show off with a night on the town. They must’ve worked too cause we ended up meeting Sanita and Daiga- some nice local ladies who, when a far-from-sober Pol-Ewen said “I must svim the ze Baltic”, thought it a good idea to drive 20 minutes out to a beautiful Latvian beach in Jūrmala. It was all worth it of course, for the French striptease and sunrise ocean swim.

We took another bus to Tallinn, Estonia. Trains are popular within these countries, but unfortunately they don’t go internationally, which makes having a bike tough (Pol has to partially dissemble it every time- I give him plenty of crap for it too). In Estonia we didn’t know anyone. Well, now we do. Through the wonderful Couch Surfing network, we found our perfect match- Rein and his roommates Meelis and Talvi. It’ll be tough to capture the glory that ensued, but I’ll try.

It started with a free Ewert and the 2 Dragons concert (Estonia’s top band at the moment) at the museum of modern art. We went straight there from the bus station to meet our host. Once we made it to their place on foot, we biked almost everywhere- all over the old town, to all the cool spots and to find the best views of the city. The whole house has bikes and they’re always biking everywhere- it’s awesome. We had a few local food favorites. Kama is kind of a grain that they put in keifer (kind of a thick , fermented, sour milk) with some sugar- a very tasty and filling snack. Then Rein baked us his famous brown bread and made his infamous mashed potatoes, both of which were nearly life changing.

Once we were joined by Laura, another couch surfer, and Judith, Rein’s girlfriend, we were quite the crew- hitting the cool underground pubs in the medieval old town and getting naked to jump off an old wrecked ship for yet another Baltic swim. We explored a local flea market filled with very real World War II and former Soviet Union occupation pieces- very cool to see that stuff, though creepy in a way. Had some beers at an old prison turned into a museum/café. And of course, we had to make it out to the countryside. We again stayed longer than planned to do so, but it was well worth it. We loaded 5 bikes onto the train and took it south to the town of Keila. From there we loaded up on burger makings and biked 10km through the beautiful countryside to Talvi’s family home. Wow! What an incredible place. Just everything you could need. A massive green house and garden filled with every veggie you can think of. A pond. The forest. And a log cabin under construction. It had the one shortcoming of an INSANE number of mosquitoes, but we just made a game out of killing them. Anyway, we grilled up some good old American burgers and had a salad of greens and veggies just picked from the ground. Oh, and the rhubarb cake too- Laura peeled the fresh rhubarb herself. What a spectacular experience. The Estonian countryside- who knew.

We were finally able to pry ourselves from Tallinn- despite the great friends we’d made there. We continued north, out of continental Europe, towards Finland via ferry. Those adventures to come. But first, I’d like to mention a few things.

First- McWireless. I used to only think of McDonalds as an out of control, multinational blob, sucking the life out of cultural diversity and all the while making obesity nice and affordable for all who can’t afford or just opt out of the time and money required to have a decent meal. And I still think that. But, they have free wifi. It’s been a few times when we’ve needed to get in touch with someone or get some info via the web, and many times McDonalds has been very handy. They don’t have a password, they won’t kick you out if you don’t buy anything and you don’t feel badly not doing so (at least I don’t). And it’s out of the rain. So yeah, don’t eat there, just take advantage of them. That’s what we’ve done.

Second- the weather. The Baltic region isn’t as cold as I would’ve guessed. It’s not warm, and it is summer, but for being so far north I would’ve expected different. However, the weather changes insanely fast. It could be sunny, clear blue skies and you think- wow what a beautiful day, I’m definitely not gonna carry my rain jacket, and in 15 minutes and 3 blocks, it’s dumping on you. Kinda like being at high altitude in California- you just don’t know what to expect. I learned this the wet way, eventually.

Third- the ‘big’ cities. In these countries the biggest cities just aren’t that big. There just aren’t as many people and so the capitals and big metropolitan areas aren’t as big and aren’t as sprawled out. It’s nice. They are easy to see on foot and not overwhelming at all. You actually kinda feel tall walking around a capital where there aren’t buildings higher than maybe four stories. They all have really cool old towns where the churches are way older than anything in the states. And they all have an incredible amount of vegetation. It hardly feels like a city with so much natural greenery. Which, in fact, is a lot of why there haven’t been many urban garden projects to speak of. We interviewed the guy in Vilnius and enjoyed the roof garden in Kaunas, then in Tallinn we met a guy working on a project very similar to the Fluxus Ministry. Other than that there hasn’t been much urban agriculture to speak of. Rural agriculture on the other hand- we were very luck to see some awesome, sustainable, self-sufficient farms in both the Latvian and Estonian countrysides. And to think- they were just the homes of our friends.

Forth, the language. Remember those very few Polish phrases I learned? Meaningless, the day we left Poland. Of course I didn’t get much Lithuanian down, but it wouldn’t have mattered in Latvia. Each country has had an entirely different language. Thankfully it seems to get easier to find English speakers as we go north, but there have definitely been some chances to work on the international sign language.

Fifth- Pol’s bike and all his junk. Pol- I make fun of you a lot for having your bike with your four panniers filled to the brim and still a few extras strapped on the back (he sent four kilos-worth of stuff home from Vilnius and it was still like this). But of course I understand that you’re actually being productive in your travels- doing a cool urban agriculture research project for which you have been awarded significant grants. And so of course you need to travel with some extra equipment and things. I just wanted to apologize for giving you crap, about the bike comments especially. Everywhere we went, it seems, we were able to bike, but only because you had your bike, our hosts had bikes, and it wasn’t hard to find one for me to use. I loved being able to bike around to discover a new place, and you lugging around that half-broken flèche d’or made it all possible. Cheers mate.

Last, but certainly not least, I again want to give special thanks to our hosts. Karolina and Benas- you guys showed me an incredible side of a country I never thought I’d visit. Artūrs- there is certainly a first time for everything, and my first time to Riga was only so cool cause we were kickin’ it with you. And Rein, Talvi, Meelis, Judith- Tallinn will forever hold a special place in my heart because of how much fun I had there. Fun that I had because I was with such amazing people. To all our hosts, I wish you all the best and hope to see you again someday. Come visit your friends in California.

Thank you all for reading. Enjoy the pictures. Hopefully I’ll get my act together and catch up on posts.
Until then,
-willrl

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