19-26th August 2012
“Shit, I forgot”, Alex told me just before leaving the Hitchgathering, “I have to go to Germany for ten minutes on the way to Ukraine!” “You what?” Apparently his parents sent money to Germany and he has to go there in person to collect it. By the time we leave Bialystok, it’s evolved into a few days he needs there: collect the money and write an exam.
Berlin feels like too big a step backwards for me, despite the vegan heaven. I leave Alex on the highway and get a straight ride to Warsaw, where I’ve arranged to stay in a squat. I get a message from Alex while attempting to navigate the city: he also got a straight ride to Berlin. We are on schedule so far.
They told me Warsaw is ugly. It’s true, I can’t deny it. But, like every city, there are pockets of beauty waiting to be discovered. The Resistance seems strong here.
The squat I’m staying in is enormous and beautiful. A man lets me into the big gate at the front and I find my host, who gives me a small tour. “I thought you would be a guy”, she tells me. The name ‘Jo’ often confuses. I’m staying in the guest room with three others. There is a small bathroom next door, with running water and a shower. It’s cold water, but I don’t care. They have a screen-printing room, a bicycle workshop, a room full of sewing machines, another with computers. There is a weekly batik workshop and migrants dropping in for advice. There is a board in the lounge full of No Borders posters and anti-sexism stickers on the fridge.
I sleep a lot. My body, stiff and aching, has taken a battering lately. Endless highways, constant late nights and staring at the insides of beer glasses and vodka bottles are taking their toll. I am grateful for some rest.
Relative silence now in the squat, but for the distant hum of what could perhaps be a washing machine or electric fan. Every so often, a restless brown dog pads in and out of the room, heels thudding gently against the dusty wooden floor. A child sqeals from the courtyard below the open window. The weather is warm, outside must be scorching, but this sofa is the perfect temperature for lounging in shorts with a book, legs leant up against the cool wall. Nobody disturbs me for hours. I have needed a day like this.
Suddenly, I have an abundance of time alone. I eat slippery, over-oiled vegan pierogi in Polish vegetarian restaurants; wander the city’s glass and concrete maze; sit for hours in artsy hipster cafes amidst wafts of coffee, typing my thoughts.
The Warsaw Uprising Museum teaches me to view the city in new ways. I’m wandering through Ogród Saski, a big park in Warsaw’s old town. I like how the grass is unshawn, big beautiful weeds peeking through under mighty trees. Could it be these are remnants of the original “Paris of the East” Warsaw, the one razed to the ground after the defeat of the Uprising?
I lost my bank card somewhere in Latvia. Justine has been withdrawing money for me and I’ve been doing bank tansfers back to her, waiting for a friend back home to forward my new card to me. It’s coming to Warsaw any day now – hopefully.
Inside the post office, waiting for my number to pop up on one of the digital screeens, an old lady speaks to me in Polish. I nod and smile. “Yes,” I tell her in English, “it is taking rather a long time.” She points at my number: A348, then at her own: A341, muttering the whole time. I imagine her saying something like – “Look, I’ve been here half the day. You only just walked in and it’s only seven more than me!” “Soon, soon”, I tell her. Her number pings up and she hobbles to the counter on stubbly black heels.
Soon, it’s my turn. I hand over the scribbled note that Natalia from the squat wrote for me in Polish. The woman squints at it – “Address?” “Here”, I say, frowning, my finger pointing down. It’s supposed to be coming to this post office. Doesn’t it say that in the note she’s holding? I show her the paper with the address Justine scribbled for me in Bialystok. “Ah, restante!” she says and scurries away. But my hopes are dashed when she returns two minutes later, empty handed, shaking her head.
I meet with a couchsurfer with addictive brown eyes. We hang out and drink beer with his cousin on the grassy river-bank opposite a bar on a boat. I get back late to the squat. The gates are closed, the door is locked. I meet fellow squatters on the street and they let me inside the gate, then disappear. A funny rotund man in boy scout shorts finds me in the courtyard. He furrows in a cupboard and comes out with sheets and blankets. He puts me to bed on the couch outside the second squat, which shares the same courtyard, tucks me in. I try not to look at the undone zip on his flies as he bends over me.
I return to the post office on Friday, the day Alex is due to come back and collect me. The same subdued waiting, the same old people tutting. The same flashing digital numbers and hand-crumpled tickets. “Restante”, I tell her. “Ah”, she says. This time a look of triumph and a small envelope under the arm. I have money once more.
Alex arrives in the middle of the night. Everyone is in bed. The door is double-locked, but the gate is open. I go down to the ground floor kitchen that nobody ever uses and open the window. He’s reluctant to climb up, but what choice do we have? The funny round man in the shorts is here, smiling and muttering. He has gate keys, but not front door keys, it seems.
I’m very afraid that Alex has arrived in one of his black moods, but once inside the window he hugs me. Oh good, we are friends today. The funny round man climbs up behind Alex, defying gravity. “The people in the squat told me they call him the Polish equivalent of ‘happy-go-lucky’”, I inform Alex, who doesn’t seem impressed. Upstairs, the man slices vegetables and offers them to us, sits by the window munching with the radio on. I show Alex the guest room and feed him the polenta I made.
Tomorrow we will meet with Justine and her partner, who are in town by chance. We will drink copious amounts of beer and whisky, play all our favourite songs on Y*utube. I will hug Alex and feel that now we are really friends and that nothing will go wrong again…
A whirlwind tour of the Balltics, 9-17th August 2012
I was drunk when I decided to go with Alex to Estonia, but now I’m settling into the idea. See, thing is, I had this dream, right? I had this dream about Alex. Yep, one of those. The thing is, I’ve learned over the years to pay attention to these dreams. I often have them about people before we become very close. Usually, it’s not a sexual connection – and this one is definitely not. I can feel his coldness towards me. So why am I following him to Estonia? I really have no idea. I was drunk.
Actually, I still wouldn’t have gone if it wasn’t for some quite ridiculous advice that Matthieu gave me. “I’m taking your ridiculous advice”, I tell him as we hug goodbye. He smiles – “You will have stories”, he says.
It’s not just me and Alex, Justine is also coming with us until Poland. She and I just met for the first time at the Hitchgathering, but she seems smiley and nice, with a healthy hint of mischief.
There’s a Hitchgathering post-meeting organised in a bar somewhere in Riga. We arrive late at night and follow scant directions, stopping a small group of young people to ask if they know the bar. They do indeed – one of the girls works there and they’ve just closed it. Shit! “Were there by any chance a large group of international people in the bar just now?” I ask “Yes! There were!” We all laugh over the coincidence and they try to remember where our friends were going next. Some flat, apparently, but it seems unlikely we’ll find it. “But do you have somewhere to sleep tonight?” they ask. “Um, no, not really…” For a second it seems like they’re going to invite us, but after ten minutes of chatting they say goodbye and leave us to puzzle out where we might spend the night. We do what we always do: go to a bar.
According to a certain well-known mapping software, there’s an island in the centre of Riga. It appears to be mostly forested and seems suspisciously perfect for camping. The early hours see us walking a long, long way across the city. We cross the bridge over to the island as the sky turns from black to indigo, then bottle blue. Alex goes to scout and comes back with bad news: there’s a giant fence and a ‘No Entry’ sign on the way into the forest. We camp in a small clearing opposite the TV station instead.
“I want to take pictures!” says Alex in his funny Russian spy voice. Pictures, yes, but of everything? Why do you need, for example, to take pictures of your feet? Of the wall? Of every single communist monument, every tree in every park? It takes a very long time to get anywhere with Alex. I resort to taking pictures myself.
We finally track down some post-Hitchgathering friends in Riga. They’re couchsurfing a completely empty flat and invite us to stay there too, all of us lying next to one another on camping mats. There is a sink and a kettle and a toilet and a roof: it feels like luxury.
On our way out of town, we stop for a ritual coffee and check emails. I have a message from Maali, an Estonian girl I never met in Amsterdam two years ago:
Hey Jo, nice to hear from you and funny you remember a thing such as writing to me two years ago, especially considering we never really met. Anyway, tomorrow I will be in Kabli, a small village between Riga and Pärnu, close to Häädemeeste. I’m starting the trip from Tartu tomorrow morning. If you happen to hitchhike towards Tallinn, then Kabli is almost on your way, at the seaside with a beach and stuff ;) And if you do come that way, you three could camp with me and a friend of mine at the village! It almost sounds like a plan, doesn’t it? ;)
Justine and I arrive in Kabli thirty minutes before Alex, who speeds into the village with a Russian guy on his way to St Petersburg. Maali drives us to her grandparent’s land and apologises before disappearing off to use the sauna with her friend Nele. Maali doesn’t want to explain to her grandparents how she has invited three complete strangers to camp with her, so for now we’re the invisible guests. We’re camping on a small piece of lush green land, with a small house-like hut and access to the Baltic sea across a wooden footbridge. We light a fire and drink beer under shooting stars.
It’s my first time in the Baltic Sea. The icy water slips and slides about my toes, seaweed entwining my ankles. The water is calm and still, like a mirror. I wash my arms and face in the crisp water, suprised to find barely a trace of salt on my lips.
Since Maali and Nele are driving all the way to Tartu, we decided to go with them, changing our plan again. Nele’s found us a place to stay with her friends, a Finnish linguist named Santeri and his partner, Eve.
Things I notice: Estonia has a lot of trees, mostly fir trees, it seems. It has small, Scandinavian-style houses and an awesome sing-song language that’s closer to Finnish than other Baltic languages. Bus stops fascinate me: one carved like the front of a boat, another like a little house with a painted roof.
We stop to forage food in a forest, the floor a spongy mattress of vibrant green moss and wild blueberries. It’s impossible to step anywhere without crushing handfulls of berries. We return to the car clutching bags and containers of mushrooms and berries, red-handed, blue-lipped and smiling. Finnish music on the car stereo. Grey clouds and green fields. I trace a line across my map: we’re now the same latitude as northern Scotland.
At Santeri and Eve’s beautiful old house, we set about cooking up a feast. Justine and Alex make blueberry pierogi and Maali makes wild mushroom sauce.
I found an anarchist Couchsurfer in Taillinn and he’s accepted us. We’re sleeping in the social centre in the South-West of the city. It’s a smallish place with internet and a lot of sofas: perfect. We meet him first for a drink and discuss social movements in Estonia. There’s a small vegan collective, arranging a monthly people’s kitchen to promote veganism.
Fortunately, we’re in time for a vegan picnic on Sunday, with gourmet quality food that the collective spend an entire day preparing. We arrive late after getting lost, as usual, and they’re nice enough to save some for when we arrive.
Back to Vilnius, where again, we don’t have a host. Back to that evil mapping software. We find a perfect-looking park close to the centre. The trouble with G**gle maps is you can’t see where the hills are. Our park largely consists of steep cliffs, a river through the centre. We follow a small path close to the river. It’s late again and I’m exhausted. Justine and I are waiting with the bags while Alex scouts ahead, when suddenly the other side of the river is dotted with flashlights. I try to fight through tiredness to the logical thing to do, but everything is working in slow motion. We cower behind a tree until Alex comes back. “This place isn’t safe at all!” he tells us. We wait, hushed, to see what will happen next. The flashlights seem to stay over the other side. Alex goes again to check, me feeling guilty that it’s somehow always him that does this. He comes back to inform us that the other side of the river is in fact a building site, the flashlights must be the nightwatchmen and we are – probably – safe over this side. We find a clearing and pitch the tents.
My first impression of Vilnius on the way to the Hitchgathering couldn’t be more different from now. Suddenly, it’s not the zombie alcoholic PTSD hellhole I originally suspected, but a vibrant, artistic city. There is even a self-proclaimed autonomous republic in a district in the old town: Lithuania’s answer to Christiania. We can’t leave without visiting the Republic of Užupio.
According to the Wikipedia article, “In 1997, the residents of the area declared the Republic of Užupis, along with its own flag, currency, president, cabinet of ministers, a constitution written by Romas Lileikis and Thomas Chepaitis, an anthem, and an army (numbering approximately 11 men). They celebrate this independence annually on Užupis Day, which falls on April 1st. Artistic endeavours are the main preoccupation of the Republic; the current President of the Republic of Užupis, Romas Lileikis, is himself a poet, musician, and film director.” Apparently around 1,000 of the 7,000 residents are artists. It’s also worth reading the Užupis Constitution.
We pass a crowd of drunkards, who call out merrily to us. We stop out of politeness and I get chatting with a Latvian punk who’s just come back from travelling. He seems very pleased to meet other travellers and basically insists on sharing his liquid LSD with us. He wraps it up in a small piece of plastic bag, using a technique I’ve never seen before. He singes it closed and offers it to us with a quirky grin.
Later, we’ll arrive late at night in Bialystock, in north Poland – our last stop with Justine. Her father will collect us from a gas station on the outskirts of town and her mother will feed us endless delicious food. It seems only fitting that we explore the Latvian punk’s present before we part ways. The following day we will go to a small village to eat what Justine claims is the world’s best pierogi, which she assures me will be vegan. Actually, it will be fairly good pierogi and not vegan at all, but I will eat it anyway. We will puzzle over how on earth to open The Present and sit on benches waiting for something to happen, then laugh at Alex when he is the only one affected. We will drink our last beers together, our Baltic adventure over.
Assignment 11 in the MatadorU Travel Writing Course: Shoot a series of 6-8 sequential shots that tell a story you want people to deduce just by looking at your photographs. Post the photos on your blog without any captions and invite friends and family to view the essay and leave comments.