Week 8 68
Sunday, June 30, 2002
We had booked two beds at the youth hostel here in Sigulda, Latvia. On the map
it appeared a ways out of town, but, we figured, there would be a bus or
something. There was a bus, but there was also a CABLE CAR that runs from the
town across the river gorge. Our hostel is on the other side of the gorge.
When we walked out of the train station, we could hear music and following the
sounds came upon a Latvian folk dance festival in progress. I love international
folk dancing anyway, but this was a real treat--locals in costume doing dance after
dance. I was captivated until JF's restlessness penetrated my trance. We went
straight to the tourist office, where we learned that the last cable car across the
gorge would be in half an hour and we'd better hurry because it's a twenty minute
walk. We hoofed it.
The hostel is located in what used to be a children's tuberculosis sanitorium. It's
still some kind of sanitorium, but what it looks like is a huge 19th century palace:
enormous columns, formal gardens in front, and then, in a semi-circle in the yard,
a wooden structure with dozens of doors leading to dormitory beds and little
rooms. We seem to be the only ones at the place, except for the echoing voices of
children somewhere up the wide stone steps leading away from the lobby. It feels
really strange--this huge building, these little rooms, all echoing and empty, as if
we had somehow entered the twilight zone. We arrive in the dining hall and two
places are set. We never see anyone set or clear them. Last night's supper--okay,
they had no notice that we'd want supper, but then how were we to know that
there would be no store, no cafe, nothing at all over on this side?--was a small
circle of bread with some kind of thin tomato sauce with--get this--aesthetically
zig-zagged mayonaise over the top. The breakfast this morning was better--corn
flakes, cheese, sausage, tomatoes and bread.
I took notes on the train ride, to provide Beth Slaby with some sense of what the
countryside is like. Mostly we drive through pine forests, pine and birch. The soil
is sandy and yellow. There is Queen Anne's Lace and fireweed in the grassy
places. We see some farms, and some of the fields have been left fallow or
abandoned. Otherwise, the farmers here are growing wheat. We see the occasional
individual house with a well-trimmed hedge, flowers (the Latvians are very big on
flowers), and garden plots enclosed in fences. There are community garden plots
as well, each individual's space fenced, each space with its little tool shed or
plastic walled greenhouse. Often, some of those plots have been abandoned as
well, and are overgrown. There were sawmills on the train route as well.
Sigulda, where we're staying tonight again, is an outdoor sports center. At the
cable car, before we left for our hotel last night, we met up with a bunch of guys
ranging from late teens to mid-60's, most of them in tangerine colored socks.
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They are the Sigulda bungee jumping club and they jump from the cable car down
towards the river on Saturdays and Sundays. I'm hoping to catch their act this
afternoon. They were very friendly and got me drunk on strong brown beer in the
15 minutes we were waiting for the car to take us to the grand and empty manor
house. There is also river rafting, canoeing, babsleigh rides, skiing in winter,
camping, hot air ballooning (I think this bungee jumping club also jumps from hot
air balloons---sounds out of my league by a long shot) and airplane rides for $10-
15 for 6-8 minutes over the countryside. There's a national park and hiking trails
past "wild" animals in large fenced areas.
Tomorrow we'll rent bikes for half a day and just tootle around town, looking at
various castles and maybe gawking at the wild bears and wolves. In the afternoon,
we start our trek into Estonia and that may take two or three days before we're in a
town with a reasonably priced internet.
posted by Patricia 8:43 AM
Monday, July 01, 2002
The other day in Riga, we came across a going-out-of-business sale at a
bookstore. What luck! I was almost finished with the rotten science fiction book
that JF picked up in the hostel in Vilnius. Tom Jones, the book I picked up there,
sat waiting in my backpack, weighing a lot, it's a thick book but it's also not
exactly road reading. I won't throw it away because there is nothing worse than
sitting in a bus station, waiting for the next bus which is in two or three hours,
with nothing to read. All the books in this store were half price and so, damn the
weight, I bought up two and JF bought up two. I gulped down the last of my bad
sci-fi and started Mistry's "A Fine Balance." It's an Oprah book so you American
reading addicts may already have been through it. It's not a "fun" read, since it is
about India since Independence and yet is so well written and so deep that it is
worth braving the bummer stuff it in. Think "Angela's Ashes," though I haven't
gotten to the end, so I don't know whether it will end with an up note or not. Still,
it is a great book. I'm also still carrying, and reading aloud from Tom Robbins'
"Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates." All these books make my backpack
really heavy, so I tore out the relevant countries from my Lonely Planet guide and
left the rest on the hostel coffee table. There's a whole riff about books on the
road. Ya gotta have 'em, but you don't want to be so engrossed you miss an
opportunity to meet the locals. Unless you're so tired and grumpy, you probably
shouldn't meet anyone, much less locals. Every time you get to a hostel, you look
over the books on the shelves. You leave the ones you've finished and pick up
what you can. One guy I knew wouldn't trade a good book for a trash novel and
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so carried around his already-read stash until he met someone with discriminating
enough taste to be worthy of exchanging books with.
Notes from the Riga hostel cast of characters:
One night Gerrard-Michael Little arrived, announcing when he heard JF's French
accent that he was Cajun, and that his parents emmigrated to Australia from
Bayou Something or Other. He flourished a business card. International
Bodyguard Service, it said. His wallet has a little badge. His jacket various
insignias. He lounged in the kitchen while we cooked and ate supper, telling us all
about the elite group he belongs to. "He's the least secret agent in the secret
service," Judy commented. He was in town, he said, because there was to be a
meeting of NATO aspirants and he and his buddies have been training the Latvian
secret service how to bodyguard. He was part of the group that guarded the Dalai
Lama, he said. And his wife, he dragged her shy and quiet self out of their room
to introduce her, is the best shot in the service. He was a wiry little guy with a
goatee and claimed that the big "knuckle-draggers" just make big targets and so
they put them in front while the rest of the service can get on with their jobs. It
was a hoot.
The couple from Idaho showed up two days before we left. They had rented a car
in Tallin and were worried about where they could park it so it wouldn't get
stolen. Patrick, the longtime resident Irishman (been here seven years, he
claimed), advised them to let him call a friend of his who runs a taxi service and
who would look after the car for them. Obviously, our cheap hostel didn't have
guarded parking. The woman had three guidebooks in two-color highlights, a
notebook filled with all the information she gathered. She wrote "Tram 4" when I
told them that was the way into town. They were traveling cheaply but they hadn't
figured out how to travel, and so it didn't do them much good to save the money.
It was the fear that got me--for their rented car, for their new backpacks, their
"Ah, the original hitchhikers," said Patrick when they arrived with their bags.
"We backpack all over the world," said the guy, proudly.
Why didn't they go to a hotel? That was obviously where they belonged. They're
cheap--the woman argued angrily over $5 for the room, insisted on looking at this
one and that one and why couldn't they see the first one they'd been shown? They
don't want to spend the money. They learned about this kind of travel too late in
life and haven't absorbed its real worth. They are too isolated to sit around with
the travelers of the rest of the world, so nobody will ever question out loud their
lists and their obsession to see everything and troop around to museums because
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Of course, when somebody bothers me this much, I have to recognize the hidden
Me that is in there. Look at what they missed in their obsessive need to get out
early, their mistrust of the "lowlife" of the hostel, the folks who could have shared
the secrets of Riga with them.
Oh, well, out of time.
posted by Patricia 10:13 AM
Sigulda, Latvia--Some impressionist thoughts written last night in our enchanted
Sitting outside on the wooden walkway in front of our room. The only sounds are
distant dogs barking and the rustle of leaves in the trees. Or is it rain? They sound
so much alike we have to stick out our hands to make sure. The night air is chilly-
-longjohns and fleece jacket, French scarf at my neck, I'm warm enough in this
northern air, but I'm thinking of when it would be this cold at home. November?
The clouds race overhead, all day, all night, bringing rain, clearing, more rain.
Everyone has an umbrella. It will rain soon; it will stop raining soon. My
backpack carries the rain poncho I bought in Peru for our midnight amongst the
ruins of Machu Picchu. My hat is always withing reach, also my jacket. When the
sun comes out, the jacket is too warm. When it disappears, back on goes the
jacket. Off and on, six or seven times a day.
The woman who works here stays an hour to talk this afternoon. The children
from this village (Is it a village? it's a cluster of bizarre buildings that look like the
outbuildings for a great manor house. Massive stone gatehouses, stables, barn,
servants' quarters. And then the Soviet buildings around the corner. What was this
place? There are ruins in the distance, what were they? The information about it
all is scanty, several paragraphs in the tourist brochure but no map. It is a tourist
site that hasn't become one yet...)...the children take the cable car to school. The
bus comes too early in the morning and too late in the afternoon, so they queue up
for the cable car across the valley and slide down, down toward the river and then
up, up, brushing the trees.
Yesterday, a gaggle of tour bus Estonians came with us on our ride back to the
hotel. They were thrilled at the adventure and kept up such a clucking that JF said
he felt he was in a henhouse. From the Sigulda side, we could see the pale yellow
building looking expensive, baronial. Up close, it looks like the children's
tuberculosis hospital that it used to be.
The woman from the hotel marveled that our kids make a minimum wage of $5
an hour. She makes $10 in two days. That always launches me into my economic
tape. Yes, we make more but how much does it cost to live? JF thinks the food in
the grocery stores here is about the same as in the USA. He's the one who buys
food, but I don't think so. The woman says that she buys at the marketplace in
Riga near the train station. That answers one of Karl's questions--yes, we shop in
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the farmer's markets, except that here they aren't on the outskirts of town, they are
right in the center.
Today, a man sat beside the grocery story with a small jar of blueberries and one
of tiny wild strawberries. In Lithuania, people lined the highways with their jars
of berries for sale.
We are still the only ones here. In the Soviet buildings of the village, the hotel
woman told us, live old people who worked at the hospital for years, living on
pensions. Tomorrow, a group of handicapped children will arrive and by the
weekend, there will be more, filling all the beds. Last month, there was a
librarian's conference. So maybe our impression of being in an enchanted palace,
empty, echoing and mysterious, was just an accident of timing.
Tonight, instead of mayonnaise pizza, we ate chewy dark brown bread, cheese,
ham, tomatoes. The secretary told us about a trip she took last year to the Czech
Republic. Ten days, and by the seventh, she was ready to come home. All the
museums, the monuments, the long hours in the bus! And the food! We laughed
because we've had a hard time with the menus we can't read and the grease and
the surfeit of potatoes.
"Latvian peoples like GOOD food!" she declared, "and a lot of."
Some people in the group ordered potatoes and then tried to order something else
to go with them. They ended up ordering another sort of potatoes. Potatoes with
potatoes! We all laughed. That's why we loved the Lido in Riga--you could see all
the food and could point. Whenever they have a special occasion to celebrate, she
said, they go to the Lido in Riga.
In Sigulda, she said, everything has become expensive. That's one of the little
known facts about the development of tourism, we told her. The tourists come,
and they have money to spend, and they are willing to pay the high prices, and
soon the locals have to pay high prices, too.
We had this great plan for today...up early, over on the 9 o'clock cable car, rent
bikes, spend a half-day tootling around, catch a 4 p.m. bus to a little coast town
and pick up the bus to Parnu, in Estonia. Except that when we finally rolled out of
bed, the sky was laden with black clouds and it was raining and it was going to
rain. All our optimistic planning went out the window. JF doesn't want to bicycle
around in the cold rain. Well, but in this part of the world, you have to expect cold
rain. That's the weather. Grump, grump. We ended up taking the first train back to
Riga, booking a late afternoon bus to Tallin in Estonia and taking ourselves out to
the Lido for a copious and delicious lunch. When in doubt, eat--one of my
cardinal travel principles.
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But this time, the infusion of vitamins didn't really improve the mood. JF has, at
least from what I can tell from here, had it with the Baltic States of Europe. It's
cold, and he's a boy from the Sahara Desert. It's rainy and ditto. The countryside
is flat--well, except for the river gorge we traversed back and forth in the cable
car, full of forests broken occasionally by fields, some with wheat, some
abandoned, and Soviet buildings. The old cities are good for a lookaround. Riga
was certainly the most impressive and stately of any we've seen so far. But they
have 16th century towns in France and he can understand the language and read
the menus and see his friends. And it doesn't rain every day and it isn't frigging
November in the middle of the summer.
Are we having a temporary sagging of spirits? A tinge of road-weariness? A jaded
eye cast upon the possible adventures coming down the pike? I would have to say
yes. The joy of discovery is dimmed in the lowering dark clouds. And long johns
in July? Well, we wore long johns in Peru last summer because it was winter
there. Back and forth. I get out the map of Europe and look with speculation at
southern Poland. Warsaw, everyone says, is depressing and huge and ugly and not
worth it. But Krakow...now that is supposed to be the artistic center, the cul-cha
hub of Poland. And I do know how to say my seven words in Polish, so it
wouldn't be like learning a whole new language. And we have a big Servas list
from Poland, all over the south--even a guy who loves motorcycles.
Well, we will go to Tallin. We get in about midnight. We have a reservation at a
hotel that might be really expensive or might not. I mean, it's 291 EEK per
person, but how many EEKs to a dollar? JF went out just now to change money
so we wouldn't have the same situation we had in Latvia, where we arrived
without a penny to our names. And we will see. There is an island off the west
coast that was off-limits to foreigners during the Soviet time because of some
communications stuff they installed there, and even Estonians had to have a
special permit to visit. So the place, says the guidebook, is emerging from a time-
warp. It is what Estonia was before the Soviets. Windmills. Nature. ("We can see
nature in France and it isn't raining," says JF.) Till then.
posted by Patricia 9:45 AM
Tuesday, July 02, 2002
Entry into Tallin
Caught the 6 p.m. bus from Riga, Latvia to Tallin, Estonia. The bus stopped
exactly once, at the border, in six hours. Luckily, I had visited the incredibly
stinking WC in the bus station before we left. Beth asks what we see out of the
windows of the buses and trains. I hesitate to admit that I really only looked out
twice. Once, we were traveling through The Forest, which has been ubiquitous
since Poland, and once I could see the Baltic Sea and some neat little wooden
houses with enormous very neatly stacked woodpiles in the yards. Do they heat
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with wood? If so, this must be the prime season for getting your wood in. We are
not talking three or four cords here. We are talking 10, 20 cords. This is also the
land of the sauna. The harbormaster´s conference room, where we stayed in the
coastal village in Latvia, had a sauna available, but it was ten dollars to fire it up,
so we passed. Green, green land. The rest of the ride, I was in India with Mistry,
engrossed in the book I am reading.
I don´t know if it actually got full dark last night. It was late twilight when the bus
finally arrived, at 11:30 p.m. Everyone got off and disappeared and JF and I were
left with our bags on a bench, trying to make out the streets and to orient our
Lonely Planet map with our surroundings. As a rule, we don´t schedule evening
rides where we will arrive in a new city at midnight like that. It is the devil´s own
to find a hotel and you are already so tired and fed up, you are likely to grab
almost anything, pay far more than you would if you arrived at noon and calmly
looked for a place. Anticipating this, I had called ahead from Riga in the
afternoon and booked us dorm beds in a bed and breakfast. We would be paying
20 dollars apiece for the night, but it was theoretically within walking distance
from the bus station.
Actually, the bus stopped four or five times in Tallin. One of them could have
been the bus station that is on our Lonely Planet map, but the place where
everybody got off the bus definitely was not. None of the streets had names I
could find on the map. The midnight sky was streaked with darkening pink. The
all-night liquor store across the street yielded advice that sounded like, take the
tram tracks at the end of this street and then go four blocks. We deduced later that
she was telling us to take Tram 4. It was a mile´s walk into the city. We walked. I
didn´t spot any taxis or I would have put in a vote to take one. JF said later he had
seen one or two but kept quiet because we are tough travelers and we can damn
well walk into a city in the middle of the night. After about half an hour, I found
the street name we were on on the map. A couple more stops under street lamps to
get oriented and we were golden.
I snuggled into the very clean white sheets of our dorm room and my mind went
back to the bed in the empty enchanted palace where we had slept the night
before. And the grumpy, rainy, dispirited day we had had until we got to Riga and
ate at Lido and I spent a couple of hours on the internet. This morning, one of our
dormmates´ alarm went off at 8 and he reset it for 8:30, when it went off again.
He is a kid from New York traveling just a few yards higher on the hog than we
do, and apparently he doesn´t know that you don´t set your alarm in a dorm unless
you have an incredibly early flight or bus or train to catch and are unlikely to get
yourself out of bed. Setting your alarm to make sure you get to enough museums
and stuff is not at all considered cool. Especially when you reset the sucker for
thirty minutes later. But we had a nice chat over breakfast. They had pitchers of
drinkable yogurt and kefir-buttermilk and milk, cornflakes, coffee, tea, a big
block of white cheese, tomatoes and cukes, black and white bread and toasters,
two toasters! We haven´t seen toasters since Berlin! Ah, the glorious pleasure of
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melted butter (okay, margarine but we aren´t picky) on toast. And this stuff they
called Kava, which looks like a brown powder and tastes nutty. The little placard
claimed it is a traditionally Estonian breakfast made of peasemeal, wheat and rye,
I think. I liked it. The kid with the alarm clock didn´t but he also had it with
buttermilk the day before and buttermilk is an acquired taste for those not born
and raised in the South.
We paid our bill this morning and threw ourselves at the public transportation
system to find the considerably cheaper hostel out in the suburbs. Even if you
count the trolleybus fare for a couple of trips into town a day, it is still much
cheaper. We have a double room instead of a dorm bed and instead of paying 20
USD a person we are paying 10. But it ain´t cute. The B&B was right downtown
and luscious in cuteness--supermodern showers that look like something out of
Star Trek, ultra clean toilet, hardwood floors, intimate little dining room off a
kitchen where you can microwave stuff and heat your own water for tea. The beds
were Scandinavian wood style, with the blanket in the sheet pocket deal that we
have seen since Germany. Cosy. Nice, though everything felt small, as if the
modern tables and toilets had been squeezed into a space just a little too small for
It is imperative that one get with the public transportation system in a city the
minute one arrives. Or, in our case, first thing in the morning. We, as Americans,
are so used to jumping in our cars, that getting onto a trolley or a tram feels
particularly intimidating. But the prices for hotels are much cheaper out in the
ugly suburbs, we have found, and the ride into town can sometimes produce
delights in their own right. The street in from the Riga hostel, for example, was
lined with Art Nouveau buildings. I used to think I needed a map of the bus
system and that I ought to have some sort of overview of what ran where. Not so.
All I know today is that Trolleybus 2 and 3 will take me out to the hostel and in to
town and that my internet place is about halfway in and you hand 5 Thingies to
Thingies are another point. When you zip through a bunch of countries, you end
up not having the actual name of the local currency on the tip of your tongue. I
used to call everything Rupees, the name of the Indian currency, and JF one-
upped me by calling them Merdiers, which is a fairly impolite French term
referring to excrement and used in mild expressions of annoyance. Merde!
Beth was asking about sounds...We were sitting on the B&B stoop this morning
having coffee and a cigarette when a car rumbled by on the cobblestones. I
realized that I have become accustomed to that sound on this trip and never really
heard it before. Car tires roar on cobblestones. They clatter. I don´t like walking
on cobblestones, especially not at midnight after a six hour bus ride because it is
so easy to hit one wrong and twist something. Ever walk on railroad ties? They
are spaced too close and too far apart for easy walking. I wonder if this is on
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I am off to explore beautiful downtown Tallin. I hear Bill Clinton paid the place a
visit recently. A couple of Aussie girls we met had introduced themselves to him
and then met him crossing the park later that night and he remembered them. The
alarm clock guy had A Razor´s Edge by Somerset Maugham and I traded Tom
Jones for it. I am still smiling at the deal.
posted by Patricia 8:56 AM
Wednesday, July 03, 2002
Back at my stool in the mall internet cafe, with observations of downtown Tallin
and the Soviet Way of Life.
I met a Czech photojournalist in Lithuania who had visited both Tallin and Riga
before landing in the hostel in Klaipeda with us. He likes to evaluate the progress
from Soviet times to westernization in each place. He said Tallin felt like a
western European city to him, while Riga still made him feel eastern European.
Now that I´ve seen Tallin, I see what he means. JF and I agreed, walking the
immaculate cobblestone streets, noting the numbers of terraces with tourists
sipping coffee on the main square, looking up into restored and pastel medieval
buildings with their coats of arms over the entrances, checking out the art galleries
and souvenir shops, that Tallin has all the look and feel of a chic little medieval
town in any of the western European countries. There was Brazilian samba music
coming from a courtyard, but we couldn´t see the musicians for the crowd of
tourists. These are mostly Scandinavian tourists, with a sprinkling of Europeans,
judging by the sounds of their languages. Well-dressed, middle-aged, sometimes
with children in tow. Tallin has been discovered and has risen to the commercial
task. Numerous buildings are swathed in green or blue mesh, the workers sanding
the grime off their facades, cementing, plastering and re-doing ornamentation.
Sidewalks are being replaced. New traffic patterns created, street workers
industriously manning heavy machinery even as late as midnight. Restaurants of
all varieties, Thai, Chinese, Italian, dot every lane. The souvenir shops sell the
ubiquitous amber necklaces that we began seeing in Gdansk in Poland. Amber is
continually washed up on the shores of the Baltic Sea and has been for centuries.
Here we are seeing Russian painted eggs and papier mache lacquer boxes with
folk tale scenes, knitted sweaters in the Scandinavian style. And wood carvings of
varying quality. There is a Baltic tradition of beige linen clothes, crocheted little
hats on the girls, crocheted and knitted blouses with matching beige linen skirts.
Since I´m not a shopper, I haven´t gone looking for really fine handcrafts, but I
suspect I would fine better wood carving and knitted wool sweaters. And amber,
amber, amber. Merevaik, the name of our hostel in the suburbs, is the Estonian
word for amber.
JF, enjoying a fermented cider on the bandstand of the central square admiring the
oldest town hall in northern Europe, was approached by a stern policeman who
made him understand that open bottles of alcoholic beverages were not welcome
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on the streets of Tallin. What a change from Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, where
guys with beer bottles are everywhere, every park bench, getting on buses, seeing
people off at train stations. Tallin, at least, has cleaned up its act. Lonely Planet
says that Tallin, because of the cheap alcohol available here compared to the
Scandinavian countries, suffered many years of Finnish and Swedish and
Norwegian drunkenness. The place has definitely gone Upscale.
Yesterday, when we were admiring the view of church spires and the medieval
jumble of rooftops over the parapets of the medieval wall, a blonde guy with
longish hair came up and started into a rapid-fire spiel about the buildings around
us--parliament and prime minister´s residence. We were ushered, at breakneck
speed into the upcoming music festival and before we knew it, he had brought out
a portable CD player and was letting us sample just a tiny morsel of all the CD´s
he was carrying in the pockets and pouches and many-faceted sack he had slung
over his shoulder. He had Estonian bagpipe music. He had traditional Estonian
sea shanties. He had accordian folk music accompanied by jew´s harp. He had
World Class classical musicians of Estonian origin. We took his email address,
telling him that we never buy stuff en route because we don´t have enough room
to carry it. He wrote that, but also made a list of must-hear artists, an Estonian
beverage we needed to sample, and the names of various towns on the western
islands we shouldn´t miss. In a way, I wish we could spend the weekend here and
hang out at the music festival, but JF and I sat down last night and did finances
and looked at the calendar and actually got a Plan on paper. I reproduce it here
both for the edification of my readers and for their amusement as the Unplanned
Duo attempt to actually follow a Plan:
July 4-5: the western islands of Estonia
July 6-7: university town Tartu
July 8: travel to Riga and spend the night
July 9: travel to Vilnius and spend the night
July 10-11: long bus ride to Krakow, in Poland, where we will recouperate from
covering so much ground. The rationale is that we don´t like doing marathon bus
or train rides, so we have simply broken the trip from the northern tip of non-
Soviet Europe to the south of France into chewable segments, and since we
already have cool hotels in Riga and Vilnius, we can take it fairly easy and still
cover the ground. "The kids" tend to do these 14- and even 24-hour trips, arriving
blurry-eyed at 5 a.m., sleep it off and then go out to party that night. As long as
our reading material holds out, we prefer days with only six or seven hours of
travel and then sleeping in a bed at night. The kids are trying to save themselves
the hotel expense. We don´t need to do that, at least not until western Europe.
Besides, we have these delicate old backs and neck muscles and knee joints!
July 12-14: Prague
July 15-16: Munich, which we figure as a good mid-way stop and hope to have
some of those friendly German Servas folks to hang with while we´re there.
July 17: Long train ride to Marseille
July 18-20: Friends in the south of France
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July 21-24: Visit with our friends in the alps
July 25-time to come home: Chateauroux and the bosom of the family
Some of this will depend on the possibility of Servas visits in the big cities. My
job today is to email everyone who could host us and see what we can come up
with. We had originally planned to have Servas visits throughout the trip, but we
have found that the Servas friendliness and openness just hasn´t taken root here.
One host in the book wants three MONTHS notice before a guest arrives! One of
our hosts suggested that the Scandinavians, of which Estonia in many ways is a
part, with Latvia and Lithuania not far behind, are reserved, suspicious people,
mistrustful of strangers, not easily warming up. This reticence is something we
have certainly felt here. It isn´t easy to get a smile out of a fellow bus passenger,
kiosk salesperson or coffee shop waitress.
The Merevaik, our hostel, gives us a fascinating view into what the Soviet Way of
Life must have been like. The desk clerk cannot tell me where a phone is that I
can use to call my Servas people in Tallin. Does she never leave the building?
Could one not anticipate that travelers might need to use a phone? It is not her
job. Her job is to fill out the forms, to collect and hand out keys and to sell candy
bars and soft drinks from the glass-doored cabinet. Down the hall, the bistro
waitress and the cook sit in functional furniture, smoking cigarettes and drinking
coffee. When a customer arrives there, the waitress gets up to go behind her
counter and the cook retreats into the kitchen. But do not ask to see any of the
food. The cook isn´t in the business of selling you anything, nor the bar waitress.
The walls are red, the furniture black, the worn and wrinkled indoor-outdoor
carpeting faded green. Brown polyester tablecloths and blue plastic placemats.
They are obviously not going to get any richer if you come back. The sheets on
the bed don´t quite cover the mattress, missing the top and bottom by an inch on
either side. You can just see the Soviet sheet rationer deciding that if they cut the
sheets in half, they will have twice as many. Everything is functional, though
lacking in the kind of industrious maintenance you might expect from a hotel that
wants your business. They have a laundry on the same floor, to do the sheets, but
no, there is no laundry service for the guests. I asked the desk lady if it would be
possible to clean the toilet this morning since it stinks( ..stinks? reeks.) She
The contrast is striking with Placis, the place we stayed in Riga, which is so
clearly cut from the same dough but is actively seeking success. At the Placis,
there is a public phone in the hallway and the desk clerk sells phone cards. There
is a reasonably priced laundry service (3 dollars for all our clothes). The place is
kept immaculate by dumpy, rosy-cheeked older ladies who are valiantly trying to
learn enough English to speak to their guests. Both places are far from the city
center, but finding the Merevaik is definitely a challenge, since it is on the third
floor of an entryway that is all the way through the loading dock and around the
back and then around the corner in an enormous complex of seemingly empty
Week 8 79
It is fascinating, seeing and being able to piece together the way an entire of way
of life can change, finds it impossible to change, leaves pockets unchanged while
the rest races forward to take on the future. We have never known anything like
this, I think, even with the plunge into the Depression that my father went through
and the climb back out.
posted by Patricia 6:19 AM
Thursday, July 04, 2002
Kuressaare, Saaremaa, Estonia—
Those of you who have been just too lazy to get out those maps to follow our
progress better do it today because we are way, way out in the middle of the
hinterlands. Or perhaps I should say hinter-islands. We are in the major city of
Kuressaare on the island of Saaremaa, which is the big island off the west coast of
Estonia. The student hostel here is lovely, manned by one of the smiling Russian
ladies whose English is pronounced as if every word were a major triumph, which
it is, which it is. We are in a classic student dorm room, two desks, two wardrobes
(bigger than our students get, though no closets), and two...uh...beds. Narrow little
things so that if the sheets are Soviet half-sheets, they will still fit. The floor of the
shower room is heated. The shower runs for about four seconds before you have
to push the button again. No danger of losing oneself under the delicious hot
The fun Fourth of July has been spent getting up at the irrational hour of 6:30 a.m.
(it is hard to believe that JF actually managed it), and crossing town to the bus
station and then a longish bus ride-- a ferry ride-- and another bus ride here. The
student hostel where we are staying has free internet. How perfectly exciting, and
saving us enough for a nice dinner. The hostel is just under ten dollars apiece. I
was glad to get out of Tallinn. It has been discovered by the tourists of Europe
and yesterday, with the sun out, the place was wall to wall and shoulder to
shoulder. This place is more to my liking. A cute little town that hosts local
Estonians as tourists.
My guidebook says that the island during the Soviet era was closed to foreigners
and that Estonians needed special permits to come here because of an early
warning radar system and rocket base. Consequently, according to the book, this
is what Estonia would be like if the Russians hadn't invaded. The bus ride here
was your basic scenery--flat land with thick forests and smallish farms, many of
the fields lying fallow.
Karl wanted to know whether anybody ever mentions September 11 or the war in
The term 9-11 doesn't come up, and nobody refers to anything about it, but then
nobody says much of anything about America when we tell people that I am
American. Keep in mind that we haven't had much contact with the locals since
Week 8 80
we got to Estonia. The Servas situation is a complete bust, with the Servas
Secretary and Host Support people both having taken their phone numbers out of
the phone book entirely. The host book itself is zeroxed from a zerox from a zerox
and is in about 4 pt. type with letters that run together. Plus it is a list from 1995,
and all the phone numbers have been changed since then. So any hope we had of
actually talking to an Estonian went out the window with that. These are not
chummy, talk-to-strangers types. These are closed-mouthed, avert-the-eyes
Scandinavians around here. Reminds me of Garrison Keilor and Lake
I have been following the climbing temperatures and the coming storms in the
eastern US with interest. In Estonia, the day started sunny without a cloud to be
seen and we had rain on the ferry boat and in the bus and now the sun is out again.
Which, if you have been followin this log, is about par for the course. The
temperature hasn't risen above about 70 degrees this entire week, though in the
sun it gets a little warmer. We are thinking of renting scooters or a scooter and
tootling around the island tomorrow. The last time we had a bright idea like this
was in Sigulda (in the enchanted deserted palace across a river gorge by cable car
from town). We were going to rent bicycles. The next morning was socked in
entirely and wild horses couldn't drag JF out of bed. But the prospect of being
motorized might light his fire a bit. He is keeping the receipts for all the transport
on this trip in order to ascertain whether he could have brought his motorcycle
over and used that instead of local buses for equal or less money. I always say that
your own vehicle isolates you from the people in a country, but hey, these people
aren't climbing over the bus seats to look at my photo album or even smiling as
we walk down the bus aisles. Maybe a little strategic isolation on a motorcycle
would be a good thing. At least then when it rains, JF regards it as a challenge, a
gauntlet thrown down by the forces of the universe, a mighty taunt he has to meet
with daring-do and bravado. Those of you who remember us setting off for our
Texas motorcycle trip in March with rain, cold, and wind predictions echoing
behind us like so much laundry flapping in the breeze will know what I am
talking about here.
Once again last night, our paths crossed with our friends Gary and Judy from New
Zealand. I admit we agreed that when we got to Tallinn, we would try to stay at
the Merevaik and they did too. They are the folks hovering around sixty-
something, who live together but aren't married, whose relationship for the past --
uh, just how long have you two been together?-- at least ten years has been
traveling and planning to travel. We met them on the bus coming into Lithuania
from Poland and we have been hopscotching each other ever since. Making good
friends is not all that rare on the road like this, and is one of the reasons we love to
travel. I cherish James and Netta from my sailboat trip, David the Aussie from our
family trip to Turkey, and, bless her, Gilda, from my round the world trip in 1978.
Still, it is a great pleasure when it happens. When Gary and Judy go off into
another of their "When we were in Hanoi last..." stories, it just warms the cockles
of my heart. Last night, we said goodbye to them for the last time on this trip.
Week 8 81
They will take a ferry today to Sweden to see some folks they met in China and
who visited them in New Zealand ten years ago. The Swedes were kids then, and
now have married each other and had two kids. We had our last beer together last
night and our last hug and our last promise to write and email and come visit.
They are just such cool people, living on a budget smaller than ours, but taking
the Trans-Siberian railway in another month or so, and then spending three weeks
in a jeep with a local driver in Mongolia. Just amazing people. They have taught
me to bring a little stove so we can always cook in the hotel rooms and keep our
food costs down to next to nothing, to wear silk, to have cups and an immersion
heater so we can boil up a cup of tea in a minute. And they have taught me to
drink more tea. They have a great towel system which I have described
somewhere down in the archives. They have reaffirmed my own penchant to
travel slowly and not see so much. Their energy has inspired me to get more
done...well, at least think it would be a good idea to get more done. Here's to Gary
and Judy. Long may they wave.
posted by Patricia 10:54 AM
Friday, July 05, 2002
Kuressaare, Saaremaa, Estonia—
I woke to daylight at 5:30 a.m., looked at the clock and thanked the Universe I
had a couple more hours to sleep. At 7:30, I rolled over, thinking, "Just another
half hour or so." At 9:30, it was pouring rain, the kind that was going to rain all
day, that insistent, gray sky, low clouds kind of day. I KNEW I wasn't going to
get Jean-Francois out on a motor scooter. I could see the day unfolding: Reading
in bed until noon. Internet. Walk downtown for something to eat. Back for more
reading and listening to the rain. I couldn't stand the thought. This is supposed to
be a beautiful island, nature, a rustic way of life, windmills, seashore. And
because of the rain...again...I wasn't going to see any of it. We would leave on the
bus tomorrow and I'd have seen the inside of my blinking hotel room plus one or
two eateries within walking distance.
Okay, we had a row about it. I wasn't gracious. I cursed this infernal weather and
my husband's seeming inability to rise above it. He cursed my infernal need to be
doing something, going somewhere, accomplishing instead of being. I thought of
just buying the damned raingear and renting a scooter anyway. He dismissed this
as idiotic. I proposed getting on a bus and getting to someplace where it didn't
rain every day. He was perfectly willing to do that if I wanted to, but left to
himself, he would read his book.
We sloshed into town, still arguing. I hate that. Couples bitching at each other in
their native tongue in front of everybody. We grumped through coffee in this
adorable art gallery-coffee shop. Excellent coffee and applecake.
Okay, let's rent a car. Spend 56 European Euros, just about the same in American
Dollars??? Am I crazy? Are we made of money?
Week 8 82
I had given serious consideration to the option of checking the Yahoo Satellite
map for a place in Europe that had no rain and then just getting on the next bus
and the next one until we got there. When I thought about it, though, I knew I
would resent not having seen this place, this island, this Estonia. I missed the one
museum in Tallinn I wanted to see because of roaming all over town to find the
bus station so we could figure out how to get here. I don't want to miss this.
Damn the money.
The car is a little red Mazda and it is gorgeous. We zip back to the hostel to pick
up the picnic lunch we'd bought at the grocery store last night, I spread the map
out over my knees and prepared to NAVIGATE!
The long, bleak, dreary day that would have been turned into a great day:
beautiful scenery, a complete surprize discovery of an eatery, lots of good photos,
and a window into a very different way of life.
Let us start by praising really good maps. The introduction to this one says that
"Man has invented three suberb means of communication - language, music and
maps, maps being the oldest of the three." (Can this be true?) I spent the first half
hour just learning how to read all the information in this Estonian Atlas, but then
it was just a dream. It has peat bogs, cliffs, open land, bus stops, GPS coordinates,
manor houses, windmills, castles, boat landings, and even sacred stones! Along
with red roads and oops, yellow roads, which are gravel.
About that time, we bumped onto gravel. We drove to the tip of the peninsula,
stood in the wind off the sea and watched seven swan couples dipping their long
necks beneath the waves, up and down. Wild swans. The wreakage from the
fierce WWII fighting on this coast was everywhere, half bunkers, machine gun
slits slanting into the water. Blue wild flowers waving, swallows swooping, gulls
The houses on this part of the island are few and far between. Living out there
must be like living in remote parts of Alaska, something silent and fierce,
something that feeds on windsweep and salt air and no one for miles. The houses
were wooden, painted green or dark red or--most often--baby poop yellow-brown.
Wide bogs and rocky beaches and cliffs that had signs about how much history
could be read in the layers. A lot. Another swan colony. A wrong turn down to a
pier and four open fishing boats moored there. The road muddy and slippery in
places, so that I got short glimpses of getting stuck and nobody for miles. The
little red car just kept chugging though, past wooden windmills and stone fences.
A fox crossed the road in front of us. I remembered that this was what Alaska was
like for miles and miles, this flat, this windswept, this lonely, this beautiful...
Week 8 83
We got off the peninsula and started seeing villages again, little clusters of wood
frame houses and stone fences and picket fences. Sheep in the compounds and
"This is the way my grandmother lived," Judy said about their trip into the
countryside in Latvia. My grandmother lived in Alabama, where it never rained
this much at once and if July ever saw temperatures this low, they'd have
KNOWN the Lord was about to end the world. But I can see this peasant life for
her, the one cow, the constant farm work, the town something far off and only
I've never been to northern Minnesota, but I can imagine that this place must look
like that. You can just see people from here and other Scandinavian countries
getting there and thinking, ah. This is home. This is a trait of travelers, I think.
You see someplace and you think, this reminds me of the area around Asheville,
or this reminds me of eastern Ohio, or something. It's especially weird when the
people in the place don't look ANYTHING like the folks in eastern Ohio, and are
contstantly erasing that familiar feeling. These people in Estonia, on the other
hand, are just like rural Americans from the far north. The houses aren't very
different and the stone walls and hedges aren't very different. Maybe in Minnesota
they have individual bus stops like these. The wonderful map has bus stops
marked in tiny red letters, so all day I kept track of where we were from bus stop
to bus stop. Near the city, they are alike, just open shelters, but out in the country,
they are like little masterpieces, with doors that close and each one looking only
like itself. I could imagine curtains on the windows of some, with a tiny little
stove inside for those long winter waits at the bus stop for the country children.
Coming back to civilization, the big city of Kuressaare, we stopped at a road
house with a red sign called Artek, completely unprepared for what we
discovered. It's a bar, restaurant and dance hall on weekends, devoted to a tongue-
in-cheek, ironic homage to communism. Honest. There are communist flags
draped down the center of the room, newspapers from the communist era and
paper money decoupaged into tabletops and bathroom walls. There are several
bookshelves with Russian tomes extolling Lenin, busts of Lenin. The DJ's stand is
backed with Russian Army uniforms, with a gas mask draped over one and a cap
over another. The waitresses wear Red Army jackets. There is a samovar, flags
from the sailing Olympics in Tallinn before independence, even an old phone
from the era. Photos in August.
I talked to the owner, who told me that Artek was a summer camp in the Ukraine
for the very top athletes and students, "only the very best." The walls have
diplomas and certificates issued by the Soviets. And there is one incredible huge
painting showing the struggling Communists in battle, pushing on the victory.
The owner said she was 25 when the government changed here, and that she and
her husband and a friend who is an artist had the idea for this nostalgic-sarcastic
theme. Most of the tourists who come are Estonian or Finnish, though there are
Week 8 84
Russian tourists who come. The old people don't react, she said, but the young
people think it's really cool.
We were on our way to a few of the sites mentioned in our guidebooks, so we just
had coffee that time, but we did go back later for supper. I had October
Revolution meat dumplings and JF had Capitalist sausages and sauerkraut.
It never did stop raining until we got back to town. We did wooden windmills
photo op in the rain, 14th century gothic church in the rain, and quaint north
island town in the rain. It rained particularly hard during our 7500 year-old-crater
visit. Really, it looks like a wimpy little lake with some man-made mounds to
keep the water in, but it isn't. It is the site of a wild-ass meteorite landing, one so
spectacular that it has been handed down in Estonian mythology as the Sun's
Grave. This, the story goes, is why the Estonians are blessed by God, since he
chose this very spot for the burial place of the sun. There were many conflicting
theories about this hole in the ground until the early 20th century, when
geological analysis of the fragments of meteorite confirmed the hypothesis that it
was one massive chunk of metal that went boom. We are talking 1000 tons on
entry into the earth's atmosphere and 80 tons when it finally hit. It was going
about 10-20 km per SECOND when it landed.
After dinner, the sun briefly showed up, just in time to light up the Bishop's castle
on the south end of the city while we were having our after dinner walk.
JF admitted that it had been a really good day, that we never would have
discovered Artek without the car and that it was worth every Euro we put into it.
And we don't have to turn it in until noon tomorrow, though knowing us, that
means roll out of bed and hurry on down to the car place. I admitted that I would
have been miserable had we attempted to do anything near that on a motorscooter.
The minute I realized the yellow roads were all gravel and mud, we would have
been severely limited in scope. We'd have completely missed the swans, the fox
and the feeling of the Far North.
Great news from Servas: We now have Servas homestays lined up in Krakow in
the middle of next week, Prague over the weekend, and Munich for the beginning
of the next week.
After tomorrow morning, we will be hard traveling, just moving and moving and
moving down the map. There will be internet in Riga and Vilnius, so I will be
checking in, but the next phase of the trip is definitely going to be a Servas
immersion in three beautiful cities. Then the French connection, and home.
Waaahhh...the trip is almost over. I can feel the breath of Real Life hot on my
neck. Or is that just another hot flash?
posted by Patricia 5:23 PM
Saturday, July 06, 2002
Week 8 85
Kuressaare, Saaremaa, Estonia—
This morning, the Universe mocks us. There is not a cloud in the sky. It looks like
summer on the French Riviera out there. Will I be able to get Jean-Francois out of bed to
take advantage of it. Not bloody likely! We don't have to take the car back until noon.
Aside from my early morning craving for coffee, I am also rarin' to see what the place
looks like in the light of day instead of the gloom of yesterday. Maybe I am too harsh on
the old boy. I take my leave, high hopes in hand.
posted by Patricia 12:18 AM