Lithuanian Zombie Crisis: Acclimatising to the Baltics
First days in a new country are challenging. As we begin a week exploring Lithuania and the Curonian Spit, we are hit by a series of language, currency, picnic and zombie crises. All while dealing with a housing crisis back at home in the UK. Who said travel was easy?
Flat but not as we know it
“Flat as a pancake” was one of the many Baltic promises I made Kirstie when talking her into this journey, so perhaps she had a right to complain about the rough gravel strewn hill ahead. I felt a bit cheated too; it wasn’t what I wanted with triplet and trailer but didn’t seem so bad coming on the back of 50km of silky asphalt cycle trail.
I’d been tempted to ride the length of the Curonian Spit, down to the border with Kalingrad, but without visas there was no question of exploring the Russian end of this banana shaped dune land so we made a shorter loop of the Northern Spit, sampling the pine-scented forests and quieter beaches of a unique Lithuanian National Park. And crossing the odd mega-sand-dune on sections of loose gravel trail.
And although these aren’t really hills, not in the sense we know them from home or from crossing the Alps, a short vertical rise of 60m along a gravel track is enough to get you sweaty and irritable.
A housing crisis
I was about half way up, wheels spitting gravel when my breathless cursing was drowned out by an inappropriate ringtone from my bar bag. Without momentum the bike stopped quickly but it took time to fumble around and find the phone to silence it. I didn’t want to take the call, just stop the noise but must have pressed the answer on speaker button for by the time I pulled the phone out the screen read ‘Number Unknown’, the ring was gone, replaced with a muffled hello.
“Hello?” I gasped back.
“Hi, there. It’s Phil here from Gibbs. How are you?” It was the estate agent handling the sale of my mum’s house.
“I’m pushing a bike for three up a gravel hill on a sand dune in Lithuania.” I explained.
“Great,” he continued, “I wanted to update you on developments in the housing market. There’s been a few other properties come on the market near your mum’s and…”
While I drew breath, he didn’t, filling me in on his worries about the double dip recession, the risk of falling property prices and what constituted a good offer in the circumstances.
A butterfly landed briefly on my handlebars, then quickly took off again. As I stood, watched and listened on my gravely patch of dune, I imagined him in his High Street office, swivelling on his chair, feet upon his leather clad desk. And for the few minutes we were connected I was disconnected.
A picnic crisis
Two days later I was on shopping duty in the Maxima supermarket in Palanga, Lithuania’s prime party town. It’s no place for the faint-hearted. Prime real estate here is for ice-cream stalls, hook a duck, dodgems and anything else offering fun, fun, fun in the sun, sun, sun. So the supermarket is not so super; the aisles are small, too small for two or even one and a trolley, and packed with unfamiliar produce. And people. I’m searching for picnic that the kids will eat and my instructions are specific.
“No cabbage, beetroot or omelettes Dad.”
Everyone was off omelettes after a Lithuanian breakfast in which the omelette turned out to be a kind of cabbage lasagne.
“No bread unless it’s white and like Warburton’s. Something for sandwich fillings. But not salami. And not cheese. It melts. Forget butter too.”
An unexpected heatwave meant everything that could melt would and did, including some stretches of tarmac we were fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to follow.
“We need crisps but not cheesy ones. And don’t forget the mineral water because you can’t trust the tap water. We think. And not gassy water please.”
“Oh and Dad can you get some Chupa Chupa lollies. Pleeeeaaase. If you can find them.”
I can’t. It’s our third day in the Baltics and I’m having trouble remembering how to say hello, please and thank you let alone translate labels without pictures. Every aisle that isn’t full of party people stocking up on booze seems to be the beetroot aisle and I can’t find the phrase for “Do you sell Chupa Chupa’s” in the Latvian section of my Baltic phrase book. I wish I’d sent Kirstie in and stayed outside to keep my cool playing with the kids in the fountain.
A currency crisis
As I stand at the checkout monitoring the little display showing the growing sub-total I look over my banknotes to see which one will match most closely. As bottles of water slide towards me the noise in my barbag goes off again and people start to stare, even more.
“Hello Sir, it’s James from Foxton’s.” It’s the agent that didn’t get the contract to sell mum’s house. “Just wondering how it’s going with your sale?”
I don’t want to talk but somehow feel obliged. He’s sounds so smooth, reasonable, interested. He doesn’t know I’m in the middle of a currency crisis. I give him the briefest of explanations, telling him we’ve just accepted an offer on the house on mum’s behalf and won’t be needing his services.
“That’s great,” he replies, totally unflustered,”How much did you get for it?”
The cashier swipes the final item and sends it down the conveyor towards me while I look for a note with a 50 on it to cover the 38.40 Latvian thingies for the shopping. I don’t really want to answer his question but it feels rude not to and I’m a little bit distracted so I blurt out the offer figure and hand over the 50 note.
There’s silence at the end of the phone and the cashier shakes her head again and again while I double check the numbers on the note and the till. It’s definitely a 50 and the bill is definitely for less than that and I can’t work out what the problem is.
James eventually breaks his disapproving silence, “I’m sorry. You must be very disappointed.” The cashier continues to shake her head as I scratch mine. “I’m confident we could get you a better price than that.” But all I want is to be able to pay for my shopping.
Outside as I proudly present my purchases to the family, and show them the mysterious unacceptable banknote, they are quick to laugh at my inability to distinguish a 50 euro note from its so obviously Latvian counterpart.
A language crisis
The Amber Museum in Palanga is listed as a must-see tourist attraction and the kids are keen to see some ‘Lithuanian Gold’ for real, having spent a couple of days combing beaches for amber without any success. I guessed it might help if they knew what they were looking for.
Aside from an impressive amber jewellery collection, a giant Easter Egg made out of amber fragments and a shop selling amber everything, the main attraction was two floors of dated magnifying cabinets show-casing chunks of amber containing ancient little animals that had the misfortune to get stuck in resin during a period in history when pine trees inexplicably went into resin overproduction.
We tried hard to establish more about when, how or why this happened but were hampered by an inability to translate Latvian or Russian captions. The museum attendants were not much help either, preferring to demonstrate their authority in other ways, by triple checking tickets, tutting at children making smudges by trying to actually view things through the glass magnifiers and intervening with stern looks to enforce the law of absolute silence.
I was studying one of only six lizards in the world that had been preserved in Amber when six curators suddenly turned and slithered towards me. Mum was on the phone, wanting to discuss her property dealings. I took the call quietly behind the lizard case and out of sight of the reptiles.
“Are you in a library?” asked mum. I didn’t try to explain, preferring to keep my contributions to a minimum. She chatted away about Aunty Betty, my sister’s holiday, daytime TV and whether or not she should accept the offer on her house.
“Do you think I should accept?” she asked, finally getting to the point.
“Yes.” I was brief and to the point. It left her silent. “Do you want me to phone the estate agent and confirm everything?” I asked, trying to move things on, maintain the peace and get back to the lizards.
A zombie crisis
Two days later, it didn’t take us long to transform the primary school playground in Vergale into a makeshift campsite. I was sitting on a tree stump observing the progress of an ant colony towards our tent when mum rang again. As she chatted about Aunty Betty, my sister’s holiday and daytime TV a six year old Latvian boy circled me, arms outstretched, announcing in perfect English “I am a Zombie.”
While I half listened to mum I asked him if he learnt English at school. “No,” he explained in a zombie like way, “I learn it from the Cartoon Network.” I wondered momentarily if they had a Latvian version I could watch but was brought back to England by my mum moving onto her property affairs.
“I’ve had a phone call from your sister,” she started, “telling me she’s had a text from you telling her I’ve sold the house.”
“Yes that’s right.” I replied, pleased we were on the same page. My little zombie friend smiled at me, like he knew what was coming.
“But how can that be?” mum went on, “I’m not settling for anything less than the asking price. That last offer was way too low. And I’ve heard nothing from the estate agent.”
I put my heads in my hands, “I thought you agreed to accept it and asked me to let the estate agent know?”
Apparently she had said no such thing. Looking at the ants, listening to my mother, watching my zombie friend impersonate Scooby Doo I realised that none of this made sense. And it was probably something I needed to get used to if I wanted to enjoy the next few weeks in the Baltics.