Tuesday, December 25, 2007

i spy

I had to be careful arranging my transportation to Vilnius from Gdańsk, because one route to Lithuania from Poland is through the Kaliningrad Region, and I don't have a Russian visa. If I got on the wrong bus, I would be kicked off at the border. I tried to get info on bus routes in both Warsaw and Gdańsk, and while ladies behind the various information desks ran the gamut from foul-tempered wench to genuinely helpful gentlewoman, none of them spoke English. Well, the wench sorta did, but stopped understanding me when I asked, "Does it go through Russia?" I didn't think it was that weird a question, but judging from the facial expression I received, she did. And then I made the mistake of going to buy a ticket on a Sunday, when the bus station office was closed, and I should have known better. Turning to the sorry excuse that passes for the tourist office for help, hoping to find another outlet in town that sold bus tickets, I was offered a solution that involved two train transfers in the middle of the night, including one in Minsk. I don't have a visa for Belarus, either. But all went right in the end; after some web research I was fairly certain the bus wouldn't go through Russia, and I was able to buy a ticket directly from the driver. When in doubt, just show up and ask. I could have just gone back to the Gdańsk hostel for another night had I been unsuccessful. There were a bunch of ladies on the bus who are obviously experts at overnights. They all had blankets, and picked rows where there were seats available on both sides of the aisle, so they could stretch their legs across. It made getting down the aisle to the toilet a bit problematic. Fortunately the border crossing made everyone sit up, and I had my chance.

Assuming that learning things is one of the main reasons that people travel, traveling around usually involves lots of museum visits. So many museums in the world, and so many of them don't live up to their potential, or are full of lackluster displays that diminish the objects on display. Although I suppose it's debatable whether or not great art and artefacts transcend whatever milieu in which they happen to be shown...anyway, visiting a really excellent museum makes you appreciate the art of the museum. Vilnius has the Museum of the Victims of Genocide, also known as the KGB Museum. All that wacky stuff you've heard about the KGB spying on people dressed up as fruit vendors and employing cameras hidden in brooches? It's all true. They clearly also had a rubber stamp fetish.

The museum is in a building that has the nefarious history of being not only the KGB headquarters, but was also used by the Gestapo, so lots of no good happened there. The majority of the exhibits are devoted to documenting Soviet occupation and the Lithuanian resistance, and then about a quarter of it is about the KGB, its personnel, methods, documents, and equipment. A nice touch in the eavesdropping section are three television monitors showing the adjacent rooms and hallways, so you can spy on your fellow visitors...and realize that someone may have been spying on you.

In the basement is the prison, reconstructed to as closely resemble conditions as they were back in the (fairly recent) day. I was thinking that the icky milky mint green must have been chosen for some psychologically draining properties, but there's one cell that shows 18 layers of paint, revealed square by square. Instead of trying to erase or eradicate words scrawled or scraped onto the wall by prisoners, they just painted over everything. Special rooms include one for guards to watch the grounds (more opportunity to spy on passers-by), the water torture room, and the padded room, complete with a straitjacket.

There's an execution chamber, and displayed in it is a reproduction of the building plans, which includes the chamber labeled as "kitchen", in case any non-authorized personnel managed to take a look at it. The museum was unexpectedly free admission on the day I showed up, but two and a half hours wasn't enough to get through it all. I had only about twenty minutes to see half the KGB section and the prison, so returned the next day for another hour. Morbidly fascinating subject matter aside, it's one of the best museums based on presentation and explanation of material. It would take days to go over all the objects on display, especially in the sections devoted to Partisan resistance.

On a more jocular note, Vilnius is one of the few, if not only city, that can boast about its bust of Frank Zappa, which gazes out over the street from a soaring pedestal. I'm not a fan, I sought it out anyways, because why not. I love finding all the little bizarre things that towns have squirreled away, or in this case sitting right out in the open surrounded by trippy graffiti. Frank is such a draw that he even has a landmark pointer, the easier for tourists to find their way.

Remembering how to thank someone in Lithuanian is easy to remember because it sounds like a sneeze, ačiū. And a true language oddity – Lithuanian has no vulgarity. If you want to swear, you need to do it in Russian. Which reminds me about my mom. I don't think I've ever heard her swear in English, but if she's hot under the collar, she'll let loose with some Chinese. When I was growing up, no one in the condo was spared. Me, my sister, my dad, the dogs, the cat, the cages of lab mice we kept as pets, and sometimes everyone at once. It sounds really peppery if you don't know what she's saying, but as soon as you find out that it means something like "stinky thousand year old egg," it just made us all giggle.

I took a half-day trip to Trakai, which is about an hour away on the slow bus. It's a small town surrounded by lakes, and with a castle showcasing taxidermied heads (animals. what were you thinking?) and opium pipes. I mailed one final postcard, and had the misfortune of getting in line behind an old lady who wanted to mail a package, but hadn't sealed it at all. In full view of the growing line of impatience, the woman working the window actually went through all the trouble of cutting a sheet of white paper down to fit the face of the box, and then slowly, painfully, and kludgily taped it all up, and handed it back to the old lady to address. That's some service. The post office was the most crowded place in town, because back out on the streets it was mostly just leaves blowing in the wind. I pondered the wisdom and worth of traveling in winter. Daylight is short. The air is cold. Lots of places are shut down. The streets are deserted. I'll sometimes wander around the cities after dark, but mostly I end up drinking endless cups of tea in the hostel, or nursing cappuccinos and hot chocolates in cafés. I can do that at home, so is it worth traveling in winter if I'm only out and about for a few hours a day? Ultimately I think it is. Places shouldn't be seen only when they have their bright sunny faces out, but certainly some are better when they do. I've found that visiting bigger cities in the winter is more rewarding than the small towns, just because there's more to do and see. And traveling in the off-season has its own set of perks. Long-haul public transportation isn't crowded. Accommodation is easy to find, and sometimes cheaper. Fewer tourists clog the streets, sights, and restaurants, making me feel less like the a member of the English-speaking herd of wide-eyed sheep bumbling through Europe.

Back in Italy, the land of gourmet cuisine, I didn't have much of an appetite. Going to restaurants for the famous Italian gastronomic goodies just didn't sound interesting. I think a lot of it had to do with the heat; after spending all day in the sun and guzzling gallons of water, I was usually more in the light snacking mood than heavy meal mood. Now that the weather is cold, and I still walk around for hours, I usually want to eat like a hog in the evenings. Plus, the cuisine in this area of the world is suited for winter weather, full of heavy starch and carbs. I don't know if they scientifically keep me warm, but psychologically they do. And since I'm going home soon, I stopped caring about staying on budget. What am I saying, I've never even had a budget. I stopped caring about my bank account is a better way of putting it, and have been liberally eating out trying the local specialties. Lithuania has a few, including stuffed potato pouches called zeppelins, but since I couldn't find a vegetarian version, I settled instead for fried bread covered in cheese sauce. It's really just a toasted cheese sandwich in pieces, using rye bread. Menus seem to list it consistently under the Beer Snacks heading. Also, more dumplings, but decent ones this time, filled with cheese curd and covered in a sweet sour cream. The potato pancakes covered in conventional sour cream were filling, but didn't rock my world. Sour cream is one of the top five flavors of eastern Europe. People who travel for an extended period of time frequently have one thing in mind that they want to eat first when they get home. Sushi. Burritos. Something from a favorite restaurant. I keep casually thinking about it, and can't decide what I want. I haven't really missed anything so much that I need to run out and gorge myself as soon as my feet hit Bay Area soil. I'm landing in the middle of the night anyway, so any immediate food fix is out the question, unless I'm craving something from 7-11. I don't think I've been away long enough to miss anything, even home. I think about home a lot, and all the people and things that define it as home, but I never miss it.

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