Saturday 5 January 2019

1996 Lithuania

30.4.96 Cremona

In the waiting-room of the station, fading posters of the Piazza del Duomo and the Duomo itself in front of me.  And seeing these old images of old Italy – Good Old Italy – the question naturally poses itself: what the hell am I doing here?

Here, that is, about to undertake a 36-hour train journey to Vilnius.  A journey that will take far longer than the time I have there, and far longer than it needs to be (flying to London and then to Vilnius would be quicker).  But of course, the journey is part (most?) of the point.  This is almost a pure voyage – pure travel in the sense of travail.

Standing on the platform, I stare at the main station sign: Cremona.  One of those signs, with its characteristic typography, that I have seen from Italian trains so many times in the last 18 years.  Either side of me now, the flat fertile plains of the Po.  Spring well and truly sprung despite the atrocious recent weather (but warm and rather airless tonight – storms to come?).  From the train, the typical form of the cascina is evident everywhere – just as in L'Albero degli zoccoli.  Like a relaxed fortress, turned in on itself.

Many of tonight's commuters are black: presumably living in Brescia and commuting out to the small towns by day to trade their poor wares.  What a hard life – and yet how laudable, daring to come to a foreign land, risking exploitation, arrest, for their families.  And yet, consciously or not, we look down on them.  I know that I am very unsympathetic to their sales pitches.

Ahead of us the mountains loom through the evening mist.  The sun out to my left, watery yellow.  Now a huge scrapyard, one I remember from before – along with reports of radioactive metal from Russia ending up there….


May Day in Vienna.  Not that I see much of it.  The train from Brescia arrives late, so I struggle through the train to get near the front, then dash over to platform 5, and find myself now in the Austrian coach of the train to Warsaw with two Poles (interesting how some words I can pick out from the general romp).

I spent hours chatting with this Italian teacher (retired) from Treviglio.  Austria picturesque as ever, rolling hills, forests, green fields, satellite dishes (everywhere), all wreathed in romantic mists.  A few Austrian flags hung from balconies… Good sleep last night – my old skills have not deserted me completely.

It was curious leaving last night.  Journeys should begin at the beginning of the day: leaving at night felt like returning.  But nothing could be further from the truth.  I've never been to Poland, so this is pushing my boundaries.

I've been reading Cavalli-Sforza on genes and language – interesting, but badly written (no clear line).  Now I move to Schwab: Die schönsten Sagen des klassischen Altertums.  Seems appropriate for a journey through Austria (and with Ithaca coming up in a month….)

Across the border at Břeclav.  At a stroke, everything that was shiny, orderly and Germanic is now rusty, chaotic and slav.  Hearing the Czech announcements makes me realise that I am entering foreign lands, and reminds me of my journeys in Russia (and what a pity I never went to Armenia and Georgia then, as I nearly did…)  Back hundreds of years: A woman with a wheel in a ploughed field: sowing?  Villages out of Breughel (with a few satellite dishes…)

The Polish passport officer inspects my passport long and hard – and adds its number to his little book...I fear that Brits coming from Italy are fairly rare – god knows what will happen at Grodno.

Through Poland, near Katowice.  Everything very poor and run-down.  Crumbling houses, kids playing amid junk and rubble.  Dusty grey factories.  Rubbish tips everywhere.  Satellite dishes like mushrooms.  And these huge, snaking tubes: gas?  With odd bends in them around non-existent obstacles.  Becoming abstract works of art.  Strange ghostly mansion, stately, decaying.  Everything dark with grime.  On the land, horses, not tractors.  An elephants' graveyard of trains, every hue of green imaginable.

Of course, one of the things travelling does is to make me appreciate home: the instant everything is fixed, I long not to go.  Another thing: I immediately discover many reasons to be fearful.  For example, last week I read that there is a nuclear reactor in Lithuania that is like the one in Chernobyl, and pretty unsafe.  But if I thought of all the reasons not to do anything…

Nobody at Warsaw Central speaks English or German – not the information desk or the international reservations.  Using Czech (sic) I got the general idea across, but the return date was used as the departure date.  And the desk was closing.  But I think I have a ticket to Vilnius (but no reservation back, which needs to be fixed).  I really feel that I am teetering on the edge of my Western world.  Poland really feels eastern bloc in a way that Prague doesn't.  The language barrier is interesting, and almost novel for me.

In the station, and here in the waiting room, a real smell of elsewhere (felt almost like India when I got out of the train.) Drinking a cold Coca Cola on the main concourse of the station – what sybaritic luxury.  Amazing how much here is aimed at Russians – Cyrillic text, people speaking russky.  Amazing, too, how many blacks and Asians here – cheap labour?
in Poland.

Still, people-watching is always fun, even in these dubious surroundings (though perhaps coming into their own as dusk falls – the two flanking bars taking a particularly Hopperesque tinge (ah, and how I wish to hear Ives's Concord Sonata, in my normal, irrational way).  So many Poles have what I can only call sad sack faces: lugubrious, crazy eyes, a moustache (if male).

On the train – one carriage for sleeping (and through to Vilnius).  Which makes everything feel even more end of the world.  Three beds in each compartment – made up – and a washbasin (à la  Cairo-Luxor train).  Nice.


Well, what a night.  After more passport inspections than most holidays, a customs form completely in Belarusian, and a dash out to the immigration office to get a visa (DM50 – for one transit), this is what travel is about.  Belarus (and Grodno) much as you might expect: grey and depressing in the extreme.  A romantic mist does its best.  Also noticeable during the night were the weird couplings and uncouplings.  Having lost the Polish wagons, we've picked up some others.  Raining slightly, too, and cold.  But we're much further north.  On the way I see a few lights in the flats: what are their lives, I wonder? I seem to be the only one requiring a visa – just as well given the sleepy woman doing it – everything in triplicate.

Valkinkai – houses out of Chekhov – and the smell of damp woods.  The sun is shining weakly. And then here I am in Vilnius (pauses for appreciative murmurs).  Before me, the gleaming-ish cathedral and clock tower.  Brilliant sun and clear blue sky (it can't last).

I even managed to take the right trolley bus (number 2) from the station, paying 60 Centų (about 10p) and avoiding the taxi wolves.  Hotel room not ready yet, so I wander for a while.  Lots of building and reconstruction going on (as you might expect).  It's so nice to see all these Indo-european endings on shops etc. People have a distinctive look, blonde, blue eyes, squarish Russian faces, but also strange tints in the eyes and hair.

To the Žurnalistika Cafe – the journos' canteen according to "Vilnius in your pocket" (unobtainable in the kiosks – good job I downloaded most of it from the online version – very good).  Surprisingly civilised – no smoking (yet?), music reasonable (ah, someone heard me writing this, and just lit up…).  Prices low, as most things are here (books cost £1-£2 each…)

Hotel room, well, ex-Soviet (hot tap makes an impressive judder when you turn it on).  Everything rather faded, and never very elegant.  I have upgraded – from 240 Litas to 260 Litas, obtaining a front room.  Noisier, but the view of the rubbish tip at the back of the hotel was more than I could stomach.

More English spoken here than in Warsaw (and people generally helpful and even friendly).  Glorious summer's day.  I have showered (bliss to be clean) and am wearing only my shirt (well, trousers too…)

My initial impression (favourable) is that Vilnius has much in common with Ljubljana.  Not surprisingly, perhaps, since both would have grown up for the same reason: a defensible mound by a river.  Plenty of baroque here, as in Ljubljana, the latter probably wealthier and more relaxed then here (and further south…)

Eating beetroot soup with meat dumplings (do they have BSE here?) and exquisite black bread.  The Lithuanian pork (schnitzel-like but fried in egg) good, but the highlight definitely the black bread – the best I've ever had.  Almost creamy, with a rich but not overpowering flavour.

After lunch, back to the room, then a long, long walk to here, the cafe at Šv. Jono gatve and Pilies gatve.  Drinking canonical coke absent any čaj. Glorious breeze here – clouds in the sky, but only enough to be interesting.

Went past the cathedral into the old part of the city – very Prague, very Buda.  Baroque, with lots of derelict properties.  One day this will all be fancified like Prague, but now it is genuine and poor.  Not that I'm suggesting that it ought to be preserved thus, but at least not it is genuinely itself rather than another vague copy of other Western capitals (there's already a McDonald's opposite the station.)  Talking of which, I went there in search of "Vilnius in your pocket" (VIYP): which doesn't exist, at all.  On the way I passed through the market, which was pure Asia, which begins here, even though we're next to Finland. So many swirling Catholic churches here (and a few onion-topped Orthodox ones).

On thing I forgot to note: how tall many of the people here are – especially the women, several of whom have towered over me.  I predict some mega models from up here soon…

After buying a few incredibly cheap books, back to the hotel, where I find I have no shampoo, so rush out, chase around for 30 minutes, and finally locate some.

Now, following "Vilnius in your pocket", I find myself in a near-deserted restaurant Rugelis – perhaps I should have guessed from one of the quoted blurbs ("it was deserted at lunchtime").  I tried for pressed carp – off the menu – so settled for Lithuanian blini and cepelinai – potato dumplings (named after the Zeppelins they resemble) filled with "x" – in this case, mushrooms.  Hm, the apple blini seems to be bananas (Lithuania's national fruit, VIYP says…???). Cepelinai turn out to be very large grey maggots of indistinguishable taste.

I go off for a walk along the river, foolishly turned West, hoping to follow the river back – but found the dreariest landscape – and gave up.  One thing: there is no dog-poo in this place.  Nada. (Not many dogs, either.)


Despite BBC TV's predictions of rain, there is sun this morning (plus clouds).   Slept well in the small-ish bed.  Breakfast Nordic: cheese, ham, black bread.  Water very tepid this morning ("the smorning" as I still think 30+ years later…)

To St Peter and Paul's church.  Outside, nothing special, inside a riot of stucco.  Along the river to here – nothing noteworthy – Ljubljana and Prague use their water better.  Here it is all concrete banks and modern bridges.  Beautiful sun outside, getting hotter. On the way, I smell raw diesel fumes and think of India: along with the wood smoke at dusk, this is its characteristic odour.

To the hill and the tower (though not to the top since it's closed still).  My/our urge is to rise, to get the bigger picture.  Reminds me of so many other risings: Baux, Sigiri, Tour Eiffel, Ljubljana. The sun really too nice, too nice to move.

To the Armenian Restaurant "13 chairs".  Empty.  Choosing "Cololac": meat stuffed with this wise?  Still, one must try these things.

Before, in the continuing heat, to the Belarusian Embassy for a visa.  In fact, to the consulate, down a very dubious alley.  In the helpful transit department, who like the look of my train reservation.  Trouble is, I need a photo.  Luckily, in room number 6 there is a little old lady with a Polaroid camera: 4 images for L.14 (about £2.50).  Robbed over the transit cost – $31 – more than the sleeping car by far.  Still, at least going back I won't have to rush out for a visa at Grodno, worrying whether the triplicate form-filling will take too long… Inside the consulate, real Soviet-style: wires coming off the wall, everything not-so-old but fast decaying.

Cololac turns out to be an egg rolled in mincemeat (yikes), but it tasted reasonably fresh and not entirely made of bulls' willies.  I hope….  Interesting bread too, like thin pitta – papery but OK.  L20.50 - £3.50, so I can't complain about the price.  Here in the "13 chairs", the Western rock reveals its chord structure too transparently to my ears.  I find the three or four chords so boring now that I can analyse them without thinking.  Interestingly, house music doesn't really have this effect, in part because rhythm – or the beat, rather – is so important, and also because basically it is often more adventurous.

A Polyphon (music box) sounds in the Lietuvos Dailes Muziejus – National Art Museum.  Looks newly restored in this first room – beautiful – Wedgewood blues, cool whites.  The Polyphon creaks and scratches – it uses a metal disc with holes – painfully.  The same smell of paint thinners here as in my hotel – Lithuania's odour? Passing (uncertainly) through a door to ascend, I am hit by an ur-smell of clean corridors – from school? A room full of Boullée-like architectural plans.  One thing: the use of deep shadow in the sectional drawings: think about it.  Weirdly abstract. Surprising number of Lithuanian artists here.

After wandering around here for rather longer than I expected, I decide to go to what seems to be the main national art gallery, just further down in the big classical building.  As I move there, distant lightning among louring clouds warns of an imminent storm. When I get to the museum, I can guess what the sign on the darkened entrance says: "we've moved", to where I was.  A little man inside confirms this when I enter, just to check.

I wanted to buy an ABC (in English and Lithuanian), and passing along, I see another bookshop.  I enter, of course, and find about six books that have to buy: 4 Lithuanian poets (in English); a book on the Lithuanian language (in Lithuanian); a 700-page tome on Lithuanian folk songs; an old Soviet book on Lithuania – 400 pages for £1.30 – and a tremendous volume with the first (and more or less only) book in the Prussian language (a snip at £4.)  I also buy four tapes – mostly by Čiurlionis, of course. Total for a good few kilos: L.142 – about £24.

The Prussian book is pretty stunning in its comprehensiveness – a real hypertextual trip through the words.  Also it's numbered: (I am the proud owner of book number 162 out of 1000).  Provided I can carry this lot, the Lithuanian bible (which I also bought today), and the other five or so books, I will probably have one of the finer small collections of Baltic language books outside the country.

Now in the Geležinis Vilkas restaurant – very modern, but small, expensive relatively – still cheap in Western European terms.  Set in a rather god-forsaken part of the city, towards the Parliament.  Well, the Lithuanian borscht tasted like, er, borscht, and the chicken with fruits like chicken Kiev (but without the garlic) with fruits.  But all piping hot and good.


Weather even finer: sunny but a cool breeze.  Inside the Cathedral.  I have never seen so many pix on the walls and columns – despite coming from Italy.  Otherwise very cool and classical – pure light above the altar.  Gounod's "Ave Maria" plays quietly in the distance.  More or less empty, 9am.

Typically, the food store I was hoping to buy some food from is closed for cleaning until 11am…. It is hard to imagine this place under the Soviet regime.  It seems so obviously centred in Western Christian civilisation – a tribute to how quickly Lithuania has got back to "normal".  The bells ring for 9.

Down to the trio of churches.  The weird St Anne's – all sprung arches – in brick.  Probably the most beautiful corner of Vilnius here.  Down Didžioji gatve.  Past the concert hall, to the Monastery of the Holy Trinity – in wonderful disrepair.  The main church full of rough scaffolding – and pigeons.  Very tranquil.  In a selfish way, I feel it will be sad when all this is gone in Vilnius.  I am lucky to have seen it.

To the Gate of Dawn.  Unusual entrance – up stairs, worn to the right and to the left, by time and feet.  A woman kneels on the stairs, praying (each step?) Inside the chapel, full of devotees.  Very intense.  I am reluctant to enter as a tourist.

On the way back, I stop off in a "supermarket" – not particularly super, and buy a few provisions for the journey back this evening (even longer than going – around 39 hours all-told.)  In fact the timing works out well: 17.15 departure from Vilnius, arrives Warsaw 6.00am in time for breakfast.  Depart for Vienna at 9am, lunch on train (either the rolls I have, or from the friendly trolley lady), arrive Vienna around 17.00.  Eat perhaps in the restaurant I know increasingly well.  Back in Brescia for breakfast, Cremona for mid-morning coffee (if all goes to timetable).

Back now to Žurnalistika Cafe, since the food was good, it's near etc.  Rather surprised to find it open: many things here in Vilnius opened late or not at all.  Still, against all the odds, stunning weather.  It really is bliss walking round this place, especially the area of the three churches I found this morning.  On the way from there I passed Adam Mickiewicz's home – totally run-down.  My cold borscht has arrived.  Very nice too: cream, egg, cabbage – and all an unreal pinky-mauve (I think for no reason at all of the restaurant that I went to in East Berlin: the weather/ambience?)

To the university, a wonderful collection of asymmetric courtyards.  In one, the sound of a woman's voice rehearsing with a piano.  The sun's heat almost Mediterranean.  Selig!  On the way, passed whole rows of wrecked houses.  So much to do here.

In to St John's church – one of the most successful baroque facades I've seen, towering up and rippling.  Inside, very high, white, with fine hyper-baroque altar.  Close-up, the latter is absolutely stunning – I've never seen one with such a good use of 3D: a pair of two pillars ornamented out of functionality, and wrapped around the altar space.  Another pair of pillars around the altar itself.  Above it, an opening, through which more distant echoes of pillars can be seen.  Over all of it a huge stucco starburst of the Trinity. An organ plays wheezily in the distance; men's voices intone.

Weakly, I crawl back to another bookshop – and buy an English-Lithuanian dictionary (for about £7), plus a history of the Lithuanian language (£1.25) – and then blow an outrageous £12 on a CD of Lithuanian folk music.  I know this is disproportionate, but the disc looks good, and I'd pay the same in the UK – if it even existed…

Now the skies are leaden, covered by great rolling clouds.  With typically bad timing the hotel café closes now (3pm), so I take refuge next door in a strange open café (but under a concrete roof).  The rain is falling now, and will doubtless get heavier.  Will I manage to hold the umbrella, my two bags and food to stagger to the (nearby) bus stop (ticket already bought) later? Two rotters join my table, light up fags.  I have no intention of stinking of smoke sooner than I have to.  I flee to the hotel reception, even though here it is dark and dull.  The Lithuanian god Perkūnas - still angry, perhaps that they built a cathedral on his holy site – growls away in the background.

I've never come across a country that produces so many books so cheaply.  Obviously, the Lithuanians are determined to bolster their linguistic position now that they have the freedom to do so.  Coming here has helped me with my Indo-European linguistics.  Suddenly, all the connections between the languages seem obvious: in this respect, Lithuanian
really is the missing link between the Slavic languages, Latin, Greek et al.  Lithuanian is so clearly close to Czech, Russian, but also with links across.  And its "ancient" features root it back in time, too.

Interesting that the receptionist and some other flunkies here are watching Russian TV: obviously there is much knowledge of it here, even if most keep it under their hats.  A sign: down by the university, underneath the street names there was a rectangular mark where perhaps another street name had been – in Cyrillic…

With the sun out once more, I take the bus to the station.  In the huge waiting hall, seats (orange and plastic) around the outside, corrugated steel roof, a plywood rectangular kiosk in the centre of one side. From here I can see behind me the train going to Klaipėda – next to a sign saying 17.15 to Warsaw.  This is not a train station like Budapest Keleti with trains scurrying off in all directions across Europe.  More like Ljubljana, the end of the line (though things do go further).

Interesting – and sensible – idea here: to check tickets at the train door.


Good journey – compartment to myself, though no coffee in the morning (breakfast, yes).  Usual discussions with Belarusian customs officials – who wanted me to fill in two declarations.  A real feel of the old Soviet empire there – all those spotty crew-cut boys thrown by anything odd.  Grodno as unprepossessing as ever (but more lights on in the blocks of flats nearby the station).

The trains rumble beneath me.  Warsaw station surprisingly small – only four tracks (maybe eight) – certainly nothing like a real junction.  Very modern locker system, with number punched in (I hope I've done it correctly).  But generally very insalubrious here. Quite chill. Last night it was pretty hot when we left Vilnius, and gradually became cooler as we went south (sic).  The announcement music here is the opening theme of Clementi's sonata in G major.

The history of Lithuanian language book that I bought yesterday, and of which I read one third, is one of the most frighteningly detailed efforts I've ever seen: every vowel shift across the dialects minutely examined.  And rather like Cavalli-Sforza's book, it just goes to show how much can be extracted from what we have – words, place names, blood groups – to give amazingly detailed and consistent information about things that happened two, three, four, even five thousand years ago. Reading both books I feel at a stroke closer to understanding the evolution of language.  And of Europe.

Lots of backpackers around, bound whither, I wonder.  One of the many nice things about this trip is that it shows that old age hasn't completely deprived me of the ability to voyage: 36 hours on the trot is not bad and puts most such journeys in my reach.  Characteristic sensations: cold air, smoke, hard seats, station announcements.

Wien Südbahnhof, full of memories for me.  Good design – all these escalators and ramps make it oddly Escher-ish.  A huge box like Warsaw, but much friendlier (perhaps just cleaner, and the sun is out here). The Austrians, though – at least the inhabitants of this place – look dodgy.  Lots of bikes, soldiers, people smoking.  The clacking of the old departure and arrivals boards – what old technology, and yet you find it everywhere. Der Rosenkavalier (the restaurant), even better than usual: Gulaschsuppe and Wiener Schnitzel, both huge and excellent.  Even the Wasser had a label designed by Hundertwasser.  To the train: all two carriages of it (most to Rome).  Full compartment – a long, hot night, I fear.

Die Reise nach Tilsit – good and very depressing.


Brilliant sunny morning here.  The night rather long – hot and stuffy in the compartment. Even though I had to pay L.10,000 to leave the luggage at the station, it was worth it to be able to stroll.

Fortified by a cappuccino and warm brioche (one of the great essential experiences of Italy), I started off towards the centre.  It must be three years or so since I was last here, but I have vivid memories of parts of it – the two piazzas, the cathedral, the Roman ruins (and a gallery nearby?).  Walking around in the early morning sun and cool air, I am reminded of the tens of times I have done this in my life.  And in a way, Lithuania has deepened my understanding of here.  For Latin and the Romans are placed in context by Lithuania, the spread of the Indo-Europeans, and indeed of Lithuania's struggle to nationhood.  All-in-all, this was a stunningly successful trip – and only five days long.  I would do it again...

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