Back in the USA
Look for more pictures and more stories for at least a little while yet!
The Raggare (pronounced ROG-are-ay). These folks are evidently dedicated to life in the 50’s. Not the 50’s in
I tell you, it was surreal. Classic American car after classic American car, all apparently in mint condition and polished to the nines, full of people (some in 50’s period dress), blasting music (mostly strange Swedish music, although some people did have sock-hop tunes blaring). Some cars were driven by men who would’ve been youths in the 50’s; others by folks younger than me. Some had whole families in them, some convertibles had screeching girls sitting on the back of the back seat. The cruising went on for several hours. We discussed whether or not the prudent Swedes had replaced the engines with modern, fuel efficient models . . . but probably not.
Expensive hobby, but certainly fun to watch.
We did a lot of driving over the last ten days, and the Swedes’ wholesomeness seems to extend to road etiquette as well. Usually, I tend to consider the speed limit a lower limit when I’m driving. I don’t drive much faster than I’m supposed to (maybe 5 or 7 mph over), but I do drive consistently faster. The Swedes, on the other hand, apparently don’t even aspire to reach the speed limit, let alone surpass it. That would be lawbreaking and therefore unwholesome. There aren’t very many people here in this huge country, so there aren’t a lot of multilane roads, so passing people who are going slower than you isn’t totally easy, although there are a couple tools in place. There are frequent second lanes along major roads like the E-4, so for a lot of your drive, if you’re stuck behind someone who’s hovering around 90 when the limit is 110, you can pass easily in a minute or two. For areas of the E-4 where there aren’t passing lanes for long stretches of road, there’s a different system. The lanes are quite wide, and the line along the shoulder is dotted. When the line in the middle is also dotted (which is most of the time), if you come up behind someone quickly, they move to the side—i.e. driving half in the lane and half on the shoulder, and you move to the middle—i.e. driving half in the lane and half in the oncoming lane—and around them. Oncoming traffic knows the drill, so it moves over to be partially on the shoulder if necessary.
What actually happens is that people don’t pay attention to anyone behind them, so they don’t move over onto the capacious shoulder, and instead frequently hug the center line (although not with the kind of consistency that would make you feel safe passing on the right, although you do have room to do so), thus mostly obscuring your view to oncoming traffic. Eventually you have to pass anyway because you’re going crazy hovering behind this undoubtedly very sweet person who is steadfastly refusing to get within 12 kph of the limit, so you rush out onto the other side of the road and hope that oncoming traffic, if there is any, sees you barreling down and moves over to the side as expected.
In the event, we made it here to
We all seem to be alive and well still. Shockingly, no ill effects from the surströmming.
*Note: not in
Ian and I celebrated our sixth anniversary on August 18th with some good friends. In honor of our six years together, I agreed, under duress, to take part in a ceremony that is not only not going to be repeated exactly as we performed it; it’s not going to be repeated even in spirit. The six of us ate, for lunch, surströmming, the Swedish traditional dish of fermented herring. This was the last time I celebrate my anniversary by eating any culture’s shock cuisine. No Thai Ten Thousand Year Old Egg, no Icelandic Hákarl, not even any durian. And definitely not fermented fish from anywhere.
Wait, you say, fermented fish?
To make surströmming, in May you take some herrings and remove their heads and their guts (although you leave the roe and the milt), then you put them in a huge vat with salt and water. You keep them at a particular temperature and you stir them a few times over the next few weeks. Then you seal them in smaller barrels for the following few weeks and shake them around periodically, then you tin them and let them sit for a few more weeks. Ten days before the third Friday in August, and not before, you give the tins to people as gifts.
Because the fish continues to “ferment” (i.e. “rot”) in the tins, the tins can develop a rounded, botulistic appearance. The contents are therefore also pressurized, and can explode upon opening, thus drenching the poor, misguided would-be eater with a sulfurous, sewage-smelling liquid that will ruin their clothing, and several layers of skin, forever.
I felt that it should’ve been a sign to us all (and not just me) that A, who is Swedish and whose mother loves surströmming, had never tasted it and had wondered, in fact, how her mother could eat it all these years. But even A thought it might be a good time to give it a try. After all, it was the season, and we were in the part of
So here’s how you eat it:
You take a piece of large, pill-shaped soft flatbread and butter it. On it you put chopped onion, cubed cooked potato (a particular kind, but the Swedes are really into their potatoes and I have no idea what they all are, so just any old white potato will do—believe me, it’s not the potato that matters), and as much surströmming as you think you can handle (for us, it was one filet each, which turned out to be wildly optimistic). With the sandwich, you drink snaps, which is Swedish schnapps (traditionally flavored with caraway—we had a sampler of small bottles flavored with everything from caraway and dill to
The fun part of the day was that we rented kayaks and paddled around in the protected bays near Härnösand, and so we were able to create our garbage sandwiches out in the open air far from where we were sleeping. And we had brought plenty of cheese, brats, mustard, potato salad, biscuits, chocolate, and gorp, so when, as I had predicted all along, the sandwiches weren’t found to be surprisingly tasty, or even edible at all, we had plenty of other things to eat to help us forget our folly.
We did have varying degrees of success with the surströmming sandwiches themselves.
Ian ate his entire sandwich, and even took a moment to cast a barb my way, suggesting that I wouldn’t actually chew bites of this sandwich 54 times. He was right; I spit my first bite out after maybe 4 chews, recognizing that I was moments away from gut-clenching puking. Deane ate his entire sandwich, although it can’t be said that he enjoyed the experience. He was going to bring a can home for a friend (they’re flying SAS; British Airways and Air
But what did surströmming taste like? Not fish, actually. It tasted slightly sweet, and a lot like the way raw sewage smells, and even more like the smell of the absolute worst slimy, greasy stinky thing your dog has ever rolled in.
It did not taste like food.
But the kayaking was beautiful, and the company excellent, and the Italian dinner tasty (although the kitchen closed at 9:00pm on a Saturday night, which was so un-Italian as to be comical, almost, except I didn’t get dessert). And now we’re on a ferry heading across the
We’re here in Härnösand (excuse the misspelling last time), which is a beautiful little seaside town. It’s a higher latitude than
Anyway, I decided a couple days ago that it was maybe not such a good idea to wait until September to get my tooth checked out, so A looked into a dentist for me here. And I went yesterday, and it’s good that I did. My back left molar had a deep cavity, which the dentist, disturbingly, showed me on the film. It went pretty close to the root. So she shot me up with Novocain, drilled a bit, and gave me a temporary filling because she didn’t want to risk the need of a root canal then and there. Supposedly the decay that she left in the tooth will stop now that it’s not being fed by tasty sausage (or something like that), and in about six months I can have my real dentist (wherever that will be), fix it for real.
The two meals I’ve eaten since the fixing and the wearing off of the numbing have been a pleasure of no pain.
This was also an interesting experience because she was only the second dentist I’ve ever seen in my life. My other dentist I’ve been going to since I was 2 years old, my mom goes to him, and my grandma goes to him. He’s known us long enough for my grandma to tell him family gossip (i.e. I went in for a routine cleaning about 10 days after meeting Ian and he said “So! I hear you have a new man in your life!” Hello? I thought. You’re my dentist.), and for him to treat us with a bit of irreverence (i.e. about 3 years ago, my then 89-year-old grandmother needed some dental surgery. When trying to determine whether to recommend surgery or simply a patch, Dr. Hardy said “Be honest with me, Bea, how much longer are you planning to live?” And she said “At least ten more years!” and so he recommended the surgery).
Anyway, off we go on a two-day adventure of hiking and kayaking that G&A have kept somewhat secret from us (not that that would be hard, as we know nothing of the area).
Ian and I are due back in
So how, you might ask, have we spent our last hours alone? I’d like to say we spent them romantically, and successfully achieving lots of sightseeing and exercise and tasty meals and exciting adventures, and actually, those things are all true. However, my body seems to have decided that it would be best for me to stop traveling for awhile, so nothing we did the last couple days was entirely the way we’d pictured it.
First of all, about the time we left
Second, it’s been that unmentionable time, which is always fun, particularly when traveling unknown numbers of hours on public transportation.
Third, two days ago in the evening of the day we arrived in Cesis, I realized I was coming down with some sort of cold. I had a sore throat, and it boded poorly for a good night’s sleep. I was right, I didn’t sleep well. And so yesterday morning, instead of being excited and gung-ho about touring “
When we got back to our room after lunch yesterday I decided I’d had enough, however, so I pulled out my handy pack of extra Tylenol with codeine from my surgery in January, took 1 ½ pills, and slept for several hours in the afternoon while Ian worked (Ian made up a story for me to distract me from my awful, awful throat while I was waiting for the drugs to kick in. That part was very romantic and sweet). After dinner last night we shuffled around our neighborhood (strange, strange Soviet ruins and crumbling “tractor parking” sheds and whatnot from the old communal agriculture practices), I took another 1 ½ pills, and slept well all night long. This morning my throat was fine.
But, fourth, I noticed my left hip bothering me a bit. It really wasn’t too bad until we’d arrived back in
We caught a taxi to our hotel where the elevator was broken (in the newest place we’ve stayed, after all our worry about the spectacularly ugly place in Lithuania), so we hauled our bags up to the 5th floor (which, I remind you, really is the 5th floor in the Baltics), washed a bit more laundry, and collapsed on our beds in the humid heat and I slept another two hours.
And tonight, our last night on the road alone, of course I’m typing away on my computer and Ian’s across the room typing away on his.
Things are good.
I’m tired. My calves, after hucking around my 45 pound estimated combined total weight backpacks, are sore. There was noise from the plaza below us last night (officious small trotting dog, barking importantly and stridently for 20 or 30 minutes around 1:00am and again around 4:00am, and about 8 boys singing Beatles songs at 3:30am) which made my sleep fitful, and I kept waking up from dreams of being shot in my right calf, or stung by a scorpion, or kicked by a horse, or something else awful and inconvenient for the traveler relying on her legs as transport.
Yes, that’s right, for the first time all summer, we’ve really been leading a backpacker life. Since arriving in the Baltics we haven’t spent more than 3 nights in a single place, and that was
One drawback to staying such a short time in each place is that we either don’t have time to find out where to get our laundry done, or we find out but we’re leaving before they can get to it. This means that I take on the housewifely role of washing our clothes by hand while Ian works, which is fine, but doesn’t do much for my 34-year-old back that’s not used to struggles of carrying all I want to have with me, and really doesn’t recover as quickly as my 20-year-old back did. Did I ever collapse on a bed, exhausted, after hauling my bags two or three kilometers from the bus station when I was 20? I have no memory at all of such weakness.
Struggles with aging aside, we’ve enjoyed our time in the Baltics. I realize that I wasn’t quite fair to the fashionistas of these former Soviet republics—I was swayed by what I saw for sale at the giant market in
The food in general is creamy and meaty. Lettuce isn’t that common (although cabbage is readily available). Fish is also easy to find, and often smoked. Organic yoghurt was easy to find in a supermarket in
Okay, so why the extra day in
In the event, we couldn’t buy a train ticket to Šiauliai (we found later that buses were available); FedEx was gone (although still listed in the lobby of the building); Latvian free WiFi on a random dusty street on the industrial edge of town detailed several UPS options including hotel lobbies which we checked but none checked out; we bought a phone card and slowly ticked down $2 worth of time on hold with the UPS number before giving up; at this time, realizing we’d have to run to get a bus to a town where we didn’t have lodging worked out yet and we still needed to mail this letter and it was almost 6pm, we called a hotel close by in Old Town Riga and booked in for an unexpected nights’ stay.
It was awesome. A giant room, breakfast included, quiet, internet. With a place to shower and lay his head, Ian recovered his equilibrium and found more UPS information, so the next morning we successfully mailed the letter then caught a bus to Šiauliai.
We’ve read that the Lithuanians, who are more emotional and outgoing than their near neighbors, are the Italians of the Baltics, and while we haven’t spent quite enough time in either Italy or the Baltics to cast judgment on this statement, I will say that when we were seated on the bus waiting for it to leave, several middle-aged very drunk Lithuanian men boarded in a boozy cloud and a series of ins-and-outs and movement of bags clearly designed to trick the driver into thinking they had five tickets when all they had was four. This behavior seemed somewhat Neapolitan from my perspective; the fact that the driver did notice, and did make them buy a fifth ticket did not, however. I’m sure they could’ve been worse, but a couple sturdy matrons fixed them with the evil eye early on and they mostly passed out as soon as we left the station. At one point someone’s bottle of some kind of amber booze tumbled down the aisle and several people cracked up.
In Šiauliai, we walked directly to the Soviet-era Hotel Šiauliai, described in our Lonely Planet as “spectacularly ugly but with amazing views from the 14th floor”, and booked into a room on that illustrious floor. It is glorious—a huge refurbished room with separate rooms for toilet and bath, a desk, a mini-fridge, and a large TV (which shows a depressing array of Western movies and TV shows that have been dubbed Eastern Europe-style, which is one monotone male voice speaking all the words not even on a separate track, but just a little louder than the English going on under him so you can almost make out what Grace is saying to Will; and a bemusing channel called “SPECTRUM”, which simply shows a spectrograph). Our view is spectacular . . . except in the middle of the night, when the square 14 floors below is evidently very popular with all sorts of creatures trying out their voices. It seems that 14 floors of concrete do nothing to dull sound.
The elevator is the only other issue we have with our hotel. There are three, and each one is separate from the others. If you’re in the lobby, there’s a monitor that says which floor each elevator is on, so choose wisely or you could be in for a long wait. There are also at least two young women’s soccer teams staying here—evidently there’s some sort of tournament going on in the town—and so frequently there are already 8 or 10 girls waiting to get on, too. These elevators are pretty old-school. I’m not sure how an analogue elevator works, but these seem to use that technology. First, when you call the elevator you push a black bakelite button and it stays in. It pops out when the elevator arrives, but you don’t really notice the sound because of the soccer girls all around you. Inside the elevator, there are several other bakelite buttons. You push “14” and up you go, getting slower and creakier and jerkier the higher you ascend. At floor 14, the button snaps out sharply and the elevator grinds and judders to a halt, making you jump and wonder if, in fact, you’re going to make it out into your hall, or if the narrow metal box you’re currently stuck in is going to give up and plunge back to earth. So far we’ve made it out.
The other day we were descending and all of a sudden, on floor 12, the button we’d pushed, for floor 1 (an aside—they count floors like we do here—1 is ground, etc), popped out loudly and unexpectedly and the doors opened. I got out immediately because clearly the elevator didn’t want us in anymore, and Ian followed me. We punched a different button and finished our journey in a different lift. Ian suggested though, and this seems likely, that a bunch of girls on floor 12 pushed buttons for all three elevators, and since ours was going to pass 12 on its way down, its analog system was reset. Nothing sinister, but a bit unnerving at the time. We’ve decided to take separate elevators down with our bags tomorrow, because things seemed particularly difficult on the way up the first time.
And I’m going to stop here because this has gotten way too long, and because I’m done.
This is something that I really didn’t think about much when we left home at the end of April. I had some concern that traveling in Europe as an American, and therefore someone who was incriminated in the continuing disaster that is our President, would cause some problems for us, but it hasn’t at all. Obviously there has been mention—in Greece, one of our hosts continually referred to him as “the bush” (it sounded like lower case, although he never wrote it out); and in Portugal several people went on and on about how he was the most hated leader in the world right now and really an awful, awful man, only to pause far into their tirades to ask if we, in fact, liked Bush. Since we patently don’t, this was always an entertaining part of the conversation for us. I’m assuming that if we’d answered in the affirmative, they would simply have given us a pitying look and gone on with their bashing.
Current specific reasons to loathe Americans aside, there is the enduring impression of Americans as ugly, boorish, fat, loud, styleless, cultureless, and clueless. They trample over cobbled streets and millennia-old cultures in their khaki shorts and Hawaiian shirts and photographer’s vests, dripping ice cream on antiquities and speaking too loudly in museums. They complain about foods, and lines, and heat, and traffic, and noise, and assume that everyone in the world should speak English to them.
This, at least, is what “conscientious travelers,” such as ourselves, believe the world thinks about Americans. And it may . . . but to be honest, I have no first-hand experience with this belief. Admittedly, in part this is because I haven’t traveled to “beaten path” destinations in years. I have noticed Brits in Greece being by far the loudest people in the restaurant (talking about how uncouth Americans were no less, and complaining about Greek food, while Ian and I sat and quietly enjoyed our delicious meal); Australians using any excuse to get falling-down drunk in public; large groups of young German men, shouting drunk, staggering down streets in the evening, urinating against buildings in not-so-deserted alleyways. When we took a day trip to Bodrum, Turkey, several years ago, it was not overweight middle-aged Americans wandering around the bazaar in this Muslim country in t-shirts over swim suit bottoms, nor was it a chubby American 12-year-old wearing too-tight sweats with “tasty” across the ass; nor was it a tall, slender, blonde American eating lunch in local restaurant in a pair of turquoise lycra boy shorts and matching string bikini top. In other words, lots of people are ugly on vacation.
I tend to avoid the serious ugliness. For one, I rarely go to museums so I’m not likely to drip my ice cream on something priceless. I don’t get publicly falling-down drunk with big bands of boys (when I did get drunk once long ago with Australians, it was in the privacy of our guest house). You will not catch me dead anywhere in a photographer’s vest, and Hawaiian shirts definitely have their place and it’s
I try to learn at least some basics in the language of the country I’m in, and I fancy myself fairly good with pronunciation. I certainly don’t assume people will understand me better if I talk more loudly.
None of this really affected us in a serious way for the first three months of our trip, though. We started in Greece, and not only can we order food using Greek words, we can even read them in Greek script, so we’re way ahead of most tourists plying the Cyclades as we did. Not only that; the Greeks, along with most other Europeans, study English in school and happily speak it both with native English speakers and with all the rest of the Europeans who’ve learned English in school. Then we were in
And then we came to
I found myself shrinking on the streets of
After one long day of this, I got mad. After all, I’m me, and there’s nothing I can—or want to—do about it. I’m proud of who I am. I’m proud of my strengths, I accept and work on my weaknesses, and I am grateful for the opportunities I’ve had in my life. One of those opportunities has been the freedom to travel, and with that freedom, the chance to learn about the world in a way uncommon to most of the other 7 billion inhabitants of this planet. And so, cast away guilt! If a Swede considers me to be uncouth and boorish because I’ve studied French and Swahili and Portuguese but not Swedish, that’s not my problem. If a Latvian is frustrated that I don’t speak Latvian or Russian and therefore can’t make my needs speedily known, well, I’ve tried my best.
I have a Master’s degree in linguistics, and perhaps this is part of my problem. I know how important language is (even just accent) for the coherence of a society. I can mourn the fact that languages, like plants and animals and customs, are dying out all the time. I can recognize similarities between languages—this skill helps me fake my way through
Talking and language are very important to me; they always have been. My mother reminds me of a trip to
I realized something the other day, though. Yes, language ability is important, and it is one indicator of multicultural sensitivity or ugly boorishness. But it’s not the only thing. Observation, attire, awareness, openness—all are valuable as well. And so I’ll continue to do my best, as I always do, in all these categories as well as in language. And I will focus my grateful energy on appreciating the places I’m visiting to the fullness of my ability.
And I will no longer feel guilt for who I am.
About an hour ago an email arrived from my brother, who was due to leave the house for
Unfortunately, we should’ve been more detailed. The bill includes not only mowing the southern part, but also north pasture, which we’d decided to leave fallow for the next few years, and chipping all the young
No one’s to blame, of course. Our neighbor to the south honestly thought she knew what we wanted, and the man who did the mowing did the best he could. I suppose our laissez-faire attitude about land being able to take care of itself was to blame as much as anything, so we’ll pay the bill, meet the mower, and make sure we speak to him directly in the future.
Besides, trees grow back, and some number of years from now when we do have a house there and need a Christmas tree, it may not be the soaring 8 feet I was hoping for, but we’ll probably be able to find something to put on a tabletop.
But there you have it—a nomadic life may seem like a life of freedom, but there are costs to being an adult and owning things. Not only financial costs, but many, many niggling little details of bills and issues and whatnot, the large majority of which my brother has dealt with directly in order to make our lives easier.
Thank you, Deane, so much.
note: since writing this, we've moved to the library next door, where the wireless is free. Very posh.
When we arrived here at noon, we didn’t have tickets on the ferry which leaves at 6:15pm and arrives on the island at 9:00pm; we didn’t have a place to stay on the island and we were hoping to stay 3 nights on a busy weekend in August; we didn’t have any Estonian cash; our backpacks were very big and heavy; and we didn’t have tickets back to Riga on Tuesday. And we don’t speak a word of Estonian.
But now we’re all set—got some cash; bags are in Left Luggage until 5:15; we’ll buy tickets on the ferry; helpful tourist offices here and on Kihnu hooked us up with a room and a ride from the boat (our cell isn’t working well again, and charged us £2 for the dropped call to Kihnu’s tourist office and the only pay phones in Pärnu are at the post office and only take cards which you buy there so we still have 450 Estonian Kr. with which to make more calls . . . from the post office . . . ); we’ve bought tickets back to Riga on the much more civilized 12:05pm return bus; thank you in Estonian is tänan. Anyway, it’s all very exciting to be in a completely new place. And, while Tex-Mex theoretically isn’t Estonian food, I can say with assurance that it’s also not Tex-Mex.
When we came in this afternoon from our meanderings around the giant (5 WWII blimp hangars-worth!) market, Ian’s bag was sitting inside the door against the textured orange and gold wall of our room. We didn’t notice it at first, since it’s become so much a part of our environment. That didn’t take away from our excitement, though, when we did notice it. We had replaced only a couple essentials—some conditioner for me, and a
I have to say, though, if my bag had been lost, and not ever returned, I would not have been able to bring myself to replace my clothing here.
It was abundantly clear this morning at breakfast that we were not in
Dining while on the road for so long has its drawbacks. For one thing, Americans seem to be the only people who regularly take partially eaten dinners away from restaurants (to molder in their fridges, mostly, instead of moldering in the dumpster behind the restaurant). In Portugal, for instance, if you rashly order an entire plate of Migas do Alentejo and your husband orders an entire other meal, and you can only eat 1/3 of it even though it was really, really tasty, and you ask if there’s a box so you can take leftovers home, they look sorrowfully at you (are they sorry you couldn’t eat the terra cotta roofing tile full of 3 kilos of cornmeal and pork fried together, or sorry to disappoint you in your strange request?) and tell you no. For the most part, we got around this by either eating too much (hence the current size of my thighs), only ordering one main dish between the two of us, or frequently some combination of the two.
There are also other dangers of dining out in foreign countries, including ordering something that ends up being tripe or octopus stew because you forgot the words or, even, the words weren’t included in the description of the meal. And there’s the endless issue of how and when to pay your bill. Obviously, you learn very early not to sit and wait for anyone to bring it. They don’t. They’ll hold onto it for hours, long after they’ve determined that you don’t want coffee or dessert or anything else. If you’re us, you learn, eventually, after 3 months and about 200 meals out, to ask for the bill when you tell them you don’t want dessert. Once you have the bill though, then what? They’re not all that quick to come back and see if you need change or the credit card machine (an exception is London, where they check back, and bring a wireless credit card machine to the table, which is impressively handy).
An added insecurity for me is that it takes us so little time to complete a meal. Ian, for one, is an Indy 500 eater. I eat much more slowly (we counted the average number of chews we each perform per bite and I was 54 and he was 7), but much of the speed or slowness of a meal depends on conversation, and since we have spent almost literally the past 2,208 hours together, we don’t have that much more to say to each other over lunch. Besides that, when you’re not traveling, restaurant meals tend to have a bit of ceremony about them, but since we are traveling, and for so long, they’ve become pretty mundane (aside from all the neuroses I’ve detailed here). So each time we go to ask for a bill I wonder if the server is looking at us askance for our uncouth speed. I admit, I have comforted myself more than once with the thought that we’ll never be back in that restaurant again, so our embarrassment ends when we walk out the door.
I realize that this is irrational behavior. Nevertheless, tonight’s dining experience was a relief and joy.
We ate at a Latvian buffet, which is probably related in origin to the Swedish smorgasbord. It was in a kitschy wooden “traditional” house with multiple rooms, artisan decorations, and lots of good foods. The offerings included a cold soup and a hot soup, several prepared salads drowned in sour cream (I had tomato and cucumber and avoided the pink beets), a salad bar, prepared dishes of deep fried garlic bread (a personal favorite), several hot dishes including fish and sausages (many also drowned in sour cream), a huge vat of fries, steamed vegetables, a juice bar, a dessert bar, bottled beer or beer on tap, teas, coffees, water, etc. We could meander around bumping gently into each other with our trays, choosing exactly what we liked the looks of, in exactly what quantities we wanted, and then we paid before sitting down. And then, joy of joys, when we were done we could simply get up and leave.