Monday, April 30, 2007

Crosses and Noughts

Just to the north of the Lithuanian town of Siauliai (shoo-lay), we find the Hill of Crosses. As you drive up to it, you are feel a bit cheated because it's just a hillock or two, but then as you get away from the cluster of crapware vendors in the parking area and walk up to the collection (which looks like a junkyard dealer's conception of a cemetery), the sheer volume of crosses starts to take hold - a force of will against the Soviets who repeatedly bulldozed the 600 year old site.

Hill of Crosses, souvenir vendors: selling location-appropriate items such as Egyptian cat gods, china elephants, kittens in baskets, decorative pipes, plastic spider toys, key-chain laser pointers, Chinese dragons ... but, disappointingly, no "My parish priest went to the Hill of Crosses, and all he brought back was this cross" cross.

From the Hill, it was a long slog down the highway to Klaipeda, Lithuania's 3rd largest city, and principle port & resort. It sits at the top of the Curonian Spit, a hundred kilometer inhabited sand dune, split between Lithuania, and the Russian exclave, Kaliningrad. It's also a big disappointment for visitors, with no identifiable heart to the city. It seems to have a hollowed out core; the periphery comprised of whitebox malls and vehicle service centres, the outward face of a wealthier populace awaiting the cash and the will to revive the centre. Despite being a holiday weekend and (I'm told) a tourist town, the tourist information centres are closed, and there aren't any helpful maps to direct one to something interesting.

I stopped near an outdoor market, looking for food, and a WC. For the latter I paid 0,50 litas to squat over a hole sans toilet paper, although I luckily had notepaper with me that I keep around to document such situations...

Latvian border crossing

I crossed the Latvian border not far to the north (perhaps the most dilapidated border facility I've encountered), continuing up the pot-holed coast road, never really seeing the sea, to Liepaja. This seemed as grim as Klaipeda, reminding me a bit of Proprad in the Tatras, and so I abandoned the coast, for another slog back inland to Riga. Latvia is flatland like Lithuania, and the country scenery is not remarkable, but with the bad roads, for much of the time you have to focus on the overtaking cars approaching you in the "middle lane".

I'm renting a little apartment for three days, but the owner hasn't disclosed that there are no stairs and 9 flights of stairs to the top. After 9 hours of driving, and getting Bondi and bags to our level, I feel like Mildred Natwick in "Barefoot in the Park."

After showering and putting a couple of weeks' worth of laundry through the washer, I decide it's time to venture downtown, having eaten nothing but a banana and trailmix all day. It was cold when we left Vilnius this morning, and it's way colder now, hovering around 2 degrees.

Waling into the older centre, I was a bit shocked by the weird assemblage of buildings, like a Politburo-Disney arrangement of old and new. The vibe from people on the streets isn't very good either.

Unlabelled sculpture near the Opera; labelled McDonald's staff

Walking around for an hour in the cold I couldn't see alternative for food to grab, so weakened and decided to just take home some McDonald's. Queuing for take-out, I was approached after a while by a security guard and then someone on staff with a tiny smattering of English who said that Bondi (outside sitting, smiling, on the public footpath) was not allowed "people walk past him...go now...go now". I said there wasn't any problem (other than what over-zealous security guards conjure up to maintain their image of usefulness) and could I just get my take-out. "No ... go now ... go now". Realising it was pointless to protest someone who was not going to understand and was going to carry on like a soviet corporate droid*, I went out and took Bondi.

Eventually I found a late-opening supermarket, which was depressingly similar to those I'd found in Spain in 2005 - large but not really holding much that you can cook up easily with limited facilities. The grocery section looked a bit suspect, and all the meat was behind two barriers - deli case and language - that kept it safely locked away from me. Frozen pizza, tinned tuna and a handful of sundry other items were my first catch of the day. The second catch, was the apartment turned out to not have an oven, micro- or otherwise, or a can opener. I think today just needs to be scrubbed out totally. Noughts win over crosses.

*I tried to make a complaint through the McDonald's website, which notably doesn't include Latvia as a country on its homepage, even though it's been there for a decade. The complaint form is thoroughly broken: aside from not having year updated to 2007, and forcing all countries to specify a US state, it just won't let you submit the complaint:

Not Found

The requested object does not exist on this server. The link you followed is either outdated, inaccurate, or the server has been instructed not to let you have it. Please inform the site administrator of the referring page.��
So much for the page's assurance: "But rest assured, you will be heard." I'm not lovin' it.

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