Saturday, 17 January 2009

Lukowski and Powell: failed sex-tourists

So it's about 4/5am at a random club in Lithuania's capital city of Vilnius, and I'm in conversation with a girl I believe named Egle about, y'know, stuff in general (conspicuously avoiding Mark's conversational companion, a heavily-built chap with forthright opinions on the perceived ills of the Muslims and Jews - ethnic/religious groups I would suspect he would have a job of a time getting firsthand experience of in 21st century Vilnius), and she offers to show us around town later in the week, but cautions me "you cannot pay me for sex". Which rather took me aback, the next 15 minutes or so being an exciting mix of shock and a hint of anger that she'd said it, a splash of shame that she might have assumed that's what I was after because that was the reputation of Brits abroad, and a large dollop of paranoia that I might have a sex-tourist type vibe. I don't think I was coming on to her... I mean, DO you come on to a prostitute? Or is that sort of defeating the point? TROUBLING.

Said conversation in said Lithuanian club was the culmination of a drinking binge sparked by the fact we'd spent the entire day on buses, travelling across the dour post-Soviet snowscapes of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania... none of them were like Bulgaria, which had a haunted Communist tomb feel to in in a lot of places, but it's still sort of a surprise that in three countries with a relatively cosmopolitan reputation there's such an inherent architectural grimness. Though what I expected I dunno, it's not like post-collapse of the USSR they were going to replace all the foreboding buildings with fluffy palaces, but y'know, they could have given them a lick of paint or something.

Vilnius is pretty cool, though; due to my Mum's slightly histrionic description of a recentish holiday, I'd kind of steeled myself to expect Dickensian gloom and angry mobs. As it is, the menfolk do have a slightly lynchy look to them, but I think that's mostly due to the fact you'd probably be laughed at if you didn't wear black bomber jacket and beanie, for such seems to be the national uniform. Town centre is all historical, like, and a lot less run-down feeling than Tallinn's, with a few enjoyable quirks like the world's only Frank Zappa statue, erected solely because the Lithuanian Zappa fanclub are - by all accounts - spectacularly enthusiastic. As my main wander around town happened in daylight hours, Mark obviously didn't accompany me, and I ended up on the top of Gedimas Hill on my own. This is basically where Lithuania was founded 1,000 or so years ago, biggish, snow and ice encrusted hill in the middle of the city with a fort on top and a stunning view. I was the only person there, and it was kind of surreal, that this place means a lot to the people of the city (Lithuanians are a super-patriotic bunch, largely due to the fact they were quite hard about 700 years ago), but that nobody would really go here as it's kind of impractical, there's nothing to do.

Main wholesome activity thrust of this portion of the trip was a day excursion to Trakai, a place we were predominately interested in because it was the home of the Karaites, a spectacularly obscure Arab-Judeo sect who came from Syria several centuries ago. They have their own customs, own culture and own (now endangered) language and adhere to some sort of mental interpretation of Torah. I don't know what we really expected to see (somebody in some sort of fruity robe sacrificing something, probably), but as it turns out what one actually ends up with is a couple of restaurants selling traditional Karaite cuisine, which as it turns out basically a fairly unspectacular varient on the Cornish pastie. It was hardly a disaster, mind, as Trakai is fairly awesome, largely on the grounds of the fact it's a) the most delightfully backwoods-looking Eastern European town you'd care to imagine without actively giving yourself the fear (varyingly dilapidated wooden shacks under several feet of snow, no people on the streets but a terrifyingly high number of police vehicles out and about), except b) at the end of it is a massive frozen lake with a super-beautiful fairytale-type castle in the middle of it. Up close, and said fairytale was a little dark thanks to the surly babooshkas in every room who glared at you until you left, but walk over the frozen lake is pretty spiffy (erm, assuming the prospect of walking on ice is inherently exciting to you, it's much like any other walk otherwise).

Other activities have involved eating Lithuanian traditional cuisine - favourites being zeppelins, potato dumplings about the size of a baby's head, couldn't move for about an hour after, but felt pretty good about it; never again is the national bar snack of choice, deep fried strips of black bread with garlic dip - imagine chips and fried bread having a child, then multiply that child's calories a thousandfold, then give yourself a heart attack for good measure, and you're sort of there. Finishing the plate was an act of pure macho idiocy.

And of course a quick round up of Mark's antics. When, on the first night, we ended up in our second karaoke bar of the trip (didn't sing this time, alas), Mark had got tiddly enough to do his absurd man of the people thing, and was passionately if unconvincingly launching into a rant about the Western cultural oppression that meant Lithuanians were karaoking to English-language songs rather than their own tongue. Cue every single song for the rest of the night being in Lithuanian.

His most epic moment I was sadly absent for, as stumbling violently pissed out of Play -Lithuania's numero uno indie bar, they played 'Tiny Cities Made Of Ashes' by Modest Mouse, woo! - I walked on too far ahead and got separated from him, which I do feel kind of guilty for. He decided to get a taxi home, and basically walked half of the way back to the hostel in order to go to a cash machine, then walked back to the club to get them to call him a cab, decided it'd be rude not to order a beer, dropped his beer and broke the glass, ordered another beer, got in his cab but allowed a local guy to jump in as well, the cab went to the guy's house, Mark got the fear that the guy and the cabbie were going to rob him, so took off, this time eventually wending his way home some two hours after me. Or at least, that's what he said happened, though I suspect you probably wouldn't make something like that up.

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