Rokiskis, August 12, 2005 - Friday
Trip Start Aug 12, 2005
23Trip End Aug 27, 2005
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Not exactly overslept, we waited for the conveyor belt at the airport to belch out our luggage, so we could move on. Scattered all over, everyone was waiting for their own stuff. Along the way, I devoted most of my attention to Latvian language on posters and advertisements for hotels, night clubs and all other places and things that might be of interest to a traveller in Rīga
At one point S got agitated and then disappeared somewhere. I think I was half interested at best in what was going on. If at all. The majority of others, i.e. at least those I could see from where I was standing, shared similar level of curiosity as mine, so we wasted no time to again mind our own business, i.e. just wait for our luggage. After a while, having each previously collected their own, we passed through border and customs check and found ourselves inside the airport building.
What did get my full attention, though, was the fact that almost immediately I noticed at last two or three stunningly looking ladies among still not too many people in the building. Statistically, particularly still so relatively early, it represented a percentage considerably higher than usual.
As I was the last one to pass through the check, everybody else was already waiting for me, together with some guy of maybe thirty or so years of age.
„This is the driver," R said.
I shook hands with the guy and introduced myself. We greeted each other, but almost without a word. It turned out he didn’t know a single English word. Well, now. What could you do? What really mattered was that he was sure where to get us to.
„Shall we go then? Are we all set?“
S wasn’t there.
„She went out to have a smoke,“ someone said.
The driver had no idea what we were talking about, but seeing me, he must have assumed we were all set now. So he started towards the exit. He couldn’t know S needed – or thought she needed – her nicotine shot even if it meant for the whole world to stop. While we were holding session as to whether we should look for or wait for her, she eventually somehow resurfaced and now we were ready to go at last.
Also, I finally heard the story as to what had been the reason of her previous agitation and hasty disappearance while the rest of us had been waiting for the luggage. Some guy had allegedly picked up her acoustic guitar from the conveyor belt. It remained unexplained whether it had been quite like that indeed, and if it had been, whether the guy had really intended to evaporate with the instrument in his hand, or he had just wanted to move it aside to reach for his own belongings. Be as it may, S took the threat seriously. After all, better that she had. At least the guitar was still safely with her.
We left the airport building and the driver took us to the van. It was a small vehicle, painted in green. It turned out, one passenger too small.
„Did you tell the organisers how many of us would come?“ R asked me.
„I did. After all, the contract specifies exactly how many people will be accommodated in the hotel,“ I answered.
Large or small, nothing could be done about it now. We got a van for seven people, even if there were eight of us, and then G’s five-month old kid to boot. And all our luggage, as well as instruments that we carried on top of it. Comfortable or not, it was the only transport from the airport we had.
R and I took our seats up front next to the driver, and the rest squeezed in the rear the best they could. And then we got ourselves started. The road dwindled from four to two carriageway lanes in almost no time and now we were travelling down some provincial road through some woods and only occasionally by a small settlement here or there whose name meant nothing to any of us. However, that would have been no problem in itself if those names had meant something to the driver. But he was obviously as lost there as we were. Out of sheer curiosity I took the road map to get myself acquainted with where we would travel when I realised we were not going the way I assumed we should. Of course, that might have been the best way anyway, but I nevertheless considered it prudent to ask the driver. As I have already indicated, the guy didn’t know a single English word, but there are situations when you understand what you are told even if you don’t understand the language. It was like that now. And what really mattered was that, by the looks of it, I was right.
We pulled over at the first intersection with a pointer, amidst some woods, and started studying the map. Outside it began to drizzle and I don’t believe the temperature exceeded 15°C. Some went out to stretch their legs a bit, but for most it was too cold and too damp to come out. The driver and I stood by the road and inspected the map. Eventually, we agreed to double back a bit.
Back in the van, they asked me what the matter was.
„We lost our way. The guy must have missed the road we need,“ I explained.
Of course, with all the strain of the trip up until then, which the majority was not used to, this was a good cause to first start complaining, and then joking. Fortunately, the driver couldn’t understand any of the quips and jokes or the reason for the laughter that followed in their wake.
„Marin is a jinx,“ M said. „Have him along, and there comes the trouble!“
„Maybe you won’t return home now that I’m with you,“ Marin said. „Can’t you see the guy is only pretending he doesn’t understand us? When in fact he’s closely listening to everything we say and driving us to Siberia now.“
After the ensuing round of laughter, Marin added:
„He’s already been sizing us up, for the prison suits. You shouldn’t have taken me along.“
But real prognosis was not that dire and immediate future wasn’t that bleak for us. After some disoriented driving up and down Latvian province, we finally did stumble upon some pointers which made sense to everyone and our departure to Siberia was apparently put off until some later occasion. It seemed we found the right way at last.
An hour or so later we came up to a border crossing. It was one of the smallest border crossings that I had seen that far in Europe and it consisted of a shack on either side of the border, both Latvian and Lithuanian. There were eight of us, with different passports, so border officers on both sides simply collected all of them to process them inside their makeshift offices. While we were waiting in the area between two borders, most of the people stayed in the van again, even if it was cramped, overcrowded and less than comfortable. The temperature was pleasant to me, though, and I didn’t even need longs sleeves. The drizzle stopped, too. Now that I had an opportunity to stretch my legs, I decided to take a leak, as well. I hid some behind a bush, so that I wasn’t exactly in everyone’s sight. On the other hand, I didn’t see it as a criminal act, so I didn’t exactly made a secret out of it, either. So eventually they saw me.
„Look, he’s taking a piss!“ R said.
„Don’t piss here!“ someone called.
„Why?“ I answered, going on with my own business.
„It’s not permitted.“
Having done mine, I came up to the van and asked:
„You may not do it on the border crossing,“ G said.
„Is it written anywhere?“
„You see Marin is with us,“ M said. „The officer will come and won’t let you through.“
“You’ll get a gig in Siberia," Marin added.
“And they’ll send Marin, too, so that you have company along the way,” M added to another round of laughter.
„No worries. I’ve done nothing they don’t do when it gets the better of them.“
And that’s how it was. Either Lithuanian border officers did not see me or they viewed the whole thing the same way I did. At any rate, we soon crossed the border and our passports for the first time had Lithuanian stamps. Our trip continued.
„Tell the driver to stop somewhere along the way so we can exchange some money,“ S said.
It was not a bad idea. I told the driver as much and once again he got what I wanted to say. He nodded and after a while we entered our first Lithuanian settlement. In other words, we arrived in Rokiškis.
He brought us to what we assumed was the downtown. Maybe it was, maybe it was not. But there was a small Hansa Bank money exchange kiosk there, then there was a supermarket, as well, and in the supermarket building cellar there was a restaurant or a drinking joint where, as customary in Croatia, more or less all of us decided to go to the loo even if we ordered nothing. Nearby there was a small park and grey residential blocks, typical cookie-cutter examples of grim socrealist architecture.
I think we all did Rokiškis an injustice. It was a genuine autumn day, albeit on August 12. The weather was precisely such that you wished you had not been there. We had a long trip behind us, and more was waiting ahead. I suppose the driver didn’t have a clue about the town, so he had only brought us to the first place where we could take care of the most necessary things, and it all just happened to look rather gloomy. Be as it may, Rokiškis looked excatly the way people who visited neither the former Soviet Union nor the province of any of the former eastern bloc countries in their prejudices probably imagine what it all must’ve looked like. And judging by our first sight of the settled Lithuania, not even fifteen years after they had regained their freedom, it had nothing on it.
But realistically, the town couldn’t be like that. Wherever people live, wherever there is life, there is life. There is no such place which after a while the man doesn’t endow with beauty. Otherwise it becomes impossible to live there. That’s how it had to be with Rokiškis, too, even if right then we were not in a position to see it. But Rokiškis did deserve a second chance. And possibly on a prettier day than this. For it is a town which was founded and for the first time mentioned in 1499. Then a certain princess settled there in 1523 and in later centuries the centre of the town had allegedly been built as the most expressive urban monument of the classical epoch in Lithuania. The local Church of St. Matthiasis is rumoured to be the most beautiful example of the neo-gothic style in the country. And we didn’t see any of that.
Its population, according to different sources, varied between 16000 and 20000. One of the town’s allegedly more famous contributions to the Lithuanian everyday life is its cheese, manufactured in "Rokiškio sūris", one of the largest cheese manufacturing facilities in Lithuania.
Rokiškis itself used to have a vibrant Jewish community for hundreds of years. At times it even constituted a large majority there. But during World War I, Jews of central Lithuania were forcibly deported to the east by order of the Tsarist government. When World War I ended, Lithuanian Jews were permitted to return home. And most of them did. However, the Soviets annexed Lithuania in 1940, then Germans on their march to Russia quickly overrun Lithuania and today there are hardly any Jews left there any more.
Unfortunately, all that remained unknown to us, or at least unavailable to see, during that half an hour or an hour. Besides, we had more road to hit ahead of us and in many ways all of us wanted to get to our final destination as soon as possible. So we exchanged some money into litas, bought in the supermarket a few things to munch on and drink along the way and almost all of us did the toilet thing, too. Until the woman in the pub suddenly realised everyone was using the WC and no one was making any orders. I repeat, it’s a normal thing in Croatia and everyone can go into a restaurant in my country to use the loo. And why not? Personally, I think it’s in order. But maybe in Lithuania it is not like that. In any case, G didn’t make it.
It started raining again. There was really no more reason to linger around. We bundled ourselves back into the van and headed on.