European Roadtrip, final update

You can read the first two updates to this journey here (part 1) and here (part 2).

Well friends, I finally made it to my destination – Tartu, Estonia. Even though I arrived pretty early this afternoon, it’s very late as I write this so I will be quick.

We woke up this morning in Latvia, just outside Riga. Seeing the motel in the light, I am told by the professor that it embodies a very Soviet style of architecture. I think it is cute.

After a very much appreciated coffee at the hotel, we decide to head into Riga for some breakfast. I pick a place off of google maps based on the strict, discerning criteria of “nearby” and “open now”. My choice, it turns out, was prescient. The buffet we stumbled upon rivaled the best middling-to-decent hotel breakfasts I’ve ever experienced. At least they had baked beans. Also, I know what you think of me, but that’s apple juice in the glass. Sicko.

Now that our blood sugar is back to levels more appropriate for operating heavy equipment, we head back to the car. On the way, we pass through part of the old town of Riga and I try to get a sense of the city. As far as I can tell, the character of the Baltic states is more or less an exactly even mix of Eastern Europe and Scandinavia. I refuse to elaborate further, but I think the following picture proves my point.

We press on, enthused by the fact that we only need to drive about four hours from Riga to our final destination. After we pass some soviet-style block houses that I didn’t bother photographing, we are back on the highway. As far as I can tell, outside the city, Latvia pretty much looks like this:

As we drive, we are exchanging jokes from our cultures, and hoo boy am I getting a cultural education in Russian jokes. Apparently there is a stereotype that if you tell a Russian a joke, instead of laughing, they will simply reply, “I’ve got a better one”. Anecdotally, this is one thousand percent correct. Here is one that comes to memory: “Kruschev is out in the countryside visiting some farms to see how the Soviet Union agriculture is getting on. The photographer snaps a picture of Kruschev surrounded by some pigs. Later on, as an article about the visit is being prepared, the photographer is struggling to come up with a caption to the photo. After some thought, he decides on: Comrade Kruschev, third from left.”

Ba dum tsss.

One other thing I forgot to mention about driving through Lithuania and Latvia is that tractor dealerships are absurdly common. Within a half an hour of my noticing this as we drove down the highway in Lithuania, I counted eight different tractor dealerships along the road. What is going on with the economy of the Baltics that they can support this? Who is buying all these tractors??

A little further on, we stop at a gas station (a normal one this time) to switch drivers. I have nothing to report from this stop except that this gas station minimart was selling something called “Slow Cow Mind Cooler”. Your guess is as good as mine.

We press on and enter a series of country backroads as we approach the Estonian border. We see yet more storks, bringing the total count of stork sightings on this trip up to the hundreds. Soon the Earth will be covered in an enormous stork nest and all life will begin anew. Somewhere near Valka, just before the Estonian border, I became convinced that a) the gods of irony exist and b) they think my suffering is hilarious. This was proven to me by the following statue, which was placed just off the side of the road.

Do you see it? I sure as hell did.

We finally arrive to our destination in Tartu a few hours later. Thankfully the hostel in which I will be staying seems to be largely spider free. We go out to dinner and I become concerned about the architectural stability of the buildings around me.

I’m sure it’s fine.

As we walk further through the city, I notice the street signs posted everywhere. As far as I can tell, these are meant for an extra-intelligent race of Estonian-speaking cat people that have developed a widespread habit of disrespecting traffic laws when they ride their bicycles. I am joking, but I also must emphasize, this is not a unique, graffiti-ed sign that I thought looked cool – this is a legitimate road sign in Tartu and all the other instances of this sign that I saw looked like this.

After dinner, we walk across a pedestrian bridge lit up with yellow and blue – the colors of the Ukrainian flag. As we’ve traveled throughout Eastern Europe and the Baltics, I have noticed that the public support for the people of Ukraine has been ubiquitous and palpable. As far as I know, the Slavic countries of Europe have thrown their doors wide open to Ukrainian refugees essentially without conditions or qualifications. While everyone we come across seems to be vocal about their disgust at the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it is also a bittersweet thing to see these people pull together on their common roots and leap to help their neighbors so fervently.

Also on this pedestrian bridge, we pass SO. MANY. SPIDERS.

/millibeep

European Roadtrip, Part 2

Read part one of this epic here.

I’ve now finished day two of my voyage to Estonia. We’ve been driving for more than ten hours in total today so I will try to recall the day as best I can.

I was thankful to find that the spiders had not visibly returned in the night as I slept. My relief was slightly tempered by the spider I found in the shower, but the emotion of this moment very quickly gave way to confusion as I was simultaneously trying to take a shower and would soon realize that the “hot” and “cold” directions of the tap were labelled backwards. Points for creativity, Poland.

As I leave towards the check-in building to return my key, I nearly trip over a bucket of fish. I actually had noticed this bucket last night on my way in, but had forgotten about it in all the excitement with the spiders. I am somewhat perturbed to see it still here in the morning, but I have no concept of whether this is a normal hotel occurrence in Poland. My instincts say no, but any Polish people reading this are welcome to correct me

I decide to put the fish bucket and spiders behind me as we hit the road. The nice thing about highway driving in Poland is that the speed limits go up to 140 km/hour. However, the Poles are an impatient people and even as we were cruising along at 160 km/hour, we would frequently be overtaken by people going much faster. For my American readers, 160 km/hour translates to almost exactly 100 miles per hour. From this experience, I conclude that Polish people have no fear of death and imagine that every time a Polish driver takes to the highway, they undergo a spiritual transformation to embody one of the 16th-century Winged Hussars charging at the enemy to demoralize them.

After several more hours of risking our lives at high speed through ex-Soviet agrarian landscape, we pull in to a charming gas station / casino / motel / cafe / welding shop? I’m not certain about this last one (there was just some welding equipment laying around) but the first four had explicit signage. As far as I could tell, they were all the same building. I paid 2.50 złoty to use the toilet (yep, Poland still uses its own currency) but since I didn’t have any coins, the attendant let me pay with a card. Big props for joining the 21st century, Poland. I don’t have much more to say about this place, but I did take some neat pictures.

Soon after this little pit stop, we decided to take a shortcut through some rural villages in order to avoid the congestion near the Lithuanian border. I am grateful for the enormous rental car’s 4×4 capability as we careen down farm tracks and back roads that, as far as I could tell, were legally two-way conveyances but, in practice, were only wide enough for one car at at time. Naturally the speed limit of these roads was 90 km/hour. I refer you to my “winged hussars” observation above. Another thing that is remarkable about this part of the journey is that we are able to see an enormous number of nesting white storks standing in their nests, built on chimneys, telephone poles, and houses, and even standing around in fields. By my estimation, we encounter roughly fifty of these birds. Perhaps that’s why the birth rate in Poland is so high (I don’t actually know if it is high, I just said this for the sake of the joke. Please don’t check).

Not too long after we fend off the horde of storks, we reach the Lithuanian border. We are officially in the Baltic states. We are happy because we can use our Euro cash again, but sad because the speed limit has now dropped to 80 km/hour and the use of speed trap cameras is pervasive throughout the country (way to narc, Lithuania). I consider this as I remember that the car was rented with the professor’s credit card and resolve to only speed when he isn’t looking.

Around 19:00 hours (that’s 7pm for our American friends), we decided to stop for some food. Since it is a Sunday evening in Europe, the only places available are the restaurants in the food court of a nearby shopping mall. We decide it’s worth it. As we walk into the mall, I realize we are being overseen by enormous faces, carved into the walls. I am somewhat unnerved by this but I also noted that this mall has a large saltwater aquarium so, on balance, I give them a 6/10 for decor.

After an acceptable dinner, we head back out the car. On the way, I notice a kiosk selling various creams and lotions, as well as these sandals. Since I don’t read Lithuania, I am unable to offer any explanation or context, but I think I prefer it that way.

A few (several) more hours on the road brought us into Latvia. In order to avoid the speed traps, we resolve to follow a local with a Latvian license plate on their car and simply do as they do. This works for a couple hours until we realize that the person we were following actually has Polish license plates and that we are completely screwed. Also, at some point we switched one time zone to the east?? I have no idea where this happened and I refuse to look it up.

We arrived to the hotel at almost 1 a.m. (local time). As I check into my room, I make a quick and thorough search for spiders (as I imagine I will do to every hotel room for the rest of my life). So far this room seems to have significantly fewer spiders than the hotel in Poland, so Latvia wins this round. There is actually one tiny spider on the lamp, but he seems cool enough to stay.

I take a moment to orient myself in the room. It is modest but serviceable and as far as I can tell, a double room only costs 33 Euros. For that kind of economy, I will raise my spider threshold ever so slightly. I am momentarily confused by a weird knob on the toilet until I realize that YOU PULL UP TO FLUSH?? LIKE I AM IN A BACKWARDS CARTOON WORLD?? It’s not looking good so far, Latvia. You can’t take back a first impression.

As I familiarize myself with the rest of the room, my eye falls on the singular piece of artwork hanging in the room and all my toilet concerns melt away. In fact, all my concerns melt away; I ascend to a higher plane and am finally at peace.

Tonight, dear reader, I will tenderly slumber under the watchful eye of the King.

/millibeep

European Roadtrip, Part 1

For reasons that are not important to elaborate here, I am currently driving from Vienna, Austria to Tartu, Estonia – a 1,581 kilometer journey that will take at least eighteen straight hours of driving over three days. Lucky for you, dear readers, I’ve decided to record this experience for posterity. Here is my record of day one.

Just finished day one of the trip. I, an American expat, am traveling with a Russian professor and a Ukrainian intern – all we need is a rabbi, a priest, and a horse to make the perfect “walked in to a bar” joke. The car that the professor has rented for us is an enormous Škoda SUV. It is enormously impractical and it warms the cockles of my American highway-loving heart.

The trip through the Czech Republic was uneventful (though we did see some skydivers practicing at what felt like a dangerous proximity to the highway). As soon as we entered Poland we got stuck behind a strangely dispersed convoy of police vans, all driving way under the speed limit and running their blue strobe lights. None of us know what it means, so we ease by the cops until they’re out of sight and then gun it.

We finally reach the town in which we are stopping for the night and after a suspiciously long drive along a single-track road we land at a little hotel in what I have to assume is officially the middle of nowhere Poland. We’ve arrived too late in the evening to eat in the restaurant, but not too late enjoy a few blessedly cold beers in the gorgeously decorated hotel bar/restaurant. After some much needed decompression (and a fair number of jokes at the expense of a certain leader of Russia), we decided to head to the rooms. We have rented rooms number 10, 13, and 14. As the professor is handing out keys, he asks which one I want. I glibly reply: “give me lucky number 13.” I will soon come to regret my choice.

We leave the bar and retrieve our things from our cargo ship of an automobile. As we make our way back to the rooms, I see that there is a vending machine in the lobby that appears to be selling pot? I’m not sure if it’s legal here but I make a mental note to check (Edit: I checked, it isn’t. What the hell?). The hotel seems nicely decorated but when I get to my room, I notice the window doesn’t seal shut because a handle has been snapped off.

The reason for the window’s malfunction is only apparent after some examination. This takes some time however because the more immediate aspect of the room that jumps out to me are the GODDAMN HUGE SPIDERS hanging in various corners of the room’s ceiling. After a frantic search of the room I count ten in total (eleven if you count the curled-up spider corpse that was already on the windowsill when I came in). Also, there is a large, very obvious, suspicious stain on the floor. I am comforted by the fact that it is probably too small to indicate a murder scene.

I have been driving for hours and am exhausted. I kill/expel the spiders I can find (doubtless the ones to whom I have shown mercy will find their way back in before morning) and spend the rest of the evening paranoid that every tickle is another unwelcome arachnid roommate. I rub some hand soap around the unsealed window in the hopes that the harsh chemical smell will keep them from coming in. As I blearily look under the bed, I see a glimpse of a silverfish? I can’t be sure but at this point I’m so tired I decide that the arthropods can simply have me.

If I’m still alive tomorrow, I’ll continue this chronicle.

/millibeep