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Narrative Travel Writing Contest
2009 Narrative Travel Writing Contest 2nd Place Winner

Beirut in the Baltics

Into the Wild Wild East of "Europe Minor"

After the collapse of communism in the USSR, inflation in the freshly minted Baltic republics of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia rolled up the ruble into the cheapest toilet paper around, so I decided to go East and stock up. I needed a cheap place to wipe my ass because I was then unemployed, and an Orwellian year of freelancing in Paris had left me as restless as a Rive Gauche plongeur and ready for anything to happen. It was time to hit the road. Yet unlike all those other Gen-X American entrepreneurs exploring their sophomore angst in bohemian meccas like Prague and Budapest, I bypassed Mittel Europa entirely and prospected in the farther frontier of the upper Near East: Europe Minor.

Making my way to Helsinki, the gateway to the Baltics, I crossed the Gulf of Finland to the old Hanseatic League city of Talinn, Estonia, on the ferryboat Albatross, a name which in these paradoxical parts is an un-Coleridgean avian omen of good luck and smooth sailing. On old clanking overnight trains for mere pocket change, I at last got off the main line and traveled nation to nation, riding the iron river backwards in time. At the proverbial end of the tracks, I found myself in the former Lithuanian capital of Trakai (not far from the present-day capital of Vilnius), a sleepy lakeside hamlet with a 14th-century castle and medieval wooden cottages inhabited mostly by Scandinavian alcoholics suffering from the Baltic blues.

At the only hotel in town, the manager, a gaunt bespectacled skeleton with the d.t.'s, bruited "No rooms!" and dangled a pointer finger down the road. Like a backpacking tortoise, I tramped about a mile, slowly craning my neck for signs of alternate lodgings, passing raggedy old men pinned with military medals who eyed my Rockport walking shoes enviously. Leaning my noggin sideways on prayer-pressed hands (the international sign language for a bed), I let a babushka backfire me down the road in reverse. Back at that only hotel in town, the manager was now nowhere to be found.

Instead a Mediterranean-looking guy in a fluorescent Adidas track suit sat on the steps, smoking Russian Cosmos cigarettes. In German, then English, he asked where I was from. "A-mer-i-ca?!" he pronounced reverently, whipping off his Joe Camel shades, staring pop-eyed. "I thought you are Czech! I get you room!" He bounced up the steps like a superball; I followed, wondering if he was a member of the small Karaite community, a Jewish sect originally from Baghdad who were imported from the Crimea to Trakai by Polish-Lithuanian King Vytautus circa 1400 to serve as much-needed bodyguards.

With an elegant game-show-model flourish, Adidas pushed open a door, displaying a claustrophobic box with a sadistically sagging cot. At the prospect of such an uncomfortable night's sleep, many an intrepid budget traveler might have blanched. Still, the price was right: "One dollar! Lithuania is very, very cheaps!" Adidas said.

I inquired if any other rooms might be available. "Yes, yes, many rooms!" Adidas knocked on wood up and down the corridor. A door opened a crack, revealing the furtive eyes of a mysterious veiled woman, then shut quickly. Another swung open and released a blast of atonal radio wailing, the wafting scent of Oriental spices, and the curious expressions of swarthy Arabian faces. "America!" Adidas pointed excitedly at me. In a zephyr of astonishment, they jumped back; one stepped out, politely shook my hand. At last we lucked upon an empty room with an okayish view over the lake.

"Where are you from anyway?" I asked, busily unzipping my backpack and removing my toilet kit, as Adidas just lingered there in the doorway, perhaps waiting for a tip.

"Me, I'm from Lebanon."

At high noon, I emerged from the hotel, ready to sightsee. I sauntered towards the lake, where a stockpile of empty Soviet champagne bottles littered the picnic tables like deactivated warheads aimed at the West. A few chubby tourists from some ex-Soviet republic (maybe one of the "Stans") took turns mechanically photographing each other with a clunky cake-box-sized camera in front of Trakai Castle, as if this was all that was expected of domestic travelers, with perestroika. Then they photographed me. All of a sudden, two strapping young Vikings plopped down beside me, trying out first Lithuanian, then Russian, then their vodka bottle. I smiled, held my stomach, groaned. Eyes lit up like aurora borealises of suspicion, they again thrust the bottle towards my face and repeated the Lithuanian equivalent of "driiiiiink, driiiiiink!"

We tried out German—which none of us spoke—the very same tongue of all those Teutonic Knights who'd more-than-once-upon-a-time stormed and battered Trakai's fairy-tale castle almost into oblivion. Meanwhile, an inebriated crowd had gathered, waiting for this outlandish Western town crier to entertain them.

“Lithuania ist gut!" I proclaimed loudly.

"Nein, nein, America ist gut!" they countered, clapping their hands. Then a dog-eared Lithuanian-English dictionary arrived and I knew I'd be there awhile; I let my liver in on the bad news.

Zigzagging later to the only restaurant with any food at all, I entered, ordered, and waited for my borscht, whereupon a tipsy buxom blonde with bad teeth landed on my lap and made her free-market pitch to me in a Slavic-sounding tongue. She resembled a Socialist Realism folk painting of the happy peasant at work in the field, whatever the field might have been.

“I'm sorry, but—" I began.

"I Poland," she informed me, switch-hitting to English and kissing me repeatedly on the forehead. Head cocked towards a table of loudly drinking men, she made spitting noises. "I no like Russians from Kaliningrad. Bad people, drink, fight."

The ex-Soviet soldiers glanced casually over at us. I had noticed them earlier selling contraband goods—champagne, cigarettes, military supplies, you name it—from a Soviet jeep parked discreetly behind the train station. This was a small town; I didn't want to be involved in an incident. Had glasnost yet reached the colonial outpost military bases of the "fourth Baltic state" of neighboring Kaliningrad? I bolted down my soup and exited stage-left out of the dreary eatery.

Back at the hotel. I sipped my beer, surrounded by my excited Lebanese interrogators, who fired off volleys of questions. All strict Muslims, they chipped in for a beer, opened it, then didn't drink it—a pointless ritual to make me feel at home, I guess. They said I should go to Beirut, that there was "much things for tourists to see and do there." I said I'd love to, maybe next year.

"Are you guys all here on, uh, vacation?" I ventured, with the phantom newsprint faces of blindfolded bearded hostages parading at gunpoint before my eyes.

“Yes, long time. Trakai very nice."

"Yes, Trakai very nice, but dangerous at night."

"Yes, yes, yes, very, very."

“Lithuanians drinks very much."

"Lithuanians nice peoples, except when they drunks."

"Dangerous?" I asked, beginning to feel a little queasy. Despite the Wild Wild East atmosphere, I'd never felt threatened during my month-long trip through the Baltics. Of course, I'd stuck mainly to the urban capitals of Talinn, Riga, and Vilnius. But now I was experiencing a day in the life of the lawless post-communist countryside.

Over the sounds of a not-so-distant bottle-smashing party came a sharp explosive report. All of us flinched and listened, like foolhardy gamblers at an eerie game of Russian Roulette. The big question: firecracker or gunshot? The manager stumbled in and rubbed his nervous fingers through his red beard. "You want more beer?" he blurted, still looking sheepish for his earlier lies about not having any rooms and for later overcharging me two bucks for the squalid squat when he learned I was American.

"Was that a gunshot?" I asked.

"Only police, fighting Russian mafia, don't worry, be happy." The manager then informed us he was heading home for the night "to sleep with wife" and noted, wicked eyes full of Nabokovian Pale Fire, that if we had to get out for any reason there was an extra key hanging up somewhere in his office. Evidently, we were to be locked in for the night.

Adidas reached for the token beer and took a defiant sip. "We are very scared at night," Adidas confided, a worried look on his face. "Sometimes the Lithuanians come, break windows, and curses us."

"Ils sont raciste!" came a fierce hiss from between the clenched teeth inside the terrifying-looking beard of another Lebanese man.

"No, no, no," said Adidas, "they gets crazy at night, but they nice in the day."

A stranger entered, said hi to everyone in Arabic, then addressed me in a posh English accent: "How do you do?" I stood up and shook his hand. "My wife and I can't sleep with all the bloody noise outside," he explained. "We heard people speaking English down here."

"You from Lebanon, too?" I asked.

"No, Iraq."

At this bombshell, the Lebanese roared with laughter, faces contorted as if in great pain, fingers pointing back and forth at us like crisscrossed compass needles: "Iraq, America, Iraq, America, Gulf War. . . ." The jokes made me slightly uncomfortable. In addition to being stuck in the middle of a brand-new nation carved out of the so-called ex-Evil Empire, I'd apparently just shaken hands with the enemy.

The visibly shaken Iraqi then told me his wife and he would be honored to have me as their guest for tea in their room. I graciously accepted. Once inside he told me a little bit about himself. He claimed to be a refugee trying to emigrate to Western Europe, but no embassy would accept him because of his Iraqi passport. He was a doctor and wanted especially to go to Norway; why there, he didn't say exactly. He'd been shanghaied into the Iraqi army during the Iran-Iraq War, but had deserted right before the Gulf War—at the time a not-too-distant memory. "If I return to Iraq . . ." he said pointedly, dragging his finger across his throat execution-style.

"How did you get all the way to Lithuania?"

"Forged papers. With U.S. dollars, no problem. We rode illegal on top of a train to the Soviet Union. Now no Soviet Union. Strange world." From under his shirt, he pulled up a crucifix necklace and said he was Christian. "Did you know the war was maybe set up in advance," he insinuated, clutching the crucifix. "Maybe Saddam and Bush are best friends in—how do you say?—a secret society?"

"Like, um, Freemasons?"

"Yes, I think that is the name, thank you. Saddam and Bush made a pact, yes? Iraqi soldiers sent like this"—he karate-chopped the air maniacally, as his shy wife handed me a thé du menthe—"to the front lines with no bullets, so they must surrender quickly."

"That's an interesting theory," I commented, wondering what Oliver Stone would make of all this.

"Operation Desert Storm was a lie!" He tapped his forefinger forcefully on my chest. "The Iraqis never give up so easily! I know, I was in the army. We fought Iran for many years. The U.S. should kill Saddam! But that is impossible, yes? Maybe there is no Saddam; maybe there is more than one. Assassinate one, and a double with plastic surgery takes his place. Where is the real Saddam hiding? Ask George Bush!" His bitter smile and dry laugh betrayed the fact that he wasn't at all joking. "We have no children," he concluded sadly.

Our tea slurping was interrupted a little later by a loud crash from down the hallway. All rooms emptied. Amidst the window-glass shards on the landing lay a vodka bottle. A group of blind-drunk thugs could be heard shouting what sounded like obscenities outside. Fearfully glancing out the broken window, I spotted a couple of my drinking buddies from earlier before the mob staggered off en masse into the night.

"It is a good thing you are here. They will not burn this place to the ground with an American inside," said the Iraqi.

"How long have you been here?"

"Two months. Two months in hell."

I said good night, went quickly to my room, and barricaded the door with my backpack. My stomach writhed with anxiety and alcohol. I remembered a newspaper story I'd read in Paris about terrorists operating inside the Soviet Union in out-of-the-way slums very much like this one. In the so-called New Europe, however, nothing was at all certain anymore. Out here in this topsy-turvy hotel on the edge of nowhere, I believed I now had an inkling of who might really be the terrorists, and who the victims.

I left early the next morning.

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