On Norway’s northeast end, where East and West silently meet, present day Finnmark county –the largest and less populated– was for centuries land of the sami, called finnar (finns) by the Norge. Its coastline measures almost seven thousand kilometres (including the islands), i.e. approximately the same as from Madrid to here. If all that shore could be covered on a motorcycle, a rider would take two months (driving at the same rate I’m doing this journey).
Coming from Latvia, my first impressions about Estonia were: this is really where Scandinavia begins; this, and not the Gulf of Finland, is Eastern Europe’s true north border; Estonia isn’t actually a Baltic state but a nordic country — or at least something in between both worlds.
On one hand, crossing this border means to leave behind the post-communist poverty, so palpable along the old Soviet influential area. The contrast between Estonia and Latvia is sensibly bigger than between the latter and Lithuania, which in turn isn’t very different from Poland. One can easily realize this contrast from the roads shape, the buildings, streets and houses, from the farming machinery, the cars and trucks, traffic signs, the commerce, the goods supply and –of course– the prices; but also from people’s manners, their not so insular character, their more respectful driving habits, the English level, and certainly from their mother tongue, Estonian being closely related with Finnish. Even –despite its more continental location– this country’s gas stations are registered under their northern neighbour’s oil companies across the sea, Lukoil brand giving way to Neste Oil, the Finn giant.
In the previous chapter I was spending the night in the quiet town of Mazsalaca, not knowing whether or not the next day I’d have to ride along another stretch of dirt road to the Estonian border or even further on, my offline maps drawing in white (i.e. unpaved) all the northward routes around my location. But in the morning, a very nice and serviceable worker who was doing some job in the backyard managed to tell me by sign language –not knowing a single word of English– that the road to the border was all paved; so I thanked him and, relying on his information, rode on, venturing straight to Estonia. Not without a fleeting sadness I left behind the small and endearing Latvian State, its quiet border town Mazsalaca.
It’s been hot and humid for the past few weeks, and I’m riding on a shirt; I know it’s risky, but then… what isn’t? Every day in our lives we’re deciding, mostly without realizing it, which pleasures we’re willing to give up for our safety’s sake? Even with the right garment, isn’t a motorcycle riskier than a car? And the car more dangerous than a bus? And isn’t the latter worse than the train? So on, so forth. The truth is, living is a hazard. But to counter this extra risk, I’m an easy biker; I ride slowly, trying to enjoy the road, the scenery, and stopping every so often to take a photo or just drink a tea in some road café.
In this latitude and time of the year, the dog days, nights’ shortness starts becoming perceptible. Despite being yet quite far from the Arctic Circle — is there where I’m heading? — one can easily notice the sun setting later and rising earlier than back in Spain. Also in the fields the influence of climate and latitude is perceptible: while wheat was already turning yellow one month ago in Castile, it’s only going yellow here these days.
Lithuania, the less septentrional of the Baltic states, is sensibly poorer than Poland; less developed. There is barely any other richness here than primary sectors, and it’s so interesting to see the agricultural machinery they use!, so old you can’t find it in Spain except for museums. Farming houses and other rural buildings are all on wood, outdated but well preserved, beautifully painted, with flowery gardens and ornating trees. This countryside is endearing, though peasants don’t seem hospitable; their distrust is apparent. From the road, I take some shots to one of those nice farms, and two ladies come to me complaining, no photos. They’re highly suspicious regarding cameras, this side of the planet, and they can get quite aggressive.
Generally I find Lithuanians somewhat surly, perhaps not accustomed to foreign, non-slavic tourists.
Since I crossed the South border at Sejny, I’m riding to the north on by-roads, traversing fields, meadows and coppices along a flat as a hand’s palm landscape which centuries back was covered by swamp and still nowadays is very marshy. Avoiding Kaunas, the second largest city in Lithuania, I’ve ended up today in Kedainiai. But all what is lovely, even idyllic, in villages and small towns, becomes uglyness in larger ones like this, where most of the buildings are brick or concrete square blocks of the Soviet style. Only the small historic town is nice, with cobbled streets and old wooden houses.
Talking a walk along this quiet old town I listen, in every restaurant I pass by, some or other group of people talking in Russian. On one hand, the Baltic States are full of Russian tourists and, on the other, 60% of Lithuanians are fluent in Russian. Definitely such language is much more useful than any other, this side of Europe. And it makes me think: in a global world, these strange and minority languages such as Latvian and Lithuanian are doomed to decay. They’re old branches of the Indo-European, not any longer resembling any other, and of no international use whatsoever. What you can do with Lithuanian, you can do with Russian all the same. So, besides these small populations, who else will ever learn them? Even for themselves, Russian is just as useful. Quite the same, by the way, is the doom of Basque, Gaelic and many other tongues.
At the hotelwhere I’m lodged there are two loud North Americans and four louder Poles, as usual a bit drunk and kurwing around. I hear their voices right under my window. A gal, probably a local, tries to conceal her poor English by overdoing the fuckings, the gonnas and the wannas, such a common pattern…
For the rest, Kedainiai seems to be one of those towns full of testosterone, where the preferred amusement for male youth seems to be racing around with a car, revving and screeching the tyres. A flirting method that would have been dropped long ago hadn’t it proven successful, I reckon, with these Soviet style, gorgeous women, oh heavenly women!
At a nearby restaurant, tended by a grim young cute lady, I order some goulash and a bottle of kvas, a fermented rye beverage quite popular in Baltic and Slavic nations. At the table right by mine there’s a foreign couple. I find it odd to come across so many tourists in this small, forsaken town, whose only credit seems to be that it’s one of the country’s oldest.
It’s getting dark. There’s still a lively bunch of customers at the hotel’s terrace and I sit –alone– at a table for a beer. Two foreign couples, tall and blond like elves, climb up the stairs each accompanied by a huge, almost giant dog. Thanks God they’re not the barking type. Eventually people leave the place and finally me too, I go to my room. I read yet for quite a while but, before falling asleep, I have to bear for half an hour the ill-tempered shouts, on the street under my window, of two alpha males who weren’t lucky tonight and want to punish the neighbours for their failure…
Chance has had it so that, aiming for a secondary border crossing to Lithuania from Bialystok (where I stayed the last few days), I ended up in the small town of Sejny (ten kilometres away from the Baltic country) the very day of their local annual holiday.
It’s been fun to watch the parade with majorettes –something I haven’t seen since my early childhood– and the local wind-percussion band behind, and to loiter around the fairground, on the esplanade by the monastery’s church, nosing about the stands that offer traditional Polish food, while on the stage nearby a nostalgic flavoured musical group plays songs of unmistakably slavic melodies. Clic on the photo below for a short charming video.
The Polish stretch of the Camino de Santiago goes through Sejny, and I find it odd that, rather than naming it in Polish (Droga Świętego Jakuba) they use the Spanish expression Camino Polaco, meaning Polish Camino. These Poles have funny criteria when it comes to translations or adopting foreign words. Recently, for instance, I heard of a new street they’ve named after the Star-wars hero Obi-Wan Kenobi, but only after declining it to genitive the Polish way, which results in a bizarre Obi-Wan Kenobego street.
Borders, always defended with such a patriotic zeal and often at the expense of so many lives, aren’t but the fancy outcome of changeable laws that only seldom reflect a social reality.
Sejny was founded during the early middle ages by Baltic tribes, then was disputed along the late middle ages between Lithuanians and Teutonic knights, and only much later, on the XVIIIth century, Poles came claiming rights over this land and fighting battles to get it. Also the jolly Sweds were here, devastating the town to its ashes; and Prussian imperialists as well, and so did the omnipresent Russians.
It was finally the whiny Polish who got away with it after WWII; but at some point of history all the aforementioned nations have claimed these lands, and despite Sejny being a small town, economically irrelevant, it has been for centuries the scenario of struggles and victim of destructions, shifting hands quite often. Such is the doom of border lands. On the other hand, I find it quite meaningful the fact that, after every devastation suffered, it was the monks who –with their humble and patient work– brought it up again, settling down and rebuilding their monasteries where fear of war made the population run away.
On a side note, it’s irksome to see this modern fashion of Church-hating visceral Antichrists want to annihilate our religion (our culture!) and erase from our societies all traces of it, ignoring that their very selves would probably not exist had it not been for Christendom! Or as if they could change the past by modifying the present, such an Orwellian idea…
The hotel where I stay in Sejny, despite the evident signs of having been updated, still preserves some of its original 70’s flavour in style and furniture. Clean and decent, I find the price ridiculously low, telling of the neighbouring Baltic countries.
On the next morning, the first thing I do I buy Lithuanian currency, which gets done painlessly in one of the several kantors (exchange offices) existing in town. Poland is one of the best countries I know for currency exchange, as there is never shortage of kantors, which don’t charge a fee and have a quite fair margin, sometimes as low as 0,2 %.
Despite the similarities of most Western countries, every time I cross a border I feel some excitement, as of a surprise anticipated. What shall I find behind?, how the roads will be?, how are the people’s lives?, what’s their language like?, will they be friendly or hostile?, shall communication be easy..?
The border where I’m crossing to Lithuania is totally devoid of police or customs officers; only the facilities are there, and they give me a foreboding of poverty… But I’m leaving it here for the moment. Whatever I am to find in Lithuania, that will be the matter for my next chapter.
These are some facts:
A) According to annual surveys by the Ukrainian Institute of Sociology (of the National Academy of Sciences) throughout 1994 to 2005:
1.- Average 36% of the Ukrainian population are native Russian speakers.
2.- Average 34% of the population speak mainly Russian in family (at home), while 26% speak both Russian and Ukrainian. This amounts to 60% of the Ukrainians speak often Russian at home, more than half of which speak only Russian.
3.- Average 47% of the respondents deemed necessary to make Russian an official language, whereas 34% didn’t.
B) According to the official Ukrainian census of 2001, the Russian language is native for over 29.3% of the population. However,
C) According to a 2004 poll by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, the number of people using Russian at home considerably exceeds those who so declared in the census: Russian would be used in family by 43–46% of the country’s population (a similar proportion to Ukrainian speakers).
D) According to a 2012 poll by RATING (an Ukrainian NGO), 40% of the surveyed citizens of age stated that their native language is rather Russian, and 55% rather Ukrainian.
E) When Ukraine gained its independence, in August 1991, the newly formed Government decreed that Ukrainian would be the only state language. Since then, and to this day, the Russian-speaking population in Ukraine forms the largest linguistic group in modern Europe with its language being non-official in the state.
This is my opinion:
This is what I call a languacide; repression; sheer revenge on people who were not guilty of the prior russification of Ukraine. This is to be condemned, reproved, and even fought against. The fact that Ukraine had been long repressed by Russia is no excuse for retaliation on others. This levels the Ukrainians with the Russians, thus losing all moral strength.
Hence, in sight of the recent events in Ukraine and lacking non-biased information, I wonder who are the oppressors and who the oppressed.