Here and there, through the layer of clouds, a few sun beams shine on the land, cheering up the countryside. Behind me, noise of passing cars and lorries. I’ve pulled to the shoulder for a moment, right after leaving behind Vilnius’ outskirts, and take the day’s first notes. I’m heading Marjampole for merging into the E5, one of the most important highways in our Union, neck of land between–so to say–continental Europe, on one hand, and the Baltic & Scandinavia on the other; the only route–and bottleneck–linking those two halves of our common space. At both sides of the isthmus, there lies the no-go zone, hostile and barbarian land: Russia-Kaliningrad to the west and Belarus to the east.
All along this part of Lithuania there are many Poles; drivers who, with their inborn rivalry spirit (or is it an inferiority complex?) strive to not been looked upon by the Lithuanians, champions of road atrocity. But — though the latter are indeed wilder — actually both belong to the same driving school: total desdain for others and the rules; speed limits, priorities, yields, signals, overtakings, security distances… nothing hampers them. And I’m sure many take pride on this.
Approaching the border, Poland sees me with rain. Fortunately, Sejny — my goal for today — is only ten minutes ahead, and there’s no time to get soaked. Worst are my cowboy boots, that I bought ex profeso for riding but happen to not be in the least waterproof, polish and all.
Yet, here I feel almost at home, so familiarized with the country. I’m lodged at the Skarpa, the same hotel I was staying at on my way north: pleasant, genuine and dirt cheap, a stone’s throw away from the park, the church and the very few bistros. I don’t know why I find so endearing this frontier town, with its country look and its long history of wars and invasions, of monks, soldiers and knights. When, two months ago, I went past here, there was the summer fair; traditional music playing, blonde majorettes’ parade and much ado everywhere. Today it looks quite different, cool under the light rain, autumn-like atmosphere, barely a few passers-by on the streets, the leaves turning yellow on the trees.
According to the traveller myth, one shouldn’t tread the same track twice; in whose case I’m not a real traveller, because I find a great joy in returning to the places I’ve been before. I like to saunter through the same parks, ramble on the same streets, see the same buildings — and, if possible, meet the same people. Such is the whim of my soul, always leaning over the past.
In the evening I meet Ola and Paulina, who take me to a cozy pub, furnished in wood; and chatting over a beer they tell me little things about their region: how Lithuanian drivers have a reputation for being suicidal (too late a warning: I’ve already learnt the lesson,or how the local river is called Marycha, which means marijuana. Their gay small talk and refreshing company help to amuse my evening, and nourish a bit my famine social needs. Among other things, I’m surprised by their devotion for this town, when everyone else looks forward to migrating to the metropoli. They’ve gone to college in nearby cities like Lublin and Bialystok, and both have been lucky–they say–to find a job here, because they don’t want to leave. But they’re still young–thinks I– and will likely change their minds, sooner or later.
When leaving the bar, I pay the bill and they naturally accept the invite without a word. I love that. It’s one of the things I like about these Eastern European societies: women asume they are treated, and don’t give it any importance. Men pay, that’s the rule. Most of all in smaller towns. In Warsaw or Cracow things are a bit different, girls being more progresist, whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean.
After a quiet night, not bothered by insomnia (knock on wood), I wake up to a new day, sunny and splendid. When loading the cases on the bike, temperature is 25 ºC, perfect for motorcycling. I say farewell to Sejny and take the highway to Bialystok, another city I already know. There is a lot of heavy traffic on the road, and it’s a boring ride; but this time I have no option, since the alternative by-roads take a really long way round.
It’s 3 pm when I arrive. By pure chance, right downtown I find a quiet and peculiar lodging: a sort of cultural centre belonging to the Orthodox Church Diocese; and they rent rooms at a very affordable price. However, I’m the only foreigner here, probably because this place isn’t listed in accommodation websites and has no other notice an old brass plate by the door that goes: POKUJE GOSCINNI (guest house). Rooms are comfortable though simple; receptionists can’t speak English, only Polish or Russian, but we’ve managed.
It’s a lovely weather to go for a stroll and then grab a beer sitting at a terrace; so there I go. A while afterwards, all of a sudden I bump into an unexpected memory (or, well, kind of. Perhaps my steps have not taen me here by a happenstance): now six years, I’m walking the same little forest, and among all its many trails, I’m walking the very same shadowy path where I kissed her for the first time, under her umbrella, that late summer’s rainy day. And though I’ve been back to Bialystok several times since, I had not yet returned to this forest. Now, the vivid recollection of that scene takes me aback. I stop a minute for better recovering it: her rosy, strangely moist lips; her large, wide-open sky-blue pupils; her pale, faintly freckled face, and that exciting, filmy blue dress…
Today, six years later, that memory’s still haunting me.