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The Baltic way by foot

  • 2004-10-27
  • By Ben Nimmo
Estonia:
Unexpected welcome

Latvia:
Sweet and sour

Lithuania:
Trying hard

Estonia:

Unexpected welcome

"Watch out," I was told. "Estonians aren't friendly, and southern Estonians are worse." I wouldn't have worried so much if it hadn't been an Estonian telling me this. I was beginning of the Baltic leg of a journey that was to take me from the top of Norway to the bottom of Italy, all on foot.

My battered boots had carried me as far as Tallinn and, being a Brit, I ended up in Molly Malone's pub, where the first person I met (a drunken Scot in kilt and wig) warned me, "Watch out! All those guys in leather jackets are in the mafia!" The second person was a young Estonian business student who warned me against expecting hospitality. I'd been in Estonia for less than three hours, and I was already scared.

In fact I needn't have worried. I made it through Tallinn despite the scare mongering and headed south to Rapla, walking along back roads where I could, following the highway when there was no choice. In Rapla I approached the town hall for some tourist information, and

- far from being unfriendly and unhelpful - the information lady chatted for an hour and a half and then invited me to join the local choir. Two hours later I was sight-singing Gregorian chants in Estonian and wondering if someone should pass news to the people of Tallinn that the rest of the country wasn't so bad.

And it got better. Anyone who tells you that Estonians are unfriendly has clearly never walked across the country. In the small villages, passers-by smiled at me and nodded encouragingly; having just walked through rural Finland, where eye contact is tantamount to a form of physical assault, I was impressed. Shopkeepers and cafe owners humored my broken Finnish. Teenagers smoking outside school gates rushed up to ask me my name before running back giggling to their mates. A priest in one small village opened his church to let me look around, and bravely tried to explain its history using nothing but hand gestures and dramatic flicks of the eyebrows. The further south I went, the friendlier people got. It wasn't the kind of hospitality that leads to drunken orgies and offers of adoption (that was Poland), but the overwhelming feeling I got from rural Estonia was: You're weird, but you're welcome.

A day's walk from the Latvian border, and I got stuck: nowhere to camp, no hotel to use. I was contemplating bedding down in a churchyard when a local came to ask what I was doing, realized my problem, and phoned a friend. I spent that night in a wooden farmhouse by the sea, discussing the Russian-Estonian issue in stumbling Finnglish.

As far as my host was concerned, there was no issue: discrimination didn't exist. I can't say I agreed with his politics, but his hospitality was top-class. And that sort of warm, natural hospitality was my enduring memory of the country. So much for stereotypes.

Latvia:

Sweet and sour

I walked into Latvia the next morning. It started well: the border guard gave me a smile, and on the outskirts of Ainazi a young girl skipped up to me, trilled "Labdien!" and skipped away. I was expecting an Estonian welcome as I walked into Salacgriva. Friends have since told me that this was optimistic.

There were five youths sitting at a bus stop in the center of town drinking beer. As I walked past they laughed unpleasantly, and then one spat at me. He was aiming to miss, but it still wasn't quite the welcome I was expecting. Being over-charged in the first cafe I tried didn't help either. To be fair, you don't often see a foreigner in backpack, shades, Goretex salopettes and hiking boots crossing the average Latvian town; but that's no reason to start swearing at him. First impressions last. Salacgriva did not impress.

There was a wariness in Latvia that I hadn't witnessed before. A few people did make eye contact. One old mushroom-picker stopped to chat in German and wished me "God be with you!" A group of teenagers at an Internet cafe in Saulkrasti gave me a standing ovation just for walking past. But most people I saw ducked their heads and hurried past me as if they were afraid of being noticed. I've walked across 19 countries in the last five years, including all three Baltic states, Norway and Finland. But Latvia remains the only one where I was never invited to someone's house.

On the other hand, Latvia made me a TV star. Thirty kilometers from Riga, a Latvian National Television car pulled up and asked for an interview: Someone had apparently phoned to say that there was a mad foreigner walking across the country. It was lucky I'd been in a hotel that night, rather than camping in the woods: at least I looked vaguely human. Chatting with a glamorous lady journalist in a fur coat was definitively the highlight of a long, slow day. The next morning, as I stopped to buy water on the edge of Riga, I was asked, "Aren't you that guy on TV?" At the Latvian Institute, I was met with, "It's him! It's the guy on TV!" And as I left town, heading through Jelgava toward Siauliai, several passers-by smiled at me. TV has its uses after all.

Lithuania:

Trying hard

The first thing that happened when I crossed into Lithuania from Eleja was that the customs guard asked me: "Are you carrying any narcotics?" I showed him a bar of chocolate; he laughed and waved me through.

It started snowing as I approached the Hill of Crosses. I was by the main road for lack of other options, and twice cars (one Latvian, one Lithuanian) stopped to offer me a lift; the second time the driver asked "Latviski? Ruski? Deutsch?" I answered "Angliski." "Ah! I love you!" he said, and drove off with a wave. There was something about the local drivers that day. I lost count of the cars that flashed their lights and hooted in encouragement. One Moskvitch overflowing with teenagers even did a U-turn ahead of me so they could drive past and wave again. And I hadn't even been on TV. It was a heady experience.

Lithuania would have had a lot to say, if only we could have found a common language. As snow clogged the fields I followed the road from Siauliai to Kaunas, and time and again passers-by stopped to chat. When they realized I didn't speak Lithuanian, they tried Russian, and when that didn't work they tried German, Polish, French, anything. A few - mostly teenagers - tried English. It wasn't exactly fluent, but the effort they made was fantastic.

Just outside Kaunas I saw a strange sight: a middle-aged man in a business suit staggering determinedly down the middle of the road. I took his arm and helped him to the pavement, and, babbling inebriated Polish, he led me to the nearest village and tugged me into a shabby house to share a plate of bread, salt, bacon and vodka. An antique little man glowered at me and clutched his plate closer to his chest. My host poured me a shot of vodka, clinked glasses, and then shot me a penetrating look and asked "How much dollar you carry? How much dengi?" I speedily left the house.

From Kaunas I turned west toward Poland. Beyond Marijampole I walked into a little village. It was school break, and a couple of teenagers hurried over to interrogate me. We chatted in the shelter of a bus stop, "You like Lithuania? You like us?" I answered affirmatively to both questions, and when the school bell rang they shyly gave me their packets of chips before hurrying off. By the next morning, I was in Poland.

It took me five weeks in all to walk across the Baltics. There aren't many places you can find so much variety in such a small space. The original Baltic Way may have got all the headlines, but I wouldn't have missed out on my Baltic Way for anything.