Well, that about explains everything really.
Here I am trying to fake a staged entry for the purpose of this story. I am on my bicycle pretending I have just come off a Baltic ferry from deepest, darkest Germany and am about to cycle my way across swinging, happening, twenty-first century Lithuania.
It is a cloudy but dry Sunday evening and I want you to think that I have just sailed up a rather industrial harbour and that, through the haze of second-hand cigarette smoke, I have just viewed mile after mile of Klaipėda’s identical red tiled Soviet apartment buildings. I have kitted up my bike, pushed it off the ferry and have just entered this relatively recent addition to the European Union. I am nervous, excited, and after seeing Klaipėda from the sea, somewhat scared.
Okay, that is what I want you to think; it is not the reality, but for now it works.
For a cyclist, from the ferry terminal, the entrance to Klaipėda is absolutely fantastic, in fact couldn’t really be much better – there is a brand spanking new cobble-paved, red cycle path. It offers hope, comfort and reassurance for the journey. Problem is this path only lasts about 10 metres before it stumbles upon a sudden and premature ending. Smack in the middle of the path is a sign that simply reads “Klaipėda”, and there the cycleway stops. And if this is not bad enough and if you are like me and have five heavy panniers on your bike, you need to disembark and carry your bike down a rather steep gutter.
Ironically, this sign encapsulates how I have come to view this, my adopted nation, it explains everything really. It seems to me that Lithuania is regaining some of its old status and becoming a borderland and frontier country where East meets West. Lithuania has been pillaged by multiple wars and is on the cusp of shedding its oppressive and oppressing Eastern shackles and beginning to tickle the concepts of an allegedly more Western, open and tolerant governmental culture.
This sign reminds me of grumpy, rude public-sector officials and friendly, innocent, smiling children. It reminds me that this country, at its core, is fighting corruption and intolerance, but yet often lost wallets containing money get handed intact to the police. This sign warns me, for better and for worse, that what you see is not necessarily what there is. And finally this sign tells me that adventure lies ahead.
So whilst dismounting my bike, I noticed a gaggle of bedraggled trucks, pick-ups, trailers and shady, dubious-looking men all congregating around an equally shady and dubious collection of tired second-hand cars. I got the feeling that this was a regular post ferry shindig. Lithuania, and to the east Russia and Belarus, have a boisterous trade in hand-me-down and often allegedly stolen German and Scandinavian cars. And here in front of the railway crossing, haggling was happening as minor fortunes were being made and derailed whilst feverish men frantically pushed cars from truck to trailer before setting off on their journeys to greener pastures.
I cycled on, knowing that these very vehicles would soon be overtaking me, showering me with dust and stones. The five kilometres of road from the end of that oh-so-beautiful cycleway to the first of Klaipėda’s abundant supply of luxury shopping malls is simply the ugliest, most decrepit stretch of raw, rough, road I have seen anywhere. It is shocking, and a totally embarrassing gateway to our city. If it was my first time on this road, I think that I would have simply turned around and got my butt and bicycle the hang out of there. I want to make a sign and peg it about every two hundred metres along the road saying, “It gets better”. ‘Cause truly it does. But for now the collection of collapsed Communist cement, burnt out trash-cans, vandalised signposts, rusty-leaning-lampless-lamposts, volcanic-crater-sized potholes and the bedraggled-paint-peeling bridge are all just too much for your average guest to our nation to handle. Maybe it is a play by the local brewery to drive people to drink.
I was glad that my 14.74km round trip from our Soviet flat and back was not the actual start of my journey across the country; it simply would have been too depressing. Instead, I got to go home, finish packing my four gifted ‘Ortlieb Classic’ panniers, and ready myself for the baffling, butt-buffering bike-ride which lay ahead. I was nervous as I had once ridden 120km along a flat road with no weight on my bike and I came home utterly and totally cream-crackered. Yet the next morning I was setting out on a four hundred and something kilometre marathon across roads and through villages I had never seen before. That evening I had a flitting, dreamless sleep and spent much of the night questioning whether my head needed examining.
A detailed glossary will be included in the print and eBook version of this story.
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