Draw up your chairs and grab a cup of coffee/tea/wine/beer/favorite poison. This is going to take me a bit to go thru the crazy details.
Well, remember how I collect fountain pens, write letters and have pen friends all over the world? One such friend I have lives in Lithuania. Now, as pen friends, we do not exchange phone numbers or email ids. You know the whole purpose is to keep up communications thru hand written letters. Some of them even purposely control the speed (do not respond immediately).
Rita – my pen friend in Lithuania – and I have been writing to each other for a couple of years. From her writings, I had gotten to know a little about life in Lithuania (she lives in a rural setting). I also got to know about her family. She is my age group, has been married for almost the same time as I and has kids ranging from 31 years to 10 years. One of her daughters is non-verbal and differently abled.
Well, I had this brilliant idea that I will go surprise Rita and her family and show up at her door one day. I told her Gintautas what I wanted to do.
First, he was not sure what pen friendship is all about.
“That is a thing?”
He was not convinced. He was afraid that I had fallen for a “scam”, as he put it.
“Scam, for what?”
“I do not know. You do not know them?”
“No. for all you know Rita is actually a 20 year old school kid who writes to me pretending to be somebody else.”
“Did you call them?”
“I do not have her contacts. Besides. This is supposed to be a surprise.”
“Do you know how she looks?”
“No. She never sent me a picture. That is not uncommon among pen friends”
“Does she know how you look?”
You could see that disbelief written all over his face
“But I have the address I write letters to. Let’s go there”.
Well, then we hit a snag. Google Maps was showing a place and Apple Maps was showing a different place. They were nearby – both near a small town called Taurage – but we did not know where to head to. That is when he became very resourceful. Using the address, he went into some property records and found out the exact location. Apple Maps was right.
This was the day we were taking all the back roads. A nice, leisurely drive thru the sylvan beauty of west Lithuania later, we showed up at a building. The building certainly looked very tired.
I needed Gintautas’ help with the language. “You want to come in?”
“I am not so sure.”
“You call me if you need any help.”
As Gintautas explained to me later, he was convinced this was some sort of a scam. And he told me over dinner that if I did not come out in 30 minutes, he was going to contact the cops!!
One thing I failed to mention to you. I had picked Saturday as the day to visit Rita since I knew she worked and consequently, I felt weekdays might be inconvenient. But I was surprised that on a Saturday, even at 10:30 am there was not a single person to be seen anywhere. No kids outside, nobody walking on the streets. It was like either everybody was sleeping or they had gone to the church.
Well, as for me, I entered the old building. At the entrance, I went past a car with a lady sitting there and the car running. What if that was Rita and by the time I talked to her folks inside, she was gone?
It was a two story building. I was to go to 15-7. Building number, I guessed was 15. I assumed 7 is the apartment number. There were two doors on the ground floor. They did not have numbers on. Luckily for me a gentleman was coming down the staircase. I immediately asked him about Rita. He promptly said “No English” and walked away.
That put me in a bind. If he could say “No English”, his English was vastly better than my Lithuanian. Scratching my head, I opened up my phone to the page with Rita’s name and contacts written and decided to go door to door.
First door on second floor. Knocked multiple times. No response.
The second door was open and seemed to open into a corridor. But there were no lights on. I put my phone light on and knocked on the first door. No response whatsoever. Second door had “8” written. Knocked hard. No response.
There was a part of me that felt that they were looking from the peephole inside and was having flashbacks of the Soviet days of strangers showing up with flashlights in a dark corridor and knocking heavily on their doors!
The third door had loud music blasting from inside. There had to be somebody there. But not sure they could hear my knocking.
Well, I was fresh out of doors on the second floor. And if one of them said 8, I was sure 7 was nearby and I might have already tried it.
Not knowing any better, went downstairs. Knocked on another door. Nobody responded. By now, I was desperate. Knocked again.
Just then the original gentleman who had come down, came back into the building. This time I showed him my phone with Rita’s name and contacts. He pointed to the door that I had just knocked. So, I had the right door, FINALLY!!!
Knocked yet again. I thought I heard some noise from inside. I kept waiting. Eventually, a gentleman came out. Looked like he had been asleep. Without any words, I showed my phone. He nodded, signaled me to wait, went inside and locked the door.
And I was going “Now what?”
Well, there was more noise. I figured this gentleman went to the lady’s door and was trying to get her. [Much later, I found out he went and told her that some idiot had a phone with her details on it looking for her]
Eventually, a lady who had clearly gotten out of bed, came out.
“Taip” (that is yes in Lithuanian, that much I had learnt)
“I am Rajib Roy. From Atlanta. We write letters to each other.”
Completely blank stare greeted me.
“Rita Sudeikiene?”, I asked again showing her my phone with her details.
Then I took my phone to my contact page.
“This is me. Rajib Roy. Atlanta. Pen friends”
You could see that she was slowly starting to make sense of it. I figured she was wondering what the hell was I doing there. Her written English was very good. But Gintautas was very surprised I actually communicated in English with somebody from here. I calculated that maybe she is not as confident in her spoken English.
I tried with my halting English – “I come to visit Lithuania. I came to say Hi to you. I leave now?”
As she told me later… she was shell shocked. As she should have been. But finally she gathered herself enough to ask…
“How long will you be here?”
Not wanting to disturb her after sleep any further, I said “I was in Klaipeda. I am on my way back to Vilnius. I Will have to leave now”.
But she kept asking the same question.
“Wait here. I will get my friend”
I went out and called in Gintautas who was very happy to see me in one piece.
“I found her. I need your help with the language”
Rita and Gintautas talked.
“She is asking if she could meet us in a place for coffee in Taurage after an hour”
“Do you think we will get late?”
“Not at all”
I turned to Rita and said “No problem. Bring your family”
And that is how I got to meet my pen friend’s family in Star Pizza in Taurage. We had a great time together. Laughing about the whole thing. Her husband and Gintautas were speaking in Lithuanian all the time, laughing and looking at me. I had a great time with Rita’s younger daughter. Her non-verbal daughter was a little more difficult- but looked like she was having good time with some pizza and coke. We missed Rita’s 31 year old son who was busy with other things.
Most of the time we spent getting to know the family and shaking our heads at what we had just accomplished.
Gintautas took a picture of us before we left. I promised to bring Sharmila some time to Lithuania and meet the family again.
On the way back as we proceeded for more rural driving, my friend blurted out…
“I cannot believe this”
“What can you not believe”
“You were total strangers. You had not seen the family ever. They did not know you. And you were sitting down talking and laughing and having such a great time together. Even I felt I was part of the excitement.”
“Well, take this from somebody who is a quarter century older than you. Most of the beautiful things in life make absolutely no logical sense”
We focused back on the road again…
Lithuania is famous for its bread and honey. It is especially known for its mead – which is an alcohol made from honey. The claim is that this is the oldest alcohol. Apparently, it is mentioned in the Rig Veda – which is a religious scripture in India from 6000 BC.
The part I do not get is this – honey is one of those food that is indestructible. Pure honey will stay as is for a million years. It never breaks down. How the heck do you ferment it then?
Well, I need to do some research.
Unless I rent a car in a new country, I try to make friends with the driver who picks me up from the airport and see if he/she can stay for the whole duration of my stay. Basically, then I have them become my local guide and translator. Throughout the journey, they help me understand the local language, culture, food and answer all those millions of questions I always have about a new country.
After my trip, I usually keep up with them thru WhatsApp calls – certainly on birthdays – and then often refer them to anybody who wants to go to that country. I have 19 such friends.
Well, I had 19 such friends.
Gintautas is now my 20th such friend. On Wednesday afternoon when I met him at Vilnius airport, we were complete strangers. By Saturday evening when he dropped me at the hotel, I knew his whole family history uptil his great grandfather and all his likes and dislikes. What is remarkable about him is how an unfortunate incident in his life (lost his dad at 16) completely changed his outlook towards life.
By his own admission, his priorities changed. He started to understand the important from the unimportant. And he started becoming an introvert. Like me, he does not like parties or is very uncomfortable in group gatherings.
“You are very young. Why did you choose this profession?”
“After my dad died, I concluded that I do not want to work for money. I want to do what I love the most. Because I do not know when I might die. As a child, I loved cars – we had those old Russian cars then. I loved how cars went on roads. I loved how drivers would control the car. I used to sit on my dad’s lap and pretend to drive his car all the time. This is what I am going to do all my life”
“Good for you”
He introduced me to the local food and picked the roads and places to go. Without Gintautus, this trip would not have been half as much fun. If any of you ever want to visit Lithuania and would like a guide and a very safe driver, let me know!
After touring the castle, Gintautas and I decided to try out some local food. Went inside a place and checked out the menu for Kibinai. Apparently, Trakai island area is famous for this. Well, the surprise element in the menu was Samosa!!
We ordered both so that we could try out each other country’s food. Turns out Kibinai is very similar to empanadas that you can get in Spain or Portugal. I remember enjoying some great ones in Argentina. I had the Kibinai with local chicken broth.
Gintautas became a fan of samosas. However, this was a bit different from what a typical Indian samosa would be. The big difference was that the stuffing was not primarily potato – it was some vegetables. Which is a surprise. Since potato is fairly common here – especially in traditional foods like Cepelenia.
The one thing I could not get is the famous pink soup (Šaltibarščiai) of Lithuania. Every restaurant that I enquired in asked me to come back in summer!! (It is a cold soup made from beet and buttermilk, I believe)