Friday, December 26, 2014

Day 34 ... a Second Crossing of the Bug

... and still no proper time in front of a computer (and a very slow connection yet again)... a quick note:

Days of slogging rain, I arrived in the silent streets of Chelm for Christmas Eve.  In the pattern of history, where there is a hill of note among flat surroundings, it was sure to be of pagan significance.  Where there was a site of pagan significance, there followed a Christian church.  Being close to cultural borders, the church flip-flopped from Orthodox to Catholic to Uniate to Orthodox to Catholic again,   Once it was in Poland, then Lithuania, once in Austria, then in Russia, and again in Poland - the town might have its own passport.

A kind priest in the convent of Carmelite nuns I had stay in in Siemiatcytze arranged for me to be at this church on the hill for Christmas Eve, so the Benedictine nuns were expecting me.  After passing through many family homes in the cold and rainy days leading up to it, I had small snitches of the annual delicacies with unpronounceable names.  I was told daily of the rich tradition of leaving an extra placesetting for an unexpected guest.  In my hours of slogging through the wet forests alone, I built up the anticipation of a grand feast with the nuns, despite it's being an order I know from experience to be otherwise gastronomically frugal, and generally vegetarian.  But, to my utter deflation, Mother Superior, with whom I conversed in Italian, showed me a room in the spacious - nay - cavernous Pilgrim House and left me to my own.  Later in the evening, she offered a small plate of cold foot, typical of the holiday table, it seems, but meager all the same.  Midnight Mass - actually beginning at midnight - was packed and formal, with an unusal (to my eye) military escort of the Baby Jesus in his crib from the altar to the forecourt, just as the rain changed to snow.  I went to sleep and rejoined my pilgrim trail at dawn, as is my routine.

Christmas Day was quiet - too quiet - on the road to the border town.  There was no respite at all from the damp cold.  At least it wasn't raining.  I found a roof and warmth, and a hot cup of coffee, only at the police station, the only place I found where I could sit, after nearly 30 kilometers.  There I got the required help finding my host for the night.  Being Christmas, the second of the three day national holiday break, I phoned a friend who helped with the pre-arrangement, and found myself in a wonderful farmhouse with four generations of a Ukrainian-Polish family, who had hot soup waiting, and began a feast of various kinds of fish, roast pork and a Christmas goose.  Coffee and cakes and cookies followed, all the fare of the season in front of the roaring fire.  Christmas turned warm and friendly after all, re-learning a few Ukrainian words, speaking in German and English, laughing and hugging all.  No points off for the perfunctory Benedictines...

I made the border crossing easily enough, though they don't permit foot travelers either to leave Poland or to enter Ukraine, so I hopped in the car of an understanding businessman and he guided me through the process with ease.  I practiced my new vocabulary.  He bought me a map of Ukraine.  All's well.  I'm off the Schengen clock after 34 days.  I expect to travel through the west of Ukraine for a few weeks, ringing in the New Year in some small farm village, passing through L'viv a few days later, and then celebrating Eastern Christmas in some other small village as I enter the snowy Transcarpathian Mountains.  Because L'viv is the only city I anticipate, finding a computer may be a bit iffy coming up...
   ,,,so Happy New Year! in advance, to all my friends and family, and in particular to my friends the students and teachers at Legacy Preparatory Academy in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA whom I met in September and hope to see again one of these days.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Day 30 The Bug had to be Crossed

The Bug River had to be crossed and what few bridges there are.  Do ferries run in winter?  I asked many people. No one could tell me the answer with certainty, so I played it safe and headed a bit further to a town with a bridge.  I found nuns there and a very helpful young priest, and helpful young women at the tourist department.  With everyone's help, a route was gathered together with the objective of getting me to Chelm by Christmas Eve.  I'm heading toward some Benedictines.

There's been a bit a rain with the temperatures staying a bit above freezing, but my pilgrim spirits aren't dampened in the least.  I only have a few minutes tonight to log on and send out Christmas greetings.  Merry Christmas, everyone!

Monday, December 15, 2014

Day 23 Landscape Art

In any art museum with a section of Northern Rennaissance paintings or even those from impressionist and expressionist periods, look closely at one of the bigger paintings entitled something like Sunset over a Winter Landscape, really close, maybe along the dirt road with patches of glistening mud puddles in the textured lumpy snow, or at the edge between a stand of birch trees and a stubbly frozen harvested field... there I am!  Can you see me?  The painting can be wet-on-wet watercolor or coursely applied oil, but objects blend into each other with indistinct edges.  I've been walking across these rich images for weeks now.  What a happy pilgrim I am!

As I passed from Estonia to Latvia and Latvia to Lithuania, walking along another ribbon of dirt forest roads for hours since seeing the last farmhouse or log home of the foresters, I entered Poland without fanfare.  This is the wonderful flip-side to the Schengen coin many complain about... no official entry points, no need for passport control, just suddenly - or gradually as it seems on foot - the signs marking the protection status of the forest stands are printed in another language and the culture is a bit distinct.  Easy-peasy, stress-free, like crossing state boundaries in the US.  Excluding the transit day in Helsinki, I've entered the fourth country of my pilgrimage in three weeks of walking.

Fun unrolls before me daily, and each day unpredictable.  I opted for historic Kaunas rather than Vilnius for the more direct route.  Each, I've been told, promote their amber past.  I stayed the night outside of Kaunas so that I would enter it in the morning, enjoy it during daylight(ish) hours, and get myself away from the hustle-bustle before dark.

Arriving in a frigid church to ask the priest for hospitality, the issue was put immediately to the covey of elderly churchladies who are the ubiquitous furniture of any church.  I waited a bit anxiously as they clucked and chirped with remarkable animation, pushing the priest away from their huddle, until one tall woman erupted from the scrum came directly toward me and planted great kisses on both of my cheeks.  She 'won' on unenumerated bases and took me to her home for the night's stay and years of bragging rights that would follow.  Her lovely large and immaculately kept house, where she and her day-farmer husband raised three children and host 'camp grandma' for the five grandchildren's summer holidays, struck my eye as more Germanic than Scandinavian influenced.  Blackbread, farm cheese, salami, and sauerkraut came quickly to the table, all the while mumbling and gesturing that my athletic clothing designed for winter sport is woefully inadequate and will lead me surely to the grip of winter.  She pulled great handfuls of dried apple rings from the garlands draped around the kitchen hearth, and knobs of dried ginger and lemon peel, instructing me to put these in hot water whenever I could to drink the tea they produced.  In fact, I later enjoyed snacking on them dried from my pockets as I walked - far more sensible food-for-the-road than anything that freezes.

That was entering Kaunas, an equally amusing pilgrim passage came on the exit of the city... I got as far as the village of Veiveriai before the darkness was fully engulfing, as the helpful and indulging nun at the cathedral office in Kaunas had advised (over tea and chocolate bonbons).  The priest preparing for the evening service had the idea to call over to the school for someone who might speak English or German.  A charming teenaged daughter of the English teacher came before the end of the service and took me back to the school.  There, more charming girls all able to speak English with strong competence - and distinctly in the American dialect, like, ya know... - found something lacking in my backpack and so adorned it with a long plait of dried rushes.  I'm sure to be the envy of pilgrims everywhere.

Much chattering ensued as to where I would spend the night, and in the end, I was advanced to the next village where the priest lived in a large home and spoke a mix of English and German... in the sense that he spoke words from both these languages in the same sentence without specific assignment.  I have this problem with Ukrainian and Russian myself.  There I passed some time sipping hot tea and listening to a delightful historical tale of the village, perhaps with some validity, as the portly priest, who could play the role of Friar Tuck without a visit to makeup or wardrobe, drank bottle after bottle of the local beer.

The name of the village traslates to 'punish' in English and was at one time the edge of Prussia.  Kaunas at this same time was within the tsarist Russian Empire.  Napolean and his troops were on the push eastward and spent the night in the village.  Napolean himself spent the evening chatting away with the village priest in the rectory while the soldiers made themselves comfortable in the church.  Reveling while they were preparing a dinner roasting pigs over the fire, somehow they ended up burning the church to the ground.  Napolean enjoyed the evening as the guest of the priest and so made immediate restitution for the damaged church with the spoils of war from the plundering across Prussia.  The church there today was the one rebuilt by that parish priest with the trunkloads of booty.  I didn't quite spend the night where Napolean did, because the rectory at the time since burnt down and a new one rebuilt much later.  But I slept in a village where Napolean slept... surely that makes me a participant in the village's history.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Day 16 Great Beauty in Sodden Gray

I'm a happy pilgrim on the right track.  While I missed seeing the yellow arrow blazes on forest trees after passing through Riga, entering Lithuania, I've picked up occasional historical information signs in convenient side-by-side Lithuanian and English.  The valley I've wandered into to avoid the highway with the telling name of Via Baltica has great caches of prehistoric wealth - great glacial boulders with mythological significance and stands of ancient oaks shrouded with pagan lore.  Sprinkled about the hillsides are 17th and 18th century manor houses and farmsteads, and the occasional windmill.  I'm for sure on the Amber Road, the ancient path of this pilgrimage.

Could it be the damp and cold that makes people frown as they hurry by covered to their noses in long-wrapped scarves, bent under the burden of a wool or fur hat, stone silent in their absent greeting... but then, one-on-one, engaged in conversation, these Baltic people light up and are helpful to a friendly fault!  Despite my near constant yet polite objections, I have not managed to avoid carrying such a weighty pantry on my back - chocolate and cheese, black bread and cookies, tea leaves and ground coffee, and a log of some kind of meat product I don't know if safe to eat uncooked or not, and many pots of yogurt... I'm ready to host a candlelit supper to lighten my load, but with whom?  Of course, during the day, it's all frozen solid... and the weather is anyway rather dissuasive for a trailside picnic, so I ironically rapidly grow thin... but people always want to help, and the most obvious way is to give me food.  People are good.  My photo's been taken dozens of times now - a pilgrim, going to Rome - not an every day occasion.

A week to walk across Estonia, another week to cross Latvia, and these first four days in Lithuania will be matched with four more to make three weeks and a day to walk through these varied Baltic States.  It doesn't serve justice.  I think there's a lot to see in these forests and farm fields, but Rome awaits, and Easter's coming, and I'm on the Schengen clock: 19 days out of the allotted 90 have ticked away so fast.  The mad rush is also wrapped around the solar clock - two more weeks trying to keep ahead of the solstice and gain more hours of daylight (if the sodden shades of gray can even be called 'light')

Monday, December 1, 2014

Day 9 And there went Estonia///

Low on the eastern horizon on my last miles in Estonia, the sun emerged for the first time since I landed in Helsinki... an orange orb glowing behind long wispy dark clouds.  Where I was swiftly walking along a low forested bluff not far from the shore, there were persistent snow flurries, but the sky was clear far away as it set over the Baltic Sea.  The clock hadn't yet past the three-quarter hump toward 3 in the afternoon.  Two frigid hours more to walk that day.

Lucky to be a woman pilgrim - when I finally arrived in the small village, the only lights I saw were from a beauty salon.  Without hesitating, I walked on in.  Within minutes, my feet were up, I was reclining on a comfortable chair, a cup of hot tea in hand and a platter of chocolate bonbons, chattering with the ladies there.  Men pilgrims wouldn't likely venture into such a shop, but women take care of each other everywhere.

Estonia is a fine place for a pilgrim to walk.  The small roads connecting the villages, at least in the cold and snow, were not difficult paths, nor heavily trafficked.  People were surprised to find a pilgrim - 'praying wanderer' in Estonian translation - but always helpful with a warm place to sleep.  By chance, I met some women who had made the pilgrimage to Santiago (from France, not Estonia) and were forming an organization to encourage other pilgrims with the hope of marking the trail through their country.

I arrived in Latvia, again under dark and flurried clouds, and noticed almost immediately painted yellow arrows guiding me through the forest roads... could they be the Latvian camino?  Onward to Riga...