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...

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Day 4: Farther than the Day is Long

Brisk is a useful applicable word for the weather, very nice for walking.  I´ve only managed a measly 117 km since walking out of Estonian`s capital Sunday afternoon - the days are short and the nights particularly dark.  There`s a cute and logical obligation here that everyone who ventures out in the darkness must dangle a reflective badge at the level of the right knee so they can be seen by drivers.  Kind folks have given me a handful, including one shaped like an angel.  The sky brightens to a gray drab around 8:30 and dims into the drab clouds around 3.  Time enough to scurry along... through the countryside blanketed beneath a thin coverlet of lumpy snow, packed powder on the sides of the icy pavement and on the bike trails near the larger towns,..  I`m enjoying the discovery of another culture.

The young Italian priest at the Catholic Cathedral in Helsinki was surprised but accommodating in signing and stamping my credenziale and offered the parish hall for me to sleep.  We shared dinner with Italian missionaries who largely serve a foreign congregation.  When I shared my intention of simply asking the ferry company for passage across the Gulf of Finland to Estonia, the priest gave me the fare to save me the effort of finding someone to ask.

In Tallinn, the Italian missionary priest at the Catholic Cathedral there similarly accommodated the request for a stamp in my credenziale and a place to sleep - in the crypt beneath the old church of Sts Peter and Paul - but could offer little in terms of negotiating my way through the country on foot.  With a wish of good luck and a hearty slap on the back, I was sent off.  How does it work for a pilgrim in the countryside of Estonia?  As in most places with a noticable dearth of churches, the municipal office is the place to seek advice.  No problems - there`s always a place for a pilgrim to comfortably stay - hot shower, mattrass, heat, food... everything else is luxury.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Heading for Helsinki

Winter's again nigh.  I'm well-rested... it's time to start walking.  The world is incomprehensibly immense when you travel by foot; there are so many enticing places to visit.  My cumulative pilgrim distance in the past 7 years is equivalent to one paltry lap around the earth... and with an infinite number of paths out there, people to meet, cuisines to savor, wildlife to discover... time's a-wasting!

I've learned more than a few things along the way, not the least of which are that 3 months of daily marathon walks is too short of a duration, 11 a bit long; I don't care to walk in heat - northern climes suit me fine; I like the cultural history of walking to shrines, stopping in at any UNESCO World Heritage Sites I might pass.  I'll turn my head for interesting art and architecture, heritage and nature, and wine and cheese, or for whatever the local tastes provide.

Having turned away from the material world, my method of pilgrimage is as a mendicant pilgrim - so as not to temp anyone to covet my possessions, I carry nothing of value, just a small backpack with a change of clothes, a small blanket and sheet, sandals, toiletries, and rain gear.  My traditional pilgrim credenziale - worthless to anyone else - guarantees the authenticity of my pilgrimage.  Of course, in order to appreciate nature, I'll cover the distance of the pilgrim way by foot, walking every day generally from dawn to dusk.

This winter, I'm inspired to return to Eastern Europe.  Having perused a few old maps, my eye is attracted to the jagged boundary the Danube River presented for many civilizations - south of the east-flowing river were the ancient Greeks, then Romans, who both pretty much declared hic sunt dracones after a few too many barbarian tribes resisted the southern invaders' versions of civility.  Notwithstanding the dragons being there or not, successive transgressions across the Danube by those northern tribes pushed the Roman Empire to ruins and left us with a colorful history indeed.

An intriguing footnote is that the fifth century barbarian clans were generally Arian Christians - not accepting of the Trinity - if I look closely enough as I walk by will evidence of this be hidden in the oldest art and architecture, or has history sidelined this fact to the books?  As a pilgrim in western Europe, for example, I've many times stumbled upon a triangle of three ancient oak trees in poplar or pine forests. These off 'Trinity Oaks' reflect popular Christian devotions and pull a subtle remnant of northern paganism through the ages... what will I see in forests on the far side of the Danube, I wonder...

Rome, being the veritable belly-button of European cultural and western religious history, is hard to beat as a worthy pilgrim destination.  With the set idea of ending the pilgrimage at St Peter's tomb, I was hoping to allegorically bookend the route by beginning it at Saint Petersburg; alas, visa restrictions prevent me from walking freely in Russia. Pity. A small shift to the left puts me comfortably in Estonia, but with remarkably inexpensive flights from the US to Finland, Helsinki wins the honor!  The Gulf of Finland won't likely be frozen over, so the first day out, my walking will be limited to the upper deck of a ferry before reaching terra firma.  Because this part of Europe had such a different religious history than the western countries, what pilgrim culture they had developed much later... western pilgrims were heading to Rome from the 4th century and to Santiago de Compostela from the 9th century. The crusades to the Holy Land opened things up for pilgrims in the 12th and 13th centuries, but the by then, Christianity was just being introduced to the Baltics, right in time for the wars of religion to deter nearly all pilgrims. I'm not sure I'll see many keys or scallop shells carved into old city gates.

Ticket in hand for November 20th, I'm still working on the route, which consists of finding some interesting points along the way - monasteries, abbeys, churches, UNESCO sites, interesting monuments, etc - and then connecting the dots.  At the start, I can expect about 8 hours of daylight for walking, just enough for my standard marathon distance, and as winter passes and I make my way southward, the days will get longer.

We who travel on an American passport are challenged by the condition not to exceed 90 days in a rolling 180 in the EU.  This means I'll keep a quick pace through EU countries and can relax in the non-EU countries.  I want to arrive in Rome for Holy Week, be among the hordes to glimpse pilgrim-friendly Pope Francis, and finish out the balance of my 90 days volunteering at a pilgrim house in Tuscany.

Map to follow, but here's the general idea (non-EU countries in blue):
Estonia-Latvia-Lithuania-Poland-Ukraine-Hungary-Serbia-Kosovo-Macedonia- Albania-Montenegro-Bosnia and Herzegovina-Croatia-Slovenia-Italy

Fifteen countries in 20 weeks and >chin-drooping sigh< 15 different languages.  Brushing up on my very dusty German, French, and Italian, and recovering the pilgrim-vocabulary I learned in Russian and Ukrainian from pilgrimage number three, I'll muddle through amid lighthearted giggles.  I'm looking forward to it, a winter of borscht.  As has become my habit, I'll try to update this blog every week to 10 days.