Sundry observations

Clouds: The clouds I’ve watched as we scoot along these European roads aren’t like anything I’ve seen in Australia. They’re like the clouds from The Simpsons … Big, white, fluffy clouds against blue skies. Dah-du-da-da-dahh-du-da-da-dadadada … I sing the theme song inside my helmet.

Wildlife: We see loads of signs warning of deer as we ride through Poland. But don’t see a wild deer anywhere. I guess it’s like kangaroo signs in Australia. Right season, right time of day there’ll be mobs. Graham is on the lookout for squirrels (his favourite animal). He reads that Poland has a large population of red squirrels so anticipation levels are high. NB: don’t google Polish squirrel, at least not if you’re at work or around small children. Finally he sees a red squirrel by the side of the road, standing on its hind legs and staring straight at him, until it dashes off into the undergrowth. I see the flash of its tail disappear. When we visit the Curonian Spit out of Klaipeda we’re ready for wild boar and elk … but a fox will have to do us. We see little road kill, but do happen across a squashed hedgehog 😦

Don’t mention the war: As we’ve explored the history of Berlin and Poland we have been wondering how the younger German population thinks of its country’s involvement in WWII. It’s not a topic we feel we can just come out and ask a stranger about. But when we strike up a friendship with Tobias, a fellow motorcyclist who like us is staying at the Wolf’s Lair, we finally broach the subject. It’s interesting to hear him talk about the change in how the war was taught in German schools, comparing his parents’ education (they’re in their 60s) with his own. The atrocities of the Nazis are acknowledged but Tobias says while his generation recognises the suffering of so many at German hands, they cannot feel a personal responsibility for it. He enjoys travelling and meeting people from all different cultures, it seems almost that he believes in spreading peace and tolerance at a personal level. We like him very much and hope to stay in touch. A few days later, we tour a former Soviet missile base in a Lithuanian forest with a young German family. The woman says how she grew up terrified of the threat of nuclear war and “the bomb”. Her fear appears justified when the guide explains how the missiles at the base were aimed at West Germany. Her two young sons, meanwhile, gleefully run through the tunnels of the bunker, unaware of their real meaning. How times have changed.

Food: Pompleberries became our new favourite fruit across Europe … that’s not their real name but it became our term for the range of berries and berry juice we encountered. Strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, picked fresh from from farms or in the wild. Eaten au naturel or squished into a spread. Yum. We also loved German bacon, Danish muesli, Dutch bread and cumquats wherever we had them. We tried smoked herring (Denmark), pork lard and pickles (Poland), reindeer (Norway) but not beaver or moose, which were advertised as being on the menu in a hotel in Latvia … but weren’t (thankfully).

Shelter: Some actual advice in case anywhere cares, about our accommodation experiences. We had a general route sketched out and mostly used our iPad to book online as we inked in places and dates as we went. This worked fine, of course, except when we were without free wifi. It wasn’t often but we missed it at a couple ofcrucial points in our journey. Plus there was a slight hiccup when my hotmail account, set up specifically for travel use, was hijacked by a spammer in Latvia and I was blocked from sending emails. Hotmail customer support was hopeless. When staying two or more nights I tried to book through the airbnb website, living in real people’s homes and much cheaper than hotels as a rule. When we had a one-night stopover I used either booking.com to find a hotel or googled bed and breakfast listings where these were available. We “winged it” on only a handful of occasions but the stress involved, and in one case the expense when we landed in a hotel that was dearer than we would otherwise have chosen, was not for us. The exception to all of this was Norway’s fjord country, where hotels were hideously expensive and the preferred form of accommodation seemed to be in a campground. Here we hired cabins we booked via local tourism sites on the web. The only trick for us was bedding and towels, which were bulky to carry on the bike. We bought a chamois-style mini-towel from a camping store and at our first cabin bought “disposable” sheets and quilt covers, made from recycled plastic. We used them for a week and then thoroughly enjoyed throwing them in a bin.

Currency: Who’da thought it? Little Latvia’s lat is stronger than the euro, the Aussie dollar and the US dollar. I don’t really understand how these things work but we went from 1 Lithuanian lita being worth about 30 Aussie cents (and dinner costing us about 60 litas a night) to 1 lat bring worth about $1.50 and dinner costing us about 24 lats. All in the spread of a few hundred kilometres. Latvia was said to have one of the four strongest currencies in the world a few years ago. Can some economist-type please explain?

Beer: The best have also generally been the cheapest. Too many to remember all the names (maybe Graham can?) but German, Lithuanian and Latvian beers were tasty and very affordable … only about $4 for a six-pack of 500ml bottles in Berlin. My favourite was a white beer, served in a tall glass with a wedge of lemon, in Lithuania. Most expensive beers were in Norway (about $10 for 500ml). Despite all the cheap alcohol, and from Germany to Latvia you could buy alcohol just about anywhere – supermarkets, service stations, even some newsagents – we saw very little public drunkenness. Smoking, on the other hand, was rife. We were shocked by how many people, especially young people, we saw smoking. Cigarettes are cheap, easily available and advertised … a triple whammy.

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