Overcoming cold feet in the Baltic States

Posted on January 21st, 2013 by James Luckhurst

Screen Shot 2013-01-17 at 09 10 53It’s cold in Vilnius. Colder than most people can remember. I’ve just finished an interview with a senior executive at the Ministry of Transport, so I button up my coat and head back to meet the police officer who’s kindly acting as my driver today. I look for his Skoda, stamping my feet on the icy pavement to encourage circulation. I curse the smart city shoes I arrived in, and wish I had paid a little more attention to the weather forecast.

I begin a slow thaw in the Skoda as Rytas the policeman explains that we have a few hours before my next meeting, with the Chief of Traffic Police. So he has organised a short programme that will involve a journey along the A1 motorway to the little town of Vievis, around 45 minutes to the north-west of Vilnius. The plan is to visit a police roadside checkpoint, something guaranteed to re-freeze my feet in little more than two minutes. I make a feeble excuse about the cold. Rytis nods compassionately and reaches for his phone. After a brief but excited conversation, he turns and explains the change of plan. We will now spend just a very short time at the roadside, after which we call in at a local museum, where the curator will be waiting to show us around.

Thankfully, the visit to the police control building is completed as rapidly as protocol permits, then Rytis and I stomp round to the front door of what turns out to be the most bizarre museum I have ever visited. The curator is a Mr Stepankevicius, a retired road engineer. He opened the Museum in 1995, as a joyful celebration of roads and road building, and specifically to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the opening of the motorway between Vilnius and Kaunas.

Mr Stepankevicius is immediately concerned at helping me thaw out.  He insists – through the translation skills of his assistant, Indre – that we will have some refreshments before the guided tour begins. And if I’m luck, he might find some more appropriate footwear for me to try.  He disappears, returning a few moments later with an enormous vodka bottle that’s about half full of a cloudy, sinister-looking liquid. Home made apple brandy, explains Indre. And two glasses. One for Mr S and one for me. Indre and Rytis will have to make do with black tea.

This is an awkward situation. The sort you read about, without ever expecting to be actually in it. Even if it might help thaw my feet, I really don’t want the brandy. But I don’t want to offend. My health is toasted, so I bring the glass to my lips, suppressing the urge to choke as I catch a sniff of the fumes. There’s just no way I’ll manage to swallow a whole glass of the stuff. Come on, I say. Show me the museum and perhaps we’ll have a drink afterwards. Indre translates, Mr Stepankevicius grins, finishes his brandy, then downs my shot as well, before summoning me for the grand tour.

The first room we enter is full of stuffed animals. Indre explains grimly that these have all been removed from the motorway at some time or other. I spot foxes, lynx, wolves, rabbits… and a large carp. How did that find its way onto the road, I ask. I didn’t see any signs warning drivers of fish on the carriageway. No, says Indre, the carp came from a lake that was drained when they built the road.

Mr Stepankevicius leads me through room after room, pointing out modern reconstructions of Roman road-building tools, intricate wooden models of Lithuanian road intersections, and every little boy’s idea of heaven: halls full of diggers, snowploughs, bulldozers, suction excavators, graders, shovellers, vibratory compactors, trenchers and soil stabilisers. You name it, he’s got it.

What’s special about this, he asks through Indre, pointing to what appears to be a road leveller. I don’t know, I reply. There’s no engine, is there, he points out. I get the impression that tactful Indre chose to leave out the words ‘you nincompoop’ from the explanation. Moments later, he stands between two asphalt pavers, one American, the other Soviet. Which one do you think is better? Again, I don’t know.  Without speaking, he pats the American model and moves to a giant rotor snowplough. How far do you think this can blow snow? Five, maybe ten metres, I reply hesitantly. Thirty, he snaps, making for a shiny red tracked grinder at the end of the hall. What’s the most important invention known to man, he asks. This time, I think I know. The wheel, I say. Close, he replies. It’s second to alcohol, but yes, it IS important. So why doesn’t this machine have wheels…

Rytis politely points to his watch and we quicken our pace into the last hall.  I sit in the back of a big black Volga limousine that was used by the KGB, I straddle a very uncomfortable wooden-wheeled bicycle and I admire a beautifully renovated little Moskvitch car – I think they were banned in the UK for safety reasons.

Mr S beams. I promised you some new shoes, he says. So, these are ‘chempes’. Try them. Apparently the clog-like chempes were the preferred footwear of the ancient stone-crushers, worn to protect feet from falling rock while busy making the roads. As I shake his hand and prepare to jump into Rytis’s car for the journey back to Vilnius, he tells me he would like to visit the UK one day, and to spend some time looking at OUR road museum. If he comes, then I will be ready with a good many probing questions that will surely test his knowledge of road engineering. I can’t promise him much in the way of apple brandy, though.