Given the hour, she looks as fresh-faced as you could hope. Taking a swig from the bottle of wine, her eyes pull a little into focus, Vilnius city square half-lit in lamplight.
‘I’m proud of Lithuania and I do not want to leave,’ she says. ‘But I do not want to be part of Russia and it worries me this may happen.’
She’s 24, born the year her country became the first Soviet republic to claim its independence. Around 400 miles to our east, another former part of the USSR tears itself apart between the past and the future, Europe and Russia.
She offers me the bottle. I shake my head.
‘You think what’s happening in Ukraine could happen here? Would Putin dare?’
‘I don’t know,’ she says, standing up. ‘No one knows for sure. But come, the other bar is this way. It will still be open.’ Then, as an afterthought: ‘While we still have time.’
Lithuania is not a big country. From the baroque capital of Vilnius – the Jerusalem of the North, according to Napoleon – which lies pretty much on its eastern border, you can reach the coast to the west in around five hours by bus. The trains, for some reason, are slower, so it’s by bus we go.
Our plan, such as it is, is to see as much of the country as possible in eight days. We will not, apart from once, stay anywhere for more than one night nor book ahead for accommodation. We have only as many clothes as you can fit in a cabin-sized rucksack and will try at least once to see in the dawn.
In the event, we manage it more than once.
We had intended to walk the Aukstaitija National Park, using a town called Ignalia as our base. The guidebook says the park is made up of pine forest and lakes and inhabited by wild boar.
Ignalia has one hotel, which has the only bar in town and an outdoor terrace overlooking a lake with one of those walkway adventure courses suspended up in the trees linked by platform, tightropes and swing lines. The owner t has a belly to suggest being a hotel owner is just about the life he was born to.
We arrive late afternoon and they have a room so we check in and order a brace of beers and an early dinner of pork. Both go down well so we order another round. Hot now, we go head to the lake’s edge, cross a bridge to the far shore, strip down to our trunks (I will end up wearing trunks as pants pretty much all week) and wade in, silver fish flicking at our feet through the tea-brown clear water that is surrounded by high pines and blue skies with no clouds. Lilies float here and there and a man sleeps in a rowing boat, two others fish from a jetty.
We sleep for an hour or so in the sun to dry off then return to the hotel bar, order a round, pull out the cards and before too long we are of interest.
‘You’re English,’ says a young dad approaching with a smile. ‘Why here? Why Lithuania?’
We smile back. ‘Why not?’
We try to explain the rules of rummy; he tells us we should go to Nida, on the coast.
‘It’s beautiful. Beautiful scenery. The women have beautiful tits,’ he says, the last as a whisper.
His wife, child on lap, only heard the first bit. ‘Yes,’ she says. ‘Very beautiful.’
He grins at us like a schoolboy who’s smuggled a dirty mag into class, a grin that forms a lecherous conspiracy of the unwilling. T and I exchange a glance.
He soon drifts off, still grinning, only to be replaced as night falls by another equally huge man — all the men here seem huge.
‘I love the English language,’ he says. ‘It’s like music.’
He’s with his girlfriend and another couple. ‘The bar is closing soon,’ says the first guy. ‘Would you like to come with us to the lake? We are going to carry on there.’
Of course we would, so having laden ourselves with bottles of beer, we give the hotel owner one more playful punch to his belly and head down to a bench at the shore.
Here, we find out the first guy is an astrophysicist and rally driver and laughs like a man who has five courses for dinner and loves them all. His girlfriend is some kind of lifestyle journalist who is fairly vibrating with nervous excitement. The other man has spent some time in England earning money to bring home, working for a while in a sandwich factory outside Birmingham earning £400 a week and paying £80 of that to doss down on a bedroom floor. His fiancée is so tiny and timid she’s like a dormouse, adding to the general feeling we are at some kind of waterside Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.
‘I had to talk to you,’ says the astrophysicist. ‘I heard the other guy talking to you and I didn’t want you to think all Lithuanians were dickheads.’
And with that he roars with laughter once more and stumbles off to relieve himself loudly in the bushes as the predawn starts to take the edge off the brightness of the moon.
The only native English speaker we meet all week is a Scot in his early thirties. I forget his name and how he came to be living in Lithuania but he had just recently married an Armenian woman. We met him and his new bride and Lithuanian friends the other side of midnight in Nida, the pretty seaside resort on Neringa, recommended by the titty fan from Ignalina.
T and I had been drinking in a bar, playing cards. After several hands, almost as many beers and a plate of what they call beer snacks – fried rye bread, smoked cheese and fried salami – we had decided to call it a night and head back to the room we were renting for two nights in the house of a panicky German woman. Before leaving, we had decided to toast the day with a shot of the local schnifter. There’s a choice of three flavours but we knew which one to choose: we’d tried all three the night before.
It had been a day worth toasting, a day cycling through the pine forest that cloaks Neringa’s spine, dotted with huddles of fairytale-coloured, high-pitched wooden houses fronted by gardens – some with huts selling smoked-fish – and backing on to the lagoon to the east.
To the north was a huge sand-dune moonscape, a rolling desert bounded by sea and patched with tufted scrub and wisps of grasses. We had left the path at the viewing point and ambled alone across the sand that shifted in the wind and whipped at our skin and face as we made for the lagoon.
Tiny flowers grew among the dryness and we passed a tall wooden cross made of twined and twisted branches. An occasional lark or pippet took flight, our footprints swept over in our wake.
At the waterside, gulls and cormorants waited until we were close before taking to the air with squawks and honks. It was all new and we walked largely in silence, back along the water’s edge that was littered with mussel shells.
We are back at this water’s edge much later, having met the Scot in a bar we had been drawn to on our way back to the German’s house. We’d got talking over bottles of Newcastle Brown Ale of all things and, such as these things go, one thing led to another and, come closing time, five of us are heading to the shore clutching take-outs. Five become seven when we came across two women sitting by the lagoon listening to music under the very early-morning sky, who seem quite happy to have us join them.
Things by now have become quite warm and fuzzy — warm enough for me to go for a swim in the shallows and dry off on the pine-cushioned sand and fuzzy enough for one of our new friends to dare one of the women to kiss him and for her to accept.
We lose track of time. The early hint of sun comes and T and I fall to our backs and belly-laugh at the beaten night and coming dawn, shaken with an almost manic glee at being what feels like miles from home, cut loose from every day cares, no longer defined by who or where we are, in the comfort of strangers, reborn, almost, in the big, wide endless possibility of it all. It is the roar of being free – intoxicating, full of heart and belly, and blessed. It is five o’clock in the morning.
The beginning of our last night’s shenanigans can be traced back to taking shots with the barmaid whose boyfriend owns the bar we were in – Cozy’s, in the back street of Vilnius.
Having said our goodbyes – ‘You English always know how to have fun’ – we set off armed with a piece of paper on which was written the name of another bar we should find, the owners of which we had met in Nida: ‘’Tell them you know Justinas and Kristira and you will have a good time.’
We don’t have the address so take to stopping people in the street to ask if they know the place.
Most don’t and those who do can’t quite place where it was save for saying: ‘It’s that way.’
Then, three girls and a boy. ‘We don’t know but don’t worry, come with us instead.’
‘No, no,’ I say. ‘We must find this one.’
They smile, shrug and carry on. T is beyond confused.
‘I don’t understand. Why did you do that?’
‘Turn down their hospitality.’
‘I don’t know… the bar,’ I say, holding up the piece of paper by way of explanation.
‘What’s so special about that bar?’
‘We kinda know the people who know the owners,’ I say. ‘We might end up sharing a drink with them.’
‘So we’re going there because we might be able to drink with some people who live here?’
‘And what do you think just happened?’
‘Some people who live here asked if we’d like to drink with them.’
‘And you turned them down. Because you wanted to find some people who live here who might want to drink with us.’
‘It doesn’t make any sense.’
‘No. Well, look. How about we just go in that one over there? And we forget about this one,’ I say screwing up the piece of paper and dropping it in a bin.
We do. It opens into a courtyard. And there’s a DJ. And people are dancing. We join in and then I notice the four from the street are at the back and they’re beckoning us over.
‘Look at that,’ I say, tapping T on the shoulder. ‘It’s worked out fine.’
We snake through the dance floor to join them. They have a tray of shots on their table. These are soon seen off and another tray arrives. We dance some more until the DJ plays one more tune and we are off, into the coming light, a bottle of wine between us, our last night in Lithuania becoming our last day.
Soon, all we will need is to find our way back to our hotel, which we do eventually. It takes us some time but we get there, with a little help from some people we meet along the way.