Searching for Murakami: Crossing the Kyoto canine (part 2)

Six hours after leaving Tokyo and taking the shinkansen through Honshu, I finally arrive in Kyoto. From the main station, the local train meanders north to pick up various commuters and schoolchildren, before dropping me off at my mildly suburban destination. I step past colourful posters warning children of the dangers of using selfie-sticks and exit Uzumasa station. First things first, I make a hasty dash into FamilyMart to replenish my recently exhausted box of Peace cigarettes. However, I have the feeling that my preferred smokes are perhaps too obvious an icon. In a tired attempt to alter my fate, I choose a pack of American Spirit Yellow instead and stand outside, among this low-lying middle-class neighbourhood, as I smoke and ponder my next move.

When you’re grounded in the soporific shackles of suburbia, it’s easy enough to believe that you’re cultivating the sort of persona that aches with mysterious intrigue. Of course, the reality is that you’re just staring at salarymen on their way back home, anticipating the cold malt of a freshly-opened Yebisu. With this in mind, I give up on my posturing and walk through the winding residential streets towards the apartment where my tatami room awaits. Sedentary travel induces a surprising volume of fatigue. I rest my well-worn suitcase, have a lazy shower and cheat a bit by using a social app to arrange a sort of half-chance/half-I’ve-got-nothing-to-do encounter with an American traveller somewhere in downtown Kyoto.

I Feel Kyo Good

I enter the Kyoto metro with low expectations and disembark at the city hall. As I walk past a lively group of late adolescent B-boys, the boundaries of weirdness seem to shift ever so slightly and I get a taste of encroaching fulfilment. Indeed, as I approach the agreed meeting place, my American friend is nowhere to be seen. Perhaps in seeking out such a contrived encounter, I’ve been dealt a much less certain hand? The chosen venue is in typical urban Japanese style. There’s a restaurant beneath that doesn’t seem to match up with the kanji I’m looking for, so I follow the metal staircase up to a more anonymous looking joint. Process of elimination dictates that this is the destined bar, yet it looks like it’s been shut for months. A sign in the window seems like it might confirm this, if only I could decipher the sprawling alien characters. I sense that if I can somehow access this disused space, I might just end up traversing endless corridors that guide me towards a ghostly parallel reality. But as soon as that fleeting thought crosses my mind, I receive a text message and realise that something less spectacular has occured. I’m simply on the wrong street.

Dinner is as average as the accompanying conversation, but – like any good Murakami protagonist – I’m in the market for some whisky. So we march onwards to a discrete pearl on the other side of the Kamo-gawa river: Feel Kyo Good. In late December, Feel Kyo Good is a barren cave of a bar. We spy shelves stacked with Japanese scotch and are immediately greeted by our host. TJ resembles the kind of waistcoated-and-bowtied barman that you might spy in an anime film. Immediately, my mediocre feelings towards my companion change. I toy with the idea that she might be a special kind of therapist, the kind that can hop into my unconscious and manipulate my dream world.

However, TJ has other ideas. The man talks at length about his experiences living in Belgium and the US. All the while he offers us traditional bar snacks and sound local advice, in what we learn is trademark Japanese hospitality. That hospitality soon extends to another area: matchmaking. In spite of our protests that we are accompanying each other out of platonic convenience, TJ fixes on a plan to take us to a love hotel. He starts out by describing the necessity of love hotels in Japan – close families and small households don’t afford much privacy for romantic intimacy – before espousing the delights of these rentable sex rooms. There’s vintage furniture! There’s sexy karaoke! There’s even complementary lube in case the mood dries up! At each turn, our bespectacled brother suggets that he will drive us to Kyoto’s finest rabu hoteru, until he is more or less insisting on it. But somehow, this is not the carnal coincidence I was looking for. At the same time, I have the feeling that this second-rate Colonel Sanders could do the trick. And so with fantasies of Hegelian fellatio penetrating my mind, I opt for a lift back home with TJ, hoping that things might take an unknown turn.

A sharp surprise

I wake up in my tatami room without any memorable Henri Bergson quotes and feel deeply disappointed. I rack my brain for those Murakami tropes – which, admittedly, I’ve been rather lacklustre at ticking off – and settle on escaping my indisputable urban ennui with a trip to the Arashiyama mountain on the outskirts of Kyoto. I set my GPS, leave the house and am swiftly led down a literal garden path, complete with Shiba Inu puppy in kennel. Funnily enough, this garden path leads me to a bridgeless river surrounded by….gardens. As a white face in suburban Japan, I don’t fancy my chances creeping through private property. Instead, I settle on returning down my original route and explaining my mild predicament to any disconcerted homeowners.

Stupidly, I hadn’t settled for the carnivorous youngster guarding his master’s livelihood. By now, our friendly neighbourhood Shiba is squeeking in rage at the intruder on his patch. Luckily, he’s on a leash, but can still move a metre or so around his wooden den. Angry growls permeate the peaceful midday air. I’m wary that these canine growls could soon metamorphose into accusatory human shouts. With a hop, skip and a jump, I do my best to dart around the snarling pup…

***

A cute Shiba dog
He barks and bares his sharp teeth
The fabric is torn

***

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A peaceful Honshu interlude

After indulging my Tokyo listlessness for long enough, the decision is made. I fly, bullet-like, through crowded space from Shakuji-koen to Ikebukero, with my predetermined target guiding me: Ueno station and the shinkansen. At first, the sleek vessel trundles slowly towards Omiya, an unimpressive surburb of Tokyo that we reach at an equally unimpressive pace. Omiya has the feel of a slum. It’s a far cry from the high dystopian splendour of Shibuya. But, at the same time, Tokyo is no slum. After all, I’ve only seen about five faces, housed in cardboard boxes under railway bridges, looking glum.

Soon enough the speed quickens and I’m back in post-industrial Europe. An apartment block in the shape of a ship – much like the magnificent 60s monstrosity that haunts the high hill in my south-east London neighbourhood – beckons with the promise of distant travels. Then an abandoned office building, reminiscient of the creepy structures that used to crawl with crazed Croydon squatters back in the mid-2000s. Finally, an old factory tinged with yellowing rust that reminds me of more proletarian days in my summer adventures through the Eastern Bloc.

It’s funny how things creep up on you. Among all this European familiarity, I’m suddenly aware that we’re surrounded by cloud-like snow caps that peek out above the hazy mountain mist. Yet as we get closer to the peaks, and to nature itself, the shinkansen subtely picks up speed. It’s as if the mere act of being aboard this smoothly-crafted, man-made and soon-to-be subterranean vehicle revokes our license to view the outside earthly gifts. Tunnel then trees, tunnel then trees. And with each tunnel, we lurch onwards.

At long last, the prize is revealed. An emergent bushy settlement gives way to a stretch of low-lying houses in the valley. A regal mountain crowns its subjects. The throne? A lop-sided bonnet with spectacular streaks of crisp white sheets. You make your bed with Fuji, ever conscious that the imperial will of your newfound love is steadfast and unrelenting. Fuji-san rules this stretch of Honshu and surely already knows the outcome of my Murakami-bound fate.

I savour this moment while I can and hurtle, undeterred, towards Nagano…

Searching for Murakami: Listless in Tokyo (part 1)

Towards the end of last year, I went on a month-long trip to Japan. In part, this was down to my endless enjoyment of Haruki Murakami’s whisky-soaked surrealism, my voyeuristic admiration for Nobuyoshi Araki’s artistic peversions and the age-old quest to link-up with Princess Zelda and drop some heavy shit on Ganon’s boar-ish chops. But my long-term childhood collaborator and brother from a Scottish mother was also living temporarily in Tokyo with our mutual friend Genne, the mysterious Japanese rapping badman. So it all came together nicely.

Tokyo beginnings

Narita airport is an efficient piece of business. My tourist visa gets sorted within five minutes and with a sharp Hei! I’m waved and welcomed through. Narita is a joy to land at, but a slight ballache to get to the city from. Upon arriving at Ikebukero, I’m struck by the volume of East Asian faces around me. Moments later, I’m also struck by my own distasteful ignorance and remember that, surprisingly enough, I am in fact in East Asia. I enter an anonymous coffee joint among Ikebukero station’s labyrinthine passages and sit there surrounded by chattering Tokyo residents. There’s older couples drinking milky lattes, suited gents on a swift lunch break and 30-something year old girls sipping iced coffees in all their plastic glory. As I wait for the chief to pick me up, alone with a black americano in front of me and book in my hand, it strikes me: there’s got to be some Murakami somewhere on this trip.

***

We’re staying in Genne’s humble abode, not so far from Shakujii-kōen park. I’m presented with the joys of an automatic bath, where a press of a button delivers you a self-regulating steaming hot bathtub, accompanied by a neat little riddim to let you know that the bath’s ready. Over the next few days I eat sushi – it’s fresh, cheap and probably entirely unsustainable – and delve into some smokey culinary guesswork at a few izakayas. A trip to Shibuya can’t be missed, but I’m a Westerner in the place and, let’s be honest, there’s no talking cats in Lost In Translation. Even if there were, it’d take some Studio Ghibli-esque antics to save our four-pawed friends from the incessant rampant stamp of Tokyo’s most famous district. I jump on the Yamanote Line, thinking that the skyscraping neon blocks of Shinjuku are surely home to infinite corridors brimming with corporate conspiracies just waiting to be solved with the assistance of a fleeting female companion. Unfortunately, my utter lack of Japanese prevents me from understanding quite where any of the numerous elevators might take me.

More dead ends

Of course, Tokyo is more than Shibuya and Shinjuku. My friend and I end up in a wealthy German family’s empty high rise apartment in the Roppongi Hills one night. Regrettably, I manage to fall asleep in the twilight hours, thus thwarting any attempt of the liquid sands of time to seep into my consciousness and switch-up my destiny. The reels of electrical waste in Akihabara also offer good potential. The market owner tells us one particular tape player is broken and not for sale, but I’m certain it would tear a hole in the fabric of reality if we tried to press ‘play’.

The closest I seem to get is round the back of Ikebukero station. In a blatant attempt to invoke Murakami, I’m searching for a café called Dream Coffee. Instead, I stumble across a shop decorated from floor to ceiling with stacks of art and photography. A Christmas edition from Tom of Finland is peeking out at me, so I follow his call. On the right-hand side, just next to a collection of 60s erotic postcards, is a whole shelf dedicated to Araki. I sift through unknown treasures, seeking to move beyond kinbaku-bi, but not knowing quite what I’m looking for. I’m leafing through a recent edition and my eyes land on a portrait of Murakami, shot by Araki. Suspecting something meaningful is at play, I take the book to the assistant. In typical Tokyo style, he hasn’t even raised his head yet to acknowledge my presence, even though I’ve been in the store for a good 15 minutes. He’s still somewhat muted, so I tell him that it’s a wonderful bookshop. At this point, the cogs whirl and he begins to speak Japanese to me. He’s directing me somewhere, pointing to a small map on the back of a flyer. The problem is, I can’t make any sense of it and leave the place none the wiser.

The chase begins

In my despair, I spend many days in a Shakujii-kōen laundrette. Ostensibly I’m there to clean my clothes. But of course, we all know this is the perfect setting to enter the rabbit-hole. What better place to flirt with reality than among the banal whir and spin of washing machines and dryers? I sit there earnestly with my deep blue Lamy and sleek Muji notepad, writing poetry about vanilla milkshakes and the unrepentant will of purification, as I wait for something to happen. The most action I get is an elderly Japanese man who motions to a dryer in an attempt to ascertain whether the uncollected clothes inside are mine. Disappointingly, the clothes don’t belong to me and the grandad doesn’t turn out to be a nefarious cat dealer tasked with setting me on an intropective multidimensional mission.

And then it occurs to me. It’s 1.52am and I’ve just lit a Peace cigarette outside the Nerima-doshida branch of 7-Eleven. I’m allegedly there to buy some mochi ice-cream, but secretly I’m waiting for a chance encounter. I want to be elevated to indescribable carnal bliss by unsheathed ears, to confess my blood-stained Oedipal reality to a sisterly hairdresser, to follow felines into far-flung fields of fantasy and frustration. I’ve made a mistake though. In becoming fixated on Murakami, I’ve anchored myself to a sole location, Tokyo. But there’s no internal journey without an external one to match.

It’s decided. The shinkansen to Kyoto beckons…

 

Łódź: The empty, ugly arsehole of Poland

Fuck me, these blog posts are jumping all over the place aren’t there? Like an unhinged kid’s toy, I’m out of the box and on a haphazard journey, writing about Berlin after I’ve been in Japan and then venting sanctimonius pretentiousness about an Oscar frontrunner before I even begin to detail what happened in between Deutschland and Nippon. And I’ve not written about sex or drugs or obscure rap for months. Well, the trip continues today as we shift back to early December and a brief return to Poland…

*

As cabin crew prepare for landing, the metallic blades cut through those dreamlike bundles of ephemeral condensation. Then the dream gives way to reality and a vast grey aesthetic unfolds across the landscape, momentarily interspersed by the subtle distraction of light drizzle. This sort of palette is usually reserved for use by a cinematographer making the most of their craft. Yet, in spite of the tannoy announcements and the habituated waiting, this is no film set. I’m back in Poland, the land where I feel welcomed by the dour death scent of cigarettes, the place where I can get real with the mundane magnificence of Soviet realism, the setting for a whole manner of bleakly comic dialogues that are alive and sharp and surprisingly energising in their depressive duality.

Why Łódź-ou want to come here?

Fittingly enough, I arrive in Łódź, the home of Polish cinema, where Kieślowski, Polanski and Wajda all perfected their trade. And one of the first things that strikes you about Łódź is the manner in which nobody can quite believe that you, a tourist, are actually there. A brief exchange of messages with an old housemate now living in Warsaw reveals that “Łódź is the ugliest city in Poland, even though some say it has a vibe.” Likewise, a Couchsurfing meet begins with an extended discussion about how it would have been much better for me to visit Poznań, as “there is nothing to do in Łódź.” Even the cafe toilets are adorned with inspirational messages, such as: “What did you expect from Łódź? Like…nothing?!” In this situation, I only have myself to blame. After all, it was just a couple of months back that a friend from Gdańsk provided me with the wonderful quote: “Poland is just like an ass. And in the middle of it – there is a hole. And this hole – it’s Łódź exactly.”

Mushrooms, Moomins and tracksuits

Admittedly, when you’ve been primed with such overbearing negativity, it’s difficult to approach a town with anything other than the grey wolf of disappointment howling sweet ‘there’s-nothing-heres’ in your ear. In my quest to find something – anything – I unearthed a few truffles.

First up, there’s a cracking short Polish silent film from 1902 in which some elaborately dressed men land on a planet, enter a mushroom cave and then find out that the mushrooms are actually fantastical other-wordly lifeforms that are bent on attacking them. I couldn’t tell you what this film is called, but it’s located in the basement of the Łódź Museum of Cinematography, just past some museum attendants, who again, look at you very strangely when it emerges that you’re a non-Polish tourist. Also in the museum is a brilliant section devoted to the history of Polish animation. Notably, there’s plenty about the Łódź animation studio Se-ma-for, which created the original stop-motion Moomins series in the late 70s.

Next, a humongous shout to Pan tu nie stał, a Łódź designer inspired by retro Polish visual icons and words. I could spend all afternoon browsing their t-shirts, full of vintage animal stamp prints and Stanisław Lem’s slowly receding hairline. Instead, I satisfy myself with a cosy patchwork jumper and a disco polo patch, complete with authentic uninspiring late-90s typeface. If you happen to be in Łódź, Warsaw or Kraków, definitely check out this shop. And while we’re on the subject of fashion, I can’t neglect to mention Elektryczny Węgorz, a homegrown Łódź musician with superb tracksuit aesthetic.

In true Łódź style, I’ll leave you with an animation from local director Balbina Bruszewska (starring the aforementioned and suitably tracksuited Elektryczny Węgorz). Contrary to popular Polish belief, there is something in Łódź

Memories of money and drug dealers in Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg

For the past month, I’ve been out and about in Tokyo, where I neglected any blog writing in favour of drinking whisky and listening to jazz. Around a month before I headed to Japan, I found myself back in Berlin, a city that I used to frequent, but hadn’t done so for about five years. Berlin has its obvious charms (dark rooms in Berghain anyone?). It also has a creeping sense of gentrification, which meant that I ended up staying in Neukölln, a place that was never on the cards back in 2010. Unlike my hometown London, those living in Berlin seem to actively give a shit about rent increases and the blandness of yuppification. So I have faith that the city isn’t entirely doomed.

Mad money at Warschauer Straße

This trip to Berlin was tinted with nostalgia, as ostensible mundanity triggered strong memories. On my first night, I stay in an apartment much further east than I’d ever been before. The next day, I decide to take the train to Friedrichshain and follow my feet to wherever they lead me. I walk up the steps at Warschauer Straße main station and automatically turn left at the top, taking me past the S-Bahnhof. At once, I glance inside at the Sparkasse ATM and I’m brought back to the excitement of a trip to Melt! Festival in 2010 with a good friend from London. Prior to heading into Brandenburg for the music festival, I had checked this exact cash machine with an old German bank card, expecting to find a spare €20. Instead, I found something like €5000.

Cue a wild few days where I happily bought drinks for an assortment of Germans, Dutch and a particularly funny South African duo. Germans know how to run parties. They also know how to be really chill and how to not act like poser arseholes. But they also don’t entirely understand sarcasm – you win 5000, but you lose all the jokes.

Algerian hash in Görlitzer Park

As I approach the Oberbaumbrücke to cross the Spree, I spy the East Side Gallery, which brings me back to my first Berlin trip in 2008 with an early girlfriend. My mind replays this scenario – bad German skills at check-in, leading to communication in English that our room wasn’t ready and we could leave our bags – as my feet take me right back to where they wandered eight years ago: Görlitzer Park. I walk to the spot where, as a 19 year old, I responded to a German voice asking for a cigarette with the reply that I only had tobacco. Again, my poor accent betrayed a foreign nationality, as the voice in question called me over for a chat. To cut a long story short, me and my girlfriend at the time ended up chatting to an Algerian man in Görlitzer Park as he ate chicken, shared a hash joint with us and offered lashings of Pepsi Max. Future discussions and research would teach me that this specific Kreuzberg park has a reputation for dubious drug-dealing types. But I have to say, this gentleman was incredibly friendly and unassuming. He told us about his distant migration to Berlin, how much he loved the city and then wished us a safe and pleasant stay. Much nicer than those sketchy dudes who prey on teenagers at Camden Lock…

If you take the right (and a few wrong) turns in Berlin, there’s plenty of money, hospitality and memories for all.

 

The sweet melancholia of cigarettes and shipyards in Gdańsk

After my time in Ukraine, I wasn’t quite sure how Poland would be. Surely I’d already reached the heights of social experience when I heard about Vladimir Kalashnikov’s sex tourism and toe amputations? Just to make sure things were suitably spiced up, I started out my Polish trip by standing in the wrong queue at Gdańsk airport border control. On the one hand, queuing up with the Ukrainians meant that I wasted almost an hour in the no-man’s land between runway and baggage collection. On the other hand, it meant that I could get a real feel for post-Brexit EU travel, without the associated visa costs. Lucky me! Shortly after passing through, I was then selected for a bag search by customs officials for the first time in my life. Thankfully, they didn’t find any of the top-notch Ukrainian LSD or young Russian children that I was trafficking into Poland…

Consonants and solidarity

Gdańsk is a nice enough city. Since I’d been in Ukraine for a short while, I was definitely running a bit low on the whole Old Town cobbles and churches vibe. Gdańsk certainly doesn’t disappoint on that front. However, there are two real treats for me in this Baltic beauty. The first is Wrzeszcz, which is handily named in a very pronouncable way. Wrzeszcz is the suburb where I stay during my time in Poland. It’s the kind of place that gets called ‘little Kreuzberg’, because there’s a place selling falafel and some young people have beards. But it’s legit a really nice area with a bunch of tasty veggie places (e.g. the amazing Avo) and a great bar called Kurhaus that’s full of craft beers, friendly locals and a barperson who makes butterfly trousers.

While in Wrzeszcz, I stay in the most beautiful apartment with the most wonderful host. She knows the correct way to brew green tea AND she likes the film Timbuktu, so we’re immediately on to a winner. I want to know what my host likes in Gdańsk and the answer is not very much. So she takes me to Stocznia Gdańska, one of the few places that she has a lot of love for. Stocznia Gdańska is the shipyard where electrician Lech Wałęsa (later to become Nobel Peace Prize winning President of Poland) and other remarkable women and men organised the first of a series of strikes that led to the formation of the Solidarność trade union and eventually Polish independence in 1989. It’s also a pretty cool place to hang out, where you’re surrounded by ships and cranes on one side and a barren post-industrial landscape on the other.

The Polish way

My host also becomes an inspirational guide into Polish culture, most notably by introducing me to a variety of Polish cinema and literature. I haven’t finished any of the books yet, but I’ve started to delve into various films. Krzysztof Kieślowski’s (1987) Blind Chance gives us a glimpse of three possible scenarios for an individual in Communist-era Poland with the conclusion that our fate can switch at the drop of a beer and, ultimately, life never ends well. Andrzej Jakimowski’s (2007) Tricks is a cute reflection through a child’s eyes on how we can’t always control our destiny. Tomasz Wasilewski‘s (2016) United States of Love meditates on four women’s corrupted relationships with themselves and society, which exemplify everyone’s despondent loneliness. And let’s not forget the number one tip for understanding Poland: smoke lots of cigarettes.

In some way, this miserable melancholic realism has rejuvenated me as I return from my travels and settle back down to monotony and routine. But if that’s a little too downbeat, don’t worry, you can knock yourself out with one of Poland’s top disco polo stars, Akcent:

The ballad of Vladimir Kalashnikov (aka the joys of Ukrainian gangsters)

Everything is a bit scary before you arrive in Ukraine. In the queue for my flight from Vilnius airport, I read about taxi scams, corruption and organised crime. I start to prepare mentally for the apparent hypervigilance necessary for me to survive this Wild West outpost deep in the East. But once I arrive in Kiev, everything is suddenly pretty friendly and cool. I use an app to book a taxi with a driver whose only word of English is ‘music?’, after which he starts blaring Hark The Herald Angels Sing in our mid-August traffic jam. Later on that night, I help a woman carry a painting to her apartment. She seems thrilled that I am visiting Ukraine and proceeds to tell me all about the diverse architecture of Kiev and the crumbling magnificence of her hometown Odessa. I also meet a referee from the Ukrainian FA, who’s very happy to explain how much of a knob Mark Clattenburg is. My week gets even better when it turns out that my new friend’s musical reference point for me is East 17, which leads to some spectacular renditions of It’s Alright and Let It Rain.

The Croydon connection

Personally, I don’t experience any corruption or taxi scams. However, when I come into contact with Ukrainian organised crime, the gangster I meet seems just as friendly as your average Ukrainian non-criminal. Vladimir Kalashnikov (veracity of name: TBC) first comes onto my radar while I’m travelling on the train from Kiev to Odessa. When we stop in provincial central Ukraine, my two travelling friends from London get off for a frantic intake of nicotine. As they puff on their cigarettes, they get chatting to another passenger. He finds out that they’re from Croydon, which just so happens to be where his daughter is attending secondary school. Naturally, this means that my two mates become Mr Kalashnikov’s adoptive sons for the rest of the journey, which in turn means that all three of us are treated to his brandy facilitated banter. Before I continue, it’s worth pointing out that none of us know if Vladimir is gangster. But he pays for his daughter’s UK private education, owns a number of jewellery shops in Odessa and travels with the definition of a brick shithouse by his side. So yeah, the general Ukrainian consensus was that he probably has his fingers in a few blackmarket pies.

Vladimir Kalashnikov is a great storyteller. He starts off with the classic story of visiting Thailand with one of his boys and ending up heading towards a hospital because somebody got a bit too battered. Somewhere along the way, Vladimir met some Thai girls, who ended up giving him a blowjob. The reason we know that they gave him a blowjob is because Vladimir stands in the carriage among a Chinese family and shows us the necessary motions as he doesn’t have the necessary English words. A short interlude follows. During this, Mr Kalashnikov points at me and proclaims “your friend doesn’t like me.” Luckily, one of my mates speaks Russian and saves me from a trip to A&E by letting Vladimir know about my resting bitch face. After a few casual but slightly heavy back slaps, our Ukrainian friend continues with a new story, this time set in the Himalayas. After the laddishness of his previous story, we expect more of the same. However, Vladimir actually ends up describing how he got trapped in a blizzard for a few days after losing a friend on a trek and assuming he was dead. This resulted in the amputation of a few toes (and no fellatio).

Ukraine: Not just wars and borsch

I love the time that I spend in Ukraine, with its fascinating clash of old European grandeur, vast Soviet bleakness and contemporary emergent capitalism. Prior to visiting, the little knowledge I had of the country revolved around the war in the Donbass. In Kiev and Odessa, the war is both not there and completely there. Walking around the Maidan, it’s difficult to comprehend that this was the site of a civilian massacre 2 years ago….until you realise that the photos lining the street are memorials to the murdered. Likewise, the Ukrainians that I meet don’t tend to speak about the war….but if you switch on the TV, there’s a channel providing comprehensive coverage of the Donbass, interjected with breaks that cover other wars in Ukraine’s rich history.

My lasting image of Ukraine though is that of the people. Whether they were calmly threatening me with a quick bicep flex or comparing me to Brian Harvey, the Ukrainians I met all had an open warmth and inquisitiveness. We could do with more of this Eastern spirit in the UK.

Lithuania: Home to Kim Jong-un billboards and great baked treats

After Riga, it was back on that Baltic bus luxury towards Lithuania. This time I watched The Fifth Estate as we cruised through the Latvian landscape and approached the Soviet apartment blocks that surround the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius. Lithuania is the largest of the three Baltic states, but again, it was a place that I knew very little about. I know a couple of Lithuanians in London and had spotted their magnificently coloured flag while on the bus in Leyton. But that was about all…

Guess what? Another Old Town!

Once I arrive in Vilnius, I head on a trolley-bus to my apartment, then back into town to meet my friend who has flown over from the UK. Over the next few days, I find it difficult to get a strong grasp of Lithuania. Vilnius does have a very pretty Old Town, but by this point I’m quite fatigued by medieval buildings, churches and cobbled streets. In other news, milk is called pienas, there’s a pregnancy test called Ouch! and Kim Jong-un advertises Lithuanian pork rolls.

We get out of Vilnius for a couple of days and visit my colleague in Kaunas. Unfortunately, a friend in London and my Riga host’s fiancee have both questioned why I would ever visit the town, citing its abundance of ‘chavs’ as a reason to avoid. Naturally, I’m fated to view Kaunas through these chav-tinted glasses (although the multiple appearances of some accordian-playing Hare Krishnas on the New Town high street provides a mild distraction). We also visit a nice big lake and castle in Trakai, which is gorgeous, but rather touristy.

Hipster cakes and mushrooms

If I’m honest, the best thing for me about Lithuania is the cakes. On the recommendation of my Riga connection, one of the first things I do in Vilnius is grab something to eat at vegan cafe Chaika. I cannot fault this place! The coffee is rich and strong, the interior is full of vintage armchairs and my man is playing Coltrane on vinyl. But the most amazing part of my Chaika experience is the cake. Call me pretentious and you’d be right, because I choose their vegan matcha chocolate cake with raspberry coulis and it’s so lush. The other wonderful sweet treat in Lithuania are these gingerbread-filled mushroom-shaped bad boys, which I buy on a whim and love.

A dreamy departure lounge cinema

When I get to Vilnius airport, I’m given a beautiful surprise. Instead of being forced to walk through perfumes and whiskey, I come across a mini-cinema showing short films for travellers to watch while they wait. I love films and get annoyed by enforced capitalism, so this is heavenly. I watch a lovely Hungarian film by a director Barnabás Tóth. The film is about an older man Vilmos, who drives his wife around. His wife is a bit of moaner, always redirecting Vilmos in the wrong directions and complaining about his driving. As the film unfolds, you find out where Vilmos has been driving his wife and the film takes a touching turn. Anyhow, I won’t spoil it, so check out My Guide:

It was a great way to finish up in the Baltics and prepare for my journey into Ukraine…

Getting down with Stalinism, 9/11 and Russian funerals in Latvia

After having a close encounter with an Estonian dog, the bar for Baltic stimulation was set pretty high. But Latvia did not disappoint. First things first: travelling between the Baltics is brilliant. You know how National Express has no leg room and dubious WiFi? You know how Megabus is cheap but the toilets haven’t been cleaned for weeks? I took the coach from Tallinn to Riga for £8. It had free internet and a sanitised toilet, my knees didn’t scrape the seat in front and I watched Me and Earl and the Dying Girl on my own personal in-ride entertainment tablet. So yeah, it was pretty good.

Riga: More than an Old Town

As pretty as Tallinn was, the Old Town admittedly becomes somewhat boring after three days. Riga was a welcome relief. One of the first buildings I notice is the Latvian Academy of Sciences, a beautifully imposing Stalinist construction reminiscient of the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw. Riga is the largest of the Baltic cities and this is what I really enjoy about it. Over the next few days I walk through the (very typical) Old Town, but am also able to explore its Art Nouveau district (complete with creepy-melancholic-stalker-face man), enjoy the craft-beer-flavoured fruits of mild gentrification and see what’s left of the Riga Ghetto (i.e. not a lot).

A spontanteous encounter leads to my best day in Riga. After visiting a museum about Latvia’s independence movement (ever heard of the 1989 Baltic Way, where 2 million people formed a 675km human chain from Tallinn to Vilnius via Riga?), I meet a local who contacted me via Couchsurfing. For the next 8 hours, she proceeds to show me all the cool shit in Riga that you don’t really experience unless you live there. The highlight was sitting behind the shipyard on the river Daugava, drinking beers and chatting. We discuss voter participation in Latvia (high) versus UK (low), BADBADNOTGOOD, and how Riga is home to some residential twin towers located at street number 9/11.

The next day I visit Ķemeri National Park, a stretch of sprawling green nature about half an hour on the train from Riga. On the walk back, I accidentally stumble through what appears to be a Russian funeral, full of solemnly threatening men, Orthodox crosses and tearful but expensively-dressed women. I escape unscathed, soak in the happiness that a day spent in the sun brings and get ready for my VIP coach ride to Lithuania…

Hard times with an Estonian dog

When I arrive in Tallinn, the capital city of Estonia, I get off at the wrong bus stop. After dragging my suitcase across the town, I finally manage to track down my host, who – as a self-declared hippy – is sat in the street tapping out avant-garde melodies on a traditional Baltic instrument. Along with his friend, he takes me to the apartment, warns me that it’s ‘bohemian’ just before entering, then shows me in and skins up a spliff. The next 15 minutes are rather strange:

1st minute

I sit on a floor mattress/sofa kinda thing and a dog joins me. I don’t really hang out with dogs much, so I’m naturally suspicious of them. But in the spirit of travelling, I decide to open my mind to new experiences and stroke the dog. He seems to enjoy it.

6th minute

My host asks his friend for some acid, which he promptly buys from her.

10th minute

The dog gets up, turns around, looks longingly into my eyes and then grabs hold of my arm. I’m a bit confused. Then I notice its raging hard-on and realise that it’s trying to copulate with my wrist.

11th minute

My host lights up a joint.

13th minute

I experience minor trauma and push the dog away from me.

15th minute

My host finishes smoking, tells me he’s heading to another town, Tartu, and that he’ll see me in a few days.

What a welcome! Naturally, nothing that happens over the next few days in Estonia can quite match these giddy heights. I visit a massive abandoned prison, complete with antiquated medical equipment and pro-Trump graffiti. I wander through the old fishing district of Tallinn, Kalamaja, full of houses made from cute and colourful wooden panels that are prone to burning. I even venture to Tartu myself to experience that southern Estonian relaxed vibe and head to a party in an old museum, where I become friends with a lovely Estonian film-lover.

But no. There’s nothing quite like being sexually assualted by a dog while its owner buys LSD and smokes weed. And for that, I will never forget Estonia.