I like your deer's moustache, and other Lithuanian tales
I watched the bartender tilt the bottle of starka towards my glass, and tried not to stare at the thin ribbons of dried yolk running down his sleeve. I'd been watching him deliver snacks to the tables for the best part of two hours, huge plates of fat dumplings smothered in sour cream and minced onion, and the yolk had joined dribbles of brine and gravy as he slid the plates onto the tables with a grunt.
I liked the place. My thighs held more than one splinter from the rough wooden seats, and the toxic rye vodka made my voice a good octave lower than it should have been, but, for my last night in Lithuania, there was nowhere else I'd rather be.
It was only when I curled back up on my bench and reached for my glass that I noticed them.
There were two of them, next to the fireplace. If their money belts hadn't given them away, the plump bags at their feet covered in flags left no doubt. Belgian backpackers, ready for adventure. I never understood the need to advertise your nationality to all and sundry; my boss had given me a tiny clip-on koala at my going away party, but I knew from previous trips all that did was invite bad Australian accent imitations and questions about whether we rode kangaroos to work. No, my backpack was unadorned and unremarkable, and I liked the anonymity it afforded. Which was why the attention from the backpackers was starting to make me uneasy.
They were holding menus and pretending to peruse them, but their gazes kept flicking back to me. The boy looked about twenty, the girl even younger, and they hadn't honed their surreptitious skills enough to get away with it. There was a rapid flurry of whispers trading back and forth between them, and I watched the exchange with increasing interest.
Then the girl glanced down at the menu and, without looking at him, gave one quick push against his shoulder. He stood, his gaze moving from the top of her head back to me, and started walking towards my table.
I was intrigued.
I was also, it has to be said, rather full of starka, a 15th century Polish-Lithuanian syrupy vodka infused with apple leaves and lime blossom.
He hovered in front of my table, and raised one eyebrow. I'm sure he was aiming for worldly insouciance, but it just made him look like he was about to sneeze.
"Is it you?"
There's only really one way to answer that question.
"Yes...yes, it is."
His eyes widened, and he turned to the girl with an excited wave. A torrent of French flew from his mouth that made her gather both the backpacks and waddle towards me, grinning. They both fell onto the bench opposite and started talking at the same time, and it took me a moment to realise that whatever they were babbling, it was now in English.
The girl's sentence cut in over the his sentence.
"I can't believe this! We've been watching your show every night in the hostel!"
I coughed on my mouthful of vodka.
She clasped her hand onto the boy's arm and squeezed.
"We're such big fans. Huge fans! We actually voted to keep you in the house."
The boy leaned forward and tilted his head.
"How did you feel when you got evicted—was it a shock?"
I have no idea why I did what I did next. I've thought about it since and to this day my answer still perplexes me.
"It was a massive shock, yes. I'm still trying to get over it, actually."
I shook my head ruefully and reached for my glass. If you're going to enter a story like this, I decided, jump with both feet.
The girl was still squeezing his arm, desperate to continue.
"I mean, we didn't even know there was a Lithuanian Big Brother show!"
My eyes widened. Lithuanian Big Brother?
"But once we sat down to an episode, we were hooked...right, Laurent?"
Laurent grinned and nodded.
"We made sure we were back inside the hostel at seven each night," he continued. "We didn't want to miss a moment. Sometimes the other backpackers would try and watch sport, but we got them hooked too. Sometimes there'd be a dozen of us, all shouting at the screen whenever Jurgi stole your muesli, or Rasa wouldn't let you use her hairdryer."
I didn't quite know how to follow this up. I had no idea if Jurgi was a man or a woman, and just how feisty 'I' had become at the lack of hairdressing facilities.
"Hmm, that was pretty hard to take," was all I could manage.
The girl placed her chin in her hands and gazed at me with a rapt expression. Laurent's smile was almost too broad for his face, and I didn't want to disappoint.
"Yeah, we sure did have some intense times in the house!" I shook my head. "It's so weird not sleeping in a room full of people now...but tell me, what was your favourite episode?"
They turned to each other with serious expressions, as though I'd just asked them to adopt my child, should anything happen to me on the way to the bar.
Laurent went first.
"I think when you had to learn that cheerleading routine and you accidentally knocked the lawyer into the swimming pool and took down the whole piña colada table with him."
"Let me tell you," I winked, "that wasn't accidental."
She shrieked and clapped her hands.
"I knew it! I told you, didn't I, Laurent? Didn't I?"
Laurent grinned at her.
"You did Inez, you did—you know your reality TV, all right!"
I needed another starka to get me through this. The bartender was wending his way through the tables when I caught his eye and raised my hand in the universal "Please sir, may I have some more?" sign.
"Hey, how did you watch the show...do you understand Lithuanian?"
"Uh huh," Inez shook her head. "In the hostel it came through the BBC, so had English subtitles—the universal language, oui? God, our Lithuanian would make a native speaker like you laugh out loud! All we can do is say 'please' and 'one beer', and even then with horrible accents."
Laurent turned from Inez to me.
"It is weird, actually...you don't sound like you have a Lithuanian accent."
The words flew out of my mouth before I had time to consider them. "Oh, I learned English watching old Australian soap operas...thank god for Neighbours, hey?"
We all laughed merrily, though I didn't think the latter was a sentence I would ever say again.
It was only as the bartender headed towards our table that I realised the predicament I was facing. I was about to order a round of drinks that I, as a 'native Lithuanian', should be able to do in the language.
I prided myself on preparing a few snippets of each language I immersed myself in, basic phrases to get me by. However, I also prided myself on learning a few random, quirky sentences that caused much mirth around dinner party tables, yet were pathetically useless to me now.
Which is why, when the bartender stopped at my side, all I could do was clear my throat and ask, ever so politely, "Excuse me ...is your deer vicious?"
I swear, it'd sounded like a good idea when I learnt it.
He stared at me through a fierce monobrow and said nothing.
"Ar jūsų elnias piktas?" I repeated, a touch quieter.
He barked a chain of short, sharp words that I felt fortunate not to understand, and strode away.
Inez and Laurent smiled cheerily at this exchange, confident that a trio of pale frothy beers would now be delivered promptly to our table. I, naturally, was somewhat less sure.
When the bartender came into my line of vision again, I couldn't quite bring myself to make eye contact. He dropped a steaming plate of dumplings in front of us and to my concern stood waiting at my elbow, possibly to see what further pearls of inexplicable Lithuanian this strange Australian girl was going to throw at him this time.
I didn't disappoint, it has to be said.
I raised my head, gave him a tight smile, and delivered the second of the three sentences I'd learned.
"Mano laivas su oro pagalve pilna ungurių?."
I swear I saw the briefest flicker of a smile across his ruddy face. Given that I'd just told him, "My hovercraft is full of eels," he was taking it pretty well. Again he let fly with a string of spiky consonants and rounded vowels before striding back to the bar, shaking his head.
Inez and Laurent were pricking their forks into the round little bellies of pork mince, still excited to be dining with a genuine member of Lithuanian Big Brother who'd just ordered them a meal of traditional Baltic food. I watched him wipe a smear of sour cream from her chin, and decided that my work here was done.
I stood up and stretched.
"I have to go, I'm afraid—I have an interview with Lithuanian TV Week in the morning, bright and early."
They both made noises to dissuade me, but I took advantage of their mouths being full of minced onion and gave a wave. I felt a strong desire to be as far away from the bartender as possible, given that my Lithuanian, such as it was, was rapidly running out.
"Lovely to meet you—and thanks for watching!"
I strode toward the door, my collar already up against the chill I knew was coming. A hand pushed open the heavy oak before I could, and I glanced up at its owner with a sudden smile.
As he held the door open for me, I gave him my last ounce of Lithuanian, finally in context.
"Man patinka jūsų ūsai," I grinned at the lavish hair curling above his top lip.
I like your moustache.
And he winked and let the door slide shut behind him.
About the Author
Rijn Collins is a Melbourne writer, dictionary collector, blues listener, whiskey swiller, and owner of many little red notebooks. Her work has been published in print anthologies, online magazines, newspapers, and adapted for performance on radio. She's chased stories as far afield as Iceland, Fiji, and New Mexico, and loves sitting at a corner table with pen raised, watching them tumble in the door. She's currently working on a novel, which will no doubt require more little red notebooks.