Monday, June 25, 2018

Dramatic night in Group B after bar panic in Palanga

Tuesday, June 25th (day 28) began for me in Klaipeda with a two-star hangover. England games always seem to bring a bit of an extra thirst for beer on and as it was an early 3 pm kick off it meant that I was less restrained than I could have been for the next two. Having a krupnikas with my dinner ticked a box but it also increased alcohol levels a bit higher before the Poland v Columbia game. It’s bizarre how the first effect of alcohol is to depress those centers of the brain that are the ones that are the most sensible and responsible.

Dramatic night surrounded these guys
Anyway, I wasn’t too bad. As I say it was only a two-star hangover, on a scale up to five. (4 means vomiting!) I had 1.4 “skinfulls” yesterday which means 140 g of alcohol. I can’t be doing with all these “units” – as they differ so much from country to country. I prefer to simply estimate the number of grams of alcohol in a drink. I mean, "hello!" - SI Units were conceived for good reason, so let's use them.

On trips such as this it’s particularly important for me to keep track of alcohol because if I'm not careful I can get into the habit of getting drunk every night. To give you an idea was 100g of alcohol means, half a litre of a decent strength pale ale (say ABV 4.5%) has about 17.8 g of alcohol. So six of those would be over a skinfull. A bottle (750 ml) of red wine (at approx. 13.5%) has about 80 g, so about five large glasses of wine. This might sound a lot to some (and very little to others) but you also must remember that it’s spread out over several hours and my liver is remarkably good at detoxifying alcohol – thanks to my alcohol consuming ancestors. Selection for the presence of the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase was clearly an important factor in my ancestors. Aciu labai!

I had a nice breakfast again and that felt me better. I had to check out at twelve but had no rush today as the first matches are at 5pm, now that we’re into the final group games meaning that the games in each group are played simultaneously. So I had five hours to get packed, check out, walk over to the bus station and catch a bus to Palanga, the seaside resort that is just to the north of Klaipeda on the Baltic Sea coast.

Ticket Purchase

The first thing I needed to do was make sure I had a way of getting from Palanga to the next destination, Riga. I had originally hoped to got to Liepaja, a port in Latvia and get a bus from there early in the morning but it seems that they just don’t run that regularly. In the end I decided to get a flight as they are relatively cheap these days and they do save a lot of time.

Because I don’t have roaming data on my phone – it just costs too much – I couldn’t buy the ticket on line as these days they want you to confirm the purchase with a code they send to you via SMS. Maybe I’m missing a trick here but I can’t work out a way around it. Luckily there is a travel agent almost net door to the hotel so I popped down and bought my ticket direct from them. I had to pay them a bit of commission, I know, but still that is the final stage of my travel now ticked off.

Riga flight booked

Walk to the bus station

The check out went very smoothly. I am really grateful to the hotel. After all I arrived at 1:30 in the morning with no booking and they managed to give me a pretty decent room that was a bit cheaper the one I thought I’d book (but hadn’t) and it also had a decent bar to watch the England game in when no other sports bar was open. They were all very friendly and the breakfasts were very pleasant too. I gave all fives on the feedback form.

So then I was off to walk to the bus station which was about twenty minutes away. Again, thanks Professor Google, for showing me the way across the Birzos suspension bridge and then along the river Dane and though a nice park full or arty sculptures.

Where the draw bridge joins together
How on earth could that ship get through? Suspension bridge, of course.

Brizos Tiltas

Bus to Palanga with Wifi

The bus fare was less than 2 Euros and I got a comfortable seat all to myself as the bus set off at 12:25 on the dot. I was also very impressed that it had free WiFi without any of those SMS hassels. So I was able to download a map of Palanga even before I’d arrived.

The journey only took about 30 minutes so when the bus arrived it took as long to walk to the hotel. I needed to buy a new razor as the previous (very cheap) one I’d bought broke in my squashed wash back. I bought a pack of five of those cheap but sturdy disposable ones, and get some more cash out. Both ticked off on the way.

Klaipeda Bus Departures

Klaipeda Buss network

On the bus to Palanga

Free and good Wifi

Arrived at Palnaga - 25 minutes later

Palanga Park 

The place I’m staying has a great location right next to Palanga Park, where the famous Palanga Amber museum is and also Birutes kalna. Leb and me came here in 1988, in my third visit, just as Sajuduis, the Lithuanian Independence movement, was forming. The first time I saw a Lithuanian flag on a local TV was in a hotel in Klaipeda. I wonder if the hotel might have been the National, the one I stayed at last night?

Palanga bus station

Road repairs

War memorial

Palanga sky line is dominated by this church
When I finally found the place I was staying (it wasn’t well sign posted outside) I went into the reception area and noticed a few glum faces of people waiting. The receptionist herself didn’t look happy either and I felt that I was being ignored.

Turns out that some of their cleaning staff were off sick or something so it was taking longer than usual to get the rooms ready. Some customers must have been unhappy and so there was a bit of an atmosphere when I arrived.

I waited patiently and then it was my turn.

When I told her my name, she immediately started talking very fast, assuming I was Lithuanian. But when she saw my unresponsive face she guessed I was from England and started speaking perfect English instead.

“We are sorry but your room is not ready for you. Please can you wait?”

“I don’t think I have a choice do I?”

She smiled and shook her head.

Worth the wait

Palanga Park over the road

She had lived in London for a few years. And also Brazil but, no, she didn’t like football
I was a bit early anyway so it wasn’t a big deal. I left my bags in a locked room and went off to explore.

I came here before with Zemyna in 2008 and so I knew the general lay out – a great big long pedestrianised street (Basanavicius gatve) with hundreds of touristy bars and restaurants on each side. Think of Skeggy or Blackpool but without the “Kiss me Quick” hats.

Anyway, at least I would have no trouble finding a bar to watch the football later. Having located a couple of good candidates, I then walked down to the sea and along the pier (called Palanga Tiltas or “Bridge”). It was an embracing walk as it was cold and grey, spitty spotty with rain.
I was hoping to have a bit of swim but not in weather like this.

I think it’s quite impressive actually and there are free Wifi hotspots all along the street.

Oh I do like to be beside the seaside!

Nice Lithuanian dinner

Anyway, I was starving and decided to go for the Lithuanian “stodge” option one more time. I resisted the familiar sounding “Meso Kukulai” (which apparently just means meat balls) and went for balandeliai and one cepelinas. To try to compensate for hi carbs I added some healthy stuff  back in with a small side salad and some cold beetroot soup.

Delicious and filling.

Just what the doctor ordered (not quite)

Room still not ready at 3:30 pm

I’d given them an hour and a half by now, more than the receptionist had asked for, so I was very disappointed when the room was still not ready when I got back. She offered me a coffee in the breakfast/dinning area and at least I got the Wifi connection and so could engage in texting friends and family.

Finally the room was ready and I came in, dumped my bags, had a shave and a bit of a snooze before setting off again at around 4:30 for the Group A deciders.

Uruguay 3 Russia 0

I must say I love the Russian national anthem so I always like to get to their matches to hear it. The sound wasn't very good here though.

Here's a better clip. Makes "God Save the Queen" sound really crappy, I reckon.

I had predicted the first 0-0 for this match as Uruguay are usually a dour, negative side, but of course that didn’t happen. Early in the game Luis Suarez lined up to take a free and the Russian wall appeared to be complicit in letting him score. Either that or the goalkeeper was completely in the wrong position.

Anyway 1-0 to Uruguay.

Ten minutes later they doubled their lead. This was getting a bit embarrassing. Russia were going all “Polish”, it seemed. But they hung on to go in at half time 0-2 down.

I opted not to have any beer whilst watching this first game but, instead, went for Kvass, or "Gira" As it’s called here. It’s a non-alcoholic, slightly too sweet, drink made out of Rye bread. Pleasant enough and better than Diet coke.

Leonas Kukstas (1896-1945)
Accountant at Gubernija
Leb's grandd-ad
The bottle had the Gubernija brewery label on it. Lesley’s dad’s father used to be the accountant for that firm in Siauliai, in the Independence days of the 1920s and 1930s. Another amazing coincidence.

In the second half a Russian player received a second yellow card and, being down to ten men took the last hopes of a revival out of the Russian team’s sails and they ended up conceding a 3rd. It could have got really ugly for them but it ended 3-0.

So Uruguay win Group A and wait for the second team in Group B, which could be Spain, Portugal or Iran. Russia are through too, and will play the winners of B which can’t be Iran.

Sportsbar that promised to show both games later

On the Kvass

Brewed at Gubernija

Texting around the world

It’s amazing that as I watched the game I was texting Boro in Odessa, my daughter in Perth, my brother-in-law in England, the guy I’d met in Vilnius from Australia the other day, still in Kaliningrad and Leb in Brighton – all for free.

Group B deciders

 After writing the previous paragraphs, I headed back to the "main drag" of Palanga to take up my seat at the bar that had promised me simultaneous screen for the two Group B deciders, Portugal v Iran and Spain v Morocco. I was a bit early, and as the grey clouds had cleared, I strolled down to the beach again where lots of people were sat on beaches facing the sea, waiting for the sunset, presumably.

Brightened Up Now

Bit of Sunshine at Last

Anyway with 15 minutes 'till kick off I went back to the sports bar I'd been earlier, thinking that although going to the same bar twice kind of feels unadventurous to me, at least I'd get to see the two games at once. It could be important to do that as the group was tightly poised.

I actually bought a ticket for Spain v Morocco because I had intended originally to go back to Kaliningrad a second time but revised the plan afterwards when I realised that it would just eat too much time into my plan. I had intended to sell the ticket once I got here but going through security for the Serbia v Switzerland game made me realise that wasn't an option. Anyway, stupidity tax.

Walking past the many various bars, it's usually quite obvious if they're showing the football. They'll either have the commentary on at full blast or a big bill board outside with the match they're showing in big letters.

Spain v Morocco was on everywhere. "Fools!" I thought. Morocco have no chance of qualification and Spain are almost certainly through. The more interesting tie was Portugal v Iran where an Iran victory would see them through, probably at Portugal's expense. 

No problem for me, I thought, 'coz the bar I'm going to will be showing both. When I got to the bar, sure enough the billboard outside listed both matches. But wait. Why wasn't the commentary on? Why were they playing this loud, cheesy music? Maybe they just hadn't switched the sound over yet. Maybe they were waiting until kick off.

I popped my head into the bar and there was the sight that struck horror in my heart...

A woman singing on stage with her partner behind her playing keyboard.

This was no play list they could just switch over and I don't think going up to them and asking for a special music request....

"Can you just shut the f&ck up for the next two hours?"

... was an option.

Didn't really want a live music performance, thank you


I needed a plan B and there was only 5 minutes until kick off. If I couldn't watch both matches at the same time, at least I'd find somewhere showing Portugal v Iran.

But bar after bar were playing the Spanish national anthem and then the Moroccan one, as I scampered up the long touristy boulevard increasingly in a panic.

"Why are you showing this match? It's nothing compared to the other."

"We cannot show the other"

"Is there any bar showing it?"

"I do not know"

Anyway, with 6 minutes into the play I finally found a place showing Portugal v Iran and I settled down at the bar with a beer to watch.

The beer choice here wasn't great either, Švyturys "Extra". Every country has a soul-less mega beer factory that churn out gallons of nondescript, but drinkable, grogg for the mass market. They cut the quality of the ingredients to the bare minimum and use economies of scale to make big profits. What they do invest heavily in is advertising. At the FIFA World Cup, Carlsberg (Denmark) and Budweiser (USA) spend billions on planting stupid memes in football fans' brains about their "brand."

In Kaliningrad, I was not surprised that a swarm of drones did not appear over the stands each one bringing a special cold bottle of 'Bud just for me, as promised in the 'ad. And Carlsberg is probably the most urine-like beer in the World. I am told that Carlsberg own the Lithuanian brewery Švyturys and you can see the same techniques.

Every country has one, I think. Holland had Heineken. Germany has Becks, Italy Peroni, France Kronenbourg, England Carling, Australia Carlton. All bland. All heavily marketed to the masses.

Now I am not such a beer snob that I won't touch such beers if I have no choice, so I supped my Švyturys and watched the game, just like occasionally I'll have something from MacDonald's.

The bar had good Wifi so I could track the score of other game in real time, if not watching it on the screen. I was also "live" with friends in England and Odessa so I wouldn't be missing anything for more than a few seconds. Again, the good side of social media should not be overlooked.

What a dramatic night followed. It would take pages to describe but let's just say for most of it Portugal were sitting pretty at the top of the group after taking the lead with a fantastic goal, whereas Spain struggled against Morocco, going behind twice. As the games went into injury time, the possibility occurred to me that should Iran equalise and Morocco scored another, then Spain could end up getting eliminated.

Iran did indeed equalise, after a VAR decision handed then a controversial penalty but as that drama was unfolding in front of my eyes, similar drama was going on in Kaliningrad as Spain had a disallowed goal overturned allowing them to equalise and make their place safe, now at the top of the group.

As the seconds ticked away, with the Spain - Morocco game finished at 2-2, the only possible permutation change now was if Iran scored a last gasp winner, then Portugal and "Him" (Cristiano Ronaldo to those that don't follow the Guardian's football columns) would be out.

But this Portugal team are nothing if not gritty and they clung on to qualify.

So the first two round of 16 ties are decided:

Spain will play Russia, and

Portugal will face Uruguay.

What draaaaama!!

Still light at 11 pm

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