Palanga. From a puff of the lips to a lick of the palate to a guttural grunt: Pa-lan-ga. The three syllables go backwards, reversing through the mouth, as though the word wants to revert to its primal source. It has a headache from the monotonous beat of dance music all summer long. It is tired of beautiful breasts eclipsing the sun, sad sighs swirling about the dunes, the mechanical glugging of beer. It is bored of all the bad jokes, the anecdotes, the cheesy chat-up lines. It wants to be free of the frippery of appearances; it wants to return to the sea.
The coastal resort town of Palanga is home to a deposit of amber that has been washing up on the shore for millennia. The amber in the Baltic Sea dates back 44 million years to the Eocene epoch. For most Lithuanians, Palanga means sun, sea, and fun. For me, it is a place to indulge one of my favourite obsessions; hunting (and gathering) amber. It is the perfect distraction for my pained sense of futility. I get to doggedly walk for miles, in the bracing air, stooping through clumps of seaweed and driftwood, looking for fragments of fossilized time. It is gloriously pointless.
One winter J and I spent three days combing the deserted coast to catch an intoxicating glint of ancient plastic. We became so obsessed we lost our windswept heads. The weather was exceptionally brutal but we didn’t care as we scoured our personal Klondike for a few gleaming nuggets of amber. J is usually gentleness itself but in Palanga she was an Amazonian warrior with a sieve and empty mustard jar. When we struck gold in Šventoji, we momentarily reverted to a Neanderthal-like state (I grunted, she shrieked). There were golden flecks all around us gleaming out of the deep winter gloom. We furiously gathered them up but we were poorly dressed for our amber-quest; our socks were soaked, our hands were numb, our faces battered by the strong wind. Despite our intense discomfort, we kept at it. We both knew it was unlikely we would ever find such an abundant haul again. After three hours, red-faced and mad-eyed, we agreed that it was not worth dying for a few bits of amber. We staggered away, towards the car, two Gollums protectively clutching their precious finds.
I am obsessive by nature, which can be both exasperating and weirdly rewarding (I have a decorative bowl full of amber on my windowsill and notebooks full of words). I often joke with J about my OCD-ness, which mainly manifests through my being a stickler for routine (I know that at 9am I will be eating a slice of rye bread topped with avocado while reading The Guardian). Another way in which I am OCD is in my fanatical adherence to the meaning of words as scripturally laid down in the OED. Perhaps this is why I feel so perturbed of late. Between them, Trump and his supporters, Putin’s army of propagandists and the loathsome Brexiteers have used language so frivolously and recklessly as to render it worthless. There is, of course, a long history of mendacity in politics but it was notably different before. Politicians equivocated, evaded and obfuscated: in other words, they tacitly acknowledged the existence and importance of factual truth (the so-called record).
Palanga means ‘windowsill’ in Lithuanian. This phrase has an uncomfortable resonance when one recalls Peter the Great’s obsession with having a coastal “window to Europe”. Lithuania experienced dreadful repression under Tsarist rule, before experiencing a minor genocide under the Soviet Union. Russia already has a second window to Europe in the form of Kaliningrad (albeit a shoddy and draughty one). Will Putin, that Gollum-like accruer of prized geopolitical possessions, be tempted to add a few more windows to his crooked, retrogressive worldview?
Another manifestation of my OCD-ness is my habitual swearing. I love to spit out a good ‘fuck’ (fricative drum roll!) and to masticate on the more sparingly used ‘cunt’. Under Putin I would have no such linguistic liberty since he banned swearing in books, films, theatre, music and blogs (I finally said the B-word!). Putin, like most conservatives, clearly does not understand the cathartic and purgative nature of swearing. A swear word, like money, has no inherent value: its perceived profanity is proportionate to the social and historical attitudes that formed it. Swearing provides a valuable insight into the disturbingly misogynistic forces that formed Western thought and norms. Most of our ‘worst’ swear words pertain to female genitalia and female wantonness; swear words connoting male genitalia (dick, prick, cock, etc.) are markedly less offensive. (Imagine my glee when I first realised the uncanny similarity between Putin and putain.)
Pa-lan-ga: J and I are planning another amber-hunting trip there before the end of the year (we go every winter). But we will return as hardened realists, cap (jar, really) humbly in hand. Last time we struck gold on the first day. That, it turned out, was our misfortune. We got carried away and complacent: in a word, we got greedy. We imagined we would find the same bounteous quantity the next day. Instead we found nothing in the gloom. We nervously waited for the next day. Again nothing – not a crumb. “Hm,” J said. “There is an obvious moral to this story: don’t be greedy.”
Don’t be greedy. Three childishly simple words. Three words that could sum up the entirety of human wisdom. Three words that make the difference between the world tipping over into wanton self-destruction or nicely chugging along at a pace and cost that makes life bearable, even pleasurable, for as many people as possible. Don’t be greedy: pl-ea-se Mr Trump, Mr Putin and the wealthy businessmen who secretly helped swing Brexit by the narrowest of margins. Go hunt amber instead.