Pa-lan-ga. From a puff of the lips, to a lick of the palate, to a guttural grunt. Pa-lan-ga. Three syllabic utterances in reverse order, three lingual steps back, as though the word were a return to its primal source. Which feels nicely symbolic, since the coastal resort town of Palanga in Lithuania 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 and nothing gives me more pleasure than hunting for it.
Last winter J and I went to Palanga and spent three days walking along the bleak, deserted coast to catch an intoxicating glint of orange, a thrilling glimmer of gold. There is no other way to put it: we got so obsessed we lost our windswept heads. The weather was exceptionally brutal but we didn’t care as we combed our personal Klondike for a few precious crumbs of fossilized tree resin. J is usually gentleness itself but in Palanga she was a huntress with a plastic bucket, a tigress with a sieve. When we hit the jackpot in Šventoji, we momentarily reverted to a Neanderthal-like state. We ecstatically groaned, grunted and shrieked to articulate our delight at the pretty orange nuggets gleaming out of the deep winter gloom. We were poorly dressed for our amber-quest; our socks were soaked, our hands were numb, our heads battered by the strong wind. But some primal greed took possession us: we both knew we might never find such an abundant haul again. At last common sense prevailed, however, and we agreed that it was not worth dying for a few bits of amber. And then we staggered away, two Gollums protectively clutching their precious finds.
I am obsessive by nature, which can be a very good and a very bad thing. I often joke with J about my OCD-ness, which mainly manifests in my being a stickler for routine (I know that in 10 minutes I will be eating a bowl of cereal while browsing 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, 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 recognised the existence and importance of factual truth.
Palanga roughly means ‘windowsill’ in Lithuanian. This phrase has an uncomfortable resonance for me when I recall Peter the Great’s obsession with having a coastal “window to Europe”. In an excellent article for The Guardian, Emma Graham-Harrison explores Lithuania’s fears of Russian aggression and mentions the dreadful repression that Lithuania experienced under Tsarist rule. Russia already has a second window to Europe in the form of Kaliningrad (albeit a particularly shoddy and draughty one). Will Putin, that Gollum-like accruer of prized 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!). I love to masticate on the occasional ‘cunt’. But I would have no such linguistic liberty under Putin who banned swearing in books, films, theatre, music and blogs (there, 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 profanity is proportionate to the social and historical attitudes that formed it. Thus we learn that humanity is disturbingly misogynistic since most of its ‘worst’ swear words pertain to female genitalia and female wantonness. Swear words connoting male genitalia (dick, prick, cock, etc.) are generally less offensive. You can imagine my glee when I first noticed the striking similarity between Putin and the French expletive ‘putain’.
Pa-lan-ga: J and I are planning another amber-hunting trip there before the end of the year. But we will return as hardened realists, cap 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 next to nothing. We nervously waited for the next day. Nothing – not a speck. “Hm,” J said. “There is a pretty obvious moral to this story: nature giveth and nature taketh away.”
Don’t get greedy. Three childishly simple words. Three words that effectively 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 get greedy: pl-ea-se.