“Jesus, I’ve never seen so many fyfas!” said J as we stocked up on provisions in a Maxima supermarket in Palanga. We had come to hunt for amber (to scavenge, it would soon turn out) and I was feeling predatory (supermarkets have that effect on me). I had noticed all the gaudily outfitted fyfas parading around the aisles with their speculative breasts and backbiting butts. But I was in hot pursuit of spinach, shallots and aubergine for the pasta dish we had decided to make. For such a large and bounteous supermarket, the vegetable section offered frustratingly slim pickings. There were a few rooty staples but little to excite a seasoned vegetable-lover: we had to make do with oyster mushrooms, rucola and a red onion (the meat section, in contrast, was carnally encyclopaedic). I was almost sweating as we stood in line to pay (the queue was moving painfully slowly from problems with the payment terminal). I felt trapped, hemmed in. An exaggeratedly feminine fyfa stood in front of me; a stout worker (still in overalls) was scowling away behind me. Between these two hyperbolic gender archetypes, I felt positively androgynous. Palanga: a perfect microcosm of Lithuania, a pretty little window into its meaty soul.
As we drove away from the supermarket, the car stereo mysteriously rejected the CD we were listening to and switched instead to a local radio station playing oppressively perky Lithuanian pop music. Palanga, it seemed, was such a powerful beacon of Lithuanianness that it refused to recognise strange-sounding foreign music that did not conform to its bouncy, flouncy, generic rhythms. Or at least that’s what I imagined until J said I had probably changed the stereo’s settings (I was playing about with it on the motorway) so that it was now programmed to switch to the first radio frequency to come into range.
We were staying at a guesthouse about 6km from Palanga that was so well hidden we got lost trying to find it. Laimas, the affable owner with the maladjusted gaze of a war veteran, explained that he wanted the place to feel as remote as possible so that his guests could truly relax. Wireless internet access, for example, was restricted from 11:00–13:00 and from 19:00–21:00 according to the quirky guidelines dangling from a peg on the coat rack (“If you feel like reading – do”). As our host gave us a tour of the grounds, I said ‘wow’ so much that his elderly dog probably thought I was trying to strike up a conversation with him (the poor thing was blind in one eye after a violent encounter with a stag). I was impressed by how much love Laimas had put into his tourist-harvesting homestead: it was a sprawling paean to local history, paganism and (naïve) art. The buildings were designed to look half Prussian and half Lithuanian (redbrick lower storeys, slatted upper storeys, decorative eaves). Trees were laced through with lights and budding with baubles. Scavenged fishing equipment had been transformed into abstract sculptures. And my personal favourite: an external wall of one of the outlandish outhouses was lined from top to bottom with empty bottles of alcohol. As I perused the labels, I greedily imbibed the spirit of all those happy memories.
“That might be the best pasta I’ve ever had,” J says.
So far, so good, I think. I packed lightly for the weekend but despair creeps into folded underwear, squeezes into tubes of toothpaste.
Pesto, onion, oyster mushrooms, rucola, smoked sausage, burrata and Parmesan. I am still a little nervous: “Let’s be geeks and calculate exactly how much it cost to make.” J likes the idea. We grab pen, seize paper. We consider quantity, weigh amounts. We arrive at the semi-scientific sum of €4.86 (€2.43 per portion). We murmur approvingly. Fancy restaurants charge as much as €10 for pasta and even then it probably wouldn’t be as good as ours. I knock back another shot. It’s only 8pm. That’s good; a time with potentially infinite possibilities. I want J to have a good time, a round time, a timely time. She’s on a much-deserved holiday. I ask her how much of a fyfa she is on a scale of 1 to 10. I like asking Lithuanian women this question. Apparently they like it too (they usually laugh with a lovely note of sincere surprise). The average answer ranges from 4 to 6. “On a vain day I’d say about 2,” J says. “Hm,” I say. “How exactly would you define fyfa?”
J thoughtfully sips her White Russian. “A fyfa is a woman who is excessively, obsessively concerned with her appearance. She dresses in a way that she thinks is elegant, glamorous and sexy but which is in fact rather vulgar and tasteless. Her aesthetic code is reinforced through her peers and social milieu. It is generically Eastern European and evolved in the post-Soviet period as an expression of highly sexualised femininity. Fyfas may be smart but they have no awareness of feminism as a political concept (many believe that feminism is synonymous with lesbianism). They fail to realise that the small fortune they spend on cosmetics, procedures, hairdressers, accessories and clothes is not the price they pay to look good but an industry milking them for all they are worth. Another shot?
Fyfas, in varying degrees of intensity, form a sizable percentage of Lithuanian women. Lithuania is essentially a fyfadom when it comes to standards of femininity. Of course there are many exceptions but in small towns most girls aspire to become fyfas because it is all they know. Fyfadom is insular and inward-looking. Its excessive use of cosmetics and deceitful use of exaggeration is indicative of a general desperation to conform to perceived social norms. For fyfas, physical appearance takes on a metaphysical dimension. They battle with it the way you struggle with your writing. The vicissitudes of their body weight becomes a kind of corporeal dialectic, their horror of aging is their personal form of historical materialism. I have always suspected that fyfas must be rather unhappy in their smothered, swaddled soul. What’s the English equivalent to fyfa?”
I tell J that bimbo is the closest analogue but it does not come close to capturing the complex, self-contained, illusory reality of a fyfa. Fyfadom is a whole world unto itself, right down to its steam-venting black humour and affectedly mellifluous sighs. Happily, there was neither fyfa nor bimbo in limbo, which is where we were heading.
It was 9:30pm and we were both pleasantly tipsy. J excitedly suggested we go to the beach (it was a mere 600 metres away). I had a shot for the road while J made a White Russian in an emptied-out 250ml-plastic water bottle (“It will look like a protein shake!”). Although it was dark and overcast, the light of the full moon filtering through the clouds and the glow of the freshly fallen snow enabled us to make our way through the forest along a barely perceptible path.
“It’s eerie,” J said.
“No it’s not,” I lied.
When we emerged into the open dunes, we both sensed that something extraordinary was happening. But we were so dizzy with excitement it took a moment to sink in. We followed the undulating wooden path leading over the dunes down to the beach. And there it was: quite possibly the most beautiful sight I have ever seen. Limbo: on earth.
I have tried, repeatedly, to remember what it looked like. But it was so dark there is almost nothing to remember except the exhilarating feeling of liberation. It was, all around, a minimally illuminated blackness. The snow-covered beach was a whispered grey. The pallid foam of crashing waves was muted hearsay. Our faces were drained of ourselves, we were smudges of humanity, faint traces of life. There was no contrast or relief, no horizon or sky. It was almost monochromatic, a grainy, gradated greyness dissolving into a soft, smothering nothing. It felt warming in the cold. It felt inviting in its otherworldliness. It felt righter than any night I had known.
“Fuck…” said J.
“Fuck…” I agreed.
“This is what freedom feels like…”
“This is what limbo looks like…”
The next couple of hours were a blur. Of ashen White Russian. Of glowing cigarette tips. Of cameras flashing in vain. Of screaming until our throats hurt. Of light-footedly going nowhere. Of dancing around the gloom. As J played with the murky waves, I went to piss in the dunes. I spelled six of the seven letters of my name with distinct legibility. But the ink to my writing instrument dried up into a trickle. J came up behind me. “Oh-ho!” she said. “That’s impressive. Let me finish it for you.” She squatted down and wriggled about to inscribe the missing letter into the snow. As she gyrated in the dark, I thought there was no way she could write the seventh letter. It would go awry, askew, into a swirling muddle or piss-filled puddle. But when she stood up, there it was: the perfectly legible seventh letter. I had temporarily laid territorial claim to limbo, where words carried no echo and meaning had no need of itself.
We lay there for a long time getting snowed on and talking philosophically. If I remember correctly, J was doing most of the talking. I was so intoxicated by everything that I kept sucking on a cigarette to try and imprint the moment in my mind, to crystallize it in time. Earlier we had glimpsed a lighthouse and had been perplexed by the irregularity of its flashing light. I hypothesised that the low-lying clouds and precipitation intermittently blotted it out. Now there was a violet light flashing in the distance. I joked that the lighthouse moonlighted as a disco on Fridays. But then the light started moving closer. It began coming towards us. My mind scrambled to explain this surreal sight: a singular violet light making a beeline through the darkness. We stood up, brushed ourselves down. We silently prepared for the worst, secretly hoped for the best. Never could we have guessed what was coming our way: Neptune, going amber hunting, on a bike, in blackest night.
Neptune barely paid any attention to us as he got off his bike, stood it on the beach, and went into the sea (in chest-high waders). The violet light was coming from a strange contraption on his head (it was too dark to see what it looked like). As he stood in the waves, shaking his head at something or other, J and I looked at each other in total confusion. Was this mysterious figure a deity? A fisherman? A lunatic? Was he a serial killer combing the beach for prey? As I gulped down the last of the White Russian, I felt that any explanation would make equal sense in limbo. I readied myself to genuflect before a god or use the keys in my pocket as a weapon.
When Neptune came out of the sea we went over to him. He told us that he was hunting for amber. That alone greatly excited J. But when he opened the satchel-like bag hanging around his waist and showed us what he had netted so far that night, she rolled out a stream of expletives that loudly crashed into each other like the nearby waves. We had never seen so much amber hunted and gathered at one time – and in such massive, rock-like pieces. I peeked at Neptune (he had switched the violet light to a normal light). He was about 40 and strikingly handsome. J bombarded him with questions: about nets, currents, waves, dispersal patterns. Neptune spoke with her for a few minutes while I rolled a cigarette and wandered around limbo. I found it cleansing in a way that no spa procedure could ever free my pores of the sadness clogging them. I found it emancipating in a way that no holiday in the sun could ever lighten the melancholy weighing me down. Neptune went back to his bike. We waved goodbye to him. He rode away, a solitary violet light that quickly disappeared into the limbic ether.
I slept for eight whole hours that night – a rare feat. I slept so well because my experience in limbo had been profoundly emotional and utterly exhausting. I had never experienced anything like it before and probably never would again. I didn’t care in the least that J and I found nothing all weekend. We tried different spots, drove 15km north: nothing. On the last day we walked along the beach for 8km, stooping down to check frozen clumps of weed for a glimmer of gold: nothing. A shrug of the shoulders, a timeworn proverb. I didn’t care because I was still glowing from my time in limbo.
J and agreed that we would waste no more time scavenging for amber like abject Victorian mudlarks. We would go pro like Neptune and get nets, waders, headlamps, the whole shebang. J joked that our finding nothing was a preordained stage of our long (and costly) quest to find amber: we may have found nothing but we met Neptune – he who showed us the way. Incidentally, we learned from Laimas as we were saying a fond farewell to him (“See you in the summer!”) that Neptune’s exploits had made it onto the internet. His wife, as an involved local citizen, follows the border guards’ Facebook page. The border guards were carrying out a routine beach patrol in their vehicle when they came across Neptune (on the same night as we bumped into him). They were so amazed by his haul of amber that they took a selfie with him and posted it on their Facebook page. Palanga, it turns out, has a far more interesting form of nightlife than the flashy variety found in town.
Laimas recommended a restaurant in Palanga by the name of Vandenis (“All the Vilniečiai love it there – it’s classy but cheap!”). Vandenis was the Lithuanian sea-god in pagan times: it was surely the perfect place to end our trip.
Vandenis was neither classy (any attempt at classiness is tacky) nor cheap but the food was damn good (the pasta, in case you are interested, was €7). This was our final stop before heading back to Vilnius. J succumbed to the powerful electromagnetic waves of Lithuanianness emanating from Palanga and ordered the cepelinai with crackling from the magnificently callipygous waitress. She was a fyfa slowly in the making, like a fly gradually becoming encrusted in amber. But she still possessed a refreshing youthful openness: that wonderful ability to flip tastes and switch beliefs in an instant. J was a little bitchier towards her and found her musical voice “too service-orientated”. I was charmed by her, however, and my gaze was magnetically drawn to her every time she walked away from our table.
A family was having lunch at the next table. They looked smug, well-heeled, tiresomely predictable in their firm beliefs. There was a mama fyfa and a grandma fyfa, both of whom were model citizens of fyfadom. I couldn’t stop looking at them, how they ate (with crooked fingers and parodic poise), how they talked (in well-rehearsed lines), how they carried themselves (like a sack of crocodile leather). At one point grandma fyfa took out a little round mirror from her handbag to check that she was all there. She dabbed at her foundations, reinforced her lipstick. Mama fyfa’s gaze frequently disappeared into the distance. Their familial performance may have been impressive to others but to me they seemed entombed in multiple layers of verisimilitude and dissimulation. Maybe one day they would find themselves in limbo where they would get a truer measure of themselves.
Before we left, we tried to find the etymology of fyfa. But like the thing itself, its meaning is unclear, elusive, ambiguous. One MA paper we found claimed that fyfa comes from the international, phono-semantic “fi-fi”, intended to express surprise, awe or to get attention. The Russian wiktionary said it comes from a doubling of “fi” as, firstly, an expression of disdain or arrogance, and, secondly, an expression of disgust or loathing. J speculated that the word could derive from the Lithuanian “fe” or “fui”, which means “yuck” or “phooey”. Personally, I would like to believe the word was imported by an intrepid explorer from an obscure Japanese word meaning: “a beautiful thing trapped within a tacky, gaudy outer shell.”
The long drive back to Vilnius was lovely and sad. J befriended a VW. I sipped on a beer. At one point we drove into a blizzard. We talked a lot. We said nothing. We both dreaded going back to the drudgery of our lives. But we were both still exhilarated by what had happened. I looked absentmindedly at the monotonous fields and darkening sky. The clouds were crowded with fyfas and seeded with amber. Our hearts were still lingering in limbo.