Rhi and I are perfectly suited traveling companions. We have developed an uncanny ability to turn to each other at the exact same moment and say, “It’s food o’clock!” Nine times out of ten we will also be craving the exact same dish. For us, famous landmarks and cultural experiences rank far, far behind FOOD when it comes to our globetrotting priorities.
This obsession stems from Our Wacky Childhood. Long-time readers will remember the jelly fruit, the brown orange juice and the onion-flavoured ice cream that the Mothership dished up over the years. It didn’t get any better when we were on vacation. All my friends’ parents would bring a hefty supply of snacks to shut up their kids on long car trips, not so in our family. We had strictly-rationed Lifesavers.
Once every two hours or 250 kilometres, whatever evil criteria the folks had chosen that day, we would be handed ONE (1) Lifesaver. This provided approximately 37 seconds of sugar in your mouth before it dissolved and the gnawing hunger returned. And of course they were the most BORING Lifesavers – Five Flavours or Peppermint, the only ones available in budget multi-packs.
To make it worse, my stepfather wasn’t fond of pit stops. And why would he be? He was allowed to have a Lifesaver whenever he bloody wanted. He usually had two, a Five Flavour and a Peppermint at the same time! The freak. One time we’d been on the Road To Queensland for five hours, a total of six hours since we’d had breakfast. We whined over the din of our roaring stomachs, “When are we stopping for lunch?”
“Don’t be so impatient! I want to make the border by sunset!”
When verbal badgering failed to deliver, we’d scribble signs and hold them up in the rear view mirror: IT IS NOW: SIX HOURS AND TWENTY THREE MINUTES SINCE WE LAST ATE! The sign was updated every ten minutes in scrolling tickertape fashion. We even took the liberty of writing the message in reverse to make it easier for the front-seat fascist to read it. Finally at the seven hour mark he’d pull into a Kentucky Fried (as it still was in 1986) where we would be allocated one withered wing, 3 chips and a thimbleful of water to sustain us til the 5 o’clock Lifesaver.
Consequently since fleeing the iron nest, Rhi and I have made it our Vacation Policy to eat what we want whenever the hell we want it. This was easy to do in the Baltics where restaurants were cheap and plentiful. We had an incredible three course Italian meal in Vilnius with wine for the price of a deep fried Mars Bar in Edinburgh. Well maybe not that cheap, but dining out is an extravagance when you’re on a shitty temp wage in Britain. So we took this holiday as an opportunity to live it up and scoff the local fare. We pretty much restaurant-ed it every night.
But my favourite meal cost the equivalent of £1.50 and was bought at this strange little shack at the side of a highway.
According to Kristi, Nehatu was Estonia’s burger joint of choice long before the Golden Arches were on the scene. Now that the country is over-run with foreign fast food, she says there’s a certain retro chic/tradition/rebellion to stay faithful to the local chain.
After staring blankly at the menu for ten minutes, we ordered some sort of beef burger. Unlike Western fast food joints, there just one spotty teen behind the counter. She took the orders, dropped the meat into the fryer, scooped the chips, poured the drinks then assembled the burgers. She slid them into waxy bags with a slit down the side, like a paper cone. I wondered why this was necessary until she squeezed half a bottle of mayo onto the bun.
Kristi explained that they like their burgers saucy in Estonia. On the first bite, mayo came splooging out all over my hands. As I gnawed at the greasy meat the lettuce and mayo slid out of the bun, plopping into the paper cone.
By the time I finished there was a good couple inches of lettucey cocktail gathered at the bottom. You could either slurp it down like a burger chaser or mop it up with stray fries. It was delicious, and infinitely more satisfying than a Lifesaver or chicken wing.