Monday, June 23, 2014

Summer Solstice

Don’t look now, but from here on the days will be growing shorter.  That’s what the summer solstice is all about, and worldwide the event is marked by festivals and other “Midsummer” celebrations of one kind or another.  To a certain extent Christianity has appropriated the pagan holiday by merging it with the celebration of the feast day of Saint John the Baptist (June 24, or the evening of the 23rd).  Note that John the Baptist is thought to have been born six months before Jesus.

From Wikipedia, we learn that

In Lithuania the festival is known as “Joninės” or “Rasos” (Dew Holiday).  The traditions include singing songs and dancing until the sun sets, telling tales, searching to find the magic fern blossom at midnight, jumping over bonfires, greeting the rising midsummer sun and washing the face with a morning dew, young girls float flower wreaths on the water of river or lake.  These are customs brought from pagan culture and beliefs.

Yes, up there at the top of this post is a maiden with a flower wreath—our Lady of Gedimino Prospektas.  I don’t know if that’s Saint John’s Wort in her hair or not (I don’t think so), but in Vilnius specifically, celebration of the summer solstice/Saint John the Baptist Feast Day seems to be associated with exactly the same kind of street fair/folk festival that was mounted in Šiauliai a few weeks ago (in fact, it attracted a few of the same vendors) featuring wooden kitchen utensils, accordion music, a light alcoholic drink called gira, and lots of beef and venison jerky.  What’s not to like?

In part because it took place on the avenue in front of our hotel, the Midsummer solstice celebration  in Vilnius proved to be quite a distraction on a day for which we had already prepared a long agenda.  So after wandering around the stalls for a bit, we boarded a #2 trolleybus in the direction of the train station (stotis, not to be confused with solstice), hopping out to join the throng of tourists who had descended upon the Aušros Varai (Gates of Dawn), attracted by this city’s answer to the Shroud of Turin.  It’s called Our Lady of the Gate of Dawn, or sometimes simply the Vilnius Madonna, and she is said to have miracle-working powers.  There were no miracles in store for us.  We stood in the queue for a long time, but never got a close look at the icon, so the image below is taken off the internet:

From the mob scene at the Gates of Dawn, we strolled through the old town; at one point I turned around to shoot a photograph down Aušros Vartų gatvé (see photo, below). 

There are some lovely baroque churches in this neighborhood, including the Church of Saint Casimir (1618), pictured below.  During the Soviet occupation it was turned into a Museum of Atheism.

The town hall also is located in this part of the city.  As it was Saturday, the district was teeming with brides and grooms, which offered an opportunity for a photo of Our Lady of Pilies gatvé, below.

And so ends our Lithuanian adventure.  This blog post will be published upon our return to the United States, or maybe from Copenhagen, where we will be changing planes.  It's been a great experience for us both, and we hope for you, too.  Thanks for coming along for the ride and for discovering with us the many charms of Lithuania.


Saturday, June 21, 2014


The capital of Lithuania is Vilnius.  But between the two world wars of the twentieth century, the capital was Kaunas.  During the medieval fluorescence of Lithuania, the capital was Trakai, which is about 30 kilometers from Vilnius.  Trakai was a fourteenth-century castle with the usual accoutrements; it is situated on an island in a chain of lakes.  For me the most interesting thing about Trakai is the role of the Karaites in the history of the medieval Lithuanian state. 

This is what our Lonely Planet guide has to say about the Karaites:
The peaceful ruins of Trakai's Peninsula Castle, built from 1362 to 1382 by Kestutis and destroyed in the 17th century, are a little south of the island castle....  The peninsula itself is dotted with old wooden cottages, many built by the Karaites, a Judaic sect and Turkic minority originating in Baghdad, which adheres to the Law of Moses.  Their descendants were brought to Trakai from the Crimea in around 1400 to serve as bodyguards.  Only 12 families (60 Karaites) live in Trakai and their numbers--280 in Lithuania--are dwindling, prompting fears that the country's smallest ethnic minority is dying out....  Their beautifully restored early-19th-century Kenessa can be visited but there are not set opening times.
Luckily for the Karaites, it seems that their Turkic ethnicity trumped their Judaism, which is why they were exempted from the Holocaust.  Here are the Knessa (next photo, below) and some of the houses (underneath that) they built in Trakai.

Before Trakai, in the dim recesses of the Lithuanian past, the capital was Kernave, the remains of which are largely archaeological.

Both Kernave and Trakai are UNESCO World Heritage sites.  We spent yesterday in Trakai; here are the photos. 

In the Shadow of the University

Yesterday we took advantage of our growing familiarity with old town Vilnius by spreading out from Cathedral Square and its statue of the Grand Duke Gediminas (see photo, above), and down Pilies gatvė in the direction of St. Anne’s Church (see photo, below).  St. Anne’s is a Gothic wonder that was famously admired by Napoleon, who was said to have wanted to spirit it away “in the palm of his hand” to Paris. 

As you can probably tell from the photo of St. Anne's, it was an unusual day weather-wise, as the skies would change dramatically in a matter of minutes.  I took a few pictures during the sunny moments.  The one below was taken in the Bernardinų sodas (Bernardine gardens). 

Nearby, there is a monument to the memory of Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855), “the Lithuanian Goethe,” who is considered the national poet of Lithuania, Poland, and Belarus.  Mickiewicz (see photo, below) graduated from the Imperial University of Vilnius and taught in Kaunas before reconciling himself to political exile and a peripatetic existence in the great capitals of European intellectual life.  

For Jane’s former colleagues at the Folger Shakespeare Library, here’s a photo of the entrance to the Shakespeare Hotel, which is just a block or so from St. Anne’s. 

Back in Pilies gatvė, we stopped for lunch at a restaurant called Aula.  Ken had mushroom soup served in a dark bread bowl.  Jane had a colorful beetroot soup with baked dill potatoes.  Labai skanu!  

Then last night we attended a performance of Handel’s oratorio, Alexander’s Feast, which was a treat for both the eyes and ears, as explained here.  It was performed at the Vilnius Opera House (photo copied from Internet, below), which reminded us of the Kennedy Center (i.e., it's ugly), though it's nicer on the inside, and the acoustics are terrific.



Thursday, June 19, 2014

Pilies gatvė

We arrived to find a juggernaut and a posse of Hare Krishnas (see photo, above) camped out in the park across the street from our hotel.  Always a little unnerving, those juggernauts.  Welcome to Vilnius.

We finally made it to the most photogenic part of the old town yesterday, and it’s pretty special.  You could spend a month in the linen and amber shops alone, and even then you’d probably miss a few. 

So here is a photomontage of buildings on Pilies gatvė.  And today, we are off to Trakai.




And finally, it wouldn't be an authentic Lithuanian experience without some reminder of the Jewish contribution to national culture, reminiscent of the Isaiah Berlin plaque that we discovered on the side of an apartment building in Riga.  From Old Town Vilnius:

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Sue's Indian Raja

So, thanks to our Šiauliai University driver and van, we are back in Vilnius, where our adventure began in January, and where we will try to decompress for our flight home on Monday, June 23. 

We really loved Šiauliai, but it is not as cosmopolitan as Vilnius, and so we now have a welcome opportunity to indulge in a few earthly pleasures, which began today with chicken quesadillas and flautas at Tres Mexicanos (see photo, above), and ended with chicken tikka masala and curry, with cucumber raita and naan (and gin and tonics) at Sue’s Indian Raja, which is ideally situated across the street from Vilnius Cathedral (see the selfie of Ken taken on Sue’s patio, below).  As for the curious name of this establishment, it helps to learn (which we did from the menu last night) that Sue was an Indian woman, a Chaudhary, whose husband keeps her name on the marque out of devotion to her memory. 
We squeezed in a few other activities yesterday. 

We paid our respects to King Mindaugas, in front of the Lithuanian National Museum and underneath Gediminas’s Tower, all of which are shown in the photo, above.  Then we took the funicular railroad (or incline, for yinz Pittsburghers out there), up to the top of the castle for a spectacular view of the city (see photos, below).

Today (a dreary one, 46 degrees Fahrenheit--see raindrops on hotel room window, below) we will check in with our friends in the U.S. Embassy.

Later, Wednesday, June 18:  Lunch at Plieno Paukste with Rasa Baukuviene (far right in the photo below) and her colleague, Sarah J. Talalay (far left).  Sarah is the new cultural attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Vilnius.


Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Winding Down

As the days grow longer (sunrise today was 4:40 a.m., sunset will be 10:14), our time in Lithuania grows short.  We have had a memorable semester, and now final exams have been administered and graded, library books and keys have been returned to their rightful owners, and we have had a farewell lunch with Elders Marshall and Petersen, the ranking Mormon missionaries here in lovably funky Šiauliai. 

Inevitably, bidding farewell requires a sentimental journey, consisting in this case of random tidbits and loose ends that have eluded tidying up here on Baltic Avenue.  Better buckle up! 

* * *

One of the things I’ll remember most vividly about Lithuania is that people here are perhaps a little too self-deprecating, which means that Jane and I were spitting into the wind when we argued that the country should market itself more aggressively.  We Americans, by contrast, are so good at marketing that we sometimes forget to deliver the substance of the thing we're trying to sell.  Surely there is a middle ground here between their modesty and our shameless hyperbole.  

That said, I continue to believe that there is room for the Hill of Crosses (see photo, above) on the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites.  The marketing campaign on behalf of the site should start with Roman Catholics, but should not be limited to them.  Others likely to be interested in the Hill of Crosses would include cultural tourists, hikers, bikers, and everyone who has ever been to Santiago de Compostela or Canterbury.  

Another Šiauliai site that should be exploited more aggressively by the Ministry of Tourism is the Gubernija brewery, which was founded in 1665 (!) and makes a first-rate beer.  I love their porter.  Who wouldn't want a tour and a tasting?   

I hope, too, now that the magnificent Chaimas Frenkelis villa has been restored to its former glory, that the city fathers and mothers will consider taking on the task of restoring the adjacent tannery complex, which is in serious disrepair, but which should be considered an opportunity to acknowledge the importance of the crafts associated with leather goods, and also the contribution of Judaism (a synagogue and a school were on site) to the history of Lithuanian industry. 

* * *

Before signing off, I wanted to acknowledge a very great debt to Diana Saparniene, chair of Public Administration at Šiauliai University, and to a number of our departmental colleagues who were generous with their time and other resources.  Jane and I also want to say how much we enjoyed the company of several graduate students, specifically Anzelika Gumuliauskiene (pictured above), Jurgita Mikolaityte, and Oksana Mejere.  We met another graduate student, Kristina Kupryte, who is a world-class performer on the Lithuanian harp, called the kankales.  Unfortunately, we never got to hear Kristina perform in person, but luckily, she’s all over YouTube, including here.

* * *

Also, while we were still brand-new residents of Šiauliai, Jane noticed a distinctive graffito—a sparkling diamond (see photo above)—that appears on buildings all over town.  What does it mean?  We’d still like to know. 

* * *

We'll be spending a few days in Vilnius.  When we arrived in Lithuania at the end of January, the temperature was well below zero, so we weren't inclined to be active turistas at that point; somehow we managed to miss Pilies gatve, perhaps the most celebrated street in old town.  Now that spring is ready to turn into summer, we plan to follow a more ambitious itinerary.  We have tickets for a Handel performance at the Vilnius Opera, and we intend to visit Trakai--and, if possible, Kernave, another UNESCO World Heritage site.  So, stay tuned for another week or so. 

Monday, June 16, 2014

Lithuania and the Misery Index

Columbia J. Warren, author of a quirky book that Jane and I have enjoyed (Experiencing Lithuania:  An Unconventional Travel Guide, 2012), can’t quite decide whether the national pastime is basketball or frowning.  Of the latter, Warren insists that “Lithuanians aren’t necessarily unhappy”; they just don't want to be mistaken for Americans, who are generally regarded as  “grinning idiots.”

But it turns out that Lithuanians may actually be as unhappy as they look.  In a poll reported recently by USA Today (click here for link) Lithuania was revealed to be the third most miserable country in the world, ranking just behind Syria and Chad, which are, without a doubt, objectively miserable places.  You’d think that the national happiness/misery index would be strongly correlated with personal income.  Well, it’s not.  GDP per capita in Lithuania is $22,566, for example, compared with the third happiest country, Nicaragua, which has a very low GDP per capita:  $4,548.  There seems to be a strong element of culture at work here. 

The poll itself is interesting, in that respondents were asked about specific behaviors (such as having a good night’s sleep) that would seem to bespeak contentment (or its opposite).  Here is the capsule report for Lithuania:

Lithuania had a relatively high GDP per capita, at $22,566, in 2013. Despite the seemingly capable economy, Lithuanians were among the unhappiest people in the world. The country has a high suicide rate.  It also had among the highest alcohol consumption per capita in the world, according to the World Health Organization.  Heavy alcohol consumption can exacerbate or, in some cases, even cause depression.  Lithuanians were among the least likely to say they have experienced enjoyment in the previous day or to say they smiled or laughed in the preceding 24 hours.

So, there may be some perfectly good reasons for all the frowning.  And that’s without even considering the element of tragedy and pathos in the country’s history.  After its medieval florescence, Lithuania served as a doormat for its big and aggressive neighbors, including Tsarist Russia, Germany, and the Soviet Union.  While conditions today are superior to those prevailing even twenty years ago, it’s a depressing legacy, and one could argue that it has left the country with an inferiority complex and a bad case of national angst. 

Lithuanians are perhaps too good at beating themselves up.  The good news for the rest of us is that Turning Lithuanian (to borrow a meme from the rock song, "Turning Japanese") has been reduced to a few easy exercises that can be done in the privacy of the home, or, in the case of that fellow in the photo at the top of this post, out on the deck of Captain Morgan’s beer joint on Vilnaus gatvė.