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Sunday, March 18, 2018

Vilnius Go Bragh

Happy St. Patrick's Day! Amber was surprised to learn that her ancestry from her father's side of the family includes quite a bit of Irish blood to go along with the English and Scottish sera (and god only knows what else). She wanted to know if there was any Welsh as well, but the answer is none that I'm aware of

Things are starting to fall in place for our departure from Vilnius in about three months' time. The plan is to leave Lithuania at the end of June, use up the rest of my accrued vacation time by spending around three weeks with the in-laws in Taiwan, then have a month or so of Home Leave (required by Congress) in Washington state before arriving in the Washington, D.C. area after Labor Day to begin training for my next assignment (Addis Ababa, Ethiopia). We've really enjoyed the time spent here in Vilnius, but all good things must come to an end and I'm looking forward to the experiences the new post will bring.

Speaking of Taiwan, it's been a while since I've ranted about something Formosan-related on this blog. But before getting to that, here are a few of the things that've been going on with us in Vilnius during that past couple of weeks...

Last weekend there was still snow on the ground and the Neris was frozen over:

My daughter and I had brunch at Drama Burger on Gedimino prospektas, where I tucked into my English breakfast plate while gazing at a photo of Jonas Basanavičius, the "Patriarch of the (Lithuanian) Nation":

Enjoying the snow on Taurus Hill:

The Russian Orthodox Church of the Saint Virgin's Apparition as seen from Taurus Hill:

From the hill the two of us made our way to another house of worship, the Romanov Church, officially known as the Orthodox Church of St. Michael and St. Constantine:

In an example of bad timing, the church was completed in 1913 in honor of 300 years of the Russian Romanov dynasty. The monarchy was overthrown four years later, and the tsar and his family murdered a year after that:

Arrr matey, it's pirate Jesus:

The neighborhood hasn't changed much architecturally since this photo was taken:

The Russian Drama Theater of Lithuania:

Crows, those supposedly intelligent birds which didn't fly south to Greece for the winter:

Enjoying a bottle of lemonade and a custard tart at Small talk:

Sunday, March 11 was the 28th anniversary of the Day of Restoration of Independence of Lithuania (from the Soviet Union). This was the scene in Cathedral Square:

This group was flying flags depicting the Vytis Cross, and there was a definite nationalistic vibe going on...:

...while nearby stood a motley assortment of flag-wavers, including one bearing the flag of the Republic of Užupis, as well as another brandishing the blue and yellow of Ukraine:

A banner on Pilies gatvė commemorating the February 16, 1918 Act of Independence of Lithuania:

Books for sale:

At the beginning of this past week relatively warmer temperatures (as in a few degrees above freezing) melted away much of the snow from the streets and freed up the waters of the Neris River...:

...but the mercury dropped again and smaller bodies of water remain iced-over (it was minus 13 degrees Centigrade when the photo below was taken on Saturday morning):

This Saturday was St. Patrick's Day and the sky was clear, though the thermometer read -6°C (21°F) as Amber and I headed out after lunch to Užupis, where the sight of a broken piano on a frozen riverbank doesn't seem out of place:

A boisterous crowd braved the chill:

It was a long wait but at last the waters of the Vilnia turned Emerald Isle green:

Today was a little warmer, actually getting above freezing (2°C/35°F, though the lows are still in negative territory, Centigrade-wise), with another clear blue sky above. The wife wanted to relax at home, so I took the child back to Užupis for lunch at the One for All international restaurant. Amber had the beef stroganoff (Russia), while I ordered the fried rice noodles (Thailand), all under the watchful gaze of the Angel of Užupis. In case you're wondering, the Vilnia River has since returned to its natural off-green color:

Before returning home and finishing up the weekend, Amber and I stopped for drinks and dessert at the small but friendly Storytellers cafe. Shockingly, Taiwan wasn't featured on the wall map, but the owner decided to put a pin where the country should be seeing as my daughter was his first Taiwanese customer:

Lá fhéile Pádraig sona dhuit!...

...I hope...

And now for that rant. Thanks to a Facebook post from a long-term expat living in New Taipei City 新北市, I have enough material to go off and running. It seems this particular expat was feeling flustered because a Taoist temple had recently opened for business just behind their apartment building, and the loud religious music had been going on every day, all day and into the night, up until around midnight. What was worse, there appeared to be no sign that the cacophony would cease anytime soon. I can sympathize (and empathize) with the person's a point. Yes, I'm a callous jerk, but said expat has posted for years about how wonderful their life is in Taiwan, and what a great group of people the Taiwanese have collectively been. Imagine a lost item being returned, which can "only happen in Taiwan." Or the need to thank the entire nation because of one competent professional (although the country as a whole remains blameless on those rare occasions when things turn sour). And then there's my favorite, the unbelievable kindness of the Taiwanese people, which naturally is unmatched anywhere else in the world. Only now what constitutes the top of the pops on the Taoist hit parade might be threatening to burst a bubble or two. Let me explain...

There exists what my friends and acquaintances in Taichung 台中 know all too well as the "Taipei Bubble". Most Western expats in Taiwan live in the capital city, or close enough to it, and can't get enough of the bars, clubs, galleries, markets, restaurants, theaters etc. that make Taipei 台北 a good place to reside. I like Taipei as well - it isn't Tōkyō 東京 (where else is?), but it can be Ōsaka 大阪 on its better days. The catch is that unlike in Japan (where cities like Nagoya 名古屋, Fukuoka 福岡, Sapporo 札幌 etc. are like smaller versions of Tokyo or Osaka), Taipei's all mod cons aren't replicated to the proportionate degree in Taiwan's other major urban centers such as Kaohsiung 高雄 and Taichung. The same goes for attitudes of the natives toward outsiders - waiguoren may not be a big deal in Taipei but 外國人 are frequently an endless source of amusement and curiosity to the denizens of, say, Chiayi 嘉義 or Douliu 斗六. But for many of Taipei's contented expat residents, what's true in the capital must also be the case in the burgs. This results in their Facebook or blog posts describing a wonderful place called "Taiwan" that upon closer reading reveals an isolated island known as "Taipei", where French-Thai fusion restaurants proliferate and mimosas can be sipped during Sunday brunches at Tianmu 天母 cafes. Those of us who live or have lived (as opposed to just passing through while traveling) in other Taiwanese cities and towns know that our options are (or were) more limited. For us, noisy Taoist rituals are (or were) just another facet of daily life to deal with, like maniacs on scooters, gangsters in BMW's and polluting factories.

Which brings me to the second, broader bubble, that of the notion of the Land of Perpetual Kindness. Taiwanese can be very friendly toward Westerners, and it's rare for the visitor to be ripped-off or scammed, as is sadly too commonplace in many other parts of Asia. And why shouldn't Taiwanese be nice to us? After all, we're guests in their country. Ah, but there's a rub, for no matter how long you've lived and worked in Taiwan, or how well you might speak the language (well, not in my case), or if you've married a local and have started a family, people are going to be nice to you because you'll still be thought of as a visitor, or at least not as a fully equal member of society. This certainly has its advantages, but many expats seem to confuse the kindness shown toward them as somehow being indicative of the society as a whole.

Which, of course, it isn't. Taiwanese may be nice to their "guests", but they're still human beings, and very often are absolute shits toward each other. People are constantly cheating, scamming and ripping each other off, and petty disputes can quickly turn into shocking displays of inexplicable violence (fortunately, stringent gun laws keep the bloodbaths to a minimum). Property crime is rife in places, most residential windows are barred and broken glass from car windows having been smashed for the contents within the vehicle were a not uncommon site where I used to live.

But scenes from my old neighborhoods aren't on the radar of the Taipei-based happy expats. See, I didn't live in an expat-enclave in a relatively affluent city neighborhood. Instead, for years I resided in Shengang 神岡, a then-semi-rural township in the former Taichung County 台中縣. My home during some of that time was part of a long concrete-block row house situated above a factory on a narrow lane in an area being transformed from an agricultural village into a light-industrial zone. The neighbors were polite to me, but often at odds with each other, and police were sometimes called to domestic disputes. A violent gangster with a very short fuse lived next door. Down the road was a family on the run from debt collectors - there were never any vehicles parked out front and the curtains were always drawn, but every now and then someone would peek out from a window at a car going by. Everyone looked down on the Thais working in the neighborhood factories - that vaunted Taiwanese kindness often only applies to those of the Caucasian persuasion, another facet of life in Taiwan (deliberately?) overlooked by many of the Taiwannabes©.

Back to that noisy temple. I sincerely hope the din eventually dies down, or at least is scaled back to a more tolerable level and/or limited to the occasional festival or procession (pole dancers on flatbed trucks - yowza!). But at the same time I also hope the experience serves to dial back the "my life in Taiwan Taipei is swell because everyone is so super friendly!" observations, and thus result in more realistic observations of life in Formosa.

In the meantime, Taipei folks ought to spend some quality time with the 台客 and 台妹   in Yunlin County 雲林縣 - they'll get to see a whole 'nother side of Taiwan they didn't know even existed!

Sunday, March 4, 2018

The Big Freeze

If you've been following the news recently, you're probably aware that Europe has been hit hard by a blast of Siberian cold air (see here, here and here). In Sweden, it's being described as the "Snow Cannon". The British are calling it "The Beast from the East". In the Netherlands, it's being referred to as the "Siberian Bear".

Here in Lithuania, the locals are calling it "Thursday".

(Disclaimer: I did not come up with the above witty observation - I admit to copping it from a Facebook meme)

The point being that in the Baltics it hasn't been an atypical winter. Yes, it's been cold, with temperatures in Vilnius frequently dropping into the negative teens Centigrade, and cold records have been broken in the western part of the country (a temperature of -26°C/-15°F was recorded overnight on Feb. 27 in the city of Ukmergė). The weather has also unfortunately claimed at least five lives in Lithuania. But unlike in much of the rest of Europe, Lithuanians have faced these conditions in many a winter, and life here continues as normal. Offices and schools remain open (much to my daughter's disappointment), and people continue to go out to restaurants and stores. The weather hasn't stopped this year's edition of the St. Casimir's Fair, known as Kaziukas mugė in Lithuanian (see here for last year's version; notice the difference in weather conditions). The traditional annual fair, with roots dating back to 1604, focuses on Lithuanian folk arts and crafts, and is spread across a number of streets of Vilnius' Old Town. I was able to convince my wife to leave the comfort of our heated apartment this Saturday (Amber was in Bratislava, Slovakia with her middle school swim team, taking part in a meet; see below) to check out the fair on Gedimino prospektas. The temperature was a cool -14° Centigrade (7° Fahrenheit), and snow was falling, of course:

On the way there. Shu-E loves this stretch of road, and has taken a lot of photos at this spot in autumn (leaves) and winter (snow):

The Žvėryno bridge, Church of Our Lady of the Sign and the frozen Neris River:

Wood carvers demonstrate their wares:

A folk music ensemble braves the elements:

Lithuanians are a hardy lot:

Straw baskets seemed to be a hot item at this year's fair. This photo was taken from the (relatively) heated comfort that was Čili Pica, where we had lunch:

This poor dog was forced to wait for its owner outside an IKI supermarket:

After shopping, my wife returned home, but I pressed on to the end of Gedimino prospektas:

Cathedral Square:

The man of the hour:

I then wandered over to the Town Hall Square to see what was going on in that area, before stopping to have a cup of coffee and then heading home:

The couple on the left was crashing the dance party. Alcohol is suspected of being involved:

Snow has been on the ground here for a while now. Last month, on the weekend before we left for our weeklong trip to Italy (see here, here, here and here - thanks to the current freeze, places that we had visited such as the Colosseum and Pompeii are now covered in snow), I took my daughter to Taurus Hill for some fun with her snow disk:

The net is in place to ensure that momentum doesn't carry the kids into a parking lot at the bottom of the hill:

A well-earned post-sledding snack at Dr. Waffle:

While we were away in Italy, Lithuania observed the 100th anniversary of the country's independence. Which explained all the flags we saw as we returned to our neighborhood from Vilnius Airport:

As noted above, Amber was away for several days in Bratislava, as part of her school's swim team taking part in a meet that also included teams from schools in the host city, Prague and Tirana (Albania). She returned to Vilnius today (Sunday), bringing her medal haul with her. Taking part in eight events over two days, our little Mark Spitz/Michael Phelps came away with two first-place finishes (in the 50-meter backstroke and 200-meter freestyle), one second-place (100-meter backstroke) and two third-place finishes (backstroke in the 200-meter medley relay and 200-meter individual freestyle). Here she is at home, feeling a little tired and sore from the effort but nevertheless proud of her achievements (as are her parents):

One last shot of the frozen Neris, taken on a sunny Sunday afternoon when the temperature soared to a sultry -4°C (25°F):