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Sunday, April 9, 2017

Giving artistic significance to the geographic center of the European continent

What it feels like at work these days

Just when spring was threatening to show up (with last Sunday being sunny and pleasantly warm), winter reappeared to remind everyone it wasn't done with us quite yet. While the temperature never dropped below freezing, at the same time it never rose above 10° C (50° F), and most of the time stayed well below that this weekend. Snow was even in the forecast for Saturday morning, though in the end it only sprinkled a bit. For some strange reason, however, it just felt colder both yesterday and today than the conditions would indicate - perhaps it was the hint of spring that we were given last weekend that got our bodies to start preparing for those warm days and late sunsets that are coming very soon. The snow tires will remain on the car until the end of the month, just to be on the safe side.

Sunday's weather was no excuse to stay home and do nothing, and so we drove about half an hour from our apartment this morning to visit what has to be one the coolest (and not in the atmospheric sense of the term) places in Lithuania I've seen so far - the Europos Parkas Sculpture Park. The 50-hectare (124 acres) site started out in 1987 as the brainchild of a then-19 year-old sculptor named Gintaras Karosas, who was inspired by the location's close proximity to the geographical center of Europe. Being an open-air museum, visitors walk through wooded parkland dotted with around 90 sculptures from artists the world over (34 countries according to the pamphlet given out after paying the admission fee). The most famous exhibit is one of Karosas', LNK Infotree. At one time there were over 3000 Soviet-made TV sets forming a maze that led to a fallen statue of Vladimir Lenin, earning it a recognition from the Guinness Book of World Records as the "biggest sculpture in the world made from TV sets". Today, the weather and careless visitors has led to a sharp reduction in the number of TV's still on display, but Lenin (minus his head) and the outline of the maze are still there:





Double Negative Pyramid (1998) by the American artist Sol LeWitt:



Drinking Structure with Exposed Kidney Pool (1998) by the American artist Dennis Oppenheim:


My daughter eyes the Sitting Policeman (2005), by Lithuanian artist Evaldas Pauza:


Woman Looking at the Moon (1996) by Mexican artist Javier Cruz:


Taking a break before having lunch (Chicken Kiev) at the park's restaurant:


Amber enjoys the interactive Mobile Games, by Lithuanian artist Mindaugas Tendziagolskis. Behind her is the building housing Europos Parkas' restaurant and souvenir shop. That's my wife off to the right, eyes glued to her iPhone screen:


Karosas, the founder of Europos Parkas, has five of his works on display there. Symbol of Europas Parkas (1991) was the site's first installation. Markers on the ground around the pyramid indicate the direction of, and mark the distance in kilometers to, various European capital cities...and Wellington, New Zealand:


I couldn't reach the marker identifying this piece as it was covered under a thick cover of low-lying tree branches. The groundskeeper has got some work to do:


Space Flight (1992) by Lithuanian artist Elena Urbaitis:


Orient (1997-2004) by Italian artist Massimo Ghiotti:


My daughter the human hamster on Carousel (2005), by Lithuanian artist Marius Zavadskis. Yes, the wheel really did turn:


Not all the displays were so playful. Just across from Carousel is The Judgement of the Rapist of Europa (1994), by Dutch artist Edwin Pietersen:


I liked White (1992-2002), by Lithuanian artist Artūras Raila, because it reminded me of Soviet-era architecture:


Karosas' fortress-like Culture:



Another installation I couldn't find the name of:


Catch the Wind (2004) by the South African artist Strijdom van der Merwe:


Shu-E and Amber prop up The Wall (2009), by Karosas:


Enjoying the forest setting:


Head by Lithuanian artist Adomas Jacovskis, one of the creepiest installations. Imagine coming across this one as dusk is setting in:


ENGI (1995) by Japanese artist Yoshitada Ihara:


Axis Mundi (2005) by Lithuanian artist Saulius Vaitiekūnis:


Karosas' The Sign (2008):


My daughter and I both had the same reaction when we came across Intimate Beauty (2001), by Indian artists Vibha Galhotra and Ashish Ghosh - "Outhouse":


Karosas' The Sign (2001):


My favorite installation at Europos Parkas was Space of Unknown Growth (1998), by the Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz. To me, they looked giant versions of the eggs from Alien; to a group of Mandarin-speaking visitors, they were 很可愛:




Finally, The Berlin Wall, a Fragment (2009), provided by the German Embassy in Vilnius. I'd always wanted to see the Berlin Wall, a dream that was dashed when it came down in 1989 - life can be so unfair at times (note to the sarcastically-challenged: I'm kidding):



My daughter and friend before an Easter egg hunt at the ambassador's residence on Saturday morning

Amber unscathed after an afternoon playing paintball on Saturday. Our car, on the other hand, was a muddy mess after a tortuous drive there and back over a very rough dirt road.  

My daughter's fifth-grade class went on a field trip on Monday morning to the Seimas Palace, home to Lithuania's unicameral parliament


Sunday, April 2, 2017

Tomb sweeping, Lithuanian style

Walking among the tombstones

Spring has finally sprung in Vilnius. The temperature on Saturday reached a pleasant 18° C (64° F), though it was rainy in the morning and into the early afternoon; today (Sunday) was even nicer, with a high of 22° C (72° F), and barely a cloud in the sky. Tomorrow is a work day in Lithuania, but back in Taiwan it'll be Tomb Sweeping Day 清明節 , a national holiday marked by families making their once-a-year visit to the dreaded graveyard to clear away the brush from their ancestors' graves and inadvertently start a few out-of-control brush fires in the process. I never had the "opportunity" to take part in this custom, as my wife was no longer obligated to tend her ancestors' graves once she married into her husband's family, and I, of course, had no tombs in Taiwan that needed sweeping. However, today we decided to combine the fantastic weather with the Taiwanese festival by visiting Antakalnis Cemetery (Antakalnio kapinės), which Lonely Planet describes as "(o)ne of Eastern Europe's most beautiful graveyards".

The cemetery is located to the east of Old Town, and is a short drive from our apartment building. It's the largest public cemetery in Vilnius, and is a microcosm of the city's history, with crosses and tombstones inscribed in Lithuanian, Polish and Russian. One of the first things you notice as you walk along the main path from the entrance is the identical stone crosses dedicated to Polish soldiers who died fighting in the First World War:



The most moving memorial at the cemetery is the final resting places of those killed by Soviet special forces on January 13, 1991. Their graves are watched over by a statue of the Madonna and her son:



One of the more interesting sights at Antakalnis is the memorial honoring 2000 soldiers of Napoleon's Grande Armée who died in Vilnius of battle wounds and starvation during the disastrous retreat from Russia in 1812. Their remains were only discovered in 2002:


Leave it to Socialist Realism to mar what should be a moving memorial to Soviet soldiers killed fighting the Germans in World War II with these ghastly sculptures. The once-eternal flame that burned in front of these figures was extinguished when Lithuania broke free from the Soviet Union:



Tombstones come in a variety of designs, sizes and shapes, with many seemingly dedicated to artists and academics:



In honor of German and Russian soldiers who fell in battle in 1914 and 1915. The wreath at the base was left by the British Embassy in Vilnius:


The grave of Algirdas Brazauskas, Lithuania's first president after the country regained its independence as the USSR imploded:


The best time to visit Antakalnis Cemetery is All Saints' Day (November 1), when thousands of candles are lit, creating a magical nighttime scene, but even in the daylight the graveyard is a lovely place to visit.

For dinner this evening we went into Old Town and Markus ir Ko, home to "the best steak in Lithuania" (Lonely Planet again). It's located in an alley in the old Jewish quarter, and is recognizable for the beefy forearm giving the thumbs up sign above the door. Next door is the Belgian restaurant Rene, where we've eaten a couple of times:



Enjoying a local beer outdoors on a pleasant evening:


I'm not prepared to say it's the best steak in Lithuania, but it was the best I've had so far in this country:


Markus ir Ko is also the most expensive restaurant in Lithuania we've been to so far, with the final bill reaching Finnish heights, but it's worth it as a very occasional treat, thanks to the food, service and outdoor ambiance.

On Friday, my wife got to practice a little diplomacy as she joined a group of fellow Americans to have lunch at the residence of the Japanese Ambassador to Lithuania. The ambassador, Toyoei Shigeeda 重枝豊英 (on the far right in the photo below; his wife is in the center), joined Shu-E and her companions for lunch; afterward, the ambassador's wife demonstrated the tea ceremony 茶道, while the Americans donned kimono 着物:


And now for a rant (softened somewhat by the next four photos below, which were taken at daybreak one morning last week):


Last week I briefly touched on the tumult going on in the Taiwan expat blogosphere over revisions to Taiwan's naturalization requirements. The country maintains a uniquely discriminatory provision (in the sense that it doesn't apply to Chinese nationals in Taiwan or to Taiwanese obtaining citizenship in other countries) that would-be citizens first renounce their other nationalities before they can become naturalized citizens of the Republic of China 中華民國. This leaves the serious risk of becoming stateless should their application to become Taiwanese nationals be rejected, so many expats who would like to stay in Taiwan prefer to hang on to their original passports and become permanent residents instead. The latter status is comparatively easier to achieve, which leads me to think this is the preferred end result of the Taiwanese authorities, hence the renunciation requirement for R.O.C. citizenship (heh heh). 

The Taiwanese government has recently relaxed the rules to allow certain non-Chinese aliens to become citizens without having to renounce beforehand. What has riled up the blogosphere is that only "high-level professionals in the technological, economic, educational, cultural, art, sports or other domains who have been recommended by the central competent authority" are now exempt from having to submit a certificate of loss of original nationality (according to this Taipei Times article). So, hello to corporate executives, high technology professionals, university professors and missionaries; sorry, English teachers, who make up the majority of Western expats living and working in Taiwan (and we won't even mention the Southeast Asians doing the dirty jobs Taiwanese don't want to do - it's close to impossible for them to obtain an Alien Permanent Residency Certificate (APRC) without marrying an R.O.C. citizen). The result has been a lot of bemoaning blog posts and whining Facebook comments on the unfairness of it all, of the feelings of love not being reciprocated by the authorities.

Yes, the requirement to give up original nationality and risk becoming stateless is a discriminatory and unfair policy that should be changed. But Taiwan is a sovereign state (please see the disclaimer at the bottom of this blog), and sovereign states have the right to set naturalization requirements as they see fit. Taiwan isn't a nation of immigrants in the sense of a United States, Canada or Australia. Nor does it have a resident Korean (Japan) or ethnic Russian (Latvia) population, for example, that is being denied full citizenship rights. Perhaps it's my line of work, but I’m finding it hard to sympathize with people crying about how unfair it is they can't get citizenship even though they love Taiwan and want to stay for the rest of their lives. Just because you like living in Taipei, eating stinky tofu, drinking Taiwan Beer and studying Mandarin doesn't mean you're automatically entitled to citizenship on your terms. Yes, I understand you'd like to keep your American, Canadian, Australian etc. passport because it would be easier to visit friends and family back in the homeland, and having that escape clause should the Chinese attack is reassuring (though at the same time sowing doubt about your supposed commitment to your adopted country of residence). But permanent residency would give you the best of both worlds - the right to stay in Taiwan for the long-term as well as the ticket out should the Sino shit hit the Formosan fan. If you truly want citizenship, then hold your noses, take the plunge, renounce and hope for the best. Or wait until the rules change.

The point is that obtaining citizenship in any country is a privilege and not a right. But then we live in an era of white and generational privilege. In this case, it appears that if you're a white, Baby Boomer/Gen X/Millennial Westerner who has lived in Taipei Taiwan for a few years, makes a decent living by teaching English, enjoys being made to feel special by the locals and would like to keep all that going indefinitely, you should be able to get your R.O.C. passport without having to give up anything in return (or beforehand, according to Taiwan's naturalization requirements) because that's what you want and, dammit, you think you've earned it. And if the Taiwanese government won't give you want you want, at least on the terms as you think they should be, the Internet is there to let you commiserate with fellow sufferers. 
Amber gets ready for Opening Day
So, yes, the requirements for relinquishing original nationality before obtaining Taiwanese citizenship are unfair (especially as the government has now determined that not all foreigners are created equal) and risky. But that doesn’t mean you must leave the country you love. You don’t have to be married to a local to obtain an APRC, and you get to hold onto your original passport. If you desire citizenship so you can participate in demonstrations and politics without fear of deportation, then be prepared to make some sacrifices (after you’ve naturalized, you can always work to get the discriminatory laws overturned). The world in general, and Taiwan in particular, doesn’t owe you a damn thing. Even if you may think otherwise…
It's hard to get worked up over anything with a living room vista like this. The view will be curtailed somewhat when spring arrives in force and the leaves return to the trees