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Sunday, January 29, 2017

A new year in an old town

Kristiana might be a citadel of capitalism (in this case cosmetics and fashion) on Gedimino Prospektas, but the figure above the sign looks suspiciously Soviet

Saturday is the first day of the Year of the Rooster 酉, Day One of the Lunar New Year. In an attempt to replicate an aspect of Taiwanese life in the Baltics, on Friday night (the Lunar New Year Eve) we had dinner at a Chinese restaurant close to the Seimas Palace (Seimo rūmai). The best thing that could be said about the meal was that the Dragon beer was different from the usual local favorites (a Google search reveals the surprising fact that it's brewed in Saint Petersburg, Russia of all places); the best thing that could be said about the restaurant itself was that it's the best-decorated of all the Chinese restaurants in Vilnius that we've patronized to date:


Back home after dinner, and time to hand out the red envelopes 紅包:


On Saturday afternoon I dragged my daughter away from the computer screen and out into Old Town. Our route took us past the Presidential Palace and the word "Freedom" out front:


At Akademinė Knyga, a book store specializing in academic and scientific titles, Amber purchased a copy of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children:


The book shop is located on Universiteto gatvė, which is also home to the historic buildings of Vilnius University (Vilniaus Universitetas). The oldest university in Eastern Europe, it started out as a Jesuit college in 1568, before obtaining university status in 1579 during the Counter-Reformation. The present campus consists of buildings constructed between the 16th and 18th centuries, with the result being a combination of different architectural styles. The school was run by the Jesuits for a couple of centuries and my Lonely Planet guide describes it as being one of the greatest centers of Polish learning during that time, producing many noted scholars. The Russians shut it down in 1832, however, and the school didn't reopen until 1919. Vilnius University is now home to 23,000 students, as well as Lithuania's oldest library:


The university is known for its 13 courtyards, which non-students can check out for a small admission fee. My daughter stands in the Mathias Casimir Sarbievius Courtyard, named after a prominent 17th-century Latin poet:


The Astronomical Observatory Courtyard features an 18th-century Neoclassical observatory:


The largest of the courtyards is the aptly-named Grand Courtyard, dominated by Sts. Johns' Church (Šv Jonų bažnyčia), founded in 1387 (and thus predating the university), though the present late-Baroque building was erected following destructive fires in 1737 and 1749. To the right of the church is the bell tower - the freestanding campanile is the tallest structure in Old Town, at 68 meters (223 feet) in height. The view from the top is supposed to be a good one, but can only be accessed from April to October. We'll be back:


The Grand Courtyard features 300 year-old frescoes and plaques on the walls commemorating noted faculty members and graduates:



Inside the Church of St. Johns, St. John the Baptist and Sts. John the Apostle and Evangelist:






The Simonas Daukantas Courtyard, named after the author of the first history of Lithuania written in Lithuanian:


Some lucky Vilnius University students will have the opportunity to take summer classes at National Taiwan University 國立臺灣大學:


In the Mikalojus Daukša Courtyard, dubbed so in honor of a Catholic priest, administrator and translator (the surrounding buildings are home to the history faculty). I can't explain the presence of lit candles on the ground:


Once the sun returns and the snow has melted away, I'd like to visit the courtyards again to see them in their spring and summer finery, as well as ascend the campanile of Sts. Johns to take in the view of Old Town. The university book store, Littera, was closed on Saturday; another reason to visit the university would be to check out the shop when it's open:


From Vilnius University Amber and I walked over to the Gedimino 9 shopping center on Gedimino Prospektas, where we enjoyed a little taste of Taiwan in the form of 珍珠奶茶, courtesy of Formosa (doughnut by Donut Lab):


On the way home:


雞年快樂!








Saturday, January 21, 2017

Eleven-plus - 生日快樂!

My little girl is growing up - Amber turned eleven on Saturday:


The day began as most Saturdays do, with my daughter going to her swim class, and my using that time to go for a walk in the park behind the gym where Amber was doing laps in the pool:

Lithuania is a land of crosses

Walking through the woods and passing through one of the gates of the Vilnius Calvary:



Trinapolis Church:



The Neris River:



After lunch I took Amber out to a nearby slope to take advantage of the snowpack while it lasts (today was a balmy 35° F, or 1.7° C, and the snow is beginning to turn into slush):








Given a choice of where she wanted to go for dinner on her birthday, my daughter decided on JHK & DD's Place, Vilnius' only Korean restaurant. Afterward, it was back home to blow out the candles, open the presents, eat some cake and chat with her aunt and grandfather via Skype:



It's a cliche, but it does seem like only yesterday we were pushing her around in a stroller and wondering when her hair would start growing so that she would less resemble her follicly-challenged father. Amber will always be my little girl, but at the same time I look forward to the years to come, and the memories they will bring.

Happy Birthday sweetheart!

Good morning Vilnius!

UPDATE:
An old colleague of mine from when we both worked at a kindergarten/bǔxíbān 補習班 in Fēngyuán 豐原 sent these photos via Facebook, taken by him at our apartment eleven years ago not long after Amber had come home from the maternity hospital. 謝謝 Tim!:




Monday, January 16, 2017

Left in the Cold

The Russian Orthodox Church of the Saint Virgin's Apparition (Znamenskaya Tserkov) on the other side of the iced-over Neris

Relativity. It's the only explanation for how a day when the temperature is only two degrees above freezing on the Fahrenheit scale (1.1°C) somehow doesn't feel cold. This Saturday was the first day in well over a week that didn't require putting on a thick scarf and thermal underwear before heading out the door, and was quite a contrast to the previous Saturday, when the thermometer plummeted to -24°C (-11°F). It was so relatively pleasant, in fact, that I went for a walk in the park while my daughter was taking part in her weekly swimming class. Walking on the fresh snow was an infinitely more pleasurable activity than the hazardous ice-dodging I was engaged in going to and from the office every day last week:

"And miles to go before I sleep."

Three of the chapels along the Vilnius Calvary route


Gesturing toward the Neris with a hand of Trump-like proportions

It was so nice, in fact, then I went for another stroll in the snow after lunch at home:

If the crow is such an intelligent bird, why didn't this one fly south for the winter?

A patriotic snowman


Taking in the view

Kids enjoying a snow-covered hill. Amber was at home getting ready to attend a classmate's birthday party. Too bad for her

I consider myself to be progressive on most major issues, and the majority of my friends and acquaintances share similar views. However, there are some topics the views on which held by some of them leave me scratching my head as to what happened to their progressivism. As an example, why would someone who was a passionate Bernie Sanders (and later Jill Stein) supporter during last year's presidential election campaign also be a proud member of the Vladimir Putin Appreciation Society? There is a distressingly large number of people on the left politically who proclaim their support for progressive causes in their home countries but who inexplicably will side with authoritarian regimes in places like Beijing and Moscow when it comes to foreign relations. I've written before about the anti-Taiwan bias among some on the left (Taiwan - functioning democracy, female president, on the verge of becoming the first Asian country to recognize same-sex marriages etc. vs. China - Tibet, Xinjiang, environmental degradation on a massive scale, militarization of so-called islands in the South China Sea etc.), but there are those, too, who seem to find no wrong with Putin's Russia. Despite the corruption, the violent deaths of prominent journalists and opposition figures, the official homophobia and so on, these people always fault the West for "provoking" Moscow. In addition to denying the validity of the recent hacking claims, these ersatz progressives often share on social media articles critical of the U.S. and other leading Western powers for expanding NATO's presence in the Baltic countries and Poland. What is frequently missing from these stories is an understanding of the feelings the Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians and Poles have toward their Russian neighbor - these are citizens of sovereign nations who have the right to determine what security policies their elected governments should pursue after having been on the receiving end of Russian imperialism for the past several centuries.

Lithuania, of course, is a perfect example. The country lost its independence to Tsarist Russia from 1795 to 1918, and then later was forcefully absorbed into the USSR as an unwilling constituent republic from 1940 to 1990. In the aftermath of the Russian takeover of Crimea in 2014, Lithuanians today face an ongoing Kremlin-directed disinformation campaign aimed at the country's small ethnic Russian minority, not to mention a build-up of Russian offensive military capabilities in the Kaliningrad enclave. Friday the 13th was the Day of the Defenders of Freedom, commemorating the events of January 13, 1991 when fourteen Lithuanians were killed by Soviet troops in what is now known as the January Events (Sausio įvykiai). Every year from the 11th to the 13th many Lithuanians wear representations of forget-me-not flowers. This is mine:


While I was outside on Saturday afternoon, I made my way over to the Parliament House, aka the Seimas Palace. Official ceremonies commemorating the victims of the attack on the TV Tower had been concluded the previous day, but offerings could still be seen:



The Seimas "Palace" itself is an ugly remnant of the Soviet era, but 26 years ago it was the scene of a historic stand-off, as barricades were erected to defend the parliament, where the Act of the Re-Establishment of the State of Lithuania had been adopted in March 1990,  from the Red Army:



Along one side of Parliament House is a temporary exhibit on the victims of January 13, and already closed by the time I showed up. Photographs from that time in early 1991 line the glass. Note the depiction of Mikhail Gorbachev - while he might still be admired in the UK, the US and Germany for his (unintended) role in the collapse of the USSR and the end of the Cold War, Lithuanians have different recollections of their former president:




Soviet troops would be gone by December 1991 as the failure of the August Coup would seal the fate of the Soviet Union and lead to the formal recognition of the independence of the three Baltic republics. Understanding the January Events means understanding some of the reasons as to why NATO has expanded into the Baltics. Even if there are some Russian nationalists who continue to deny there was ever an attack.

An unusual statue on the facade of a building facing the Seimas

Sunday was peaceful as there were no signs of Russian tanks having crossed the border overnight. My daughter had a classmate for a sleepover on Saturday night, and early on Sunday afternoon I took Amber and Dorothy to the park behind our apartment building for some fun in the snow:



This is why you don't mess with Dad when it comes to snowball fights

On Monday the temperature dipped below freezing again, dropping down to -4°C (25°F). It was also Martin Luther King Jr. Day, meaning I had the day off. There wasn't much to do, however, as my daughter still had to go to school, so there would be no sleeping in for Dad. Still, after breakfast I went outside for what eventually became a three-hour walk. My goal was the Three Crosses, visible as I walked down Liejyklos gatvė and on into Bernardinų sodas (Bernadine Gardens):


Christmas lighting has yet to be taken down in the gardens:



Ducks regretting their choice not to fly south for the winter:


Having crossed a bridge and now walking on the opposite side of the only partially-frozen over Vilnia:


It was a short but steep walk up to the Three Crosses, which reinforced just how out-of-shape I've let myself become. I've been to the monument several times now (first time here), and the view looking out over Old Town is always worth the effort:





A view from a different vantage point while walking away from the Three Crosses. Somewhere through all that mist and snow is Amber's school:


I next tried to ascend Bekešo Kalnas (Bekes Hill) via an even longer, steeper path, but ended up stuck on the side of the hill, unable to go up any further but also unable to descend. The solution, however, was easy: it's winter, so I just sat down and slid on my posterior to the bottom (rimshot) of the hill. I then climbed a shorter route to reach the "Republic" of Užupis. From what I could observe walking along the streets, the main industry in the republic appears to be orthodontic clinics (our family dentist is also located in the district):


"Dick Butt"!:


Heading down the street:


A church located off of Polocko gatvė. According to the sign on the gate, services in the Belarusian language are held there. The car with the green license plate is registered to a French diplomat (not sure why it was parked outside as the French Embassy isn't in Užupis); our vehicle also has diplomatic plates:


The Užupis Angel, which also can't be bothered to take down the Christmas decorations:


Tibeto skveras (Tibetan Square) - note the words "Save Tibet" at the bottom. In the background is the Orthodox Cathedral of the Theotokos:


St. Anne's Church and the Bernadine Church & Monastery:


Shu-E had done a lot of cooking over the weekend, both for our daughter's classmate as well as for a dinner guest on Sunday evening. So after Amber returned home from school on Monday, we went out for dinner at a place called Foxes a short walk from our apartment building. As you can see, my wife opted for the lobster:



Back in the Eighties, when Gorbachev's glasnost and perestroika reforms had awakened long-suppressed nationalist movements in the then still-intact Soviet Union, I had a summer job at college as a housekeeper (part of a crew taking care of dormitories being used by attendees of academic conferences and athletic events). One of my co-workers was of Lithuanian heritage and would tell me that his ancestral homeland would soon be a free country again. I confidently told him that such an occurrence wouldn't happen anytime soon.

Never have I been so glad to have been proven so wrong...