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Sunday, February 12, 2017

In the center of the Lantern Festival

The girls admire a frozen lake

Saturday was the fifteenth day of the first month of the Lunar New Year, meaning it was time for the Lantern Festival 元宵節. You wouldn't have known it in Lithuania, of course, but that's perfectly understandable. What's harder to comprehend is why you wouldn't have known it in our household. True, there isn't much that can be done to observe the occasion here in the Baltics, and even in Taiwan few children these days will carry paper lanterns with riddles written on them to local temples. In this day and age of tourism promotion, many Taiwanese will attend official activities in public parks and plazas; this year's Taiwan Lantern Festival 臺灣燈會 is being held in my wife's home region of Yúnlín County 雲林縣.

If you haven't figured it out already, Shu-E is originally from Taiwan. You would therefore think that she would try and instill in our daughter (who was born in Fēngyuán 豐原 and carries a Republic of China 中華民國 passport) a sense of Taiwanese identity while we're living overseas (or even in the U.S.), but then you would be mistaken. When we were residing in Taiwan, I made sure that we celebrated the main American holidays so Amber could stay in touch with that half of her bi-cultural identity, but my wife doesn't share the same sense of urgency when it comes to other half (the Chinese/Taiwanese one). If it wasn't for me, cultural occasions such as the Lunar New Year would get overlooked. There's an odd sense of irony at play here when the hopeless Japanophile American is the one trying to get his bi-cultural offspring interested in Taiwanese culture, to learn to read and write traditional characters and to be proud of both of her heritages. I should be thankful Shu-E uses Mandarin when conversing with Amber; I'm still trying to have her speak to our daughter in the Taiwanese dialect 臺灣話 as well, but to no avail so far (she won't teach me the language, either).

So how did we observe the Lantern Festival in Vilnius, you might be asking yourself (or not)? First, by visiting the Humanitas bookstore on Dominikonų gatvė, where my daughter used some of her Christmas/birthday cash to purchase a book on how to draw cats (later that afternoon she would buy the next two entries in the Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children series from Akademinė Knyga). Humanitas is a great place to browse books on art, design and travel, and there were a couple of titles on Soviet and Taiwanese architecture that may convince me to let the moths out and use my holiday spending money as well:


Next, we had lunch at Kitchen, a stylish international restaurant off of Didžioji gatvė that didn't feature any Chinese dishes on its menu of contemporary cuisine. I tucked into the homemade sausages with tomatoes and mushrooms, and washed them down with a Raudonų Plytų Bėganti Kopa wheat beer:




Afterward, we strolled through Old Town before heading home. It hasn't snowed in Vilnius in a while, but the temperature has consistently remained below freezing, so there's still a lot of ice and snow around. Amber took some time out to slide down one such mound in the plaza across from the French embassy:


The days are getting noticeably longer, though the weather's still chilly (-4°C/25°F the high on Saturday) and the sun prefers to remain hidden most of the time. Passing through Cathedral Square on Saturday afternoon:


For dinner, as we've been doing on all the major Chinese/Taiwanese cultural occasions, we went to one of Vilnius' mediocre Chinese restaurants, this one a Cantonese place a short walk from our residence. At least the food here is better than at the establishment where we had our Lunar New Year's Eve meal. My daughter brought along a book on Chinese festivals to try and make sense of Yuánxiāojié - three guesses as to who bought it for her:


As they are for many Taiwanese, issues of cultural identity are not easily defined for my spouse, especially as she grew up in a household with a wàishěngrén 外省人 father (who spoke only Mandarin) and a běnshěngrén 本省人 mother (who only can converse in Taiwanese). So it's best if I don't push her too much when it comes to Amber, whom I'm confident will start feeling the need to fully embrace her Taiwanese side around the time she starts her sophomore year at college.

The sixteenth day of the Lunar New Year (aka Sunday) was even colder than the day before, with the temperature never climbing above -7°C (19°F), but by this point in our Vilnius-based life, it doesn't feel that chilly anymore. Which is in stark contrast to the present situation in Taiwan, where a cold snap has resulted in the deaths of over 80 people as temperatures plunged to 4°C (39°F). 4°! It's tempting to be snarky, but Lithuanians are much better prepared (with their central heating) for the cold than Taiwanese (who typically live in apartments consisting of uninsulated concrete walls, bare tiled floors and no heat); no doubt a typically hot and humid East Asian-style summer would take its toll on people in this part of the world.

On this day after the Lantern Festival the three of us drove into the countryside just outside of Vilnius, to a geographical position marked as latitude 54° 54', longitude 25° 19'. What's so special about this bearing? According to the French National Geographical Institute, it's the geographical center of Europe (Geografinis Europos Centras)! The actual midpoint of the continent is debatable, of course, and the French came to this conclusion by stretching Europe's boundaries into the Atlantic Ocean to include the Portuguese-administered Azores to the west and the Spanish-controlled Canary Islands to the south. Still, the Lithuanians were more than happy to erect a white granite obelisk with a crown of gold stars to mark the spot:





There are also 29 different flags, one for each member of the European Union, plus that of the EU itself:


The center of Europe is located about a half-hour drive north from where we live. There was a lot more snow on the ground compared to the streets of the capital. Had we known, we could've brought along Amber's disk sled to take advantage of the hilly terrain. Wait till next year:


On the large frozen lake next to the geographic midpoint a couple of people were enjoying an afternoon of ice fishing:



We returned to Vilnius for a late leisurely lunch at one of Shu-E's favorite restaurants, FORTAS. It's a chain specializing in international cuisine, with special menus devoted to particular countries. By fortuitous chance, the current featured cuisine is that of Belgium. Mussels, frietjes and Leffe beer may not be your typical Lantern Festival fare, but it was a nice way to round off the weekend:



Next up on the cultural calendar is Tomb Sweeping Day. I'm not sure how we're going to observe this one, especially as we never bothered much with it in Taiwan (something to do with my wife marrying out of her family, and therefore not responsible for maintaining their graves). As for the Lantern Festival, here's a link to a short NHK news story on the spectacular but environmentally-unfriendly practice of sending sky lanterns soaring into the atmosphere. I would occasionally see these fly over our building while we were living in Shéngāng 神岡.

Considering my age, job and marital status, a place best avoided


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