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Monday, May 16, 2016

First steps

Vilnius, Lithuania. We've been here since the sixth of May, and this weekend is the second for us in this so-far-charming Baltic capital city. I've put in a full week at work, my daughter has done the same at her new school and my wife has already become a regular patron at one of the local supermarkets. The embassy here is much smaller than the consulate in Shanghai, and the workload in the consular section is a lot lighter - the number of applicants processed in a fiscal year in Vilnius is roughly equal to the number of applicants visiting the Shanghai consulate in a day-and-a-half during the peak visa season at the latter. On the other hand, while I'll be interviewing far fewer visa applicants, the smallness of the section means I'll be assuming far more responsibilities than I ever did in China, so there's going to be a lot to learn in the coming weeks and months. 

As for astute observations on the country, culture and city, you're going to have to wait - I've barely been a week in Lithuania. In fact, as we're living in temporary quarters on the compound, I didn't even leave the embassy grounds during the workweek, meaning Amber and Pamela have seen more of the city than I have as my daughter goes to school and my wife does the shopping. Last Saturday (the day after we arrived), my supervisor kindly took us to a tea room for lunch and showed us around the neighborhood, while the next day our social sponsors introduced us to the Old Town section of Vilnius. Thanks to their efforts (as well as many others at the embassy), our transition to life in a new city and country has been going relatively smoothly, helped immensely by the fact that Lithuania appears so far to be a genuinely pleasant place to live. On that last note, however, check with me again next February, in the middle of a long, dark and cold Balkan winter, to see if my first impressions are still holding up.

This weekend was the first opportunity for the three of us to strike out on our own. As any visitor to Vilnius should, we began our explorations in the city's Old Town, one of the largest in Europe, and only a fifteen-minute walk from our living quarters. It wasn't long before we found ourselves on the cobblestoned Pilies Street, lined with outdoor cafes and offering a view of Gediminas Castle in the background. It certainly doesn't get much more stereotypically European than this:

We settled on a place called Forto Dvaras, offering "traditional" Lithuanian dishes. Designed to look like a rural cottage and serving a tourist clientele (the table behind ours was being used by a group of Italian men, who were later replaced by a Russian quartet), the food nonetheless wasn't bad. I ordered a plate of pork dumplings, which were remarkably similar in taste and texture to the Chinese variety, though with the added touch of cottage cheese:

And, of course, there was beer. I ordered a SVYTURYS Baltas, a satisfying wheat offering from the oldest operating brewery in Lithuania. Judging from the ubiquity of the name seen around town, I have the impression that SVYTURYS is one of the bigger brands in the country. I understand Lithuania has a thriving craft beer industry, so I hope to become more adventurous as I get more familiar with the suds market here:

Pamela was far more adventurous, bravely finishing the sickly sweet honey mead she ordered at the end of her meal:

After lunch, we continued walking along Pilies gatvė. Lithuania is one of the best places to purchase Baltic amber, and we've already come across several shops selling jewelry and other items made from fossil resin produced by pine trees which grew in Northern Europe about 50 million years ago, a fact which greatly pleases my daughter:

Pilies Street leads to Cathedral Square (Katedros aikštė), which marks the center of Vilnius. The square is dominated by Vilnius Cathedral and the 57 meter-high (187 feet) belfry. This was also the site of the wall around the Lower Castle, which served as a bastion against the crusades during the 13th century (Lithuania was the last European country to convert to Christianity, a fact that earns it bonus points from me. I'm looking forward to discovering evidence of the old pagan traditions). As it was already late in the afternoon (time seems to move at a different tempo in this part of the world), we didn't go inside either the belfry or the cathedral. What's the rush? We're going to be here for the next two years:

Our life in Vilnius has apparently gotten off on the right foot, thanks to my wife, who discovered the "miracle" (stebuklas) tile in the center of the square. The tile marks the spot where the Baltic Way ended in 1989. For those of you not old enough to remember (unlike your humble blogger), this was a protest against Soviet rule in which over two million people joined hands in a human chain stretching more than 650 kilometers (404 miles) from Tallinn (the capital of Estonia) to Vilnius. Local legend says that turning around three times on the stone will ensure your wish will come true, as the girls happily tested the theory:

The eastern end of Cathedral Square is dominated by a large statue of Grand Duke Gediminas, erected in 1996, six years after Lithuania declared itself free of the U.S.S.R. As Wikipedia describes him:

(Gediminas was) credited with founding (the Grand Duchy of Lithuania) and expanding its territory which, at the time of his death, spanned the area ranging from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. Also seen as one of the most significant individuals in early Lithuanian history, he was responsible for both building Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, and establishing a dynasty that can be traced to other European monarchies such as Poland, Hungary and Bohemia.

As part of his legacy, he gained a reputation for being a champion of paganism, who successfully diverted attempts to Christianize his country by skillful negotiations with the Pope and other Christian rulers.

On the basis of that last paragraph above alone, Gediminas sounds like an interesting character, and I hope to learn more about him as I further delve into this country's history:

The 48 meter-high (157 feet) hill, known as Gediminas Hill, rising behind the square was the site of the 13th-century Gediminas Castle, and the spot where Vilnius was founded. There is a convenient funicular train, but it's an easy walk to the top of the hill, from which there are excellent views of Old Town, as well as the more modern part of the city off to the north. We left the restored ruins for exploration on another occasion:

A European crow, which looks more like a PWA (Pigeon With Attitude):

With evening upon us (not that you could tell, with Lithuania's late-setting spring/summer sun. Of course, the opposite will be the case come winter, but we'll deal with that cruel trick of nature when the time comes), we headed home, along the commercial Gediminas Avenue (Gedimino prospketas) and through a local park, passing rooftop statues dubbed "creepy" by Amber and statues dedicated to local heroes:

Our Sunday was not quite as adventurous as the previous day's outing, due to the morning's rainy weather and a desire on our part not to do too much, too quickly. We had lunch at a neighborhood Chinese restaurant, where Pamela was surprised by how good-tasting the food was. We then took an after-meal stroll through the area. To my surprise, many buildings in Vilnius are blighted by graffiti, but unlike in American cities, here apparently there is little to worry about. As it was explained to me, the graffiti is a carryover from Soviet times, when spray-painting on walls was one of the few outlets of expression, being relatively tolerated by the authorities:

This, however, appeared to have been sanctioned by somebody:

Our walk took us to a spot with a panoramic view looking toward the commercial center of Vilnius:

The streets in our neighborhood are not that confusing, but should we get lost, this new Russian Orthodox Church can serve as a landmark to guide our way home:

First impressions of Vilnius for the three of us have been overwhelmingly positive. The Old Town is very atmospheric and the cost of living is very reasonable, especially for a European country and despite the 21% VAT (lunch yesterday at the restaurant on Pilies Street came to less than €30, while the fare at the Hong Kong restaurant today was under €20 for the three of us). Crime rates are low, and the weather since we've arrived has been very pleasant - even though it rained heavily in the morning, the sun still came out this afternoon (again, check back with me in the winter on the subject of sunlight and weather). Though much smaller than China, Lithuania has a lot to offer, and I intend on seeing a lot of both Vilnius and the rest of this country during the time we'll be here.


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