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Monday, May 30, 2016

Memorial Day weekend, Lithuanian style

This Memorial Day weekend is the first long(ish) holiday for us since we arrived in Vilnius three weeks ago. Due to several reasons, however, we've chosen to stay in town for the three-day break. For one thing, our car hasn't been registered yet with the relevant authorities, so driving out of town isn't an option. For another, my daughter was invited to a classmate's birthday party on Sunday, so we didn't want her to miss an opportunity to get to know the other kids at school a little better, especially before the summer break. And speaking of school, while the embassy got the day off on Monday, Amber's school held classes as usual, and she might as well spend as much time there as possible in the roughly two weeks she has left before the end of the term. So for this Memorial Day, at least, we stayed close, but not necessarily at home.

Saturday, for example, was just too beautiful a day to pass up by staying indoors, so the three of us walked into Old Town, beginning our afternoon there with lunch at a recently-opened rāmen ラーメン restaurant on L. Stuokos-Gucevičiaus gatvė (so new, in fact, that I can't recall its name and I couldn't see it on Google Maps' street view). The Sapporo Miso Ramen 札幌味噌ラーメン and locally-brewed Dubbel beer were pretty good, and further evidence to recent arrivals such as us that Vilnius' dining scene is much more than the beets and potatoes that my wife was fearing would be our only options when eating out:

Although we stayed in town this weekend, Vilnius was playing host to the Skamba Skamba Kankliai, an annual festival that was first held in 1973, and is considered "one of the very few authentic festivals of folk music in Europe" (according to the embassy's in-house blog). The plaza in front of the office of the president of the Republic of Lithuania was lined with stalls selling arts and crafts, clothing, food and drink:

Visitors could walk right up to the entrance of the presidential palace while they browsed the stalls and listened to renditions of ethnic music. In fact, I didn't see a single police officer while we were there. I couldn't imagine such an event being held on the grounds of the White House, which could be taken as a sad commentary on the state of...let's just say I couldn't see something like this happening on the South Lawn and leave it at that:

Onstage, a group of singers sang folk songs and performed traditional dances. Appreciation and respect for such traditions appear to be very strong in Lithuania, an expression of pride felt by a small nation that has only recently emerged from a long period of Russian/Soviet domination and suppression:

While Amber and I listened to the music, Shu-E continued checking out the stalls, finally buying a book in Lithuanian picturing various dishes from around Europe:

Enjoying a local dark beer while a group of performers gathered together after their turn on the stage:

One of the singers came over and shared some homemade hooch with my wife and me. His English was limited, but he was able to convey that this particular kind of alcohol was 55-proof, a fact which I could confirm after a few shots:

Feeling the buzz, I staggered out of the plaza, and headed with my wife and daughter to see what is considered by some to be the most beautiful church in Vilnius, St. Anne's Church:

The story goes that Napoleon wanted to bring the Church of St. Anne back to Paris as his Grand Army was passing through Vilnius following its disastrous invasion of Russia, so charmed was he by the 15th-century Gothic arches, brick and glass. There are apparently 33 different kinds of brick used in its construction:

The free-standing bell tower to the right of the church dates from the 1870's:

Inside St. Anne's Church are three Baroque-style altars:

Looming behind St. Anne's is the fortress-like Bernadine Church & Monastery, the construction of which started around 1525. The church was closed in 1863 following an uprising against Tsarist rule, serving as barracks for Russian troops. During Soviet times, the building became a warehouse, but the Bernadine community was able to regain and restore the church following Lithuania's independence from the U.S.S.R.:

A wedding ceremony was being held as we walked inside. A series of Baroque-style wooden altars and confessionals were added to the interior in the 1770's, but only the main altar remains today:

The frescoes inside date from the 16th-century: 

Outside stands a statue of the Polish Romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz, whose poems hark back to an idyllic Lithuania (he was born in 1798, three years after the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was partitioned among the Austrians, Prussians and Russians). His greatest work Pan Tadeusz begins with these words:

Oh Lithuania, my country, thou art like good health; I never knew till now how precious, till I lost thee

It was getting late in the afternoon as we walked away from Bernadine Church, over toward the tourist-friendly Pilies Street and then through Cathedral Square, before reaching Gedimino prospektas. There, on the pedestrian-friendly Vilniaus gatvė side street, Amber and I purchased some traditional mutton and veggie pastries known as kibinai from Senoji Kibininė, taking them home to snack on for dinner (Shu-E, feeling less adventurous, preferred to pick up some noodles from a Chinese-style place across the road):

After dinner, my daughter and I went out in the bright sunlight (even though it was after 8pm) in search of some pigeons to feed. The birds were apparently already in bed (though a lone duck did waddle over to us while we were sitting down for some free handouts), but Amber enjoyed rolling down a hill, and both of us sat back and took in the spectacle of hot-air balloons flying by as the day was coming to a close. One could get used to this way of life:

Sunday wasn't quite as active, namely because of the aforementioned classmate's birthday party, which entailed two thirty-minute round-trip cab rides from the embassy to the suburbs and back (nice house, though). While Amber was eating cake and ice cream, and racing go-karts, the wife and I used the free afternoon to do some grocery shopping (ah, married life). I did, however, take advantage of the opportunity to buy some more Lithuanian beers. I haven't been here long enough, nor have I drunk enough yet, to be able to separate the good from the bad and the ugly solely on label, name and origin recognition, but I'm more than willing to try:

After dinner, while my daughter was getting for bed, I took a long walk, exploring new surroundings. I passed by, through or crossed over historic-looking churches, Soviet-era buildings, a pair of bridges and a shopping center. The hot-air balloons, as usual, floated overhead in the late-evening-but-still- bright sky. I haven't bothered to label the photos below as there will plenty of time to check out these places again in the future:

With Amber at school on Memorial Day (and I having to get up at 6:30 in the morning on a holiday to make sure she had breakfast, got dressed and made it to the bus stop in time), Shu-E and I ventured back into Old Town for a few hours in the late morning/early afternoon. Asian was the theme again for lunch, this time at a Korean restaurant called JHK & DD's place, on Vokiečių g. Towards the end of our meal, a large Korean tour group came into the restaurant for lunch, leaving me once again shaking my head at why so many Asian tourists will travel thousands of miles to a experience a different country and culture, only to eat the same kinds of food that they frequently have back home. Then again, many Brits and Yanks aren't that much better when they go overseas, so...:

Strolling through Old Town on a surprisingly warm day, we popped into Lino ir Gintaro Studija, a homewares shop on narrow Stiklių gatvė, to do the first of what I intend to be a souvenir-shopping binge while we're in Lithuania. We ended up coming away with a set of hers-and-his towels:

After an early afternoon break for coffee and caramel cake (me) and a glass of white wine (her), we returned to the compound to await our daughter's arrival home from school. And thus completed our first three-day weekend in Vilnius.

Did I mention that I could get used to this Euro way of living?

Immeasurable thanks go out to our sponsors in Vilnius, Heidi and Somerville, seen here with their young son William. They not only made sure our temporary quarters were stocked with food and other essentials before our arrival, but they went out of their way to show us around the neighborhood and to answer our innumerable questions about daily life in Vilnius. We'll be moving into their apartment after they leave Lithuania, but I hope our paths will cross again at some point in the future.


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