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Monday, August 1, 2016

That was the week that was

Pondering how it all went so terribly wrong?

A few highlights from this past week:

Wednesday was our fourteenth wedding anniversary, and Shu-E and I celebrated the occasion (along with our daughter) by having dinner at a restaurant in Old Town called Lokys. It's not difficult to find - just keep an eye out for the wooden bear fronting the 16th-century cellars of a former merchant's house. A self-described "hunter's restaurant", the menu unsurprisingly features a lot of game dishes such as venison, boar, quail and even beaver. In fact, the beaver stew with mushrooms is what I ordered for dinner, and it was delicious, with a taste similar to...I don't know, beaver, I suppose? I washed down the meal with a "Traditional Lithuanian stout beer “Butautų dvaro”" (according to the menu), which was actually the best damn Lithuanian brew I've had so far in this country. We'll be back, I'm sure:

Thursday was the occasion of the second annual Burger Fest, held at the Lithuanian Theater, Music and Film Museum. All of Vilnius' big burger flippers had booths there - Boom Burger, Ciop Ciop, Drama Burger, Meat Lovers Pub and more, though we've (as in just Amber and I) only been to the first one, so I really have no idea what I'm talking about when it comes to this city's hamburger scene. In any event, it was a warm, pleasant evening with a good turnout, and the burgers weren't bad. As an American, I was asked by the young woman who sold me my second burger of the evening to stop by her booth later to let her know my opinion - you know, being from the U.S. of A., I've been qualified from birth to pass judgement on the hamburger efforts of those not fortunate enough to have experienced Murder, Elevation, Sam's Chuck Wagon or any of the other burger joints I've come across in the States. Unfortunately for her, she was too busy seeing to customers (so it was actually fortunate, then) to receive my all-important validation. See you next year:

Saturday was the highlight of the week (for me, at least), for on this day we made our first road trip out of Vilnius and into the countryside (though it only takes about ten minutes from the heart of Lithuania's capital to leave the city behind). We drove 120 kilometers (75 miles) to the spa town of Druskininkai, but the purpose of our visit wasn't to rejuvenate tired bones (that will be for a later excursion). Our destination was the local graveyard of Communism, Grūtas Park (Grūto Parkas), aka "Stalin World". Like other Soviet Socialist Republics, Lithuania was "graced" with socialist realist sculptures in its public squares and gardens. When the country regained its independence in 1990-1991, most of these hated objects were quickly removed from sight. A former collective farm leader by the name of Viliumas Malinauskas, who had taken advantage of free-market reforms and had gotten rich from canning mushrooms, had the idea of gathering some of these sculptures in one entertaining/educational location, and Grūtas Park has been in business since 2001. It's a brilliant display of humor at its blackest:

The mood is set even before you buy your admission ticket, as on the way to the entrance you pass "Kryžkalnis' Mother", a work of "art" that once proudly stood somewhere attempting to inspire socialist consciousness in the masses, but here now serves as a resting spot for donkeys:

Rusų Karys (Russian Soldier) was made by German POW's, using metal retrieved from the wrecks of German warplanes shot down by the Soviets (a rather brilliant in-your-face gesture, I must admit). It now stands outside the entrance to the park's restaurant (where, because I was the designated driver, I couldn't partake of the sprats-onions-and vodka "nostalgia" set that looked very tempting):

More than anything else, the park shows how hideous public art was in the Soviet Union (or in any other Communist country, for that matter):

Watchtowers surrounded by barbed wire and blaring out Soviet-era anthems provide the appropriate Gulag-style atmosphere:

Most of the statues displayed at the park are of Lithuanian Communist luminaries, such as Vincas Mickevičius-Kapsukas. My daughter was at a loss to understand why Socialist sculptors were seemingly loath to portray the entire human form, as many of the statues were only of heads, busts or upper torsos:

Speaking of busts, there's one of Felix Dzerzhinsky Фе́ликс Дзержи́нский, whose "accomplishments" included establishing the first Soviet secret police forces and the gulag prison camp system:

But the star of the show at Grūtas Park is, of course, none other than Vladimir Lenin Владимир Ленин himself: 

If you look closely at the large Lenin statue below, you might notice that it's missing its right thumb. The digit was lost when the statue that once stood in front of the KGB building in Vilnius was being wrenched from its pedestal by a crane:

This particular affront to aesthetics is dedicated to the All-Union Leninist Young Communist League, better known as the Komsomol Комсомо́л:

Joseph Stalin Иосиф Сталин, whose purges, executions, deportations and other heinous acts resulted in the deaths of up to an estimated 10 million people - more if you include the famines of 1932-1933. Say it ain't so, Uncle Joe:

The inspiration behind it all, Karl Marx. The photograph in front shows where the statue originally stood. I'd rather be a Marxist of the Groucho kind:

Marx, Friedrich Engels, Lenin, Mickevičius and Stalin:

This statue dedicated to "Underground Soviet Partisans" may actually hit close to home, sort of. Judging from the description and photographs on the explanatory sign, and based on certain geographical features, Amber and I both think this behemoth may have stood in the park just behind our apartment building:

The park isn't just sculptures and statues. There's a museum on Soviet rule from the Lithuanian perspective:

The map in the upper left-hand corner is a replica of one signed by German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop and Stalin, dividing Eastern Europe into German and Soviet zones of occupation. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact is an object of hatred among Lithuanians, as its secret protocols resulted in the country's forced absorption into the U.S.S.R. in 1940:

There's also a library featuring creepy mannequins...:

...and an art gallery with stirring paintings of Lenin orating and happy pig farmers being visited by local officials:

Grūtas Park isn't just about communism, however. For one thing, there's a rather sad-looking gulag zoo:

There's also a playground containing fun but dangerous equipment that would have an American attorney wringing his or her hands at the amount of money to be made from personal injury lawsuits:

Amber enjoyed Grūtas Park; in fact, it was her suggestion to visit, as the park is the only Lithuanian attraction mentioned in her Not for Parents: Europe book, put out by Lonely Planet. I'm not sure what my wife took away from the experience, as she has little knowledge of non-Chinese history as a result of growing up in Taiwan during the martial law era; I suspect seeing all these once-grand statues now banished to a remote forest in southern Lithuania may be an uncomfortable reminder of what's become of many Chiang Kai-shek statues in her homeland (though not enough, in my opinion). As for me, I was fascinated by seeing these slices of Communist history up close and appreciated the dark sense of humor behind the park's premise. But there's also a sense of sadness, as these statues represent a very dark chapter in Lithuania's history, of a time when so many suffered under a repressive regime in the name of Marxism-Leninism. Despite economic ups and downs, EU and NATO-member Lithuania has made remarkable progress from its days as an unwilling constituent republic in the Soviet Union. Grūtas Park is located not far from the border with Belarus, which is often described as Europe's last dictatorship and the world's last Soviet republic. It's a stark reminder of why, when Lithuanians look eastward these days, they do so with trepidation:

Sunday was somewhat more relaxing than the Gulag fantasy camp. In the afternoon we made the short drive to Belmontas, a resort located within the Vilnius city limits that is popular with families (it was also the site for this year's embassy Fourth of July party). It sits bestride the Vilnia River - on this warm summer day, local youths were jumping (some doing somersaults and back flips) from the bridge pictured below into the pools underneath:

Several walking trails heading up into the hills look promising, and will be explored further in the near future, of this I avow:

One section of trail passes close to the railroad tracks:

A late-afternoon lunch consisting of an assortment of cold meats, herring with onions and cream and Belmontas' own smokey-flavored craft beer:

The Vilnia flows down through Old Town before reaching the larger Neris River:

My daughter takes a break outside the Hesburger on Gedimino pr. Hese is a Finnish fast-food chain battling McDonald's for supremacy in the Lithuanian market:

After the storm

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