Saturday, July 18, 2009

Lithuania: Part I

Laubas, people!

At the beginning of our European adventure, I halfheartedly attempted to journal about the happenings each day, but our host packed things so tight that I had absolutely no time to record everything properly, nor energy after the day finally ended.

So, with Elle’s help (who, by the way, journalled very faithfully) I assembled a brief sketch of our doings here in the beautiful land of Lietuva. I’ll add random commentary also, but there’s no way I’ll be able to set down things as they were or do justice to them.

Monday, June 29th – Day of Endless Airplane Surprises

We were supposed to fly out from O’Hare, Chicago Airport to Warsaw, Poland about 5:30pm. But we packed early and were waiting around taking care of last minute things when the telephone rang. Our flight had been delayed 7 hours at least – not what we wanted to hear. However, there was another route which might just get us to Warsaw in time for our connecting flight to Vilnius. We would have to be at O’Hare in 3 hours. Could we do it? Mom’s never been one to delay. We called Grandma and Grandpa (as it was far too late to take the South

Once in O’Hare, we checked in, etc, only to find that our flight to Frankfurt, Germany was over-booked by 100 some passengers. Some-how, we managed to be among the persons assigned seats (Snap got upgraded to Business Class – lucky duck!): Thank God! Then the plane was delayed. And delayed some more. After an hour or so we boarded. Once on the plane, we settled in for a looooooong ride. 9 hours. I read some Lithuanian history, slept, edited some writing, read some Touchstone Magazine, talked with the Guatemalan lady on the other side of mom (practiced my Spanish), ate the food they gave me, and in general was immensely uncomfortable because they build seats for people taller than 5’ 1.”

Tuesday, June 30th – Continuation of Airplaneness and Commencement of Jet-lag

Once we landed in Frankfurt, we immediately sped across the airport to find our connecting flight to Warsaw. We had a slight problem, you see. When our tickets were printed, somehow, we didn’t receive my ticket from Warsaw to Vilnius. In Chicago we were told that they’d print it for us in Frankfurt. In Frankfurt they said to wait until Warsaw. I was a little worried. :P
Anyway, we noticed that this one family that had also taken our Chicago flight to Frankfurt boarded our connecting flight to Warsaw. Snap and I joked that perhaps we’d follow them, or they’d follow us, all the way to Vilnius. We shouldn’t have laughed – it happened. :D

When we landed in Frankfurt, Mom was in a bit of a panic. Our flight came in late, and there was only about half an hour till we were to board the Vilnius flight. We couldn’t read the signs very well, nor speak Polish (though English was spoken too [ish –as Snap says]) and we still needed a ticket for me! Needless to say, we had a rather frantic 30 minutes weaving our way through the airport and arrived barely in time to board the bus for the plane. (We probably would have missed it if Mom hadn’t sent Snap on ahead to let them know we were coming.)

On the plane, I read some more Lithuanian history and found out that the Millennium Celebration of Lithuania as a historically mentioned entity is connected with the Lithuanian’s martyring St Bruno. You’d probably know him as St. Boniface.

(Ironically, the Oak is symbolic for Lithuania. Snap: I thought St. Boniface cut down the Oak. TQ: And the Lithuanians cut down St. Boniface... [Yeah, I know. It’s pretty lame.])

Lithuania (Christianized by that time) also finally defeated the Teutonic Knights, ending their era of power, at the battle of Zalgiris or Grunewald under Grand Duke Vytautas. I also found out something very, very, very interesting. Apparently, at the time of Luther, the Grand Master of the weakened Teutonic Order corresponded with that reformer; the outcome being that both he and the greater portion of the Order became Lutheran and the former head of the Teutonic Knights swore allegiance to the Grand Duke of Lithuania as – guess what! – the Duke of Prussia! (That explains alot!)

Anyway, we landed in Vilnius, claimed our baggage, and were greeted by our hosts. (No customs, no passport checks.) They dropped us off at the flat which their friends had kindly agreed to let us borrow and left us to sleep for a few hours (after the mistress of the flat fed us well!). At 7pm, they picked us up and took us to see a bit of the city of Vilnius.

First we visited a cemetery in which rested a monument surrounding the graves of 14 persons killed by the Soviet tanks in an attack on a TV tower guarded by the Lithuanian nationals. Then we walked through Cathedral Square (past the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania and the Cathedral) and took pictures of the statue of King Gediminas – the first king of Lithuania. We climbed a hill above the Square, overlooking Vilnius, whereon were planted three immense white crosses. As our host told it, the original crosses were pulled down by the Soviets, but buried by the people before they could be destroyed so that after re-independence they could serve as a model for the present monumental crosses. (We saw those original pieces also). Finally, we left one of our newlywed friends with her husband of a few days (they were so beautiful together) and went with the other to meet his family and have dinner.

The family is lovely. The boy is one of those young men who just capture a place in my heart on first acquaintance. He’s witty, charmingly unembarrassed, yet sensitive and comical. Of them all, he spoke English the most fluently. The girl is wonderful as well, sweet, and very helpful. It was so nice to have another female to hang around with and to help translate despite age differences.

Wednesday, July 1st – Museum and Concerts, Concerts.

In the morning, our host took us to an open air museum of historic Lithuanian life. Traditional farmsteads from each sector of Lithuania form replicas of small settlements in the countryside. Interpreters in traditional dress explain architecture and traditions. (unfortunately, not in Anglishke) We had a lunch of traditional Lithuanian food at a small cafe in one of these villages, and our host suggested we try a certain drink: Gira. He explained that it was made with bread dough left to sit for three or four days in water with sugar. (Snap and I grin at each other.) It was served us in a bottle; this was not the real gira, said he. Someday we should try homemade gira. (Snap drinks and whispers to me, “Do you think it is...?” I nod. “I kind of like it,” says she. I grin.)
We made it back to Vilnius just in time to catch the first festivities of the Millennium Celebration of Lietuva. First we watched a ceremony by the riverside which we couldn’t see much of because of the crowd. Monks from the Franciscan Monastery were chanting (I think they were real monks??) and girls in traditional costume were putting wreaths of flowers on the water. (No, Nick, we didn’t participate. :D) Then we ran to a Franciscan church (much defaced by the Soviets and still in the process of restoration) for what our host called “a concert” (I think that this term meant pretty much anything musical performed by one or two groups indoors. I’m still not sure) in which songs were sung by choirs – apparently songs about St. Francis (?). Then we ran to the Vilnius University church to hear a concert by the Lithuanian Boy’s Choir and another choir after them. Then we found our way back to Cathedral Square for a televised National Signing of Millennium of Lithuania Document thingy. Since it was all in Lithuanian, I’m not actually that sure what was going on, but different Lithuanian important figures spoke and choirs sang songs, and bands played, and people were honored, and video clips on the history of Lithuania were shown, and I saw REAL LIVE MONKS! (they were barefoot too...) We didn’t get “home” until very late.

During our entire first week in Vilnius, Snap and I discovered that (very unfortunately) whenever we sat down for more than 15 minutes, we would find ourselves struggling against an overpowering urge to sleep. It was rather unpleasant because we were in constant fear that our host would think we were bored and be hurt.

Thursday, July 2nd – Day of Churches, Song and Dance

We spent the first part of the day with our newlywed hostess visiting churches in the Old Town of Vilnius. They were all beautiful. It saddened one to see the destruction wrought by the Soviets still awaiting repair. Many churches had once been covered with beautiful frescoes where now only bits of colored plaster still suggest the artwork. Most of the churches we saw were Roman Catholic, but we saw a few Russian Orthodox as well. I found the Orthodox churches artistically a bit surprising. They differed from all the other Orthodox churches I’ve been in (in my vaaaasst experience of a grand 2!) and the Eastern art I’ve seen. Large western looking paintings graced the walls in some, even forming part of the iconostasis. Many of the icons were westernized and lacked the unique form and perspective of the eastern icons. Often I saw a mix of western paintings and eastern icons in the same space, right next to each other. In one Orthodox cathedral, I saw relicts of several saints (from the area) preserved and housed in an elaborately roofed box. I eyed some of the icons for sale a bit wistfully too. At one of the churches, a lady took us to a table, and through our translator told us to take one or two of the pieces on it. Most were paper copies of icons, but in addition to one of those, I was given a necklace pendant of Christ with the Theotokos and Snap received a miniature icon of St. Valentine. Awesome! (Now I have both an RC “dogtag” and an Orthodox one. I plan to wear the Orthodox one as there’s nothing theologically wrong with it that I can see. (And my Protestant friends might ask questions. [Naughty me]) The RC one (from a Baptist School’s Garage Sale :P ) petitions the Blessed Virgin to pray for us, which I am uncomfortable with. )

After lunch, we climbed a hill (in pouring rain) to Gediminas Tower, a tower preserved from the wall of the castle that once overlooked the center of Vilnius. For the slightly romantic girl who loves knights, armor and chivalry, the little bit of brick and stone was immensely exciting. I loved every bit of it, especially the view over Vilnius from which I could imagine how I would defensively and offensively arrange an army around such a fortress. Afterwards, we were handed over to our other host who took us to the National Philharmonic to hear philharmonic choirs from all over Lithuania and Lithuanian choirs from other countries. I’ve never heard anything like it. (The hall was packed, but our host somehow worked us in after half and hour or so of waiting on the steps. It was so worth the wait.)

But the day wasn’t over yet! We missed the final half hour of the Philharmonic Orchestra concert to run to the Song and Dance Festival (part of the Millennium Celebration) in an outdoor amphitheatre snuggled in a deep valley in a Vilnius park. People lined the hills to watch. We heard folk songs and watched folk dances (in traditional costume) till late into the night. (actually early morning) At the end of the Festival, the musicians played traditional polkas from each of the four provinces of Lithuania and our host dragged me and Mamita down for a dance. It was awesome!

Friday, July 3rd – Swimming and the Children’s Festival

In the morning our hosts drove us to a small inland lake to swim. It was quite cold, yet desire to be good guests proved a strong incentive. Once accustomed to the water, the swim was pleasant and refreshing. Falling through the floor of the changing booth was not. (I wasn’t hurt, just a bit scratched.) Afterwards, we went to the Children’s Choir Festival in which over 16,000 children from all over Lithuania sang for hours and hours and hours. It was also amazing. (Our host’s children sang and played in one of the orchestras.) After this even was over, we went to eat and then walked along Gedimino parkway, near the Parliament building. Our host’s wife related to us how she and her husband had stood at that very corner not so many years ago with many other Lithuanians, forming a living barrier around Parliament to protect it from Soviet tanks. (This occurred the same night as the assault on the TV tower.) She also showed us an exhibit with remnants of the blocks and barricades surrounding the building.

Saturday, July 4th – Genocide Museum, Mass, and Opera at a Castle!

Mom managed to use the internet to contact Daddy, courtesy of our flat hostess, before our host picked us up. The order of the morning was to be the Museum of the Lithuanian Genocide (Nazi and Soviet), situated in the former KGB headquarters in Vilnius. Cold stone speaks louder than anything our host could have told us. Upstairs we saw offices, displays on the Lithuanian Partisan resistance, the deportees to Sibera, the KGB infiltration and police rule. But downstairs we encountered the cells; cells for solitary confinement, water treatment, some padded to prevent suicide by tortured prisoners, the execution chambers. I had heard the tales, but had never seen. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. Our host didn’t say much, but he didn’t have to.

After that, we went to the Cathedral Square. Because of the Millennium Celebration, a media trailer had been set up at one corner of the square. Mom had been eager to use the internet to contact Dad, and Elle and I likewise wished for a clue of what was passing at home. Our host said that the loudspeakers had announced that everyone was invited to use the resources within the trailer (including computers with internet access). Nervously, with much glancing around us, Elle and I followed her into the booth. I managed to glance at my inbox and answer two emails, when all of a sudden I heard the televised microphone announcer behind me. I heard some sort of question, and turned just in time to see the announcer stick the microphone in front of Snap’s face. She turned bright red and whispered, “I don’t speak Lithuanian.” I heard the announcer chuckle and say something about “American” as he turned away. Mom totally missed the whole exchange, and we couldn’t convince her that we wanted to get out of sight NOW! Accordingly, Snap and I beat it out of there, leaving mom to spend another few minutes emailing.

Once Mom had finished with her internet communications, our host and we walked through the booths in the park next to the Cathedral square. It was full of various performing groups in traditional Lithuanian costume (singers, demonstrators, smiths, cooks, dancers, etc), vendors, and children and spectators of all sizes. Elle took pictures. At 5:00pm, we went to Mass with our host and his family (it was a special Mass that they had to be present for) and then drove to Trackai. Trackai is home to the best preserved medieval castle in Lithuania – a castle on an island. And as if that weren’t enough, we were going to see an opera – an famous Lithuanian opera staged in the castle. Several friends of our host’s son came along (they were hilarious and interesting. One looked like Prince Caspian while another spoke fluent English and looked like a Rohirrim from the LOTR movies.) We ate a light supper together at a cafe which included something akin to Pasties and a whole tall mug of gira! (I look at Snap and whisper, “It comes in pints!” She nods.” However, Snap did not like the homemade gira because of the pellet looking things floating in it.) I drank ALL of mine, pellets and all.

Unfortunately, it was raining when the opera began and we could barely see anything through the mass of umbrellas (the audience sat in the courtyard and the opera was staged upon the walls and on a platform in a corner. Even though it was in Lithuanian and I could understand none of the words (excepting a few names), I could follow the general storyline and I enjoyed the performance immensely. Our hostess also found a plot synopsis in English for us to read which greatly illumined the musical goings on. The Teutonic knights plot to take the castle, one princess marries her love, while her “sister” is deceived and seduced by the Teutonic envoy into betraying her people, is verbally chastened by her Lithuanian prince, and is murdered by the Teutonic envoy before reaching the castle. The Lithuanian warriors lose the battle and die in a burning castle rather than surrender. It was all very dramatic, including real fire! *eyes widen* Ooh, aah!

We took pictures in the dark in front of the castle.


Snap said...

Note: We actually wouldn't have missed the plane from Warsaw. We had plenty of time and when I went up to the front desk and told them what Mom said to ask "My mother and sister are still going to security, but they are on their way", the stewardess kind of gave a smile one would give a over excited toddler and said "yes. Don't worry." And then the other people in the line came over and started telling me not to worry and that my Mother would come soon etc. and *I* WASN'T the one worried that we weren't going to get on the plane. *sigh*

Uncle Ick said...

it is amazing how different you two can describe the same events

elizabeth said...

great post! I look forward to hearing more! What amazing sights... and a Prince Caspian look alike. Very Cool.

The Incredible Ick said...

part two....