O! Wanderers in the shadowed land
Despair not! For though dark they stand,
All woods there be must end at last,
And see the open sun go past:
The setting sun, the rising sun,
The day's end, or the day begun.
For east or west all woods must fail.

J.R.R. Tolkien

Sunday, August 17, 2014

On Public Service?

To summarize: it is a well-known fact that those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it. 

To summarize the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.” 

Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

In regards to those who want to rule others, I agree with Mr. Adams. Add in truisms about how power corrupts and you have a very bleak picture of civil society. I want to believe that those who feel called to public service in the highest offices of our democracy are cut from a different cloth. But is that true?

Does planning your life around becoming qualified to and capable of winning the popularity contest that is our modern democracy diminish one's worthiness to serve and the nobility of their intentions? 

Some of my friends may already know this, but I aspire to serve in public office in the manner of Presidents Roosevelt (Theodore and F.D.R.), Senator John D. Rockefeller (D-WV), and former Representative Dr. Ken Hechler (D-WV). I believe that challenging the politicians that are in office because they want to rule, rather than serve, will benefit the common good. But it is also logical that choosing to pursue politics will substantially change the person who does so, even depriving them of pursing experiences that would have made them even better leaders later in life.

So is it more beneficial to choose our public servants based on their qualifications, whether they seek the task or not? Imagine what it would be like if our Congress was filled with likes of Neil de Grasse Tyson, Malcolm Gladwell, Jane Goodall, your humble parish priest, and tireless middle-school teacher; instead of Joe "Dead Aim" Manchin (D-WV), Joe "Windmills-Might-Warm-the-Earth" Barton (R-TX), and John "Poker Face" McCain (R-AZ).

Or is it still possible for genuine public servant to fight through the muck and mud, without losing themselves, because they believe that Destiny demands of them this service?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

More about Vilnius

It’s difficult to highlight the most interesting elements of our travels in Lithuania’s main cities, as there are so many unique elements. In the month and a half I have spent in Lithuania most of our travels have been limited to the capital city of Vilnius, though that alone has been more than enough. I noted in an earlier post that the city caught me off guard, having been exposed to the common image of ultra-modern European cities, with classical Old Town districts untouched for centuries. However, for whatever Vilnius lacks in gleaming modernity, it makes up in character and certainly has a reasonable explanation for being rough around the edges.

As short a time ago as the year after I was born, this small Central European republic was occupied by the oppressive military power and economic influence of the mighty Soviet Union. But in 1991, the citizens caught wind of the imminent collapse of their overlords, and rumblings for independence began to be felt. Unfortunately, those tremors were replaced by the thunder of Soviet tanks in the streets and battles for control of the airwaves and the Seimas, or Lithuanian House of Parliament. After a series of confrontations between Soviet forces and freedom fighters, the TV Tower, a dominating spire of the modern skyline reminiscent of Toronto’s CN tower, was taken back for a time by the occupying Soviets and used to broadcast propaganda. But the Seimas held strong.

In an interesting twist regarding the crumbling of the Iron Curtain, the concrete barricades in Vilnius were not symbols of oppression and division as they were in Berlin, they were quite the opposite: symbols of strength and independence. Most of the activities of the Lithuanian Parliament take place in a newer building, with the original serving mostly symbolic purposes. The interior is no longer fortified with sandbags and machine gun nests, nor do concrete barricades, strings of barbed wire, or anti-tank obstacles encircle the grounds, but off to one side a small display preserves a few of these artifacts and commemorates the history of oppression under the Soviet Union. But most notably, the docent of this small exhibit is a man whose name is still recognized in Lithuania today. Jonas Gečas was the man responsible for the defense of the Seimas during the uprising of 1991. Considering the disporportionate size of the beligerents, his accomplishment might be compared with that of Jim Bouie, had the Alamo withstood the Mexican assault. Since that time he served as a consultant and observer in conflicts around the world, including the Balkans and most recently, Afghanistan. Before we left, he generously gave me a book entitled “Faces, a photo essay of the members of the Lithuanian military. This book is furthermore a limited edition print, 1 of 1000 published to commemorate the 600th anniversary of the Lithuanian triumph at the Battle of Grunwald. Needless to say, it will take a special place in my library.

No longer do the streets quake with armored vehicles of an occupying military force, and the nation has made considerable progress since those days. With admittance to the European Union, the nation’s economy grew by leaps and bounds until the recession hit. The country is still recovering from the global crisis and emmigration, citzens leaving the country to work else where, is a growing issue. With few good jobs to be had, a college graduate‘s best employment prospect might only be stocking shelves at Maxima, the national equivalent of Wal-Mart. As a positive sign, there are construction projects everywhere, emblazoned with the Blue and Gold of the European Union, but there is still a long way to go.

For example, storm water run-off is a significant issue, with only a moderate rain threatening to flood a few significant thoroughfares in the city. As a sign of the age of the streets, the pavement in the city is very distinctly rutted with the tracks of automobile traffic and the buses, which fill with water in rain and produce unpleasant puddles. However, many of the older regions of the city have brick or cobblestone pavement, which is quite classic and effective.

After a month and a half here, it is becoming apparent that I won’t have time to fit everything in here that I wanted to do, despite being extremely efficient in seeing many of the sights and experiences this corner of the world has to offer. Fortunately, we plan to return in the not-too-distant future, so there will be time then for visiting the Television Tower, the inside of Trakai, and maybe even my far-fetched idea of taking a train to Northern Lithuania and walking up to the Latvian Border. That is all for now, as I write this on a tour bus bouncing through Poland (and yes I mean bouncing, the roads can be atrocious) and my battery is about to die. 

Friday, July 15, 2011

Bees, Privileged Chickens, and Hunting for Ežiukas

So much time has passed since the last post that's it's fairly impossible to get caught up in complete chronological order. So due to that, I am just trying to get up to date in the major subject areas. The first one, is several trips to rural Central Vilnius to meet Vaida's family and see their family farm.  

Among the highlights of this region are the "babushka's mountains one drives over to get to their particular farm. Not actual mountains, these bumps in the terrain are among the hilliest sections of road I have ever been on, with the possible exception of state highway near the California/Nevada border. What is additionally fun, but slightly unnerving is Vaida's dads' preference to accelerate when approaching these blind hills and gaining a noticeable feeling of weightlessness and/or flight on the other side of the hill's crest. It is little wonder then, that the Policija like hiding behind bushes along these roads.  

In the past couple of weeks I have had the opportunity to meet most of Vaida's family, and I am pleased to say that only one of them bit me. Fortunately, it was just a misunderstanding and Pluto rarely even barks at me now. The countryside, is an extremely rural and rustic area, but beautiful all the same. It's a little frustrating that I can't communicate directly with her grandparents, they are wonderful people and are very generous.  One bit of local fauna that I have heard about for ages, but have never seen in the wild until this month is the adorable but elusive "ežiukas," or as we know them, hedgehogs.

My First Ežiukas!
Vaida's dad holding a walking pincushion...
Like an inverted, walking pincushion, the ežys (different word endings for all kinds of different applications, I am still trying to figure them all out) is a nocturnal mischief maker that likes eggs, snakes, and apparently, has a taste for milk. Fortunately, if you want to see ežiukas, all you have to do is wait until late enough in the evening and periodically check the bowl of milk left out for the chickens. Since he doesn't run very fast, but is covered in stiff spikes like a punk rocker with a gallon of hair gel, he simply sits still when you shine a light on him. Provided you don't push too hard, you can even pet him, or pick him up with a suitable set of gloves. When left alone, the hedgehog eventually starts to snuffle through the grass, huffing and snorting like a distant helicopter. Needless to say from the way I describe him, I think the two hedgehogs I have seen so far are adorable, and I REALLY want to bring one back with me to the states. However, I think I would have a hard time convincing customs that he's just a hairbrush, especially not with the pointy black nose and beady eyes. 

The most privileged chicken I have ever seen. 
Another interesting creature in rural Lithuania is the ever prevalent chicken. Upon first arriving in the countryside I actually saw a handful of chickens chase off a cat. However, an even more unusual ritual takes place every morning. One particular višta (or chicken) comes to the back door, is let in and given some curd. Only then will she settle down on a pillow in the mudroom to lay her egg. When she finishes, she begins squawking and struts into the kitchen again, this time for some breadcrumbs or the like. As it happened, the "superchicken" (as Vaida calls her) finished this routine right in the middle of my breakfast. Not wanting to waste the opportunity, I can now say I have eaten an egg still-warm from the hen. 

And on a much different note, I have had the opportunity to learn a few elements of the beekeeping trade, though not actually to the point of handling live bees. I have been fortunate not to be stung yet, but it seems that everyone else has been, maybe even Pluto. I can't be certain, but sometimes he hides under the car and refuses to come out. It is a fascinating process, and produces more honey in one place than I have seen in my life. At least there is no shortage of sweetener for the tea!

Vaida's grandfather and an old Zaporižetis, with a
Russian motorcycle of similar vintage to the left.
Added to these adventures with local fauna, I have helped bring in hay, learned to cut hay with a sickle, grilled šašlykai over coals to celebrate Lithuanian statehood day (July 6, the anniversary of the crowning of King Mindaugas), practiced parallel parking, nearly had a disastrous accident with an old one speed bike, a hill, and malfunctioning coaster brakes, and many more adventures. Buried in the garage, is her grandfather's old Russian Zaporižetis and a motorcycle that I have to admit I am very interested in, though I don't entirely trust russian engineering, esp. not that old.  I will try to update this again soon, but with only the highlights, and so much has happened it is hard to keep up with everything. Check again soon!

P.S. A fair number of personal developments, such as finding a job, have occurred since the last update here, but I prefer not to broadcast everything to the world wide web. Please feel free to message me if you want to know more!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Amber Coast

It's funny how much work a vacation can become, especially when you add looking for a job and wedding planning into the mix. Late on Sunday evening I returned with Vaida and her parents from a trip to the Baltic Sea. During that one weekend trip, we traveled nearly the entire width of Lithuania, from Vilnius to the small resort town of Šventoji, just 7km south of the Latvian border. Apparently, Lithuanian resorts are among the most expensive in Europe, and we only managed the occasion thanks to a company holiday for Vaida's dad and all employees at his job. I have been trying since Monday to get caught up on this, and have finally settled on writing most of it from my iPod speeding south at 100 + km/h back to Vilnius from an entirely different outing.

Our Destination: The stormy Baltic Sea
On Friday, as early as after work as we could manage it, we all loaded into the Mercedes and set out for the Amber Coast. The company sponsors buses to the resort but her family abandoned that part of the experience after a particularly colorful incident years ago involving other employees and their guests, alus (beer) and/or водка (vodka),  Russian music, and dancing in the isles of the 4+ hour ride to the sea. The weather that week was ending up a fairly significant heat wave, and going swimming in the 50-60 degree (F) Baltic Sea sounded far more inviting than intimidating. However, the closer we got to the sea, the colder and greyer it got.

Near Klaipeda, the northern-most non-freezing port in Europe, we saw a great multitude of motorcycles, as it seems this weekend coincided with a major European rally. One part of their festivities included something to do with a fairly large single-engine plane, but it disappeared into the low-hanging clouds at only about 200 feet of elevation. Further on through the fog, a oil drilling rig emerged, about which I will make a brief note about in a different post. A mere 5-10 minutes later, a series of wind turbines became faintly visible through the mist, noticeably smaller than their American cousins.

Even 10-15 km from the resort town of Palanga, locals stand out with
signs trying to pick up tenants for the weekend.
Then, as we neared the resort region, I was very surprised to see dozens of people and cars lining the road, all advertising rooms for rent in Lithuanian, Russian, and even a few in English. It seems that it must be at least a halfway profitable endeavor for locals to try to rent out their rooms to any gullible tourists they can snag on their way into the village proper. Vaida and I conspired to come back at some point during the weekend and inquire about rooms, once in English, once in Lithuanian, to see just how much they would hike the price up for a (supposedly) wealthy Amerikan (sic), but we never got around to it as they were fairly far out of town and were much fewer once the Friday rush passed them by.

Once settled in at our particular resort, an odd mixture of a medical rehab center and tourist accommodations, we finally made it down to the shore of the Baltic Sea. This region is known as the "Amber Coast," because large quantities of fossilized tree resin lie on the ocean floor off the coast of the neighboring Russian province of Kaliningrad. After a storm, you can pick chunks of amber out of mats of decomposing swamp grass shaken free from the ocean floor, but unfortunately there hadn't been any rough seas as of late. But speaking of rough seas, between the heavy fog on the shore and blustery winds whipping up the waves, the sea looked quite formidable on Friday night. After wading through a few rouge waves lapping up on the shore, it didn't seem quite so cold, but Vaida convinced me to put it off swimming until later.

For the record, chasing little girls with the ball is not the goal of this activity,
she just happened to be standing in the wrong place when it got out of 
On Saturday, we took a detour from the organized company activities, such as log sawing competitions and something to do with a massive "Indiana Jones" style ball (see inset), we headed south to the city of Nida on the Curonian Spit. It took a significant amount of driving aimlessly around Klaipeda to find the ferry, but I have learned a useful tip from Vaida's dad. Even if the big tourbus in front of you looks like it knows where it's going, don't assume it's going to the same destination. My lack of speaking (or reading for that matter) Lithuanian meant I was no help as a navigator, but eventually we found the ferry dock to cross the harbor.

Continuing the tradition of expensive resorts, to even reach the city of Nida from Klaipeda requires almost 50 litas (1 Lita=.42 USD) for a 5 minute crossing, and another 20 litas for the automated toll gates which took at least 15 minutes to negotiate. Though we didn't see them, this coastal region is inhabited by wild boars and at one time it belonged to Germany (I don't believe these two facts are related, but you never know). The town of Nida boasts unique architecture more evocative of a german hamlet than a coastal Baltic town, but quite beautiful all the same. Had the rain held off, we might have taken a boat tour of the inland side of the Spit, but we had to content ourselves for a while dodging between shops to wait out the wettest of the weather.  

At the extensive Saules Laikrodis (Nida Sundial):
 minus the Sun.
After the rain passed, we climbed to the highest point in the region, which is adorned with a quite unique Sundial. Since sundials generally require the sun, we did not have the good fortune of seeing it actually at work, but as a concept, it is quite elegant and impressive. Decorated with ancient runes, the dial is an imposing monument by itself, coupled with its practical application of not only telling the time, but also the date. This, however, is the second dial, as a hurricane toppled the original a few years ago, and a few of the larger fragments still lay on the ground around it. Also, from here there is a commanding view of the sea, and of extensive dunes stretching down to the shore, covering Stone Age settlements from ages past. 

Before leaving, I acquired a special piece of art work from a Museum/Gallery featuring Lithuania's most distinctive regional product, amber. Of course, I would love to have bought the 15-20 inch long model of a Viking Ship in full sail, made entirely of amber, but I never did even find out how much it cost, and I am doubt selling a kidney on the black market would cover it. So instead, I settled on a very small, but exquisitely carved ežiukas, or hedgehog. I have yet to see a wild ežiukas, though I have heard many stories about the mischievous fellow, and there will be a post about him in the future I suspect. I will post pictures eventually, but as he is very small, I need to take special care to get a good macro photo with decent lighting.

In the evening, back in Šventoji, Vaida and I finally made a plunge into the Baltic Sea, which didn't prove to be nearly as cold as I expected. I still wouldn't want to have to spend hours at a time in it, but with my wetsuit, it was quite reasonable. I do admire Vaida's boldness to come swimming as well with just a regular bathing suit, though as we left her lips were looking a bit purple. For some reason, her dad seemed very interested in warming us up with some of his Bulgarian brandy, but none of us drank nearly enough to make an appreciable difference in the bottle, which as I understand is several years old already. 

Just a few of the many kite-boarders in the Baltic Sea.
The rest of our time at the Baltic Sea included watching the many sailboats, kiteboards, and jetskiers enjoying the water. It is not uncommon in the US to see numerous kites flying at the beach, but I have never seen so many attached to people in water. Another common amusement is little pedal powered carts which can be rented from kiosks downtown. However, they seem like a complete waste of money as they are nowhere near as efficient as bicycles, and only serve to clog the narrow streets even more. On that note, driving in Europe is definitely an adventure, with narrow streets, fast drivers, and liberal interpretations regarding parking in oncoming lanes, backing up on exit ramps, and weaving through whatever interesting obstacles the region presents.

Approaching yet another village with the high spires of the church visible
for miles away.
On the way home, we wound our way through some of the more indirect roads home, beautiful tree-lined highways through rural countryside, mostly paralleling the border with the Russian province of Kaliningrad. Near the largest river in Lithuania, the Nemunas, a number of small towns occupying the bluffs of the ancient river valley, while the floodplains are filled with fields and gardens. Millennia ago, this valley would have been filled by a much larger river draining glaciers from an ancient ice age. Along our route, some of the towns almost seem like copies of the previous one, with the spires of giant churches high on the top of the hill, with the rest of the town sprawled along the steep side of the bluff.  

This is really a school?! Those poor kids. Imagine how hard they must
struggle to learn in such a homely structure...
These beautiful agricultural valleys were also home to a few palaces, structured something like castles, and centuries old, but built more as large manors for wealthy lords, rather than designed for defense. One particular site we stopped at actually serves as a school now, and I have to admit a twinge of jealously for these students who get to study in an ancient castle. 

It was late in the evening when we finally returned to Grigiškės, and we have been busy every since, but more about those events to come soon. 

Posted from: Grigiškės District, Vilinus, Lithuania on June 18th, 2011

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

One Very Big Question

I suppose there have been a number of questions and months of discussion leading up to this, but it all boils down to one big event yesterday. But rather than belabor the story chronologically, here is the big news up front:

In the not-to-distant future, my lovely fiancee and I will be getting married (see later posts for details, or email me directly). It has been a long time in coming, and planning long before this, but we had held off on a formal announcement for reasons I will elaborate on in this post. We will also have a wedding state-side, TBA, for those family and friends who cannot make it to the center of Europe for our first one. Anyway, here's how it happened.

It has always been my intention to ask her father's blessing before formally proceeding with an official engagement, and this is not a question one asks over the internet or telephone. So seeing how this is the first chance I have had to meet her family, everything was waiting for the first domino to fall. Speaking of falling, I decided to ask him over a chess game, and just before we played, I went to get a glass of water from the kitchen. Unfortunately, this action disturbed a precariously perched brandy glass on the top rack of the dish dryer, and it succumbed to the pull of gravity. Smashing onto the counter below, I couldn't help but think of the Jewish tradition of breaking a glass at a wedding. However, you are typically supposed to do that after the wedding, not before.

Nonetheless, over a very long and intense chess match, I asked her father for his blessing on our marriage. Between what English he knows, and Vaida serving as translator for one bit of it, he told us with a smile, "Is no problem, your life, your love." He eventually went on to beat me at the chess game, but not until after a very long drawn out match. This much out of the way, it was on to find the right place to officially ask her.

Padlocks of all shapes, sizes, and ages, from generations of lovers
before us on the Užupio St. Bridge.
There is a Lithuanian tradition (and apparently Russian too) of taking padlocks, engraving both names on them, and locking it to an immovable object, usually a wrought-iron bridge, then casting the keys into the river below. One of the most well known places for this is the bridge into Užupis, the artistic district of Vilnius, which has actually declared itself an independent republic with its own constitution. I learned about this tradition from some travel literature Vaida brought me when we first began dating, and got her a brass padlock as my first birthday present to her. At the time, it was just a gesture of friendship, but now that we have finally gotten to Lithuania at this time in our life, we will finally lock it to the bridge immediately after our wedding.

However, I still hadn't found the place to officially ask her, having going through many different variations on how to "pop the question." The most recent idea had included a hot air balloon, but despite their popularity in Lithuania, they are an extravagant luxury best left to a more financially secure time of our life. I had settled on using locking the padlock to the bridge as the official engagement, but the engraver's shop was inexplicably closed, forcing me to find a different plan. But it seems God had an even better place in mind.

The 15th Century Belfry of St. John's Church and the old
Vilnius University, est. 1579 A.D., is her Alma Mater, and has a few features that even Bucknell University can't quite compare to. Among those, is St. John's Church and its towering belfry, dating back to somewhere around 1426 A.D. The 223 foot tall tower was just recently opened to visitors, and it was a sight to behold. Not only was it one of the most breathtaking views of an ancient city, it was undeniably the oldest structure I have even been in. It's moments like this when random verses from bible quizzing years ago are most  inconvenient and unwanted. I am referring to Luke 13:4 in case you are curious, but be warned, it will come back to bite you next time you are in a tall structure.

You have to squeeze up a small set of stairs at the foundation to get to the lift to the top, or you can take the stairs. As much as I would like to trust engineers, its a little nerve-wracking to trust your life to creaking wooden timbers, no matter how big they are. At least the lift had a reassuringly self supporting steel framework almost all the way to the top. However, to actually get on the very top, you again have to squeeze through twisting wooden stairs and an opening through in the ancient brick floor of the very top. But the view is worth it, and was clearly the moment to make everything official.

Actual rings are still in the process of being worked out, so this will suffice for now. Aš tavė myliu mano Dark Lady!
At the top of a centuries old belfry, overlooking the entire city of Vilnius, I asked Vaida to spend the rest of her life with me, and as you know by now, she said yes. In retrospect, I could not have planned just how perfect the moment was, and I might even concede it was more romantic than a hot air balloon. It combined a spectacular view (somewhat hard to come by in relatively flat Lietuva), ancient beauty, our love, and academia. We could not be happier, and I am glad to finally say everything is official, and it is time for the world to know how serious our love is. It has not been easy to make it last the long distances, and we know life won't always be easy ahead, but we are ready to face that challenge together.

I hope you haven't minded wading through my romanic musings, we will return to your normally scheduled programming next week with news of our weekend trip to the Baltic Sea with her family.

Us again, atop St. John's Church Belfry, Vilnius, Lithuania

Posted from: Grigeskies District, Vilnius, Lithuania

The City of the Iron-Clad Wolf

It is said, that the Grand Duke Gediminas once had a dream of an Iron-Clad Wolf, howling as though it were a hundred wolves. He awoke and sought someone to interpret the meaning of the dream. His high priest believed it meant that Gediminas would establish a great city at the foot of the hill where he had seen the wolf, and that the howling meant word of that city would be known the world over. -Lithuanian Folk Tale

Whether present day Vilnius is what Gediminas had in mind or not, it has certainly is a great city, and it IS known the world over. Lithuania, as a whole, is not entirely what I expected, though it makes perfect sense now that I think about it. I have always seen images of Europe (not just Lithuania) as either ancient history, or ultra-modern, with little in between. However, Lithuania is in fact a formerly occupied country that only ascended to the European Union 7 years ago, and 14 years before that were under the iron fist of the Iron Curtain. As such, the buildings and city look old and tired, and some districts, were I in the United States, I would be concerned about how safe I really was. However, this is not the case this delightful, though slightly depressed capital city.

Vilnius: At long last!
Vilnius Airport is about the same size as the airport in Harrisburg, PA, though it handles planes bigger than the ones I saw in Pennsylvania's capital city. It took very little time from the tarmac, to shuttle bus, to the terminal, and not long after that I claimed my luggage from the last of the bags coming off the plane. But I was shocked when I followed the signs out of the airport, through a single pair of sliding doors, and found myself in the waiting area, with Vaida and her father right there! Where were the border controls? Where were the stern guards examining passports and stamping or denying admittance into their country? Apparently, Vilnius doesn't have them, and I can't say I mind.

Cooling towers for one of the natural gas powerplants
between Vilnius and Grigeškiės. Also one of the places
where Vaida's father, Jonas, works at.
On the ground, we passed two large natural gas powerplants, the Vilnius TV Tower rises in the distance, and European traffic lives up to its reputation. The country is a unique blend of ancient castles and churches, Soviet era buildings (mostly apartment buildings) and a scattering of newer, modern buildings making their way into the landscape as funding and opportunity allows. However, as a developing nation that was recovering from decades of military occupation, they were hit especially hard by the economic crisis. The result is an interesting mix of ancient, well-worn, and modern, unfortunately accented by a surprising amount of graffiti.

Vaida and Jurga at Belmont Park
Despite having just spent well over a day in transit to Lithuania, I could not help but hit the ground running. My idea of adjusting to jet lag is staying up until normal bedtime in the target timezone, even if you wind up a bit exhausted in the process. So when Vaida's best friend called and asked if we wanted to go to Trakai, quite possibly Lithuania's most recognizable castle, the answer was obvious. Defeated by heavy end of the day traffic, we took a temporary detour through Belmont, a nice park/recreation area on the Vilnia River just upstream from the city. In so doing, I got a brief glimpse of the city, a nice walk around the park, and then back on our way to Trakai, hoping the traffic had settled down. 

Castle Trakai in the evening light
We did make it without further ado, ate kibinai (a traditional Lithuanian pastry filled with pretty much anything...but typically meat and vegetables. Its American cousin, the pasty, can be found in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, brought over by Cornish Miners) by the lake side, watched hot air ballons float by, and then ventured over to the castle itself. The gates were locked by this time in the evening, so we just walked around, but it is far from the last time we will go here. With the quiet lake, rowboats and sailboats plying the waters, and the red castle set on fire by the evening light, it is clear just how beautiful a country this really is. 

*Not literally set on fire, though that was was a common pastime centuries ago. Just thought I should clear up that metaphor.

Vaida on the plaza of the National
Cathedral, in front of the bell-tower. Don't you think this could be a
poster for Lithuania?
The following days have been something of a blur, and I realize I can only let this go by so long without updating it because I will loose track of everything that has happened. We have ventured several times into Vilnius, wandered the streets of the old town, attended mass in the National Cathedral, walked in the nearby forest and down to the fast-flowing Vilnia River. The city is beautiful, with many narrow-winding streets one expects of a European city, and is the Northern-most Baroque city in Europe, or so I am told. There is so much architecture here I lose track of it all. A distinctive feature of the city is the many red-tile roofs, which should become apparent in the many pictures that I will continue to take while over here. 

I am also deeply thankful for my wonderful hosts, Vaida's parents, who are graciously sharing their small apartment with this strange American. On Sunday evening, they returned from a visit to their countryside property and relatives with bottles of milk fresh from the cow that evening, eggs, fresh cheese and honey. LOTS of honey. I know Vaida has always liked honey, but as the economists would say, "supply begats demand." Four huge jars, a giant pot, and they had already delivered some to friends and co-workers? WOW. Needless to say, I have been well fed. 

Interestingly enough, when you leave an American alone in your flat, strange things may happen when your Russian neighbor pages the apartment. Vaida and her mom had run out for an errand to the nearby store, while I was working on the computer. I assumed the page was them asking me to come help bring something up the three flights of stairs to their apartment, or something like that. However, after exhausting 5% of my entire Lithuanian vocabulary ("labas" or "hello") I was met with a string of unintelligible words from an unfamiliar voice. Some where in the midst of apologizing and trying to say that everyone else was out, I think I said, "I don't speak English." They haven't heard from her since, but it seems it's not a terrible tragedy, since it she wasn't the most endearing company anyway. To hear them talk, it sounds like I did them a favor! Between that, freezing up the supermarket register with my American Visa card, and bumping my head on the ceiling of the microbus every time I get out, I have been making my fair share of American tourist blunders. At least I am not as bad as the Western European tourists blundering around the bus station asking for directions to "the Castle." Come on people, this EUROPE, you invented the castle. You have to be more specific than that.

All in all, my first days in Vilnius and it's surroundings have been absolutely amazing, and especially so to share it with Vaida, but more on us later. In fact, quite a lot about us, but that is for another time. I will leave you with one last image of Grand Duke Gediminas, proudly displayed next to the National Cathedral. Some say he looks drunk considering the pose, but by his feet you can see the Iron-Clad Wolf, in honor of that very first dream.

Grand Duke Gediminas, the Iron-Clad Wolf,
and a flag with the National Seal flying
on the roof of the National Cathedral. 

Monday, June 6, 2011

Journey to the Center of Europe...

Before I begin, I should clarify that Lithuania is only one of about 7 other regions that claim to be the "Center of Europe." However, they all probably have some validity, it just depends on what you include in your definition of Europe. Does Iceland belong to Europe? Or what about Turkey? However you measure it geographically, Lithuania is culturally an Eastern European nation.

At Warsaw International Airport, I was a little concerned by the fact that you had to clear a passport check just to get to anywhere else in the airport. Now I have had my passport for about a year now, and even used it extensively for a research project on nationalism this past semester, but this was the first time I had actually used my passport to personally cross a border. It was also interesting to note that all of the border guards were young, attractive women, bringing back memories of that same "Geographies of Nationalism" class and discussing female traffic guards in North Korea. Turns out they are personally selected by Kim Jong-Il himself to put"best face forward" to anyone that might be interested. (Any thoughts Dr. Mulligan?) Nonetheless, she stamped my favorite page in my American Icon passport, the Native American one with a bear catching a salmon, and I was on my way. Well, sort of...

The third security check that I mentioned in my last post was a little more intense than the US TSA checkpoints I had passed through earlier. Rather than bored looking guards who look more interested in stopping for lunch than stopping terrorists, the checkpoints were manned by tough, crew-cut miltary men and non-nonsense women, and fair number of them very prominently armed with handguns. I am glad they take security so seriously, but it would have been nice if the one at my checkpoint wasn't idly toying with the strap on his holster, but I digress.

Left: Large tracts of forest near the Poland-Lithuania border.
Right: A mosaic of diverse crops and the unavoidable
propeller getting in the way of all of my pictures.
Once on the plane for Vilnius, a EuroLot charter turbo-prop, I was delighted to have a window seat for the one hour hop into Lithuania. I should note that I have since discovered there are only seven shale gas wells actually drilled in south Poland, and none have begun hyrdo-fracking yet. So the earlier numbers I saw must have just been estimates for the future, not actual activity reports. In the air, a few things stood out about the landscape below. First, the massive tracts of forest, which could occasionally be seen in the process of being harvested, but in large, continuous plots that stateside are usually only seen in national parks. Second, the farmland was distinctly different from what one sees on a domestic US flight. Instead of a patchwork quilt of acres upon acres of wheat, corn, soy, etc, these eastern European farms have a diverse mosaic of small patches of different crops. A few other observations included an abundance of dirt roads which show up as bright tan streaks on the land, rather than the dull black or grey of asphalt. Due to the historic glaciation of this region, the soil is very fine and packs well to form roads, especially where public funding for infrastructure is significantly limited, but more on that later. 

A very nice feature of LOT, the Polish airlines, is that they feed you well. On a one hour commuter flight in the US, they would likely just throw some peanuts at you, maybe a soft drink, and hope for the best. Yet here, they distributed deli-style cold cut sandwiches and Lindt chocolates to satisfy whatever hunger you might possibly acquire in one-hour's time. 

On the landing approach to Vilnius International Airport...
As we began to descend into the capital city there was no sign of the nation's most famous landmark, Castle Trakai, at least not on my side of the plane. Nonetheless, old Soviet era apartments started appearing on the landscape below, along side quaint old houses with tile or corrugated tin roofs, and every backyard seemed to have a greenhouse. Off to the right, upon landing, a derelict airliner sat abandoned like a car up on blocks in an Appalachian backyard. The avionics were ripped out the nose, no engines, and no tail; a very interesting welcome to this small member of the European Union that is about the size of West Virgina (but MUCH flatter).

Due to the amount of activity that has occurred since the last post, I am going to end this post here, and resume again shortly. Also, in the approximately 72 hours since arriving, I have 184 photos which should be going up shortly at davidmanthos.shutterfly.com. (That is after editing them, and pulling out about over 100 shots just from the plane window. I see a lot of geomorphology or algal blooms and I start compulsively shooting away.

Posted from: Grigiškės District, Vilnius, Lithuania