Sunday, October 17, 2010

And Now for Something Completely Different - A Guest Post From Gordon

Just in case you need more than a steady diet of those lovely birds, bees and cats - as cute as they might be - I offer you something completely different. A voyage to the eastern edges of the European Union. A trip to a contrasty land of lively folk dancing, tasty sausages and beer, marvelous historic architecture, friendly and bilingual locals (Lithuanian-English for the younger and Lithuanian-Russian for the older), some of the world's fastest mobile Internet speeds (I was there for an Internet governance meeting) and ... shops of Canadian aboriginal art (seen within the historic town centre)???

But seriously, all I knew about Lithuania before arriving was that you go to Poland and hang a right. I pride myself on my knowledge of things geographical, but those three Baltic republics always confused me. Which one is on the left, which on the right, and which in the middle? How have they been doing since their 1991 independences? And are they all blighted by drunken Brits? (Note, this isn't a slight to all Brits, just the ones who overindulge and then visit indignities on Riga's independence monument.)

You'll be happy to know I can now confirm Lithuania is the one on the left hand side, approximately equal in population to Latvia and Estonia combined, and blissfully free of the Brits whom roam Riga and Tallinn.

I got to hang out for a week in Lithuania's capital of Vilnius, especially notable as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Above and below you'll see the marvelous All Saints Church, Baroque early 17th century. While Latvia and Estonia are mainly Lutheran, Lithuanian is mostly Roman Catholic. Plus all have a healthy dose of Russian Orthodox.

From every angle, and at every time of day or night, the historic old town charms and impresses.

Some buildings are still being restored, but it seems most have been wonderfully preserved from the start.

Either the saddest or most joyful building in Vilnius, likely both, is the Choral Synagogue, last of what were previously over 100 synagogues in Vilnius - considered a Jewish cultural hub and centre for Torah study. Jews at one point constituted almost half the city's population. I picked up a copy of the new 2010 book Synagogues in Lithuania as my souvenir of the trip. The 19 years since independence do not appear to have been sufficient to deal with arguments that Soviet rule constituted a genocide equivalent to the Holocaust against the Jews. Personally, I was troubled by the comparison - as it appears are others.

The Mabre Residence Hotel was one of the best places I have ever stayed in - and I have stayed in a lot. I don't go in for "fancy" places; I just like them interesting (and clean). This one was very reasonably priced. They gave me a four room, two bathroom suite. It was totally over the top, figuratively and literally since it was up in the attic of the historic courtyard complex. I would have been happy with much less, but I found Lithuanians just couldn't do enough for you.

While I know most of you will never get to Vilnius, if you do know of anyone going, insist they stay at the Mabre. Oh, I did I mention the best included breakfast ever! Chemical-ridden plastic-tented memories of carrot muffin, move over for smoked salmon, cheese blintzes, and fresh cinnamon rolls, all served in a stone barrel-vaulted chamber just oozing atmosphere.

The view from the hotel courtyard of yet another fabulously famous and historic church, whose name I of course can't for the life of me recall.

There seems little left (at least in the parts of Vilnius that I saw) to remind one that this was the Lithuanian S.S.R. (Soviet Socialist Republic) for fifty years, other than a few socialist realist statues (above), and the world's 29th tallest freestanding tower.

The Vilnius TV Tower (below) is home to a spinning restaurant (why do the ALWAYS have to have a spinning restaurant?) and the sad deaths of 14 during the most violent single incident of the Baltic Revolutions, when Soviet troops attempted to retake the tower from Lithuanians who had seized public buildings. While those who died are well remembered in Lithuania, you don't get too internationally famous as a tower for being Number Twenty-Nine. My hometown CN Tower was number one for a very long time, until being eclipsed last year by a Dubai tower.

I was in Vilnius for a United Nations meeting called the Internet Governance Forum. As you'll see from the following photos, UN meetings look like just about any other big meetings, with the exception that you get simultaneous translation into Arabic, Chinese and Russian - in addition to the more common (at least for me) French and Spanish.

Although it can't be said that Lithuania's cuisine has gone truly international or multi-cultural, if you (like me) like very fresh meat, potatoes, dark bread, natural beer - and a couple of sweet treats after - you'll do just fine. Because Lithuanian has not adopted the Euro, its food and drink remains very affordable.

Serious quantities of bread for serious bread lovers.

Sort of a spiky, slightly bready waffle which honey or jam is poured on. At the reception which Lithuania's President hosted for us, they were built into metre-high towers, which I was afraid to touch - despite being urged to break off a chunk - lest I spoil their artistic and structural integrity. In the end I grabbed a pre-cut piece. Very tasty.

More tasty dessert treats. Not overly sweet, but that icing is really striking.

How many sidewalk-side delis do you get to see in your neighbourhood?

There were several of these outdoor kitchens set up, spreading delicious aromas throughout the street.

My evening dinner. Mmmmmm. (A dark beer is off to the top right side of the picture).

Vilnius remains a city looking towards the future, but still remembering its strong roots in the past. People seem happy, but clearly things are not always as they seem. I have travelled to lots of places where people suffer from considerable hardship, and while statistical reporting may account for some of the differences, it's still shocking that relatively prosperous Lithuania has pretty much the highest suicide rate in the world.

Whether you look at World Health Organization or Eurostat numbers, the figures are grim. It's hard to believe that Lithuanians were rated in a poll as the most pessimistic people in the world as recently as 1999. Change may be the hardest hardship.

But with public squares like the one above.

And videographers coaching young brides and grooms to run up the cobbles of the old city - stones that have been run over millions of times before - then leap over the camera (and videographer) into the future, there is reason to be very optimistic for the coming years of Lithuania continuing to be a bridge between the places no longer referred to as East and West.

(Stay tuned for two future Lithuania posts. I took lots of photos, and am not known for being at a loss for words. Though since this one took just almost all day to put together, you can rest assured you will get to see some more of the birdies, bees and and kitties you love so much before the guest poster shows up again.)


  1. OOooh, nice post, honeybunch!! And most important of all, he brought me home lots of gifts: amber earrings, Lithuanian honey, a purse with bees on it, a felted sheep brooch, chocolate...

    You can guest-post anytime, Gordon!

    The Little Missus

  2. Thank you for the guests post! Wonderful pictures.

    I find former Communist bloc countries really fascinating. The changes the residents have been through in a short time are amazing.

  3. Sounds like you had an excellent time. The absence of fellow Brits on stag weekends is a huge plus!

  4. Great post Mr.Guest Gordon. Come back soon! And now back to our regularly scheduled programme...

  5. Thanks Gordon! That was an interesting, and fun post.

  6. You have to have Gordon guest post again in the future. Very informative and beautifully photographed. My thanks to your husband for taking us along on his trip!

  7. Anonymous3:59 pm

    Where's the chickens?

  8. Hi Gordon,

    good job. Is the beer better than in germany?
    I discovered a micro brewery in Perth,
    where you fill up your own.
    Excellent. I love it!!!!!

  9. He really likes the comments. Keep 'em coming. But I told him he has to respond to his own comments!! I am not his secretary. Well, most of the time anyway.

  10. It sounds like an amazing trip! Thanks for sharing.

  11. Gordon, this post is wonderful.
    One of my best friend is of Lithuanian descent (her father escaped) and I will email this to her. Fascinating!
    Looking forward to another Lithuanian Post soon!
    (don't worry Nathalie: I'm still very much into kitties & the farm life!)

  12. Anonymous11:43 am

    Thank you for all your kind comments. To respond to your questions: (1) nary a chick or chicken in sight (though I did take photos of a couple of cute kitties for Ronna); (2) I regret I have only had the change to breakfast in Germany, and so while I can confirm that its baked goods may have a slight edge (I sought out bakeries in suburban Frankfurt in the wee hours), I forewent the chance of a beery start to the day.

  13. Absolutely brilliant post, Evil Gordini. And fantastic pictures.

    I'm not too sure I'd want to be in that part of the world . . . I just went through an Ordeal of reading about the Holocaust (I'm by no means Jewish, but my wife is) and the stories about Lithuania (and Poland) positively freaked me out.

    But as Knattie says, focus on the great foods and chockies and generally stay away from nervous strangers with hands in their pockets.

    Great post! More!

  14. The Fulbright people had this relevant link on Facebook today:

  15. Anonymous9:12 pm

    "geras darbas Ponas Caber" ...(ok that was supposed to be the lithuanian translation 'good job Mr Caber' hahahha's from google translate soo..say no more.)

    WOW! that was great .... what an interesting trip! I went to Prague in 2006. I was a little skeptical about going but happy that i went. I would love to go to Budapest ... and Vilnius...and some more eastern european cities.

    I think those places are so intriguing. the histories are so full of things we north americans just cannot get our heads around. going to those places really helps us see other worlds and other ways of perceiving realities.

    so how did you come about to go there?

    your future wife in the south. hahha ;)

  16. PS. NO MORE ABOUT CHICKENS. I'm going to, inspired by Knattie, go out and PURCHASE ONE and roast it.

    So there. And it's going to be the best roast Herman or Hermina or whatchawannacallit I ever had. Roast vegetables and fabulous gravy on the side.



    PPS. Okay, no roast bees . . . .

  17. Um, do you happen to know what was in that big skillet? Just curious?

    And it's good to hear from "the other half" every once in a while. Even if your little cotton socks do need blessing. ;)


Thank you for all your comments, which I love to read!