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Sunday, March 26, 2017

Of Beer, Mounds and Citizenship

Kernavė Cultural Reserve

I consider myself very fortunate to have lived in Tōkyō 東京 in my late twenties and into my thirties. Not only is it the capital of a country with a fascinating culture and history, but it's also one of the most dynamic cities in the world. I spent many a weekend night enjoying the city's nightlife, often missing the last train of the day (sometimes by accident, sometimes deliberately) and thereby having to stay out until the first train the next morning, usually at around five or six o'clock. My first year in Tokyo I would often hang out in the gaijin 外人 cesspool that was (and for all I know still is) Roppongi 六本木, but I soon moved on and expanded my horizons to take in areas such as Shinjuku 新宿 (my favorite), Shibuya 渋谷, Shimokitazawa 下北沢, Kōenji 高円寺, Kichijōji 吉祥寺 and even on occasion somewhere like Futakotamagawa 二子玉川. But that was long ago, and age, family and geography have considerably changed how I spend my weekend evenings.

This past Saturday was a rare night out for just my wife and me as we joined some colleagues from work for an evening of Lithuanian beer tasting at Alaus Biblioteka (Beer Library). My wife poses in front of the building before going inside:


Over a 2½ period we sampled seven different beers while one of the bar's owners explained aspects of each brew as well as providing an overview of the history of beer-making in Lithuania. First up was a Märzen amber lager. The card in front of the bottle organizes the different types of beer along the lines of the periodic table:


Your humble scribe tries beer #2, a witbier wheat ale:


Next up was a traditional homemade Lithuanian brew, with a strong (and acquired) taste of honey:


Number four was an original creation by Alaus Biblioteka, an altbier German ale that was awarded a prize in 2013:


Now I'm trying a Belgian dark ale:


The sixth beer in the line-up was a rauchbier European lager that had an aroma akin to grilled sausage. It was surprisingly good despite that description:


Shu-E samples a doppelbock, the final beer of the evening:


My constitution isn't what it used to be. Here I'm making a brave attempt to remain steady following the beer tasting. I can't wait to do something like this again!:


I awoke feeling tired on Sunday, but not because of the previous day's beer tasting. At 3:00 on Sunday morning Lithuania switched to daylight savings time, meaning I lost an hour's sleep. The day would be overcast and chilly (gloomy, in other words), but at least it didn't rain and/or snow, like it had at times on Saturday. Not having gone on any drives out of Vilnius in quite some time, the three of us got in the car after breakfast and drove 35 kilometers to Kernavė, a sleepy village located in the scenic Neris Valley. According to the Estonia, Latvia & Lithuania Eyewitness Travel guide:

Archaeological finds show that the site was inhabited as far back as 9000 BC. In the 13th century, Kernavė was the first capital of the united Lithuanian tribes and a busy trading center. The Northern Crusaders ransacked the prosperous pagan town in 1365. In 1390, another attack was launched by a mighty army consisting of knights, soldiers and mercenaries from Germany, France, Italy and England. Henry IV (1367-1413), the future king of England, also participated in the assault, from which the town never recovered.

Today, Kernavė is home to a renowned archaeological reserve, having attained UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2004. Although the Archaeological & Historical Museum was disappointingly and inexplicably closed this Sunday, the Kernavė Cultural Reserve (Kernavės kultūrinio rezervato) was fortunately open for exploration. Visitors like us could wander up and down the five large hill-forts, the summits from which provided beautiful views of the surrounding terrain, even on a day as gray as Sunday:



The dark speck in the distance my daughter is pointing to is her mother, who decided the staircases would be too much of an effort to ascend





"The Oldest Burial Site in Kernavė" (first millennium BCE)

The Neris, the same river that flows through Vilnius




A reconstructed settlement


I'd like to go back when the weather warms up and the museum is more likely to be open.

Dominating the Taiwan blogosphere these past few days has been the reaction among Western expats to the news that the Taiwanese government has relaxed its requirement that non-Taiwanese wishing to receive R.O.C. citizenship relinquish their foreign nationality...sort of. Only "high-level professionals" will be exempt, according to the new regulations being promulgated, as noted in the always-worthwhile View from Taiwan. This means the vast majority of foreigners residing in Taiwan, namely English teachers from Western countries and migrants from Southeast Asia (the latter working in factories and as caregivers, and whose plight is almost always overlooked by the white guys and gals arguing in Facebook over whose interpretation of Taiwan is the only correct one), still are not allowed to hold dual nationality should they wish to attain citizenship in the erstwhile Republic of China 中華民國. While I can understand and sympathize with the anger and frustration of those who have worked hard to build a life for themselves in a place they've come to call home (like this blogger), it also reveals the delusions some have constructed for themselves about life on the beautiful isle. The Taiwanese government's policies on citizenship and immigration were not formulated in a vacuum; instead, they've been shaped to reflect the attitudes of Taiwanese society. Yes, people are very friendly toward foreigners (white ones, anyway); but as I've often tried to point out, that friendliness is predicated on the assumption that the 外國人 is a visitor, and should be treated with the same level of kindness as that extended to a house guest. And, yes, Taiwan (or perhaps more accurately, Taipei 台北) can be a great place to live and work, and, somewhat surprisingly, permanent residency isn't that difficult to obtain. But it's hard to understand the anguished cries of some over discriminatory nationality regulations - why would you want to become a citizen of a country that clearly is uncomfortable with the thought of you somehow becoming one of the "us" instead of remaining as one of the "them"?

Vilnis (both old and new) on a sunny Friday morning as seen from Amber's school

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Nothing really

Your typical Old Town street scene

There's really nothing to report as this weekend comes to a close. We didn't go anywhere or do anything as a family, for several reasons: the weather frequently threatened to rain (and occasionally made good on those threats, even hailing briefly); it's tax time again; and I've started working on my annual performance review. The latter is an exercise in frustration (more so than doing taxes, if that can be believed) - it can make or break a career, yet like so many aspects of my present occupation, the original aim of providing an impartial evaluation of one's workplace activities in the past year (for purposes of promotion and potential) has degenerated into an exercise in making sure the right coded phrases are employed and all grammar and spelling mistakes have been eliminated, all the while blowing the proverbial self-horn. In any event, it's still too early in my career to start airing grievances about processes, so I'll move onto another topic and save the curmudgeonly complaints for when I either quit or retire.

So why post at all? Good question - the answer is mainly because I did go out a couple of times to take walks in Old Town, and so have a few photos to share. Hopefully the next post will have something more interesting to bring to the world's attention...

Friday was St. Patrick's Day. Like many Americans, I have quite of lot of Irish blood thanks to ancestors on both sides of the family, but I've never gotten into the habit of wearing something green every seventeenth of March. I'm also pretty sure Irish people are sick and tired of being told by Americans of how "Irish" the latter are. I would like to visit Ireland one of these days, but not before I've explored parts of the other ancestral homelands first (England and Scotland - coming this summer!). But while I skipped the green, I did get this picture of dawn breaking over Old Town on St. Patrick's Day:


St.  Nicholas Church (Šv Mikolajus bažnyčia) is Lithuania's oldest church, built by German Christians in 1320, at a time when the country was still pagan (the good old days). From 1901 to 1939 it was the only church in Lithuania were Mass was held in the local language:


I went inside to have a look on Sunday afternoon, but as there were still a lot of people (audibly) praying, I didn't take any photos. Besides, at this point, many church interiors are beginning to look alike. Here's an image from the Internet:


Pre-war Vilnius had a thriving Jewish community, but we know what sadly eventually became of it. Reminders can pop up unexpectedly, like these photographs on the outside of a library that stood in the Vilna ghetto:




The view from near the Subačiaus Gate. The white building in the center is the Orthodox Cathedral of the Theotokos:


A raucous post-St. Patrick's Day soiree on Saturday afternoon at the Užupio kavinė:


The early-15th century Church of the Holy Spirit (Šv Dvasios bažnyčia) is a riot of late-Baroque colors:





By contrast, the nearby Church of Our Lady of the Assumption looks very austere, not to mention on the point of collapse. It was erected by the Franciscans in the 15th century, and later used as a hospital for the French army in 1812, and then as the location of the state archives from 1864 to 1989 (with a break from 1934 to 1949). It was returned to the Franciscans in 1998 and is currently undergoing restoration:



Apparently, it's a slow process as the interior of the church looks for the most part, um, unfinished, with the exception of one area to the left as you face the altar, and where there was a small group of devotees engaged in prayer. Which is why I didn't take any photographs inside the church (the fact a priest was right in front of me also was a bit off-putting), so I cribbed another pic from the Internet:


I'll end this with yet another typical Old Town street scene, this one taken near the Ministry of Defense building:






Saturday, March 11, 2017

Happy Lietuvos nepriklausomybės atkūrimo diena!

Selfie time on the balcony of VCUP

On this day in 1990 the Act of the Re-Establishment of the State of Lithuania was declared by the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic, serving as a model and inspiration for other Soviet republics in the rapidly dissolving USSR. It would be another eighteen months before Moscow would formally recognize the fact that Lithuania had become an independent state again, but March 11 is the date that was the beginning of the end of the country's fifty-year nightmare as a Soviet republic. It's an important public holiday in Lithuania, but although the day falls on a Saturday this year, there's no mechanism for shifting the holiday to the day before to give the citizenry an extended weekend. Flags lined the buildings on our street and Gediminas Prospektas was closed to traffic today, but we stayed clear of New Town, going out instead to the Vilnius Central Department Store, aka Vilniaus Centrinė Universalinė Parduotuvė or VCUP, to have lunch. As we parked the car, we noticed what appeared to be a large Lithuanian flag or banner being spread out along the banks of the Neris River:


In honor of the occasion, I ordered the Lithuanian Burger (a potato pancake atop a beef patty) at Smart Burger Bar:


After lunch, we crossed under Konstitucijos Prospektas and did some shopping at the Europa shopping center. On the way back to the car, I was surprised to find this memorial to Chiune Sugihara 杉原千畝, the World War II Japanese diplomat who it's estimated helped up to 40,000 Jews escape Lithuania by issuing transit visas allowing travel to Japanese territory, despite orders not to do so. The memorial was erected by students from Waseda University 早稲田大学, Sugihara's alma mater:


Back home the girls decided to relax, but I wanted to see what was going on in New Town, so I went for a walk. I reached Gediminas Prospektas in time to witness a demonstration passing by. I don't know if this was the "controversial nationalist march" referred to in this Delfi article; the only signs I could work out were those protesting the nuclear power plant under construction in Astravets, across the border in Belarus and only 50 kilometers from Vilnius:



Lukiskių aikštė (where a statue of Lenin once stood) is currently closed for reconstruction work. The outer fencing has been turned into a photography exhibit, with images depicting the plight of migrants attempting to reach Greece among the displays:


Looking toward Šnipiškės from New Town:



I'm not sure what this building is used for now, but it's most definitely of Soviet design and the spire on the top likely once had a Red Star. The plaque above the doorway also appears to be missing something Communist-related:



New Town threw up a couple of surprises this afternoon. The first was the sight of the St. Nicholas Orthodox Church (Церковь Cвятителя Николая Чудотворца), looming over the walls and barbed wire of the Lukiškės Prison:


The other surprise was a plaque on the outer wall explaining that Menachem Begin, the Israeli prime minister who signed the Camp David accords, was an unwilling "guest" of the NKVD at the prison in 1940-1941:



A restaurant located behind the Parliament House (Seimas):


A look back at New Town on the way home:


My wife, daughter and I model T-shirts sent to us by my friend Steve, who has been running his own English school in Taichung 台中 for several years now:


At the march on Gediminas Prospektas mentioned above, someone was carrying a boombox that was playing this song as the procession made its way past where I was standing. I don't know what the aims of the demonstrators were, but I did agree with the soundtrack:


POSTSCRIPT: The day after

Sunday was a quiet day for us, but we did go out for lunch at René, Vilnius' best Belgian restaurant (namely because I haven't yet found any others), specializing in La Cuisine de la Biere. Belgian cuisine has been a favorite of mine since our trip to the country in the fall of 2014:


The restaurant gets its name from the noted Belgian surrealist René Magritte; reproductions of some of his works (including his most famous, The Son of Man) line the walls, and the staff are decked out in bowler hats in homage. Customers are encouraged to draw on the paper tablecloths, and my daughter happily took up the offer:




I started off with a bowl of lamb soup, then followed up with an order of mussels cooked in beer, but neglected to take any pictures (sorry Internet!). I did get shots of the beer (of course) and the chocolate mousse I had for dessert, which alone is reason enough to pay a return visit to the restaurant:



While the girls did some grocery shopping after lunch, I worked off some of the meal by taking a long walk. Even if the Gulag, purges, deportations and executions had never taken place, the Soviets would still be guilty of crimes against humanity with their Socialist Realist architectural legacy, such as the Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theater (1974). I'll be glad when spring returns so that the foliage will partially obscure the view:


I returned to the Europa Business and Shopping Center to pick up an invoice which allows me to claim a partial refund on VAT, a job-related perk:



The TV Tower off in the distance:


On the grounds of the National Gallery of Art (on the "To visit" list) stands this suspiciously Soviet era-looking statue:


The Šnipiškės area (aka the New Town Center) is in the process of having its utilitarian concrete apartment blocks replaced by more modern business buildings: