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Sunday, August 21, 2016

All Quiet on the Lithuanian Front

The struggle faced by most Lithuanians as they try to eke out a living in this impoverished country

Sometimes, no news is good news. And so, with nothing of note to report on the Kaminoge home front, here are a few photos from the past week in Vilnius...

On Wednesday I took part in a walking tour of Jewish-related sites in Vilnius' Old Town. While the guide was well-informed on the topic, the weather was cold and rainy and the tour wasn't quite what I was expecting in terms of what was seen. Still, in how many other countries can you peer over the wall and into the rear garden of the Presidential Palace without getting arrested?:


You can always play a game of chess on this elephant-shaped board while waiting for something to happen in the garden:


Our guide stands beneath a map showing the locations of the World War II-era Jewish ghettos in Vilnius:


A quiet courtyard located in the former ghetto:


In contrast for most of the past several weeks, the weather this weekend has been nothing short of gorgeous: sunny skies and warm temperatures (in the low twenties Centigrade). Glad to see summer decided not to check out early, after all. My family and I celebrated the return of the sun by making yet another short drive to Trakai (we were just there last weekend) - if I were Lithuanian, I would consider buying a dacha in the area for those quick weekend getaways. We parked in front of the Trakai History Museum, and so made it our first stop. The ecclesiastical art display in a former Dominican monastery was of mild interest but not worth the addtional €1.50 being asked for the privilege of taking photographs (on top of the regular admission fee). No such restrictions exist, however, on the grounds of the Peninsula Castle, completed in 1382 and destroyed in the 16th century:



Lamb pie and a cup of broth for lunch, washed down with a Švyturys White - Baltas Hefeweizen, at the Karaimų 13 cafe:


Lots of watercraft on Lake Galvė:


Ostensibly we traveled to Trakai again to see the Days of Ancient Crafts, which was supposedly developed from a medieval festival that was held at the Peninsula Castle. However, a quick peek inside the gate of Trakai Castle showed a lot of stalls selling crafts and snacks, a few people dressed in medieval costumes and not much else. Was it worth paying the entrance fee to see the castle again? Considering we had done just that only two months ago, then answer was no:


Instead, we took a sightseeing boat on a tour of Lake Galvė, where the previously noted various types of watercraft were joined by a powered parachute flying overhead:








My daughter enjoys an after-cruise triple-scoop ice cream (chocolate, mango and strawberry):


Dipping our feet in the cold (but not unbearably so) waters of Lake Galvė. Cap by Sacramento River Cats, jersey by Southend United F.C., circa 1996 (hey, I take good care of my clothes):


Looking across Lake Totorškių, on the opposite side of the peninsula from Trakai Castle, as we were heading back to our car for the drive home. Next summer I'd like to stay a night at a hotel close to the water in Trakai:


Back in Vilnius and having a "New York" deep-dish pizza at an American-style restaurant a short walk from our apartment building:


My wife and child are not immune to popular fads and trends. Shu-E recently downloaded the Pokémon Go app, and here Amber checks out a "Pokestop" - a statue of Florence Nightingale near the 24-hour flower market on Jono Basanavičiaus gatvė (because there are people out there who need to buy flowers at three o'clock in the morning):


The view toward Old Town in the distance on a late Saturday evening:


Sunday was another beautiful day, and with our bikes finally out of storage and ready to ride, we set off just after twelve-thirty in the direction of Old Town, stopping for lunch outdoors at Zoe's Bar & Grill, across from Cathedral Square:


The menus at Zoe's are designed to resemble LP sleeves, and contain actual 33 1/3 rpm records inside them (the smaller drink menu has a 45-rpm record in its sleeve). So I instantly aged several decades when my millennial daughter pulled one of the records out of her menu and asked me what it was:


The Thai-style shrimp rolls were pretty good:


The next profile photo for my Facebook page, beer gut and all:


Ready to ride. In the background is Vilnius Cathedral, arguably the city's top tourist sight and one we haven't visited yet. When you have twenty-one months remaining in a place, there's no hurry to see everything:


Today also happened to be the Velomarathon, the biggest bicycle event in Lithuania. We didn't take part (wait 'til next year!), but we did ride along part of the route:



This large ball hanging from the Žirmūnai Bridge (Žirmūnų tiltas) is an art installation. We had passed under it back in June when we took a sightseeing boat on the Neris River:


The Vilnius Palace of Concerts and Sports (Vilniaus sporto rūmai) is a typically hideous Soviet-era architectural monstrosity that sits on the opposite side of the Neris River from Gediminas Castle. It closed down in 2004, and now begs for urban exploration. Only with my present occupation, what the Japanese call 廃墟巡り wouldn't be the smartest thing for me to do:


Behind the decaying "palace" is a track-and-field stadium in the process of being razed:


Vilnius is a city that begs to be explored on two wheels, at least until it gets too cold and dark to do so:


Utenos Alus is a Lithuanian brewery that is part of the Carlsberg Group. It puts out some good beers despite that fact, including a refreshing raspberry radler. And I'm confident enough with my sexuality to publicly admit that:



























 
 





Monday, August 15, 2016

Weekend update

This breaking news just in - Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead...

Showing off a blueberry milkshake-stained tongue at Drama Burger

Today is August 15, the day of the Assumption of Mary. Not being a Catholic (not being much of a Christian anything), the significance of the occasion is somewhat lost on me, but in a country where almost 80% of the population follows Catholicism, today is a public holiday in Lithuania and making for a three-day weekend. Hallelujah and Praise the Lord!

Enjoying a pork-and-cheese pasty at Senoji Kibinė in Trakai

The 15th of August is also the day that Japan surrendered, bringing the Second World War to a close. I know someone, a long-term expat resident of Taiwan, who maintains an insightful and well-written blog on Taiwanese politics. He's a believer in progressive politics, a passionate and eloquent supporter of the Taiwanese right to self-determination and a harsh critic of those who cling to the outdated trope of Taiwan being a "breakaway province of China". And yet, when the subject turns to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima 広島 and Nagasaki 長崎, he transforms into a staunch supporter of the Conventional Wisdom, arguing with the passion of an ardent right-winger how the bombings "saved lives" because the "fanatic" Japanese were prepared to "fight to the bitter end". Never mind that the Japanese military had concluded as early as February 1945 that the war could not be won; or that the government had been trying to persuade the Soviet Union since July of that year to act as an intermediary in brokering a conditional surrender with the Allies; or that 8.5 million civilians had fled Japan's urban areas in the final five months of the war, tying up transportation networks and leading to critical shortages of war materiel; or that Japanese officials were dismayed by Hitler's fight to the finish, and the unnecessary devastation and destruction that was the result (and let's not even start on the shock of the Soviet invasion of Manchuria on August 8). No, my friend in Taiwan can toss out names of noted scholars who maintain that Japanese women and children were being trained to resist American invaders using bamboo staves. Of course, the benefit of such name-dropping is that it neatly sidesteps the real issue - the morality of vaporizing, incinerating, disfiguring or poisoning nearly a quarter of a million men, women and children. The atomic bombings are the ultimate uncomfortable truth that most Americans refuse to face squarely. Or, to put it another way, when it comes to Japan, my friend knows quite a lot about Taiwan...


Perusing some of the offerings on sale during the Kopustines Fair, a two-day artisan's fair held at Trakai Castle during the Assumption Day holiday weekend

Speaking of friends, there is someone I know from my college days who moved to the foothills of northern California soon after graduation, and has been there ever since. And there's nothing wrong with that, for it's a nice area, and she's been happy as a wife and mother. But in recent months, some of her Facebook posts have veered in a direction somewhat opposite of the path I've taken in the ensuing decades. The posts defending her 2nd Amendment rights are one thing, even if the supposed "attack" she's resisting is a figment of the right-wing's imagination. But what took me aback was her support of the "All Lives Matter" crowd and the inability to grasp what Black Lives Matter is actually about. It's a reminder of how far removed from the lives of many of their fellow citizens the denizens of mostly-white suburbia have become. Or, to put it another way, I would feel sorry for your breast cancer, but hey, all cancers matter, right?*

* No actual cancers, fortunately; just making a point


Trakai on a Saturday afternoon

Speaking of politics, it's been fun watching Donald Trump stumble from one gaffe to the next, along with his inability to understand the definition of "sarcasm". Hopefully, he will continue tripping up, ensuring he goes down to a resounding defeat in November, and initiating a process that might help the Republican Party return to some semblance of sanity in the future (then again, in a post-Brexit world, who knows how some people reach the conclusions they do prior to going into the privacy of the voting booth). I have an American friend in Japan who was a diehard Bernie Sanders supporter, posting message after message on Facebook, lauding Sanders' proposals and hinting at a dark conspiracy to deny him the nomination (turns he wasn't too far off the mark). However, instead of supporting Hillary Clinton in an effort to ensure Trump's defeat this fall (as Sanders has urged his supporters to do), this friend has turned his zeal to supporting Green Party candidate Jill Stein - I only wish I had that much free time to spend on Facebook as he seemingly has. Now, I also supported Sanders' candidacy in the primaries, and I'm no admirer of Clinton - her husband's administration embraced the same Republic economic policies (and hired the same Goldman Sachs people) that led to the Great Recession of 2008 and all the economic dislocation that's happened before and since. But I'm willing to make a Churchillian pact with the devil to prevent Trump from even coming close to winning the race for the White House. I like Stein and her ideas, but I'm not going to waste a vote on her - if the Greens want my support, they need to build their party from the grassroots, and concentrate on winning races for mayors and city councils, and for governors and state legislatures first. Or, to put it another way, my friend, who is a committed atheist, seems to be desperately searching for a savior who will lead him to the promised land.

A different kind of swing voter

One of these days I'm going to write a long blog post about my views on politics or theories on religion, or how living in Taiwan for too long distorts one's perceptions of reality, but the rest of this post will be concerned with more banal matters, like how my family and I spent this long holiday weekend, like walking by the 17th-century ruins of Trakai's Peninsula Castle:


Admiring the old Karaite wooden houses:



Stepping into the 15th-century Church of the Visitation of the Blessed Mary hoping to see its collection of ecclesiastical art, but instead finding a wedding in progress:



Enjoying the dark atmosphere of the 19th-century Orthodox Church of the Nativity:



Back in Vilnius and buying some tasty kebabs from the truck parked up the road (but discovering that the burritos they also offer are best avoided):


The rest of this weekend has been pretty quiet, unless you consider spending an afternoon at a shopping center (Akropolis) an exciting outing (I don't; my wife begs to differ). The autographed Lithuanian national basketball team jerseys from past European championship competitions were mildly interesting:


That evening, Amber and I ventured into Old Town to get something to eat. Riding a scooter on cobblestoned streets wasn't an experience I had when I was my daughter's age:



Today involved another visit to a mall with my wife, a smaller one anchored by an IKEA. I did pick up a couple of beers from the Vilniaus Alus outlet there:


Later in the afternoon my daughter and I ventured into the hills of Vilnius in search of a hiking trail. The path we set out on soon brought us to an unmanned train station:



The trail ended there, but the two of us continued on the road, marveling at how close the countryside seems to the capital city. The sight of more trails in this area begs future explorations:




Hope your trails this weekend were happy ones!