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Sunday, June 26, 2016

Taking a Brexit in Kaunas

Enjoying a beautiful day in the European Union

"You really did it! You maniacs!...Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!" 

I'm not British (though I am of English and Scottish, as well as Irish, descent), but if I were, I might be feeling a little bit like Charleston Heston at the end of The Planet of the Apes. Like many people, I found the decision in Britain's referendum a stunning one. What were the 52% thinking when they decided that they wanted the United Kingdom to leave the European Union? How could so many people give in to fear, ignorance and prejudice, when the numbers they were being fed by the Leave camp have been debunked time and time again, and UKIP is so obviously a party of right-wing nutbars? The result makes me fear that enough of my countrymen and women could give in to the same stupidity as their British cousins and make a similarly monumentally foolish decision this November.

I'll leave it to the experts and the pundits to discuss what all this will mean in the long-term for Britain, the EU and the rest of the world as the slow, tortuous process of disentanglement begins once David Cameron's replacement takes over at No. 10 Downing Street (see link). I suspect that, in the end, the fallout won't be anywhere near as dire as forecast by some members of the establishment, and that Britain will come to a kind of economic and political relationship with the EU currently enjoyed by the likes of Norway and Switzerland (it should be noted that the Norwegian electorate voted No to joining the Union in its own referendum back in 1994). However, two sets of numbers from the British referendum stand out. The first is the age gap revealed by the voting breakdown: 58% of those 65 and older chose "Leave", while 64% of those between the ages of 18 and 24 voted to remain part of a semi-united Europe. Or, to put it another way, based on life expectancy tables, a 65 year-old who voted to dump the EU has only 16 years on average to live with the consequences of his/her shortsighted choice, while their 18 year-old grandson or granddaughter will face an average of 69 years to live with decision made by their elders. We have minimum voting ages; perhaps maximum ages should also be considered.

Then there is Scotland. 68% of Scottish voters chose to stay in the EU; the Leave camp was defeated in all 32 local authorities there. Two years ago, I was on a British Airways plane landing at Heathrow Airport on the day of the Scottish independence referendum. When the pilot announced that a majority of Scots had voted to remain in the UK, loud applause and cheers broke out among the passengers. At that time, I felt the right decision had been made. Had I been Scottish, I would've voted with the majority. While the idea of an independent Scotland would've had its emotional appeal, the benefits of staying British would've included the fact that I would continue to enjoy the benefits of EU membership. Now, if I were Scottish, I would be feeling angry and betrayed. Will the consequences of Brexit include a renewed drive for independence for Scotland and the eventual breakup of the United Kingdom? 

While England faces a brave new world, my family and I continue to enjoy life on the continent. Friday was Saint Jonas' Festival (aka Midsummer), a national holiday in Lithuania. As Wikipedia describes it:

... many Lithuanians have a particularly lively agenda on this day. The traditions include singing songs and dancing until the sun sets, telling tales, searching to find the magic fern blossom at midnight, jumping over bonfires, greeting the rising midsummer sun and washing the face with a morning dew, young girls float flower wreaths on the water of river or lake. These are customs brought from pagan culture and beliefs.

We didn't hear any singing, see any dancing, find any magic fern blossoms at midnight, jump over any bonfires or wash our faces with morning dew. We did, however, take advantage of the three-day weekend by spending Friday night in Kaunas, Lithuania's second-largest city. Although it's only around 100 kilometers (60 miles) from Vilnius, we were going to be staying in Kaunas' Old Town (read narrow cobblestone streets), so we took the train there instead of driving. My daughter waits patiently for the bus that would take us to Vilnius' train station:


In modern-day Europe, the past is never very far behind, as this sign on the wall at Vilnius railway station illustrates:

 
The train to Kaunas took around 1¼ hours and passed through some pleasant rural scenery. At the bottom of the photo below, you can just make out a woman tending to her field:


From Kaunas railway station, it was a short taxi ride to Old Town. We dropped off our bag at the Apple Economy Hotel, where the rooms are small but cheerful, and the location can't be beat. We set off in search of lunch in the extremely warm (for Lithuania) summer weather. Amber snapped this picture of a local cat basically doing nothing in the heat:


Lunch was at a Japanese restaurant across the street from our hotel:


The Old Town in Kaunas isn't as large as in Vilnius, but it does have its charms. The center of Old Town is a large, open square known as Rotušės Aikštė, dominated by the Old Town Hall. Kaunas Town Hall (Kauno rotušė) was built in the mid-16th century, and over the years has been used as a theater, armory, prison and government office. Since the 1970's it has served as a marriage registry office; Old Town itself is popular as an attractive backdrop for wedding photographs:


On the northeastern edge of the square stands Sts. Peter & Paul Cathedral (Šventų Apaštalų Petro ir Povilo Arkekatedra Bazilika). The church was founded by Vytautas around 1410 and is the largest Gothic building in Lithuania. Inside are nine altars and plaque proudly noting that Pope John Paul II paid a visit in 1993:






Outside the cathedral, on its southern wall, stands the tomb of Maironis, one of the country's most famous poets and a major figure in the Lithuanian National Revival:


The pedestrian-only Vilniaus gatvė is the main artery running through Old Town:



Dinner on Friday was at Bernelių Užeiga, around the corner from our hotel. Beef tongue for an appetizer, with "My Mothers Beef Stew" as the main course:




I also helped myself to a couple of mugs of the house beer:


After dinner the three of us took another walk through Old Town. The St. Francis Xavier Church & Monastery was unfortunately closed due to renovation work; a shame, really, as the tower reportedly has the best aerial views of Kaunas. This photo was taken at 7:45 pm; notice how bright it still was at that hour. There were 16½ hours on sunlight on Midsummer; unfortunately, this means that six months from now we'll only have 7½ hours of daylight as winter sets in:


Amber is harassed by giant bugs:


Maironis again:


Enjoying a late-evening nightcap as a lone hot-air balloon wafts over Rotušės Aikštė:



The parking lot in front of this mural would be the site of a farmer's market the next morning:


Speaking of which, I left the hotel at 7:30 on Saturday morning in search of a place to have breakfast, only to discover that the earliest any cafe would be open was 9 am. It was still fun wandering the cobblestone streets at that hour. I learned that in one spot on May 11, 2014 nothing at all happened:


Wanted: a panda that won't bite humans:


After breakfast (finally!), the family ventured back out into Old Town on a day that would see the temperature soar past 30°C (86°F). Just-married couples were already celebrating outside Kaunas Town Hall:


Stained glass depictions of national heroes Gediminas and Mindaugas inside Vytautas Church (Vytauto bažnyčia), which was put up by the Franciscans in 1413. It later served as an army storehouse during Napoleon's stay in Lithuania, then was converted to a Russian Orthodox house of worship before being returned to Catholic control in 1990:


The church as seen while the three of us walked across a bridge spanning the Nemunas River. In the background are the towers of the St. Francis Xavier Church  & Monastery and Kaunas Town Hall:


The reason for crossing the river was to take a ride on the Aleksotas Funicular, in operation since 1935:


Of course there were good views of Old Town from the top:




Back in town, my daughter does some souvenir shopping:


Although Vilnius has long been the most important city in Lithuania, during the years between the two World Wars it was under Polish administration. The capital of the Lithuanian state that existed from 1918 to 1940 was in Kaunas, and the Presidential Palace of Lithuania (Istorinė Lietuvos Prezidentūra) was the seat of government for the republic (which was dominated by the authoritarian rule of Antanas Smetona for most of that period). Amber and I went inside to see the exhibits, while Shu-E took a break outside in the shade provided by the trees of the palace garden:







Back on Vilniaus gatvė:


The last place of note that we visited in Kaunas was Kaunas Castle. All that remains today of the 14th-century castle is part of the moat, a few sections of wall and a reconstructed tower:




Inside the refreshingly cool dungeon, my daughter interacts with an animated guard, while in the tower she tries on some headdresses and attempts to piece together some archaeological relics:




The views from the tower included the restaurant where we had lunch, Pilies Sodas (the white building prominent in the photo below):



With a train returning to Vilnius to catch, we took a taxi back to Kaunas railway station late on Saturday afternoon. The station was built in the early 1950's and is one of the few examples of Stalinist architecture remaining today in Lithuania. Which is most definitely a good thing, because it's hideous:


A plaque on the station building wall dedicated to Chiune Sugihara 杉原千畝, the Japanese Vice-Consul in Lithuania who helped 6000 Jews escape the Nazis and certain death by issuing them transit visas to travel through Japanese territory, despite being ordered by his government not to do so. He was still throwing visas out the train window as he was leaving Kaunas. The next time we visit the city I would like to see the Sugihara House Museum:


And I'm sure there will be a next time, for Kaunas has a New Town that also has some interesting sights. Kaunas is often described as being Lithuania's most Lithuanian city, due to the influence of Poland on Vilnius' development and history:

A warm, sunny Sunday afternoon back in Vilnius