My hotel room smells like my Lithuanian grandma. I’m not kidding, it’s very distinctive. Maybe I’m having some kind of auto-suggestion event because I’m in the place that side of the family came from – Lithuania.
Not Vilnius specifically, the capital. In fact it wasn’t even an independent Lithuania. It was controlled by Czarist Russia when they first left (Grandpa Verbalis) in 1905 in a horse cart hidden under hay with others, mostly Jews escaping poverty and oppression.
We owe him and the rest a debt of gratitude. Each successive generation after has been better off – the immigrant dream. Emma is excited to be in a place of her heritage. They would be proud of her. (Lily too, once she gets past 14. See yesterday.)
It’s the day before Easter and I give the girls a bunch of Easter Candy I’ve been carrying for a week. I realized if I give it to them tomorrow, they will eat it all in one day, which seems excessive. This way they can spread out the damage over two days. I demand my Dad tax share of candy, and they refuse. We settle on on white chocolate Reses’s Egg each, the kind we all like less. I feel like the Czar trying to get taxes from ungrateful peasants.
Today also marks a milestone. We have completed 300 days of travel together as a family. It gives me pause. But it’s also just a number. She’s always around somehow, making guest appearances in my mind.
65 days left, and the next chunk will be taken as a complete family in Singapore and Vietnam this summer. I went to Vietnam a few years ago and loved it. I can’t wait.
Our hotel is at the top of the old town in a hotel called ‘Moongarden’ which is clean and has strong wifi, but there is the smell, lousy mattresses and a weak breakfast. We need some food. It’s the day before easter and there are a lot of flower and chocolate stands selling holiday bites and decor.
The top of the medieval old town is the ‘Gate of Dawn’ with the gold icon of Mother Mary enclosed. This is the only remaining gate from the former walled city. Most were taken down by 19th century Czars to ‘give the city fresh air’ goes the story. The icon is supposed to have survived fires and occupations, even giving rescuers the brute strength to carry the 440 pound object to safety.
The Lithuanians are proud both that they were the last to drop pagan religions in Europe and that they now are considered one of the most fervent Catholic countries on the planet. 80% of Lithuania used to be Catholic, although that number rose a bunch with the WWII genocides and Soviet relocations.
Like the Poles, Lithuania was briefly independent after WWI, then invaded and occupied once by the Gernams and twice by the Soviets as the battle line shifted back and forth. Like Poland, they favor the growing ‘Grey and Brown’ historical perspective that both sides were equally murderous, oppressive and cruel.
And that’s where we head first, the Museum of Genocide Victims on the main street. It’s in the former KGB headquarters and contains a mash-up of Lithuanian resistance fighting, KGB practices and atrocities, and general WWII history including only a small bit about the Jewish genocide. Despite it’s name, the museum controversially failed to mention Jews for 20 years after it’s opening. Lithuania has a strong current of antisemitism.
Once a center of Jewish thought and culture, Vilnius was called ‘The Jerusalem of the North, and was the home of the Jewish enlightenment under Czarist control.
Lithuanians and Jews were generally tolerant until WWII. Stalin deported the intellectuals, religious figures and many civic leaders and brutally collectivized and repressed the country.
The Germans were welcomed as liberators by some and they embraced the German antisemitism, helping to kill or deport 220,000 Jews from Lithuania, something Lithuania has yet to admit, hoping perhaps for some understanding of the difficult circumstances of WWII.
Decades of Soviet discrimination of Jews amplified the fear and intolerance. This remains a dark spot on a country that wants to be globally liked and respected.
The museum is dense and not well done, compared to Polands museums that clearly had vastly more investment. The horrifying part is the KGB basement, where cells, padded cages, water torture rooms, solitary confinement and interrogation chambers existed just below the surface of the ground and society. Over a thousand prisoners died here, mostly during Stalin’s time. A dark room in the back has dozens of bullet holes in the cement after piercing the brain of a poor prisoner. It’s a dark start to our trip.
I must have passed by this building in 1989 when I was here on a student tour of Russia, Belorussia and the Baltics. Those were tumultuous times but the building would have been active. It was still the Soviet Union for two more years. They announced independence (the first of the Soviet Republics) in 1990 and were granted it by Moscow in 1991.
I don’t remember much from 1989 and was here only for a few days. The Soviet Union had a way of making everything look and feel the same. That plus the 27 years elapsed has made it a blur in my head. The only thing I remember without pictures are the balconies on the buildings of what was then called Lenin Prospect but has now been renamed Gediminas. Sure enough there are still here. I wish I could say a flood of memories came back, but honestly they didn’t. That was just a different place, I can barely connect the two.
Across from those Balconies is a Cafe Nero, which makes a mean chocolate cake Lily likes and an Enthiopian pour over drop coffee – my favorite. ‘Labas!’ We say. And ‘a-choo’. Hello and Thank you are the only words we know. We generally get spoken to in Lithuanian first. I hear smatterings of Russian around – mostly from tourists and begrudging shop keepers. In the Pizza place we went last night, the Russian tourists left angrily yelling because they were never served. We had no problem being served.
This is really a walking town. Unlike many European cities it was never bombed or shelled in WWII so much of the original still exists intact or respectfully modernized.
The best thing to do is just walk around on the cobblestone. You can’t get 50 feet without seeing a church but most are kind of boring honestly.
What gets our blood moving is the street art! We’ve enjoyed Street art since 2013 when we spent a while in the Garden of Street Art Eden, Shoreditch, London. We looked at Miami and Rio, Madrid, Austria and a few others since then. Rio and London are the best so far. Surely Vilnius won’t stack up.
It doesn’t. It’s not on that level, but it’s really fun to see the birth of a new scene. There are some really good ones and lots of tagging. London seems so commercialized, Brazil is so intentional. This is organic and random. The city center is still developing and the authorities don’t have enough time to clean the spray paint. In fact, just off the main roads are some really demolished sites that you wouldn’t see in a city center elsewhere in Europe.
Lithuania was a Baltic tiger – with double digit growth for most of the 90’s but sputtered since then and is doing better than southern Europe but still has high unemployment. They pride themselves on having very simple and low taxes which attracts investment but also does not operate like many high-tax, big government European nations.
We end up downhill again near the Cathedral square. We still have hours left in the day so I let them spend a little money in Zara. They have been wanting jean jackets. That’ll be a better souvenir than an amber trinket that gets lost in a drawer. Lily thinks about a swanky taupe faux suede motorcycle jacket, and Emma and I gently dissuade her. We’ve all bought stuff abroad (often in Europe) that seems to look great there, and is terrible once you get home.
In her light wash denim-on-denim jeans and jean jacket, Lily has the look Trish and I would call ‘Bride of Springsteen’. Naturally Lily doesn’t get either reference. Even funnier, that’s exactly how the Lithuanian cool kids looked when I was there in 1989. The command economy fashion time warp of the Soviet Union put them behind about 5-7 years. We were on the cusp of grunge, they were still in acid wash.
One final stop on our long street art and church tour (more photos here) was the unexpected monument to Frank Zappa. Frank was neither Lithuanian nor even knew it existed for all we know. In a somewhat random event around the independence of Lithuania from the Soviet Union, at the same time they were taking down statues of Lenin, they put up this tall bust of Frank Zappa, presumably because he was a free thinker. Odd at best.
The real reason we are here is the art behind the statue. Nicely done stuff. We trudge back up the hill to our hotel at the top of the old city and laugh and think about dinner, which is…surprise…Pizza. We eat so much mediocre pizza on travel. I wonder how many of the 300 days we’ve eaten pizza. 100? It’s how we travel. One more day tomorrow, then home!
So happy to see you guys closing in on the 365 days. I know Trish is so proud of you all and is cheering you on, if only in our heads.