Thursday, May 28, 2009

Jiggle Jam '09

Memorial Day weekend was time for the second annual Jiggle Jam in Kansas City. Carter had a blast last year, so we headed off to see some of his favorite musicians again: They Might be Giants and Justin Roberts. The day included some of his other favorites: his buddy Hayden, bouncy things, and a puppet show.

Carter particularly enjoyed TMBG's confetti cannon and song "Alphabet of Nations," during which he pointed to the location of all of the countries as if he was looking at a map (see the last photo below). He also went up to the front and cut a rug during Justin Roberts' "Willie was a Whale."

Thank you to Jeannie, Hayden's mom, for the photos!

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Lithuania Adventure, Part 8: Final Images

The weather was glorious on Erik's last day in Lithuania, and he spent some time strolling about making final observations. An important landmark that Erik had not yet visited was the Hill of the Three Crosses. Legend says that the monument was originally erected to honor Franciscan monks who were murdered by local pagans in the 14th century. While this story may not be true, an early 20th century monument was destroyed in the Soviet period, and a new version was restored in 1989 as the Soviet Union was approaching its collapse.

The top of the Hill of the Three Crosses features another fantastic view of the Old Town, probably the best in Vilnius. Erik was blissfully alone at the summit; none of the German tourists who dominate the hotel's breakfast buffet were anywhere in sight.

While Erik's attention was generally focused on the panorama, he also noticed a fellow visitor on the ground - a large snail returning home into a crack in the pavement.

It took a week, but Erik finally made it to the main market when it was open. There is perhaps no better window into daily life than the market. He wandered about, snapping photos and watching people go about their business. After packing up and having a meal at Alaus Namai, it will be off to the airport for the trip home.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Lithuania Adventure, Part 7: Raining on the Parade

Erik held his final work-related meeting Saturday morning, and began preparing to return home for a brief visit before the next overseas jaunt. The weather was rather inhospitable, with brief periods of sunlight interrupted by torrents of rain. While the intensity does not rival Kansas gully washers, it made strolling about town a bit unpleasant. In any case, Erik explored the artsy area of Vilnius: Uzupis. The photo above is the grand Gothic St. Anne's, along the route to Uzupis.

An angel greets visitors to Uzupis, a charming neighborhood located across the Vilnia river, a small tributary of the Neris.

The Bernardine Cemetery was established in the early 19th century. Like Lychakiv Cemetery in L'viv, the Bernardine Cemetery features many interred Poles (unsurprising given the history of the two cities). As Erik was strolling through the cemetery, a strong rain began to fall, prompting him to seek shelter in the Old Town area.

The rain encouraged Erik to enjoy an early lunch. He has fastidiously avoided the Lithuanian specialty: "zeppelins" (cepelinai). Lea ordered a thoroughly inedible version of the dish during the last visit. But, Erik felt that zeppelins deserved at least one more try (even Andrew Zimmern gives every dish a couple of bites). The zeppelins were better than he remembered, and reminded him a bit of halushki (the Slovak national dish). Erik's "traditional" zeppelins featured the standard potato-based dough around a filling made from ground meat with minimal seasoning. Traditional zeppelins are boiled and served with a sauce of sour cream and pork bits. They were a hearty lunch on a brisk, rainy day.

As the rain was falling, Erik returned to Gedimino Street. Off in the distance, he heard the unmistakable sounds of a marching band. He followed the music until he discovered a political rally in the form of a parade. While Lithuania's presidential election is over, European parliamentary elections will be held on June 7. Young people affiliated with the Liberal and Center Union marched down the street, carrying banners, playing instruments, and cheering.

No political rally/parade would be complete without cheerleaders. One of Erik and Lea's most amusing memories of Vilnius is Omnitel's deployment of cheerleaders to encourage new customers to commit to a cell phone contract. In this photo, polka-dot clad young ladies show off their moves to the marching band's rendition of "Rock Around the Clock." While the symbolic implication of this tune is probably lost on the crowd ("our party will take you back to the '50s" - not a good decade for Lithuania), it seemed to be one of a handful of songs that the band had mastered.

Erik's trip ends tomorrow, with a trip home interrupted by a long layover in Frankfurt.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Gone Fishin'

While Erik is away in beautiful Vilnius, Lea and Carter have been enjoying nature. On Wednesday, Carter, Lea and Lea's parents hiked around Mary's Lake at Prairie Park. Carter was really excited to use the new binoculars that his grandparents brought. He also fished for algae with a stick, an activity he frequently enjoys there.

But Thursday, he got to fish for real fish, and he was truly excited to go fishing for the first time. We took him to Deanna Rose Farm, where Carter and grandpa fished in a catch and release pond. Carter had a blast, and caught 14 fish!

Lithuania Adventure, Part 6: Ways of Seeing

The landscape of Vilnius does not fit very well within the limitations of Erik's lens. He has been playing with Photoshop's ability to merge images, however, and they give a different perspective on the city. This post features three photos from the square around the Town Hall (Rotushe) taken from different perspectives. Hopefully they give you a better sense of Vilnius' charm when viewed together. Click on the panoramic picture to get a full elliptical view.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Lithuania Adventure, Part 5: Sights Around Vilnius

Erik has been busy working on his research project, attending various meetings over the last few days. The visit has been really productive, and he still has a couple of days to make additional progress. While out and about in Vilnius, he has snapped several photos that are posted below with some comments.

If you can become a regular when visiting a country for just over a week, then Erik has become one at Alaus Namai (above). This microbrew pub is tucked away in the basement of a Soviet-era building along the Neris River. [A side note: when Erik said that it was a microbrew pub, Lea rightly noted that all Lithuanian beer is probably microbrew. But, Alaus Namai features really micro microbrews: beer brewed by families and farmers in the Lithuanian countryside.] Erik's favorite beverage at the moment is a roasted brew with honey; a cloudy, burnt umber, and full flavored drink. He has tried a few others and plans to visit again before his departure.

None of the photos that Erik snapped quite capture the glory of the bronze-domed Orthodox Church of the Apparition of the Holy Mother of God, but this picture gives a taste. Located across the Neris River bridge from the Seimas, it directly opposes the Catholic Cathedral at the other end of Gedimino.

When Erik and Lea visited Lithuania in 2004, they took a day trip to Trakai, a small city just outside of Vilnius. Trakai features an impressive castle on a lake, as well as the main Karaite community of Lithuania. A religious minority that traces its roots to Mesopotamia, the Karaites accept the Old Testament, but not the Talmud (or, so said the sign in front of the Kenessa, pictured above). When we were in Trakai, we were told that Karaite buildings feature three windows on the street side: one for God, one for the prince, and one for the residents. Karaites were "invited" to come and serve as guards for the castle in Trakai from Crimea (the voluntary nature of migration and residence in Lithuania seems to be a matter of dispute). There are now only a few hundred Karaites, and three places of worship: one in Trakai, one in Vilnius, and one in Ukraine.

Another view of Gedimino, from the Seimas looking toward the Cathedral. It is a long, lovely walk that Erik has taken several times.

Along Gedimino is the Museum of Genocide Victims, and a memorial to the fallen is pictured above. Erik and Lea visited the museum in 2004, and it provides a harrowing account of Soviet-era atrocities. The most chilling sections show the cells where victims were held, tortured, and executed.

Erik forgot to post the picture of the statue of Gediminas in the previous entry. Grand Duke Gediminas was a 13th-14th century leader of Lithuania who was baptized into the Catholic Church and allowed Lithuania to be Christianized (whether or not he really wanted this outcome seems to be another matter of dispute).

Yesterday, Erik had a little over one hour before a meeting, and found himself near the National Gallery. The museum is currently featuring an exhibition of Pirosmani, a revered Georgian artist. Pirosmani had no formal training, and painted commercial displays and other work for bread and paint - he was a true outsider artist. He was later discovered and came to be recognized as one of Georgia's greatest painters. This painting perfectly captures Georgian hospitality, and love of food and wine. Erik's upcoming adventure will take him back to Tbilisi several years since his last visit, so this exhibition was something of an "appetizer."

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Lithuania Adventure, Part 4: Statuesque Vilnius

Frank Zappa was not Lithuanian, but Vilnius features a monument to him. The statue - a bust on a tall metal column - is tucked away in a small yard in the central part of the city. It is not necessarily the monument you would expect to such an avant-garde artist; aside from the street art on the wall behind the bust, it is a fairly straightforward statue. Music is always an important part of youth culture, and Zappa was inspirational in Eastern Europe as were other acts like the Beatles (in fact, Almaty, Kazakhstan features a peculiar Beatles monument - see a post from last year with a photo). He particularly influenced a Czech band, the Plastic People of the Universe, whose dissent in the face of repression inspired many others to challenge the communist regime.

Yesterday, Erik also passed by another interesting statue while he was walking in the former Jewish Ghetto. It is dedicated to Tsemakh Shabad, a doctor and prominent figure in Vilnius' Jewish community in the first half of the 20th century. The Russian inscription notes that he was the inspiration for Doctor Aibolit, a character linked to Doctor Doolittle (though no reference to him was on the English language version).

UPDATE: Erik forgot to include this statue of the writer Petras Cvirka in the original post. You can also click on the two panoramic photos to see nice views of Vilnius from the High Castle area.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Lithuania Adventure, Part 3: The Day After

Erik plans to have meetings with representatives of the Central Electoral Commission, political parties, and political scientists. While he has made contact, Monday was an unofficial "day off." Because of yesterday's election, noone was available to meet today. Erik performed some work tasks, visiting the Lithuanian Statistical Bureau to seek out census data aggregated at the level of election districts, but also walked around the Old Town area.

Underneath the physical beauty of Vilnius lies an undercurrent of frustration and concern. The economic crisis is a major topic of conversation, and many Lithuanians are struggling. The taxi driver who transported Erik from the airport claimed to have made only 5 Litas ($2) in the last week (after he paid his boss for the car and covered fuel costs). While cabbies all over the world seem to exaggerate tales of woe to inspire generous tipping, his story was only one of many. In a linen shop, Erik spoke at length to the proprietor about difficult times. She made the linen goods and owned the store. While she had a staff manage the store for her, she laid off all but one person. She is originally from the countryside and maintains a home outside the city. She said that if it were not for her garden and animals (from which she makes her own milk, sour cream, butter, and gathers eggs), her family would be in dire straits.

Erik explored various landmarks: many of Vilnius' lovely churches, the former Jewish quarter (devastated in the Holocaust), and various sites along the main drag (Gedimino Street). Photos follow.

Gates of Dawn (exterior).

Basilian Gate.


Unknown church viewed from Gedimino.

Park along Gedimino.

Bridge outside Erik's hotel.