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Lithuania Day 5: Stalin World

Another day, another roadtrip. skidspoppe and I were up and out of the house by 8 AM, heading south toward a resort town called Druskininkai (say "drush-kin-in-kay") where, on the outskirts, lies a park that I had just had to see.

The drive took about 90 minutes and took us to the far southern border of the country. (I continued to be impressed by how small Lithuania really is. You can drive across the country in about four hours east to west, maybe five if the weather is bad. North to south, the drive time is probably about the same.) The road reminded me of the road from I-5 to the Oregon coast: forests broken up by farmland. The only things missing were the signs pointing tourists to wineries and wine-tasting rooms. Most of the signs with arrows were pointing toward small towns. Otherwise, it was more green, rolling farmland and stands of tall, thin trees.

Druskininkai is known in the Baltics and Russia as a major resort town because of its mineral springs. Its main attractions are its spas . . . and the peculiar sculpture park to the east: Gruto Parkas, which some people have dubbed "Stalin World."

Grutas, the place which this park calls home, is a small town with tiny houses, ramshackle places, many of which need paint, with correspondingly small barns. Some of these homes are within mere feet of each other; some are a little more spaced out, but they appear to be haphazardly placed. Grutas is clearly mainly a residential area and doesn't, somehow, seem to have profited from its neighboring, bizarre theme park.

Stalin World
Gruto Parkas is a sort of three-in-one amusement park: part zoo, part kiddy park, and part home for displaced Soviet statues, sculpture, and other Soviet memorabilia. The idea behind the place is to create a living record of the atrocities perpetrated on Lithuania under Soviet governance. Somehow, with the zoo animals lowing mournfully and the kiddy rides all unused so late in the season, each segregated into its own area, it can't project any kind of memorial sensation. The two trails that feature the sculptures are more like an art park, a tribute to the blocky, soulless style of Soviet art and portraiture. Every now and then as you stroll the trail, you can hear the strains of some tinkly Soviet anthem, and the contrast between its happy, martial sound and the descriptions of Soviet enforcement is stark and disconcerting. A canal runs along one side of the park, with reproductions of Soviet watchtowers guarding the park perimeter. Statue after bust after statue features some Soviet hero. Lenin features prominently in these portrayals, shown as, alternately, an intellectual giant with a scroll or book in hand, a visionary with his overcoat wafting out behind him like a superhero's cape, or man of the people with a worker's cap in his hand. Stalin is shown as a stalwart military figure. Other lesser known heroes of the revolution also have places on the trails, men and women with square jaws, marching with determination into a Soviet future.

Here and there along the trail are small indoor museums. One was devoted to detailing the history of Soviet occupation of Lithuania. More than fifty captions tell the story in Lithuanian and in English, so I was able to read some of it. The wall was papered with reproductions of newspapers from the era. Photographs told the story as well. I was struck by how close history is in this place; liberation took place only 20 years ago and, again, I was put in mind of the story of Lina's family and their stay in Siberia. One wall featured relief portrait after relief portrait of Lenin, basically the same profile over and over again. It's the Great Lie in sculpture, a fascist deification of the great leader, squinting toward a grim future. Unnerving.

We navigated the trails in about 90 minutes or so and then, ironically, stopped into one of the several gift shops in the park. I picked up a pin for my bag, but saw shot glasses, flasks, magnets, and key chains all emblazoned with the name and logo of the place, or with portraits of Stalin and Lenin on them. These men would be rolling in their graves at the consumerist culture that now encompasses their legacy here. It's kind of remarkable.

We spent the balance of the day in Druskininkai, roaming its pedestrian thoroughfare. It's mainly a sort of promenade with not much to show except strange little sculptures (a gila lizard, a cartoony eagle, and so on) and well-tended greenery. Skids says that in summer it's lined with artists and craftspeople selling their wares. I'm sure it's more lively than in the dark, damp autumn. The souvenir shops are nothing to write home about. Many of the buildings struck me with their disrepair, places that clearly seemed built to attract the tourist trade, which struck me as just odd. We did see a small, beautiful, blue-and-white Russian Orthodox Church featuring several onion-shaped domes, but were shooed out by a woman who had just mopped the floors. Its exterior was in the midst of renovation, getting a fresh coat of paint and new landscaping.

Back to Kaunas
We headed back to Kaunas after our stroll to meet friends of Skids' for dinner. There was pizza and wine and much pleasant company and conversation. I found myself wishing for more time with these folks, but they had other plans. We had drinks with the previously-mentioned Monika, and then, again, it was time to hit the sack, where I was probably asleep before my head hit the pillow.

Lithuania Day 4: On the Road

skidspoppe and I were up and out early on Saturday morning. We'd rented a car to head west northwest to the coast, specifically to the Curonian Spit, and wanted to get an early start. We were going to meet his friend Lina, to whom we were giving a lift back to her hometown for the weekend, so with high spirits, we were off to Rotuses Aikste (the main town square) where the rental car was parked . . . except that when we got there the car wouldn't start. So while Skids called the rental car company for a jumpstart, I photographed the town hall (called by locals alternately the White Swan or the Wedding Cake, partly because of its beautiful white facade and tall, tiered tower in the front, and partly because it's wedding central each weekend), and the cathedral and then went to meet Lina at our designated rendezvous point, Kaunas Castle, to give her the scoop and bring her back to the car.

Kaunas Castle
Kaunas Castle sits a block or two off the main square on the banks of the Nemunas River. It's another recently reconstructed cylindrical tower topped by a conical roof and surrounded by remnants of walls of other buildings. I like what they do here with their castles: the original ruins of walls remain in their original materials: rough pale stones piled and cemented, and then the reconstructed walls are made of red brick. This way you can see what's original and what's reconstructed, and still see the whole building looking more-or-less as it did originally. Lithuanian castles seem to me to be smaller than castles in other parts of Europe (though I could be wrong about this). They are compact, but based on maps I saw at other sites, they appear to have been more closely located to each other. I met Lina at the bridge that crosses the former moat, we poked around a little bit, and then headed back to the car where Skids sat with the motor running, ready to take off.

The Ninth Fort
As we exited the city, Skids pointed out a gigantic sculpture off to one side of the freeway. It was massive. "That's the Ninth Fort," he said. "What's that?" I asked, and he turned the car around so we could go back to see. The Ninth Fort, as it turned out, is a memorial and museum, the remains of a Nazi deportation center and concentration camp where Jews were murdered. Later, it's where the Soviets perpetrated atrocities against Lithuanians. Besides the museum (which wasn't open so early in the morning, which means I have some reading and research to do to learn more about this place), you can see the remnants of prison buildings, a wall against which Lithuanians and Jews were shot and killed, and the gigantic three-part memorial sculpture erected in 1984, a towering wall of grim faces and fists raised in resistance. The sculpture is like many of the things I saw in Paris: so big it's hard to convey without being there. With the dramatic sky full of gray storm clouds marching along above us and the wind blowing around us, it was an impressive site. A quiet sense of reverence and firm resolve pervades the place, and we stood there, Lina and I, while Skids waited in the car, just absorbing it all.

As we walked back to the car, she told me about how her grandparents and family had been sent to Siberia by the Soviets. Apparently, they'd owned too much land. They were there about four years and her grandfather had been changed--not for the better--by the experience. Skids had told me earlier in my visit that everyone he knew here had a story like that; this was the first time I'd heard such a story firsthand and it was sobering.

When we were done we headed back to the car. About halfway back I discovered that I'd lost my camera cover. Not the lens cap, but the foam cover that protects my camera. We looked for it, to no avail. Either I'd lost it before we left Kaunas or it had blown away somewhere at the fort. (The wind was impressive that morning, heralding the torrential rain we'd fight through for the rest of the day.) At any rate, it was gone, and I chose not to get upset about it. Such things can be replaced; we had a three-hour drive ahead of us and I didn't want to delay the expedition.

On the road in Lithuania
I've mentioned before that Lithuania reminds me of the Pacific Northwest. This road trip confirmed that impression. With all the rain that the country gets, it's a lush and green place, though it's not at all mountainous. The land rolls gently on, geometrically patterned farmland stretching to either low hills or lines of trees. Houses are small; barns are correspondingly sized. Cows are invariably black and white. Freeways, I decided, are more-or-less the same everywhere: a lot of road and a lot of nothing between departure and destination points--except that this nothing was picturesque and familiar somehow, and I enjoyed the vistas for both of those characteristics. Lina was entertained by my interest; when it's something you've seen time and again, its novelty wears off. Here and there she pointed out items of interest.

We stopped in Rietavas, a town near to where she lives, to see its beautiful church, and then headed to Plunge (say "ploong-eh") where her family lives. Her comment about it was that a lot of Jews used to live there. This is true everywhere in Lithuania, and her observation was rather wistful. The town was small, with older and newer parts, the newer parts better kept and more modern. I was sorry she had to leave us; I found her company quite pleasant.

Skids and I hit the road again, driving to Kleipeda. We passed, weirdly, a deer farm along the way. Why a farm specifically for deer? I have no idea.

Kleipeda itself is a small city that can barely be called a city except that it's not a town. The highlights I saw on the way to the ferry dock were a mall (Akropolis) and things that looked like small, rundown corporate parks. The dock was definitely part of a working industrial port, and the ferry itself nothing like what I expected. Coming from New York and Seattle, when I think of a drive-on ferry, I think of a big, cruise-line sized thing that you can park in and wander around on. The ferry we boarded was an open-air working boat, and we were packed like sardines on the deck. The ride was only 4 minutes across the strait that connects the Curonian Lagoon to the Baltic Sea--and then we were on the spit.

The Curonian Spit
The Curonian Spit is a long, thin ribbon of land that starts in Kaliningrad, Russia, and stretches to a spot just short of connecting to Lithuania (hence the need for the ferry ride.) It separates the Baltic Sea from the Curonian Lagoon and is, for most of its length, a forested semi-wilderness. At the very tip, at Nida, you can actually see Russia, the Baltic Sea, and the Curonian Spit depending upon where you stand. We drove all the way out to the tip and, in the pouring-down rain, got out to take in this view for ourselves as our umbrellas were deformed by the hard-blowing wind. There's a large sundial there that I would have enjoyed seeing in the sunshine; alas, it was not to be. We took in the view just long enough to get seriously wet and windblown, and then got back into the car to drive slowly back. We had lunch, enjoyed the passing forest as we drove, and then we went to what Skids described as "a thin place," where the walls between the worlds are permeable and anyone can come and go.

Witch's Hill
In Lithuanian folklore witches can be either good or bad much like, you know, people. Witch's Hill in Juodkrante is a sculpture park in a forested setting featuring wonderful wood carvings illustrating stories out of Lithuanian folklore. In the torrential downpour, we had the place pretty much to ourselves so it was us, our umbrellas, and my camera tromping the trail and viewing the carvings. Skids has led student tours there, so he became my private tour guide, sharing stories as we came to sculpture after sculpture. I learned about Egle the Queen of Serpents, Perkunas the thunder god, and lots of stories about people trapped or tricked by gods and witches. The carvings were marvelous, full of life and wonder, and the stories were inspiring. There's one in particular that I want to investigate more fully as the possible basis for a short story--or maybe something more ambitions. Skids later gifted me with the book from which he learned all this folklore. I am awed by this generosity, and truly grateful. We spent a wonderful chunk of time wandering the paths of Witch's Hill and when we were finally done--and soaked to the skin--we retreated to the car.

We departed the spit quite well satisfied with our excursion. With the rain pouring down and us feeling like drowned cats, we weren't feeling like more adventures in the rain, but we still had some daylight. Jaq knew about a walking sculpture tour in Kleipeda, so what he did was drive us through the tiny alleys of the city to show me some of the sculptures we might otherwise see on foot, which ended up being both entertaining and a test of his driving skills. We saw a cat and mouse, dragon, a chimney sweep, a pot of coins.

After that the only question was--what to do next? Our original plan had been to drive to Druskininkai in the southern part of the country, spend the night there, visit Gruto Parkas, and then head back to Kaunas. But what ended up happening was that the GPS unit pointed us back toward Kaunas to get to Druskininkai. Rather than spending money on a hotel, we decided that heading home was the better part of valor, less expensive and more sensible, so Skids drove us back in the driving rain. We listened to a Doctor Who audio book on the road, arrived in Kaunas, and just passed out.

Other trivia
In this region, some of the fishing boats and later, houses, have these elaborately decorated and beautifully detailed weather vanes. These vanes are traditionally used not just to tell which way the wind is blowing, but to indicate what family lives beneath it, what business they're in, and so on.

Travel Journal Hiatus

I'm behind on my travel blogging--not too much, but just enough that I notice I'm lagging. I'll get back to it in a minute, but I want to take a moment to note a couple of things.

First, I posted the following to Facebook earlier today:
Is it shallow to admit that I miss my hair dryer and moisturizer, that I'm tired of wearing the same clothes going on 15 days now, and that I'd give almost anything for an American-style salad? And I'm missing my cat something fierce, not to mention varina8, ironymaiden, and davidlevine. I'm loving the trip, seeing friends, and discovering new places, but I'm missing key things and people at home.

Second: About to go to bed, I realized that I really ought to prep for travel tomorrow, so I've reviewed my flight, my hotel reservations, and how to get to the hotel from the airport. I *think* I'm ready--and I'm still behind on my Lithuania bogging! I'll catch up, I know. It's just all happening so fast! In the meanwhile, while I'm in Amsterdam, I'll be staying at the apparently lovely Nadia Hotel. Will report on it when I'm settled.

It'll be the first time this trip that I'm traveling solo. Shouldn't be very different from convention travel--except of course there will be no one there that I'll know at the other end. Still, if I think of it that way it's a little less intimidating. One step at a time as I hope my way back across Europe. . . .

Lithuania Day 3: Walking Kaunas

We reserved Friday for a sort of overview tour of Kaunas, where skidspoppe lives. Our first order of business, after taking some time at Coffee Inn to do a little blogging (well, I did; Skids had work to do) was to find a post office though, because Elizabeth and I had been unable to make a postal connection in Paris. Yes, that means that what postcards I managed to write in Paris will sport Lithuanian postage and postmarks. Kind of crazy, but it's part of the fun of travel.

Skids' friend Ausrine (say "Awshrinya" -- it's the name of a goddess out of Lithuanian folklore--very pretty) met us for lunch. When we were done, we started our walking tour--in the pouring-down rain. Our first stop was St. Michael the Archangel Church, a domed, neo-Byzantine church that I saw in the distance quite a few times before we actually got there. It's a beautiful building, reminiscent of the Taj Mahal (see the pic at the Wikipedia link) but not very well maintained--it desperately needs to be repainted--and we couldn't go inside to see what it looked like. Next to the building was a small statue commemorating Jews lost in the Holocaust.

Amusement park
In an earlier post, I talked about how, with its rain, Kaunas is like Seattle. Some parts of the city also resemble Seattle in their hilliness. Some of the hills here could give Seattle a run for its money. I was about to learn about this similarity firsthand.

We walked up a hill and several flights of stone steps to Vytautus Parkas, a lovely, green park in the heart of which was a small Soviet-era amusement park still in use today. All of the rides had seen better days; at least two of them were a parent's tetanus nightmare with rust and sharp edges everywhere. The rain began to let up at that point. The place was ripe for photography, so Skids and Ausrine settled in on the merry-go-round, she on one of the giraffes, while I went and took pictures of the raindrop-glittering rides with their old wooden footboards and less-than-reassuring safety rails. I look forward to sharing some of what I discovered there.

The White Church
We walked past the enormous civic library with its bulky, sweet sculpture of owls lined up on a massive branch, following a map of what Skids referred to as the Chocolate Tour. I thought he meant we;d be stopping at chocolatiers as we strolled. What he actually meant was a tour that would take us to locations where there were ceramic tiles that looked like chocolate bars in the sidewalk. If you collect pictures of all five bars and take them as proof to a local business, you get a chocolate reward. The first one we found was in a park near a sculpture. (There's a lot of civic art here, all of it in a sort of blocky, Soviet style--interesting and distinctive.) The tile was on the way to what Skids called The White Church but whose official name is Christ's Resurrection Basilica. Located on the highest hill in Kaunas, it is striking with its tall white tower. We'd hoped to go to the top for a view of the whole city, but the elevator was broken. We had the option to climb the stairs to the top, but I was just thrashed with all the hill-climbing and declined to make the ascent. Instead, we sat in the clean, modern 1930s-style sanctuary with its minimalist decor and tall, slim windows, and watched as the sky cleared and puffy white clouds floated by in a crisp blue sky. It's a dramatic effect, seeing nothing but sky from the sanctuary.

We took the funicular down the hill, kind of a backwards choice. It was a beautiful vehicle though, with dark-wood paneling and seats, and then strolled a few blocks to our next stop.

The Devils Museum
The Devils Museum is a collection of sculptures of devils accumulated by a well-known Lithuanian landscape artist. On its three floors, we saw sculptures, paintings, and masks portraying devils, their habits, and their interactions with humans. In Lithuania, the devil isn't a figure of evil but, rather, a sort of trickster character, and each sculpture showed him at mischief in one way or another. Sometimes he resembled a Western-style conception of the devil, but often he is shown in various guises, as a sprite or gnome or dancing figure taunting and vexing his human targets. The descriptions in Lithuanian and English tell folktales about the devil, sometimes well-translated, sometimes not, sometimes more-or-less coherent, sometimes not. Overall, it's a charming place, and I was entertained and intrigued.

At that point, I was also exhausted. I just hit the wall and asked if we could adjourn to the apartment for a bit. We did, and I quietly sat and surfed the web for a bit. We had dinner out at a student hang-out called Yzy Bar, where we indulged in burgers and ice cream, then headed out for the last event of the day.

The Shamrock
Skids had set up a get-together with some of his close circle of friends at a local bar. Most of them were former students, very smart people interested in movies and pop culture. In the group were Ausrina, Benita, one of the students with whom we'd gone out my first night in town, an engaging bass guitarist; Ruta, an attractive young woman with editorial aspirations and major science fiction geekitude, and her boyfriend Jorus; Andruis, a blond cherub-faced guy with a twinkle of mischief about him and a love of movies; Lina (say "linna"), one of Skids' closest friends; and a couple of others. We had a great time.

By 10:30ish, I was done, baked to a crisp and it was time to retire. Sleep was key, because saturday we'd be launching ourselves for a road trip across the country.
skidspoppe and I rose early on Thursday to catch an 8:08 AM train back to Vilnius. Did I mention how good it was to see him after such a long time? Five years is a long time not to see a friend. But I digress. We were joined on the trek by his good friend Monika, a tall, slim, blond woman of about 25 who works in tourism. Skids had a class to teach in the morning, so Monika was tasked with taking me to Trakai Castle, about a half-hour's bus ride southeast of Vilnius.

Trakai is a tiny little town situated on a long sort of peninsula surrounded by lakes. The bus dropped us at one end, which meant walking its length to get to the castle at its other end. On the way, we passed little wooden houses painted autumn reds and golds, and walked along the lake's edge for a pretty view of more trees turning colors. The weather was cool and misty, so it all looked terribly picturesque, with edges softened by the haze in the air. We came around a bend, and there, past more trees, a lake, and a wooden bridge, was the castle, a series of red brick and rock cylindrical towers topped by conical roofs, connected by high, thick walls. Off to our left, a couple of men hung out by sailboats waiting for tourist custom. Ducks skimmed to a landing in the water. We walked across the wooden bridge, past an old woman selling meat pies from a cooler, and headed toward the castle.

We decided, first, to walk all the way around it to get a sense of its size and see it from all angles. This place had a storybook aspect, so clean and perfect in its construction and presentation. In the distance in one direction we saw what is referred to as the peninsular castle, a smaller cylindrical tower in only fair repair. In another direction, we saw a white mansion, a private home with a large gazebo off to one side.

We entered the castle through a large gate, paid our entrance fee, and started to explore. The place has two connected courtyards. We walked through the first to the second, where we ascended wooden steps to the three different levels. On each level different chambers included exhibits explaining the history of the place and, consequently, of Lithuania, showing artifacts found during that castle's restoration. Happily, all the explanations were in both Lithuanian and pretty well-translated English, so I was able to get a sense of what was really going on there.

What occurred to me as I read all this history--about Lithuania's one and only king, and then its line of Grand Dukes--is that I was reading about it for the first time, all this history I didn't learn about in school. We're not taught Eastern European history in American schools, so this was all a revelation to me. All these names that loom large locally--Gediminus, Vytautus, and so on--were completely unfamiliar. I felt a little provincial, not recognizing names that are as important to Lithuanians as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are to Americans.

A happy surprise for me was finding a penny-smasher on the third floor of the castle. It's not listed on pennycollector.com so I'll report the site when I get home. Monika indulged me while I scrambled for the right coinage and smashed a complete set. (Lithuania is part of the European Union, but not part of the Eurozone, so I'm using currency called litae while I'm here. The pennies are, apparently, aluminum, and look like toy money.)

Meat pies
Besides its beautiful castle, Trakai is famous as being the place where kibinai was invented. It's basically a kind of baked meat pie in a delicious dough, and Monika was bound and determined for me to taste this definitively Lithuanian food. We found a place recommended by a local and each ordered one, along with a cup of sultinys--a beef broth served in a mug. This combination turned out to be a great antidote for the ay's damp, cool mist, and was very tasty: savory and satisfying.

Back to church-filled Vilnius
After lunch, we took the bus back to Vilnius to meet up with skidspoppe. From the train station to the cathedral where we met, we stopped at two different churches--The Jesuit Church of St. Casimir, a beautiful white and pink church, and the Russian Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas. I ogled amber jewelry in a couple of windows as we walked along the tourist strip to Cathedral Square. Old Town in Vilnius is a World Heritage site in tribute to its baroque style. What I found there was that the look was simpler and far more elegant than I expected, buildings in pale colors with tasteful trim. The streets are cobblestoned, and the sidewalks are brick.

We met Skids at the cathedral, a place that goes back to the 14th century, built on a site where a temple to the thunder god Perkunas once stood. I took a turn at a particular spot where it's traditional to stand, turn around three times, and make a wish. And then we took the funicular up to Gedinimus Tower, a cylindrical tower on the highest hill in the city built by the city's founder. The exhibits there explained the history of the place as well as Lithuania's fight for independence from the Soviet Union, attained less then 30 years ago. I learned about the Baltic Way, an event in which three million people from Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania made a human chain through all three countries to protest oppression and gain liberation, which they all achieved six months later. Very moving. And I got to see Vilnius from the top of the tower, spectacular views on all sides.

Dinner and unexpected Shakespeare
Dinner was at a restaurant called Forto Dvaras which specializes in traditional Lithuanian dishes. I had cepelina (zeppelins)--potatoes fried with bacon and served with ground meat and sour cream. Yeah, I know: not exactly Weight Watchers fare, but it was delicious. Being in a city and all, we were bound at some point to encounter a Personality. Coming out of the restaurant, a man standing by the door proclaimed, "To be or not to be, that is the question," to which I could only respond, dramatically, "Whether it is nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune..." and continued to walk. He didn't react as I recall, but I do think we left him a little stunned at such an immediate and appropriate response. Unfortunately, dinner didn't sit very well with me, which meant stopping to attend to my unwellness. We were, however, back on the prowl shortly, hitting the beautiful St. Anne's Church and then...

The Republic of Uzupis (say "uzh-a-pis")
This neighborhood appears to be Vilnius' answer to Seattle's Fremont neighborhood. It's an artsy part of town with its own rules:
-- Always smile
-- Drive no more than 20 kilometers an hour
-- Make art
-- Don't drive into the river
It also has a constitution, an entertaining document posted in the middle of the neighborhood in more than 10 different languages (including Yiddish) that most Fremonsters would heartily approve of. Uzupis boasts its own mermaid and archangel. My only regret is that we got there after most businesses were closed and twilight was setting in, so I didn't get to enjoy it as I would have hoped. Still, it was fun to get a taste of Vilnius' idiosyncratic side.

Our last stop, before heading back to Kaunas, was to see the statue of the Goan of Vilna, a bust, really, on a column in a small park. I was gratified to get a little bit of Jewish culture into the day, given the city's Jewish heritage as well as my own.

We headed back to Kaunas on the train, exhausted, having walked more than 30,000 steps--12+ miles. I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.
On the road again
Wednesday was a travel day. Bags packed, Elizabeth and I left the apartment early in the day to get to the airport. I had a flight out at 8 AM going to Vilnius, Lithuania with a connection Frankfurt; hers to Seattle was later, but it was easier on us both to travel to the airport together.

My flights and connection were pleasant and uneventful. It gave me plenty of time to reflect on the trip a bit, about how my great grandfather left Vilnius more than 100 years ago to find a new life, and here I am going back to at least get a taste of the place he forsook. I also thought about the enormous privilege I'm enjoying: an American woman of some means hip-hopping across Europe on vacation. I'm very much aware, especially in current economic conditions, of what a special thing it is I'm able to do because of my nationality, my income, my position in the world. As I sat in Frankfurt Airport, I also found myself considering the fact that I was surrounded by people who speak other languages more fluently than they do English, whereas I speak native English and a smattering of French. I was truly aware that, in this situation, I'm the foreigner.

Wheels down in Lithuania
I arrived in Lithuania at 1:55 PM and found my way from the airport to the train station. I had to stop to get Lithuanian money because Lithuania, while it is a member of the EU, is not a member of the Eurozone. At the cash machine I withdrew some litae, glanced at it quickly (I still haven't really had time to study it and see what I'm handling), and headed out. I had to take a train from Vilnius to Kaunas, where skidspoppe lives. I caught the 2:45 departure, an old Soviet train, blocky and basic with big windows and hard, vinyl-covered benches. It was, as Skids described it, the slow train. In the end, it was the right train because it meant I got to see a lot of territory at a leisurely pace, and what I saw was lovely.

I was surprised by how lush the landscape is. Once you leave Vilnius, the landscape turns rural almost immediately. Autumn has arrived. While most of the trees surrounding the lakes that dot the shallow valleys are still green, there are patches of red and gold that would satisfy the most dedicated leaf-peeper and make it all look a little like a painting. The farms we pass look like something out of a storybook, each with one strategically placed black-and-white cow lounging in a pasture, the picture of pastoral serenity. The villages we pass include small, old houses that have clearly seen better days but, in the aggregate they too, look like illustrations out of children's books. The transitions from rural to industrial and from industrial to rural are immediate--not fleeting, but dramatic. By the time I arrived in Kaunas, I'd gotten an interesting overview of this southern central part of Lithuania.

Talking science fiction
A friend of Skids' met me at the train in the pouring-down rain (apparently "Lithuania" means "the place where it rains"), presented me with an umbrella, and then took me by bus to the university where he teaches; he had class, which is why he couldn't meet me. It's a class on film, and this session in particular focused on science fiction. He'd asked me if I had a particular favorite, because he screens a movie after each class for the students if they choose to stick around. I nominated "Forbidden Planet," which he acquired. He asked me to speak about the movie a little bit, so I introduced it and, after the film, got up to talk about it and its context in culture and in science fiction. After that, Skids, his friend, a couple of his students, and I went out for a late dinner and some chatter. When we finally got back to the apartment--in the pouring-down rain--we talked a little and then I just passed out.


Good girls go to heaven.
Bad girls go everywhere.
--Mae West



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