In anticipation of the opening of the Valletta – European Capital of Culture 2018 programme, the city of Valletta prepared a full list of activities for residents and visitors – local and foreign bands, an acrobat flown around by a giant balloon, interesting characters walking in the crowd, colourful projections and, finally, fireworks. As ugly as Mediterranean winters can be, the day was exceptionally nice, with almost no wind. Predictably, many people chose the main square of Valletta to meet the new year – it is estimated that there were around 85,000 attendees, which is around 13 times the population of Valletta!
It has become a tradition for me to seek a Mediterranean escape around this time, when Southern countries get ready for the carnival. I did not grow up with a similar tradition. There is a festival (called Užgavėnės) with scary masks and pancakes, but it is very different from the colorful costumes and street music of the South. I grew up hating Užgavėnės with a passion. My first experience of it was at primary school, when older kids stormed our classroom with cans of paint and threw it at our faces. I spent the next hour or so trying to rinse my eye. In middle school, we were paraded to a nearby forest in makeshift scary costumes to make campfire and play games – a tiring and quite pointless trip. And let′s not forget that people still make derogatory masks depicting Jews and Roma in the Lithuanian version of this festival, two generations after the genocide of these populations. Needless to say, the only tradition I respect from the Lithuanian festival is making pancakes.
Last year I spent the carnival days in a small town in the region of Murcia (Spain). Although it wasn′t quite warm, it was sunny enough for the whole town to be on the street. The local school paraded its children, dressed in various costumes. Parents didn′t have freedom to choose the costume – it was decided top-down. In my friends′ son′s class, all boys had to be nutcrackers, and girls had to wear ballet costumes.
After the procession ended, many girls were sitting around and posing for photos with these short skirts and heavy make-up, which in the adult world would be considered ′slutty′ if seen outside of the carnival. Mothers, many in hijabs, proudly took photos of them with their cellphones.
This year I attended the carnival in Malta.
Walking by creepy looking blue lights from a wallpaper shop in the central station area, we are disappointed to see that a tiny shop with an old-school concrete sign is closed. Having spent many years in Kaunas, did I ever go there to buy meat pastries (čeburekai)? Definitely not. But on a tour with a connoisseur guide and a group consisting of friends and people I’ve just met, I am ready to uncover working-class and simply under-appreciated small shops and bars in my native city.
I am a member of LUNI, the Free University network in Lithuania, which consists of several groups of people who exchange knowledge without any fees or personal benefit. The network has nothing to do with the Western European tradition of free universities, and it is not a university. It is an initiative to exchange knowledge in non-systemic settings after education became more expensive in Lithuania. This month the Kaunas branch of LUNI organized a very special event – a bar food and beer tour with poet and restaurant reviewer Marius Plečkaitis (interview with him in Lithuanian). Food and drink tours are among the recent initiatives in Kaunas, where people explore their city and visit unusual spots that they wouldn’t venture into alone.
Last night I went to Bal Populaire, hosted by the French Institute in Budapest. There was a French band Stabar (swing and humorous performances), Cabaret Medrano (one of the tons of Hungarian bands that play Balkan music), and the famous Dj Palotai.
It was fun to observe how people were dancing. Mostly French people showed up – turns out that there was another festival at the Balaton lake.
I wonder if any street festival can ever take place without a character like this appearing from somewhere and dancing away.
My most regular readers will think that birthday makes me overly nostalgic. But in fact, searching for some long-lost research notes, I discovered notebooks that I had long forgotten. One of these unexpected treasures is my very detailed notes from studies in Sweden. Below are my impressions from fall 2005.
Some prices are too much even for the Swedes. So they try to get tipsy before going out and only take one ‘symbolic’ drink at a cafe or club. Perhaps this is not even a question of money. When they drink something before going out, they feel more relaxed, because otherwise they feel quite tense. Some tend to overuse [alcohol]. One night foreign students were simply having fun chatting at Cafe Olof while Swedes outside were breaking chairs.
As I have written in the previous post, I spent a week in Baku upon invitation from the NATO International School of Azerbaijan. We stayed in the suburb of Shikhov, close to the Caspian sea. Since it’s low season, there were almost no other guests. The hotel is far away from the city center. Although it provides free shuttle services to guests, buses run only once in 1.5-2 hours.
It is an unusually warm winter in Lithuania, and of course when holidays come people are discussing the absence of snow.
In the meantime I’m slowly arranging some old photos, so I guess it’s a good excuse to share one from Sweden. In 2005 I went to Haparanda in the North of Sweden, where a Swedish family adopted me and my friend for Christmas. There was certainly no lack of snow back then.Continue reading
Malta has long been my priority destination. It is logically a perfect place for vacations – it has the sea, plenty of sun, and an English-speaking population. The few days I spent there confirmed every expectation that I had. Malta is easy to navigate, because everyone from the age 10 to 100 speaks English, it is culturally interesting and has a lot to offer. The only drawback is that the beaches are rocky, but there is also one sand beach. The Maltese cuisine has clearly had a lot of Italian influence, but they fry their food more, compared to other Mediterranean cultures, and the local specialty is rabbit. The Maltese language is unique – I was told by a speaker of Libyan Arabic that it’s easy to understand by Libyan Arabic speakers, but it has many English and Italian words in it, which, I presume, makes Arabic more difficult to understand for Maltese speakers.
Let It Be Night is an annual festival in Vilnius (see post two years ago). It brings together professional and amateur artists to perform at night. Most of the events are free of charge, and many happen outside. The idea is to make Vilnius more of a night city, which it is not. The festival takes place in June, just before academic year fully finishes. This year more than 100 events were promised, with theatres joining in to an unprecedented extent. The whole programme sounded very promising, and, despite the short rain, many people took the advantage to spend the night in the city centre. The Lithuanian media noticed both the success of some events, drawing large numbers of people, and much less success to provide adequate security.
Most of the events were taking place at the same time in different parts of the city centre, so one had to really make choices. However, I knew from my experience from the previous years that some of the events can be cancelled or simply boring. So I made a list of everything I would be interested to see. In the end, Let It Be Night turned out into a late-night hangout for me and my friends rather than a culturally intensive festival.
I did not register to any events that required registration, just to be on the safe side if the rain is unbearable. Weather in this season is unpredictable. I also did not even look at events taking place in early evening, from 6 to 8 pm. I heard testimonies that some of them were very good. We started from the Moniuska square, a concert of “gongs and other archaic instruments”. It was a meditative performance in this partly lit space, creating a special mood, but not something that would invite to stay very long. As my friend observed, you would need to sit down and get into a trance. We expected our next stop to be a sirtakis session at the Greek restaurant on Pilies street. I read that people who went to the first part, starting at 8 pm, really enjoyed it. But my friend, who went to see the second part, expected to start at 10 pm, was disappointed to see nothing happening. So we decided not to check it again and went to the rock’n’roll disco on Sirvydas square (an alternative translation for the Lithuanian ‘skveras’, which clearly comes from ‘square’, is ‘public garden’. The Lithuanian word denotes a small public space with trees, whereas the original English word can refer to a completely paved public space, which is usually large. Yet most Lithuanian guides in English don’t bother and just translate it as ‘square’). The disco was the highlihgt of the festival. The atmosphere was great, there was just enough space for people of various levels of proficiency. The space is really well suited for an outdoor disco at night – it is quite removed from the busy Pilies street, but near enough to attract passers-by. I think he bar that is in this space should consider exploiting this success.
My friends noticed that Cafe de Paris, the main hipster hub, also hosts a nice party. People were dancing, but it was not as crowded as it usually is. We stayed there for a while, although I thought we had rather used the opportunity to attend events outdoors. Since the Town Hall is close, we went to see what it has to offer.
Projections on the Town Hall and some strange tent-like thing with people sitting in its niches were rather boring. We planned to go to the “Holes and dust” performance at the Arts Printing House, but missed it, because by the time we were close to there it was 40 minutes past midnight already.We decided to take a break and eat a kebab at Jokubo kebabine on Pilies str. It has been a kebab place for several years, but it seems that owners have changed. From what I learned, neighbours were very unfriendly and constantly tried to push the foreigners out of this old-town space by making false reports to hygiene authorities. Even if the authorities would not find anything wrong, working time and clients would be lost to the small kebab shop with only two employees.
The place seems to be very popular now though. As we were waiting in a very long queue, we saw crowds of aggressive-looking youngsters shouting basketball slogans and something against the city of Kaunas. They walked around and stood by, shouting their slogans. I could see in the faces of the kebab shop staff that they felt uneasy about the youngsters’ decision to hang out around there. Who knows when such youngsters would turn their unused energy against foreigners. Just then I recalled not seeing any police anywhere in the old town. Maybe the police were hiding? But why would they, knowing that aggressive youngsters may easily take the opportunity to pick up fights on a night like this? The media reports 30 arrests for disruption of public order, but I’m not sure if this only means that people had to actually call the police if anything dangerous happened. Vilnius police is equipped with horses and segways. Their presence would have made people feel a bit more secure. On the other hand, if the police was around, it would have had to fine people who were drinking alcohol in public spaces.
I am totally against the so-called police state and ubiquitous presence of the police in public areas. However, I do not see how Let It Be Night is different from, say, New Year’s Eve. There is a risk of street fight, and a need to be prepared. Perhaps the police was prepared, and the fact that we did not see it does not mean it was not there. In any case, seeing so many youngsters of that particular type (they are called ‘gezai’ in Lithuanian slang) made me feel uneasy for a while. What would happen if there was indeed violence? Fortunately, the youngsters were only shouting. As we walked on, someone from another group of drunken youngsters said an insult to an African student who was with us, but otherwise we did not encounter or witness any violence.
Our next destination was the Cathedral Square, which promised a hip-hop improvisation. We did not see any of that, except for an amateur fire show. The State Small Theatre of Vilnius had promised shows in its front window all night long, but it was totally empty and dead around 1 am. We ended up at Fluxus Ministerija – a new cultural hub with the current mayor of Vilnius as its patron. Several floors of that office building were turned into venues for film screenings and performances, as well as artist residences. This initiative gave its owners, associated with the mayor, considerable tax deductions. Rumours have it that all the artists who have residences there were pressured to vote for the mayor’s party during the local elections, but I’m not sure anyone would say this on the record, let alone under their own name.
This polician has a track record of shady transactions, but many people in Vilnius like him because of the initiatives that were mega-profitable for his cronies and useful to the general public. I do not boycott Fluxus Ministerija, as it hosts many great events, but I always feel it is a duty to tell some facts to people who admire it.
There was a concert at Fluxus Ministerija, which appeared to be quite good. The lead singer had a strong voice, and the rhythm was just right for us at 2 pm. However, as it seemed that the events which promised to last all night ended much earlier, we soon split and went home.
I missed some interesting shows and concerts, but it is never easy with a bigger group and varying preferences. In addition, most events were short, so to see everything you want you would have had to run around without a break. It was definitely worth going there, and it is fortunate we did not witness any of the 30 fights/ acts of vandalism. Comparing even to 2009, Vilnius is more alive at night and people spend more time outside. Wonderland Blog wishes good luck to the organisers 🙂