I have never been so ‘grounded’ for 12 years or so – although travel options briefly reopened in summer, going to see my family and friends in Lithuania became overly complicated, and going on a holiday abroad felt irresponsible. So since March the furthest I’ve been from this rock is a smaller nearby rock that is Gozo. This left me jealously watching my friends’ Instagram feeds, full of mushrooms, trees, camping, greenery, trees, hiking, and did I mention trees? I am exploring a fuller palette of feelings, by extension. Longing is not something I normally feel, but the intense longing to see trees enjoying themselves in a natural environment, with birds, bees and maybe even small mammals, resulted in a personal essay published in this lovely book. For the first time, I’m a published writer.
Yet it is other people’s writing rather than my own that kept me company throughout these dull and challenging months. And I am still trying to make a point to read literature from countries I couldn’t visit. Unexpectedly, I found myself looking for Lithuanian literature to replace a missing visit to familiar cities.
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.
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.
It’s been a long time (3 years) since I went to Seoul, but, having found my guidebooks, notes and other things to lend them to my colleague, I realized that memory is fading fast, so I should record it now. The only blog entry I wrote about that trip was this. Continue reading →
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.
Surroundings of a mosque in Shikhov – click on the images to enlarge them
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.
Towards the Arctic Circle [click on the image to enlarge it]
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.