Thursday, June 07, 2007

7 June 2007

Two friends and I spent a long weekend in Vilnius the other week. For those of you who don’t know where Vilnius is, it’s in Lithuania. We knew very little about the city before we booked the tickets, but they were relatively cheap, and all the flights to better-known cities were very expensive for the holiday weekend. The Monday holiday in question is called Whit Monday in English, and is celebrated the day after Pentecost, which has something to do with being fifty days after Easter. In any case, it’s a national holiday here, so we wanted to go somewhere new.

Before going to Vilnius, we did some quick Googling and found out that they have a “the only statue in the world honoring Frank Zappa,” which we wryly joked would end up being the highlight of our weekend. Luckily, considering that the “statue” was a stainless steel pole emblazoned with Frank Zappa’s name, there was much more to see and do in Vilnius – the best way to describe it is that it’s the kind of town people are hoping to see when they go to Prague, minus the overwhelming throngs of tourists and jaded locals. Basically, visit Vilnius before everyone else does.

In fact, the tourist industry may need a bit more development in Vilnius – the woman in the tourist office (which, incidentally, was poorly denoted and hard to find), though friendly, had never heard of several of the museums we had read about, and was unable to give us directions. A guy who played violin in the street next to a few of the most popular restaurants in town only knew two songs – he'll have to work on expanding his repertoire before the rest of the tourists show up, because listening to two songs on repeat through a two-hour meal is not likely to predispose people to generosity.

Despite being a small city that has only fairly recently emerged from behind the Iron Curtain, and which hasn’t yet gotten its share of the European tourist market, Vilnius is beautifully restored and boasts several well-curated museums. There are literally dozens of huge churches (I don’t know how they all have decent-sized congregations, since the town is quite small), and there were once over a hundred synagogues (resulting in Vilnius’s reputation as a local Jerusalem), until the Nazis and later the Soviets showed up – now there is only one synagogue left. If that’s not depressing enough, we also went to the KGB Museum (detailing the oppression brought by the Soviets) and the Holocaust Museum.

The juxtaposition of Vilnius, past and present, was particularly jarring as we, being tourists, usually went from museums with exhibits on oppression and starvation to eating huge, Lithuanian meals of bacon-studded potato pancakes. We skipped the boiled pig ear, “pork hand,” “boletus,” “curdled milk,” and pickled fish, and didn’t have room to try zeppelins (potato dumplings filled with meat and covered with bacon and curdled milk).

There was also an international folk music festival while we were there, and I got dragged into waltzing with a smiling old man in traditional Lithuanian costume, which was a surreal moment.

Perhaps the most surreal moment of the weekend occurred one afternoon when the three of us – two Americans and a German who all live in Switzerland – were walking down a nearly deserted street in Lithuania. A police-escorted motorcade came zooming towards us, and the Empress of Japan smiled and did a Queen of England-style wave at us through her open car window. The Japanese Emperor was in town while we were there, and we just happened to cross paths with his entourage as we were between sights. It was an international moment, It’s a Small World-style

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