I spent Saturday and Sunday in an old farmhouse in a tiny village nestled in a bend of the Nemunas river. I use the term “village” loosely — really, it’s a collection of farmsteads. The farmhouse has no indoor plumbing — just an outhouse and a bucket under a small shed roof for washing dishes and brushing teeth. It is heated by tiled wood stoves. And, of course, no mobile phone reception. It does have electricity and a gas stove, so we weren’t completely roughing it. It was great to get away for a couple of days from the stress of all the things I need to do before I leave Lithuania and all the things I’ll have to do when I get back to Seattle. There was nothing to do but relax and forget the outside world.
There was a steady rain when we arrived on Saturday afternoon, but that didn’t stop us from hiking through the woods to see the river. We put on rain slickers and rubber boots and off we went. In the evening, we visited an artist in a neighboring village. It turned out she had participating in the 1972 demonstrations so I ended up doing a spontaneous research interview (it seems that I can’t completely escape work). On Sunday morning we drank tea by a bonfire, then headed back into the woods to collect mushrooms.
I was very excited to finally go mushrooming, which is a very Lithuanian activity. We were looking for voveruška mushrooms (a type of chantrelle). They are difficult to find. You have to catch a glimpse of yellow gold under moss or leaves. This was made more challenging by the small golden leaves on the ground — and by the fact that there is a mushroom of a similar color that is poisonous. I was quite pleased that I was able to find quite a few and I came home with a basket of mushrooms. We then cooked up the mushrooms and enjoyed the fruits of our labor. It’s an easy dish — melt butter in a pan, pile the mushrooms in the pan, let them stew in their own juices until tender and pour over boiled potatoes. Yummy!
Mushrooms I collected in the forest
A gnarled old apple tree -- this was my view from the table on the porch
Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz was born and spend his childhood in Šėtėnai. His Polish-Lithuanian family had a strong connection to the Lithuanian land, although they were Polish-speaking. Milosz was educated in Warsaw and was a leading leftist intellectual who actively supported the post-World War II Communist government. He became disillusioned, however, and emigrated to France and then to the United States, where he taught at Berkeley for many years. He was a beautiful poet and prose writer. Many of his works refer to his love for his homeland and especially the family estate where he spent his childhood. After visiting Šėtėnai and seeing the river and woods, I can understand. The Milosz Center, run by VMU, is located in the only remaining building of the original estate. When I learned that scholars can request to spend a week or two at the center, I was inspired to plan a writing/studying retreat there in the future.
I was especially happy to get to visit Milosz’s birthplace this year — the 100th year anniversary of his birth.
the Nevezis River...
The VMU Emigration Institute was a hub of my social life in Kaunas this year. I would drop for coffee, a chat, to print documents and just hang out with several of the graduate students and lecturers. We also had various “off-campus” adventures. On Friday, a group of us — four historians and one sociologist — headed north of Kaunas to visit Kėdainai and Šėtėnai. Kėdainai is a small town, but one with historical significance. First settled in 639, the town was part of the Radvila estate. The Radvilas were one of Lithuania’s leading noble families and, quite interestingly, converted to Calvinism after the Reformation. The town was open to other religious sects, including a group of Calvinist Scots. In 1655, during the war between Poland and Sweden, the Radvila duke fell out of favor with the rulers of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth when he tried to negotiate a political agreement for Lithuania to leave the Commonwealth and join with Sweden. Today Kėdainai is a quiet little town with a lovely main street and a lot of interesting public art.
Duke Kristupas Radvila in the main square
These buildings on the main square are called the "Glass Palace"
Each window frame on this building features an humorous art work related to Kedainai's history
The Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant is a Chernobyl-style electricity generating plant. Not surprisingly, one of the conditions of Lithuania’s accession to the European Union was closing the power plant. It was officially shut down on December 31, 2009; however, the spent fuel and other aspects of the plant are still being decommissioned. The plant underwent extensive safety renovations in the 1990s and it’s closure was very controversial in Lithuania. Lithuania already has high electricity costs and is fairly dependent on Russia fuel oil. There was a great deal of concern that shutting down Ignalina would increase both electricity prices and dependence on Russian oil. I can’t speak to the economic situation after the plants closure, although I understand that a new power plant is being built in the same area.
In the center of Visaginis, there is a large reader sign that gives the time and current temperature. It also gives the current radiation level — which was 8 on the weekend I was there. It was a bit unsettling to feel like I had to keep checking the radiation level each time we passed the sign.
View of the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant from across the lake
Visaginis was built from scratch beginning in 1975 to house workers constructing and then employed at the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant. If you look at a map of the town, it is clearly an exercise in urban planning — the layout is in the shape of a butterfly. There are playgrounds and green spaces and collections of shops scattered throughout the high-rise apartment buildings that comprise the town. The town has an unfinished feel to it due to quite a few unfinished buildings left standing.
The town’s population is primarily Russian-speaking. As with most industrial projects in the Baltic Soviet republics, Russians workers were brought in to build and run the nuclear power plant. Young people now learn Lithuanian in schools, but I had to dredge up my buried Russian language skills to communicate with older people. While not exactly a tourist highlight in Lithuania, Visaginis is certainly an interesting place to visit.
This stone commemorates the founding of the city in 1975.
A typical late Soviet apartment building
An unfinished apartment building
This weekend I took the train out to Visaginis, a small town in eastern Lithuania on the border with Belarus, to visit a friend doing a photo documentary project and attend the Visaginis Country Music Festival. On Saturday and Sunday nights, I — along with a crowd of Lithuanians wearing cowboy hats — listened to country music by bands from Lithuania, Poland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, France, Canada and the US of A. It felt a lot a like county fair in the US, except for the lack of 4-H club kids and their livestock. The music was not the best country music I’ve ever heard, but it was loads of fun. Sunday night featured a great performance by Virgis Stakėnas, who apparently single-handedly introduced country music to Lithuania through a radio show that he hosted. Here he is performing “Mama, don’t wake up” at the 2007 Visaginas Country Music Festival.
On Saturday, a Lithuanian acquaintance offered to take me out to see the southwest region of Lithuania. This was a chance to see more of the Lithuanian countryside and, I thought, visit a village or two. It turns out my friend loves driving the open road. I saw a lot of beautiful countryside, but all from the car. We drove down from Kaunas through Šakiai to Kurdirkos Naujamiestis, then back to Jurbarkas and along the north edge of the Nemunas river.
We only stopped twice — once when we hit the Lithuanian border with the Kaliningrad region of Russia and once before we got back to Kaunas to have dinner at a cafe on the Nemunas river. While it was an enjoyable day, I unfortunately do not have photos to show you.
- August is harvest time and we passed a number of farmers harvesting their fields, quite a few of whom were driving John Deere tractors.
- A lot of storks feeding in the fields.
- Cows, baby cows, horses, goats, even a few chickens.
- Small villages — each house with a lovely flower garden in front. The villages on the north side of the Nemunas river were particularly charming.
Most interesting about this region is that it was originally the borderlands between Lithuania and Germany. The Kaliningrad region of Russia was the West Prussian Konigsberg region of Germany until occupied and annexed by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II. The East Prussian region of the Germany empire in the 19th century extended into what is now Lithuania from Klaipėda down towards the Nemunas river.
Looking at Russia across the Šešupė River -- we were hoping to wave to Russia border guards across the bridge but it was unguarded (just blocked)
On Sunday, I attended evening mass at Paparčių convent, located in a small town in the rural countryside between Kaunas and Vilnius. I was invited to join a group of Lithuanians, several of whom were childhood friends with the priest who was celebrating the mass. Originally established as a Dominican monastery in 1649, it was closed during Soviet times. Since 1994, the convent has been the home of the Sisters of Bethlehem and the Assumption of the Virgin Mary [loose translation from the Lithuanian].
It was a beautiful service in a simple wooden church with whitewashed walls and large icons. Visitors had to stay inthe entry hall or in the balcony so that only the nuns were in the church proper. I found it quite moving to look down on the nuns in their hooded white robes, especially when they formed a half-circle in front of the altar and sang a hymn with their hands raised in the air. I was touched that the Mother Superior came to the visitors’ section during the sharing of the peace and shook every single person’s hand.
After dinner, we went to the home of the priest friend. He serves in a rural parish and lives in an old wooden house next to the old wooden church. We ate fresh farmer’s cheese with local honey and homemade jam, plus tea made from fresh herbs and mint. I can’t even express how delicious fresh farmer’s cheese spread with honey tastes. I also tasted rūgpienis for the first time — it’s kind a cross between yogurt and cottage cheese and is very sour. Not so delicious, but much more edible when I mixed some jam in it. I was lucky enough to sit facing a window that looked out over the colorful flower garden and the fields beyond. It was a simple meal but shared by people who are obviously close friends. I felt privileged to be included.
On Saturday, I went to Kernavė, the “first capital” of Lithuania and a complex of five hillforts. In the 1200s, Kernavė was the economic-political center of Lithuania — but archaeological work on the site has revealed that the area was settled as early as the 9th-8th century BC. Hillforts are flat-top mounds used as fortifications, sacred sites, and settlements in ancient times. There are approximately 1000 hillforts across Lithuania, but Kernavė is the largest complex in the country. You can read more about archaeological discoveries at Kernavė here and here.
We also walked into the woods to find the Karmazinų pilkapynas — one of the largest sites of ancient burial mounds in the region with approximately 150 burial mounds dating back to the 6th century. These small hills are scattered throughout the forest along the river banks. It was a rainy afternoon, which added to the mysterious feeling in these ancients sites.
The view of one hillfort from the top of another in Kernave
A burial mound in the woods