Category Archives: Life In Vilnius

Visible Poverty

One question that Americans often ask me is whether I see homeless people in Lithuania.  Coming from Seattle, which has a large homeless population — many of whom actually live on the street — I have been a bit surprised that I don’t see homeless people in Vilnius or Kaunas.  At least, I don’t see people who are obviously homeless in that they are sleeping in doorways with piles of blankets and a tattered bag of their possessions.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that there aren’t homeless people; they may not be in the areas of the city that I am in.

Elderly people have been especially hard-hit because pensions are barely enough to live on.  It is not uncommon to see elderly women begging in front of churches, although there seem to be fewer now than in the 1990s.  There are a few children begging and a few disabled people and a few guys who are scam artists (some I even recognize from two years ago).  I think that there is also still a lot of poverty in rural parts of Lithuania.  Beginning in the spring, I have seen more people digging through trash dumpsters both in my neighborhood in Kaunas and in Vilnius – something I noticed in 2009 as well.

Through my limited involvement with the International Women’s Association of Vilnius, I know that there are many charitable organizations providing food, housing, clothing and other services for the poor.  I know that there is still a lot of poverty in Lithuania.  For reasons I can’t completely explain, it doesn’t seem to be that visible.  Perhaps that is the worst kind of poverty because it is the easiest to ignore.

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Uneventful Midsummer

I’m sorry to report that I had an uneventful midsummer this year.  I flew from Stockholm to Kaunas in the evening on Saturday, June 18, and was too tired to then take the train to Vilnius for the Let There Be Night festival.  It was raining on June 21, the actual summer solstice, so I stayed home rather than venturing out to see what might be happening n Kaunas.  I did go out to Verkių park with a friend in Vilnius on Thursday night for the Joninės festivities.  But we got a late start because I had a dinner meeting and had her 11-year-old daughter in tow so we didn’t stay out until the wee hours.  It certainly was a less eventful evening that my 2009 adventures at Verkių park.  On Friday afternoon, I saw a crew setting up a stage in front of the Town Hall and planned to go see what was happening that evening.  But once again, the rains came and I stayed home.  In the end, midsummer passed without much fanfare and so ends this blog post.


Random Thoughts

Here are a few random experiences or thoughts about life in Lithuania that aren’t worthy of their own blog post but might be of interest.

In the “same thing happens here” category, I got a 2 lat (Latvian) coin back in change somewhere and didn’t discover it until I tried to use it to pay for something else.  It’s kind of like getting a Canadian quarter in the United States.

I recently looked at the various toiletries lined up on the bathroom shelf and was surprised at how “multi-cultural” they are: body lotion from Australia, face cream from Finland, face cleanser from Great Britain, shaving gel from Poland, soap from Latvia and shampoo from Germany.  All of these items were purchased at local stores (except the Latvian soap, which was a gift).

Malls are the same wherever you go — teenagers hang out there and they are a good place to go when the weather is really hot because they always have air-conditioning (otherwise uncommon in Lithuania)

In addition to improving their ability to discuss their research in English, graduate students in my academic English group have learned other important vocabulary, including pub crawl, house wine, and over-achiever.  They also practiced discussing their favorite Simpsons episode in English, which can be a useful skill when going out for a beer after your session at an academic conference.


Juniper Trivets

When I posted about items Made in Lithuania, someone asked what juniper trivets are.  According the Oxford English dictionary, a trivet is “an iron tripod placed over a fire for a cooking pot or kettle to stand on.”  However, I’ve always known a trivet as something that you put on the table to set hot pots or dishes on so that they don’t damage the table.  The ones made of juniper release a lovely woodsy scent when the hot item is placed on them.  Here is an example of a small one that I recently bought as a gift.


More Scenes from the Train

Now that summer is here, I wish that I could catch these scenes that flash by as I ride the train between Vilnius and Kaunas.  But given the difficulty of photographing from a fast-moving train, these brief descriptions will have to suffice.

Kids jumping off a dock into a lake
on a hot summer day.

A woman drawing water from a well
in a wooden bucket.

A large brown horse tethered in a field;
his mane blowing in the wind.

Foresters in bright orange safety vests
eating their lunch at the edge of the woods.

Long-legged white and black storks
feeding in a recently plowed field.


Oops?

The bike lane on Vokiečių street was re-painted last week.  The white line and bicycle symbols were freshly painted white.  The white pedestrian figures with the yellow X through them are a new addition.  When I saw them, I thought that someone made a mistake and painted the pedestrian figures in the bike path instead of on the other side of the line where pedestrians are supposed to walk — and, therefore, the pedestrians were crossed out.

Today I was walking on Vokiečių with a friend and her two children.  She said to her son, “See how the people walking have a yellow X through them?  That means that you should not walk there; that lane is just for bikes.”  Oh, that makes sense!  I guess that I was the one who misunderstood.


Polish Tango on a Summer Evening

On Friday evening, I celebrated a friend’s graduation.  She just defended her master’s thesis on Thursday and received a 10, the highest mark possible in the Lithuanian grading system.  It was a beautiful, warm summer evening.  We took a stroll through Old Town and through the park along the Vilnelė river, had a glass of wine and went to the free Polish Tango concert in the Vilnius Picture Gallery courtyard.  You are probably thinking what I was thinking — “Polish tango?”  These guys may come from northern Europe but they have Argentinean musical souls.  Ladies and gentlemen….the Tangata Quintet.


Fountains Flowing

Now that the weather has warmed up, the fountains in the center of Vilnius and Kaunas have been turned on.  The fountains are a great place to hang out and people-watch.  Plus they add a certain sense of fun to the city streets.

This little girl's parents just managed to stop her from climbing into the fountain a moment later - Vilnius Town Hall Square

The fountain at Laisvės Alėja and Daukanto in Kaunas with two other signs of warm weather -- ice cream stands and street musicians


Design at the Edge

A friend and I spent Friday night exploring Design Weekend — a series of exhibits, designer open houses and artist performances held in conjunction with Vilnius’ Design Week.  Design Weekend is held in a set of Soviet-era factories, now closed, that have been taken over by artists and others for apartments and studios.  The crumbling buildings and hallways definitely have a Soviet feel to them, but the loft apartments inside are renovated and mostly minimalist modern in design.  We saw beautiful, interesting and strange items; got to talk to designers themselves; and listened to a synthesizer concert that was a fascinating exploration of sound.

Several highlights:

LTD Studio — designers Juozas and Ingrida opened their loft apartment to spotlight their designs.  Juozas was the designer of the bottle for the new “Scent of Lithuania” and they had samples.  Yes, I have now smelled the scent of Lithuania and it’s actually a lovely fragrance.  It’s a room scent not a perfume to wear.  (Unfortunately Google has tagged their website as likely to download malicious software so I won’t link to it — I’ll try to get a good link for the future.)

Japanese Food Studio — Alina, who lived in Japan for six years and opened the first Japanese restaurant in Lithuania in the 1990s, now owns a “food studio” where she teaches Japanese food preparation.  The studio is available for group books, either a sushi session or a full meal session.  We arrived too late to take part in the sushi making demonstration, but we spent about 20 minutes talking to Alina.  She is passionate about Japanese food and culture and it was so interesting to hear about her experiences.

Cafe upstairs at Daiktų Viešbutis [Hotel of Things] — the store sells pricey items made by Lithuanian and European designers.  The kind of things that you say “wow, that’s cool” and then “it costs that much!?”  The cafe upstairs, however, is inexpensive and the salads were excellent.


Cherry Blossoms = Spring

I miss the flowering cherry trees that mark the beginning of spring in Seattle.  When I mentioned this in an earlier blog post, a reader commented that I should go see the cherry trees in Sakura Park.  The cherry trees are planted along the path up to the National Art Gallery across the Nemunas River from the city center.  The trees were planted to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese consul in Kaunas who rescued hundreds of Jews by granting Japanese transit visas.  I went to the park last Thursday afternoon when the sun was shining.  These are a different kind of cherry tree than the ones we have in Seattle and I think I missed the full blossoming, but I still got to see what is — for me — is a symbol of spring.

The National Gallery of Art glimpsed through the cherry blossoms