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In my last post, I described learning to live without a microwave and endless choices in convenience foods.  But that isn’t the only way in which I am adjusting to different perspectives on convenience here in Vilnius.   For example, I don’t have a vacuum cleaner.  However, I’ve decided that hardwood floors and a broom are much more convenient that carpeting and a vacuum cleaner.  Since I am just a renter, I don’t have to worry about polishing the hardwood floors, so that probably skews my perspective a bit.  I still have to mop the kitchen and bathroom floors, of course.   I have a dishwasher, which I don’t use.  I didn’t use my dishwasher in Seattle either.  It always seems easier to wash the few dishes I have and be done with it.  Here the cabinet above the sink has a built-in dish drainer, which doesn’t take up counter space and keeps drying dishes out of view.  Now that’s convenient!

One big change between Seattle and Vilnius — no clothes dryer.  I have a very cool washing machine that I love.  It has a setting for every specialty wash I might ever want to do.  It even has a timer!  Electricity rates here are cheaper overnight and on the weekends.  I can actually throw towels in the washer before I go to bed, set the timer to wash early in the morning while the rates are cheaper, then get up at 7 am and hang them to dry.  Phoenix had the same type of variable rates — but I didn’t have a timer on my washing machine to take advantage of overnight cheap rates.  I usually hang my clothes to dry in Seattle so it’s not a big deal to do that here.  The trick is planning laundry to give sheets and towels time to dry.  In the winter, I just fold them up, set them on top of the radiators and they dry quite nicely.  I’ve been told that you can hang sheets and towels outside when the temperature is below freezing.  The water will freeze and you just crack the ice and shake it out.  Voila, dry sheets!  However, my neighbor told me that she once ruined a blanket when she tried to crack the ice — the frozen fabric actually broke in half!  So I don’t think I’ll try that method of drying laundry.

Drying towels on the radiator

Drying towels on the radiator

The lack of a microwave in my kitchen represents one of the most significant changes in my lifestyle from Seattle to Vilnius.   I didn’t realize how much I use a microwave until I didn’t have one.  It’s not just the physical absence of the microwave — it’s also what the microwave represents: convenience foods.  Even if I had a microwave, I wouldn’t have the variety of convenience foods that are best suited for being heated up in a microwave — from frozen lasagna to chicken chile verde burritos and all of the other possibilities available in U.S. grocery stores.

Lithuania has limited choices in the convenience food category, which I define as prepared foods that are frozen, canned or in jars.  The grocery store by my apartment has one brand of pasta sauce that comes in two flavors.  It carries three kinds of frozen pizzas and two kinds of frozen fish sticks.  There are two types of prepared soups in jars — beet and cabbage.  The giant grocery store 20 minutes away has a few more options, but not many.

As a result, I think both more and less about my food.  In the U.S., I spend a lot of time comparing products.  Which one has the least salt, the highest fiber, no high fructose corn syrup?  With fewer options, I don’t stand as long in the grocery store aisles reading the packaging of foods.  On the other hand, I spend a lot more time thinking about preparing food since I actually have to cook.   If I want chicken noodle soup, I have to figure out how to make it myself.  And it’s amazing how many different dishes you can make when you start with pasta, olive oil and garlic.  The trick, however, is to just make enough for one meal — after all, I don’t have a microwave to heat up leftovers!

I’m trying to put myself in situations that will help me improve my Lithuanian language skills instead of just getting by with my current level and with people who speak English.  To that end, I have recently attended several programs that were all in Lithuanian — a lecture by an anthropologist on the origins of the Lithuanian people, the book festival presentation on Vilnius: City of Strangers, and a symposium on the formation of Sąjudis, the late 1980s independence movement.  All of these events have challenged my Lithuanian language comprehension skills.  Usually I can follow the main points, but often the details escape me.  Of course, it all depends on the speaker — if someone is speaking quickly or mumbling, I am lucky to catch 25% of what is being said.  Fortunately for me, the anthropologist’s lecture was accompanied by a slide presentation with text and pictures (aha, that word must mean skull!).   I always have a piece of paper and a pen with me so I can make a list of words that I’ve learned but can’t remember what they mean and to try to catch key words that I don’t know so I can look them up.   There are still 1,000s of words I don’t know and a lot I don’t understand, but every day I am actually able to understand a little bit more.

Listening intently at the anthropology lecture

Listening intently at the anthropology lecture (photo by Zilvinas Beliauskas)

Yes, I know that America gave the world Britney Spears, Dumb and Dumber and, of course, McDonald’s.  But we also gave the world Maynard Ferguson, Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong — and fortunately we are still providing opportunities to hear their music.  This evening I attended a concert by the U.S. Army in Europe jazz band Soldiers of Swing.  I am happy to report that our men and women in uniform are bringing jazz, swing and big band music to cities and towns across Europe.   Tonight they did a darn good job.  But I have to say that the members of the Lithuanian Army Band who joined in on two numbers played amazing solos.  They outshone the Americans, which just goes to show you that great music really is universal.

A Latvian-American friend of mine from Seattle is currently spending several weeks in Riga.  This weekend she to came to Vilnius to visit me.  We spent Saturday and Sunday sightseeing, eating Lithuanian food, and hanging out in coffee shops to escape the cold weather.  Today we had lunch with another person from Seattle who lives in Vilnius.  At a party on Saturday night I met a Lithuanian man who lived in Seattle for a year.  And another Lithuanian told me that he had a friend from Seattle visiting him this weekend.  There were Seattle-ites galore in Vilnius this weekend!

Here are a few of the the interesting things we saw in Vilnius this weekend as we walked around town.

On Saturday, a group of artists were creating ice sculptures for a festival over the next week.  We got to watch them lay ice blocks and carve the sculptures with hand-held chain saws.

An ice sculpture being built in front of Town Hall

An ice sculpture being built in front of Town Hall

In Lithuania, the night before Ash Wednesday (called Užgavėnės in Lithuanian and Shrove Tuesday in English) is celebrated in a similar fashion to Halloween — people dress up as witches and devils and other creatures.   A procession through town culminates in the burning of a giant witch-like figure representing winter.   On Saturday, we found a courtyard full of witches created by kindergarten classes.

Uzgavenes witches made by kindergarten classes

Užgavėnės witches made by kindergarten classes

On Sunday we arrived at the Presidential Palace just in time to see the noon raising of the flag.  In addition to a military police guard, there was an honor guard dressed as medieval knights with the Gediminas Castle symbol on their breastplates.  Gediminas was the medieval ruler who established Vilnius as the capital of his Grand Duchy.

Medieval knights at the Presidential Palace

Medieval knights at the Presidential Palace

The main building of Vytautas Magnus University, where I spent many hours.

The main building of Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas, where I spent many hours 15 years ago.

Today I went to Kaunas for the first time since I lived there as one of the first Fulbright students in Lithuania in 1993-1994.  At that time, I was in the master’s program in the University of Washington’s Jackson School of International Studies.  I received the Fulbright award to do research for my master’s thesis on the reform of history education in newly-independent Lithuania.

I lived in Kaunas for ten months, just a few years after the demise of the Soviet Union.  It was a challenging time  in Lithuania — the economy was in shambles, significant social and political changes were occurring with the transition to a post-Soviet democratic state, and everyone was wondering if the Russian government was going to cut natural gas supplies as it had the previous winter.   As a student at Vytautas Magnus University, I personally had to face some of these challenges, such as period cuts in heat and hot water and limited food supplies.  And I vicariously experienced the social and political changes through the lives of my Lithuanian friends.  But despite these difficulties, I had a great year and have fond memories of my time in Kaunas.  Unfortunately, in the intervening 15 years, I had lost contact with the friends that I made while I lived there.

Recently I re-connected with the professor who was my adviser while I was at Vytautas Magnus University and today I went to Kaunas to have lunch with him.  We had a great time talking about my research project and remembering “the old days.”  I was very excited to learn from him that the woman who was  a great friend to me still worked in the Humanities Faculty office.  In addition to helping me navigate the many labyrinths of life in Lithuania at the time, she was a wonderful person to hang out with.  Needless to say, she was quite surprised when I walked into her office today after 15 years!  It was an emotional reunion with lots of smiles and hugs and even a few tears.  We are already planning to get together next weekend to catch up on each other’s lives and have some fun together again.

I also tried to find the apartment building that I lived in while I was in Kaunas.  I remember that I walk to the end of Laisves Aleja, the long pedestrian street through the center of town, and turned right at the Cathedral.  But, at that point, my memory fails me.  Today I walked up two different streets but nothing looked familiar.  I’ll look again next time I go to Kaunas.  But even if I don’t find my house, I found my friends — and they were the most part of my life there.

The Cathedral at the end of Laisves Aleja -- turn right but then what?

The Cathedral at the end of Laisves Aleja -- turn right but then what?

It’s been a while since I wrote about the archives and you may be wondering, is Amanda actually doing her dissertation research?  I want to assure you that I am hard at work going through stacks of files.  But the excitement of discovering new materials has turned into the real work of actually analyzing documents.   At this point, I am alternating between two different tracks of research.

Within weeks after Romas Kalanta’s self-immolation, a poem calling him a hero and his death a sacrifice for freedom began circulating in Lithuania.  It originated in Kaunas, the city where he died, and spread to a number of other cities around Lithuania.  The KGB diligently tracked the dissemination of this poem, which was passed on in hand-copied form from friend to friend.  There are nearly 300 signed statements by people who were interrogated by the KGB.  I have created a spreadsheet to analyze the distribution of this poem and to identify information that indicates why people risked a charge of possessing and distributing anti-Soviet material and what they thought about Kalanta’s death.

It’s slow-going because the statements are hand-written.  Lithuanian hand-writing is different from English hand-writing and there is a wide variety of styles written on poor quality paper.  I spend a lot of time just deciphering what is written.  Fortunately the statements are usually only 2-3 pages and follow a fairly standard format.  However, it did take me three weeks to get through the first half of the statements.

This week I decided to take a break and work on another set of documents.  I am going through files that document anti-Soviet acts in one of the cities where the poem was distributed.  Again, I have a spreadsheet to track the events — date, people arrested, and what the actual act was.  I started with 1967 and will go through 1978 to get an idea if there was a change in the number or type of anti-Soviet acts after Kalanta’s death.  The reports that I am reading now are type-written and in Russian so it’s a bit of change.

This is the real work of doing research in the archives and it can feel quite laborious on some days.  But fortunately I continue to find interesting information so that keeps me going — one report at a time.


The Lithuanian Coat of Arms -- the Vytis

On February 16, 1918, twenty Lithuanian nationalists signed a declaration re-establishing an independent Lithuanian state.  Officially called Restoration of Statehood Day, February 16 marks the beginning of Lithuania as a 20th century nation-state.

The term “re-establish” refers to the medieval Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which formed a Commonwealth with Poland in 1569 and was then incorporated into the Russian Empire in 1795.  In 1918, during the First World War, Lithuania was occupied by the German army.  However, this small group of Lithuanian nationalists decided to take advantage of the chaos of war and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia to declare an independent state.  It was a rocky start, with attempts by the Red Army to re-take Lithuania and the successful annexation of Vilnius (the legal capital of the new Lithuanian state) by Poland.  But the Republic of Lithuania managed to hang on and experienced twenty years as an independent country between World War I and World War II.  The memory of that independent state was an important part of Lithuanian national identity after the country’s annexation by the Soviet Union in 1940  (more on this at a later date).  As a result, in this second Republic of Lithuania — re-established once again in 1990 — February 16 is still celebrated as Independence Day.

On Saturday, I attended the Vilnius Book Fair.  I was amazed at how big it was — three halls at the exhibition center filled with booths of book publishers from Lithuania and around the world.  As my friends and family can imagine, I was thrilled to be surrounded by so many books!

Baltos Lankos, 2008)

My primary reason in going to the book fair was to hear a presentation about a book by a Lithuanian-Canadian colleague of mine, Laimonas Briedas.  Laimonas is a cultural geographer who lives in Vancouver B.C. and Vilnius.  His book, Vilnius: City of Strangers (Vilnius: Baltos Lankos, 2008), explores the ways in which foreigners experienced and viewed Vilnius over the centuries beginning in the early 1300s and ending with the present-day.  Although French geographers have calculated that the center of Europe is only six kilometers outside of Vilnius, the city has existed on the periphery of Europe as a political and cultural space throughout its history.  As Laimonas shows, foreigners who came to Vilnius, whether they were soldiers or priests, educators or literary figures, were often simply passing through — and their perceptions reflect this transient experience of the city.  Laimonas also demonstrates how the multi-cultural nature of the city, with its mixed population of Poles, Jews, Russians, Belorussians and Lithuanians, existed for centuries and contributed to the ambiguous nature of its identity in the eyes of foreign visitors.

I really enjoyed the book, which weaves together writings from private diaries and letters, military accounts, travel narratives and journalists’ report.   As one might expect, some who visited Vilnius were enthralled by it and some disliked it, but they all judged the city based on their beliefs of what Europe was and should be and how Vilnius fit into that perception.   As someone who has come to Vilnius as a foreign visitor, it was interesting for me to think about my own experiences in this city and how, as an American, my perceptions of Europe influence my response to Vilnius.  I see in Vilnius the richness of centuries of history that makes the US seem very young,  something I feel when I am in other parts of Europe.  I love walking through the winding streets of Old Town and knowing that it was built in the middle ages.   I also see Vilnius as a modern European city — with Europop the music of choice in cafes and a European style that is different from American style.   However, I think that, in many ways, Vilnius remains on the periphery of Europe even though Lithuania joined the European Union in 2002.  It’s surprisingly difficult to fly to Vilnius from other European countries.  And only 15 years after the demise of the Soviet Union, Vilnius still lives with the identification — and experience — of being post-Soviet.  This sets it apart even from other post-Communist countries, such as Poland, which remained independent countries after World War II.   Vilnius may be treated as if it is on the periphery of Europe, but to me Vilnius — as a provincial city of the Russian empire, the de jure capital of a new nation state after World War I, the subject of intense territorial disputes (it was actually a part of Poland in the interwar period), occupied by the Soviet and Nazi German armies in World War II, part of the Soviet Union and the location of the first declaration of independence by a Soviet republic — encapsulates the key expereiences of 20th century European history.

Like any place, Vilnius has its flaws.  But, I for one, am a foreigner who finds the city captivating.  I am glad that, at least for a little while, I get to be a vilnietė — a resident of Vilnius.

They say all publicity is good publicity, but I’m not sure that the first mention of Lithuania in a written record really counts as good publicity.  In the year 1009, the Annales Quedlinburgenses records that the pagans at the border of Lithuania killed the monk Bonifacious (later to become St. Bruno) and 18 of his brethren.  The appearance of Lithuania as a recognized entity 1,000 years ago is being celebrated in 2009 with a variety of programs, including the reconstruction of the Royal Palace in the city center, an international traveling exhibit, and a mega-song festival in July.   When it’s your millenium birthday, you have to live it up!

The official poster of Lithuania's millenium celebration

The official poster of Lithuania's millenium celebration