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I was lucky enough to meet the director of the Vilnius Puppet Theater Lelė, who gave me a tour of the puppet theater a couple of weeks ago.  Unfortunately the season starts after I leave Vilnius, so I won’t be able to see a performance on this trip.  I did get to see the two stages, the workrooms and — best of all — the puppet theater’s museum.  Two rooms full of puppets ready to welcome audiences into an imaginary world!

Puppets for an Indian folk tale

Puppets for an Indian folk tale

The designers build small-scale models before building sets and full-size puppets.

The designers build small-scale models before building sets and full-size puppets.


When I was in college in the late 1980s, I dreamed of one day having an Alfa Romeo sports car.  That dream never came true — but on Thursday afternoon, a friend in Kaunas let me drive his restored 1977 Alpha Romeo Spider for an hour.  We took the highway out to Rumšiškes, then drove on smaller back roads through scenic villages and even went off-roading a bit in an attempt to get to the lake.  The pedals were a bit stiff and the steering column a bit loose, but it was a blast to drive.  And it was fun to see people take a long look and smile as we cruised by in a classic car with the top down.  Too much fun!


Here are photos from the opening of the exhibit Baltic Americans in Washington State, which I co-curated for the University of Washington Libraries Special Collections.  Two years ago, when we started working on the exhibit, my colleague at UW Libraries and I said “wouldn’t it be great if we could send this exhibit to the Baltic countries?”  And now it’s here!

Unpacking the exhibit crates

Unpacking the exhibit crates

Guests and the press at the exhibit opening

Guests and the press at the exhibit opening

Celebrating the exhibit opening with project coordinator from the Latvian National Library

Celebrating the exhibit opening with project coordinator from the Latvian National Library

Last Tuesday, a friend and I went to the Midsummer festivities in Verkiai Park on the outskirts of Vilnius.  We had quite an adventure.  First, I knew that an event was being held in Verkiai Park, but I didn’t know where — and it is a big park.  We took a bus to the part of the park where I had been before.  I figured that if we walked down to the river, we would eventually find the festivities.  Well, eventually was 45 minutes later after a long walk through the forest and an equally long walk along a narrow road with no sidewalk (and lots of cars on their way to the festivities).  It turns out I had taken us to the opposite end of the park from the event location.  Fortunately my friend is very patient!

We finally arrived to find hundreds of people enjoying the beautiful, warm evening.  People were having picnics on the grass and children were playing.  Men and women were wearing wreaths made of oak leaves and flowers.  I wanted to get a wreath woven for me, but the line was very long.  About 9:15, the fire rituals started with the burning  of a twig bundle on the top of a stick.  As you’ll hear me say in the video below, I think that the woman explaining the ritual said it represents the sun.  Next a large bonfire was lit.  A traditional music group played music throughout the evening.  People around us were dancing traditional dances on the grass.  Just after I took the video below of people dancing around the bonfire, we joined in.

Once the bonfire burned down, you are supposed to jump over the fire.  And at midnight, the crowd was going to go to float their wreaths down the river.  Because I had to go to Riga the next morning, we started to leave at 10:30.  However, we ran into someone my friend knew, got to talking and didn’t leave the park until 11:30.  As a result, we missed the last bus.  Just as we reached the main road, the heavens opened up.  Thunder, lightning, a deluge of rain.  We ran to a bus shelter and tried calling for a taxi, but of course everyone else was calling for a taxi.  We waited about 30 minutes in the bus shelter with about 15 other people.  A group of three women tried to flag down every taxi that passed by.  One finally stopped, but the two women already in the taxi said they could only take two more passengers.  Luckily, my friend had spoken to the group of three women earlier so they called to us and we hopped in the taxi.  I gave the driver our addresses and the two original passengers told the driver to take them home and then take us home.  The woman in the front seat looked at us and said in English, “You have no choice.”  We said, “We are just happy to be in a taxi on our way home!”   What a night!

Over the last two years, I co-curated an exhibit about the Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian communities in Washington State for the University of Washington Libraries Special Collections.  This exhibition tells the story of thirty members of the Baltic-American communities in Washington State through current portraits by Northwest photographer Mary Randlett, photographs from the participants’ personal collections, and quotes from own their life stories.  The Baltic Studies professor at the University of Washington is also featured in the exhibit.  In addition to being displayed in Seattle, the exhibit will tour the three Baltic countries this summer.  The exhibit opens today at the Latvian National Library in Riga.  It will then be shown at the Estonian National Library in Tallinn, and the Mickevičiaus Public Library in Vilnius.  I’ll be transporting the exhibit from country to country and attending the opening events.  Today I am very excited to be at the opening of the international tour of my exhibit!

Guntis Smidchens

I discovered these wooden figures for a nativity scene when I peaked through a gate into the courtyard of the bishop’s residence in Kaunas.




bug-trainerOn Friday night, I saw an amazing documentary film called The Bug Trainer at the Baltic Studies Conference.  The film is about Ladislas Starevich, a pioneer in stop-motion animation film using puppets.  He made his first animated puppet film in 1910 and went on to be one of the most innovative filmmakers of the 1920s and 1930s.  Starevich’s parents were Polish.  He was born in Moscow, raised in Kaunas, Lithuania, and worked both in Russia (before World War I) and France (after World War I).  The Lithuanians, Poles, Russians, and French all claim him as “their” amazing filmmaker, but unfortunately he is not well-known outside of film circles.

The documentary tells the story of Starevich’s life and work — and uses his own puppet animation techniques and fantastical story lines to do so.  Starevich’s early films featured bug puppets that were so realistic audiences thought he had trained live bugs to act.  His puppets were known for their complex facial expressions — he might make as many as 600 heads for a single puppet in order to achieve such a variety of facial expressions.  The Bug Trainer was just released in 2008 and hopefully will end up on DVD.  I highly recommend watching it if you ever get a chance.  There are collections of Starevich’s films available if these videos of his work have piqued your interest.

I definitely had my 15 minutes of fame in Lithuania during the last two weeks of May.  As you know, a Lithuanian National Radio report on the commemorations of Romas Kalanta’s self-immolation included a short interview with me.  I also told you that I attended a poetry reading of Marcelijus Martinaitis’ book K.B. The Suspect.  I didn’t mention that Lithuanian National Television videotaped the reading.  I assumed that the video would be edited down, but the entire reading was broadcast on national television — including me asking a question in bad Lithuanian.

Even if you don’t know Lithuanian, check out the Lietuvos Rytas interview with me that was published last Saturday.  There’s a very nice photo of me (if I do say so myself).  The translation of the article is below.  The interview was conducted in Lithuanian, which made me a bit nervous.  I wasn’t completely confident that I hadn’t misunderstood a question or said something that I didn’t mean to say.  But the article is mostly accurate.  My regular readers will recognize some of my comments from earlier blog posts.  When I mentioned that I run in my neighborhood, the journalist immediately responded “everyone must stare at you!”  So you see, I wasn’t just being paranoid when I said in an earlier post that everyone stares at me when I run!

Every Day — KGB Archives and Šaltibarščiai [Cold Beet Soup]

After arriving in Vilnius to prepare her academic work, American historian Amanda Swain from the University of Washington also began to write a diary about how life in Lithuania differs from Seattle where she lives.

After returning from the KGB archives, where she is preparing materials for her dissertation, the 44-year-old runs every day in Kalnų Park and along the Neris river and has even resolved to run in the Vilnius marathon in the fall.  In the capital of Lithuania, she rarely meets another runner, but in Seattle they are a crowd.  Vilnius residents don’t conceal their amazement at seeing a running woman and in the winter they were staring at her as if she were a lunatic.

Another surprising difference – in Lithuania almost no one uses ear pieces with cell phones.  In Seattle, almost no one talks with a cell phone up to their ear.

Not Drinking Coffee While Walking

Most surprising to the historian is the way Lithuanians in Vilnius drink coffee.  Vilnius residents who like their coffee don’t hurry to drink it, but sit at a table in a café or at home.  But in Seattle, where many people are simply crazy about coffee, they usually drink it from paper cups while walking down the street.  “Americans aren’t separated from their drinks for one minute,” said A. Swain.

Buying Tickets to Jazz

A. Swain admires many qualities of Vilnius.  She likes that people here live at a slower pace than across the Atlantic.

She noticed that Lithuanian children have excellent opportunities to study drawing or playing musical instruments because art and culture are very important to human identity.  There aren’t such opportunities in the USA.  The American was astounded that tickets to jazz and classical concerts in the capital are so cheap.

She likes that, compared with Seattle, cafes are less expensive.  Although in Vilnius, there are very expensive restaurants, the usual average price is lower.  In the USA, in specialized cafes [e.g. Starbucks], the price of coffee is $2-$3, and coffee with milk [lattes] are $4-$5.  Both clothes and shoes are really best to buy in Seattle.

She Learned Lithuanian Language

Not able to speak Lithuanian language, A. Swain studied Lithuanian language fifteen years ago while preparing her master’s thesis about the reform of history education in Lithuania at Vytautas Magnus University.  While still studying Russian history at a US university, A. Swain became interested in how Lithuanians lived in the Soviet Union: how and how much they were able to resist Soviet rule and how they accommodated it.

This year, since arriving in Lithuania in January to prepare her doctoral dissertation, she sits almost every day in the KGB archives and reads files about Romas Kalanta’s self-immolation and the subsequent events.

This past month I have had a surprising number of encounters with journalists.  First I was stopped for a “man on the street” interview about the presidential elections.  Of course, once I said I was an American, the journalist waved me on my way.  Then I was contacted by an American freelance journalist who had heard from a mutual friend that I was doing work in the KGB archives.  He interviewed me for an article about Kalanta and Lithuanian hippies, but unfortunately his article wasn’t picked up by any news outlets.

However, I did appear in two news reports about the commemorations of Kalanta’s self-immolation in Kaunas.  Lietuvos Rytas is the major daily newspaper in Lithuania.  It also has video news reports on its web site.  In the video report of the commemoration, I can be seen in the background busily writing in my notebook about the event.  At that same event, one of the men whom I interviewed was also interviewed by Lithuania National Radio.  He introduced me to the reporter, who decided to interview me as well.  I had to think quickly on my feet and come up with sound bites about the importance of studying the events in Kaunas in 1972.  That’s tough for an academic who is planning to write a 400 page dissertation on the subject!  My neighbor listed to the radio news report and assured me that I gave good comments.

And that’s not all…  At the Lithuanian Youth Leaders dinner, I was seated next to a journalist from the newspaper Lietuvos Rytas.  She expressed an interest in interviewing me after I have actually written my dissertation (I did let her know that would be a year from now at the earliest).  In the meantime, she invited me to come visit the newsroom.  Today she gave me a tour of the editorial offices and newsroom.  It was much quieter than I expected.  In the movies, reporters always seem to be shouting and waving documents and rushing off to get the inside scoop!  Over lunch, she asked a lot of questions about how I became interested in Lithuanian history and about life as a foreigner in Vilnius.  Apparently I was so interesting that she decided to turn it into a real interview and even had a photographer take a photo of me.  She said she would write a short “not very deep” article about me.  I’m sure that depends on her editor’s approval — so we’ll see how interesting he finds me.  Best of all, she took me to the newspaper archives and the archivist copied every Lietuvos Rytas article about Kalanta from 1997 to this year for me.

The journalist and I then walked over to the Town Hall to see an exhibit of Lithuanian press photography.  Unforunately, we weren’t allowed in because President Adamkus was arriving shortly to view the exhibit.  So instead of looking at the work of press photographers, I joined the press photographers outside Town Hall and took my own photo of the President being welcomed to the exhibit.

President Adamkus (right) being welcomed to the Press Photography exhibit at Town Hall

President Adamkus (right) being welcomed to the Press Photography exhibit at Town Hall, Vilnius

Yesterday was the 37th anniversary of Romas Kalanta’s self-immolation on May 14, 1972.  I spent the day in Kaunas attending two commemorations, visiting Kalanta’s gravesite and and talking to several people about their experiences of the events in Kaunas in 1972.  Many thanks to R., who posts comments on my blog as “Kaunas 1972,” for picking me up at the train station, introducing me to his friends, and arranging a ride back to Vilnius for me.   I also greatly appreciate that his friends spent several hours with me sharing their experiences and perspectives.  Once again, I experienced wonderful Lithuanian hospitality.

In yesterday’s conversations, I learned some new things, received confirmation of some of my ideas, and gained a better understand of the human side of my dissertation topic.  After four months in the KGB archives, I was feeling a bit burnt-out and have struggled over the last couple of weeks to be disciplined with my research.  Yesterday I was able to see more clearly the importance of studying these events and I am feeling re-energized about my work.  Today’s task — write up my notes from yesterday’s events and conversations.

At Kalanta's grave

At Kalanta's grave

Young women holding the traditional Lithuanian juostas at the noon commemoration.  The stones behind them are part of the monument to Kalanta's sacrifice in the park where he died.

Young women holding the traditional Lithuanian juostas at the noon commemoration. The stones behind them are part of the monument to Kalanta's sacrifice in the park where he died.

Channeling 1972 -- at the evening commemoration, a teen-age rock band played Jimi Hendrix "Kiss the Sky"

Channeling 1972 -- at the evening commemoration, a teen-age rock band played Jimi Hendrix "Kiss the Sky"