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Europe » Lithuania » Vilnius
September 11th 2010
Published: January 31st 2011EDIT THIS ENTRY

Being a tourist in the capital city of a very small country, if anything whatsoever is happening in the whole country, bam! you're in the middle of it. It's cool. To grip the entire vast, diverse USA in any shared national experience takes a huge, crazy, usually unpleasant thing. But not here. Fun stuff gets to be a shared national experience too!

Which is timely, because I've been thinking about spending "9/11" abroad. As it happens, I was abroad for the actual original 9/11/2001 - in Glasgow, Scotland with my brother in the middle of our three-week tour of the UK. It was surreal being away while something so all-consuming was happening back home. Watching news coverage on the BBC; hearing a national reaction and response presided-over by PM Tony Blair; looking out of our hotel at a tarmac full of some silent long-range jets grounded by US airspace closures but others still departing to and arriving from non-grounded international locations; receiving countless kind expressions of condolence from Brits the moment they heard our American English accents; and signing a Book of Condolence in the Cathedral in Bath, England were highlights I remember. At home, I don't have that in
Gedimino9 shopping centreGedimino9 shopping centreGedimino9 shopping centre

This trendy mall inside a historic city building is the talk of the city, but I noticed it's also half-vacant.
common with anyone but Jim. On the flip side, everyone in America including my dearest family and friends, whether I agree with them politically about the long-term meaning of 9/11 or not, all share a completely different and far more transformative experience. For example, I grew up under the flight path at SeaTac International Airport. Really under it. I can't even imagine what life would sound like without jet engine noise, but I know I would have found the silence traumatic. My family knows what that was like for four days after 9/11, but I actually don't.

So I really can't relate to American 9/11 observances for that and a wide variety of other reasons. Today I'm appalled by how politicized the date has become. I'm embarrassed by the self-centered tone-deafness Americans display when mourning a loss of life other countries experience routinely (see Rick Steves' 9/11 and Other Numbers). And I absolutely cannot tolerate being told how I should feel on that day.

It was a great relief to spend America's 9/11 abroad, in a place where the anniversary might or might not be noted briefly during the equivalent of "World Minute" in a language I don't speak on whatever
KGB MuseumKGB MuseumKGB Museum

All around the building, stones are carved with the names of Lithuanians martyred inside it.
the local news channel is. I appreciate reflecting upon it in my head, without the media-circus horror-show outside. I'm seriously considering making a habit of this.

Here in Vilnius today, I created a mix of: doing nothing, doing Very Serious Things, and doing utterly joyous and lighthearted things.

First, I slept in. This includes both actual sleeping, and also sitting around my hotel room in pajamas and wrapped in blankets. The owner, Aistis' father, whose name I forgot to write down, brought breakfast up the stairs to my room in an adorable picnic basket. As of this writing, I can't recall whether the wi-fi had been fixed by Saturday morning, but I think it hadn't and that I wasted some time trying to get on the open wi-fi at the hotel next door instead. Whatever. In any case, I was feeling a cold coming on, and it was chilly out, and I'd been traveling quite a while, and as you can see I'm still trying to justify my Type A Traveler's Guilt about wasting all that sightseeing time by reminding myself that I'm entitled to rest occasionally.

I eventually ventured outside and headed down Gedimino prospektas, the
On the road to the SeimasOn the road to the SeimasOn the road to the Seimas

Is it always this empty on a Saturday?
main shopping street, on the same route Vaiva and I took yesterday, to visit Vilnius' "KGB Museum", formally the Genocido aukų muziejus (Museum of Genocide Victims). Yes, they used the "G" word. Yes, like Latvia, they are really quite pissed off about what the Soviets inflicted upon their tiny country during 50 years of forced occupation.

This museum is housed inside the actual former offices of the actual KGB in Vilnius, and exhibits in the basement prison are included in the tour: offices, regular cells, solitary cells, padded cells, torture cells, and a sound-insulated execution chamber. For me, the most chilling (almost literally) was a torture cell in which the prisoner was made to stand on a 12-inch round platform just above several inches of ice-cold water (or, in winter, actual ice) covering the cell floor. For hours. Sometimes for days. I truly understood, at that moment, that dissidents are heroes... because I felt certain I would crack if ever interrogated using such a method, and we know from history that some prisoners endured.

(I don't have a photo of it because photography is not allowed inside the museum.)

The tangible reality of the bureaucratic offices and the real
Looking over the SeimasLooking over the SeimasLooking over the Seimas

I have no idea what this sculpture is, but it's awesome and it faces the Seimas Palace from the building across the street.
prison are the main ways Vilnius' museum differs from Rīga's and (I'll blog later about) Tallinn's. It also gives considerable emphasis to Lithuanian partisans (including the Forest Brothers) who continued their struggle for years after the end of WWII, and portrays them as heroic. Because the Latvian museum makes a point of acknowledging (and sort of apologizing for) the ways in which its anti-Soviet resistance fighters tended to align or at least sympathize with Nazis and in some cases participated in genocide against Latvian Jews, I found myself looking for any similar explanations at the Lithuanian museum, but I didn't find them. I've subsequently learned that Lithuania experienced a familiar cycle: an initial belief that Nazis had "liberated" the Baltics from Soviet repression, followed by a gradual realization that Nazi occupation wasn't going to be any better or freer. Resistance movements could therefore organize against Nazis using the same structures as they'd used against Soviets, and they did. Lithuania illustrates how complex this situation became: of the three Baltic states, only Lithuania refused (with the help of organized resistance) to form a local Waffen-SS unit; however, Lithuania's Jewish genocide, conducted with widespread local cooperation, was among the worst in all of Europe (95-97%), in
Seimas with barricadesSeimas with barricadesSeimas with barricades

This structure sits alongside the Seimas and houses a display of barricades built and used by civilians to protect Parliament from the Soviet army in 1991.
part because Jewish Bolshevism was blamed for Soviet occupation. Complicated.

I had intended, at this point, to visit the nearby Holocaust Exhibition of the Valstybinis Vilniaus Gaono žydų muziejus (Jewish Museum). I joke a lot, but in this situation I still feel very genuinely frustrated by my own stupidity: the Jewish museum is, of course, closed on Saturdays (the Sabbath).

Instead, I headed the other direction on Gedimino prospektas (Gediminas Avenue) toward the historic Seimo rūmai (Seimas Palace), the house of Lithuania's parliament. This street runs from the Cathedral, pretty close to where my hotel is, 1,8 km (1.1 miles) to the Seimas (and continues over the river Nevis and beyond, but by some other name). On the way to the KGB Museum, about two-thirds of the length of the avenue, there were signs of life including a small street fair, a McDonald's with walk-up ordering window, and a mall. The rest of the way from the Museum to the Seimas, on this Saturday afternoon, the sidewalks were impressively totally empty. (Is that normal, or were Vilnians all somewhere else having whatever the Lithuanian equivalent of a tailgate party is?)

When the Soviet military arrived to put down Lithuanian independence in January 1991,
Make fruit, not warMake fruit, not warMake fruit, not war

This cheery graffiti carries a serious message. In Russian (i.e., directed at the Soviet army), it urges: "Shoot the air, soldiers!"
Chairman of the Parliament Vytautas Landsbergis called upon the people to surround and protect government and infrastructure sites from Russian tanks. After Soviet soldiers and tanks killed fourteen unarmed civilians at the Vilnius TV Tower on January 13 (to be discussed further in tomorrow's blog post), another 50,000 citizens gathered and built barricades here at the Seimas Palace to protect Parliament. If I understand her story correctly, my CouchSurfing friend Vaiva was working inside at the time! Gorbachev and the USSR blinked. The Soviets didn't attack, no further lives were lost, and eventually the USSR withdrew. History! Today, some of the barricades are preserved and displayed here alongside the building. I'm writing this post during the week of pro-democracy uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, and at this writing don't know how those will come out. It's pretty inspirational to remember the bravery of all the Baltic peoples during this time. More about that in tomorrow's post.

I understand that there's more to see inside the Seimas, but on this Saturday, no such things were open, so I just appreciated the barricade display outside and then needed to get a move on because I had a date for another national
Pretty Pink ChurchPretty Pink ChurchPretty Pink Church

I'm not wrong, I just probably wasn't specific enough.
Lithuanian celebration - basketball!

As you may recall from yesterday's post (Foreshadowing: your key to quality literature - ahem), at the CouchSurfing meetup I secured an invitation to watch The Big Game at a club with real Lithuanians! And by "Lithuanians", it turns out, I mean "a Swede and an Australian currently living and studying in Vilnius" (International backpackers) who have clearly mastered the art of making themselves "temporary locals" wherever they go.

I really did navigate to our meeting place by walking to the Fluxus Ministerija building where we met last night, then following the route I remembered taking into the Old Town with Diana & Chris afterwards. At some point along that walk, they had pointed to a building and said, "that's where we'll be watching the game, you could join us" and I'd imprinted the conversation with a visual of "a pretty pink church" nearby. This sort of Zen navigation maddens my closest family and does indeed get me lost at least half the time, and I am forced to admit that navigating according to "pretty church" in Vilnius is not a recipe for success (central Vilnius has at least 40 churches, all of them are pretty, and it seems likely
Lithuania-USA semi-finalLithuania-USA semi-finalLithuania-USA semi-final

These seats were actually a lot better than the unfortunate-flash photo suggests. Also: disco balls.
that more than one might be pink) but this time the travel and basketball gods were smiling down upon me, because just as the "pretty pink church" came into view I also spotted Vaiva standing on the sidewalk! Though I hadn't made plans to meet her here, it turns out some other CouchSurfing travelers had, and she was waiting for them. Though she wasn't planning to join Diana & Chris, she knew where they were, and pointed to the doors of WOO, normally an insanely trendy and stylish nightclub. It turns out the "pretty pink church" isn't even the most interesting landmark here - WOO is housed in the basement of the honest-to-goodness Renaissance-era Radvilų rūmai (Radziwiłł Palace), which I had overlooked because for all its historic importance, it seems rather plain next to the elaborately frosted Baroque/Rococo cake of St. Catherine's Church (Vilniaus Šv. Kotrynos bažnyčia).

Armed with Vaiva's confirmation of the location I strode boldly down the stairs to the bar, where the sound and video systems had all been turned over from hip DJs and dancers to cheering basketball fans (in truth, almost certainly the same people). CouchSurfers hadn't succeeded in reserving tables, but had strategically grabbed the foosball area
Basketball on the town hall squareBasketball on the town hall squareBasketball on the town hall square

Hard core fans, which I wasn't warmly-dressed enough to be one of, watched both semifinal games outside in the September air. I wouldn't've gotten this close during USA-Lithuania, though!
behind the stairs, next to the bar, which, though the TV screen was across the room, offered a reasonable view over everyone else's heads thanks to tall barstools. We ended up having only one actual Lithuanian in our midst - the rest of us were visiting students or foreign travelers. As usual, I was the only American, which normally is merely a curiosity but today took on a bit greater significance because the event which brought us all together was indeed the FIBA World Championships semifinals in which the Lithuanian national men's team would be playing USA! I spent the pre-game warm-up reassuring anyone who would listen (not many) that I intended to cheer for Lithuania like everyone else. (I had thought to buy a Lithuanian car-window flag throughout the day but didn't find any. Based on all the cars I saw, I'd have to assume they were sold out.) This became a greater challenge than I expected after the game began and I recognized the USA's star player, Kevin Durant, as a former Seattle SuperSonic. He went on to score a tournament-high 38 points toward a rather decisive US victory which I felt and still feel compelled to apologize for - but Lithuanians know good basketball playing when they see it, and all were gracious and complimentary of Team USA's and Durant's performance. I was surprised that I vaguely remembered enough about the rules of basketball to find the game enjoyable.

Afterwards, I tracked the same route as last night to return from "pretty pink church land" back to my hotel through the Old Town, and this took me through the Town Hall Square, where Vaiva and her surfers had bravely elected to watch the game outside. I found out later that they'd snagged a table just a few meters away from the President of Lithuania. So when I say "shared national experience", I mean: Shared. National. Experience. See? Although the area was nowhere near as crowded as it must have been for the Lithuania game, a respectable number of true sports fans had stayed behind to watch the then-in-progress other semifinal game between Serbia and Turkey, which would determine not only the USA's opponent in the gold medal final, but also Lithuania's in the bronze medal consolation.

It isn't just that this is the sort of event tourist guidebooks couldn't possibly tell you about. It's the sort of thing a guidebook- or tourgroup-tourist might actually find annoying - all these noisy young people and crowded streets and these unsightly giant TV screens and speakers and patio tables set up in front of their postcard photo ops. Coupled with the fact that an itinerary I planned from my desk at work more than six months ago dropped me here on exactly the right day for this literally once-in-a-lifetime event, and with exactly the right CouchSurfing community (and meetup timing) to connect me with it in the best way, Lithuanian basketball easily made my list of Most Favorite Things I Did on This Entire Trip.

When I got back to the hotel, I discovered that someone, presumably Aistis' father after seeing me wrapped in blankets this morning, had turned the heat on in my room. Did I mention that I LOVE IT HERE?!

LIETUVA!!

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9th February 2011

:)
I am very happy that you loved Lithuania ;)
11th January 2013

I am a bad, bad, bad person.
Until last week, I had always mentally pictured the President of Lithuania as male. She was not then and still isn't. LIETUVA!

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