I haven't seen that much of it, but I am amazed by what I find, and at times, amused by my amazement.

Monday, May 16, 2016

The Old Russian & the Chocolate Cow

The following was written in May, 2016, remembering an event that happened when I first arrived in Vilnius. I have now been here for a year and a half and expect to be here for another year.

It was mid-October, 2014 and there was a definite chill in the air, although there wasn’t any snow on the ground yet. I had just arrived in Vilnius, Lithuania after spending a year working in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. I was staying in a hotel near the embassy district, and I had just begun to get acquainted with a new job in a new city.
I had a day off and I headed out into the bright sunshine of a Sunday afternoon, donning the light jacket I had brought from Ho Chi.
Like most European cities, Vilnius has an ‘old town’. It is full of narrow, cobblestone streets lined with ancient buildings, some older than anything the states have to offer. Oozing history, these worn stone and brick former granaries, stables and mills were now pubs, restaurants, gift shops and art galleries.

From my hotel, the shortest route into old town for someone walking ended in a footpath through a short tunnel that dumped right out into the middle of one of the main tourist streets. Stepping onto the cobbled street I was greeted by a view of a castle past the end of the street to the left. It was on my list to explore, but not that day.
From up the street to my right, a gust of frigid air made me zip up my jacket tighter around my neck.

Directly across the street from the arched tunnel was an art gallery. Out in front of the art gallery stood an old man, singing a song in a language I couldn’t follow, his hat on the ground in front of him. Several inches shorter than me and sporting a bit of belly, he had a long, yellowish tobacco-stained beard, a ragged tonsure of the same color with just a few wisps of hair on top. His pants were old and baggy, and he wore a faded jacket with an old, equally faded patch on the elbow. The sound of his singing followed me as I wandered up the street, scanning the shops and restaurants.
I finally stopped at a cafĂ© that hadn’t yet put its sidewalk tables away for the season. I ordered a beer and sat for a while. As I waited for my beer, I took in the unfamiliar scene and watched the parade of pedestrians in scarves and sweaters, bundled up against the weather. When my beer arrived I sipped on the tall mug and decided I could have ordered something warmer to drink, as the cold started to creep in through my light jacket.

The afternoon grew cooler, and the low sun cast long shadows on the sides of the buildings, having already abandoned the cobblestones. I paid for my beer, left a tip and pocketed the remaining two euro coin. After looking farther up the row of shops, I jammed my hands into my jacket pockets, turned and headed back down the street the way I came. The old man was still in the same spot. His jacket didn’t look any warmer than mine was.
I remembered the two euro coin in my jacket pocket and headed across the lane to put it in his hat. As soon as I dropped the coin, the old man grabbed my hand in both of his and thanked me with a gap-toothed grin. He said something I didn’t understand.

“I’m sorry,” I said “English?”

“Neh, Lithuanian?” he asked.
“No, sorry,” I replied.
“You speak Russian?” he asked.

“No, I’m afraid not”.
Still holding onto my hand, he said, “I don’t know any songs in English. Can I sing you a Russian song for your coin?”
“Sure”, I said.

 It was apparent I wouldn’t be going anywhere until he let go of my hand.
He began to sing one song, changed his mind after a moment and launched into what I imagined might be a Russian marching song. It sounded very patriotic, and he sang it with a fervor that made his deep-set eyes glisten.

By the third verse, I began to wonder what it would take to retrieve my hand from his grip. I noticed a man walking on the other side the street smile broadly at me, as if to say, “He’s got you now. You must be new around here.” 

It was about this time that I noticed someone dressed in a large black and white cow costume walking toward us. The costume was complete with an udder that looked like a yellow, plastic, four-legged stool glued to the shaggy stomach. The cow was carrying a basket full of purple-wrapped chocolate bars, and had been handing them out to passers-by on the street. It stopped in front of me and put a chocolate bar into my free hand. The cow then turned to the old Russian and attempted to give him a bar as well, but he waved it off and sang a bit louder. The cow turned back to me and with a shrug handed me the second bar. Somewhere in that exchange my hand came free.  Making good my chance for an exit, I backed up, smiling and bowing to each in turn. The song trailed off. The old Russian and the chocolate cow stared at me as I turned and ducked hastily back through the same archway I had emerged from earlier.
“Well,” I thought to myself as I walked back towards the hotel, unwrapping the corner of one of the chocolate bars, “That was interesting”.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Another Year-End Letter: 2015 Edition

2015 is on its way out, 2016 ready to burst onto the scene. How’d it get so late so soon? This time of year we like to take a look back at the year that was.

January 2015 – a visit to Trakai Castle – a half hour drive out of Vilnius.

Joann and I are celebrating our second Christmas in this apartment in Vilnius, Lithuania. That in itself is a bit unusual. It hasn’t been very often that we’ve been living in the same country two years in a row.

Vilnius has been great place to spend some time. Centrally located in northern Europe (the geographic center of Europe is actually in Lithuania, just 16 miles north of Vilnius), this Baltic country feels like it could be somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. The climate is similar to western Washington/British Columbia. We really haven’t needed much air-conditioning.

Having just spent two years in China and Vietnam before moving here, being back in Europe was a refreshing change for us. And bonus, we can walk down the street here and be mistaken for locals, something that never happened in Southeast Asia.
June 16 - Launching from the park by
the Neris River. The launch site depended
upon which way the wind was blowing

The Queen on her throne in the Sculpture Park
We spent the first part of the year together here in Vilnius. While John was mostly working , Joann was staying busy with Lithuanian language classes, puppy training classes, art projects and IWAV (International Womens Association of Vilnius). We managed to fit in a few local excursions together, as well: A January visit to the historic Trakai Castle, built on an island in a lake half hour drive outside of Vilnius; a May trip to the Baltic Sea coast along the Curonian Spit, a 98 km long sand dune spit where Huy set his personal land-speed record, and is home to the Juodkrante Sculpture Park; a June hot air balloon flight over the city.

Over the dunes and down to the beach

Catching Huy on the fly between supersonic laps on the Curonian Spit.
Exploring the parks, the old city, and the many different restaurants helped round out our introduction to this corner of the world.

Joann returned home in July to what turned out to be a horrible fire season in Northeast Washington. I watched events unfolding from Vilnius while Joann dealt with the smoke and approaching fire danger at home. Our log cabin, snuggled into the trees would never survive if the forest fire reached it.

What to take? What was important? In the end it was decided that very little was so important. Photos, artwork, computerized records, vehicles – all were easy to move. Everything else could be replaced. It was just stuff.  The hardest part turned out to be the smoke that filled the air for weeks at a time. The only cure for that was to leave.
Bloody Mary Breakfast with Captain Jack

We are fortunate to have good friends who extended an invitation to Joann and another neighbor to join them at their house on the Washington coast for a few days. In spite of the difficult circumstances the ladies managed to make the best of it.

With Doug and Lezli on their patio in Petruro Irpino. We would love to spend more time there!

In August Joann flew to Italy. I flew in from Vilnius at the same time and we met up in Naples for a visit with my brother Doug and his wife, Lezli at their home in Petruro Irpino. What a nice place and a great few days together. We experienced rural life in their small Italian town, toured a winery (of course!) and drove the Amalfi coast. Joann returned to Republic and I flew back to Vilnius.

In October I was able to fly home for almost three weeks of vacation time. It was another meeting up with Joann on the fly. She flew in from visiting her mother in Illinois. We met in Spokane and drove home together. We wouldn’t be there for Thanksgiving or Christmas. Halloween was our holiday event and we made the most of it.
The Queen and her Consort
Pile o' beams

I managed to get some logs cut into beams for the new front porch, and we got the cabin ready for winter. In the midst of all this activity we also found time to spend valuable time with our kids and friends. By the start of November it was time to close up the cabin, so Joann and I could fly back together to Vilnius. After being apart all summer, it was good to know we would both be together again.

Sawing beams for the new porch with a portable saw mill, thanks to neighbors for the logs.
Lithuanians don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, but the Americans working on the project here gathered at the Marine House and hosted the usual turkey dinner with all the fixings and good company.

The RME Crew, our family here
In some countries it is difficult to find turkeys, but not here. There were plenty of turkeys, stuffed, smoked and baked - and all the sides, as well.
In December we finally made it to Prague, Czech Republic for a four day weekend. It lived up to all our expectations - and then some.
Up in the clock tower

The Christmas Market below in Old Town Square

Huy, the Best Elf Ever (he says) waits for Santa

Right before Thanksgiving we bought an artificial Christmas tree, lights and ornaments. It sits in our front window overlooking the entrance to our apartment building. It’s a pretty tree and, who knows, we might get a chance to use it again next year if they keep adding more work to this project!

Happy New Year 2016!