Break 1 – Lithuania

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Location: Lithuania 

After my visit in London, I set off on my most foreign trip yet: Vilnius, Lithuania.  My research assured me that I would have no problem navigating the land of my ancestors, but I was still apprehensive about the language barrier and my physical and mental distance from anything familiar.

Though the flight to Vilnius was (unsurprisingly) empty, I shared the row with a chatty fellow traveler.  He pointed out the window and spoke to me in what I assumed was Lithuanian.  When I told him no, I did not understand, in English, he said “Français?” and I replied with a hesitant “Oui…”  He explained that he was pointing at the blanket of snow that covered the land below.  Coming from a city of the seaside and sunshine, I was not thrilled with this observation.  We continued the conversation as well as two people speaking a second language could, and I discovered that Mikhail Yurkov was a Russian pianist giving a private concert in Vilnius that night.  He lived in Paris, which is why he had learned French, but his Russian accent was very strong.  When I told him that I was going to explore Lithuania because I was Lithuanian, he shook and kissed my hand.  He repeated the gesture when I mentioned that I would love to visit Russia after reading the Russian novel War and Peace.  With this expression of friendship, I felt good about my upcoming time in Lithuania.

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It wasn’t difficult to show the taxi driver my hostel address, so I made my way into town with ease. I stayed at the Litinterp Guesthouse Vilnius in a large, single room with an ensuite bathroom for the same price as I paid for my room in London, a shared bedroom of 14 with a communal hall bathroom.

I noticed the poverty of the area between the airport and the city center, evident from the extensive graffiti and overall disrepair of some of the buildings.  Vilnius’s Old Town, however, found on the south side of the Neris River that divides the city, contrasted the capital’s suburbs as quaint and clean little village within an Eastern European metropolis.  I ate dinner at Forto Dvaras, a Lithuanian chain restaurant that makes authentic Lithuanian food certified by Lithuanian’s Culinary Heritage Fund.  I ordered potato pancakes, a dish that I am familiar with from meals with the Lithuanian half of my family. The pancakes tasted delicious and reminded me exactly of the ones I enjoy at home.

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Churches of Vilnius

Vilnius awoke sluggish yet sunny the next morning, and I boarded the hop-on-hop-off tour bus from a rather deserted town square.  Accompanied by only two other couples, I rode the bus around Vilnius, gathering an idea of the city’s layout, as well as historic information about the country as a whole.

The first thing I realized of Old Town Vilnius were the churches.  Acting like the blue-light system on a college campus, if standing in front of one church, one can turn 360 degrees and find another place of worship within sight and walking distance.  I’m convinced you could do so all day.

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Church of S. Casimir

The Vilnius Cathedral Basilica can be found in Cathedral Square, the center of Vilnius’s Old Town.  This Roman Catholic church is one of the most celebrated sites in Vilnius, hosting religious services, the remains of St. Casimir, Lithuania’s patron saint, and even, one time, Pope John Paul II.  The cathedral shares the square with the Bell Tower of Vilnius Cathedral that overlooks the old city.

“The shrine in which the heart of the Lithuanian nation beats.”  ~John Paul II, on the Vilnius Cathedral Basilica

 

Užupis

Apart from Vilnius itself, (the Republic of) Užupis, comparable to the artist-filled Montmartre district of Paris, is an alternative section of the city allegedly independent from Lithuania.  The entity, created by those who create, recognizes its independence day as April 1st (April Fool’s Day), and strongly supports its 41-point constitution, which guards some of the citizen’s most important rights:

  • Everyone has the right to die, but it is not his duty.
  • Everyone has the right to make mistakes.
  • Everyone has the right to love.
  • Everyone has the right to take care of their dog until one of them dies.
  • Every dog has the right to be a dog.
  • Everyone has the right to have no rights.

Though the official status of this neighborhood remains, intentionally, vague, it was entertaining, and somewhat humbling, to discover a place where art, emotion, and truth reign.

 

The Gates of Dawn

Continuing the tour, we traveled along the outskirts of the Old Town near what used to be Vilnius’s defensive wall.  Built in the 1500s, the Lithuanians constructed the wall for protection from Russian invasion.  Today, the Gates of Dawn is the last surviving passage of the original wall, and is a shrine to the Virgin Mary, housing a world-renowned painting of the “Vilnius Madonna.”

As I approached the gate, I realized that each person passing through stopped and prayed, gesturing the sign of the cross.  Everyone, from the mother with her toddler to the group of older church ladies, halted in the middle of the street to recognize the religious significance of this sanctuary.  I found the religious dedication of the Lithuanians incredibly moving.

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Did You Know?

Did you know that the Lithuanian language is one of the nearest spoken forms of Sanskrit?    Though the Lithuanians are proud of their special language, I found that many people in Vilnius has some knowledge of English.  In an attempt to fit in, however, I learned the Lithuanian word for thank you: ačiū (pronounced like a sneeze).  My one-word knowledge of Lithuanian could not get me very far, but each time I said”thank you” to a Lithuanian, they gave a small smirk of approval.

 

Conservative Country, Plenty of Pride

Lithuania may be a country that is easily overlooked from a North American perspective, but the people’s passion for their history and traditions rivals that of any great nation.  I was disappointed to be missing Lithuanian Independence Day on February 16th, so close to my visit, but I understood the depth and intensity of Lithuanian pride from my short time in the country’s capital.  Lithuania’s history recounts repeated episodes of political and religious intrusion, but despite these difficult events, the Lithuanians never gave up defending their freedom.  A symbol of this political liberty stands in front of the Presidential Palace in Vilnius as a reminder of this fruitful fight.  Though I appreciated this object of political pride, it does not compare to my encounter with the Lithuanians’ physical manifestation of religious independence that I experienced later that afternoon.

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#freedom / #liberty (depending on translation from Lithuanian)

 

Travel Tips

  • If interested in the Vilnius City Tour bus, note that preordering tickets online only allows for the purchase of an all-day ticket.  If bought from the bus driver, tickets for a one-time trip can be obtained for nearly half of the price of the unlimited option.
  • I didn’t have time to see all of Vilnius, but the Vilnius Tourist Information Centre provides a great list of other places to see in Lithuania’s capital city.

 

Destination Locations

 

Taika, Mielė, Vilnius,

A.J.H.

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REVIEW: Las Ventas Bullfight

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With varying levels of comfort and curiosity, my family and I decided to check “watch a traditional, Spanish bullfight” off of our Madrid bucket list.  We prepurchased tickets from TicketsToros, an online bullfight ticket distributor, and picked them up at the office just outside of the Plaza de Toros de Las Vantas.  The exterior of the building itself was beautiful, and though the inside showed some age, it added a sense of historic time travel to the event.

My research on the Las Ventas experience advised purchasing seat cushions for the concrete benches from we would watch the show.  On the way to our seats, we picked up the much-appreciated, rear-end protection for a euro and change, and shuffled through crowds of tourists, spotted with the occasional group of Spanish elders, towards the ring.  Our seats were in the cheapest section, “Sol,” or the area of the open-air coliseum that received the most sunlight during the event.  We were happy to be out of the shade, because April in Madrid isn’t too warm.  Squished together on our small section of bench, I remembered the tight quarters of the Flamenco show, and couldn’t help but wonder if the seats were Spanish-sized or if we were American-sized…

 

 

At 6 p.m. exactly, the event began.   Between spirited music from the band and the procession of participants in proud, shining dress, I felt the pregame jitters.  Just like any other sporting event, the performers prepared in the ring while the spectators sat in anticipation of the start of the event.

 

Generally, a bullfight begins with the least prestigious matador of three.  For six bulls, the matadors perform in order of increasing esteem twice, each fighting two bulls.  The matador-to-bull matchup totals about 30 minutes, comprising of three parts.  The first stage requires field assistants to tire the fresh bull, prompting him with double-sided pink and yellow capes to charge repeatedly back and forth across the ring.  Once the animal has burnt its initial energy, horses enter the ring for the second phase of the fight.  In this middle section, horse-mounted assistants spear the bull in the shoulders with banderillas to further weaken him.  Finally, the matador takes over, one-on-one with the bull.  The goal of the matador is to make as few movements as possible to make the bull charge.  By a single spear thrust in between the shoulders of the animal, the fight is finished.

The body of the bull, once drug by horse-drawn stirrups out of the arena, is then prepared for consumption.  Rabo de toro, or tail of the bull, is a popular dish, especially during bullfight season.  Sometimes, however, body parts are reserved for the matador.  If he performs exceptionally well, he may receive the ear of the animal as a prize.  The matador can even earn the second ear, or both ears and the tail, for a truly impressive fight.  It was obvious to all, though, that the matadors that we watched were not receiving any execution prizes.

In the first fight, the matador’s assistants fatigued the bull.  Then, a horseman introduced the decorated spears, sticking them in the bull to further drain him.  Watching the blood drip down the bull’s sleek, dark hide, shining in the setting sun secured my distaste for this event.  Already, the poor animal, had had enough, and the matador hadn’t even begun.

 

 

When the matador entered the arena, he inched his way closer and closer to the bull as it became increasingly exhausted.  Then, though, in one, quick motion, the bull scooped the matador off of his feet, sending him face-down into the sand as the animal reared about him.  Saved by his assistants, the matador recovered quickly.  He did not, however, emerge from the hiccup unscathed.

The sweep from behind pierced through his beautiful uniform and punctured his behind!  With flaps of fabric hanging down, and skin fully exposed, the matador continued the fight.

 

From the bloody beast to the injured matador, I tried to act like I was watching TV and not real life.  It was all a little too much.  I had mistakenly imagined the experience with more theatrics and less reality.  I thought it would be a show, instead of the bullfight that it was.

To make the trip worthwhile, my family and I saw the first fight through to the end, but by then, we had had enough.  Once we had gathered our belongings and were ready to leave, the second fight had already started.  On our way out, we ran into old men and angry yells.  Too slow to exit, we were forced to stay for the second fight.  Feelings of frustration soon turned to understanding when we realized why fate determined us to stay: the second fight was horrible.

From our barely-attentive, untrained eyes, things seemed to be playing out in the second matchup just as they did in the first.  Then, the whistling began.  Drawing from tennis knowledge, my aunt suggested that they were sounds of disapproval.  We glanced down at what was happening in the ring to realize that the second matador had spiked the bull with the “final” spear multiple times and was still trying to finish the animal.  As the bull stumbled in disorientation and pain, my aunt recognized that we had to see a poorly executed fight to appreciate the skill and humanity of the first set.

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Though there is beauty in the grace of the matador and the fanfare of the event, bullfighting is an ugly sport.  I am glad that I got to experience a great Spanish tradition, but only those who enjoy fight-to-the-death events or are truly invested in learning about Spanish culture should attend.

 

Destination Locations

 

Paz, Amor, Madrid

A.J.H.

Family Week – April 15, 2016

Arrival

From a short-notice additional week off, and a last minute change of plans, I found myself standing at the large, frosted glass doors of the airport’s arrivals.  I watched others receive their loved ones and smiled at their reunions, but I leaned against the railing impatiently, waiting to surprise my own visitors. Almost an hour after expected, it was finally my turn to overwhelm my weary travelers with hugs and happiness— my mom and aunt had arrived!

After spending three months with strangers (many whom I’ve come to adore), I was at once comforted with familiarity and love that only a family can provide.  I could not wait to begin this week in Europe that my mother, my two aunts, and I would always treasure.

Excited but exhausted, we agreed to rest the first day of their visit. Fortunately, this in itself was a pleasant experience at the Airbnb we stayed in for the week.  The apartment was centrally located, clean, spacious, and safe.  Aside from the poignant, grape-scented diffuser that made the room smell “purple,” we had no complaints.

 

Day 1

Madrid greeted my family with a rainy day unlike any that I had experienced here before.  It poured.  I had to adjust my plans to show them the city.  My aunt suggested that we take a Madrid City Tour bus to shield ourselves from the weather while still touring town.  The poor-quality headphones made the audio guide difficult to understand, but I did my best to make up for the guide by informing my family with the facts that I knew.  Between the two bus tour routes offered by Madrid City Tour, we were able to see the city’s highlights, and even visited areas of Madrid where I had never been before.

After drying off and regrouping at our Airbnb, we took a short walk to Cardamomo for a traditional Flamenco show. The only flamenco tablao in Madrid to have been reviewed by the New York Times, we decided that proximity and quality made Cardamomo a great choice.  With tickets for the 8 p.m. show, the four of us squeezed into a tight row for four, ordered included drinks, and prepared for the performance.

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Two guitarists and two vocalists, all male, took to the perimeter of the stage.  The musicians seemed to pluck at the guitar strings as they wished, producing coherent but disorderly staccato tunes.  I could also appreciate the talent of the singers, who had to almost yell for their raspy voices to be heard above the guitars. Though at times their vocals resembled those of Middle Eastern songs, I could feel antique, Spanish authenticity in their voices.  Soon after the musical opening, a first dancer appeared on stage.  His body was slim and his movements were graceful.  Relieving the first man, a second dancer took the floor.  With a muscular build and a long, curly, black ponytail, this dancer better fit the my idea of a fiery Flamenco dancer.  You could tell, though, that he was a younger dancer, less mature than the first man.  Finally, a woman performed, mesmerizing the crowd with powerful steps and spins in her traditional, Flamenco dress and scarves.

Without any knowledge of the various forms of Flamenco, I did not know what to expect from this show.  The dancers did not use props like flowers, fans, or castanets, as I had anticipated.  For this performance, it seemed as though the musicians had a better chemistry with the male dancers than they did with the female dancer.  It was more entertaining to watch the men on stage because of the strength in the connection between the performers.  Where there should have been a passionate admiration and appreciation for the woman, I did not feel these emotions conveyed by the men during the show.  Despite not knowing much about Flamenco, the show was the perfect evening activity for my aunts, mom, and me.

 

Day 2

Clear, blue skies and sunshine determined our day’s agenda.  We strolled around Retiro Park, one of my favorite places in Madrid, where I showed my family park highlights, such as the peacocks in Jardines de Cecilio Rodríguez, the Crystal Palace, which was in between exhibits, and the boat pond.

Where last night’s Flamenco show was light entertainment, tonight’s event would be less pleasant.  Interested in seeing, but not in support of, traditional Spanish bullfighting, my family and I went to watch this cultural event that has such a strong presence in Spanish history.

 

Destination Locations

 

Paz, Amor, Madrid

A.J.H.