Saturday, August 20, 2005

Living La Vida Loca at The Gate of Dawn

After a midnight dinner of left over Sislykai from the previous night’s dinner we are off to bed. Still a little wound-up we browse through the TV channels passing Russian, French and Lithuanian TV shows – all very much like ours – just a little more racy – OK a lot more racy! Nudity is not an issue for any FCC over here. We finally find TCM (Turner Classic Movies) that is in English, not dubbed and is showing “Victor/Victoria” with James Garner and Julie Andrews. We catch the end, juts enough time to have a laugh, unwind and fall nicely asleep.

We wake up the next morning the sound of breakfast being prepared. Rasa is in the kitchen busily dipping cauliflower into a batter of eggs and the tossing them into a frying pan. Not being a big fan of cauliflower (or a big fan of breakfast) I take a pass – at first. They smell terrific, so I try a few and find that I like them after all! So a few pieces of egg/cauliflower and a couple of glasses of orange juice later; we are getting ready to head to downtown Vilnius.

Rasa and Vaidas are off to get hair-cuts/color in preparation for vacation (bad vacation pictures if your hair is not done) – so the plan is to drop us off at a designated area and pick us up again three hours later.

So we are back in downtown Vilnius, alone and on our own – the first time this has happened during the trip. It is a nice feeling not being dragged around by someone this way and that. It is a good opportunity for us to reconnect – regroup and juts plain enjoy each others company. The nice thing about traveling like this, it draws you together as a group. To this point in the trip, not a cross word or thought has crossed any of our lips. There has been no hint of frustration – only that of good humor and enjoyment. You would think that by the end of the day – for us that is around Midnight – we would be falling into the bed, asleep before our heads strike the over stuffed pillows – but we are not. Generally, we will stay up for an hour or so more just chatting about the day’s events and planning tomorrows. For the helter skelter lives we all live back in the States – this is a good chance to reconnect and strengthen bonds.

Now we are headed back to the churches we could not get into the day before. We stop first at a Russian Monastery, one of the oldest in Europe, where there lies the mummified (I would imagine at this point) the three bodies of their Holiest of men. As the tale is told, during the times before Christianity these three Holy Men, two brothers and their friend, would profess their faith despite great tortures. The first brother was killed by strangulation and then hanging for outwardly practicing Christianity (back then – not eating meat on Fridays was the most obvious sign). The ruler at that time, though he liked the brothers, thought by killing their friend they would turn away from Christianity, which threatened the local pagan priests who pressured the ruler. The death of their friend however did not dissuade the oldest brother – it did the younger. So the older brother was jailed and tortured. Every day people would pass by the jail and see the elder brother as he was tortured, refusing to give up his belief in Christianity. The elder brother would plead with his younger brother to express his beliefs rather than hide them as he had been doing. Afraid of the torture the younger brother continued to hide his beliefs. Finally, knowing that the elder brother would never turn his back on his faith, he was strangled and then hung publicly. Seeing this final act of brutality, the younger brother finally began to express his beliefs. So strongly did he feel that he began to preach the gospel and openly convert the pagans. Once again pressured by the pagan priests the ruler begged with the younger brother to hide his faith. The brother refused. The ruler had no choice but to turn over the younger brother to the pagan priest. Once in their custody they publicly tortured him in the cruelest way possible – hoping to make a final example of him. They cut off his ears, peeled his nose from his face, and broke his feet, then shins and then thighs. Then they started on his hands and arms – each time he would not cry out in pain, rather he would preach. The crowds that gathered to watch became increasingly in favor of his teachings. This angered the pagan priest even more so they finally strangled him and then hung him, but low enough so that the wild boar, wolves and dogs could eat at his flesh. He hung for days and not a single animal approached the body. Under cover of night his followers took the body and that of his friend and elder brother and hid them away. So moved by his dedication, the ruler himself converted to Christianity and had the pagan priest driven from Lithuania. During the various wars the bodies have been moved to safe-guard them until their final resting home in this Russian Monastery where they are kept under protective glass for all to see.

From here we went to The Gate of Dawn; built in 1626 by the Discalced Carmelites. The Gate it self is the archway of the church of St. Teresa – once visited and blessed by John Paul II. The ach itself is over a road that acted as a major artery for trade – so it was very important to the people of Lithuania and the city of Vilnius. In the middle ages, sacred pictures were often placed on the Gate to protect travelers. Once such picture was called the “Mother of God” – this picture was painted on oak planks by an unknown artist in the 17th century. It was then covered by a dazzling flower-forged gilt silver casing and that is as it stands today. Catholics, Eastern Catholics and Orthodox Catholics have been praying before this picture for centuries and believe in its miraculous powers. Around the picture are small silver square plates and hearts. Each has a name or number engraved on it. For a donation or when a prayer is answered the donor will get one to place near the picture. We kneel before the picture and say a few prayers. Personally I pray for an end to my MS and the safety of the kids back home. The granite stairs leading up to the painting are worn to the right and the left from the constant stream of pilgrims flowing in and out on a daily basis. At the base of the lower level is a crucifix, when pilgrims enter to head upstairs to the painting, they stop, bless themselves and kiss the foot of the cross. The foot of the cross itself is worn to the bare wood from the constant contact. As we stand there and old woman stops before the cross, blesses her-self, recites a prayer and kisses the foot. She then hobbles slowly up the stairs, one step at a time as she has done; I am sure, so many times before. I will have a picture of the painting posted soon – just as soon as I get to some higher bandwidth.

From there we begin our trek towards the restaurant we are having our lunch at – not too far from where we will meet up with Rasa to head home. On our way we stop at a few more churches and marvel at the beauty inside. They are so ornate and awe-inspiring, they fill us with a warmth and sometimes, longing for home, that we virtually stop and say a prayer at each. After leaving one particular church, who do we run into but the Russian family that we meant in Kaunas! It’s truly is a small world after all! After some short conversation and exchange of e-mails and phone numbers – we head off in different directions.

We come upon the restaurant that we have agreed to eat at – near our meeting spot and enter in. The name of the restaurant escapes me – but it was very cool inside. As with most of the restaurants, it is designed to look like an ancient cabin or castle. We are led downstairs to the our table – along the way we see live chickens in display cages and snakes under glass, for display – not for dinner – giving even more atmosphere to the restaurant.

After a very tasty lunch of Cepalinai (Zep A Lean E) – potato dough filled with meat and boiled to perfection, generally served with a mushroom sauce/gravy. We also had potato pancakes and fried potatoes with bits of ham sautéed in. Once again I loosen my belt another notch and take a year of life away from my heart. Although the people in Lisa’s family live to be nearly 100 or so! I tell myself that I am actually adding years to my life!

We roll ourselves outside to wait for Rasa – who promptly arrives on time. We slide into the car and head back to her apartment to hook up with Vaidas and start the second half of our day. By this time t is around 6:00 PM or so. Here, a quarter if the way around the globe (roughly) it will stay light until well after 10:00 PM – so they tend to make full use of the daylight.

We arrive at the apartment and spend just a few moments waiting for Vaidas to arrive, newly cut hair and motorcycle in shape and ready for vacation. He wants to take us to the center of Europe – Europas Centras – where it has been determined that this is the exact center of Europe. There are large monument was erected and dedicated last year. The monument itself is awesome. Standing well over several stories high – it is a white, granite pillar with a gold crown of stars to represent the European Union. People leave coins in the center of the large compass that I laid out with interlocking brick before the monument in exchange for wishes of good luck. We leave our own coins and take a few pictures.

From the Center of Europe we head to the Acropolis – a large mega mall located just outside of town. With the weather a bit on the cool side for Lisa – we are on the hunt for a light jacket or blazer. The mall itself is as big as Gurnee Mills or the Mall of America in Minnesota. Every imaginable store and then some can be found here. It is filled with younger folks and young families – sale signs scream out from the windows and colors galore color the clothing and shoes. While the girls go in and out of shops looking for the perfect blazer – stylish yet inexpensive – we, THE MEN, sit out on a bench and people – well OK, girl watch. America has played a huge influence on the dress of the younger generation here – or at least American videos. Most of the kids dress like Paris Hilton, Brittany Spears or Jessica Simpson – their bellies exposed with their pants well below their navels. I know I may sound like an old man now – but I have a twelve year old daughter who will soon reach this stage. Oy Vay!!!

Having located the perfect choice, a green, corduroy blazer that was cheaper than anything like we could get in America – we wander the mall just a little longer picking up this and that. We offer to take our very generous hosts to dinner but they refuse as Rasa has meat defrosting for us back at home. Our shopping complete we head back to the apartment – it is nearing 10:00 PM at this point. Rasa and Vaidas are so used to being night-owls, something I once prided myself on – but now find myself searching for sleep somewhere between Seinfeld and Frasier!

Vaidas pulls up to the front of the apartment to let us out while he runs to the market and parks the car. In the bigger city like Vilnius there are some who park their cars in private protected lots. While it is not usual to hear about a stolen vehicle, it is more common to hear of parts stolen off of vehicles! At the market we pick up some noodles and I buy some beer for us to try, a lime spritzer type drink for Lisa and Rasa and some ice-cream for dessert – when in Rome!!

As it was the night before – dinner was spectacular! Rasa has learned well from her mother and Aunt! This time – our bellies full and our heads slightly a buzz – we fall asleep almost as soon as our heads hit the pillows.

In the morning – as we prepare for our trip to the country, we have a very hearty breakfast of noodles and yogurt!

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