Thursday, September 01, 2005

Wandering Kaunas

August 20th already! We arrived here on August 7th – tired, bleary eyed from the long trip, looking for just a nap and found ourselves here, on the corner waiting for the Microbus to head downtown to wander a bit and close out the whirlwind two weeks.

That always seems to be the way. You close out your first week of a trip and you can’t believe you still have a week left!! Then, almost suddenly, you wake up and it is your final day. The time passes so quickly – we are happy to be going home, we miss the kids and the dogs – but in the same sense, we feel sad that we are going to be leaving. We won’t be back for at least two years – anything can happen in that time. Aunt Fele, Aunt Connie or Aunt Jane could pass away – Rasa and Vaidas could have a child – Saulius will most likely get married – anything could happen and with being several thousand miles away, the best we can do is share the experience via e-mail or Skype. Without a doubt we will miss the family that we have here – we have been gone for nearly three years and they welcomed us back as if we had been gone a few days. It is a wonderful feeling!

Now, with just the three of us, we finally have some time to experience Kaunas on our own – to just wander, enjoy and experience. We take the Microbus to Laisves Alejus (Freedom Avenue), as I said earlier their version of Michigan Ave, our goal is to wander and do some shopping. Our first order of business is to visit the church at the end of the avenue; something we tried to do with Gvidas earlier in the trip but the church was closed. As we walk down the avenue, the sun is warm, the breeze is tepid and the sky is a brilliant blue. The avenue itself is lined with shops of all different flavors – clothing, shoes, coats, restaurants, bars, a casino (casinos have suddenly popped up in this country) and two or three banks. Street vendors dot the sidewalk (no cars are allowed down the avenue) and cobblestone. A row of trees and flowers run down the center of the avenue bordered by park benches on both sides. Halfway down the avenue is a beautiful fountain and statue commemorating the founding of Kaunas. You could not paint a more picturesque portrait!

As we reach the center of the avenue we are greeted with the steady beat of drums and the rhythmic chime of bells. A parade is processing slowly towards – robed, bald figures dance in circles – a group of eight women dance in rhythm leading the group. It seems as if the Hari Krishna’s have arrived in Kaunas! They are all smiles and happiness as they bound through the center of the avenue, bright colored flags held high, flowing robes, rich in greens, yellow and pinks – chanting their message to the small crowd gathered to watch them and take pictures. At one point they pass by a large flock of pigeons that take flight almost immediately in front of them – it would have been an outstanding picture had I had the camera ready! We watch them a minute of two and continue onto the church.

We reach the church, standing at the base of the avenue as a guard would stand before an entranceway. Like most of the churches in Lithuanian it has a tall, white steeple that proclaims the crucifix for all to see atop its brilliant white spire. We climb the dozen or so steps to the entrance – an old woman is there selling rosaries, prayer books and pictures of Pope John Paul II. Once inside we see that the church is in the midst of a renovation and a wedding! We join with the other tourist to sit and watch the wedding taking place. To the left of the main altar is a small altar set into an alcove. In the alcove is a large, white granite statue of the Virgin Mary. She stands tall, hands folded in prayer, looking down on the faithful who kneel before her. Today there are two older women who are kneeling on the marbled floor without the luxury of pads. Flowers and candles surround the statue, left by the faithful as an offer for their prayers.

On the pillars surrounding the center of the church are oil paintings portraying each Station of the Cross. They are both frightening in the detail and beautiful. There is no simple way to describe the anguish you can see in the faces of Jesus and Mary as he is dying on the cross, but the beauty and detail of the portrayal is stunning.

The wedding is beginning to wrap up and the priest – a younger fellow – gives his final blessing. The newly married couple pause, they look at the priest and then look at each other – it is not a long pause, but long enough for the priest to gesture them together and say: “Well, what are you waiting for?” The congregation that is present let out a laugh and applause to the happy couple as the priest exits to the back of the altar.

We exit before the couple and their guests, not wanting to invade their day (but after applauding for them and briefly considering to approach, shake the grooms hand and kiss the bride. Lisa, the smart one of the group today, nixes that idea.).

Back outside in the sun we decide that it is time for lunch and time for us to head over to Viva Kolduni – the original, located right here on the avenue. My mouth is already watering!! Once again – Kolduni is probably the greatest food ever invented. Basically, it is a meat dumpling the size of a silver dollar. The meat inside is generally a combination of ham/beef or lamb. They are boiled until done and served topped with sautéed onion and bacon bits! YUM! At Viva Kolduni you navigate through the steam tables filling your plate with all kinds of tasty treats…from Zepilini to Kolduni to Beet Soup. I fill mine with two different types of Kolduni; first a chicken Kolduni and then Kolduni that has been boiled and then fried – not too fried, just enough to give it a bit of a crunch – that is topped with an extra helping of bacon and sautéed onion. I can feel the grease clogging my arteries as I write this – but it is ooooohhh soooo good!

We eat outside on the patio to enjoy the day and the people walking by – a picture perfect lunch with the absolute best company one can ask for! As usual, lunch is delicious and we are soon on our way. Lisa needs to make a pit stop, so her father and I park ourselves on a park bench to wait. We watch the people pass by and comment on the changes that have occurred over the last dozen years or so. You may recall, this is his eighth trip to Lithuania and the first time was when they were still under Communist rule – so he has seen them go from worse to better to better still. He notes how hard they are trying to be America. From copying American pop star styles, to the movies and TV shows they watch. Soon, I observe, there will be little to distinguish the countries aside from their history. With the Euro looming in the near future though – that may slow progress just a bit. We have a very nice chat – it is relaxing and at the same time stimulating. It is cool to hear the impressions of a person who has traveled back and forth so much and seen first hand the metamorphosis of the country of his birth.

Lisa emerges from the restaurant – ready to begin the walk again. We head back up the avenue our goal – dessert! Lisa’s father had found this little hole in the wall place that served pastries, their specialty (and forgive me I don’t have the correct spelling handy) pun-puk-skies. A deep fried, doughnut dough tasting, very light pastry filled with jelly, in this case apple – so it does feel a bit healthy. Even though our stomachs are full – we pound two each along with a bottle of Coke Light! They are so good it is a true guilty pleasure.

Our sweet tooth satisfied, we head back up the avenue, walking at a slow meandering pace. Up and down the avenue there are musicians who lay various tunes with a bucket or case for money. There is a young man playing a guitar, another on a violin and yet another with an accordion. We happen upon a young girl, about 12 or 13, playing a flute – and not just playing Mary Little Lamb stuff –but Bach and Beethoven and playing it beautifully. We drop $5 LTs into her case and sit to watch. On the bench sits her friend, keeping a watchful eye and humming along. We chat with her while the young lady continues to play and her case continues to fill as every passer-by drops in coins. Soon, she is taking a break and sitting next to us. We discover that she can make almost $80 to $85 LTs in an hour or so of playing! She has paid for her own instrument by now and pays for her own lessons. She needs a new back-pack..she plays on the avenue. She needs some new clothes..she plays on the avenue. I am here to tell you – this little girl has talent and I would not be surprised if one day we find that she is a protégé in the national symphony!

Our show over – we get up and head back up the avenue, ready to head back to the apartment and get ready for dinner at Milda’s. We get to the end of the avenue, flag down the Microbus and find that we are at the wrong place for the route we want. The driver tells us to go to the other side of the avenue a few blocks away. Just in the direction of old town – so we decide we have just enough time for a little more shopping as we have one or two more people to get things for.

Old town is a bit touristier with little shops selling trinkets with the Lithuanian colors and flag plastered across it. We pick up a flag magnet for the fridge and a nice little heart shaped wood jewelry box for Catie Moss, our sweetheart form down the block who has been helping out with Nikki and the dogs. At one point we need to go down a flight of stairs, through a tunnel and back up again to get to the old town section. As we head up the stairs, there is a very old lady heading down, on stair at a time. We go do our shopping – about twenty minutes worth and head back, down the stairs, through the tunnel (which is loaded with street vendors) and back up again, only to pass the old woman as she reaches her final two steps up. Something, it seems, she must do every day.

On the other side we wait for the Microbus – watching for number 30 or 24, for what seems like forever – especially so for Lisa as she needs the bathroom in a desperate way. We post ourselves in opposite corners waiting and watching. I keep forgetting the numbers we are supposed to be looking for and ask often. As I am reminded the last time I ask – the number 30 bus passes by behind me – I say nothing (at least until Lisa and her father reads this! DOH!) and hope that another one comes soon. Thankfully, less than two minutes later, another one does and we are being whisked away home.

We are dropped off a mere two blocks from our apartment –with only an hour or so to spare before heading to Milda’s, we arrange our bags for last minute packing. The winding down of the trip is now a reality!

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