Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Lithuania... Because Most People Don't Know Where It Is

 Unfortunately, my friend Tess was supposed to jump in on the journey after Steven left, but she had some trouble. Chris and I had to find our way to Siauliai (pronounced Shyowl-lay) where we found the one hostel in town. It was a college dorm building from the Soviet years. It looked pretty Soviet. The guidebook said it had been renovated with EU funds, but I felt like I was studying Agricultural Yield Analysis in 1962. That's our room above. Chris said the picture of the birch tree on the wall made him feel like he was right at home. I bet back in the Soviet days a guy would sit in each chair and share the same porn mag as his roommate while they both rubbed one out. Communism is all about sharing.
 Most people, before and after going to Siauliai, asked why we stayed the night. It's a boring place for many, with only one main pedestrian street with restaurants that play Bon Jovi non-stop. Well, I wanted to see the Hill of Crosses, and sometimes it's nice to see what small towns are like. The Hill of Crosses is about 12 km outside of town. We paid a cab driver $28 to drive us there and sit for an hour while we explored the area. The two hills were sacred even in pagan times, when pagans would place crosses there. But then priests came and Christianized the crosses, and Lithuanians continued the practice throughout the Soviet years as a way of protesting the oppression. The Soviets bulldozed the place three times, but the crosses always came back. Now, everybody and their mother leaves a cross. The ground beneath the crosses is just mulch of old crosses.
 I later learned that various regions of Lithuania have craftsmen who carve different styles of Christian statues and shrines and, like in pagan times, place them in the forest where few people will ever find them. The Christ and the little crucifixion chapel behind him are both examples of such work.
 Again, the Christ figure in the middle is yet another style of the craftsmen.
 People seriously pile so many crosses here that I began to just think of it as cross junkyard.
 Another regional style of woodwork.
 This is one of the chapels that they make and place in random, sometimes rarely traveled locations.
 If you forgot your cross, you can buy one.
 This is the college that owned the dorm that we stayed in. Unlike Tallinn, Estonia, the Lithuanians removed the Soviet symbols from the building.
 What they did not remove was the watermelon that some kid left in the dorm fridge back in 1954.
 When we got to Vilnius, the first hostel we checked out had bottle urchins and all sorts of other derelicts lingering around. It was a real shithole. So we headed toward another place closer to the Old Town and got the last two beds. It's a busy town in August but not as busy as Western European cities in August.
 Old Soviet sports stadium.
 I found a statue that I really connected to...
 This is the old brewer genius, Valentas, at Baras Snekutis. For every three beers he poured, he drank one. His beers were tasty and cheap. $2 for a half liter of beer that has recently been highly rated for using strains of yeast unknown in any other region of the world. I must say that whatever the yeast strain is, it gets you drunk and leaves no hangover.
 Lithuanian life...
 Probably the most sinister thing I saw in a museum the whole trip. It is no secret that Lithuanian Auxilliary Police aided the Nazis in killing Lithuanian Jews, but in 1972 a guy bought a home from a man who had helped in the killings. The new home owner found this knife sharpening wheel made from a Jewish person's tomb stone. I later met a Jewish couple that night from Russia who translated it for me. The kid's name was Mordechai, and he was 19 and a gentle soul.
 The last land to be Christianized in Europe was Lithuania, and Baroque churches are all over the city.

 This photo made my day. We were at a museum exhibit about Lithuania partisan fighters who lived in forest bunkers and fought the occupying Nazis and then the Soviets up until the 1950's. This is a photo of two of them celebrating Easter by playing a game we used to play with our dad called "butting eggs." My dad grew up in Baltimore as a poor kid played this game to hustle more eggs from other kids. I did some research and Baltimore adopted this tradition from European immigrants. Minutiae such as this makes traveling so worth it.
 I would have never survived living under the Soviet Regime. If I called something stupid, one of my dick head neighbors would have told on me and I would have ended up being followed and spied on and harassed and denied opportunities in my career. Above is a water torture chamber. The room was filled with water, so one had to stand on the circular platform where, after falling asleep from exhaustion, they'd fall into the water. You could hang onto the bars of the window, but you'd eventually fall asleep and slide into the water.
 We found a street plaza near the KGB museum where the mayor of Vilnius has legalized skateboarding and even modified the ledges so that kids can skate on them. Here is a local with a swellbow, and another boy is popping in.
 This little bastard went for it and pulled it.

 Chris and I didn't want to take our boards home, so we gave our boards to the local kids who needed boards the most. This boy above I named, "Molodoy Chyelovek" which in Russian means, "Young Man." I said, "Hey, Molodoy Chyelovek! Hold up your boards, so I get a picture." He was so pumped. His board and wheels were fucked.
 This kid had cracked his board, so he got mine.
 Later that night this showed up at our dinner table at Baras Snekutis. Lithuanians are keen on boiled pig feet and pig ears.
 On a train to Kaunas we saw these two hoodlums.
 Old Soviet theater now playing uncensored theater.
 This was some St. George and the Dragon shrine I saw in a church in Kaunas. Looked like something done by the craftsmen we learned about.
 Pederasto, he's got some sick style when it comes to graffiti.
 Graffiti in Kaunas...
 Punks Not A Dead

For our last night in Lithuania, we went to a roof top bar on top of an old Soviet shoe factory and washed away the sorrow that all good things must come to an end.

Oh, yeah, one more thing! So the only cool thing that the Grateful Dead has ever done was sponsor the Lithuanian team for the Barcelona Olympics. This is their shirt for the event. I wanted one, but they were $85, and I hate tie-dye and really think the Grateful Dead represent a demographic that would be the first to go to Siberia if I were Joseph Stalin.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Riga, Latvia: Where, If Your Country Is Going To Be Occupied, Nazis Are Better Than Soviets

 We started our first day in Riga with a walk around the city perusing the Art Nouveau or Jugenstils architecture. Some of these are were designed by Mikhail Eisenstein, father of Sergei, the Soviet filmmaker.

 Then we found a fake Mac store... It was the ideal place to buy Mac anything.
 More funny heads and hidden carvings.
 Riga is getting a face lift because next year they are one of the E.U.'s cities of culture.
 Art Nouveau cats.
 Steven sleeps with one eye open.
Central Market, Riga. This is inside of some old Nazi zeppelin warehouses. 

 Some people just set up shop on a stool like magnifying glass man.
 Well, where is it?

 General store.

 Butcher boy.

Huge men load hog carcasses... 
 Rabbit and pigeon can be found in the market.
 When the Soviets annexed Latvia, they imported Russians from all over the country. Here we have a bronze one.

And here we have a drunk one, doing the Russkie Doh See Doh...

And then there was this strange dance competition that kept old mens' attention...

 Menu from a local's cafe.
 I wonder who gave them the idea for this one.
 Monkey-face building.
 This is the Ministry of Science building in Latvia. It's one of the Stalin-era birthday cake buildings.
 Around the Stalin building the area is referred to as little Moscow where many gypsies and Russians live in old decrepit buildings. You can often find houses with only a fireplace for keeping warm but with a cable dish hanging outside of a window. The girl turning the corner in the upper-left was with a friend and they later reappeared and passed us with a bottle and plastic bag in their hand. They were huffing some glue or some paint.
 Soviet cigarette ads. RAI Cigarettes.

 Man leaving market with bags of cherries.
 Latvian landscaping.
 The oak tree has a sacred meaning in these countries.
 Right here is where about 25,000 Jews were marched out of Riga with the expectation of being taken away on a train, but the Nazis had groups of them dig massive pits and just shot them so they'd fall into graves they'd just dug for themselves. Then, the next group would walk up, cover the dead with dirt, be shot and fall in. And so on, and so on. The Latvians do say in their Occupation museum that only Nazi's killed Latvian Jews, and local Latvians helped save a few while others just worried about themselves. But, as we've learned down here in Lithuania, the Latvian auxiliary police definitely helped  them carry out the task.
 Blackhead's House. A 14th century merchant.
 Check out the nose on this cab driver! Amazing! What caused this? I couldn't resist...

Buses out of Riga...

And then we went to Lithuania.