Category Archives: Lithuania

Step Aside, Katniss

SlibinaiWhen the Twin Brothers Rama and I were kids, we used to have an LP recording of some very disturbing Lithuanian folk tales. Not only were they read by a woman who sounded like the evil stepmother herself, but the stories always seemed to involve orphaned children, wolves or dragons, and someone who narrowly missed getting skinned alive.

Many of these tales also featured some variation of a sister with numerous brothers, and the sister was always being abandoned or getting herself into a pickle from which the brothers had to save her. One classic example is the story of “Devyni?brol?,” which literally translates to “Sister of Nine Brothers.”

That’s right, folks. The girl didn’t have a proper name, except in relation to the men in her life.

Anyway, one day Sister of Nine Brothers got married and went to live with her husband. But man, did she miss those brothers, who were probably subsisting on Spaghetti-os straight out of the can and wearing the same pair of pants as the day she had left them. So after obtaining permission from her husband, she rounded up nine skeins of linen from which she planned to make each brother a shirt, baked exactly nine buns, and set off for a visit.

But on the way she was intercepted by a NINE HEADED DRAGON, who upended her carriage and ate her horse and forced her up a tree. Sister of Nine Brothers pelted the nine headed dragon with her skeins of linen and her freshly baked buns, but to no avail. The dragon kept gnawing on the tree trunk and chanting that he was going to kill her.

Specifically, he said, “Devyni?brole! Devyni?brole! Aš tave pjausiu!” (Sister of Nine Brothers! Sister of Nine Brothers! I am going to slaughter you!”)

Helpless and afraid, the sister sent a message to the brothers via a cuckoo bird who happened to be nearby. Unfortunately, the brothers didn’t understand what the bird was trying to tell them even though it delivered some pretty explicit tweets. Each brother in turn told the cuckoo bird to scram, until finally Sister of Nine Bothers removed her wedding ring and sent it along as a last-ditch attempt to get through to them. This third and final time (a charm!) the cuckoo bird also mentioned that the dragon was seriously almost finished chewing through the tree trunk.

Well that got the brothers’ attention. They arrived to save their sister just as the nine-headed dragon was about to pounce.

This story has always stayed with me, and not just because of the terrifying nine-headed dragon. For example, what is up with the number nine? What is the significance of there being a nine-headed dragon to correspond to the nine brothers? Are they supposed to be opposites in the dichotomy of good and evil? Are they one and the same? Or was it simply that feelings were going to be hurt if each brother didn’t have a dragon head of his own to slay?

And how is it that the brothers didn’t “understand” the cuckoo bird’s message until the sister sent the wedding ring? I read one interpretation that suggested it meant the bros weren’t about to save sistah until she renounced the other man in her life and came home to them. (Insert emoticon of choice.)

Anyway, because of my fascination with this particular folk tale, I’ been wanting to do a linocut print depicting the nine-headed dragon scene for a long time, and I finally finished it!

. . . But in my interpretation, Sister of Nine Brothers happens to have exactly nine arrows and a bow with her, and she’s a very good shot.

devyniabrole

(This print is available for purchase here)
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StalinWorld

A friend of mine who was born and raised in communist Lithuania has a trendy tee-shirt with a hammer and sickle on it.

“How can you of all people wear that thing?” I once asked him. But he didn’t see a problem with it.

“Soviet Union is place where I grew up.”

“But what about the atrocities?” I demanded. “What about all the people who were tortured and exiled? And what about the poor Lithuanian children who could not attend Holy Mass?”

“Those things didn’t happen to me,” my friend responded. “I was just regular kid.”

But what about the mystery meat? Or the suppression of your native culture? Or the fact that you weren’t allowed to leave?”

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Just outside the town of Druskininkai in Lithuania, on a pretty plot of fields and forest, is a sculpture park full of old Soviet statues collected after the fall of communism by one Viliumas Malinauskas, a guy who made his fortune in the mushroom canning business. The entrance is lined with a few of the original cattle cars that Stalin used to transport people to exile in Siberia, and when we visit it’s as far as my Uncle R, our host for the day, will accompany us.

vagonai grutas

Uncle R and P-Dawg

“Why do you want to see this place?” he asks me. “It makes me sick.”

My Uncle R was born in Lithuania but spent most of his life in America and returned to his homeland as an adult. He remembers the war “like it was yesterday,” remembers fleeing the approaching front and riding in those cattle cars. He’d have been happy if all the Soviet-era relics had been destroyed, because they represent what invaded his happy childhood and turned the country he remembered with such nostalgia into a totally different place.

But I hadn’t lived through that history, had only learned about it from my grandparents’ generation and the Lithuanian Saturday school I attended as a child. For me, a park full of communist statues was more a novelty than anything else.

lenin grutas

proletariat grutas

gruto parkas grupe

The park’s website states that its aim is “To provide an opportunity for Lithuanian people, visitors coming to our country as well as future generations to see the naked Soviet ideology which suppressed and hurt the spirit of our nation for many decades.” But walking through, it’s not altogether clear whether the place is condemning communism, or gently extolling an era that, some would tell you, wasn’t all that bad.

Many of the statues are enormous and displayed individually in manicured enclaves. There is a room full of Soviet literature and art depicting famous comrades. In the restaurant, you can eat anything from escargot to a Soviet-style meal of borscht and mystery meat. You can buy kitchy souvenirs in the gift shop, wander through a room full of devil sculptures, or take a break as your children amuse themselves on the quaint playground.

Zaidimu Aikste Grutas

And among the larger-than-life statues of Soviet bigwigs, there is a mini zoo where boars and gerbils live side by side.

Boars

Boars

gruto souvenirs

Gerbils. I mean . . . shot glasses with commies on ’em.

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There are people in Lithuania who feel that, on balance, life was better under the Soviets.

“Was not top quality,” explains my aunt Ona’s husband, Kostas, “But least you always have job.”

And if you knew the right people, you could secure a comfortable two bedroom apartment, a decent car, or quality meat and cigarettes from the black market. Now you can buy everything under the sun in Lithuania, but, according to Kostas, despite nascent government assistance programs, there’s no guarantee you won’t die destitute or be able to feed your family from one minute to the next.

“Lithuanians no help each other,” says Kostas. “Plus, everyone leaving to work somewhere else.”

Communism’s ironic legacy is that instead of creating cultures where citizens band together for the good of the whole, it has raised a generation that feels every man must fend for himself. And of course, it must be a difficult transition to go from a place where life was “not top quality” but provided a certain amount of security, to a free and beautiful land of non-guaranteed plenty.

But Kostas is obviously proud of his country, and during our trip he often asks me, “What you think now of our Lithuania? Is very different country from last time you visit? Better, no?”

I tell him “Yes.”

Because it is.

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Yes, Virginia. There is a Spiritual Vortex in Lithuania

At the end of our stay in Vilnius, my aunt Ona’s husband arrived to drive us to our next destination, the spa town of Druskininkai in southern Lithuania. Ona and Kostas don’t even live in Vilnius, but they insisted on chauffeuring us so we wouldn’t have to rent a car.

How generous are the Lithuanians? Very generous.

We were hoping to stop and pick some mushrooms on the way (there is very good ‘shrooming in the area around Druskininkai) but the weather had been dry and there was no fungi in sight. Instead, Kostas asked if we’d like to make a short side trip to a place called “Merkin?s Piramid?” (the Pyramid of Merkin?), which was very close to our final destination.

“A pyramid? There’s a pyramid in Lithuania?” My attention was immediately piqued.

“Not big pyramid, like Egypt. Smoll pyramid,” Kostas explained. “Is spiritual place.”

“Like a church?” I asked.

“Not church, but spiritual energija, yes? Is guy, Paulius, very good guy, he built own two hands this pyramid. God told. Very special energy, people come all over Lithuania for healing.”

“You mean, it’s like a SPIRITUAL VORTEX?”

I have always wanted to visit a spiritual vortex.

“We stop, you see,” Kostas said.

So we turned off the main road and drove down a little towpath through a pine forest to the homestead of a man named Paulius. (A sidenote concerning Lithuanian towpaths: you think there is no way under God’s blue sky that your Audi sedan and the oncoming truck could both make it out of the towpath alive. But, nine times out of ten, you’d be wrong!)

So this guy, Paulius, received a message from heaven as a child telling him that a particular spot on his parents’ property was exceptional, and that he should build a pyramid over it where the special healing energy could be harnessed. It took him years, but he finally built the structure and the dome around it was completed just a few years ago.

merkines piramide

Merkin?s Piramid?

I especially love the juxtaposition of the traditional wooden homestead with the futuristic glass dome. It’s a good metaphor for the state of Lithuania today – a country clinging to its ancient roots while striving to be as modern a contender as possible.

There is no charge to get in (the structure was built with the help of private donations) and the holy well water available inside the dome is free, too.

Which is a good thing, because it was hotter than blazes inside that pyramid.

meditating

Meditating

under the pyramid

Kostas and Some Ladies Under the Pyramid.

So did I feel the energy, you ask?

Well, yes and no. Because it was easily one hundred degrees inside the dome, I found it hard to differentiate between feelings of unity with all of creation and plain old climate induced light-headedness. But there was very peaceful, new age type of music playing and the acoustics inside the dome are phenomenal, which definitely added to the ambiance. I sent up some prayers for all the people who come here to be healed.

Maybe that’s how it works?

Afterwards, I walked a bit around the grounds, which are beautiful, while the children played on one of the wooden play structures ubiquitous to the country of Lithuania (playgrounds are everywhere – it’s great.) I saw Paulius himself working in a field and began to make my way over. After reading the history of the pyramid that’s posted on the grounds, I was still unclear as to how, exactly, he received his mandate and what, exactly, God told him.

I really wanted to know.

I patiently waited to talk to him while a couple of other tourists monopolized his time, but after awhile I got bored just standing there waiting, plus there were a lot of bees who liked my scent in that field. So I left without getting the answer to the meaning of life, which I regret.

merkines kryziai

Crosses Near the Pyramid

These crosses near the pyramid are another example of the mingling of old and new in Lithuania. (Paulius is Catholic, but for some reason the Church has not sanctioned his activities with regards to the Pyramid.)

Whether there’s something going on here or not, it’s definitely a beautiful, serene place to visit.

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This is the seventh (but far from last) post in my series “Tessmans do the Fatherland,” about my family’s recent trip to Lithuania. Here, in chronological order, are the links to the first six posts:
  1. Lithuania, Day One
  2. City Building 101: The Founding of Vilnius (Gediminas Castle)
  3. Lithuanian Vacation: What We Ate
  4. Artists Sleep on Mondays (Užupis)
  5. Blood and Sunshine (The Vilnius TV Tower Memorial Site)
  6. Zip Line Trumps Castle (Trakai Castle and Tony Resort Park)
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Zip Line Trumps Castle

Did you know that bars of silver were used as currency in medieval Europe, and that the value of the bar was determined by the number of notches made in it by a silversmith? And if you took that bar of silver and made a few extra notches in it, it was considered counterfeiting? And if you got caught (because no one can exactly reproduce the mark of a bona fide silversmith), do you know what they’d do to you as punishment?

They would melt that bar of silver and stuff it down your throat.

silver bars

Silver Bars

We learned these interesting facts, and many others, during our tour of Lithuania’s Trakai island castle, which was built in the 14oos by Grand Duke K?stutis. This castle is the real deal, with a moat and turrets and everything, and its surroundings are just as picturesque as depicted in photos and postcards. Including this one which I don’t mind saying I took myself:

trakai boats

Trakai Island Castle, Lithuania

The children had learned all about this storied place in Lithuanian school, and I was anticipating that it would be one of the high points of our trip. After all, what kid doesn’t love a good old fashioned moat and dungeon type situation?

Trapped pat

Trapped

Trapped kids

Also Trapped

And indeed, all four youngsters in our entourage (we went with good friends of ours and their children) were captivated by the castle and its history as told by our charming tour guide.

After eating our fill of “kibinai,” (a type of dumpling introduced to Lithuania by the Karaim tribe of Crimea that came to live in the city of Trakai to serve as bodyguards of Grand Duke Vytautas the Great after he battled Ghengis Khan’s Golden Hoard), we still had a lot of daylight to burn, and decided to check out a nearby “adventure park” recommended by a friend of my friend Rita’s. We knew nothing about the park except that it was supposed to be very pretty and great fun for kids.

The park, as it happened, was called “Tony Resort.” Who is Tony? Is there a significant Italian population in Lithuania? No one knows. But what we do know is that Tony’s Resort, tucked away in a lush pine forest by the town of Anuprišk?s, was a most excellent diversion. The resort boasts a very modern hotel/spa situated next to a placid lake, but its main attractions are obstacle courses and zip lines.

And it was totally legit, too, with instructors and release forms and a safety lesson included in the cost. So what if the instructors split after giving a couple of pointers, and so what if there’s no one around to ensure that kids are properly harnessed? This is Lithuania, not the litigious U.S.!  If you meet your demise because you weren’t using common sense or paying attention, that ain’t none of Lithuania’s bidness.

lady napping at tony resort copy

See the crumpled figure in the bottom left of the above photo? She’s not dead! She’s just resting.

The P-Dawg, his friend Art?ras, and all of the children had hours of fun there. Even the youngest eventually worked up the courage to ride the BIG zip line, losing a shoe in the process but returning with a smile of utter ecstasy on his face. Meanwhile, my friend Rita, her mother and I enjoyed adult beverages in the shade.

intrepid

Intrepid

Jonas Zip Line

Jonas, Hanging on for Dear Life

Jonas declared it “the best day of his life.”

And that’s how Tony the Italian trumped Grand Duke Vytautas the Great.

trakai sulinys

(We came across this villager getting well water on the trip from Trakai Castle to our car. NO ONE HAD EVER WITNESSED such a site, so we all gathered ’round to watch.)

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