*See you next time, Lithuania!
After more than five years of living, working, and enjoying life in Vilnius, it is time for me to move on. By the time this magazine goes to press, I’ll already be in New Zealand, where I will spend the “summer” coaching a local ski club. I do intend to return next winter to Lithuania to coach the Kalnų Ereliai ski team and, hopefully, to resume writing this column, but for the moment, it’s time for this little lietuvaitė to pack her bags and learn to speak Kiwi.
The countdown to my išleistuves (going away) began on Street Musician Day, always the first Saturday of May, a hugely successful festival organized by the popular singer and actor, Andrius Mamontovas, to encourage and unite us using the universal language of music. Street Musician Day is officially my least favorite day in Vilnius when every corner in the Senamiestis (Old town) has a scruffy teenager banging away on a tambourine. I spent the day in Trakai walking in the forest, eating šašlykai, and cruising around the lake in a purple dolphin pedal boat. I returned in the evening in time to see my favorite Lithuanian band, InCulto, performing around the corner from my apartment. When the short concert was over, it was time for the closing ceremony, a drum circle led by Mamontovas on the steps of Gedimino 9—a beautiful new shopping center on Gedimino prospektas. It was the first really warm evening of the year and the square was packed with people young and old, drumming, dancing, drinking, and in general having a good time.
The second weekend of May brought European Union Days. From the cathedral to Vilniaus gatvė, Gedimino prospektas is lined with booths selling hot and cold dishes theoretically from around the European Union. It was interesting to see that the items available in the Swedish tent so closely resembled the items on sale in the Spanish tent—apparently cepeliniai are popular not just in Lithuania, but all around Europe. Cyprus had the best food offering “Greek” šašlykai served with stuffed grape leaves and grilled peppers. After lunch, we were off to Vingio park for an afternoon of… cricket. Yes, it‘s true. Vilnius was playing Kaunas in one of the biggest games of the season. Unfortunately, the Vilnius team was made up mostly of British ex-pats, while the Kaunas team was stacked with Pakistanis (apparently, they come to Kaunas University to study medicine). Even though our team didn’t win (not that we even understood how a game of cricket is won!), it was a perfect Sunday afternoon to sit in the warm sun drinking cold beer. The beer was definitely Lithuanian.
May also brings the most popular television event in Europe: Eurovision. The 53-year-old song contest is watched in approximately 100 million homes each year. Most people, myself included, show nothing but disdain for the cheesy lyrics and flamboyant costumes, but somehow still find themselves at a Eurovision party, voting slip in hand, asking no one in particular, “Is Azerbaijan even in Europe?”
Most of my family in Lithuania lives in Kaunas, but it still usually takes a special occasion to get me out there. My imminent departure combined with the completion of my cousin’s new apartment in a rural suburb outside of town did the trick. We spent the evening downtown watching the girls on their way to the nightclubs: Kaunas fashion is something that must be witnessed, since I’m sure that no one would believe me when I say that the most conservative outfit we saw that evening was a lime green mini-dress with white ruffles, worn with knee-high white vinyl stiletto boots and a gold jacket. Did I mention she also had on black fishnet tights?
Actually, Kaunietės don’t reserve their “best” outfits just for the nightclubs. We saw plenty of girls in stilettos picking their way across the grass near the castle during Lietuvos Karo Dienos (Lithuanian Army Days). Soldiers from all different periods in history spent the day educating the public on everything from 18th-century weapons to our participation in the war in Afghanistan. I jumped as a group of twelve army, navy, and air force soldiers standing in perfect formation fired their guns in an exhibition just behind me. After several shots, the soldiers marched off the scene as ecstatic children swarmed in to pick up the empty shells. The helicopter with the big black letters reading Lithuanian Air Force impressed me most, but the biggest crowd-pleaser was the half-dozen parachutists who jumped out of a plane circling above, the last with a Lithuanian flag nearly 20-feet-tall hanging from his foot.
Everyone said we were crazy to go to Nida the fourth weekend of May when the temperature wasn’t expected to hit north of 16ºC (60ºF) and rain was forecast from Friday to Monday. But I had only two weeks left, and I hadn’t been to Nida in almost two years. It turned out to be a great weekend to be there; prices were still low and windy weather ensured that any rain clouds would blow over Neringa to the mainland. Vilnius, Kaunas, and even Klaipeda had rain, but we had sunny mild days perfect for cycling and sailing. Riding the bike path to the tiny villages of Pervalka and Preila, we stopped to breathe in deep the dry forest air, and take pictures of two deer that happened across our way. In the evening the wind died down and the clouds gathered threatening rain, but instead offered up a sunset like a sparkling pink sapphire.
It was cooler on Sunday when we left our little cottage and made our way to the harbor for our appointment with Montė, the 45ft sailboat waiting to take us out on the Čiurlonian lagoon. The captain was a strapping man in his fifties, with a thick brown beard and a blue captain’s hat. He gave us red parkas to wear, and after five minutes out on the water, we were glad to have them. Sailing south toward the Russian border, we came within several yards of the bright orange buoys before quickly coming about and heading back north along the dunes. The sails filled with wind and the boat tipped high on its side. The captain encouraged us to climb up to the perch on the bow of the boat, where we sat, feet dangling above the water, hanging on so that we didn’t slide in. The skies were blue as we boarded the ferry back to Klaipeda; we got out of the car to stand in the warm evening sun among the many cyclists and say goodbye to Neringa.
The activities of my last weekend in Vilnius could have filled an entire week. One of the most fun events of the year, Vyno Dienos (Wine Days) kicked off at the Contemporary Art Center. For 40 litai ($15) you can buy an all-day ticket to taste wines from around the world. As Friday drew to a close, it became less like a dealer’s fair, and more like a party with guests and participants relaxing with their favorite bottles on the museum’s rooftop patio.
With rain again threatening to dampen our spirits, I booked a table in the InVino courtyard where friends gathered to tell stories and drink pink champagne long into the night. The horizon was clear as dawn drew near, ensuring that Saturday would be a perfect day to relax in the park or watch the Skamba Skamba Kankliai international folklore festival. Folk groups from around the world come each year to Vilnius to share songs, dances, and unusual instruments with their fellow participants and delighted audiences.
Determined to squeeze as much as I could into my final days, on Sunday I drove to Šiauliai for the first stage of the Lietuvos Dviračių Maratonų Taurė (Lithuanian Bike Marathon Cup). The 32km (20-mile) mountain bike course weaved through dense forest and rich farmland, around crystal clear lakes and over muddy streams. The unusually hot, dry weather made for filthy racers, as we rode long stages through loose sand and dirt. Perhaps the most rewarding part of the day was hanging out near the firemen’s hoses used to wash off the bikes. Refreshed, we relaxed in the shade of the tall pine trees near the kavinė with a large bowl of šaltibarsčiai—the perfect way to end the day.
On the drive back to Vilnius I admired the rolling fields of yellow rapsai, and prepared myself for two more days of packing. After putting more than twenty boxes and bags in storage, I met my friends at my favorite restaurant, Zoe’s Bar & Grill. I was surprised and touched by how many people came to say goodbye to me. Perhaps I realized for the first time just how many close friends I have in Vilnius. Ex-pats, re-pats, travelers, and natives, my life in Lithuania has been filled with unusual people with interesting stories doing incredible things.
The day of my flight brought some of the strangest weather I’ve ever seen. It went from bright sunshine and warm temperatures to freezing rain and hail, several times. My mobile phone was suddenly flooded with messages telling me that Lithuania was crying for me. When I loaded my bags into the car, I saw that the ground was actually covered with snow—another message maybe that I don’t have to go so far away to find winter? I looked out the window at the lush green landscape as the plane took off. I did not say good-bye. I simply said, iki pasimatymo, Lietuva!