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Užgavėnės in Rumšiškės near Kaunas. Photo: Andrius Aleksandravičius/Nejau.net

Signs of Spring

In the United States, they celebrate the coming of spring by standing around all day waiting for a rodent to stick his head out of the snow. In Lithuania, they burn giant girls made of straw.

At the Ethnographical Museum in Rumšiškės near Kaunas, Užgavėnės (Shrove Tuesday) is celebrated the Sunday before with a very pagan arts and crafts festival, music, and food. It was actually more melancholy than I would have expected—most people spent their time walking around drinking beer—but there were jesters playing accordions.

The park was packed with artisans selling everything from ceramics and iron sculptures to cardboard toys and cotton candy. Baked goods are popular, and everyone had a string of bagel-like rolls hanging around their neck. I particularly liked the people who left bite marks on half-eaten “bagels,” saving the rest for later. We arrived late, and I didn’t get to wear a string of bagels because my cousin couldn’t find the “right ones” to buy. Well, better luck next year. At the end of the day, the festivities closed with the burning of a 30-foot straw statue of Morė, the pagan goddess of winter.

Lithuania doesn’t have Carnivale, but it does have Blynų Dieną—Pancake Day, another version of Shrove Tuesday. I was invited to an American friend’s house whose girlfriend had spent all afternoon making every kind of blynai and lietiniai imaginable. Potato pancakes, pancakes stuffed with meat, deep-fried pancakes, crepes stuffed with apples, and since I brought some Log Cabin I’d been saving for a special occasion, we even made some old-fashioned buttermilk pancakes. After stuffing ourselves with pancakes and beer, having eaten enough carbs to last until Easter, we decided to burn a few calories off with an international and multilingual game of charades. Acting out the titles to American films in Lithuanian was considerably harder than acting out the names of Lithuanian foods in English.

The newest Lithuanian film, Vilniaus Getas, recently opened in theaters. With a local star-studded cast, including actor Vytautas Šapranauskas, it promised to revive the reputation of the Lithuanian film industry. Filmed in English, suggesting the filmmakers’ intention of launching it internationally, it depicts life in the Jewish Ghetto in Vilnius during WWII. The story has both merit and depth, but the screenplay was sadly lacking. Moreover, the accents of the actors made it difficult to understand the dialogue and this Lithuanian-American often found herself reading the subtitles. The movie has potential; it just seems that during filming they called it a day one take too early. It’s a good try though, and if it turns out to be a rainy spring, rent the movie on DVD and spend the afternoon at home with some sugar-covered popcorn and a glass of sparkling cider, Lithuanian style.

It was a beautiful weekend for the Kazuiko Mugė, the centuries-old St. Casimir’s Fair, stretching the length of Gedimino gatvė, around the Cathedral Square, along Serėkiškių parkas all the way to Užupis. The sun was shining, the air was crisp, and Marceliukės Klėtis was serving up hot pork dishes of all descriptions. Nearby, some traditionally dressed men were making big vats of hot beer. (I still have yet to figure out the attraction of hot beer.) I strolled along the stalls with my friend Ethan, an African-American from Louisiana. We stopped for lunch and half-way through our sauerkraut, a group of people sat down at the next table and casually shaved slices of dried flesh off of a pig’s head while gulping down kvass, a thick drink made from old rye bread. Later, Ethan impressed some village craftspeople who were minding some of the booths with his knowledge of Lithuanian, only to fall flat on his backside due to a large swath of ice. His inability to walk on ice, not his skin color, was what really gave him away as a foreigner. In truth, Ethan has lived in Lithuania longer than I have. He’s part of the growing population of foreigners who have, for various reasons, found themselves in Lithuania, and liking it so much, they decide to stay.

Last Friday, my friend Lina suggested we visit Briusly, pronounced “Bruce Lee” like the actor, a hot new restaurant and bar owned by a Filipino photographer who has over 20 years of experience with Newsweek. After all of the wars, the traveling, and the excitement, he decided to settle down in Trakai, with a Lithuanian wife. This is the face of the New Vilnius. While much of the young and educated Lithuanian population is leaving in search of more lucrative opportunities in the UK and the United States, more and more non-Lithuanian twentysomethings are finding out that Vilnius, with its cozy nightlife, expanding business world, and endless supply of beautiful, blond, young women, is a pretty nice place to live. The bar was packed, but in this very cosmopolitan of Eastern European cities, the bartender at Briusly doesn’t know how to make a proper Cosmopolitan.

Little by little the snow is melting and the schoolchildren are being let out to play. As the days grow longer and the weather grows warmer, whether you’re waiting for the groundhog or burning a scarecrow, spring is definitely on its way.

From Lithuanian Heritage March/April 2006

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