Expressions of Vilnius


This is the famous image of Trump kissing Putin, “Make Everything Great Again”, by Mindaugas Bonanu. It is plastered on the side of the BBQ restaurant Keulė Rūkė, not far from where I live in Vilnius. The unity of politics and painting exemplifies the cornucopia of artistic expression that is inundating this city. Unlike San Francisco and Stockholm, Vilnius is still affordable to artists, so there are ateliers and galleries along the streets. Especially in the summer, there are concerts and performances nearly every night. The culture night, Kultūros naktis, was last Friday, with hundreds of art exhibits and performances throughout the city, running all night, for free. The warm days are long, and locals and tourists are flooding the outdoor cafes, drinking locally brewed beers, and eating at all the new trendy restaurants. I saw a dance performance from Croatia, a chamber music concert in a dilapidated church, a laser art installation formed in a tube of smoke, a hanging band, and giant white puppets roaming the cathedral square. There were poetry readings and experimental films throughout the old town. I find the artists to be sincere, and lacking cynicism. It seems that they know they are not destined to be famous, but that doesn’t seem to matter. It inspires all of us to be more creative.

This year the Baltic Pride parade was allowed to proceed down the main street, Gedimino Prospektas, for the first time without controversy. It is held in Vilnius every 3rd year, alternating with Tallinn and Riga. There were still some protestors in the cathedral square, but overall, it was a joyous celebration of freedom, albeit still relatively small, with about 1000 participants from the 3 countries. I noticed that there were no drag queens, or Lithuanian politicians, or major floats from leather bars. There was no mention of the Orlando killings, but this is Lithuania, and it was a major statement of freedom for people here. The event seemed spontaneous, with not many observers watching from the sidelines, but everyone just joining in to participate in the parade: again, sincere and heartfelt.

Raivnder at the parade
Raivnder at the parade

Then there is the nature. Labanoras Regional Park is the largest forest in Lithuania. The lakes link together and one can travel between them with canoes. Unlike the USA, where the native people were exterminated, here the forest stories and songs are still alive, passed on through the Lithuanian generations. The people know the mushrooms and medicinal plants. They swim in the chilly lakes and build metal towers to watch the birds and landscapes. They have their summer gardens, and are proud of their forest honey, collected from forest bees. Time runs a little slower here, for now. A late night 10 pm rainbow wraps it all up.

Late night rainbow









Long Stockholm Days

Ravinder at tree outside the Museum of Modern Art.

The sun doesn’t seem to go down. This is Stockholm in June, when the leaves on the trees are bright green, and the people are beginning to plan for their upcoming July holidays. I live here. My bicycle awaits me, pumped and ready to ride me to the movie theater, or to the Chinese store, to buy some bok choy and unsweetened soymilk. Stockholm is somehow not a bike-packed city like Copenhagen, and I don’t understand why not. Maybe it gets too icy here in the winters, but I think it just isn’t part of the culture. But the Swedes did invent the helmet that inflates to protect the skull on impact, like an automobile airbag.

When I first moved here in 1992, nobody spoke Swedish to me. Now, in the shoe stores, in the movie theater, at the colorful subway stations, people would be surprised if I didn’t speak Swedish. That is how much society has changed in the last 24 years. There are still a lot of people with blonde hair, especially in the center of Stockholm, where housing is prohibitively expensive, but now the city is also full of people from all over the world. Immigrants of all types make up this multi-cultural society. Stockholm is no longer the provincial capital of the north. Now there is bok choy and unsweetened soymilk to be had, and plenty of Swedish vegan cookbooks in the bookstores.

This morning I read the news about the heinous shootings in Orlando. I have never been to Florida, so it seems very foreign here from Sweden. It is illegal for a person in Sweden to carry a gun, unless for a specific, legal purpose, such as hunting or at shooting ranges. Here, there is little resistance to change. For example, the new Swedish money: the government says we need new coins and bills, and then suddenly there are new coins and bills. The green, differently sized 200 kronor bill is an entirely new invention. I imagine how long it would take for people to accept a new $200 bill in the USA.   Why is it that Sweden is progressive and that change is accepted as normal? Right now, I am at the university library, doing my writing and reading surrounded by the studious students. Is it the sign of an educated society, where universities are free? Or is it because this is still a small country of just about 10 million people, so change is easier.

Lithuanian Life

This is Ravinder’s farm

The other day, I visited my farm near Višakio Rūda, in the center of Lithuania. The oak tree that my mother and I planted some 20 years ago has grown and is healthy and strong. The lawn was freshly mowed and everything is in top shape, taken care of by the industrious tenant who adds character and artistic touches to what was once a dilapidated hovel. He works at the Ikea furniture factory, and earns too little money for too much work. It is clear that the managers are taking the profits, and the dedicated workers, putting in 12-hour days, with no holidays off, are squeaking by. Scientists have it hard too. Grants are extremely competitive, and PhD researchers don’t make much more than the friendly factory worker. Since independence in 1990 around 825 thousand people or almost one third of the population has left the country. Jobs are lacking, prices are high, and salaries are low. England and Ireland are the favorite EU destinations, but now Lithuanians are living throughout the world.

But those who stay love their country. Patriotism is overflowing like the beer in the many outdoor cafes. On the television, nightly musical programs showcase mediocre rock bands singing their ballades with televised Lithuanian flags behind them. There are certainly the wealthy people, with their expensive Porsches and Mercedes, and then the regular people, who still have the post-Soviet style haircuts and take the rather shabby buses. The forests are green despite the short drought, and nature and space are abundant.

This is not a big tourist year in Vilnius, at least not yet. Some new restaurants have popped up. I am eating beet soups regularly, and of course my favorite black bread, which really is worth a trip. At a Hare Krishna restaurant in Kaunas, I had cepelinai, potato dumplings stuffed with vegetables instead of the traditional meat. Yesterday at one of the Vilnius museums, I saw an art opening featuring the collections of items from Asia of an older man who donated his many souvenirs. Vilnius seems at the same time both cosmopolitan and provincial. It is a capital city, but a distant one.

Flowers are a little withered already at the Botanical garden, but that didn’t stop the many white-gowned weddings from overrunning the park. I saw some few darker skinned kids, and recognized myself in them, as a noticeable oddity in this still quite racially pure society. Now would be a good time to invest in this country, because just as everywhere else, immigrants and diversity will arrive. The economy will expand. For now, it is a pleasure to be in a city that still lacks the homogenous mix of cultures that is now becoming rather commonplace in the more affluent countries. This culture has retained authenticity and identity, but vegetable filled potato dumplings served by blonde sari-wearing waitresses are just the first sign of the changes on the horizon.

View from Pilies gatvė, we live in the most touristic part of town.

Anonymous in Copenhagen

Ravinder at Christiansborg Palace in Copenhagen

Suddenly I am traveling again. Something about entering an airplane and flying around the world gives a sense of freedom and anonymity. When I land in Copenhagen, on the direct flight from San Francisco, I don’t know anyone and the people dissipate into the airport. I had a rather long layover, of 7 hours, so it was the perfect opportunity to re-explore this fun, wonderful city. Since I am traveling alone, I can disappear for a while, offline, for a little excursion.

I have been to Copenhagen many times, so I know how to get to the central station from the airport. I know how to walk to the museum, and then take buses to the less touristic parts of the city. On a warm sunny day, people are out sunning themselves, and going about their day. Millions of people ride bikes in Copenhagen, and there are traffic jams of bikes instead of cars. The buses have a hard time turning right, because of the constant streams of bicycles in the right lanes. These are not the expensive trendy bicycles that people ride in San Francisco. These are normal people riding normal bikes, getting to work, and doing their errands. I hope this is the future of major cities; full of bikes instead of combustion engines.

I stopped at one of my favorite museums, Ny Carlbergs Glyptotek, with its tropical courtyard and paintings of Gaugin and Danish impressionists. It is so close to the central station, and a nice quiet place to breathe after a long flight. Then I got hungry, and I wanted some vegan Ethiopian food, so I took bus 66 to Ma’eb restaurant in a more ethnically diverse neighborhood. I chose this instead of going to Christiania, which in my mind has become mainstream “alternative”.

I love walking around the canals and seeing the boats. I walk by a café called “Slice of San Francisco” run by a San Francisco woman married to a Dane. They sell burritos and sandwiches. Then it is time to go back to the airport, and I get a little nervous because the trains are running late. Now that passports are required to enter Sweden, as a mechanism to stem the immigrants, trains between Denmark and Sweden are delayed. Luckily the security line at the airport is short, and I make it easily for my flight to Vilnius. How refreshing to be in a country where the security lines are short, where trains go right into the terminal, and people happily ride bicycles in the city. This is happy Denmark on a sunny day.

Gedimino Pilis in the morning in Vilnius


The Controversial abandoned Soviet-era Sports Palace sits in the center of the old Jewish cemetery. Now it is used as strange soviet movie set.

Now I am in Vilnius at home. I immediately see friends and family and re-enter my life here. There is work to do, and people to see. This will be another summer of research and travel. I will update the blog regularly.