Cars are jammed with people from all over the country traveling to participate in the solstice events in Kernavė. Modern traffic to attend pagan rituals. This is the first capital of Lithuania, and each square meter of this ancient city has historical significance. I didn’t notice any tourists from other countries; this is a very Lithuanian festival. We walk down the sidewalk to the church and the main hills where the castles once stood. Alongside, it is like a country market, with vendors selling typical Lithuanian foods and handiworks. It is like a mini-Kaziuko mugė (the huge handicraft market that happens every March). There are cheeses and breads, beers and gira (the drink brewed from black bread). They sell leather goods and knives and ceramic cups, plus there are women weaving wreaths for the visitors to wear on their heads. I learned about Kupolė, who was the pagan goddess of springtime vegetation. We are to find 9 different types of flowers in the fields to bring us good fortune. And if you find a magical blooming fern this night, at midnight, you will be able to speak to animals.
The evening begins with some traditionally dressed women singing the medieval songs. Most families have picnics and their blankets, and the girls have their hair adorned with the flowery-grassy-leafy wreaths. They walk up and down the hills that probably are still full of knightly archeological relics. Throughout the evening, more singing, and then finally as midnight approaches, the bonfires are lit. One main one where Mindaugas’ castle once stood, plus smaller ones on each hill. Another one is fired up later near the river. It finally gets a little dark, and most of the people here will drink and wait until sunrise before departing. The pagan rituals of centuries still survive in this corner of Lithuania.
I have written this before, but each time I come here, there are more and more shopping malls, and new restaurants. The economy seems to be booming despite the decreasing population and low pensions of the elderly. If you get a European salary, and live in this relatively cheap city, you clearly have money to shop. To me it seems that there are more malls than in San Francisco or Stockholm.
But that is the capital city of Vilnius; the countryside seems untouched. The magical forests seem full of unexplored mushrooms and gnomes. The lakes are large and clean, with just a few fishermen on the bridges searching for giant catfish. I took a brief swim in the Asveja lake, the longest in the country. This was after a huge seemingly tropical, but cold, rainstorm drenched me while walking in the forest. When you are wet anyway, might as well swim in the lake. Then the mosquitoes attack, while we look for tiny wild strawberries. There are dilapidated barns and abandoned houses spotting the landscapes. The little village store sure has a lot of alcohol, but not enough farmers populate this country. It really is time for more immigration and less emigration.
My favorite of the few immigrants are at Beardland in Vilnius. I was the first customer there last year, just before my 50th birthday party, so I am welcomed like a returning prince. Now it is a Syrian barber who does my hair, and he is excellent. He wraps my face in warm towels, and uses hot wax to pull out any stray hairs. Of course there is tea, and a somehow more Mediterranean, or Mesopotamian atmosphere here in the old town. The barber tells me about his family still in Damascus, and I once again recognize my incredibly good fortune. These are refugees just like both my parents once were. The Varnelis museum right at the Town Hall square documents the plight of the many Lithuanians, who like my mother were forced out of the country and ended up living in displaced persons camps in Germany for the years following WWII. Now it is time for the Lithuanians to accept the refugees that could contribute to this country in so many new and creative ways.
Then after the pagan rituals the catholic ones started. One priest, Matulionis was being beatified, and is nearly a saint. He died sometime in the 1960’s after being persecuted for many years by the Soviets. Thousands of Catholics streamed into the cathedral square for the ceremonies.
A picnic on the bench with my plaque from last year, at the University Botanical Gardens gives me some type of physical link to the ephemeral spring that embodies Vilnius.