Saturday, July 25, 2009

Riga to Vilnius

We didn’t think we’d have much to report in our blog as we spent almost five hours on a bus today. It was a rainy day in Riga and we needed to get our bags across trolley lines and a busy street to get to the bus station. We successfully navigated those obstacles and boarded our bus, a very modern vehicle. It provided comfortable seats, air conditioning and a cappuccino dispenser. The countryside could as easily have been in the Midwest and there was little that made it distinctively Latvian or Lithuanian. It was a little disappointing that there was nothing that marked the entry into Lithuanian and we never knew when that transition had actually taken place.

Upon arriving in Vilnius we looked around for our landlady Gaiva who had e-mailed us that she would be there to meet us at the station. We realized that we did not know what she looked like and we saw no welcoming signs upon our arrival. As we waited we simultaneously commented about the differences in appearance between the Latvians and the Lithuanians. While the Latvians had a rather Nordic appearance with a disproportionate number of slender, long legged blondes, the Lithuanians had darker hair and were often shorter.

When we failed to locate Gaiva, Fran turned to the local policija who loaned us the use of their cell phone to contact her. When we finally met her, we immediately felt comfortable as she was very open and friendly. As she drove us to the apartment, she shared that her husband was a professional artist. They had a summer home and rented out their apartment while they lived in their other home. As we neared the apartment we took a circuitous route through the quaint streets of the old part of Vilnius.

At the apartment we had an opportunity to see a wide variety of her husband’s work. Most paintings were quite large and had some figurative aspects, but also elements that reminded us of Paul Klee. If you want to see examples of Vytenis Lingys’work go to We feel fortunate to be able to live for a month surrounded by his artwork.

The apartment is located on 10 Gaona which is in the area that was once the Jewish ghetto and is named after a famous rabbi of Vilnius. It is located across from the well- known hotel Stikliu and surrounded by open air restaurants and cafes.
Unlike Riga, cars are allowed in the old part of the city. Our apartment is two blocks from the University where we will go for our language classes. The first meeting will be on Sunday, so we will leisurely explore the city tomorrow to get our bearings.

We walked around a bit last evening looking for traces of what used to be here. The Austrian Embassy is down the street in what used to be an old prayer house. There is a plaque that tells the history. There is also a sculpture of the Vilna Gaon, the famous Rabbi for whom our street was named. Aside from that there are few traces of the community that once lived here.

Gaiva showed us several areas throughout the apartment where when they redid the walls, they found layers of what used to be here. Being artists, they left them intact so they appear like paintings on the walls throughout the apartment, ghost-like images of the prior residents. One spot appeared to have some Hebrew lettering. Gaiva noted that there was a lot of blue in the prior wall coverings as the residents had been Jewish and blue was an important color. It is chilling to think that those residents were deported and murdered.

The area now consists of galleries and charming restaurants, all very gentrified. As we walked around last evening we found ourselves wondering about the stories behind each building.

A little history lesson on Vilnius….Once referred to as the Jerusalem of Lithuania, Vilnius was home to 100,000 Jews who made up 45% of the population. There were a total of 240,000 Jews in Lithuania and 90% died in the Holocaust. Today Vilnius is home to 5,000 of the 6,500 Jews remaining in Lithuania. The 105 synagogues that existed prior to WWII have been reduced to one. During the German and Soviet occupations virtually every trace of Jewish life was removed. Blocks were razed and cemetery tombstones were used to pave sidewalks. A sports stadium sits atop what was once a Jewish cemetery.

It is hard to walk these charming streets without thinking about its past inhabitants.

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