Saturday, August 24, 2013

A Fulbrighter's Love Affair with Old-Town Vilnius


Another installment today from Dr. Petrie, Associate Professor and English Department Chair at Colorado Christian University, who was a Fulbright grantee to Lithuania in 2006.

Vilnius has long been a cosmopolitan city with many cultures and ethnicities, and the Old-Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Since I was teaching at the University there, it made sense for us to live in the center of Old-Town Vilnius, but our location offered much more than convenience.  The energetic mish-mash of cultures, shops, entertainment, and dining experiences there was unique and unforgettable.  With every day that passed, our street, Totoriu Gatve, named in reference to the fact that it was, long ago, the Tatar quarter of the city (just as Vokieciu Gatve means “German Street” for the same reason) fascinated me more and more. Across the street from our flat was an antique shop, run by an antique lady who lived in the flat above it and featured lace curtains in all her windows, each of a different pattern. 

Directly next to her lies the Transylvania, a pub which advertises +Guinness GB and seemed to be very popular with motorcyclists and British tourists. My husband still claims that you haven't lived until you've seen a tipsy Brit singing Diana Ross's "Stop in the Name of Love" to a passing Taxi in Lithuania. When the Scots were in town for the Lithuania/Scotland football match, we heard a lot of "Auld Lang Syne" coming from there, and our street was flooded by men in kilts. The pub and the antique shop seemed to exist in a semi-armed detente, in which the proprietor of the shop shook her head and clicked her tongue out the window, and the motorcyclists made their bikes backfire in response.


Directly beneath our flat, symbolically enough, was a translation bureau, and further along the street a travel agency, hair and nail salon, juice stop, and Cuban cocktail bar. Yes, Cuban.  All of which, of course, had flats above them, on the second and third floors. Some had lovely wrought iron balconies, and flags flying. I passed a Swedish flag each day walking to our local grocery every day.  Totoriu Gatve also proudly hosts the hottest tattoo parlor and body piercing establishment in Lithuania, according to the guidebooks.
Then there were the ubiquitous stocking shops--there was one on almost every street, it seemed. The Lithuanian ladies have made a virtue of the necessity of dressing for the cold, and there were multiple shops with nothing in the windows but disembodied pairs of legs, displaying every color and texture of tight imaginable: faux-tweed,  green fishnet, orange lace, or a nice purple paisley tight to peek out of your boots. As I wrote in my journal one morning, I watched a woman walk by sporting a pair of pale blue geometrically-patterned legs.  For those whose purse doesn’t run to a high-end shop (or whose nerve doesn’t extend to purple paisley legs), there was a great used-clothing store a few blocks away where I could meet the practical needs of two kids who would tear the knees out of their pants jumping around the cobblestoned streets or riding scooters around the Cathedral Square, as well as a husband who really didn’t expect it could get that cold.
The variety of available restaurants was unexpected as well. My children’s favorite Old-Town restaurant served traditional Lithuanian food, but I think it was the live animals that won them over as much as the bread. Waiting for dinner, they could go see the snakes (in a huge terrarium), the Polish chickens, the fish, some sort of a shark-looking thing, and statuary that reminded one of the era when children’s stories were written by the Brothers Grimm. 

There were a dozen life-size statues of wolves (with blood dripping from their mouths) in the banquet room, a one-armed gnome, a bunny statue in a giant brick oven (my son just informed me that once there was a penguin in there as well), chicken footprints on the wall leading to the bathrooms, and curious wooden puppets hanging from the real, live tree growing in the center of the place. Perhaps in keeping with the name of our area, my husband found a Turkish place nearby where he made a regular Lavash run each week. He and the Turkish owner soon discovered that they could converse in German, her English and his Lithuanian being equally limited. There’s an interesting story behind that restaurant, as well as all the others, I’ll bet.
But the restaurants, bars, tattoo parlors, and boutiques don’t even begin to cover the many ways to enjoy Old-Town Culture. Most of the beautiful old, restored, or half-restored churches hosted symphonic, choral, or chamber music concerts regularly while we were there.  My husband, walking in the evenings, would hear music in the streets outside the churches and then drop in to at least one performance each week, and I will never forget the beautiful Christmas concert the Lutheran Youth Chorale gave in the Old-Town Lutheran church we attended weekly.  

Then there was the opera and ballet. I know that I will most likely never again live half a dozen streets away from an Opera House, nor will I ever again be able to see an opera or ballet for the price of a movie in America (well, maybe a movie with popcorn). The Lietuvos Nacionalinis Teatras is very active and very well attended by the people here. Lithuanians love music and dance and work very hard to excel at it. The opera was lovely, the ballet classic and so enjoyable that I was tempted to do something I have never done in my life: get autographs. Ok, just kidding. But my level of awe was nearly that high, partially because of the pace and variety of the offerings at the opera house. When I think of the work the artists must have put in to maintain their schedules and execute the choreography night after night, I am still amazed. There were performances of three to five different operas or ballets at the theater each week (which would constitute an entire season’s worth of shows for a single company in America), three weeks a month, and every performance I attended was sold out. I saw many moms on "dates" with their teenage daughters at the ballet, and children all dressed up in their fancy clothes to see Don Quixote. There was one dancer in the chorus of that show (playing a matador and, later, a gypsy) who I am sure was close to 60, still amazingly agile and strong. I wondered if he used to be the male lead when he was younger. I hope he was still dancing for the love of it, and not only for financial reasons. Other dancers looked to be in their 40s (row 7 was my favorite in the theater--you can really see everything), and their dancing didn't show it any more than his did. I saved the best ballet for last during my time in Vilnius: Swan Lake. It was magnificent; you become even more involved when you are seeing a ballet to which you already know all the music by heart. And little Mikki (the Japanese Prima-Ballerina of the company at the time—by the end of my stay I had finally taken the cue of my Lithuanian friends and students and  begun referring to the dancers and opera singers by their first names) was a lovely swan. She was always very birdlike, so the role suited her perfectly. But I think my favorite part was the corps de ballet choral work. The unison was as good as I’ve ever seen: so many dancers in motion, each creating not only an individual but a corporate effect, every step a tiny piece of an exquisite pattern that filled the stage. 


Walking home at night after the ballet, I often did the grocery shopping for the following day—combining the transcendent and the mundane that made the balance of my life in Old Town. Since my family was with me, and we had a miniature European-style fridge in our flat, it took an almost daily trip to the tiny local shop to keep everyone fed. But if it had been just me in living in Old Town Vilnius, I'd probably have blown all the grocery money on stockings, opera, and ballet.