It’s been a while since I updated, I know, I’m bad. That said, not much new has been going on. I have been going to Budapest on a fairly regular basis, both for work and to see friends I’ve made there, and I took an early Christmas trip to Heidelberg to see Claudia and David and even met up with Thom and Jerri, my cousins whom I never saw in the states, but here in Europe, will probably be seeing much more of. In fact, lunch with them was great. Aside from a brief visit in Vegas a few months back, when they came to see me where I was working, this was probably the longest conversation I’d had with them in 10-15 years. It was really nice and I’m looking forward to doing it more!
As for Claudia and David, we had a bunch of fun! We went ice skating and D and I put together C’s new bed. That’s right, AAron, I finally got my CHANCE to teach someone “Righty Tighty, Lefty Loosey” and the kid picked it up pretty good! The hardest part was him wrapping his head around the idea that the nut changed direction when the we were working on the opposite end of the bolt but overall he did a great job!
So now onto Christmas… Rolanda had invited me to spend the holidays with her and her family up in Vilnius, Lithuania back when she was visiting Hungary so naturally, I accepted. It had been two years since I’d been in Vilnius and I remembered it as a great place so going back seemed like a fun idea!
Of course, what fails in the windmills of my mind is that when I was in Vilnius last, it was the beginning of July. The end of December is a VERY different thing and the city is a VERY different place. Just getting there was different. I flew from Budapest to Prague (ahhh… Prague… Hi Jennica!) where our plane was delayed by an hour due to inclimate weather conditions and then the flight from Prague to Vilnius was booked solid (as opposed to the first leg, where I could spread out and relax). That said, the flight was fun and I ended up sitting with two Lithuanian girls and we had a blast, drinking wine making emergency row jokes (we were asked to move to the emergency row when the people originally there decided their small child couldn’t open the door if required).
Once we landed, though, and stepped outside, the primary different between summer and winter presented itself in two main ways – it was dark at 4pm and it was freaking cold! Roo met me at the terminal and we cabbed it back to her place, where I was immediately gifted with cold weather gear including shoes, fur-lined gloves, a russian style hat with ear-flaps and a set of yaktrax! This was good, because we immediately set out on an adventure to the city center to see the sites and meet up with Roo’s friend Julija!
The next day was Christmas Eve, which, in Europe, is when gifts are exchanged and family meals are eaten (it happens on Christmas as well, but they get a good head start on things here). Roo and I headed to the nearby mall so I could do some shopping, eat a traditional Lithuanian lunch and see the tribute to Lithuania’s sole NHL player (it was in a glass case INSIDE the mall). Dinner that night was a multi-course feast with lots of seafood. I also got to meet Ričardas, Roo’s brother, who is a great guy and a science fiction fan!
Christmas Day I was a good jew and we went to the movies. This is was to be the first English film I’d seen in a theatre in four months and I chose Tron. It wasn’t bad… wasn’t great but it looked nice (and we’d watched the original that morning so we had that fresh in our minds – the difference in graphics was astonishing).
Then came Boxing Day! We were up early to catch a cab to take us to the bus station where we were going to sit for four and half hours while driving clear across the country to Palanga, a beautiful little resort town on the Baltic Coast.
A word, now, about bus travel in Eastern European, former Soviet bloc countries… Pee before you get on the bus! The modern looking double decker we were riding in had no modern facilities! Hell, the overhead lights didn’t even work. So naturally, I fell asleep. I slept through the first two hours or so and woke up justin time for a bathroom stop in a tiny little village. I took my 1 lita coin and headed out to the concrete bunker with the big WC painted on it. After walking down two flights of stairs I met a woman straight out of Central Casting who, in exchange for my money, not only allowed me access to the toilets, but even gave me a handful of paper to use while i was in there! I was overwhelmed by the generosity! I shouldn’t have been. The toilets were holes in the ground with foot prints on either side (directions were pretty obvious). Of course, there was no heating – the only relief from the elements was the gray concrete enclosing the room. I left after exposing the barest minimum of my flesh to the cold, kept the paper in my pocket in case I needed it next time, and headed back to the bus.
We finally arrived in Palanga and, after a few missteps, found our hotel. Once we dropped everything off we headed out for a walk. Let me tell you, there is nothing so depressing as a beach town in winter. Especially on the beach itself. Even the boats were out of the water! And it was cold! But we walked along the coast then back to the main tourist road before finding a pizza place to have lunch.
After lunch, a walk through the park and towards the Amber museum kept us occupied until the sun went down, around 5pm. The museum itself was closed, but the building and grounds were beautiful. Evidently, this had, at one time, been a home of one of the richest men in Lithuania and the park was donated to the city after his death.
With the dropping of the sun came a dropping in temperature so we headed back to the hotel for a dinner and night of games on the iPad.
Monday morning, bright and early (well, not that bright since the sun doesn’t come up until around 8:45 and even then it was mostly behind clouds all day) we walked up to the bus station to grab the intercity van to Klaipeda, which, at 150K people, is Lithuania’s third largest city. It’s also a newly discovered cruise ship stop and a university town. We hit the ground running (again, just a phrase, since the snow was thick and any running we did was more like slogging wetly) and found the sculpture garden (home to over 140 pieces of 3D art) on our way to the tourist information office, where we picked up a map listing local attractions. We started off by heading to the harbor where there was a sculpture of a ghost Roo wanted to see. It was very cool. And it was next to an old fashioned swing-away bridge (like a drawbridge only it rotated out of the way instead of lifted – I know because we got to watch them turn the clockwork mechanism – not easy in the -8c weather). Then it was time for lunch or tea or something. We couldn’t go to any museums or other indoor attractions since it was a monday two days after Christmas and EVERYTHING was closed! Even the restaurant we wanted to go to didn’t open until 5pm. So instead, we wandered around until we found a cool little alleyway with a restaurant inside.
I had traditional Lithuanian food (potato dumpling wrapped around a sausage) with a beer. And seriously, what is it about Eastern Europe and jelly? I’m not talking about jam style jelly but food-thickener stuff. Everything here has a jelly glaze, especially desserts. But the potato dumplings looked like a shiny, smoother piece of gefilte fish (and if you don’t know what that is, be thankful!). But anyway, while we ate we again looked over our map to see what we wanted to see. There were a few pieces of public art which looked interesting, like a dragon mounted on a wall explaining the legend of the founding of the village and a marble and bronze cat which, if you rubbed its tail, would bring good luck. Unfortunately, we weren’t sure exactly where we were in town (remember, we had just stumbled across this place to eat).
Now, as most of you know, I have no problems in asking for directions. I’m not macho in that way. There are many battles to be fought, and wasting time looking for something to prove the competency of the male ego is not one of them. So I pulled out the map and stopped the waitress and asked her where we were so we could find what we wanted to see…
Evidently, they hire for looks at this place, not brains, because while both the waitress AND the hostess were very attractive, neither of them could find our location on the map (and YES, it was there – in fact, the statue of neptune outside the alley was actually LISTED on one of the maps). Seriously, they both looked at the map, tried to find the street name (I showed them the main street we had walked down) and in the end, shrugged their pretty shoulders, tossed their blonde and dark hair (respectively) and flounced away to chatter at the bar. And I couldn’t even explain this away with the old ‘well, there must have been a language barrier’ since I had a NATIVE SPEAKER with me – who, by the way, made the same comment I did about brains and beauty.
We finally did find the Dragon, which was cool, and the cat, which took some doing since the map was ‘not to be used for navigation, but for reference only’ (and it was nearly covered in snow) and then decided that since it was getting late and the sun, which had, in fact, peeked out for a little bit, was now retreating again, we should make our way back to the station to get back to Palanga for dinner.
In Palanga we had nice meal at the Steak House, where we couldn’t order burgers since they had run out of buns, and our waiter, who was new, was more attentive than a cat waiting for you to drain the newly opened tin of tuna. On a side note, when the temperature is below -10 outside, ‘dressing for dinner’ takes on a whole new meaning!
Walking back to the hotel, it was a relief to know we weren’t the only temperature impaired people who visited the sunny seaside in the dark of winter. A number of people were strolling about, including families with small children who, instead of being pushed in strollers, were being pulled on sleds.
Tuesday morning saw us checking out and heading back to the park in the daylight. We did a little bit of shopping, some photo safari adventuring and then realized none of that took up nearly as much time as we thought it would and so, when the snow began to really come down, we ended up in a coffee shop next to the bus station waiting for our ride back to Vilnius.
All in all, while it was fun and interesting to see the Baltic coast, I’d suggest waiting for summer — or at least sun — to really make the most of it.