Thursday, 11 January 2018

Winter tales from Kaunas

I have a confession to make. For the past six years of my life I was a fugitive. I fled my home country of Lithuania, to hide from an old enemy - the cold weather. I found my solace in Rome, where winter exists more in theory rather than in practice. Mild mediterranean climate keeps away the frost, sun is shining all year round, green parrots are singing outside my window, life is good. And yet, here I was, in the middle of December, on a plane heading north, diving head first into the belly of the beast - Lithuanian winter.
I was looking out a plane window down at the snowy Alps remaining behind, and trying not to think much about the brain freeze I might get when I will step outside. I started daydreaming about all the things I will get to do after getting back to my hometown Kaunas, a city, where medieval spirit is still lingering in the air.

Welcome to my hometown Kaunas

A narrow side street leading up to the Town Hall square.

Tourist office of Kaunas

One thing I remember very well about the winters in Lithuania is that they seem to go on for un unreasonably long time. It reminds me of a dictatorial ruler, unwilling to let go of its throne and holding an icy grip on the country even when it's time for the spring to officially take charge. During Easter, when the most countries celebrate the awakening nature, Lithuania, usually, is still covered with snow. Every February we protest against this unfairness by making a tall and ugly doll, called More, which is the personification of winter, and setting fire to it. While hot flames burn it to the ground people sing 'winter winter go away'. It never really works, winter is not so easily scared, but the event is great fun. 
Nevertheless, the ice does melt, eventually, but the change of seasons is not dictated by a calendar, instead we look up at the sky and wait for a beautiful bird to show up. When the white storks are seen returning to nest, a sigh of relief echoes throughout the land, it is a clear sign that from now on the days will get warmer. Understandably, the White Stork is our National animal and we even have a National Stork Day (Gandrinės) on March 25th. Traditionally, people, especially those living in the countryside, raise the platforms in trees, roofs or water towers, hoping that a family of storks might inhabit it for the summer. 
Lithuanian wisdom says if the stork choses to nest near your home, that is a sign of great luck. Lithuanian wisdom also says things like 'don't push god into a tree' or "spoons after dinner'.
Our language is full of practically untranslatable proverbs and that's a fact, or as lithuanian would say 'fact as a pancake'...

Lithuanian wisdom says pull the fairy-light deer by the antlers
and winter will be shorter (don't quote me on this).

Last thing about the storks, and I will move on I promise, in the lithuanian folklore, these birds are considered to be sacred and were viewed as the messengers of life, bringers of light and warmth. What I find particularly interesting is that the old lithuanians believed the storks to be prophetic animals, who could unveil the secrets of the future to those who closely observe them. Where the stork lands, what material it uses to build the nest, how clean are its feathers - those were the small details which are thought to reveal how the coming year will play out. My favourite one is this - the first stork you will see after the winter will determine how much you will travel. If you see it in flight - prepare for a long journey, or, if its is in the nest - you will stay closer to home. But enough about storks, as beautiful and elegant as they are, and lets get back to the story.

Vilnius Airport, December 15, 2017
As my plane started to descend I was expecting it to dive under a thick blanket of clouds, as it usually happens, when I travel around this time of year, but I was pleasantly surprised when the sky remained cheerfully blue, even when we touched the ground.
The air outside was incredibly fresh and I deeply inhaled to take it all in. There was a slight hint of smoke mixed with other unintelligible, barely noticeable, odours. For me it was exactly how I remembered the smell of winter. My dad picked me up from the airport, and as usual, there was hot tea waiting for me in the car along with some sandwiches, made with delicious, and dearly missed,  lithuanian black bread. Getting a welcome like this is one of the best feelings in the world. There is about one hour drive from the capital Vilnius to Kaunas on the A1 highway which happens to run through scenic countryside. A thin layer of snow was covering hilly fields and forests stretching on both sides, as far as eyes could see. This was the first time I have seen snow in a long time. 
"It is so beautiful here." I told my dad "The snow makes everything look like a fairytale". 
"The sunlight makes all the difference" he responded.  "When I was coming to pick you up it was gloomier. You know, the sun came out just an hour ago". 
"When was the last time  the sun was out?" I asked, afraid to hear the answer. My dad just laughed and shook his head.  He literally couldn't remember. 
I tried not to get alarmed by this information and enjoy the views.

Kaunas Old Town is undeniably charming.
Let me tell you more about the mysterious city nobody seems to have heard of. If you take your map out and find a country in the northern bit of Europe, which looks like a heart placed upside down - that's Lithuania and located at the very centre of this heart there is Kaunas. The city has been around since the medieval times and the Old Town is the place very close to my heart. Here are the coziest cafes, where I used to spend many lazy afternoons with my friends, hiding from the freezing temperatures outside. 
The bohemian spirit is in the air, at every turn you see art galleries and museums, passers-by with the same dreamy look on their faces, carrying canvases or guitar cases under their shoulders, quickly appearing from one narrow street and disappearing into another. The Art School of Antanas Martinaitis, where I painted away the winter blues, is just around the corner. On the western end of the Old Town stretches the serene Santakos park which is framed by two largest rivers in Lithuania, Nemunas and Neris, merging together. There, silently stands the Kaunas Castle, one of the oldest castles in Lithuania.Wrapped in mysterious legends, like the one about the troops of Queen Bona Sforza, with no trace disappearing in the tunnels underneath, it is periodically making the headlines as being haunted. Apparently, it is a unique selling point of this historical monument. 

The Kaunas castle in the middle of the gloomy day.

Kaunas Christmas tree surrounded by giant ice cubes.
Since the beginning of time Vilnius and Kaunas were the fierce rivals, especially when it comes to basketball, our national sport. Lithuanians are never tired of comparing the teams  "Žalgiris" of Kaunas and "Lietuvos Rytas" of Vilnius (cough cough Žalgiris is the better one, obviously).
However, when December comes around there is one question of greater importance - who made the prettier Christmas tree?  
Year after year Kaunas would win the honours, by presenting something artistic and original, but this season the decoration of massive ice cubes weren't understood by the public, and so, Vilnius won, but more on that later.

As you probably understood by now, winters here are dark (and full of terrors, as Melisandre would say), and Kaunas has a way of dealing with it. We use the ultimate weapon - fairy lights. To add to the festive spirit, the bright neon colours illuminate the main buildings, various light sculptures of animals are scattered around the city, and the christmas markets spring up in the squares. 

 My phone stopped working because of the cold and it took me more than five minutes to get this shot. For the entire time my model and best friend Ernesta held the same position, trying to look interested in scented candles. #realfriendship

We have fairy lights and we are not afraid to use them.

Classical music is playing outside the brightly illuminated Kaunas State Musical Theater.  

You can do a lot with a piece of paper,
a pair of scissors and enough patience.
Inspired by all the festive lights outside, I have decided to take a position as the chief of Christmas Decorations Department in my household. And I took the job seriously. I was drawing, cutting, painting, putting up fairy lights and as many candles as I could find. I got so much in my artsy element that no part of my home was safe from my paint brush. Thankfully, I have tolerant parents. Afterall, it was Christmas. 

Christmas Eve in our kitchen