Remember these girls?
Aiste and Dovile, two of my roommates in Taizé, are from Lithuania. It’s common in the community of Taizé to extend invitations to all your new friends, saying, “Come! Be my guest in my home country.” I suppose sometimes people only half-mean it. But all my Lithuanian friends (there were more than my two roommates) were quite serious about their offers. Back in November, my German Taizé roommate Nina told me that she was planning to visit Lithuania and that I should come along. So I did. What followed was an international Taizé reunion of confusing proportions. At one point I ran into another American (seriously, how does that happen? How many Americans can there be in Vilnius at one time?), and I was trying to explain to her who we were. “Well, I’m from the US, too. But I live in Ukraine right now. She’s German, and she’s Swiss, and we’re visiting our Lithuanian friends we met in France.”
This is the Vilnius Cathedral, though it looks suspiciously neo-Greco to me. For those of you who aren’t even sure where Lithuania is, much less aware that Vilnius is the capital (and this describes me before meeting Lithuanian friends), check out this map.
This bell tower is one of Vilnius’ iconic images. I was mainly interested in whether or not I could climb it. The answer was no.
We climbed up the hill to this castle, which proved no small feat. The sidewalks are slippery in Lithuania, too, and climbing up a slippery slope is a delicate process. But not as tricky as going back down.
This is the view we saw from the top of the tower. It was snowing quite hard that day, which obscured some of the city, but I rather liked the atmosphere it gave. The snow was a great equalizer, blurring the edges, softening the dirt, quieting the noise. I could imagine the city at all stages of its life. And it made me feel just a little bit like we had fallen into a snow globe.
Vilnius is a fascinating city. I felt the depth of its history between every cobblestone, around every winding corner, inside every doorway, behind every painted wall. But the city also feels lived in and used – not like a museum display, as with Prague or Krakow. There are pictures of a church’s youth group next to the crumbling frescos. The city knows how to exist in multiple time periods.
And here I am, bravely facing the snow and wind.
Dovile, Nina, Celine (a Swiss girl who was also at Taizé) and Aiste. If we all look a little soggy in these pictures, it’s because we are. The snow was very wet, soaking our hair compounding the slipperiness problem. But it was such a joy to walk through – and to watch people walk through. Dovile and Aiste seem a part of the city, the landscape; as necessary as a brick road, as natural as a church spire. Maybe it was their jaunty but gentle berets, covered in snow. Or their long, lovely coats. Or the purposeful click of their boots.
We took a shortcut through the woods on our way down one of the hills, but the shortcut turned into a recipe for disaster when we discovered that the very slick and snowy path made an almost vertical descent. If only we’d brought sleds … but after Dovile had a very close encounter with the ground and a tree, we turned back.
Nina enters the Church of Saint Ann. If I had to pick a favorite thing about Vilnius, I would choose the doors. For instance, the composition of this photograph is terrible because Nina is right in the middle and not following the rule of thirds at all, but I couldn’t bring myself to shift the camera one way or another. I wanted to get all of that majestic door into the frame – its sturdy girth, the roundedness higher up, the metal detail, the ring handles, the bricks and the tiles that serve as its frame. It’s the kind of door that shouts, “I have a story!” (But even more insistently it whispers, “And I can’t tell you all of it.)
Anything I said about this courtyard would sound trite or silly. Besides door, my favorite.
Ok, wait. Maybe this wall was my favorite. For several yards, plaques commemorating Lithuanian authors and books have been pressed into the plaster. Some represent a page from a medieval manuscript. Some are cryptic works of art in honor of modern writers. Some are a portrait, and others a book excerpt. The girl in this picture is Ieva, another Lithuanian friend from Taize who had charge of us Sunday. We went to mass with her in an old, somewhat dilapidated church, where the frescoes reached all the way up the vaulted ceilings and the young, joyful choir sang gospel songs.
Half-way through the trip, we took a train to Kaunus to visit our other friend Rasa. The first night we visited the old city center and admired the still-present Christmas display.
The old city by daylight. That day was one of cold, cold sunshine.
A cloister outside of Kaunus. It’s closed to the public on Mondays. So we could only peak in and imagine the paintings inside rumored to be so lovely.
Nina is sending me some pictures soon, and then I will have some more stories mostly relating to food and miracles.