Thursday, June 13, 2013

Kaunas

This beard is not about riding bikes. I stayed in Kaunas, Lithuania, for about three weeks, and I'll talk about some of the my impressions and shenanigans from that city.

I first started drafting this article over a month ago, when I was still actually in Kaunas. Then I did some more writing a couple weeks ago while I was in Ukraine. Now I'm in Moldova, and damnit, I'm gonna publish it today! Heh.

Let's start with what I wrote while still in the city:
I am still in Kaunas; I think it's been two weeks now. I've struggled with a cold the last week, and in fact my sinuses currently feel like they're trying to explode.  (Maybe this is spring allergies, too? I've never had them, but I've also never done spring in Europe.)
Today is one of the warmest days yet this year. Dozens of beautiful Lithuanians are streaming by on this pedestrian street in old town.  I'm just about ready to ride again, but I still don't mind wiling away time in this town.
Next, here's what I began to wrote while in Ukraine:
I've been in Ukraine two weeks now, but not ten minutes ago I accidentally said "labas" instead of "dobre dayn". In Lithuania, I met a lot of amazing people, did a bunch of super cool things, and generally have a lot of love for the country.
So let's start there!

Fluxus graffiti
Lithuanians will tell you I'm crazy because I like being in their country. Many want to leave. The country is poor, wages suck, crime and suicide rates are high, winters are brutal, and it is not very culturally liberal. But at the same time, many Americans I know would jump for joy at the sight of so many gardens in the cities (let's not even talk about the countryside), the relatively low level of suburban sprawl, the diminished fear of cops, and the cultural knowledge that forests and lakes are for people, not for dangerous animals, weirdo outdoor freaks, and unabombers. Also, to be poor in America means to rely on a system that does not work. To be poor in Lithuania means to grow your own crops. There's despair and frustration on both sides, but they seem to run deeper in the US.

There's also a feeling of possibility that exists throughout eastern Europe. The power structures are not well-established. Community is important, and the exhilaration of independence (Lithuania became indepedent in 1991-2) has not worn off. Yeah, there is corruption and cronyism, and barring global revolution the divide between rich and poor will just continue to grow like it does everywhere. But the powerful people are still treated like small-time crooks, and they don't have the pervasive control exhibited by Western media and multinational behemoths.

What saddens me is that all-pervasive control is coming. I see it in the ubiquity of Coca-Cola and McDonald's. It's in the big loans from the EU, with forests given as collateral. It's in the big fancy cars, even if BMW and Mercedes are seen as redneck cars more than anything (in Estonia, anyway). I just hope they only go kicking and screaming.

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So what am I doing about it? Well, there's this thing called music.

Solo in the Nemunas
In Kaunas, my main contact is fairly involved with the Fluxus Ministry. It's one of those things that would make Americans jealous -- a litigation nightmare of an abandoned shoe factory that houses galleries, studios, a bar, boarded up stairways, and bathrooms with no running water. I arrived just in time for the anniversary of its move from Vilnius, where it was first set up. (It was first organized by the mayor of Vilnius, also known for driving a tank over illegally parked luxury cars.)

Kenny Wolleson's marching band
The anniversary event was a fluxus jazz festival that featured a number of musicians from America collaborating with locals. And lucky me, I got to be one of the 'locals'! I was handed an old, busted-up, duct tape-enhanced museum piece of a trombone (seriously, I just saw a trombone in a museum that looked in better shape) and spent all week as a Real Musician, playing for hours a day in a variety of ensembles.  It wore me out staying energized until 3 in the morning, which did not agreeably complement the cold I was fighting, but what a blast.

I am now at least six weeks ahead of the events I'm writing about, so it's in everyone's best interest if I keep things moving along! So to summarize the rest of my stay, I slowly got better from my cold, had a lot of great conversations, met with new and old Lithuanian (and American!) friends, and watched intently as spring fully unfolded from the slumber of winter.

Finally, I packed up and headed south. I've come 2000km since then, so there is plenty more to talk about! Sooooonnnnnn