It’s gonna be a hot time in Kaunas this weekend. Two days of fun commence Saturday and on Friday workers were constructing stages and setting up sound systems from Kaunas Castle to the Botanical Garden and even on the banks of the Nemunas River. By late afternoon when we arrived at the Garden, a dozen food vendors were hawking yummy things here and there around the Greenhouse and groups of every age and description crowded the grounds.
The newlyweds who had earlier quit the Church of Vytautus the Great showed up too.
It’s okay that we will miss the excitement. We’re not festival kind of folks but we are glad the weather has turned fine. The drizzle that impeded picture-taking on our first two days ended and blue skies played with pillowy clouds. It is true, though, that sunshine makes everything look better. The baroque tower of the Town Hall gleams and red brick everywhere glows with warmth.
I did not anticipate feeling so much at home as I drive from Ringaudai into Kaunas and back, stop for kava and a pastry, dodge into the Maxima for beer or flowers. I look forward to Duncan’s breathy and exuberant welcome as we return to Nemunas Tour or come down for breakfast. My Dear One has taken to calling him “Duncan Donuts” and I just go with “Mr. Snuffleupagus.” Duncan clearly feels we are part of the family and does not hesitate to steal a sock from the basket as I prepare to hang my just-washed laundry on the line, a sock that was filthy with rich Lithuanian farm dirt by the time I forced it from his bulldog jaws.
The greatest surprise Kaunas offered, though, was a sense of youth and prosperity. Youngsters are everywhere, walking, working, playing. Streets are lined with restaurants and cafés that cater to chattering students, chic women, and business types playing with cell phones and computers. Streets are busy but not jammed with cars and parking is easy while riders jump on and off trolleys and buses that run from the Center into the suburbs.
That the buildings are worn and shabby is evident but not obtrusive. Graffiti is ubiquitous but there may be no modern metropolis outside of Singapore that boasts pristine walls. It is inside the churches that the legacy of almost a half-century of Soviet domination is most inescapable. Churches were closed, locked and left to decay. Soviet disdain and vandalism took their toll. Now, however, restoration efforts are bringing back some of the most sacred spaces and others have been adapted for use by schools, theaters and other organizations.
That funds are short is also obvious. Museums by and large lack the resources to create a sense of vitality in the displays. The Botanical Garden looks like my garden: full of weeds, bare in patches and overgrown elsewhere. (Danute, a former teacher of horticulture, spoke of the financial problems there. I had not realized that the garden is owned and managed by the University in Vilnius.) There is, however, affection for so many of these institutions and I imagine that a visitor in a few years, or ten or twenty, will encounter many and profound changes.
It is another lovely morning. A vegetable omelet, homemade cheese curd and the bread Danute baked yesterday, slivers of Papa’s smoked ham and bowls of peaches and kiwis prepare us for adventures or travails, whatever may come. The green flag with its graphic black-and-white stork, the banner of the Kaunas tourism association, flaps gently. There is the sound of light traffic on the Gelius gatve; before I rose this morning, about six maybe, I heard a distant rooster rousing his hens and probably his neighbors too. It is a gentle atmosphere, unhurried, no sense of the clock ticking although everyone has places to go, tasks to attend to.
And I am a little sad to be leaving.
My ankle is still a bit sore, there is still some swelling, but the twice or thrice daily dabbings with Danute’s elixir of Maria Treben have, I believe, speeded the healing. The house is so quiet now the road noise is almost intrusive. Jurgis and Danute have left for the day, parting with a sprig of purple lilac, the keys to the front door, and firm instructions to return tonight if the next hotel is unsatisfactory, to return any time ever. “Kaunas is the crossroads of Lithuania,” Jurgis says with a smile.
Kaunas feels like the crossroads of my heart.