THE VOICE OF INTERNATIONAL LITHUANIA
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Some of architect Aage Myhre’s projects in Lithuania over the last 20 years.
Aage Myhre, 60, is the Norwegian architect, journalist, publisher whose community building skills have made him a small expat phenomenon in Vilnius. He is about to return to his home country after twenty two years in Vilnius, taking along his Lithuanian spouse and two daughters, but leaving his other object of admiration, Vilnius' Old Town, behind.
news2biz met Aage to ask him to reflect on his Lithuanian stay that lasted much long than he expected.
How did your Lithuanian story begin?
I used to have my architect's office in Oslo that I shared with 15 other local entrepreneurs, lawyers, politicians and the like. One day in 1990, a ponytailed young man comes in, says he's an advisor to the then president Vytautas Landsbergis of the country that we'd hardly heard about, Lithuania. He'd been told – to our surprise – that we are a group of leading lobbyists in Norway, and that Landsbergis' wants Norway to be the country of his first official visit to the West, so he needs our help in arranging – but he has no money.
Three of us in Oslo agreed to help, and with the support of Statoil, other big companies and the Oslo Municipality we managed to arrange a successful visit for Landsbergis' a couple of months later. During his visit, Landsbergis invited us to Lithuania and we went there in November 1990. Our task was to negotiate and arrange the installation of the Norwegian satellite telephone system at the Lithuanian Parliament. At the same time I was helping Statoil to get acquainted with the Lithuanian and the Baltic market.
During his first visit to Lithuania, in November 1990, Aage took this picture at Rotušes aikštė (Town Hall Square) in Vilnius. This was probably the very last picture ever made of the statue of Vincas Mickevičius-Kapsukas.
Next morning the statue had been knocked down by local activists...
19 January 1991: Aage with President Vytautas Landsbergis in the
Lithuanian Parliament (Seimas), while the Soviet troops
and tanks continued to surround the building.
During this stay I, being relatively newly divorced, met Egle, my future Lithuanian wife. That was not all – I also fell in love with Vilnius' Old Town. As an architect, I saw the beauty of the place where others saw buildings falling apart, and decided that that was my chance to help bring the best out of it.
I got into renovation projects right away, and some of the earliest Old Town building renovation projects are mine. There were no good-quality building materials at that time in Lithuania, so I had to import windows, doors, paints etc, and for a couple of years I think I was a leading importer of Norwegian products to Lithuania.
New projects followed and eventually I had too much interesting work on my hands to return home, so I started my architect's business in Vilnius with my new father-in-law.
Aage met his coming wife Eglė already during his first visit to Lithuania,
in 1990. In 1992 they married in the St. Peter & Paul Cathedral in Vilnius.
Why have you decided to leave?
There are a number of reasons. I've been investing in Lithuanian real estate, with own money too. The crisis of 2008-2010 hit me really hard, while today there is so little happening in the local property development market – it's not interesting enough for me anymore.
Another reason is family. I have three grown-up children in Norway and two daughters here. I would like to unite them and have my big family around me as much as I can.
The third reason is my Lithuanian children. As children, they have dual Lithuanian and Norwegian citizenship now but Norway only allows one for adults; to qualify for that you need to have spent certain time in Norway. The social safety system in Norway is probably the best in the world, and I want my kids to enjoy it. Then there's education – Lithuanian high schools are good, but university education is generally not up to standard yet.
What is your take on modern Lithuanian architecture?
I'm a classic style architect, and few of modern buildings in Lithuania have impressed me. Local architects or property owners seem to be more interested in building monuments to themselves, to the point of looking funny.
For instance, Vilnius' biggest new commercial development around the Europa office tower and shopping centre looks so messy to me. One particular area looks like a stone desert, there's nothing there that makes you want be there. The neighbouring Konstitucijos Avenue is one big transport artery that completely blocks the Old Town on the other side of the Neris River from the new central business district. I think placing it underground and creating a green oasis wouldn't have cost much more while creating a much friendlier place.
I believe in holistic architecture – how buildings, the surrounding area and people interact with each other is as important as designing an interesting building. I like to compare modern Lithuanian architecture to a casino – you throw the dice and get an assortment of numbers-buildings, you have no control over them and therefore urban planning suffers from that. The more classic style architecture I compare to chess – every move has intelligent consequences to the game.
How has it been for you, a foreigner, to run a small business here?
It's been different from Norway, yes, and there have been many challenges. Many foreigners who come here start complaining, especially about corruption. Of course, corruption exists here but personally I have never paid a single Litas in bribes to any local politician or bureaucrat during my projects. If you behave like a normal person with a certain degree of politeness, you don’t have to go into these traps. But if you come with your nose poked in the air, you will quickly face problems.
If you have a positive attitude, Lithuania is a fantastic place to be and do business, especially now with the country's low taxes – you don't even have to do business here, only have your base and do business wherever you like.
The Vilnius International Club that you are the founder of, the VilNews English-language online magazine about Lithuania – they seem to be more about history and for older Lithuanians living abroad rather than about current affairs and for young people.
It's just like human being – they have various interests, and so we at VIC and VilNews try to offer a mix of everything – history, politics, culture, business. I admit, VIC was not as active when I was deeply involved in launching VilNews as a newsletter for VIC but now it's again a vibrant community. As the basis for VIC activity, I've been using borrowed slogans from two well-known brands, Nokia's Connecting People and Nike's Just Do It.
VIC members break down 50/50 between Lithuanians interested in foreign affairs and the local expat community. I believe VIC today is the best forum for any kind of local-foreign discussion – it’s not just a chamber of commerce, it's not only a culture institute.
And we are certainly going to have more young faces at VIC and VilNews, it just takes time for me to walk them through.
In Norway, Lithuanians last year became the second biggest immigrant community. How do you feel about it?
What I don't like about Norwegian authorities is that they are discussing only what advantages (low-cost skilled labour) or disadvantages (crime) the Lithuanian immigrants create for Norway. I never heard somebody say, 'This is so bad for Lithuania that we take their best brains'. If this issue was discussed from both sides early on, the authorities could have become more focused on it and could probably come up with some solutions.
Obviously, many Lithuanians wouldn't have left their country if it wasn't for the Andrius Kubilius' Conservative government's austerity policy that started in 2008. It was like putting brakes on in a car that was already standing still. I personally urged Kubilius to write to Scandinavian prime ministers to seek some kind of assistance. For instance, to a country like Norway to support Lithuania would have cost very little. Later I met Norway's Conservative Party leader Erna Solberg and asked if Kubilius ever asked for help and support to deal with the crisis or the energy prices pushed up by Russia. She said, no, never.
In general, I believe Lithuania and the Baltics should seek closer cooperation with Norway and Scandinavia. The EU is fine but it is such big and unwieldy machinery. Scandinavia owes you so much because it pretended not to notice that Lithuania's anti-Soviet resistance, the bloodiest post-war conflict in Europe, was taking place 60 years ago at their very doorsteps.
ANDRIUS KUBILIUS ERNA SOLBERG
Aage personally urged Prime Minister Kubilius to write to Scandinavian prime ministers to seek some kind of assistance when the crisis hit in 2008. Later Aage met Norway's Conservative Party leader Erna Solberg
and asked if Kubilius ever asked for help and support to deal with the crisis
or the energy prices pushed up by Russia. She said, no, never.
We have talked to
Aage Myhre email@example.com
Tel +370 699 33 222 (mobile)
Vilnius International Club (VIC) elected new board in a member meeting a few days ago. Andrius Koncius is new chairman, Amelija Rudenko is new vice chairman, and Rugile Sablinskaite is new director and executive director of the club. VIC is now in its thirteenth year as an active, dynamic meeting place and discussion forum for Lithuania's international community.
During a trip to Lithuania a few years ago, Boris went to the North Lithuanian city of Siauliai to see his grandmother’s sister before she died. At 97 she was the oldest surviving member of his family.
By Boris Vytautas Bakunas
I want to tell you a true story. During a trip to Lithuania a few years ago, I drove to the city of Siauliai to see my grandmother’s sister before she died. At 97 she was the oldest surviving member of my family.
My reason for visiting her was not only selfish, but it was based on an illusion. By meeting her, I believed that I could reconnect in some mysterious way with my grandmother whom I had loved very much. My motive was selfish because I visited the old woman so I could feel good. I did it for me, not for her.
I didn’t really expect any reaction greater than customary courtesy and perhaps even mild interest. Was I surprised!
When I entered the small cottage where she lived with her daughter and her son-in-law, I saw a table decked with delicacies, juice, brandy, and beer. A bright red candle had been lit in my honor. The room was so small that we had to huddle closely together around the table. My great aunt and my cousin sat beside me.
I quickly sensed that age had taken a toll on her faculties. “How nice it is to see you again,” she kept saying over and over as if I had just walked through the door.
As I looked at her worn, wrinkled face, battered by years of hard living, I saw a gleam in her eyes that beckoned back to the beautiful young girl she had once been. Her eyes shone like drops of morning dew after a cold night. All the while I was there, she kept looking gently at my face. Her soft sliver of a smile threw gentleness and love my way. I thought of an aged Mona Lisa.
After my cousin and her husband went into the garden, my cousin asked, “Do you know why my mother kept staring at you like that?”
“No, tell me,” I said.
“She thinks that you are her son, and you’ve just returned home from a trip.”
Her son had died years ago.
Was I disappointed? Did I feel bad that I had come too late for my great aunt to recognize me, or even remember that I existed?
Not at all! Instead my heart surged with amazement at this mysterious life we lead. I had made this journey out of selfishness – to satisfy my own desire. I wanted this meeting for myself, not for her.
But my selfishness, born out of the illusion that I could once again feel the glow of my grandmother’s love, had created joy in the heart of another human being, a joy also born out of the illusion that I was her long lost son.
I did see my grandmother’s love once again. I saw it in her aged sister’s eyes. And she saw her son.
Even out of illusion and selfishness good can come. What a mysterious existence we live!
Read below her story about Kaunas.
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Son of a Lithuanian coal miner from Pennsylvania
By: Carol A. Luschas, Kutztown, Pennsylvania
Lithuania is a remarkable country with a fascinating history! It is located in the geographical center of Europe. One can discover buildings from the Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, and Art Nouveau periods. There are unique museums, enchanting castles, specialty shops, quality restaurants, and affordable accommodations. The Lithuanian landscape is dotted with picturesque lakes, small rolling hills, and thick lush forests.
I decided to embark on a trip to Lithuania to visit my boyfriend, Mindaugas, and his mother, Irena. I spent the majority of my time in Kaunas, the second largest city in Lithuania. Senamiestas or the "Old Town" is small but cozy. Tourists can enjoy strolling clean, peaceful medieval cobblestone streets, while admiring beautiful buildings. Vilnius Street (Vilniaus Gatve) is the most popular street in the Old Town. It is filled with chic restaurants, cafes, art galleries and souvenir shops. I really enjoyed shopping and eating in the "Old Town!" The "Town Square" is the most picturesque area! During the spring and summer months wedding parties can be spotted outside the town hall. It is the BEST place in the "Old Town" for a Kodak moment!
The Kaunas Castle is the 13th century building, built by Kestutis to defend the road to Trakai. Today this small castle has been renovated and modernized. Inside the castle art exhibits can be seen. There is also a lovely bridge over the former moat. One will enjoy taking pictures of the beautiful and historic landmark. It is a very lovely spot
There are a countless number of stunning Churches in Kaunas. Christ's Resurrection Church is just one of them and is a breathtaking white beauty! The church was designed during Lithuania's independence when Kaunas was the capital. After the Soviets took control of the country the unfinished church was converted into a radio factory. It was later completed after independence. Great panoramic views of the city can be seen! Pazaislis Monastery Complex is the “Baroque Masterpiece of Kaunas.” It is a functioning monastery occupied by the Sisters of St. Casimir. It boarders the western tip of the Kaunas Sea or Kauno Marios. The interior of the church is jaw dropping, a true wonder of the world! There is a lovely new museum which traces the history of the church and the origin of the Sisters of St. Casimir and its founder, Mother Maria Kaupas.
Laisves Aleja is a lovely street in the “New Town” with cafes/restaurants and shops. I like the fact that is closed to traffic and can be enjoyed by foot. The street is lined with trees making it very green and beautiful during the spring and summer months. It needs some care and renovation, but it is still very nice!
You will never get hungry in Kaunas! Hundreds of cafes, restaurants and bars will be able to satisfy your hunger. Visitors can feast upon Lithuanian, Italian, French, German Chinese, and Japanese cuisine. The prices are pretty cheap compared to western and American cities. You will “eat like a king and pay like a pauper.” Berneliu Uzeiga is located in the cozy "Old Town" of Kaunas. Waiters and waitresses are dressed in beautiful traditional Lithuanian costumes. I had a mouthwatering chicken with cream sauce and apple pie with vanilla ice cream. I highly recommended this restaurant for a true taste of Lithuanian cuisine.
Shopping is simply a JOY in this city! The OLD TOWN is bursting with art galleries and unique specialty shops with souvenirs HANDMADE in Lithuanian, NOT China. The Kaunas Akropolis Shopping Centre is truly a shopping paradise and the nicest mall I have ever seen! This high-class multiplex has EVERYTHING your heart desires! Clothing, shoes, books, electronics, jewelry, perfume, restaurants, cafes, cinema and even an ice rink! The clothes are extremely fashionable and well designed.
Mega is another topnotch shopping center! It is not as large as the infamous "Akropolis" but it has a lovely array of shops and restaurants to choose from. Bajoru Kiemas and Charlie Pizza are my favorite restaurants in MEGA.
There is also a lovely cinema with comfortable stadium seating. Guests can
purchase sweet or buttered popcorn, beverages, and beer before they enter the
theater. I was surprised because alcoholic beverages are usually NOT allowed in
the US depending on the state you live in. What a pleasant difference!
A gorgeous RIMI supermarket is also housed in the complex. It happened to be one of the nicest food markets I have seen! It would be hard to find anything comparable in the US. The market is clean and well-kept with an abundance of products that are displayed beautifully!
Rumsiskes Open-air museum outside of Kaunas is worth a visit. I was transported back in time and learned how Lithuanians lived in the 19th and 20th century. The museum is divided by the four major ethnic regions in Lithuania: Aukstaitija, Zemaitija. Dzukija, and Suvalkija. It is best to visit in midsummer when the flower gardens are in bloom. During my visit I was able to stop in a shop that sold hand-made pottery. There is also an interesting amber shop as well. I highly suggest a guided tour.
I had an exhilarating time in Lithuania and was pleasantly surprised with Kaunas. It is definitely a city worth seeing! There are plenty, museums, restaurants and cafes to keep everyone on your list happy. Plus the prices are extremely reasonable and less expensive than the capital, Vilnius. The Old Town is cozier and walkable making it easy to explore. I loved strolling from the Old Town to Laisves Alelija. Kaunas is slowly being renovated and is blossoming into a stunning city that is just waiting to be discovered!
ABOVE AND BELOW: Pazaislis Monastery Complex is the “Baroque Masterpiece of Kaunas
Vilnius Street (Vilniaus Gatve) is the most popular street in the Old Town
Berneliu Uzeiga is located in the cozy "Old Town" of Kaunas
Mega is another topnotch shopping center!
The Kaunas Castle is the 13th century building, built by Kestutis to defend the road to Trakai
Rumsiskes Open-air museum outside of Kaunas is worth a visit!
My name is Erica,
VilNews has earlier written about the extraordinary Italian – Lithuanian relationship since 1323, mentioning that Vilnius over centuries was known as ‘The world’s most Italian city outside Italy’ and ‘Europe’s most Baroque city north of the Alps’. Today we tell a contemporary Italian-Lithuanian story, penned by Erica (30) from Bologna in northern Italy. You can also find her story in Italian, at her blog https://mybaltics.wordpress.com/
Erica’s Lithuanian story:
In 2009 I spent the spring time in Lithuania. I fell in love with this country, and here is why.
My name is Erica, I am 30 and I write from Italy. Three years ago I got the chance to be selected within the European program “Marco Polo”  for an internship as translator at Via Hansa Vilnius UAB , a major tour operator.
For my first real European experience I was confronted with a world which I honestly barely knew. So I left with two huge suitcases and a very superficial knowledge of Lithuanian language and culture with 15 fellows flying to Vilnius, which that year happened to be the “European Capital of Culture” , a lucky and appreciated coincidence.
Vilnius through an Italian camera lens
Photo: Erica from Bologna, northern Italy
The first days were not easy, mostly because of the tough climate and the nordic cuisine, but after a while things went better; also because, I suspect, we were getting cool advices both from the tutors of Mec Baltic UAB , where we were attending a course of Lithuanian 101, and from other locals we were getting to know, in my case the girls working at Via Hansa.
Getting to stay in a flat in old town, near the Vilniaus rotušė, meant being able to reach any destination easily, beside having the chance to live in a dreaming contest for any art lover.
So, what can young people do in the Lithuanian capital? Well, we liked gathering in the late afternoon in some park to chat a bit and watch the sunset, or spending the evening in the most popular clubs downtown, the ones usually packed up with young boys and girls, university or Erasmus students. But in my free time I did much, much more.
I felt like I was living in a sort of big village: maybe I did not know the neighbours, but life seemed easier, stressless, I walked a lot, I felt secure even at night alone in the street, I shopped at small shops near home, I took part to the events planned for Vilnius '09, including the amazing “Tebūnie Naktis”. And sometimes, while watching the old ladies selling flowers in the streets, I almost thought I could find my grandmother among them...
I chose to dine sometimes at the canteen near Šv. Onos bažnyčia, to get the chance to taste truly local dishes (more than Šaltibarščiai or cepelinai, today I miss the taste of grietinė, varškė, kibinai), and I am proud I did that.
I am glad I explored so much on my own and taking some time for me every day for things like reading a book while sitting on the bank of the Vilnelė or enjoying a dessert in the cozy atmosphere of a Double Coffee.
So yes, I have fond memories of my staying and often long to go back. I know that for many colleagues of mine it is not the same at all, while others... did go back at some point: Lithuanian girls have charming powers!
My impression is that the Lithuanian people is “young” but painfully aware and proud of its history and independence.
Unlike what happens elsewhere these years, young people in Vilnius find a job early, they start a family quite soon, their children look much more well-mannered than here in Italy, and generally speaking people just look more relaxed.
But these young people too look conscious of what it took to be finally free, and willing not to waste the chance of living in a country which looks forward, but always paying attention to the past and to the traditions.
I felt like I could breath the attachment to their nation, to their flag, to the historic dates everybody knows very well, children included, but always under a modern europeism optic, in a city where skyscrapers and hovels coexist, in a state which tries to invest in tourism, the way to meet the world par excellence.
If I think back to my experience, I can't help noticing some contrasts with the reality I live in.
For example, it is strange for me to realize that in the capital a taxi is such a cheap mean of transportation, and that it is also cheaper when booked by phone; that a SIM for your mobile phone is sold at a laughable price, including traffic; that you can attend the première of a ballet in the most important theater of the city shelling out the sum that you would use in my country to buy, say, a women's weekly magazine. I also noticed that shops do not have those family packs so popular here and that much attention is paid to wastages; water cooler bottles instead than regular ones, and little assortment of throwaway kitchenware. Napkins are also hard to find in restaurants!
I find it funny that practically each city there brews its own beer, and that many can even think that it is normal to put so much garlic in tomato sauce for pizzas!
It was odd to notice that the immigration is barely noticeable as it mainly regards people from close ethnic groups/countries, and that the beggars you might happen to meet are local old people or young drug addicts.
I still don't get how a house might miss curtains and shutters, when in the summer there can be up to 23 hours of daylight.
I found it amazing that the folk groups coming from all the corners of the country for the “Skamba skamba kankliai” looked more interested in watching other groups' shows (although the dialect could be so different that they might barely understand it) then performing, as a mark of the national unity.
I condemn that a programme so impressive, involving and full of events like Vilnius '09 was quickly forgotten and its traces on the web deleted by winding down its official site. This is a lack of respect for memory, at the very least.
I was always surprised by the vivid colors of the sunset and, while thinking it could not possibily get more beautiful than that, by the appearance of one, two, three, several hot air balloons in the sky, so close I could almost touch them, making the view unreal.
More Erica photos:
Text: Aage Myhre
International Lithuania got its “flying start” already in 1323, when Grand Duke Gediminas founded Vilnius as Lithuania’s capital city, and immediately decided to invite merchants, craftsmen, bankers, farmers, and soldiers from all Europe to come to the new capital, guaranteeing all freedom of beliefs and good working conditions. Vilnius became international, though with less of German or Scandinavian influence, as one could expect, rather influenced by Rome – greatly different from the other two Baltic capitals.
VilNews will this autumn and winter publish articles about impacts of foreign nations and cultures here in Lithuania. We also welcome you, dear readers, to share with us information you may have about ‘foreign footprints’ in Lithuania.
Please write us with your ideas and comments!
The illustrations below show some characteristics of the nations we will be writing about, in combination with the Lithuanian flag colours...
The articles marked blue have already been published
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THE LITVAKS (LITHUANIAN JEWS)
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