Travels With Myself

A Personalized Periodic Update, just for my family and friends, of the Ongoing Adventures of Your Favorite World Traveler

Name:
Location: Budapest, Hungary

After nearly 30 years in the financial industry in the US (mostly California and New Mexico), I decided it was time for my second life. I sold my house, sold my car, sold all my furniture, took a TEFL course and moved to Budapest to teach Business English to the business people of Hungary. Amazing mid-life change! I taught for about eight years, then pretty much retired. Now I travel extensively, and have been to more than 65 countries. I have had six books published, mostly about my travels - see my author's page on amazon.com. I have made friends from all over the world. Becoming an expat is the best move I ever made and I plan to continue my travels indefinitely. Come join me on this blog and enjoy the places I've been and the people I've met, past, present and hopefully in the future.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Looking for My Roots (Part 1)

So – does anyone know where Lithuania is? No, Bruce, not next to China. Sorry, Bill, not one of the Caribbean islands. Right on, Dean – it’s one of the Baltic States, in the north part of Central Europe, sandwiched in between Poland and Latvia. And it was there I set my sights for my next journey, this time with a reason other than just casual tourism. Lithuania is, as far as I have been able to determine, the ancestral home of my paternal grandmother, who was actually born there, and her ancestors, reaching back to at least the mid-18th Century. So, in a very real sense, this was to be a homecoming visit for me.
The country of my grandmother’s birth was never in doubt, but pinning down the city has been somewhat difficult. The Passenger List of the ship on which her family sailed for America in 1892 says they were from Paneveyzs, but more extensive research by second cousins I never knew I had seem to indicate the family was from Vilkija (or Wilkija). My plans were to try and visit the more likely of these small towns, actually barely more than villages, while basing in Vilnius. So, let’s see what happened.
But first – the days in between Macedonia and Lithuania were filled with spring madness in Budapest. During that time I did Verdi’s La Traviata at the opera with friends. It was sung in Italian, but had ‘subtitles’ on a screen over the stage - in Hungarian, of course - so I was unable to understand it in two languages. The Hungarian was so esoteric it was beyond me, although now and then a word or phrase I recognized did appear and, in fact, I was able to translate at the very end, “So, now, you killed your brother,” which brought it all home to me. Operas never have a happy ending.
A monthly meeting of the Irish Hungarian Business Circle, yet another social group to which I don’t belong, but manage to crash whenever they have a good program or free food, held a meeting at Jack Doyle’s Irish Pub, which included a tasting of Doyle’s spring menu items, some really good Irish music and some fun Irish poetry. It was well done, but I’m still searching for a really good Irish storyteller. Maybe one day.
Old buddy Mark Wills was in town from the states and we managed to hit a few bars and scarf down some Jokai bableves, which he had sorely missed. In fact, Mark misses Budapest so much he’s actually starting to make plans to move back here permanently in a year or so. Gotta love this place.
And so --- on to Lithuania.
My research was even more comprehensive for this trip, due to my family history search, but Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, definitely fills the guidebooks and websites as a major party destination; lots of bars and pubs and tourist-friendly restaurants and activities. The city actively caters to stag and hen parties and to all sorts of tourist groups looking for a fun time in the Baltics. I could hardly wait to get to sample some of that interesting-sounding nightlife. And every article I read simply raved about the Lithuanian beer. It promised to be a homecoming in more than one sense of the word.
Once again, no direct flights since our Hungarian national airline went belly-up a few years ago, so this time I connected through Warsaw; all went well and I was deposited at the Vilnius end around 3 PM on Tuesday, May 6. A taxi arranged by the Amberton Hotel picked me up and I checked in around 20 minutes later. The Amberton is rated at four stars and, at first glance, it appeared to live up to its rating. Of course, Murphy was sitting in the lobby, laughing at me hysterically; little did I know. The hotel’s location was pretty near perfect: immediately across from Vilnius’s main square with its bell tower and cathedral, right in the heart of the city. A five-minute walk to the river Neris and 10-15 minutes from the Town Hall Square, surrounded by the major party and restaurant districts. A good start.
I found my large double room and unpacked quickly. As is my standard procedure, I checked everything in the room before going out on my orientation walk; and it was as well I did, as not only did the TV not work, I couldn’t get the in-room safe to work either. The hotel staff tried their best, but they couldn’t fix the problems, so when I returned from my initial jaunt I was switched to another (much smaller) single room. The TV worked this time, but not the safe – again. Plus, the heaters in the main room and bathroom didn’t work. Luckily, I was in a good mood, or I would have had to break someone’s legs. Back to the hotel shortly.
Since it was Tuesday, a work day, I immediately hustled over to the Lithuanian agency responsible for keeping records of families who had immigrated in times past. I was able to get some more information to follow up, and also some information on how to get to the tiny town of Vilkija, to see what I could find there. Before returning to the hotel, I decided it was way past time to try some of that highly-touted Lithuanian beer, so I stopped in at the Cozy Pub and Restaurant and, guided by my lovely young bartendress, chose a Kalnapalis Grand Select beer. Well, it was just wonderful, amber-colored, tasty and bubbly and full of life and joy. I know, but you had to be there. I could get used to Lithuanian beer.
I also stopped at the University Pub across the street for a Svyturys Extra beer and a small snack, after which I returned to the hotel to find nothing in my new room had been fixed. Hmmm. Finally, one of the young men working the Reception Desk looked at my room safe and figured out how to make it work; the problem was that the instruction card accompanying the room safe, in my room and, I presumed, in every other room in the hotel, was incomplete and did not give adequate instructions on how to make the safe(s) work! No wonder guests had so many problems with those darn safes; the instruction card was WRONG! That definitely called for another beer or two, so I hied back to the University Pub and settled in with my beer and mixed meat plate dinner to watch the Eurovision semi-finals. It turned into a pretty good first evening after all. (NB: I noticed a sign in the hotel’s elevator giving the name of the maintenance company that serviced the elevators; it was obviously a German-owned firm, going by the name of Schindler’s Lifts. Gotta love it)
Wednesday morning’s first stop was the Tourist Information Center, where I got some – you guessed it – tourist information. Specifically, music clubs, interesting sights and things to do and also how to take buses from Vilnius to tiny Vilkija. After a snack at a small café near the town hall, I caught the tourist bus for the Grand Tour of Vilnius. I decided not to take the “free” walking tour, as it was cloudy and windy and threatening rain, so I wanted to stay as comfortable as possible. It was, as most of these tours are, pretty good. We stopped a couple of times so we could get out and view things closer up, most notably the Saints Peter and Paul church. After the tour, I found my souvenir t-shirts at the University bookstore (after running the maze in the school’s labyrinthine passages), had some lunch and took a well-deserved nap.
The afternoon was filled with a walk along the river Neris and, due to the nasty weather, an early dinner in the hotel’s restaurant, La Cave, of French onion soup and beef stroganoff. I hit the sack early, to be ready for my even earlier start the following morning. I was going to find the first of my ancestral birthplaces.
And so, on Wednesday, May 8, 2014, I took the first step on a personal pilgrimage to locate the origins of one line of my family tree. A taxi to the main bus station at 6:30 AM where I immediately caught the bus to Kaunas, a medium-sized (for Lithuania, anyway) city about 100 kilometers west of Vilnius. In Kaunas, I had to find another bus – this time a minibus – to take me to Vilkija, but the process was surprisingly easy and quick, and I was on my way again inside ten minutes of my arrival. We cruised along through forested countryside and open grassland and planted fields in the cloudy and grey morning light. Vilkija was only 30 km or so from Kaunas, so I had to be on the lookout for the right stop. I was eagerly searching for a town square or other major landmark when the bus stopped at an almost bare intersection, surrounded by woods and scattered houses and not much else. Several people got off and I asked the driver, “Vilkija?” He nodded his head yes, so I squeezed out of the minibus; it took off and left me pretty much alone in the middle of --- nowhere.
Remember Cary Grant in the movie North by Northwest, when the bus lets him off in the middle of miles and miles of flat land and no houses or buildings in sight? Well, it wasn’t quite that bad, but it was damn close. But, Hey, I’m a college graduate and I’ve been to Australia; how hard could it be to find what I was looking for? Which was a 19th century Jewish cemetery, supposedly located in a nearby forest area. I shouldered my carrying bag and approached a small local pharmacy.
Naturally, very few people over the age of 40 in rural areas speak English, but, by smiling and gesturing and pantomiming dead people and using one of the few Lithuanian words I had learned (Zsido, for Jew) I made myself understood and was given some rather vague directions to go back up the main road I’d come in on and turn right. Hmmm, OK, I can start there. As I started up that empty road, I noticed a bus stop on the opposite side, in which there were a couple of young men. Young people often do have English skills, I had found to my delight, so I tried it out on one of them and, sure enough, his English was good enough to try and help me.
The first thing he told me was that, although he sort of knew how to get to the cemetery, it was hard to explain and I would probably never find it. But he gave it his best shot and, armed with directions like, “Go up some stairs and turn right,” and “then go down and around and left and into the woods,” I trudged off heroically, if not resignedly, to find my heritage.
Well, I walked up and down streets and hills for the next hour, and found nothing. Sweating and panting, I finally stopped a young woman walking down the street who actually spoke English. She got a friend of hers who worked in a nearby store and the friend explained how to get to the cemetery: “See that old unused factory building up there on the right? There is a path next to it. Take that path into the woods and through open spaces, always keeping to the right. When you come to a place where two paths cross, go straight and you will see the cemetery on the left.” OK, I can follow that. I thanked her and took off.
And after only one wrong turn, I found the cemetery. It consisted of headstones and vertical gravestones in the middle of a sort of clearing, surrounded by the woods and forest and with ground cover of greenery about six inches high. A melancholy place, quiet and green and lifeless.
I wandered around for a while, checking out the gravestones, getting my pants wet to my knees from the recent rain and morning dew, taking photos. Naturally, all of the writing was in Yiddish, so I couldn’t read anything. But this was the only cemetery in the area where my ancestors had come from, so the odds were that at least some of them might have been buried there.
I finally had enough of the spooky yet serene place and retraced my path and found the main road and the bus stop. I caught a bus back to Kaunas and then another mini bus to Vilnius, arriving around 1:45 PM. A long, busy morning. I decided to walk back to the hotel from the bus station, checking out some of the other sights along the way, like the Gates of Dawn and the Portobello Pub. Lunch was in order, so I had a burger at the Meat Lovers Pub, which went down just right.
Judging by the many brands of microbrewed/craft beer available, Lithuanians take their beer seriously, so it was off to one of the most popular microbreweries around town that I set my path that evening.
It was the Alus Microbrewery, also called the Prie Katedros, near the hotel, and a special tasting of their three beers brewed on the premises: light, honey and dark, all of which were smooth and perfect. I opted for a pint of the dark beer, which was 5.2% alcohol, with some beer snacks, including fried squid, onion rings, fried cheese and some of those truly astonishing bacon-wrapped-dried-plums I had had lo those many years ago in Belgrade. Maybe I really was Home Again!
The next few days I visited the remaining sights in my guidebook, including:
The KGB Museum of Genocide Victims (like Budapest’s House of Terror);
A trip up to the castle on the funicular railway;
The Portobello English-style pub for some Scottish ale and pint glasses filled to the brim;
A short stop at the Crazy Bull sports bar, only opened for two weeks and pretty much empty except for Yours Truly;
The Republic of Uzupis, a separate artists colony in one bend of the Vilnia river, with its own constitution and diverse way of life, like Montmarte in Paris or Christiania in Copenhagen;
Some nice Indian food at Sue’s Indian restaurant;
An evening watching the Eurovision finals with the Vilnian locals at the Brodevus Music pub;
An anticlimactic stroll through the weekend flea market, which was mostly used womens’ clothing;
A brief walk through the Vilnius ghetto;
And more of that great Lithuanian beer and food.
So it was another fun week-long visit to yet another new city. I was glad of the chance to start seeing some of the ancestral birthplaces (and possible death places). Vilnius is a lively, happy city and I’d welcome the chance to return, for the good-natured people and especially for that great Lithuanian beer. One never knows, do one?