Remembrance and Forgetting

Before they were called the U.S. Virgin Islands, the islands of St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John were Danish colonies. Denmark sold them to the U.S. in 1917, after having had possession of them for over 250 years. During their rule, the Danes, like other Europeans, decimated the populations of the Caribbean islands through war, disease and displacement. The Europeans found tropical paradises and turned them into plantations, churning out sugar cane and other crops on an industrial scale.

Like the other islands in the Caribbean, the Virgin Islands had become a part of the Triangular Trade route, that miserable period of human history when European countries sent trinkets, cloth, guns and alcohol to the west coast of Africa, to be traded for human beings, who were sent to the Caribbean to work as slaves, working in the fields to put sugar on European tables. The same trade route brought African people to the future United States, to raise sugar, cotton and tobacco.

1009514mid_360

The Danes were no better and no worse than any other slave masters. The Middle Passage was a crime against humanity, no matter who was in charge. About 120,000 people were brought over in Danish-flagged ships, and that only counts the ones who survived the journey. Once they arrived, the newly enslaved people were treated the same: separation from family and culture, the indignities and confusions of being sold in a market, back-breaking work in abysmal conditions, disease, beatings, every scrap of their humanity ripped away. It’s no wonder their average life span on the plantations was less than 10 years.

Denmark abolished the slave trade in 1792 and emancipated the enslaved people in 1848. They can take some credit for being the first country to abolish kidnapping people to work the plantations, but that’s a small comfort. The final driver for emancipation was a massive revolt on St. Croix. Out of desperation, the Governor General declared all the people emancipated. As in the U.S., emancipation didn’t end the problems, but created a free but desperately poor underclass, a problem that would continue in various forms to the present day.

This year in Copenhagen, Denmark’s Royal Library has an exhibition of the art and photography of the Virgin Islands, starting with the maps and etchings made by the first Europeans. These brought more colonists, who made watercolor paintings of idyllic landscapes, showing beaches covered in white sand, lined by tall mountains. In the 19th century, the first photographs show portraits of smug plantation masters surrounded by potted plants and exhausted servants.

Copenhagen-NationalPhotographyuseum-1510713.jpg

All of this jarringly displaced by hundreds of black and white photographs, taken when the islands were sold to the U.S. and the first travelers arrived with cameras, few preconceptions, and no need to support the current structure of island society. They took pictures of everything they saw: pretty beach scenes, people living in shacks; white people in clean clothes, black people in rags.

Copenhagen-NationalPhotographyuseum-1510715bw.jpg

I’d like to report that the effect was devastating and there was an immediate call for aide to the poverty-stricken people of the new territories, but the fact is that in 1917, there wasn’t a lot of difference between poor blacks in the Virgin Islands and poor blacks in rural parts of the mainland U.S. The fact is that those conditions continued for a depressingly long period of time.

More recently, cheap air fare has helped a rise of tourism that has brought money and some relief to the islands, but no more visibility to the plight of the poor. The imagery from the islands has returned to a high tech version of the idyllic watercolors of the 18th century, only now the beaches are lined with high rise hotels and covered with white people lying in the sun, served by the descendants of the people who were brought there years ago. The conditions of the people have greatly improved, but that brief period of honest imagery isn’t even a memory for most. According to the exhibit, Danish schools teach the stories of the white heroes who freed the slaves, with little mention of what went on before.

That ties in pretty well with the current state of the history discussion going on in the U.S., where our attention is on the images of Confederate generals on pedestals, but we try to cover up the living conditions of real people today. We deny the undercurrent of racism that has always plagued the U.S. – not just in the South, but everywhere; not just in rural conservatives, but people who call themselves urban liberals as well. We all bear a part of this history, and pointing fingers doesn’t even begin to solve problems. We only can only begin by looking at ourselves with honesty, and giving others – all others – the respect they deserve.

Remembrance and Forgetting

Copenhagen – We made it

Flew to Copenhagen from Lithuania early Sunday morning.  (Note to self – don’t ever schedule a 6:30am departure again)   Arrived too early to check into our apartment so we took the short ride into town and stored our luggage at the train station.  Copenhagen (population 600K) is a large city, but very compact so we walked the entire central city to get acquainted with our home for the next 8 days! In our groggy state, we found ourselves unintentionally passing by the train station again and again. We joked that we  were probably being monitored on the security cameras, marked as potential troublemakers.

At 4:00PM sharp we were at the apartment with our luggage, and met the 2 sisters who gave us a map and a great overview of the city.  I fell in love with the dining room immediately!

dining room

After a visit to the grocery store for breakfast supplies and the local wine store, we were ready for the Copenhagen visit to begin.  Sadly, we realized that this was the last 8 days of our European adventure so we decided to focus on the week ahead and not the departure on 8/28.

Copenhagen – We made it

The Baltics – Ühesõnaga

That word in the title is Estonian for “in a nutshell.” Estonians know that it signals a really long explanation is coming.

Clay and I decided that this trip we wanted to go somewhere we had never been before.  We wanted the place(s) to be different from the usual vacation spots we go (& others, too).  Our other criteria included being cooler than Austin, Texas in the summertime (easy one), affordable (to make up for Norway, Finland, and Denmark), and have an interesting history that would expand our knowledge of the world.  The Baltics met all our criteria, so we began the process of learning about traveling there.

baltic capitals

We decided to visit the three Capital cities in the three countries, and perhaps take day trips from there as well.  The three are:   Tallinn, Estonia;  Riga, Latvia; and Vilnius, Lithuania.  Travel between the countries is very easy (via bus!) and affordable (about 10-15 Euros each).  We booked our Airbnb using our criteria which is easy to filter on the Airbnb Web Site:  Our place must have good reviews, be affordable (easy in the Baltics), have a washing machine, be close to public transportation, and a have bedroom that’s separate from the living area.  I read every review before making a decision on where to stay.

I asked an Austin friend who had traveled to the three Baltic countries about her favorite.  She liked all of them, but seemed at a loss to pick her favorite.  Now, I get it.  I struggle with that myself when I was trying to pick “my” favorite.  At the end of this section, I will tell you my favorite and ask Clay to do the same, but it really (of course) does depend on what you like.

Here are the positive and negatives of visiting the three cities in my opinion:

Tallinn:

  • Beautiful old town
  • Affordable
  • Excellent Museums
  • Beautiful Parks and Palaces
  • Good public transportation
  • Incredible Maritime Museum
  • Wonderful food at affordable prices
  • A little too Touristy (cruise ship people make old town hard to navigate)
  • Locals not as friendly as I had expected

Riga:

  • Beautiful Old Town
  • Affordable (slightly more affordable than Tallinn)
  • Public transportation – outstanding!
  • Live music (best of the Baltics!)
  • Outstanding Art Nouveau architecture (wow)
  • Outstanding Auto Museum (see earlier blog)
  • Great restaurants at affordable prices

Vilnius:

  • Beautiful Old Town
  • Incredible number of outstanding churches
  • Extremely affordable (lowest of all 3)
  • Public transportation (good but not outstanding)
  • Outstanding Museum of Genocide Victims (wow!)
  • Good restaurants at extremely affordable prices
  • Not so many tourists! (not a port city)
  • Friendliest People in the Baltics
  • Museums good, but not the quality & number of Tallinn & Riga

Now, I would have to say that all the places were fun and entertaining.  We never left a place that we were happy to be leaving.  I have to say that Riga was my favorite, edging out Vilnius by a very small margin.  Tallinn was great, but just too touristy, but after the cruise ships left, the city became my favorite!

I will let Clay have the last word and get his thoughts on this subject.

I’ll add on to what Maggie said about our favorite cities: Riga was our favorite city as far as things to do: interesting history and art museums, entertaining night life, nice (and affordable) restaurants – it’s all there.

That said, our favorite people were the Lithuanians. Estonians and Latvians are helpful and earnest, but they are very reserved. Out in public, they simply don’t acknowledge a stranger’s presence unless it’s absolutely necessary. Likewise, they don’t make their presence known in public unless there’s a really good reason. Lithuanians are a totally different breed. People would smile back at us when we smiled at them. They would say hello. They seemed to be having more fun than anybody else. Vilnius has a lot of churches, but it’s not big for art and history museums, but the people more than made up for that.

The Baltics – Ühesõnaga

Lighten Up Yourself, Užupis Style*

Lithuania is unique in having increased the penalties for marijuana possession.  Currently, possessing even small amounts, with no intent to distribute, will land you in jail for up to two years – where just a few years ago, the police would have let you off with a beating. In the “Republic Užupis” – the section of Vilnius that’s across the river – they decided to let their feelings be known by having the statue of their guardian angel light up. Slideshow follows:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Thanks to Brendan Harding for keeping us posted on what not to miss – on either side of the river.

∗With apologies to Bob Marley

Lighten Up Yourself, Užupis Style*

The Republic of Užupis

We arrived in Vilnius, Lithuania, but didn’t stay long. Crossing the Vilnele River, we left the capital city and entered the Republic of Užupis, a small but fiercely independent country completely enclosed by Lithuania. It has a population of 7000, of whom 1000 are artists (meaning that the unemployment rate is one out of seven, a distressingly high figure for these times). It has a president, a flag – actually four flags, one for each season, and a patron saint: Frank Zappa.

We knew we were in good hands when we saw Užupis’ guardian angel, ready to sound the alarm if there was anything amiss.

20170814_143558.jpg

Passing down the street, we took the obligatory stop to review the Constitution of Užupis, conveniently posted on the street in 23 languages, including Yiddish, Sanskrit and Hindi. It contains the Užupian motto,  “Don’t Fight, Don’t Win, Don’t Surrender” and a list of 38 unalienable rights and responsibilities. Among these are:

“Everyone has the right to live by the River Vilnele, and the River Vilnele has the right to flow by everyone.”
“Everyone has the right to love.”
“Everyone has the right not to be loved, but not necessarily.”
“A dog has the right to be a dog.”
“Everyone has the right to understand.”
“Everyone has the right to understand nothing.”
“Everyone is responsible for their freedom.”
“No one has the right to make another person guilty.”
“Everyone has the right to be individual.”
“Everyone has the right to have no rights.”
“Everyone has the right to not to be afraid”

Needless to say, Maggie and I fit in right away. We met an Irish writer in a bar (where else?) who told us to not follow the guidebook, but wander around and make some new discoveries. Good advice. So far we’ve discovered a hall of graffiti  art, where to get the best croissants, and two wine stores that have a huge selection of wines that we’ve never heard of. Lots left to discover.

Gotta go – as a payment for his good advice, we promised to leave terrible reviews of the bar on TripAdvisor, so no more tourists will come in.

The Republic of Užupis

Vilnius, Lithuania

Arrival in Vilnius

Well, the bus ride from Riga to Vilnius was amazingly uneventful, given our previous experiences in the Baltics with some dare devil drivers .  It took four hours to make the journey, and the bus had all the modern conveniences including WiFi , and a bus attendant offering food and drinks for sale.  Nice touch for less than €10 each.  Lots cheaper and more convenient than flying.

Vilnius is the Capital of Lithuania and its largest city.  The population is just over 500K, but feels much smaller to me.  We got a cab from the airport to our apartment, and wondered in route how we would like our new place.  It was incredibly inexpensive – about half of the price of the apartments we had in Riga and Tallinn.  Opening the door we saw that the apartment had  hand-made “folk-style” furniture, wooden statuettes, and lovely  bamboo floors, and we instantly felt at home.  Take a look at a few photos of the interior.

 

Our apartment was located in Old Town, right in the middle of Užupis.  Clay is going to write a separate section describing this unique region.   Our apartment is a very quiet place with an inside private courtyard.  Away from the street, it provides us with a cool and quiet place to sleep –  even with all the windows open.  Below are a few photos from the courtyard.  In the first photo, the front door to the stairway leading to our 2nd floor apartment is on the right.  The second photo shows the way we exit the courtyard, via the small gate on the far right.  We do not have a car, nor do we want one.

our court yardgate

Food on our Minds

As soon as we unpacked for our week’s stay in Vilnius we immediately headed to the local grocery store just down the street.  We are getting good at grocery lists for short stays, I might add.  We usually eat out only once per day to try and control food costs so breakfast is almost always at “home”.

Eating out our first night in Vilnius, we decided to go traditional and find a local restaurant which served what was advertised as “traditional” Lithuanian food.  Cepelinai, probably the most traditional of all Lithuanian food, is a potato-based dumpling.  Besides potatoes, locals eat a lot of beets, rye bread, berries, mushrooms, and greens.  One of the most famous restaurants of this type was the Forto dvaras restaurant.  Of course I had to have the potato dumplings (photo on left), while Clay chose the grated potato pancakes with bacon (right) – kind of like his mother used to make, but bacon wasn’t part of her recipe.  Check our main courses out below.

Of course, Clay had to have a little fun with the wild mushroom soup that both of us ordered as a starter.  Clay finished his soup first, and proceeded to eat the bread on the bottom and make a fool of himself, I might add.  (Can’t take him anywhere!)

Wild mushroom soupclay with hole in bread

You probably noticed the stone walls of the restaurant.  We ate in the basement of the building, which was built in the 16th century. With the candles it is a very romantic place to dine (except when Clay ruins the atmosphere with his rye spy glass).  Check out the stone arches throughout the basement.

clay at restaurant

Enough about food, it’s time to hear from Clay and what he thinks of the unique place that we’re staying in.

 

 

 

Vilnius, Lithuania

Sad to Leave Riga

Saturday we will get on a bus from Riga to Vilnius, Lithuania. We’re excited to be off to a new destination, but sad to leave one of our favorite places.

RigaToVilnius

Only two weeks in Riga was not enough.  Ironically, this week we met a fellow American traveler on our day trip to Cesis.  We told him we were going back to Riga, and he said that he and is wife had just come from there.  He told us that we would need only 3-4 days to see everything in Riga.  Boy, was he wrong, but we didn’t say a word.  Some people like to travel at breakneck speeds, and that is not our style at all.  We have seen several museums, but allowed ourselves the luxury of sleeping late, seeing a few movies, walks in the park,  or just hanging out at our local coffee shop. We have time to talk to people, to learn a little bit about what it’s really like to live there. We get the benefit of an education, and hope to provide a counterpoint to the impression that Americans don’t care about the rest of the world.

We stopped by our local coffee shop this morning to let our favorite barista know we would be leaving.  Oddly enough, we both felt a sudden sadness knowing we will probably never be back here.

coffee barista

Favorite things in Riga will give you an idea of the things we did here, and what we liked (and disliked) about being here.  We ranked Riga as in the top cities that we have visited. We highly recommend a visit there, whether you like history, art, good food, outdoor activities of all kinds, or just hanging out. Hope you take us up on it – but for us, it’s time to fly the coop!

Riga-BourseArtMusseum5347_n

Sad to Leave Riga