Friday, June 24, 2005

Return to the old country

Oldest church
Originally uploaded by Duchenj.

It's a little like meeting people: it can take two encounters to make the penny drop, a double dose to take in the full measure of somebody special. So it was with Vilnius.

Above, the oldest church in Vilnius, or so it says inside. You can see from this picture the kind of loving care that has been lavished on its restoration. There are around 130 churches in Vilnius and they are all architectural gems (though I can do without the Russian orthodox one that contains a glass casket of three pickled 14th-century saints in white stockings!).

Only one synagogue is left. And it's closed. It appears that the old divide between the mystics and the intellectuals has resurfaced in a rather unexpected way. All very complicated... I hear, however, that there is a long-term project to restore the old Jewish sites of the city and a very long-term hope that perhaps one day the Great Synagogue, destroyed by the Nazis, could be reconstructed. At the moment there is an open basketball court where it once stood.

I'm very, very glad that I went back to Vilnius to re-order my impressions after the vaguely surreal experiences I had there during my first visit last year (see archive for June 04). It was an incredible trip, full of extraordinary music and wonderful people. I met most of my friends from last year and made some new ones too. Tom came with me and was bowled over by the whole experience; we both feel that this place, in one way or another, gets under one's skin. You can't escape the horrors of the past, however much you try to look forward rather than back; but maybe this is why the place has such a sense of soul.

It was once a melting pot; and perhaps it will be again, since during two days we encountered Indian classical music (the incredible Wahajat Khan in collaboration with the Ciurlionis Quartet), a travelling Norwegian choir, a free concert of Lithuanian premieres and Mischa Maisky performing Bruch's Kol Nidrei looking extraordinarily like the Vilna Gaon himself. Whatever the programme notes had managed to dredge up about the lack of Jewishness in this piece of music, I can think of little that would be more moving than listening to it being performed in "Vilne". Several members of the audience around us were in tears too.

The language seems impenetrable at first - it's like nothing you've heard anywhere before (unless you happen to know Latvian). I've managed to remember Labas (hello), Aciu (thank you - sounds like you're sneezing) and I svekata (cheers - memorable not only through quantity of use but because it sounds like "is the cat here?"). As for the food, I'm still not keen on the potato pancakes, but can heartily recommend my favourite soup EVER: Saltibarsciai. Essentially it's cold borscht with hot potatoes. Here's a recipe, which I'll be trying at home shortly...

Vilnius is, in one word, extraordinary. Don't ask how or why, but something tells me that this won't be my last visit.