Monday, July 7, 2008


It's not every day that an American gets to go to Lithuania. As a part of the upgrades done with Project Titan, I had a short trip to Kaunas Lithuania on the way back from Stockholm. The trip was planned rather suddenly; so let me first explain the events that led up to my spontaneous trip to LT.

But First... More About Stockholm
Much like the trip to Amsterdam in May, the business trip to Stockholm consisted of long work hours, day after day of working, and a tireless, thankless effort. The shining moment of this trip was that as we were escorted daily to the bunker, our escort would also tire of sitting in the data center for so many hours, and kindly request that we pack it up and leave. Fortunately, this kept the days from being too long.

For the first few days in the bunker, I was painfully bored, as I was waiting for the networking team to hook up all of our equipment to the network. It is so loud from al the machines and cooling units that a normal conversation must be held at full volume shouting. I passed the hours by trying to do other types of office work; but instead of the comfortable environment of an office, it was attempted in a very loud and cold data center.

In fits of boredom, we discovered that some of the foam packing material hovered a few millimeters over the floor air vents. This data center had perforated floor tiles to let the cold air circulate and keep the computer equipment nice and cool. The hovering packing foam would not stay there for long, and would eventually fall off to the side, to one of the unventilated tiles.

A quick adaptation to the packing foam with a pair of scissors, and we could get it to sit there all day; but only while spinning. Boredom does strange things to me. At least I know how to pass the time. The networking guys got their equipment up, and quickly the boredom turned into a break-neck fast pace of trying to get everything up and running, with no time for anything else.

Unfortunately, due to the delays of getting the network up, and the shortened work days from the tired escort, The work still had to be done, prolonging the business trip over more 3 more days. What had originally been planned for 5 days long ended up being 8 days. I had only packed 7 days worth of clothes without rampant re-cycling. Since the family had already left to the United States on Saturday morning, there wasn't much sense in me rushing back to an empty house in Rüfenacht, since the very nice neighbors were looking over the house and our rabbits. I looked into a day trip to Lithuania, which was "on-the way home" from Stockholm. I picked up a new camera battery in the Stockholm airport, so I could take lots of pictures of a country I may never get to see again.

The servers I needed to tend to are in a little town called Kaunas, in Lithuania. Since most of my readership is American, I will assume that none of you have heard of this city before. It makes sense, as there are not a lot of Americans who travel to Europe to see Kaunas. Also, Americans as a general rule are terrible at Geography. As graduate from George Mason University with a BA in Geography, I am quite sure that the content of study consisted of at least 40% carping about the state of geography education in the United States. This somehow reminds me of my favorite quote from Ambrose Bierce:

War is God's way of teaching Americans geography.

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Short Geography Lesson
Short geography and history lesson: Lithuania is a country in the Baltics. No, not the Balkans. The Balkans are those countries like Kosovo, Yugoslavia, Croatia and Montenegro. I'm talking about the other side of Europe. The Baltics are east of Denmark, North of Poland, West of Russia, South of Finland. Three countries and a Russian Oblast (An Oblast is kind of like the Russian equivalent of a state) (and lots of times people don't include Kaliningrad as a part of the Baltics) are a part of these Baltic states. The Kaliningrad Oblast (belonging to Russia), the nation of Lithuania, further north is Latvia, and the northernmost is Estonia.

Kaliningrad used to be inhabited mostly by German speaking people, until they were mostly kicked out by the invading Russians at the end of World War II. Lithuania has about 3 million people, all speaking Lithuanian. In Latvia, people speak Latvian. In Estonia, they speak Estonian, which is very similar to Finnish. (Dear fellow American: they speak Finnish in Finland).

Lithuania used to have a very large territory in the 15th century, extending all the way south to the Black Sea. They were occupied sometime in the 19th century up until 1918, when they declared their independence. At the beginning of World War II they were occupied again by the Soviets, and in 1944, annexed into the Soviet Union.

The United States never recognized Lithuania, Latvia or Estonia as a part of the Soviet Union. Lithuania was the first of the Soviet Socialist Republics in 1990 to say "We have had enough of this Soviet rule!" and declared Independence. The United States never needed to have this relations-straining problem of recognizing Lithuanian independence, as it had never recognized Lithuania as a part of the Soviet Union in the first place. After Lithuania made its announcement of independence, the other Soviet Socialist Republics soon followed, and by the end of 1991, the Soviet Union was finished.

Short Language Lesson
Lithuanian and Latvian are not like any other languages you may have heard. Both are classified as Baltic languages. Lithuanian is a very old language, not much different from its original form in the last 800 years. Linguistics researchers believe that Lithuanian has more similarities to the Proto-Indo-European language than any other living language today.

The Lithuanian language consists of all your standard Roman alphabet characters, with some accent marks in places you may not expect. This language is not like French; if there is a letter there, it is pronounced. Thankfully, reading out the words allowed me to find many English cognates, and that was the only hope I had for understanding the language for my two days there.

Lithuanian Adventure Begins
The town of Kaunas is not particularly large. There is no airport with scheduled service. In order to get there, one must fly into a neighboring city. The best option for me was to fly into the capital city, Vilnius, which is about 100 km away. When I did my research into the trip, I did not know about the train service between the two cities (which I would have really enjoyed), so I used the inter-city bus.

Amazingly, there was a direct flight from Stockholm Arlanda to Vilnius, which left at 0845. The day I flew to Vilnius is also the first day of the Stockholm public transportation strike. All of the bus drivers in the city decided they were not getting paid enough, and went on strike. Thankfully, there was a train between my hotel in downtown Stockholm to the airport called the Arlanda Express, so I was not affected by the strike at all.

Now I am a strong believer that a travel adventure is the most fun when there is no preparation beforehand. This trip was no different. I do not know the language, the locals do not speak English, I have only a small slip of paper with the address of my destination, and another small slip of paper with a description of the hotel that I booked only the night before. I have no local currency, and what currency I have is Euros, and not much of it. I have no bank card, and only a credit card that I haven't called the company back in the US to say, "Hey! I'll be in this country called Lithuania for the next few days. Please allow transactions from there. Thanks"

Nope, travel preparedness is for the weak. My ability to "wing it" is only worthwhile if I get to put it to the test. On the other hand, perhaps this sense of adventure through unpreparedness that I have only reinforces the world-wide perception that Americans know nothing of the cultures and countries they visit.

I show up in the Vilnius airport with only a small knowledge of Lithuania, the recent history, nothing about the language or currency. I know there is some bus somewhere that I have to take to get to Kaunas. I believe that driving a rental car would be a catastrophe, so I never reserved one. I knew nothing about the train station or the train to Kaunas.

One of the penalties of not knowing exactly where you're going is that it takes a long time to get your bearings. I do not recommend this form of travel if you are short on time. Upon arrival, I stood outside the airport observing. There were some public city buses that came to the front of the airport, and all the locals got on. There was no money being given to the bus driver. There was no money machine on the bus (from what I could see) and no money machine outside to buy tickets, as far as I could find. I found that the number 1 bus took me to the bus station. The number two did not. The number two comes every 10 or 15 minutes, the number one bus comes only once every half-hour. I just missed the number one bus.

Screw this. I'm taking a taxi. The clearly bored taxi driver and I negotiate where I am going. Unlike Geneva, where the French-only waiter did not understand "bus" said with an American accent, German accent, and only recognized "bus" when I said it like Inspector Clouseau -- this taxi driver knew right away where I was going. But that was the extent of his English skills.

As we arrived at the bus station, I showed my wallet of Euros and asked "Euros?". He got that disappointed look and pulled out a note pad and started saying lots of words that I did not understand. He wrote on the paper 37 Lta. He said "Thirty Seven Liters!" I said to myself, "There is no way we just used 37 liters of gasoline to get only 5-7 kilometers to this train station. This guy is going to jip me off, and I can't complain because I don't know the language!"

It was then that I realized that 37 Lta mean 37 Lithuanian Litas; or about 16 USD. Whew! I gave him 20 Euros, and he gave me change in Lithuanian money. Lots of change. Enough money to buy lunch! It was about lunch time.

I wandered down the rows of buses looking for one that said Kaunas. I stood in line for a few minutes in a hot and not-well ventilated room with lots of anxious people. It turns out that this was some sort of package drop-off office. Thankfully, I had figured this out without having to get to the front of the line and ask for a bus ticket. I wandered around some more, and found that international sign for "buy your tickets here"

For 20 LTL, I get a bus ticket to Kaunas. What a deal! I use the credit card and it works (whew!). I check my cell phone (which I use as a pocket watch) to see that it is only 11:35, and the bus leaves at 12:45 -- so I have some time to kill.

I wander around the bus station, and decide to buy some lunch, as it is going to be a long bus ride, and I didn't have any breakfast. I wander into a Café, and navigate my way to the lunch-line. The lady behind the counter stood in front of all these foods that I don't recognize. The lady pointed out each of the items, and somehow, knew the English word for lots of them. "Beef Goulash" Mm. sounds good! "Potatoes" Oh good! "Beef... ehhh. " she pointed at her lower stomach. Eww. Cow Intestines. No way.

"Beef Goulash!" I order. She piles a nice helping onto the plate, and some salad, some other sort of salad like kraut made of cabbages. Along with a coca-cola, it comes out to a very respectible 10 or 12 LTL. (Cheap food!) I sit at a table by myself to enjoy my lunch.

As I start to much, I wonder. Hmm. I wonder what time it is back in the US. Subtract 6 hours, oh probably too early to call home. I was feeling home-sick. This country is awfully far to the east, I wonder if it really is 6 hours ahead of the US East coast. I look at my phone again. The Cell phone towers relay time information so the time on the clock is always very accurate. But I wonder -- Hmm. I wonder if Lithuania is in that time zone east of Switzerland and Sweden. I wonder if the clock on my cell phone got adjusted when I landed here.

I'm starting to get nervous, and my beef goulash is starting to get cold. There are no clocks to be seen from my cafeteria seat. I use my cell phone with Internet access to start going on the Internet. Google takes me to a page called On that page, you can plug in any city name, and it will give you the local time. OK. Wait for the page to load. Oh noes! it is 12:44. I look at my bus ticket again. 12:45.

If Lithuanian buses are anything like Swiss Trains; it is too late. I inhale my Beef Goulash and not enough of the salad. I take my tray up, and bring my unfinished Coca-Cola along with me. I rush out to the buses, and my bus is not there. Slot 35, where bus was supposed to be -- is gone. Rats!

I sheepishly take my unused ticket back to the ticket counter to see if I could get another one issued. No such luck. Another 10 LTL and I have a bus ticket for 13:05. That'll teach me! My cell phone is one hour behind the rest of Lithuania.

At around 1 pm, I get onto the bus, which is more like a full-sized 20 passenger van, and we are off to Kaunas. The countryside reminded me of east Texas. Mostly flat. Occasionally lots of trees -- occasionally long plains. Power lines that extend off into the distance. I bet I could show you pictures of East Texas from the highway, and pictures of Lithuania from the highway and you couldn't tell the difference, either. It is possible that I have been in Switzerland so long that I just simply have forgotten what flat land looks like. So I will let you judge for yourself. I have several pictures on the way back in the slide show of Lithuania.

To the Hotel
From the train station, I take a taxi ride to the hotel, the Perkuno Namai. This hotel is in a very nice neighborhood. The neighborhood consists of many old-growth trees, beautiful homes, modern cars, no graffiti, no trash on the streets. It reminded me of the suburbs in Northern Virginia, mostly around Falls Church, where the houses are older, and not so "modern" looking like in Ashburn or South Riding. I check in and make myself comfortable with a coffee. I send some emails over the phone to my point of contact at the University of Kaunas to set up an appointment for the next day. It is almost 4 pm by then.

The reason I chose this hotel is its proximity to the data center where the servers I must attend to are located. It is a short enough journey on foot, so I pull up Google maps on my Blackberry (cell phone) to give me precise directions. I get a good idea where to go, and I write my point of contact for directions on foot.

I get back an email describing the journey, and the landmarks along the way, and I set out on foot for reconnaissance. Along the way, the first landmark I come across is a soccer stadium, followed by a monument, with two guys who are wearing some sort of pilot-looking head-gear. I did not know the history of the individuals, so I kept walking. I took a few pictures for later reference.

It turns out these two guys are very famous people to the Lithuanians. I remembered the 10 LTL note, which has two pilot-looking guys too. These guys are located near the bottom of the monument, but in prominent position.

After further research, I discovered that these two guys are Steponas Darius and Stasys Girėnas, two pilots who attempted a crossing of the Atlantic Ocean, and ended up crashing somewhere in Germany (now Poland). Steponas Darius helped fund the stadium that is next to this monument, and the stadium was later named after these two pilots. It's no wonder they made this big monument for these two guys!

I wander through this beautiful park, past a sculpture of a Bison, and find my way to a few buildings which I suspect are where the data center are. One of the buildings as a really excellent sundial, that I showed up too late to view (the sun had gone behind the wall, making it impossible to show what time it was).

I walked back to the hotel and had built up a significant thirst. I find my way to the bar and see this local beer on tap. "I'll have one of those! Yes! The big glass!" 0.5 liters of delicious local Lithuanian beer and 4 minutes later, and I am ready for the second. That beer was incredibly awesome. I sit to dinner and enjoy one of the most excellent meals I have ever had. It is a terrible shame that I had to enjoy this dinner alone. And by alone, I mean the only guy in the restaurant. There were two what I guess to be Polish tourists in the restaurant when I first got there, but they left early. The gravity of my solitude starts to hit me squarely in the chest.

My family has left for the US for 4 or 5 weeks, and my return to my comfortable house in Switzerland will have me just as lonely as here in this restaurant. Nobody really speaks English, so I spend a lot of time on the cell phone calling people, writing random friends messages to pass the time. There is no wireless Internet access that I could find, so my portal to the Internet was all through the phone.

When I got the bill, I couldn't believe the price. A mere 66 LTL (30 dollars) for a meal and service of this caliber. It has been a long time since I have crowed about the power of my US Dollar. This restaurant and this country makes me feel like my dollar is worth more than inky rags.

Working, Again.

The next day I meet Tomas, who shows me to the data center, and I start working on my equipment. We break for lunch and talk shop. He runs the Lithuanian Registry; so everything that ends in .LT shows up in his office. He had just come from the ICANN meeting in Paris just the previous week, and we dropped names to see who we knew in common. I've been in this field for a long time, so there is much common ground between us, and it made for a delightful conversation. The food was good, the environment was nice, and the conversation was thought-provoking.

We had lunch at this lovely café on the pedestrian street in downtown Kaunas, next to some large church that I now think was the St. Michael the Archangel Church of Kaunas. (I might be wrong, though)

As with all of these site builds, I spent most of the day working, (even though this was a much smaller build than the Stockholm site), and I spent so long getting my equipment working that Tomas was ready to go home. He left, while giving instructions to his co-workers to let me see myself out. I left the office about 6 pm.

Watching Television
One great way to get an idea about a country you are visiting is to watch the local TV. Often in hotels, they have special channels that are only available to the hotel, and do not really give a good indication of the channel selection. Thankfully, the hotel did not have one of these specially computer-driven services with satellite television.

There were two channels, the first two -- in Lithuanian. I could understand nothing. They looked mostly like US films from the 1950s that had been dubbed over. The next channel was Polish, followed by 3 in Russian, that I could not view (blacked out and unviewable). There was a wasteland of unwatchable channels, and then, at the top of the dial -- the German-language stations. These channels I am familiar with! I watched Spongebob in German.

On the night before check-out, I stayed up to watch this awful movie. It was an action movie that had some hot chick with purple hair on a motorcycle dodging bullets and crashing into helicopters. The computer graphics of the fight scenes were terrible, but it was at least something I could watch. What a terrible knock-off of the Matrix movies. Of course, all the dialog was in German, but that doesn't bother me that much anymore. I can watch German-language TV almost as easily as English TV.

Just as the thinly-constructed awfulness that vaguely resembled a plot started to get interesting... the movie cut out. It was abruptly replaced with another movie. In fact, this movie was on a different channel. It was about midnight.

I can see from the bug in the bottom of the screen that the new channel is "Hustler TV", and this new movie is usually something you would have to pay top dollar for in a hotel. Oh! She is very flexible! But most of all: Hurray! they are speaking English!

The plot was even thinner than the previous movie with motorcycle-driving fast-shooting purple hair Matrix chick. But for this movie: I knew exactly how it was going to end. It was kind of rude how they abruptly ended the purple hair gun chick right as it was starting to have a plot. Oh well.

I later found out that this movie (with the purple-hair chick) is named "Ultraviolet", and I can't believe the users of IMDB would rate this heaping pile of doo a 3.9 stars out of 10. I never found the name of the movie on Hustler TV, but I don't think the name of that movie is very important.

A Few Hours in Vilnius
I departed early the next morning, mostly because I didn't know how long it would take to get me to Vilnius by bus. The bus ride home was the same sort of vehicle, but had what must have been busted out shock absorbers. I bounced the whole way back to Vilnius. Maybe they only pave the western-bound sides of the highway, and not the eastern routes. Anyway; it was a bouncy brutal ride home. My ride home was also made uncomfortable by the very stinky guy who was two seats in front of me. Whew! Cut back on the onions and garlic-drenched herring from your diet!

My flight was going to leave at 14:45, and I showed up in Vilnius at 10:30. How to spend this time? I left the bus station and found the train station right next door. I found a locker and locked away my luggage for a few hours as I wandered around. There is no escape from McDonald's. They had one right across the street from the train station.

As I wandered the streets of Vilnius, I found this big building that lots of people were filing into. So I had to investigate. It turns out that this was a huge department store. It looks like something I had seen from the old propaganda films of how excellent Soviet life was. Except this had lots of stuff on the shelves. There was one aisle with meat of all sorts. So much meat, in fact, that I had to make a hasty retreat -- it seemed like if I had stayed any longer I might have become a vegetarian.

Here is the slide show of the pictures I took in Lithuania.

Return Flight
The flight back was pretty uneventful, other than the flight attendant who noticed me reading the Michael Moore book "Stupid White Men", which is really "Liberal isn't liberal enough" (and had me believing it by the end of the book). In the other hand, I had a German newspaper that I had picked up while boarding. I suppose it is kind of strange to see an American with a German newspaper. "He misses American Football and Baseball." Uh huh. I understand. The football part, at least. She lives with her American husband in Basel. She seemed genuinely interested in the book, and I had finished it as we flew over Poland, I think. As I was exiting the plane upon arrival, I gave her the book.

1 comment:

Vilnius said...

Did you also know that Kaunas is also mentioned as the "city of the devil"? You could buy a lot of souvernirs of the devil there. Kaunas was completely destroyed in world war II. Vilnius survived the war without any big damages. It's very interesting how Americans see Lithuania. It was a great pleasure to read.