Sunday, September 28, 2014

Suzy moved flats in London, Eladio’s birthday, a trip all the way to Lithuania, my impressions of Vilnius, an awful trip back thanks to Lufthansa and other stories.

In Vilnius this week
Hi everyone,

Well it has been an exceptional week and there is lots to tell you. 

On Monday Suzy, her boyfriend Gabor and their Italian flat mate Stefania moved from the house which they shared with 5 people in Canada Water to nearby South Bermondsey where the 3 of them will be living there in a new flat on their own.  Suzy is delighted with the new accommodation which seems bright, clean and modern and which has a large kitchen, lounge, terrace, two bedrooms and a bathroom.  It is apparently just one stop on the train from Tower Hill.  Here is a pic of Suzy the day they moved in.
Suzy in her new flat
Tuesday was Eladio’s big day.  He turned 70 which seems quite amazing to me.  I met him when he was 35 so we have been together now for approximately half his life.  I didn’t do anything spectacular but the day was full of magic. First we had chocolate and churros for breakfast with my Father when we gave him his presents and birthday cards.  Unfortunately Olivia had to go to work so would miss the birthday breakfast and lunch.  But she was to join us in the evening for a surprise birthday dinner in Madrid with all the members of his family who could make it that night: José Antonio, Dolores, Juan, Cristina, Sara, Paula and Pedro.
Eladio's birthday breakfast
For the record he got a wonderful set of men’s fragrance from Olivia and from my Father and I he got a kindle, the latest version, the touchscreen Paper White. His first ebook was by Richard Dawkins, the British scientist. 

Lunch was fish and chips followed by a super strawberry birthday cake bought at my favourite cake shop, Mallorca.  Here is the birthday boy with his cake.  He doesn’t look his age does he?
Eladio and his birthday cake
The birthday dinner in Madrid at El Escondite de Villanueva was to be a surprise.  Eladio thought we were having dinner on our own with Olivia and kept asking if we really had to drive to Madrid and wouldn’t it be better to have dinner at home.  So I had to force him to go.  Once we there, he was delighted to see all the family waiting to greet him and celebrate his birthday.  It was a great evening and a superb end to the day. Thanks to all for coming and for keeping the secret.
The surprise family birthday dinner 
The next day I was up at 6.15 to catch the 10.15 flight to Helsinki where I would get a transfer flight to Vilnius. In my headline I write “all the way to Lithuania” because really it is a hell of a way away from Spain and there are no direct flights from Madrid. For the record Lithuania is the geographical central point of Europe. It would be my first time there and I was going for a day-long meeting with my communications colleagues working for TeliaSonera in the European countries where the Swedish Finnish mobile telephone operators are present. In Spanish the capital of Lithuania is called “Vilna” and whenever I told anyone I was going there, nobody knew where it was which surprised me.  But after all it is a tiny country in the Baltics very far from Spain, so maybe that is the reason. In case you didn’t know, its neighbouring countries are: Latvia, Belarus, Poland and Russia or rather the Kalingrad landlocked region which used to be part of Prussia.

First I had to drive to work to leave my car to be serviced whilst I was away.  It was raining that morning and took me 2 awful hours in the traffic to get there.  Thankfully I was just on time at the airport and worries of missing the plane were over once I was sitting on the Finnair flight which would arrive in Helsinki 4 hours later; or 5 if you take into account Finland is one hour ahead – Lithuania is also one hour ahead. As you know I love Finland and Helsinki so it was frustrating to have just 45 minutes there.  Soon I was on my second Finnair flight which took just over an hour and at 17.30 or so I landed in Vilnius where unbelievably the sun was shining.
Lithuania and the countries that it borders with

I took a taxi into the city which took just 20 minutes and soon I was being driven into the old town where I would be staying at the charming Shakespeare hotel just a stone’s throw from Vilnius’ most famous street in the old town; Pilies Street which means Castle Street.  I was keen to stay there and get to know this Unesco World Heritage centre. Once settled in my room called The Coach Room, I ventured out into the street to start my exploring.  The following day I would be given a walking tour of the town with my colleagues and would then find out what all the places I had seen were all about.  But for the moment I contented myself on enjoying walking around the beautiful old streets and passed countless number of churches.  The Lithuanians are mostly catholic as are most of their beautiful churches but so too there are quite a few Orthodox churches and even one Uniate church, the Holy Trinity.
Pretty Pilies street in the old town of Vilnius
I carried on walking from Pilies Street to the Town Hall square, through the Gate of Dawn and outside the old town, I spotted a sign to the “panoramic view” so in in need of a proper walk, I decided to follow the sign.  I was not disappointed as it was still light when I got there and the view of the old and new town was magnificent.  A kind young Lithuanian couple took a photo of me, the one illustrating this post. Very noticeable here were many padlocks which they explained were put there by couples, as in many other cities, to represent their being “locked together” in marriage.
Vilnius as seen from the panoramic view point
From there I walked back to the old town and walked along Pilies Street in the other direction.  That took me to Cathedral Square and a magnificent Belfry both of which stood out very well in the floodlit courtyard.
Cathedral Square Vilnius

Before I returned to my hotel I was determined to find some shops, as the ones in the old town were either touristy or the Gucci type.  I wanted to find Lindex, that lovely low cost Swedish fashion shop.  And I found it in a small shopping centre as I walked up an important looking street called Gedimino.  Unfortunately it was about to close so I walked back to my hotel and decided to come again in the morning before I had to go the meeting which would start at 12 midday.

Once back at my hotel I was pleased to see that my fitbit registered 12km of walking that day.  By 9pm I was tired so decided on a hot bath and room service.  By 10 with the BBC World News on the TV I fell asleep until 7.30 the next day.

After an early breakfast I walked to Gedimino street in the sunshine and found some lovely items at Lindex; a black dress with lace, a shocking blue cardigan (to match my blue Clarkes shoes) and a long sleeved black and white striped t-shirt.  I also got a thick furry white scarf as it was much colder in Vilnius than I had thought and I would need it in the evening when we went on the guided tour of the town. While I was there I took photos of clothes I thought Olivia would like but she only answered later so I had to go back the next day.

At just before 12 I was outside the building of TEO, TeliaSonera’s fixed operator, which was one of the few sky scrapers in the town.  Our meeting was on the top floor with some amazing views.
The view of Vilnius from the offices where we had our meeting
Soon we were all together; Antantas and Audrone, our hosts from Lithuania, Severin from Norway, Elina from Latvia, Tatu from Finland and Madeleine, Anna and Peter from Sweden.  We were joined by Mette from Denmark via video conference as she couldn’t be with us in Vilnius.  The first item on the agenda was lunch.  12 is very early for me but really it was 11 am.  But I tucked in quite happily into the salmon and rice as I talked to my colleagues.
Some of us during our meeting

Our meeting ended at about 6pm, after which we all went to our hotels.  I would meet my colleagues again outside the St Ana Gothic church for the start of our guided tour.  Our guide explained to us that the architecture of the old town was a mix of Gothic, Classical, Baroque with some Renaissance. The Saint Ana church was beautiful, made with red brick and lovely spires, as if the church were on fire.  She also told us that Napoleon loved it so much when he arrived in Vilnius that he had plans to take it piece by piece to Paris.  Thank goodness that never happened.
The beautiful Saint Ana church in Vilnius
From the church we got on the bus and were taken to the panorama view point which I had seen the day before.  Here, being good PR people, we subjected our guide to questions about Lithuania.  We were told the population used to be about 3.2 million but was now 2.9 owing to emigration – lots of Lithuanians living in London.  I was more shocked to hear that the average monthly salary is only 290 euros.  That sort of seemed to contrast with how well the women look and dress in Vilnius as with the apparent modern and progressive life they seem to live.  Everything works there, the mobile phone network is superb, everything in the hotel was perfect and the building we had our meeting in could have been a building in New York it was so modern. People speak Lithuanian – a difficult language which is similar only to Latvian (well they are their neighbours) but you hear a lot of Russian (some 30% speak it).  I knew before I went that the Lithuanians hate Russians because of their history.  It was once the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and later merged with neighbouring Poland and afterwards formed part of the Russian Empire until the 20th century.  In February 1918 Lithuania gained its independence until the beginning of the Second World War when it was occupied by the Soviet Union.  It was then briefly occupied by Nazi Germany and then again by the Russians for 50 stifling years.  Lithuania became independent for the second time in March 1990.  Today it is a member of the European Union and despite the low average salary it looks quite prosperous with not many vestiges of Communist times although some buildings do look in dire need of renovation. During the Soviet occupation and influence, religion was frowned upon and the churches closed. The Soviets even wanted to do away with the beautiful old town.  Thankfully the Lithuanians defied the measure saying it represented their history and the old town is today as it was hundreds of years ago.  The ghastly looking communist blocks of flats are there of course on the horizon but they are few and far between.

The next item on our tour was a visit to a funny place called Uzupis which is actually the Republic of Uzupis, just next to the old town.  It is a neighbourhood similar to Montmartre in Paris or Christiana in Copenhagen with a similar bohemian and relaxed atmosphere and spirit and on 1st April 1997 was declared an independent republic.  It has its own constitution which is written in many languages on one of the walls of the area.  Some of the articles are downright funny such as “People have the right to be happy”, “People have the right to be unhappy”, “People have the right to die but it is not an obligation”, etc.
Uzupis even has a constitution
We then returned to the old town and walked from the Gate of Dawn, through the Town Hall Square, up Pilies street to the Cathedral Square and from there to the University and Presidential Palace.  We then ventured into what was once the bigger of the two Jewish ghettos in the war.  When it started there were some 60.000 Jews living in Vilnius and when the genocide finished there were only 2.000 left.  We were to have our dinner in this area and it felt a little disloyal.  However it was cold and we were all very hungry so we soon forgot the history of the town and ate and drank merrily together.  Our first course was the Lithuanian national dish, “zeppelin” because of the shape.  It is really called “Didžkukuliai” and is a sort of potato dumpling stuffed with meat and smothered in a lovely dill sauce.  This is what it looked like.
The delicious Lithuanian national dish, "zeppelin" or really Didžkukuliai”

After the dinner our Lithuanian colleagues presented us with a box each containing their country’s most famous cake or sweet called “sakotis”.  Later I saw it in many shops and at the airport.
Our Lithuanian colleagues, Audrone left and Antanas right, presenting us with a box of "sakotis".
It was quite late when we all said goodbye.  It was raining a bit but I decided to walk back to my hotel. I was sad to read that night that the second Spanish born victim of ebola, Manuel García Viejo did not survive the virus.

The next day I would be in no rush to get up early as my flight wasn’t until 3pm.  In fact I overslept and didn’t wake until 9.30 am (actually 8.30 for me) and rushed to get ready for breakfast as it closed at 10.  Later I packed and checked out, leaving my luggage at reception.  I had an appointment in Uzupis at 11 with my ex colleague Indre.  I walked there and as I was early decided to walk into a Russian Orthodox church on my way.  Inside I prayed for my Mother and my Aunt who were staunch Russian orthodox believers.  It was a funny nostalgic spiritual sort of moment for me but I loved it.
The Russian Orthodox church I went into on the last day
At 11 I was at the Picerija cozy café where Indre and her two little boys, Ignas aged 8 and Lukas aged 6 were waiting.  It was great to see them.  Indre and I caught up on our respective lives since we had last met some three years ago.  She is looking good, has set up her own marketing and communications consultancy business and even bought a couple of flats in the old town which she rents out to tourists.  I had to leave at 12 if I was to get to Lindex on time to buy the skirt and trousers Olivia wanted and get back to my hotel to pick up my luggage and take the taxi to the airport.  Dear Indre and her lovely football mad boys drove me to Gedimino where we said our goodbyes.  I invited them to visit us in Spain and hope they come. 
With my ex Lithuanian colleague Indre in Uzupis on the last day
Soon I was in the taxi on my way to the airport.  When I paid the taxi driver and got my luggage out he flattered me and amused me by saying “thank you beautiful woman!” That was a nice ending to my visit of beautiful Vilnius.  I wonder if I will ever go back; possibly not.  But I am glad to have added Lithuania to the long list of countries I have now visited.

Once inside the airport I heard my plane to Frankfurt would be delayed.  That worried me that I would possibly miss my connection leaving at 17.05 for Madrid but thought  the Lufthansa flight would wait especially because I was arriving and leaving from the same terminal.  So I sat down at a café where I was joined by a very interesting fellow traveler, an American of Greek and Polish origin called Damian who spoke many languages including Czech and Russian!  He was a very interesting chap and we had a great conversation about the main worries of the world: Isil, the Russian Ukraine issue and of course Ebola.  This man told me he was ex-military and now worked in a military advisory type of role.  From all the things he told me, it seemed to me he may have had links to the CIA or something similar. It was Damian who pointed out an American airplane on the tarmac which was entirely unbranded.  He himself was moving to live in Vilnius this weekend and would be here for a year.  He hinted at US help in the Baltic area re what was going on in the Ukraine. It was Damian who told me too that Lithuania has a feisty woman President called Dalia Grybbauskaite who is very outspoken against Putin and who said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal recently that Putin is terrorizing his neighbours and that he will go further than the Ukraine and that the international community was not doing enough to stop him.  Damian also assured me the US and UK special forces would catch the jihadists who were beheading western hostages.  He also told me the US predicted there would be 1.400.000 deaths due to Ebola.  Can that be true? He certainly seemed to have a lot of information.
The plane left 45 minutes late and thus I arrived in Frankfurt at 16.50, just 15 minutes before my next plane was leaving. I thought I would make it and that the plane would wait but I learned later that Lufthansa seems to prioritize bureaucracy and punctuality rather than poor passengers like me missing my plane. I was directed to a gate very far away where I had to queue with many other people in similar situations.  It seemed we had to queue to get a number from a man and once we had a number we had to queue again. In the end German or Lufthansa efficiency took more than an hour to issue me a ticket on the only next flight to Madrid which wasn’t leaving until 9pm.  I was so cross I even refused the so called meal voucher compensation for 10 euros. I mean what could I do with 10 euros in Frankfurt!!  To make my return journey even more uncomfortable I was assigned a middle seat right at the back.  Then when I boarded the strict looking Lufthansa air hostess threatened to take my cabin luggage and put it into hold as the plane was full. I was not taking any more bull **** from Lufthansa and refused point black telling her the last two times I had flown Lufthansa they had lost my luggage.  I just didn’t want a long wait so late at night in Madrid waiting for my cabin luggage. 

Meanwhile I had 3 hours or so to kill at the airport.  It was here that I learned that the British government had got the backing from Parliament to join the coalition and attack Isil in Iraq.  I was pleased to hear that, I’m afraid to say but I am one of those people in the world who, although I detest war, know that we have to eliminate the threat of these fanatical terrorists.  We have seen what they can do and I don’t want to see any more of it.  Just this week they beheaded another western hostage, a French tourist.  So I spent my time reading the news on my phone and continuing to read Edge of Eternity by Ken Follett. I also had a meal accompanied with a delicious glass of Reisling wine.

That night it felt like I would never get home.  I did in the end of course but it wasn’t till about 1 in the morning that I got into bed.  The next day was Saturday and I was able to “chillax” (chill out and relax) at home with my family, Eladio, my Father and dear Olivia who has been here all weekend.  She came food shopping with me in the morning and joined us for lunch.  In the afternoon Eladio and I went on our second walk not thinking about the weather.  We had no raincoat or umbrella when it started to rain so we had no option but to continue it and get completely drenched.  It was like having a shower fully clothed.  However I didn’t mind as I wanted a shower anyway before going out to dinner that night.

We went to La Txitxarrería in Pozuelo and were joined by our friends Javier and Ana. We had such a good time, talking nonstop and eating that I totally forgot to take a photo for this week’s blog. As we left the restaurant it was pouring down again, quite a contrast to the sun and high temperatures of last week. 

And today is Sunday and it has been very quiet.  Sundays for me are about walks, meals with the family, writing my blog and hopefully time for reading.

Next week won’t be exceptional; no birthdays, no trips.  It will be a quiet week I think but sometimes I like the quiet after the rush so to speak.

Wishing you all a good week ahead, cheers till next Sunday


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