Monday, June 28, 2010

Paris: you can check out, but you can never leave

And I'm not just speaking about nostalgia. I narrowly avoided this literally becoming true.

It may be backward to start my trip report with my last day in Paris, but on my last day I had what in my sheltered life might pass for an adventure.

In Paris, I stayed in an apartment my parents were renting (my dad was there for work). On June 24th they returned to Lithuania, and I headed back to the US. June 24th was also the day French tranportation workers planned to start a strike. The strike was going to reduce public transportation levels to a bare minimum. Charles de Gaulle airport is an hour train ride from my parents' apartment, and it wasn't clear that taxis will be running on the day of the strike, or that they won't be completely packed. Raymon's and my flight was in the morning, so we didn't have a built-in time buffer to figure out a way to get to the airport. Upon my suggestion all of us decided to go to an airport hotel on the eve of the strike, and stay there overnight.

On the 23rd we cleaned the apartment, then waited for the landlord to come and check that it was in order, and return my parents' deposit. By the time all this was done, it was 7 p.m., and we set out to go to the airport. First, we had to take a tram to a RER station (RER is a train system that runs through Paris and its suburbs; one of its lines goes to the airport). Two stops before our destination the tram driver announced he wasn't going any further and everybody had to get off. So we did. We immediately noticed a bunch of National Police in riot gear. Whatever they were here for could not have been good. We walked the rest of the way to the RER station with suitcases in tow; shortly before coming to the Cite Universitaire station, a passerby told us it was blocked. Right before our eyes, a row of National Police vehicles pulled up and lined up along the street.

This was becoming stressful. Leaving Raymon and me to watch the luggage, my mom and dad walked over to the station to find out what was going on. Coming back, they said the station had already reopened and the trains were running. So far, so good. We had no difficulty getting on a train to the airport, except there was an excessive amount of police at the station, and they selectively checked some passengers' bags.

The train was slow, stopping several times in the dark tunnel between stations and sitting there for 5-10 minutes at a time (which didn't improve the mood of a claustrophobic person like me), because there were traffic snarls. Raymon called his sister in the US, asking her to look up any news items on Paris. She found out that there were pro-Israel and pro-Palestine demonstrations earlier that day, so we concluded that those demonstrations resulted in the incident that caused the station to close. That was probably not true, as one of my Facebook friends sent me a French news article saying that Cite Universitaire was closed due to soccer-related violence. Whatever it was, we didn't know it at that time, and were wondering if the strike had started early.

We weren't too far off the mark. Unrelated as it was to the station closure, the strike was indeed going to start early. The drop off in public transportation was starting at 8 p.m. Fortunately, the train engineer did not ditch the train in the dark tunnel to go on strike. :-) It was a good thing I didn't hear those news until we were out of the tunnels and moving at a good speed towards the airport. I don't want to think how I would have felt sitting there in a tunnel with the worst suspicions playing out in my head.

Though our hotel, located directly in the airport, was at least twice as expensive as I would have been comfortable paying, I felt it was worth every penny. I looked into booking a cheaper hotel further from the airport, except that (1) almost all those hotels were full, and (2) we didn't know if we'd be able to get to the airport next morning. For all we knew, hotel shuttles could have gone on strike too. But by the time we got to our hotel, I had never been so glad about grossly overpaying on a purchase.

Monday, June 14, 2010

My birthday: a ghost tour of Vilnius

For my birthday, my family took me on a tour of haunted places of Vilnius. I was entertained by the stories of the famous ghosts of Vilnius, but even more so by the way the tour guide tried to tie them to her personal life.

She told us a story of a fourteen year old boy who was a cemetery attendant. One day, before a rich man's funeral, the relatives of the deceased decided there was no reason the man should be buried with all of his gold, so he told the boy to take the jewelry off of the body and hand it over. Being very pious, the boy at first refused, but the relatives threatened to kill him. Then he tried to comply, but the dead people rose from their graves, and all hell broke loose. This event, despite taking place several centuries ago, had "horrible, horrible" repercussions in our tour guide's life. Back when she was a history student, their class took a tour of the crypt. The next day they heard on the news that a 14-year-old boy committed suicide by hanging. Some years later her class took another tour of the crypt (what, they didn't mind risking another teen's life? :-)), and the next day the custodian of the department building refused to let them in. "So you see, there is something supernatural going on there!" she concluded. Umm. Yes. I nodded and smiled.

A courtyard in the historical Jewish district of Vilnius The courtyard in the historical Jewish district of Vilnius, where we met the dybbuk
A dybbuk sitting in a corner of a courtyard in the historical Jewish district of Vilnius The dybbuk

Then she took us into a courtyard in a former Jewish neighborhood of Vilnius, and told us a story about a dybbuk -- a Jewish ghost that, unlike Christian ghosts, did not roam the Earth, but sought to inhabit someone else's body. An especially famous dybbuk of Vilnius was a ghost of a young man who wanted to let his grieving girlfriend know that he was happy in the afterlife. But the only body he found to occupy was a body of another young woman. So the said young woman came to his girlfriend to comfort her. Our tour guide said this legend was turned into an opera, which in turn was made into a Hollywood movie "Ghost". I did a brief research on Wikipedia and, but found no confirmation of that.

It was this dybbuk that we got to meet in person, sitting in the corner of a courtyard in the historical Jewish district of Vilnius. He was holding a candle and wearing a decidedly modern outfit, if jeans and white socks are any indication. The tour guide said this was our chance to ask him a question -- anything we wanted to know. He'd answer it in a super-secret language of gestures that she would translate for us, as she studied it for many years. No one wanted to go first, so she ventured a question: "Will I be able to go on a very important trip this year?" The dybbuk made a flying gesture with his hand. "He says I'll go on a plane trip," said the guide. Glad those years of learning didn't go to waste.

The tour was cut short by torrential rain, but by that time we were almost done. All in all, it was not a bad way to get a tour of Vilnius Old Town, as long as one didn't put too high expectations into it.

More pictures from my trip to Lithuania are in my photo gallery.