Some impressions from the 4th International Poetry Festival, Utena, Lithuania, June 2008.
Photo courtesy Eleanor Livingstone
Storks, some nesting and with young, prowling the ditches and water margins, land of lakes and no mountains, livestock single or in pairs, each tethered to graze in a circle, small hand-dug plots of potatoes and other veg, no fields as such, hay meadows, rough grazing, wooden buildings, houses painted ochre yellow.
Bus stopped to pick up more poets, car labelled with sign in back window:
Mes ♥ Poetas. (We Love poets)
Met up with Sonata Paliulyte, our translator. I’d chosen two long poems and a short one for translation. If I’d known in advance what the format was going to be, I’d have chosen different ones to read. For instance I didn’t know there would be children in the audiences, so the Therezin one was maybe too graphic.
Nice picnic at Romuva, where we followed a recent tradition of visiting poets washing their feet in the river – a very pretty river, it has to be said. A lot of biting insects, and I was bitten a few times.
En route to Anykščiai region, more storks, more tethered cows and horses, old women milking cows individually in the meadows where they were grazing.
Poetry reading in the open air at Debeikiai, hot sunshine, charming young girl on accordion. We visited the local church, then piled in to a minivan to be taken to lunch in Anykščiai. After lunch, a walking tour of the town, then to the very large church, outside which we’d be reading. Tour of same by local priest. A group of young people in medieval court dress appeared, our dancers for the intervals. It was really beautiful. Hilarious moment when the dancers were interrupted by a wedding party coming out of the church. For a moment both groups merged, then we applauded both. Big audience. After the reading and the speeches we were each crowned with an oak leaf wreath – the traditional midsummer offering.
We left for Niuronis and a “Museum/dinner” in a reconstructed old house, earth floor, heated by wood-burning stove. Absolutely delicious Lithuanian food – sweet pickled Baltic herring, sliced hams and sausages, and the best potatoes I’ve ever tasted: small ones peeled and baked in the wood-burning stove, eaten with the slightly sweet home-made butter. Lots of toasts in excellent Lithuanan vodka, which they call ‘degtine’. Sliced cheese with honey – a strange but tasty combination. We had a demonstration of bread-making, where everyone got to try their own skills out. While the breads were baking we had pork ribs served with sauerkraut. The ribs were delicious, sweet and succulent, but I’m still not a sauerkraut fan, especially not when flavoured with caraway. Bus very late back to Alausyne, dropped off individual Utena poets at the homes, then stopped to buy bottled water at a filling station. I think I snored that night.
Mosquitoes, midges and other biting insects very common. The bite above my ring is swelling, and I can’t get my ring off.
Saturday. Rain, a tour of the cultural centre at Paluse, on to a wet national park, climbed to the 2nd highest hill in Lithuana – about 200m, and would have enjoyed the view of 7 lakes if it hadn’t been so wet. David Robakidze, the Georgian poet, picked lupins and presented them to all the women in the party.
On to the bee museum, which was remarkable – log hives and gloomy Baltic wood sculptures. More cheese and honey, with mead (nice) and some kind of spirit (not at all nice). Saw a traditional ‘bee wedding’ performed by the apiarist. Lovely occasion, which the party didn’t seem to mind sharing with us.
The poetry reading was held in the church because of the rain, and the atmosphere was a bit overwhelming. The bite on my ring finger is getting worse. Back at the hotel, our evening meal is sausage again. Ričard kept filling my vodka glass, but the spirit was much more fiery than the ‘Ledo’ variety. A sauna was on offer, but I was beginning to feel distinctly unwell, so I didn’t join in.
Sunday. Air cool and grass damp. Egle, the organiser’s niece, took me to a pharmacy to try to get something for the bite – anti-histamine tabs and a gel. On to the reading at the Antanas Miskinis house and museum. Another open-air session, with lots of speeches and prizes awarded.
On to lunch in a school which didn’t have the usual school smell – you know the smell. Back to Utena library for the chance to relax before the evening reading. By now my whole hand and wrist were badly swollen – I had to take my watch off. Vida, the Festival organiser, and her niece Egle took me to the local hospital after the reading. None of the hospital staff spoke English, so Egle came in to the consulting room with me. I wanted them to cut my ring off to relieve the oedema, but the Dr got it into her head that I was suffering an allergic reaction to the bite, rather than a lymphatic oedema caused by constriction, and I got intravenous and intramuscular injections of anti-histamine. Egle was totally charming, helpful and delightful. I’m so grateful for her kindness. Back to Alausyne for the farewell party, but I couldn’t drink because of the medication. Lots of food though. To bed, feeling rather stressed, imagining medical possibilities – wish I hadn’t studied physiology.
Monday. On the lawn, a piece of Japanese knotweed has established. It’s obviously being treated as a decorative newcomer, rather than the invasive thug it really is – the lawn is carefully mown all round it. Witnessed the aggression of coots. Driven to Vilnius, a walk along the length of Gediminas Street, a glass of honey beer, then to the airport. At Schiphol I finally manged to get the ring off, and the feeling of relief was instantaneous and euphoric. The swelling in my hand started to go down immediately. Home around midnight in time to pack for Elgin and Buckie – two workshops as Poet Partner.
(There’s now a photo album on my Facebook site)