Monthly Archives: November 2012

Lithuania, Closing Thoughts…for now


Ruth & I have visited Lithuania twice in the past 13 months and fallen hard for its culture and its people.  We will surely return soon.

In the meantime, here are some travel musings about this Baltic Republic with 9 currently serving political parties and 6 minor ones with no one in power at this time.  After our recent election cycle, imagine 15 campaigning political parties.

The Lithuanian language is one of the oldest still spoken.  It’s similar grammatically to Sanskrit.  I have tried and failed to master just a few basic names & phrases.   Like in other European countries, the populace is fluent in several other languages beginning with Russian followed by Polish.  Many speak German and more are learning English, but don’t be surprised if, say, you order a hamburger without cheese from someone who claims to know English but get cheese.  Its unusual language might have something to do with the fact that Vilnius is reportedly the only capital in Europe straddling two ancient cultures, Byzantine & Latin.

Vilnius’ Old Town has been on UNESCO’s World Heritage List since 1994 and rightly so.  Kaunas has a great pedestrian only shopping street, Laisves.

According to inyourpocket “Crime is rampant in Lithuania.”  This cheeky publication goes on to qualify this.   They’re mostly political and business misdeeds, not street crime.  Ruth & I felt perfectly safe everywhere we went.  However, the wise don’t wear diamonds and are aware of their surroundings wherever they go.

Lithuania is probably not a place where you’d want to rent a car.  I’ve never seen such risky passing practices anywhere else.  Lithuanian drivers are often compared to Italians, who get my vote for the most stress-inducing, emotional drivers in the world.  Lithuania has the highest rate of road fatalities in the European Union according to inyourpocket.

Although it’s 80% Catholic and actively so, Lithuania shows signs of clinging to its pagan heritage with festivals that predate Christianity.  Among its national holidays are 5 with a religious connection and Jonines, which each June celebrates local pagan traditions.  This is, after all, the country with a popular, must-see-to-believed devil museum in Kaunas (previously blogged).

Although we found smoking far more in-your-face in Russia, Lithuanians light up too.  Says  inyourpocket humorously, “If it’s Lithuanian and it’s got a lung that works then it probably smokes.”   I just read that Putin is puttin’ more restrictions on public smoking.  Good luck with that.

Best restaurant that we found in Kaunas–Buon Giorno.    Best in Vilnius–Kitchen.  We haven’t tried it yet, but the national dish is said to be cepelinai, boiled potato dumplings stuffed with pork or cottage cheese.

There are Akropolises (Akropoli?) in both Kaunas and Vilnius that rival the best shopping centers in the world.  Different & fun.

Reasons to return.  We still haven’t made it to Trakai Castle after 2 visits and The New York Times recently raved about Lithuania’s city of Klaipeda on the Baltic Sea.  They call it offbeat and medieval with whimsical public sculptures and a frescoed Orthodox church.  It’s popular enough that cruise ship lines like Oceania are beginning to include it in their itineraries.


Crime Museum, Maximum Sentence


As I exited the National Museum of Crime & Punishment in Washington, DC, I was imagining the focus group that put it together.  I pictured the group’s leader  saying, “Let’s make a list of every, and I mean EVERY, crime and criminal and include them somewhere in our museum.”

As I, big fan of the Spy Museum, had entered 3 hours before, I admit to being fairly intrigued by Ted Bundy’s beat up Volkswagen Beetle in the lobby.  America’s most notorious serial killer was inside it when stopped by police and arrested for the 1st time.  But I was also sensing a little guilt, the way I feel when creeping past an accident and glimpsing a victim being hauled out of a wrecked car.

Ruth & I took the elevator to the 2nd floor, as suggested, and entered The History of Crime Exhibit–medieval gibbet chains, a cage used to hold the head steady while putting someone’s eyes out, a portable pillory, also called a neck violin, etc.  I was quickly tired of the sounds of mayhem constantly assaulting my ears.

But then I saw a tribute to Fyodor Dostoevsky.  Dostoevsky?  Oh, Crime & Punishment.  The focus group.  I  moved on to a French iron muzzle gag for keeping people from babbling satanic incantations while burning.

It was then that I noticed that many around me were children.  Children?   Here?   I didn’t find the displays especially appropriate for them.  But later I found a Kids and Families page on the Crime Museum’s website which promised commitment “to offering an experience that the whole family can enjoy.”  Enjoy?  Oh, that focus group.   They must be the ones who made sure there were several Kid Stops and frequent images of McGruff, the Crime Dog.

After reading about pirates like Jean Lafitte who burned Galveston before disappearing for good and the Dalton Gang, 3 boys who started out in law enforcement, I moved on to America’s First Criminals.  None were missing.

Bonnie & Clyde’s car!   Some children were posing for their mother so she could take their picture in front of it.   Could this really be the bullet-splattered car they died in?  Well, Ted Bundy’s VW was downstairs.  But then I spied a tiny disclaimer on the back wall.  This was the 1934 Ford featured in the 1967 movie about them.

I was now feeling, well, wary?  Yes.  Eager to proceed?  Sort of.  Dirty? Maybe a bit.

Mickey Cohen?  Check.

Art theft & forgeries?  Check.

DB Cooper?  Check, with a Pink Panther like jazz background.

John Wayne Gacy?  Check.  Did you know that his last words were, “Kiss my ass!”  Did you want or need to know that?

Oh, there was lots of arresting information (pun intended).  I didn’t know, for example, that 22-year-old Bill Gates had no driver’s license  in 1977 when he was brought in for a traffic violation in Albuquerque.  Did you want or need to know that?

Tattoos.  Check.

History of Prisons.  Check.

Forensic Science Education Labs with arson and decomposition workshops? Check.

A flood of CSI tie-ins?  Check.

Top Detective Challenge games?  Check.

Killer Birthday Parties available with Shooting Gallery privileges?  Check.

Not-currently-in-use America’s Most Wanted film studio?  Check.

Electric chair?  Check.  Check out.


LeMay, Old & New in Tacoma


When Ruth & I visited America’s Car Museum in Tacoma, Washington, last June, I was surprised to learn that the LeMay family had kept open its original facility at Marymount.    Now I understand why.

Before we spent the afternoon at the new LeMay, we went to the old at Marymount Event Center run by the LeMay Family Collection Foundation, a completely separate entity started in the 1960s.  It’s thriving.  And growing.  About 30 t0 40 new vehicles are added each year, and 500+ are on display, so many that we had our own docent, Dennis, to make sure we’d experience a collection that has become, like many American institutions, too big to even think about shutting down.

The old LeMay Family Collection at Marymount is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 am to 5 pm.  At 325 152nd Street E, it’s several miles from the new Museum that’s next to the Tacoma Dome. and GPS helped us get there and warned us that 2 of the 3 buildings we’d visit were not fully heated.  In other words, bring a coat in winter.  Dennis was glad to see that new heat generating equipment was being brought in.

Don’t think that you’re seeing all of LeMay collection, once over 3,500 vehicles, if you visit both the old and new facilities.  Harold had a 300 car garage “at home” plus 28 facilities where he stored the vehicles he bought almost on a daily basis.  “If it’s out there, I’ll buy it,” was half of Harold’s collecting philosophy.  His wife Nancy, luckily, shared his interest.  On display at Marymount are the partially visible last car he bought, a 1952 Willys Aero Wing 2-door sedan, and Nancy’s first new car, a 1976 Cadillac.   The Family Foundation has donated over 600 vehicles to the new LeMay.

It’s impossible to tour Marymount and not pick personal favorites.  Mine included a 1959 Cadillac, Series 62, that was judged Winner of the “fin wars” and a 75% restored, pig-snouted 1966 Ultra Van.  Only 110 of these were built.





Harold’s quests included a Tucker.  When one of the 51 Tuckers made became available, he judged its $45,000 price tag too much.  After he died in 2000, Nancy bought one in his memory for $350,000.  I did some research and found a Fox News alert from January 22, 2012, that reported a Tucker for sale for $2.56 million.  To see Nancy’s memorial Tucker, clearly ACM’s star attraction, you must visit the new LeMay.

As I wandered around both America’s Car Museum and the Family Collection for the second time, I found a quote by Mario Andretti that seemed to sum up both my starry-eyed reaction to seeing the old and new facilities in a single day and Harold’s collecting passion.  “If everything seems under control, you’re just not going fast enough.”


Seattle Center’s International Fountain


Five adults, two teenagers, 3 children, and I went to Seattle Center on the Sunday afternoon after Thanksgiving.  The lure was Chihuly Garden & Glass but we accidentally discovered the International Fountain built for the 1962 World’s Fair on our way to it.

Redone in 1995 for $6.5 million, the once tame International Fountain is now a slumbering mechanical monster that comes alive randomly.   Its awakening causes those who have been brave enough to creep toward it, often on a dare, to get generously sprayed as they run away, mostly screaming.  Park visitors of all ages, many tugging on small hands, attempt to touch its pipe filled superstructure before some of those pipes erupt.  Many don’t make it delighting both those who get sprayed like YouTube video victims and those who witness.

Appropriately enough, WET Design was the Mechanical Designer of this fiendishly clever dome sunk into the middle of an oversized bowl.  Many of the unexpected, showy eruptions from one or more of the 137 nozzles end with a Super Shooter that propels jets of cold water 120 feet into the air.

International Fountain operates year round, but we happened to be there on a marginally warm late November day where I personally learned never to turn my back on Fountain.  Like the Fountains of Bellagio in Las Vegas, the International’s performances, I learned later, are often accompanied by music, but not on this day.  Its only sounds were startling mechanical whooshes and then satisfied gurgles after it sprayed someone.

In the middle of Seattle Center not too far from KeyArena and other Seattle Center attractions–the Space Needle, the Pacific Science Center, and, yes, the elegant Garden & Glass–International Fountain was the most fun activity of the day according to 6 adults, two teenagers, and 3 children.

Toward the end of the afternoon, I watched as a man dressed as a clown approached a family.  I saw the  Dad’s smile turn to a frown.  He then shook his head no and walked away.  Passing me, he was saying to his wife, “Isn’t anything at this place free?”  The answer is yes, the 5 Compass International Fountain.

Check it out.






St. Petersburg’s Best Palace

If you ask me if I’ve been to the State Museum of History of St. Petersburg & the Yusupov Palace, the answer is yes and no.

On our last day in St. Petersburg, Russia, Ruth & I walked from our hotel to the Peter & Paul Fortress in cold, season-changing rain.  This complex of defensive buildings, churches, and museums, St. Petersburg’s first settlement, is currently being lovingly restored with a plan to make it a major tourist attraction.  It will be.  The entrance to the Fortress, also called SMOHOSP (see above), is free.  We walked right in and quickly discovered that it was closed on Wednesdays.  It was Wednesday.  We saw just enough of the place to decide there was reason to go back.

We weren’t the only tourists who hadn’t checked.  In fact, several disappointed people were wandering around the warm but closed gift shop. One of them was a lady from England named Diana.

Diana, mother of 5, was in Russia by herself because her husband had Russian ancestry.  He had died in her arms before having the opportunity to go there.   Her journey was a tribute to him as was a 20 mile walk to raise money to combat pancreatic cancer she had completed in his honor.  I admired Diana and delighted in her witty conversation.

Morning plans abandoned, Diana, Ruth & I shared a taxi to her hotel where we had drinks and shared trip experiences.  Diana said that her favorite attraction had been the Yusupov Palace.   Diana raved about its dazzling interiors, especially its over-the-top rococo theater.

Having considered it before deciding on the Fortress, we now had time.  So, despite the worsening weather, we headed there.

Every source I read about St.Petersburg raved about Yusupov, saying it was ornate, spectacular, etc.  But I was interested because the last Yusupov owner, wealthy and eccentric Prince Felix, was into cross-dressing.  Any man who attended balls as a woman, I figured, would live in an interesting palace.  Secondly, this was where Rasputin met his grisly end.  This self-proclaimed mystic, many higher-ups feared, had too much influence on Tsarina Alexandra.  Invited to Yusupov for cake, Rasputin was poisoned, shot, and drowned.   He survived the first 2.

It seemed a short walk, but Ruth & I got lost.  By the time we found Yusupov, we had only 1 hour left to see it and I recalled Lonely Planet‘s warning that it was overpriced for non-Russians.  It would cost us 500 Rbl each, for one hour.  The entry fee was 50-350 Rbl for locals.  Now $15.79 each wasn’t a deal breaker, but we didn’t have 1,000 rubles.  However, an ATM was inches away from the ticket office for the likes of me.

There was a virtual tour of the palace continuously running in the reception area, so Ruth & I decided to watch it before deciding.  As I viewed outrageously overdone rooms rolling by, a scowling woman came over and told me not to touch the pillar I had rested my shoulder on.  But then she smiled like a candidate and said, “Buy ticket and see.  Is very beautiful!” We were out of there.  No reason to go back.