Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A small plunge into lithuanian folklore

EVS gives volunteers the opportunity to learn a new language. But much more than a language, it is a whole new culture we will have the unique chance to get into. After our first lesson in Ignalina with Astra last week, we were lucky enough to attend an end of high school show, letting us discover some traditional dances of the country.

After some dances came the award ceremony

A glimpse of lithuanian dance :

Visits with school kids

Florence, Edouard, and their Macedonian fellow volunteer Aco spent half a day with school kids, dancing with them before visiting some marvels of Aukstaitija National Park, participating that way in their growing knowledge of their close environment.


The beekeeping museum


Welcome to the "bitinintystes muziejus"!

Beekeepers had to find tricks
against bears trying to steal honey

It is possible to try some "museum-made" honey here!
Did you know that it takes a whole day for 200 bees to gather one spoon of honey?

We admired many wooden carvings

From the top of... Ladakalnis Hill

After the museum, we enjoyed the beautiful view
from the top of the 175 m high Ladakalnis Hill

This sacred place used to serve as the site
of pagan sacrifices to the Goddess Lada,
the Great Mother who gave birth to the world.
Today, people still offer a bit of money,
on the foot of this oak tree

Hitch-hiking and planting trees

Saturday the 14th : let's go for a second week-end in Kaunas, to meet up with some fellow volunteers and plant trees together in the botanical gardens, in a project partly financed by Europe.
Our mission to get there : hitch-hiking all the way, with no lithuanian language skills whatsoever... A mission hard enough for us to fail in Jonava, only 30 km away from our goal. But usually, hitch-hiking is quite a common thing and is relatively easy here in Lithuania. With a monthly minimum wage of about 800 Litas (250 Euros), how can you possibly pay for petrol, when it is as expensive as in France?!

...and planting trees

Four volunteers from Germany, Moldovia and Great Britain

On sunday, we bought ourselves bicycles on a big open-air second-hand market in Kaunas, and proudly cycled all afternoon, stopping for a while in Kauno Marios Regional Park,
some 15 km away from the city. Founded in 1662, this monument went through lots of changes since then. It was successively turned into an orthodox church, an archive, a psychiatric hospital and an art gallery. Today, twenty nuns live there and each year, the monastery hosts an international classical music festival.

  Pazailis church and monastery, just outside of Kaunas

Our little paradise in Aukstaitija National Park

Sunset lights on our place

So here we are, in the land of hills, lakes and forests, Lithuania's first national park (five in all), established in 1974, Aukstaitija National Park (A.N.P.). A true excitment envelops us when we first reach the place we will live in for seven months. And this spot goes beyond our expectancies. Overlooking Lake Lusiai, our comfy little apartment will provide us all the quietness we could hope, with beautiful nature all around.

Lake Lusiai is one of the 126 lakes of A.N.P. Scattered among the woods and , these lakes are often interconnected by rivulets and streams. The largest of them is lake Dringis - 721 ha. The Tauragnas is the deepest lake in Lithuania - 60 m. Over 70 % of Aukstaitija's territory is pine stands. Some of the pine trees are over 200 years old. The woods, marshes and meadows of the Aukstaitija National Park abound in rare plant species, including a number of plants that are listed in the Red Data Book of Lithuania and are protected as endangered species. The lakes and rivers, too, are rich in wildlife, from Canadian mink to a variety of birds that can bring quite a few exciting moments to a devoted birdwatcher. There is so much to explore here!

Totems above the lake

The parks territory covers an area of 30 thousand hectares and embraces some 80 settlements and villages, some of which have retained not only their old original layout but also archaic wooden farm buildings and other structures. The Paluse village, which is a tourism centre of the Aukstaitija National Park, was first mentioned in written sources in 1651. It still boasts an octagonal wooden church dating back to 1757.

Our flat is a 20-minutes walk from the headquarters of the Park. Along the way, we can admire some fifteen wooden scultpures, standing up like totems above the lake. They were carved in 1977 by a group of folk artists. Some of them were inspired by stories about devils (the devil seems to be pursuing us since Kaunas, cf. "first impressions in Kaunas").

Burial mounds

During our first days, we got the chance to discover burial mounds in the forest near the village. During almost the whole Middle Age period, between the 5th and the 13th century, people used to bury their deads, covering them with a small hill of dirt. Today, despite some illegal excavations, it is still possible to see quite a lot of them in the forest near Paluse. If you see a hill, possibly surrounded by some kind of small staves, it is most likely someone was buried there, hundreds of years ago. Actually, perhaps not someone, but a few people, or even a horse, if it had a great value.

In Paluse, near the beautiful wooden church, you can find a reconstitution of a burial mound, cut in halves, with the exhibit of a squeleton. Good to get a better idea of the Middle Age customs.

From the 5th until the 13th century, people in Lithuania and Eastern Europe
used to bury their deads in burial mounds

Botanikas Takas / Botanical Trail / Sentier botanique

Asta the biologist gives some plant explanations to Florence
Hardly fifteen minutes from our place starts the very diverse botanical trail. Diverse in terms of landscapes and plant species. More than 150 of them are presented on this 3,5 km long trail, nine of them being included on the Lithuanian Red List (this list identifies endangered species).

Edmundas shows us the work of a beaver

Thursday, May 19, 2011

First impressions... in Kaunas

A pretty big audience for these fire jugglers in Kaunas

We spent our first week-end in Lithuania in the second city of the country, Kaunas. We met up with other volunteers from various european places, but spent most of our time with Aco, from Macedonia, learning for instance about the difficult economical and political situation of his country.

Among our first discoveries was the fact that it would be relatively easy to interact with young people here, cause almost all of them have a (very) good english. It will be much harder to connect with older persons, who used to live under USSR, so who only know Lithuanian and Russian. And lithuanian language is considered as one of the five most difficult languages in the world. Fortunately, Florence knows basics in Russian and Edouard has a fluent english, which makes them complementary. And even if they can't speak your language, most Lithuanians will always try to help you in case you get lost in the city jungle...

Kaunas was booming the whole week-end we spent there, with bands playing all sorts of music everywhere in the street, fire jugglers, and lots of good people to meet.

Devil : a sick sense of humour

the devil loves music

On Sunday, we went to the Devil's Museum, which was definitely worth a visit. This museum hosts a collection of more than two thousand sculptures and carvings from all over the world, most of them still from slavic countries and of folk provenance.

We felt like folklore and traditions used to be deeply impregnated in people's lives here. This is partly due to resistance against communism (the regime was forbidding any kind of belief apart from the main one) and strong paganism. Lithuania was the last pagan state in Europe, with an unbroken tradition of pagan practice in rural areas lasting until the early 19th century. And Eastern Europeans have a very different view of the devil from that commonly held in the West.

The devil is actually very close to man, he represents a part of ourselves. He is responsible for earth, flora, fauna, fertility, and is the patron of farmers and craftsmen. He loves music and has a very sick sense of humour. Hence the humoristic rather than sinister-looking collection. By the way, the devil is into drinking as well. God gave permission to drink two glasses of alcohol, one to God, the second one to yourself. The third one goes to the devil. When a man drinks this third glass, his throat starts burning... So watch out for the devil in you...

In pagan times, the devil was the equal of Gods, accepted by the people as a normal part of life. Only Christianism managed to transform the devil into a demonised creature. Today, slavic Paganism is undergoing a renaissance: traditional folk celebrations are again popular, and Pagan groups are springing up throughout the former Soviet Union.

On Monday the 9th, we left the city by bus, to reach our tiny settlement of Paluse, in the heart of Aukstaitija National Park...

Monday, May 16, 2011

What is EVS?

European Voluntary Service (EVS) is the European Commission's project that allows a young person (18–30 years) to become a volunteer in another country for a specified period, normally between 2–12 months. The service activities can be, for example, in the field of environment, arts and culture, activities with children, young people or the elderly, heritage or sports and leisure activities.

In this way, it seeks to develop solidarity, mutual understanding and tolerance among young people, thus contributing to reinforcing social cohesion in the European Union and to promoting young people's active citizenship.

Each project has three partners, a volunteer, a sending organisation and a host organisation. The project has to take place in a country other than where the volunteers lives, is non-profit-making and unpaid and last for a limited period (maximum 12 months). One of the countries involved in a project must be an EU Member State or an accession country.

Our hosting organisation is Deineta (cf. photo), financed by a national agency, this national agency being financed by Brussels. Deineta is located in Kaunas, where we spent our first week-end.

For more informations, check :

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Who are we?

Dear readers,

By chance, by mistake, or perhaps on purpose, you give us a first visit. So you deserve some explanations, that is the least we can do...

Florence is a 22 year-old french woman, raised among apples and cows in Jacques Chirac's region, Correze. Her childhood dream was to work with monkeys, but when she turned 18, she discovered... ducks! As a first working experience, during her agriculture studies, she worked in a duck farm for a month. The year after, she got into another symbol of the region, studying the ecosystem of a species of mushroom, the famous and delicious cep! But as mushrooms go along pretty well with beer, she flew straight to the lemurian country... Madagascar. Definitely not a well-known place for beer-making, but still, she worked for a brewery for five months over there.

After such a strong experience, her french come-back was pretty hard. She still managed to get back on her feet, so to speak, and worked with kids as an environmental guide for a nature and sport association in her native area.

Edouard is a 29-year-old french man, born and raised in Chambery, in the beautiful Alps. After seven years of history and journalism studies, he decided he had had enough of it, and in september 2007, he left his country for a two-year trip in New Zealand. He was looking for new experiences, and got into organic gardening through Wwoofing (Willing workers organisation on organic farms), hiking, and travelling on his own. This long period of time overseas definitely transformed him.

After he came back, in March 2010, he went cycling around France for six months, discovering the beauty of his native place. Then, he volunteered for three different missions in the South of France, healing, feeding and releasing injured birds and small mammals; welcoming the public in the beautiful bird reserve of the ancient saltworks in Hyeres; and taking care of tortoises in the tortoise village of Gonfaron, visited by tens of thousands of people each year.

Without knowing each others, Florence and Edouard have been sharing a common passion for nature and travelling for years. They both applied for a European Volunteering Service (EVS), and got a positive answer from Aukstaitija National Park, in Lithuania. So that's how the adventure started, on the 6th of May 2011...