This summer, I was fortunate enough to be able to do a lot of traveling. In May, I visited New York City, Toronto, and Montreal for two weeks with a friend I’ve known since middle school, as well as friends who were exchange students at OU. Before leaving, I was interested to see how it would go, if we would make good travel buddies or if there might be some conflict. I was actually surprised how little trouble we had; although we did some things all together, at other times we naturally split up into smaller groups when we wanted to see different things. It was such a fun trip, and it was definitely interesting to compare the three cities as we went to one after another. New York and Toronto were both cities full of exciting things to do, see, and of course eat, as well as people from all different places and walks of life. However, Toronto kind of felt like the younger, cleaner version of New York, with nicer people. Although New York has a certain magic about it with its grittiness and history, I couldn’t help but think Toronto would be a nicer place to live if I had to choose. Nevertheless, both had their own charms and I definitely hope I can return someday (hopefully sooner rather than later) to explore them even more. You could certainly live in both cities for your entire life and still discover new things to see and do. I would also love to go back to Montreal one day. Entering the old part of the city was like stepping into a small piece of Europe, albeit a rather touristy piece. The rest of the city felt like a regular large North American city, which is not a bad thing. With a thriving young and hip community, there were many roads covered in beautiful street art and full of attractive coffeeshops and restaurants.
From June to July, I traveled to Vilnius, Lithuania to visit my friend Migle who was my roommate during my study abroad in South Korea. I stayed with Migle and her family for a month, and there’s no way I could possibly write about all of the things we did. Not only did we explore Lithuania’s capital Vilnius, we also went to the seaside and stayed in a yacht at the Curonian Spit, which separates the Curonian Lagoon from the Baltic sea. We visited the small town my ancestors came from, Moletai, and we traveled across the border to visit Riga and Tallinn, the capitals of Latvia and Estonia. I went at the perfect time, because I was able to experience both the Midsummer’s Festival/St. Jonas’ Day and the Lithuania Song and Dance Festival. The latter would normally not have occurred this year, but was held specially for the Lithuanian Independence 100 Year Anniversary. Traveling with a local is such a rewarding experience, because you see and do things that you would just not even know to look for if you are touring by yourself. Migle and I also traveled together in Korea, so we already knew we made excellent travel partners because we are interested in seeing the same kind of things. We visited pretty coffeeshops ranging from sleek industrial styles to “soviet chic” style, we explored traditional open-air markets as well as modern shopping malls. Staying at a local’s house and getting to eat home-cooked food is also a luxury when you are traveling, especially when your friend’s mom is such an excellent cook–I know from personal experience. As much as I loved studying abroad in Korea, not having access to a kitchen or home-cooked food 99% of the time could get tiring. I may write another post later to discuss more about some aspects of my travel in Lithuania, because there is just so much to write.
In Toronto, Montreal, and Vilnius, there was a certain aspect that gave me a strange feeling as a Jewish person. Both of the cities had thriving Jewish communities in the not-so-distant past. Vilnius in particular used to be called the Jerusalem of the North or the Jerusalem of Lithuania because its Jewish population was so large before World War II. Right before World War II, Jews accounted for 30% of Vilnius’s population. Following World War II, the Lithuanian Jewish population was nearly decimated. Very few Jews now live there, and the Great Synagogue there has been replaced by an elementary school that my friend attended because it was a five minute walk from her home (although the school is now closed, as well.) I took a “Jewish Vilnius” walking tour and while fascinating, it was also saddening to realize that a huge, thriving community that used to live right in and around my friend’s neighborhood had been essentially destroyed.
Montreal and Toronto’s Jewish communities are doing much better than Vilnius’s, but it was strange to realize that the artsy, hipster areas that my friends and I were having fun exploring used to be the Jewish neighborhood of the city. Although I loved the existing atmosphere of those areas, I couldn’t help but feel a little remorseful that much of the Jewish culture in those areas were lost. I wondered what it would have been like to visit when those neighborhoods were still home to a large Jewish community. I was, however, also inspired by signs of efforts to celebrate the Jewish community, such as the Shalom Montreal exhibit at the McCord Museum, or efforts to restore and respect the memory of the Jewish community, such as the current excavations of the yard of the Great Synagogue of Vilnius. Of course in New York City as well there is a huge Jewish population, but during my trip my most significant encounter with Jewish New Yorker culture was eating at the very touristy, very overpriced Katz’s Deli. Hopefully next time I go to New York I can explore the Jewish culture there more fully.