A Week In Vilnius
Howdy everyone! Hope this finds you all well.
You find me in Copenhagen airport as I try and fill in 5 hours of layover before my journey home starts in earnest. So where have I been? Vilnius in Lithuania of course!
The next question you may ask is “If you are on your way home, why haven’t we heard from you before this!”. Well, this has been a very quick trip just for work, so time has been precious, and I really saw precious little of my home for the week. But I got enough in to warrant a post about it. So here goes!
Journey started just a week ago, with a LOOONNNNGGG set of flights. Melbourne -> Singapore -> Copenhagen -> Vilnius. And that was also with 2.5 hours in Singapore and 6 hours in Copenhagen. So a long way to go just for a week, but you do that sometimes hey? Flights were uneventful in all the best ways, with a bit of time to find a crazy milk-based drink in a Singapore Airport convenience store…
… and also time to chat to the locals in Copenhagen airport…
But really, before I knew it I was in Lithuania! Vilnius to be exact. I love an airport only 5km from the city centre. I just hopped a public bus and in only 15 minutes I was at my hotel. There was no time for dilly-dally though… I was straight into work! Only an hour after arriving I had my first conference catchup, a dinner with my working group for the conference.
The conference I attended was ITiCSE (Innovation and Technology in Computer Science Education). I visited the conference in Sweden last year, and this year was a great chance to meet up with many folk I worked with while in Europe last year (I also had 2 papers to present). A big part of the work for the conference was being part of a formal “working group”. These are groups of researchers who want to focus on one particular topic and over the course of 2 days prior to the conference, and also as many hours as you could during the conference, we produce a 25 page research report on the area. Phew! It was going to be a busy week.
So I finally got to meet my colleagues face to face (after having Skyped many times in the lead up). I had met a few already in my trip to Finland last year so it was lovely to see them again, and it was also great to meet new people to work with. But work could wait. We had a casual dinner to chat and get to know each other, and decided the research discussions should continue over a wander about town.
Vilnius is a lovely city. All I really knew is that it had an “old town” like many European cities, and expected something like Tallin. However I found Vilnius to have a much more relaxed vibe to it. The lack of tourists was probably the main reason for this, but whatever the reason everyone was friendly and chilled out. One reason for this though was that Monday was a public holiday and apparently most people had left town for the weekend. Rather than stay in the city, they head to the coast or somewhere else. That led to eerily quiet streets at times.
Given it was staying light so late (until 10:30pm or so) it was a great city for wandering later in the evening. My hotel was located on one of the main streets and it was nice to wander down toward the Vilnius Cathedral which lay at the other end of the street. Along the way I saw one of the locals just hanging about…
… and also spied some local death eaters…
Cathedral Square lay at the other end of the street. This was home to the Cathedral, Royal Palace, and Gediminas Hill. The cathedral and palace looked quite cool, however we would end up there later in the week, so we decided to head up the hill to check out the Vilnius skyline.
Although not too high, the hill and its red brick tower afforded some nice views of the city.
The sunset from the hill was especially gorgeous, filling me with good vibes. Seeing it set on the old town and the greenery I had the feeling this would be a pretty nice place to be for the next week.
Here is where the next 5 days blur into each other a bit. Saturday and Sunday were both 10 hour days of working with my new research buddies. I wasn’t sure how it would go, with 17 of us all working away on the research, but our leaders Arto and Petri (both from Finland) were ace and we had a great camaraderie amongst the group and the desire to do some great work. Working groups are quite unique to this conference and although they are a lot of work (and you miss some of the conference because you are knee deep in doing more research) they establish some great working relationships, or strengthen them, as was the case for myself and Petri & Archie, both from Aalto University, where I worked last year.
The first day was a lot of consolidation of the work we had done individually to that point and really nutting out the story we wanted to tell with our new work. The whole working group was invaluable also for just working with others and encountering different research styles. In the end we had 7 different nationalities represented… which means 6 other countries I can now work in 🙂
Each night we would typically go out for a group dinner at one of the local pubs or restaurants. Vilnius had no shortage of pretty good places to eat. And the prices! 10 euro for a couple of courses (maybe 3) and a pint? Yes please!
I managed also to sneak a couple of runs in too which was nice. Although I can’t say either were particularly elegant, with the jetlag and the local speciality of potato dumplings filled with meat and the cheap beer weighing heavy in my stomach. The heat was also a bit of a shock, and although not super hot (maybe about 30 degrees) it was still a bit of a change from Melbourne at the moment.
While out and about I noticed a bit of street art which was quite cool I was most enamoured with the pelicans I saw all over the city. This little bear was pretty cute too.
These 5 days of conference went by in a blur. It was a flurry of work and presentations and work and research discussions and work and coffee and work. But it was a joy to be so focused on research for that time. The group made it a great experience and I felt vry privileged to be part of it.
Wednesday night arrived and it was time for the conference to come to an end with the dinner. It was held in the Royal Palace in Cathedral Square. The palace was pretty much destroyed during the Russian occupation in the 18th century and went to ruin. In 2000, the government decided to rebuild and recreate it as a museum, and we were fortunate to get a guided tour before our dinner. They have done an amazing job, with the palace doubling as a monument to what once stood and also a great museum of Lithuanian historical artefacts.
I normally loathe conference dinners. I’m not one for the formalities of them and more often than not it is quite a bit of work. This was different though. First of all, since the working group was coming to a close we saw it as a fun way to cap it all off. But also, the dinner proved to be one of the best I had experienced.
What I loved is that the conference organisers seemed to just get it all spot on. We had our guided palace tour, then settled in for entrees. After that we got to enjoy some quite dramatic opera performance (he took it very seriously at times!) and then alternated between courses and opera. It was super well paced to have some food, some music, and some time to chat on our table.
It then all capped off with less formal dessert and drinks where we could all mingle together, enjoying local beers and spirits. Everyone who made it to the end of the conference was in high spirits. Some were keen to kick on, although I called it stumps at about midnight. I found out the next day that 3am was quits time for some of my working group colleagues. Good work team!
Thursday arrived, which was my one and only day to really explore the city in earnest. I had the good fortune to be able to spend it with Jane from the University of Warwick, whom I had also worked closely with last year. We didn’t have a plan except to wander the old town and soak it all in.
Well, I did actually have one thing on my list. Frank Zappa. As I was leaving work last week, one of our PhD students said “make sure you visit the Frank Zappa statue!”. Huh?! I had no idea! Kate also knew of it. Weird! I had never heard of it, and in doing some reading could never really find out why it was there. But I had to see it.
So in a non-descript parking lot of sorts, there was Zappa’s head on a plinth. I have to say it looked pretty rad, definitely looked like the man himself.
The rest of the day was just wandering old town. We also head into the Uzupis Republic, which is a small part of the city that declared themselves as a breakaway state. Cool! Today it has artists residing, and apparently even has its own currency that you can use once a year. The Angel of Uzupis looks over their tiny community.
They also have their own constitution, which they display proudly. “Do Not Defeat”, “Do Not Fight Back”, “Do Not Surrender”. Nice.
In this area, there also lives a mermaid in the wall, overlooking the river. Sadly, I don’t know her whole story, so it might be worth finding out.
With this, my day, and my week, in Vilnius was fast coming to a close. Jane and I shared some dinner and more research discussion, making plans for our next work. This conference was so valuable for continuing my work from last year with Jane, Paivi from Finland, and all the others I met and worked with. Even though it was hectic and a long way to come it was very worth it. Now to keep the hard work going…
So that’s it! Just on a week, and what a hectic one it was. Nothing else by airline food, movies and hopefully some sleep here and there. Oh, and the odd view like this out my plane window…
See you all soon!