Every year, the people of Kaunas build a mile-long table and dine together in the spirit of peace. The 2022 event was the most poignant yet.
Passing the salt from one end of the table to the other is not always easy in Kaunas, Lithuania.
In fact, on one particular day every year, you have to walk (or, as Kaunas’ residents prefer, scoot) for a mile if you want to hand the salt to diners on the opposite side of the banquet table.
This day is known as Neighbours’ Day, when the annual Courtyard Festival takes place and groups of friends, family, and colleagues bring tables out to the city center, join them together, and lay down white tablecloths, candelabras, and flower arrangements before sitting down to a meal.
The resulting mega table snakes through the pedestrian-only Liberty Boulevard for a mile. Marching bands, folk dancers, opera singers, and mime artists perform along the length, and Lithuanian flags flap from the linden trees that shade the table from the sun.
At the 2022 Courtyard Festival, which took place on May 20, dozens of Ukrainian flags twitched in the spring breeze beside the Lithuanian ones, and two lengthy blue and yellow ribbons streamed down the front of the city’s most famous landmark, the Church of St. Michael the Archangel.
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First held in 2017, the Courtyard Festival has always been a celebration of friendship and peace and according to the event’s organizers. Today, this sentiment has never been more important. On the day of the 2022 festival, just 830 miles from the Lithuanian border, the country of Ukraine was enduring its 85th day of war with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.
“The Courtyard Festival was originally set up by an artist called Vytenis Jakas who thought it would be beautiful to bring people from different communities together to celebrate Neighbours’ Day,” explained current organizer Simona Savickaitė. “In the beginning, there weren’t so many people, and it wasn’t as organized. Today, it has become a place for everyone to show up, be together and feel a sense of community. This year’s festival was held in solidarity with Ukraine. We had Ukrainian poets, soloists, and a Ukrainian conductor perform, and many Ukrainian people attended. I am so happy they could be with us and feel included and safe.”
Natalija Klimenko is one of the Ukrainians who attended the 2022 festival. Having arrived in Kaunas in March with her daughter Alyona, Natalija is now one of around 11,000 Ukrainian refugees temporarily living in Kaunas. She sat at a table hosted by CulturEUkraine, a new creative space that has been set up for the families, children, and artists of Ukraine that have been displaced by war.
“My friend who has lived and worked in Lithuania for four years invited me to stay,” Natalija explained. “He said come, and I will help you. I thought it would just be for a few days. We have been here for three months. The feelings have been so hard. I left my husband behind in Zaporizhzhia because he is in the army. My father and mother are still at home. My brother, his wife, and his eight-year-old son had to stay behind because they have an elderly grandmother who couldn’t leave. They told me I must come to Lithuania. My mother said, “God, be with you.”’
Natalija has made many new friends in Kaunas, both Ukrainian and Lithuanian in the past three months. She said that attending the Courtyard Festival offered her a little respite from the worry and pain of recent months.
“I felt so good on this day,” she told me. “I didn’t think about the bad news. It was a beautiful day, and I was able to be happy for a moment. I say thank you every day for the friendship Lithuania has shown us.”
Location-wise, the table that Natalija sat at during the festival was one of the most poignantly placed. It was a few paces away from Kaunas’ permanent memorial to Romas Kalanta, a 19-year-old high school student who set himself on fire in 1972 in a protest against the suppression of the Soviet Union, which occupied Lithuania from 1940 to 1990.
The table was also just across the road from the former Central Post Office, a modernist building, where a temporary exhibition on the events of 1972 called 1972: Breaking Through the Wall is currently on display and will run until 31st August 22.
Elsewhere at the festival, tables were garlanded by people of every age. Many were dressed up, sporting flower crowns, top hats, and traditional Lithuanian folk outfits. On the feast-front, attendees shared everything from takeaway pizza to traditional dishes like kepta duona (fried black bread) and obuolių sūris (an apple cheese, comparable to a jelly-like dessert made by boiling apples and sugar).
No matter who you spoke to, who they were with, what they were wearing, or what they were eating, everyone expressed the same sentiment: they were standing together with Ukraine.
Kaunas resident and lecturer Milda Gintilienė attended the 2022 festival with her colleagues from Kaunas University of Applied Sciences. The six friends dressed in white for the occasion, and their table was topped with a selection of white foods, including a tower of Šakotis–a traditional Lithuanian cake that’s baked on a spit over open flames.
“We worry about what’s happening in Ukraine,” said Milda. “Events like this festival help, I think. We are all united here. We are sharing food. We are sharing emotions. We all have this experience in common now.”
Currently working as an assistant to a Lithuanian lighting designer, Daniela Piangiolino attended the Courtyard Festival for the second time in 2022. Originally from the Puglia region of Italy, Daniela had moved to Kaunas to live in February 2022.
“This festival makes me feel warm inside,” gushed Daniela. “People from all over the world have come together, and it makes me so happy. It’s definitely more important this year. We feel a lot about the situation in Ukraine. Events like this show how close people from different parts of the world can be together. If we don’t do things like this, we will never be able to see this closeness in the rest of the world.”
Dancer Vaiva Pranskevičiūtė performed with Suktinis–one of the oldest folk-dance groups in Lithuania–during the 2022 Courtyard Festival. She had tears in her eyes when she explained how a number of Ukrainian refugees had approached her after her performance to have their photographs taken with her.
“Our performance at the festival was about growing relationships and making good emotions,” Vaiva said. “After, some Ukrainian people came to me and told me we had made them smile and feel good for the first time in a long time. What’s happening hurts in all our hearts, and maybe we don’t fight with guns, but in my mind, we are all united.”
The Courtyard Festival may be over for another year, but Kaunas’ support for Ukraine remains obvious in the city. The blue and yellow flags still fly from the linden trees, book shops sell posters of artwork that promotes peace, and cafes and restaurants display signs that say Slava Ukraini and We Stand with Ukraine.