Sunday, December 4, 2011
I hate nightclubs more than almost anything else that doesn’t involve violence, racism or Brussel-sprouts. First off, I don’t drink. Second, I don’t like loud noise. Third, I would rather talk to someone than dance and fourth, I am particularly bad at hearing in loud places so I can converse/understand far less than the average person in a nightclub. Finally, because I had a really bad concussion as a teenager I become disoriented in loud or crowded spaces. Combine that with the fact that nightclubs are as quintessentially Spanish as hookah bars are quintessentially Israeli or baseball is quintessentially American and the fact that my general approach to life in Spain was “do as the Romans do”, after six months there I was completely nightclubbed out for life. This was, of course, despite the fact that I had only gone to nightclubs three or four times in Spain because I hate nightclubs so much. I spent most of my time in Spanish nightclubs making sure creepy Armenian men who may or may not have been gangsters (apparently friends of the owner) didn’t make unwanted advances to deliriously drunk girls from my dorm. When I didn’t have that distraction I spent most of my time trying to avoid colliding into people who thought they were dancing but were actually kind of just walking in circles complaining about how loud the music was. And when I wasn’t trying to avoid people I was trying to convince someone, anyone, to split a cab with me so I could go back to the dorm, which usually got the response “dude, it’s not even dawn yet!” So yeah, I hate nightclubs. In fact, thinking of it perhaps I’d rather the Brussel-sprouts.
As it turned out though, my friend in Kaunas and her friend from Israel really had their hearts set on going to a nightclub. Having not gone to a nightclub in her hometown in a while she turned to her brother for advice. Her brother, knowing the clubbing scene, told her the clubs that were bad ideas for various reasons (I remember distinctly that one club was designated for getting into fights and was to be avoided by womenfolk and foreigners alike). So with a recommendation from her brother we had a destination picked out and I was perfectly resigned to being miserable for a few hours so that they could get their clubbing experience in. As fate would have it though, I ended up inadvertently preventing us from getting into the club at all.
I got the feeling that part of my friend’s motivation for bringing us to a nightclub was to show that Kaunas was youthful and hip and could compete with Vilnius. Vilnius of course, for all its charms, is a small city when compared to the major metropolitan centers that most tourists who end up there are already familiar with. For comparison’s sake it is roughly 1/3 the size of Philadelphia and Kaunas is roughly 1/3 the size of Vilnius in area so when it comes to Kaunas you end up with a city about 1/9th the size of Philadelphia with few attractions. And that’s not much at all considering that on an international scale Philadelphia is not a major metropolis by any stretch of the imagination. In short, Kaunas is very much off the beaten path and although it has some small-town charm to it in the downtown area, there’s really no reason to go there unless there’s something or (more likely) someone specific you want to see. Anyway...the entrance to the nightclub was down a flight of stairs. My companions vanished through a doorway and I would have followed them in but a stream of angry Lithuanian words blocked my progress and I ended up with what appeared to be three large men trying to point to the top of my head (but missing the mark) from a dozen stairs above. One came down and began yelling at me so I told him (in very broken Lithuanian) that I didn’t understand him, and that I spoke Anglų kalba and he started shrieking “trainers. No damn trainers. White, no!” I couldn’t figure out what the hell he was talking about. So I told him that I was not a trainer and that even if I were why should my skin color be an issue in a country where nearly everyone is white? At that moment he looked like he was deciding exactly how to rip my head off and it was clear that if he understood that there was a miscommunication he didn’t find it amusing. In any case, even had he chosen not to render me headless, I might still be there wondering what sport I was not supposed to be coaching if my friend hadn’t arrived and began arguing with the bouncers in Lithuanian, which promptly got all three of us, well, bounced. Swallowing both my sense of embarrassment mixed with utter confusion and the feeling that I had narrowly avoided several hours of misery, I asked my furious friend what had happened.
“I forgot to tell you Jordan that you can’t wear white sneakers in a club.”
“I tried to reason with him that you were a foreigner and ignorant but he wouldn’t listen and give permission.”
“Why white? Too unstylish?”
“No, it’s that gangs and subcultures that like to fight used to wear white so they feel it’s a security risk to let people in wearing white sneakers.”
The idea of me being a security risk in Kaunas of all places was just too ridiculous for me not to burst out laughing. In my mind Kaunas is a city permanently linked with unspeakable violence and cruelty during the Holocaust (see the history of the train station) and the city’s Jewish community, including some of my family, was exterminated with the enthusiastic help and scythes of many of the locals (and perhaps even the grandparents of the bouncers for all I know), so the idea of me being threatening to anyone due to the color of my sneakers seemed ludicrous beyond belief. I muttered something to that effect under my breath in Yiddish and immediately felt bad for again judging 21st century Lithuania and her idiot bouncer-thug types by the memory of 1940s Lithuanian fascist partisans who scythed Jews to death even before the Nazis arrived.*
In the end, we had a perfectly nice evening eating at an outdoor restaurant watching Spain win a match in the world cup.
*In fairness to myself you have to admit that the most stereotypical profession for the grandchild of a fascist goon would be someone whose job it is to kick people out of nightclubs because they have the wrong kind of footwear. In actuality, however, it’s just as likely that his grandparents had been bartenders or social-workers or anything else for that matter and in defense of bouncers being a jerk is part of the job and they may very well be sweet people when they aren’t working. Unfortunately those same fascist Lithuanian partisans who made a sport out of killing Jewish civilians were on my mind so often during the trip because the Lithuanian government was considering honoring them with parades at the time. In any case, it was after this incident that I realized that I’ll never be able to separate contemporary Lithuania in my mind from the Holocaust and that perhaps this is something unavoidable that shouldn’t be dreaded.
Friday, November 4, 2011
Lithuania Redux 4: A Rainy Day and Night of Culture.... Or Jordan gets kicked out a hotel and called a moron
I traveled to Lithuania in June of 2010 for a one week trip. At the time I had just completed six months of study in a Spanish University. It was my second trip to Lithuania and when I got back to the USA I began composing long blog entries combining my recollections of my last trip to Lithuania with emails I wrote home to family and friends from when I studied Yiddish there for a month in 2008. This is the fourth, of nine entries. (Entry one is here), (entry two is here), (entry three is here). I hope to post a new entry every week. So far I've failed at that goal.
When I arrived in Kaunas it was just after dawn and I was completely and utterly exhausted, the type of exhaustion which makes you unsteady on your feet without even realizing it. Armed with gifts (the aforementioned Yiddish Little Prince, a tiny bottle of Valencian Sangria, and honey from Andalusia), a video-camera, three days worth of clothes and a phrasebook I figured that it would take me at least an hour to get through customs. After all I was transporting alcohol and (perhaps worse) an agricultural product across an international border and I was half asleep which would presumably have made me look both suspicious and foolish. Additionally my most recent experience going through security/customs had been leaving Israel where I was interrogated for nearly three hours, stripped searched and accused of unspeakable crimes on the basis of my knowledge of Yiddish, friendship with an Eastern European woman who lived in Tel Aviv and wasn’t Jewish and the over-imagination, paranoia and delusions of Israeli airport officials. After that Kafkaesque experience in which I was accused of things without being told what they were and was insulted for not choosing to live in Israel while simultaneously being accused of breaking its laws (i.e. how American Jews not on Birthright tours are sometimes treated leaving Israel), I certainly figured that Lithuania at least could muster a few rude questions, a frisk search and a perhaps a veiled anti-Semitic interrogation over whether I was seeking to see/retrieve property that had belonged to murdered relatives (this happened to someone I know who visited Poland). But when I got to customs the man simply opened my bag, looked at the alcohol and said “looks like you’re going to have a good time, enjoy Lithuania” and indicated that I should go to the next hallway, I thought this was surely some kind of a trick. Where was the woman who would come out of nowhere and ask for the names and addresses of people I knew in the country and then call them in front of me (as happened when I first went through security in Tel Aviv entering Israel)? Where was the man who would keep asking me “are you not not afraid?” to which I’d respond “no” and he’d say “so you are afraid then? Why are you afraid of me?” Passing through customs at that moment I realized that I was suffering from a bit of post-traumatic stress from my previous trip across borders and reminded myself that I was entering Lithuania where the most common national communal concern involves worrying about the country’s standing in Eurocup basketball rankings and not Israel where legitimate fears of terrorism have created a society that is afraid of its own shadow (like America was right after 9/11). And unlike exiting Israel where my Yiddish books were seen as a threat and resulted in interrogation, there was no notice of them entering Kaunas despite the fact that it’s a language many people in Lithuania see every day (albeit only on the memorial plaques for the murdered people who used to speak it there). So to make a long story short, being tired to the point of confusion and paranoid that someone was going to come up to me and force me into an interrogation room, I stumbled right out of the tiny airport and immediately realized I had no idea how I was supposed to get from Kaunas to Vilnius. Luckily enough, about ten seconds later the Little Spaniard popped his head out of a fifteen passenger van and directed me into it. I asked where they were going and as it turned out they were going straight to Vilnius so I handed the driver some money (he gave me almost all of it back because the taxi was 1/5th the price I had imagined it would be) and I found myself on a Lithuanian version of what in Israel is called a (Monet) Sherut and according to Wikipedia is called a “share-taxi” in English. Basically it’s a fifteen passenger van that follows a set route but not a set schedule, leaving only when it’s full.
The ride to Vilnius was uneventful albeit scary as all trips in motor vehicles in Lithuania inevitably are. The countryside looked completely unchanged and I was able to contemplate it silently as nearly all of the passengers had nodded off even before we left the airport. I thought I recognized the field where a famous Musar Yeshiva that Chaim Grade had attended once stood and reflected on the small towns and hamlets sprinkled throughout the country where the graves of my ancestors lie with no one to tend them. I had come to Lithuania the second time in large part to spend more time learning about Lithuanian culture and not to focus on the mass-murder of my people but in the share-taxi there was no Lithuanian culture to be had and for me the landscape belongs solely to Yiddish literature. Here were the trees whose bark was brewed into the greatest explosion of Jewish cultural creativity in history. The Rom press printed what would become the standard Talmud (a then 1500 year old tractate on religious laws which they reformatted) as well as a large chunk of modern Yiddish literature and it was from these Lithuanian oak trees that it made the paper onto which five thousand years of Jewish experience was printed. Those five thousand years of Jewish tradition were wiped off the face of the earth in Lithuania and survive almost solely in the books that were printed there and smuggled out of the country and perhaps in the trees themselves for many were planted to cover over the mass graves where entire towns of Jews were lined up and shot. Each town in Lithuania which was once Jewish has a former synagogue (usually the post office now), a Jewish cemetery (usually destroyed) and a mass grave which the locals can always point out. The collective knowledge contained in the books came from the trees and they returned back to the trees for after 1000 people were shot dead, nearly every day, day after day from June to November of 1941 trees were planted to cover the mass graves and as the corpses decomposed the words the people had read recomposed themselves back into the bark from which they had come. Watching the endless forests go by I had the sudden urge to get out of the van when we stopped at a light and rip the bark off of a tree and carry it along with me as a talisman. Since the Lithuanian wing of my family has no marked graves I figured that I’d bury it in Philadelphia and erect a small monument. Thankfully, a near-collision with an 18-wheeler snapped me out of my depression and threw my mind back into the 21st century and reminded me of my goal of learning more about Lithuanian culture. Little did I know that I had picked the best day of the year to do so.
We were dropped off at the central bus station in Vilnius and I quickly parted ways with the Little Spaniard and his mother as her father was waiting there to pick them up. Walking around Vilnius I found to my complete surprise that I still remembered the city well enough to find my way around but even so I soon realized that I had no idea where my hotel was so I hopped into a taxi, showed the Russian driver the address and soon found myself in a strange hotel room straight out of the mid-19th century (other than the TV and bathtub which would nearly kill me, more on that later). I was about to conk out till evening when a woman entered my room (yes the door was closed) and told me very emphatically to leave because there was to be a “culture fire.” “A culture fire” I thought, “what in the world?” I let myself imagine culture being burned or perhaps more optimistically culture around a bonfire but listening to the woman’s emphatic descriptions in extremely choppy English it became clear that she had meant to say “culture fair.” She then said something to the effect of “come on, this only happens once a year” but with about 25 words, a handclap someone would use to motivate a drunken chicken and a typically Lithuanian over-attempt at a smile. “Well,” I thought “I came to see Lithuanian culture and it will be a much better story to tell if the hotel manager successfully kicks me out of my room at 11AM so I might as well go.” So I nodded, thanked her, grabbed an umbrella and headed out the door toward the gates of dawn through which she had promised there would be the “culture fire.”
As I was leaving I decided to pick up a sandwich at a store right inside of the gates of dawn and I exited the store just in time to see the hotel manager with two young boys walking by. I ran up to her and she proceeded to purposefully look right past me and shuffle her boys ahead of her. What in the world? I decided to ignore them despite my annoyance with the situation and continued walking until I found myself face to face with a group of people in traditional costumes cooking a giant stew in a cauldron suspended from a tripod. I had often wondered what exactly a cooking tripod looked like because they often appear in Yiddish literature and seeing one was an unexpected moment of clarity and I began chuckling under my breath. First off, I finally got to see what a cooking tripod actually looked like and secondly I suddenly understood the strong association between tripods, paganism and the western European conception of a witch because the three young women doing the cooking looked like a gaggle of witches making potions. A few women who were well dressed in modern clothing looked suspiciously into the pots and talked with their counterparts in medieval clothing who were stirring. Further down the main square a large group of teenagers were dancing in significantly less fancy traditional costumes with the girls wearing funny green hats. A group of musicians played leers, trumpets and balalaikas as young boys sang in the medieval style imitating women’s voices. Larger crowds were gathered watching, some clutching small flags embroidered with coats of arms of medieval family crests and dutchesies which, for that day at least, were suddenly unforgotten.
|This is more or less what the tripod looked like although the pot was much bigger.|
|This is very similar to what the women cooking were wearing except their costumes came with hats that an American or Western European would think belonged solely to witches, i.e. long and pointed.|
|This is the exact outfit the dancing teenagers were wearing.|
Further down in the square a small wooden house straight out of the 17th century was being unloaded off of a giant flatbed truck. I love old houses and even more outdoor museums built around displaying them (there’s a great one just outside of Cardiff btw) so I asked around to see if the house had come from a museum but nobody around me understood English. I was able to communicate enough however to be given a camera to take pictures of a group of men in early medieval light-armor who wanted to pose in front of the house with swords raised as if they were ready to go pillaging. Past the house and the dancers were three or four dozen food stands separated into a few groups. The first group had people cooking in traditional costumes on small tripods or directly in crock pots on fires and amazingly they managed to keep up with the long lines of customers. In the second group of food stands there were one or two people cooking using traditional methods for display purposes while people behind them cooked the same food on modern gas grills or in small stoves. The third group were farmers in modern clothing who had come from the small towns around Vilnius with prepared food; especially bake-goods and sweets. The contrast between the different vendors led to an interesting dynamic. In Lithuania there is a huge urban/rural split between those that live in the big towns and cities and those who live in the villages and hamlets (yes it’s an old word that makes you think of Lord of the Rings but these settlements are far too small to be called villages, at least by an American like myself). Although TV and radio have eliminated it somewhat, locals can instantly tell someone who grew up in a village or hamlet from someone who grew up in a larger city or town and with more rural people even a foreigner like myself can pick up on the difference without understanding a word of the language. So even though many of the people cooking were wearing clothes straight out of the 17th century and their farmer counterparts were dressed in modern clothing, the people in modern clothing still appeared more out of place to me than those who clothing-wise could have stepped out of the renaissance because they were clearly out of their element. Although the rural/urban split is nowhere as great in America as in Lithuania (which has programs designed to help people from rural backgrounds like affirmative action for minorities in America and where politicians bemoan the plight of “wayward rural youth”), I had experienced the same phenomenon in America at the Pennsylvania state fair where I could spot the rural people not used to the hustle and bustle of a large crowd and fast transactions because the pace of things put them at ill ease.
Since I was starving I looked around to buy some food. There were lots of hot meals being cooked but I wasn’t entirely sure what everything was and after suffering from severe food poisoning the first time around in Vilnius in 2008 I was very wary of buying food prepared on the street using medieval cooking methods. I bought something halfway between a calzone and a Welsh meat pie expecting it to have meat inside but I opened it up to find that it had nothing but eggplant. As I’m allergic to eggplants (and nothing but eggplants for that matter) I tried to give it back to them since I hadn’t eaten it yet but that just kind of got me yelled at so I took the eggplant calzone/meat pie thing with me and headed over to see what the rural farmers were selling. I was also motivated to put some space between myself and that section of the food area since nearly every person in the immediate vicinity was staring at me like I was a complete moron and an eyesore to boot. I ended up going through the farmer’s stands and noticing that nearly every table was made up of things that weren’t a meal, at least not in the traditional sense. There were lots of pickles, pickled onions, jams, marmalades, sauces, produce, a few decapitated birds on ice with their feathers intact and lots and lots of types of bread. The basic Lithuanian bread is known as ruginė duona and is a variety of rye-bread made with sourdough. There’s a variant of it that is made like a cake and which for reasons I don’t understand is more filling gram per gram than just about anything (it expands in your stomach like tamales).
Ruginė duona: Lithuanian rye-bread, half a loaf will keep you full for two days.
As I had been looking forward to this exact type of bread ever since I had decided on a whim to go to Lithuania again I decided to buy a roll. As happened with the taxi I tried to pay with about five times as much money as was necessary. After buying it and being charged the equivalent of eighty cents I came to the conclusion that food must be significantly more expensive in Vilnius than in the small towns surrounding it and that I was being charged the rural rate. Sure enough, when I bought a comparable loaf of bread in a store in the old town of Vilnius three days later I was charged exactly three times as much.
Since it was pouring and the wind was starting to blow the rain sideways into my shivering eyes I looked for a ledge to hide under where I could still listen to the music. But I was just too cold and too tired to want to listen to traditional music so I went back to the hotel that I had been kicked out of only an hour earlier. When I got to the hotel I found that there was nobody there to buzz me in the front door and so shivering and cursing under my breath in three languages I went in search of an internet cafe which I remembered from my time studying at the Yiddish Institute. After a 20 minute walk through Old Town Vilnius in which my umbrella blew away from me twice and my eyes wouldn’t stop shaking (do eyes shiver or shake?) I found my way to the internet café where I was greeted by a bilingual sign whose English portion read “closed for culture-fair.” Now I rarely lose my patience, especially in situations where losing your patience will just get you into more trouble, but I had hit rock bottom and felt like whacking my umbrella against a tree and cursing the day I decided to come back to Lithuania. Once I got over my anger (without letting on an outward sign of my frustration) and realized that damaging my umbrella was a bad idea since it was raining so hard I thought I might drown without it, I headed a block over to a bar where Vilnius’s youngest native Yiddish speaker used to work and the food was consistently decent. There was no sign of the waiter a year or two younger than me who speaks Sabesdike Losn (a rare Yiddish dialect with no “sh” sound that was spoken in parts of Lithuania and Latvia) but as it was the touristy old town area the waiter who served me spoke English so I got to warm up and eat the Lithuanian equivalent of zeppelins. The bartender also recommended another internet cafe to me.
Lithuania is one of two countries in Europe where cell-phones by law have to be unlocked, meaning that you can buy a sim-card and pay by the minute. Since my father had bought a phone in the Netherlands (the other country where cell-phones are unlocked) and given it to me I had a cell phone with me with no reception that needed a sim-card. So I went to the internet café, emailed my Lithuanian friends and family and went in search of a sim-card. Now Lithuania, telephones and I have a nasty history (in short, I once accidently bought a whole phone instead of just a phone-card at a cost of 120 dollars and the phone never worked) so I decided that even if I thought I knew what I was doing I wasn’t going to buy a sim-card from anyone unless their English was very good. That way I’d be sure that they’d be selling me a sim-card that would work and not a cellphone that took sim-cards. Unfortunately, the three or four places I found that sold sim-cards had workers who spoke little or no English and although one woman took my cellphone, put in the sim-card and starting clapping (again, what is with clapping in Lithuania?) I was too nervous to actually buy the sim-card since I didn’t know if it would work and no amount of miming could communicate that I wanted her to write down the price. So I headed back to the internet café, saw an email from a friend to meet her at a “lindy hop demonstration” at the courtyard that used to belong to the Vilna Gaon’s Yeshiva at 8PM. As I had no working cell phone I’d just have to find her. It was about 4PM. I walked the half hour back to the hotel (where one of the two boys from the “culture-fire” incident buzzed me in), got my key (they don’t hand out keys in much of Europe, you get them at the desk each time) and conked out, hoping to wake up before 7PM.
I woke up to what I thought was the unmistakable crackling of high-caliber gunfire right outside my window and immediately did what any sane person would do and crawled under my bed and crawled into a ball. After about two long minutes of what I still thought was steady gunfire without any screaming, sirens or sounds of movement I decided to peek out my window once the crackling ceased. Dressing while carefully making sure none of my body was exposed to any possible shooters outside the window I stuck out a shaving mirror past the window so I could see what was happening in the courtyard below by its reflection (better to have an arm shot off than a head I figured, I got that idea from 24) and saw the two boys whose mother ran the hotel getting ready to light up a line of old-fashioned Chinese firecrackers. I stuck my head outside, looked at them and was instructed by pantomime to cover my ears which were soon greeted again by the crackling of what sounded just like .48 handguns going off. My Lord, I thought, I’ve checked into a lunatic asylum! I checked the time (6:45, the kids at least did Chinese New Years at a convenient time for me) and decided to take a bath. The bath nearly killed me (more on that in a later entry) and resulted in a large amount of gas filling the room, my having to breath into a paper bag for nearly 20 minutes and the hotel owner screaming at me in something that was attempting to be English but was nearly incomprehensible, except for the salient detail “Jew (you) d’nearly make da whole place go boom.” And I had thought the gas-valves built into the bathtub were there to make bubbles in the water like in a hot tub! Once the hotel-owner calmed down and assured me that she wouldn’t “make me leave only ‘cause you’re a moron” because “we have not big guests’ number tonight” (whether they would have kicked me out for being a moron if they could have gotten another patron remains a mystery) she handed me a brochure in English for a “Night of Culture.” The “Night of Culture” was scheduled to last throughout the whole night and was supposed to have close to three hundred different events. Unlike the morning’s events nearly all of the night’s events were to highlight contemporary culture and were to feature non-Lithuanian culture. There were to be lots of German bands playing rock music in English (seriously like five), Lithuanian bands playing jazz, Lithuanians playing Greek music, Greeks playing Bavarian music, Bavarians singing in French, dancing demonstrations of everything but traditional Lithuanian dancing (the aforementioned Lindy-hopping, Swing, hip-hop, waltzes etc) and lots of museums and galleries open late into the night not charging the usual admittance. It all seemed great but where was the contemporary Lithuanian culture? There was none to be found. While it seems that Lithuanians (or at least some Lithuanians) love to dress up in traditional folk-costumes, dance and cook using medieval technology and the government likes to show it off, there was shockingly little emphasis being placed on contemporary Lithuanian culture.
I wasn’t in the mood to contemplate the socio-cultural implications of the evening’s programs however for I was still coughing from nearly “making the hotel go boom” and it was pouring again. I made it over to where the Lindyhopping would begin and realized that in the cold rain and fog with little light that every fifth or sixth young Lithuanian woman looked like my friend and without a cellphone I’d probably never find her. So as I waited for the Lindyhopping demonstration to start I stood in the middle of the main road that weaves through the Old Town (which had been shut for the festival) and walked up to any Lithuanian woman who vaguely resembled my friend from a distance and in the process creeped an unfortunately high number of them out. At about 8:15 I decided to give up the search and went back to what had been the Vilna Gaon’s courtyard. Instead of a group of Lithuanians Lindyhopping I saw a few people swing-dancing and about a dozen foreign tourists watching them while shivering in a huddled convulsing mass. I saw one of the festival volunteers wearing a specially designated uniform with a patch that indicated that he spoke English and asked where the Lindyhopping was. He told me that they were running late and had switched with the swing dancers who were supposed to do their “demonstration” at 10. Since it was still pouring I went to the nearest event indoors which turned out to be a free night at the National Art Gallery and pushed my way into a large foyer where half of an orchestra was playing something as solemn as the weather. The little National Gallery had several thousand people packed into it and we had to walk by too quickly to actually see much of the art but none of it was particularly impressive or interesting, leaving me with the sad impression that the Philadelphia Art Museum has more famous art on one floor than the entire Lithuanian National Gallery.
While Lithuanians dress incredibly fancily by American standards, the rain had caused many of the outfits to fall apart and the more expensive the outfit looked the more it seemed to be falling apart. This was especially true of some women who had made the unfortunate decision to wear those absurd British felt hats that have feathers coming out every which way and on a good day do nothing to keep out the sun or keep one warm. On a bad day like that rainy evening however, the dye from the felts was running down the hat off the brim and onto their faces. Together with the feathers it looked as if they had had a goose perched on their heads that had been blown apart by a shotgun blast, leaving just a few feathers and some tears of blood behind. Even with how stupid the outfits made the women look (the men were just wearing soaked suits) I still felt miserably underdressed and considered fleeing until I entered another antechamber of a gallery and saw a large group of (working class?) teenagers. They were clothed in a (poor) imitation of American hip hop attire and were posing in front of large paintings as a girl amongst their number took their picture on her cell phone while occasionally taking swigs from a large bottle of vodka and bursting into fits of hyena-like laughter. Before I could register what was going on I was handed a camera by the youngest boy in the group who was then lifted onto another’s shoulders and hoisted onto a chandelier from which he began swinging. I must have said something in English for a girl barked at me in an unmistakable Cockney accent (yet another Lithuanian expat?) to “take a picture mate” and right as the camera flashed two security guards burst in and began shrieking in Lithuanian. I threw the camera back to the girl as the entire crew (some dozen teenagers none older than 15) fled except for the poor young lad who remained suspended swinging from the chandelier.
“Crap,” I thought “I’m going to get arrested for damaging the Lithuanian National Art Gallery. I’ll be lucky if I don’t spend the night in jail.” The two guards took the boy down from the chandelier and put the two of us together against a wall between two large oil paintings. I heard myself muttering under my breath in broken Lithuanian that I didn’t understand what was being said and that I was an American tourist (so it probably came out as something like “I no understand, me tourist America”). The bigger of the two guards looked at me, laughed and said in English “I haven’t said a word yet. Shut up!” He then spent about five minutes talking to the kid who had been swinging from the chandelier and to my utter amazement let him go. They then asked me what I had seen, believed me when I said that I had done nothing but taken a picture for the wayward youths and told me that the kid was lucky the chandelier had held his weight because if it had broken they would have needed to arrest him. And then to make matters even weirder they thanked me for having visited Lithuania and asked me what I thought of the museum. What in the world? I told them that the boy swinging from the chandelier accompanied by drunken teenagers was a fine example of modern performance art and a profound social commentary on the effects of the economic crisis on Lithuania’s youth but the comment went way over their heads and they left me with polite handshakes and confused stares.
Back outside the rain had finally let up and I found myself in the museum’s courtyard watching a slideshow of modern riffs on traditional Japanese art. I got the vague feeling that the exhibit symbolized some aspect of the atomic bombings of WW2 but couldn’t quite put my finger on it and decided to see the Lindyhoping demonstration. Where there had been maybe a dozen people in what was the Vilna Gaon’s square there were now nearly a hundred and I watched in amazement as they all learned Lindyhop dancing (some had clearly done it before) and danced as a group. It was absurd and on some visceral level disturbing to me. Here I came to Lithuania to learn something about Lithuanian culture and find the hip young Lithuanians reviving a jazz dance that has been completely abandoned and forgotten in America. And on top of it they were Lindyhoping away where, unbeknownst to them, the most famous synagogue in all of Lithuania (in the wider Yiddish sense of “Lite” and not the modern country) stood. Sure, Lithuanian Misnagdim never danced like Hasidim do but certainly anything that would have been going on in that courtyard before WW2 was a lot more culturally authentic to the area than a dance movement that started in Harlem. Depressed with the whole thing, I looked at my schedule of hundreds of events and saw that at most three had anything to do with what could be termed “Lithuanian culture.” The Lithuanian cultural events had all taken place during the day and had attracted a very different crowd than those who came out for the “Night of Culture.” But more disheartening was the fact that not a single event out of hundreds had any connection to Jewish or Polish culture, the two ethnicities that dominated the city for the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. There were specifically Armenian, Turkish, Canadian, German and even Frisian “demonstrations” but no sign of anything local. And in a way this just confirmed what I already knew, that doing (performing) culture today for most Europeans is a matter of exploring cultures besides one’s own in superficial ways to get a smorgasbord of different cultures into a short time frame, in this case a single rushed twelve hour night of culture. But standing there trying to hear ghosts praying in Lithuanian Hebrew over the din of revival-swing music I felt that this wasn’t “culture” in any traditional sense but the creation of a new post-post modern way of superficial cultural tourism without any travel. Or perhaps it was not the embracing of a culture but the creation of a new post-ethnic culture based on combining random elements of other cultures and brewing them into something new. I didn’t have an answer and ultimately I didn’t care. I was disappointed with the whole thing and the rain’s return was just the extra bit of convincing I needed to return to the hotel that in my head I had begun calling the “Mishegoyem hoyz” (the lunatic asylum).
Monday, September 19, 2011
I traveled to Lithuania in June of 2010 for a one week trip. At the time I had just completed six months of study in a Spanish University. It was my second trip to Lithuania and when I got back to the USA I began composing long blog entries combining my recollections of my last trip to Lithuania with emails I wrote home to family and friends from when I studied Yiddish there for a month in 2008. This is the third, of nine entries. (Entry one is here), (entry two is here). I hope to post a new entry every three days.
So what’s changed in Vilnius during the past two years? Well the best way I can describe it is that if Vilnius, and Lithuania as a whole were a person it’s kind of like someone hit her over the head with a baseball bat and didn’t let her clean herself up afterwards. This of course is true of the USA as well, but the global financial meltdown seems to have taken a particularly dramatic toll and you can see it on the faces of the people and you wonder at it as you realize that there are five times as many beggars in Vilnius than there were just two years ago. My second time in Lithuania there was a brutal raw desperation to some of the beggars that just wasn’t here two years ago, a type of desperation I had only ever seen before during one scary trip with my parents to the outskirts of Tijuana when I was nine or ten years old. It’s the type of desperation that stems only from being convinced that starvation is around the corner. Although there were several dozen sad cases worthy of Saint Jude, the saddest of them all was undoubtedly a man with an open infected wound on the top of his forearm that went down to the bone. The first time I encountered him just through the entrance of the gates of dawn he used his arm as a barrier to block further movement. He’d simply put up his arm and people in all directions would instinctively back away and the unlucky ones would end up pinned between the bone sticking out of his arm and a wall. There was something so disturbed, so unmistakably medieval about it that every time I approached him I had a guttural reaction to put as much space between him and myself as humanely possible.
|Photo of the "Gates of Dawn" where this incident occurred. Credit Joe.Sau flickr.|
Don’t get me wrong, I’m no sissy. In fact I’m just the opposite. I’ve seen some really horrible stuff in person without turning away or flinching; from strokes, fatal heart attacks, to a waterlogged/bloated corpse to a mutilated (but not bloated) boy’s corpse and most relevant to this incident a really horrible compound fracture of a friend’s femur that took some of his thigh-muscle along for a ride. In all of the cases I got really upset an hour or two after the adrenaline wore off. Which is to say that I’m no fan of gore or suffering but it’s not like I haven’t seen some horrible things the average person in a first world country hasn’t. Because I have. That combined with unbelievably horrible things I’ve seen on film and in photos for Holocaust related research in archives (much worse than you’ve seen on TV or Youtube) means that this beggar was on the surface hardly the worst thing I had ever seen. But there was something so perverse about both the man’s arm and his situation that it has caused me to lose sleep ever since. It took me a while to figure out what it was that has stuck with me so much but ultimately I’ve come to realize that it was his calmness.
Let’s start clinically: he had an open infected wound that was about 3 inches long, with about 2 inches of bone fully exposed. The skin surrounding the bone was black, dead, and gangrenous, resembling more charcoal than skin. The visible bone itself was completely white, devoid of any surrounding blood or tissue (G-d forbid you ever see a compound fracture up close you’ll see that there’s lots of stuff that is fastened to the bone and as the bone breaks the skin tissue stays attached to it, in his case it looked as if bacteria had eaten away all of the skin and ligaments over a period of days). But the thing that was most upsetting about it was that the man seemed totally there mentally and he was extremely calm. After trapping people and exacting money he spoke to the people he had caught as I stood a short distance away. He was Polish; or at least an ethnic Pole and spoke to the crowds in Polish, Lithuanian or Russian and sometimes all three. It wasn’t until the third day that I heard him speaking to someone in German and therefore realized that I would be able to communicate with him myself. As you’d expect what he had to say was absolutely devastating.
He was in his sixties and recently a widower. He was sawing something when he cut his arm and although he went to the hospital an infection had set in, followed by gangrene. Unable to work he couldn’t pay his rent (he was already behind due to his wife’s funeral) and was evicted from his apartment. He had no relatives and the homeless shelters refused him because they (rightfully) felt that he was a health risk to everyone near him and that he ought to have been in a hospital. The hospitals for their part, for reasons I have either forgotten or never understood due to my poor German, wouldn’t take him and the man related to me that he “honestly feared” that he was going to die from the infection. Looking at it, and knowing that his bone had been exposed to the elements for weeks I was honestly surprised that he wasn’t far more ill than he appeared, let alone dead. And I told him my assessment. As we were having this conversation a horrified-looking German man in his late twenties asked him why he wasn’t in a hospital, about insurance, about how much a hospital stay would cost him etc. I started to leave and our hopeless case called out to me “sir, aren’t you going to give me any money?” “Money” I said “money! You don’t need money you need medicine and a hospital bed!” He looked at me sadly and said “what I need sir is Saint Jude but money won’t hurt!” I saw him the next day but not the day after that. By complete chance I ran into the German man in a bar and found out that he, along with colleagues on a business trip, had paid the equivalent of three hundred Euros to get the man into a health clinic. I gave him about fifty Euros to reimburse him for the part I felt I should have paid and bought him a beer. I never heard from the Polish beggar with gangrene after that.
Thursday, September 15, 2011
I traveled to Lithuania in June of 2010 for a one week trip. At the time I had just completed six months of study in a Spanish University. It was my second trip to Lithuania and when I got back to the USA I began composing long blog entries combining my recollections of my last trip to Lithuania with emails I wrote home to family and friends from when I studied Yiddish there for a month in 2008. This is the second of nine entries. (Entry one is here). I hope to post a new entry every three days. The next post will cover a disturbing run in with a beggar that revealed the effects of the recent "great recession" on Lithuania. This post seems to end in the middle and for that I apologize. It is background information which will allow posts 3-9 in this series to make more sense. In any case, here is my personal history with Lithuania, why I traveled there twice, lots of information on Vilnius, and some of the history of the illustrious Jewish community of the former "Jerusalem of Lithuania."
I went to study Yiddish in Vilnius Lithuania in July/August of 2008. Being there was a lot more difficult for me emotionally than I had expected and partially as a result I spent much of the time behind the lens of my camera filming so that I wouldn’t have to process as much information or interact with people during tours. The good aspect of this is that I ended up with ten hours of tapes of tours of Jewish and Holocaust related sites in Lithuania which are now on Youtube in their entirety in Yiddish with English subtitles, leaving an invaluable (albeit poorly shot) record not just of my trip but of Lithuanian Jewish culture. The bad aspect of this is that I spent far more time on my first trip living in Vilna and not in Vilnius and as such missed a great deal of Lithuania itself. For what I mean by that last sentence, as well as some background information on this city, I’m going to turn this entry over for a bit to excerpts from a letter I wrote to my parents and a couple of friends the first time I went there:
In some ways right now I’m beginning to live and study in two places simultaneously: Vilnius in 2008, the fascinating Lithuanian capital and next year’s European Capital of Culture and Vilna, the once second city of Poland and sometimes Lithuanian capital and one of the cultural capitals of vanished (ahem, murdered) Yiddish speaking Europe. Although Vilnius and Vilna were located on the same ground and share many of the same buildings and streets, they are really different places in more ways than a name (Vilna is Yiddish, Wilno is Polish, Vilnius is Lithuanian). Vilnius/Vilna in all of its reincarnations was and still is located in Eastern Europe, in the area that is now called the Baltics. If you look at a map of the Baltic countries today (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania respectively from north to south), you’ll find that they are the three small countries to the south of Finland (across the Baltic Sea). They are to the northeast of the comparatively larger Poland, and to the west of Belarus and most of Russia. (Strangely enough, just to confuse us, there is a small piece of Russia that is squeezed onto the western half of Lithuania and eastern half of Northern Poland against the ocean that is detached by hundreds of miles from the rest of the country. Although Russia looms very large to the east of here, this detached chunk of Russia is the only part of it that actually borders Lithuania.)
The city of Vilnius, whatever it has been called and whoever has called it home, has existed since the 14th century, if not earlier. The city has been shuttle-cocked alternately between Poland (or better yet several different kingdoms and republics of Polish speaking people), Russia, Lithuania (like Poland in several different reincarnations) and a Lithuanian-Polish commonwealth over the centuries. The city even managed to change hands seven times during the years of WW1. Throughout the past 500 years the city has been home to various combinations of Poles, Lithuanians, Russians, Belarusians, Jews and Roma. While the leadership and main ethnicities/languages of the city have varied, Yiddish speaking Jews were a constant presence for nearly five centuries until during the years of 1941-1944 when they were systematically murdered during the events that have come to be known as the Holocaust in English, H’shoah in Hebrew and Khurbn in Yiddish itself.
When Napoleon came to Vilnius, he was so impressed with the local Jewish community that he declared it the “Yerushalim d’lite” (French: Jerusalem of Lithuania). The name has stuck in Yiddish ever since. Vilna (the city is always called Vilna in Yiddish), was one of the great centers of Jewish civilization; both religious and secular, right alongside biblical Jerusalem, post-biblical Babylon, and Muslim Spain during the golden era. Yiddish Vilna was a center of religious scholarship and the center of a brilliant modern secular culture, and by the 1930s was arguably the most important Jewish city in the world (Warsaw and Thessalonica were the only rivals). In the 18th century one of the Diaspora’s greatest minds, the Vilner Goan, held court and helped solidify the power of Misnagic Jewry in Lithuania. Interwar Vilna boasted a half dozen daily Yiddish papers, schools, universities, and criminal courts where Yiddish was the sole language of instruction/arbitration, not to mention some of the world’s most prestigious Yeshivas. Vilna was also home to the YIVO institute, which between the two world wars served as the address of scholarship on the history of Eastern European Jews, as well as the Académie française of the Yiddish language. Vilna, along with Warsaw and Lodz was also the home of much Yiddish political culture and the birthplace of the Bund. But all of that is gone. Today is a very different world. The Vilna described in thousands of Yiddish books is no more and will never again be…………
……..So, this society, which I call Yiddishland in English and “oyf der yidisher gas” (on the Jewish street) or “Yidishkayt” (Jewishness) in Yiddish, and not the Holocaust, is what I came here to learn about. In short I came to Vilnius to learn about the Jewish civilization that thrived here for centuries and to improve my knowledge of its language, not just because of an academic interest but because it is the culture whose remnants I grew up among. I grew up hearing Yiddish and singing songs that were written on the very streets that I am now exploring. I read some of the same books (albeit in English translation) that were written here and were bestsellers. I had neighbors, family friends and relatives who grew up in Yiddishland before the war (and I still know people who did) and learned Yiddish songs on their laps. So I decided to come here to learn about this stateless culture that thrived here and whose language I now consider my own from some of the people who grew up in it, in their own language, on the ground in which it thrived for centuries, before they are lost to time.
In addition to meeting with as many survivors as possible and hearing lectures and tours from them, I will be spending the vast majority of my time learning the Yiddish language at an advanced level and reading its literature not only in the original but also taught and explained in Yiddish. What I learn here, from the place, from the language, from the literature, and most importantly from the people, I am not just learning for academic development or “personal enrichment”. If I have my way it will be the language that my (future) children grow up speaking and it will be their culture too. I come here to learn what I can so I can pass it on to them.
So that’s some of the background on how I ended up in Vilnius the first time around. I completed most of my goals; I met and got to talk to people who had grown up in the Jewish community before the Holocaust, I got to see many of the places I had heard about as a child, vastly improved my Yiddish and made a half dozen friends I’m still in touch with. So as Americans like to say “mission accomplished.” Been there done that right? Well, last summer Vilnius to me still wasn’t a matter of “been there, done that,” among many things I had left out some details in my films and needed to speak to a few people there and corroborate details. I also had other business to attend to on behalf of a friend that I’m not even going to begin to get into but could only be done in Lithuania, if at all. Plus, two Vilnius residents I knew had heard that I was in Spain and said that they had wanted to see me. So without enough forethought I decided to hop on a plane and go.
Traveling from Valencia to Vilnius is no easy trip. You have to first get to the Ryanair airport advertised as Barcelona which is really in Girona (six hours from Valencia by bus/train at best) and then fly to Kaunas and from Kaunas find a way to Vilnius and of course because this is Ryanair you have to leave Barcelona at 3am which means you need to leave Valencia the day before and have a hotel room in Barcelona that you only actually sleep in for a few hours. Still it’s certainly a much easier trip than making it from Philadelphia or anywhere else on the other side of the Atlantic for that matter. So in short, I had a few reasons to delay my return to the US and travel to Vilnius this past June (2010). But as it turned out two of the people who said they’d be in Lithuania were doing things abroad, one person I stupidly assumed would be there wasn’t and the “business” I alluded to completely fell through, leaving me with a lot more time to kill than I had planned for or knew what to do with. I soon decided to fill it by trying to spend my time in Vilnius and not Vilna the second time around, by “paying more attention to the Lithuanians the second time around” as I titled an email home. And in the end this was the only thing that went well during the course of my trip.
So what’s Vilnius itself like today? Well, the best description I can give comes again from that 6,000 word letter I wrote to my parents and friends in 2008. Here are some excerpts:
You asked me about Vilnius today. Well it’s not the city I grew up hearing about in old folksongs, in Chaim Grade’s novels or from survivors. As I mentioned yesterday Jewish Vilna and Lithuanian Vilnius are two different places located on the same ground. Despite that, (and not in any way holding that against it) Vilnius is a very interesting place. In fact, to be honest, Vilnius is far more interesting than I had expected.
Walking around Vilnius you can feel that it was built up in sections at different times by different people. A river separates the old city (with the University) from the new city. The new city is very Soviet in every sense of the word. There are more Soviet apartment blocks than residential neighborhoods, large patches of green earth are splotched along the ground between the buildings as if a dinosaur was allowed to run loose and leave footprints behind. The colors are dreary like they have been splashed on in titanium grays. Children play with balls between the big buildings, teenagers watch them and drink vodka out of large bottles. These are the outskirts of Vilnius. While in America the poor in cities are packed into neighborhoods of endless row homes that bake on summer nights close to the city centers, in Eastern Europe the poor live on the edges of the cities in a maze of giant soviet era apartment buildings with no neighborhood of which to speak. Because the buildings are self-contained units, there is little to no interaction at street level. The stores are far removed from where people live, more cars drive away than towards the buildings. The graffiti seems so permanent as to be part of the original building designs.
The second half of the “new city” on the opposite side of the river from the old city doesn’t feel particularly Soviet but more like an American east coast city’s downtime. There are a lot of high-rises and skyscrapers and long avenues with stores. Trackless trolleys and the occasional bus ferry people along in a spider web of routes. The buildings, at least at ground level, seem entirely commercial although some may double as apartment complexes, I can’t tell due to the language barrier. There a lot of trees placed around this part of the city, more than you’d see in a typical American city. But the key word is “placed”, they don’t seem to belong, they seem just as manmade and out of place (albeit much more organic) as the buildings themselves. This part of the city is known by the locals (and the guidebooks) to have different neighborhoods, types of stores and styles (unlike the more Soviet section which is much more uniform), although the differences are not perceivable to a foreigner on a short trolley ride.
The third section of the city is what the tourists, students, diplomats and wealthier Lithuanians are supposed to see. It’s known as the “old city” (what I’ll term “old city proper” is actually a much smaller subsection of the old city that I’ll talk about later) and as I’ve already mentioned it is separated by river from the “new city.” In a bizarre attempt to reduce the tension between the two sides of the river, the local authorities have painted giant words on both sides of the river. One set says “I love you” and the other says “I love you too.”
The old city is divided into several different residential and commercial districts. The University itself is on the edge of “old city proper”, a series of stunning centuries old buildings, all freshly painted, with a maze of alleyways and roads closed to traffic (or with limited traffic) where tourists congregate and stores and restaurants cater to them. Music from street musicians wafts through the air, polite multilingual beggars beg and sell trinkets and tchochkes, there are dozens of beautiful cafes that extend out along the main street. Most of the buildings double as both stores and high-end apartments. Many of the buildings seem built to look deceptively small from the outside, upon entering you discover that they seem to go on and on and on (they extend far further back than in the states). These are the most beautiful traditional European buildings I’ve ever seen in Europe except for perhaps in Prague and among the nicest to have survived the two World Wars. (The only thing I’ve ever seen like it outside of Europe is Quebec City, which having been undisturbed during WW2 is much more traditional architecturally than most of Europe).
(My photo 2010, part of “Old City Proper”)
In between “old city proper” and the more residential areas of the old city is downtown, filled with commercial districts and main avenues, it looks and feels like a nicer version of most American cities. The center of downtown features a large square that borders city hall. Bars and nightclubs comfortably share territory with banks, museums, hotels, bookstores, cafes and residential apartment buildings. On the edge of “old city proper” and downtown is the section of the university where the Yiddish Institute is housed. My classroom overlooks the presidential palace, where the president works (but does not live). Unlike the White House in America or the Prime Minister’s Residence on Downing Street in England, you can actually walk right up to the presidential palace, touch it and take a picture (in the US you’d have 50 bullets in you before you got within two or three blocks of the Whitehouse today). Walking to class across the steps of the presidential palace does not seem to raise the least bit of alarm. The palace, as the name implies, is actually a palace and not a house like its American or British counterpart. There is a guard unit but like the guards at Buckingham palace they seem to be there much more for the tourists’ cameras than for actual security. A block away is another large white stone building which is the defense ministry.
(My photo of the Cathedral up close 2008).
Three blocks away, the boundary between “old city proper” and downtown is composed of the main cathedral and its adjoining square. The cathedral is a centuries old architectural marvel that is one of the most famous in Europe because of its architecture. The square, however, is more famous as the symbolic center of post independence Lithuania due to its role in the independence movement of the late 80s and early 90s and for it being often credited as the starting point of the international movement that brought down the Soviet Union. In the late 80s, the first Lithuanian human chain started on a single cement square outside of the cathedral and traveled up the country for hundreds of miles. After the event (and the enormous publicity it attracted), human chains were attempted throughout Eastern Europe. About (or perhaps exactly) a year later a single human chain that stretched the entire length of the Baltics again brought world attention to the plight of the local populace under Soviet rule. The small square yard sized chunk of stone where the last person in both lines stood is marked and is treated by both locals and tourists from throughout the world as holy ground, perhaps even more so than the famous Cathedral itself. There is a local superstition that if one walks around the marked stone three times, whatever they wish will come true. I did this and wished for world peace…. I’m not holding my breath.
Tuesday, September 13, 2011
I traveled to Lithuania in June of 2010 for a one week trip. At the time I had just completed six months of study in a Spanish University. It was my second trip to Lithuania and when I got back to the USA I began composing long blog entries combining my recollections of my last trip to Lithuania with emails I wrote home to family and friends from when I studied Yiddish there for a month in 2008. This is the first of nine entries. I hope to post a new entry every three days. The next post will cover more of my trip in 2008 and more of my personal history with Lithuania as well as the country's Jewish history.In a way my trip to Lithuania began in the small Ryanair terminal in Girona. Ryanair, which is basically the Megabus of airlines, has its own peculiar super-informal culture that both the airline’s corporate structure and its loyal customers have created. As the tickets are often between 30 and 70 Euros for flights across the European continent the Irish budget carrier has become an essential part of both the tourist and ex-pat experiences. Since not many tourists go to Lithuania and few of those who do would take Ryanair from Spain in the middle of the night I found myself among a crowd of Lithuanian expats who lived in Spain and were going home to see family.
Expat communities are fascinating. Until recently expats formed their own cultures that bridged their “home” culture and the culture of their adopted country without realizing their own culture or outlook on life had been altered. Before the era of the internet and dirt-cheap travel expats were often stuck in a cultural vacuum, cut off from cultural changes in their homeland so that their “home” culture remained preserved like a fossilized specimen and combined with their new country’s culture. Now with instant communication and constant travel people remain abreast of changes in their homeland much more easily and as a result can maintain their home-culture alongside (and separate from) their adopted country’s culture in a way that was not possible for earlier generations of ex-pats.
All of this was on my mind as I waited at the Ryanair counter fretting over whether my backpack would be light enough so as not to incur an extra fee. Two of my Lithuanian friends are into studying expat-communities in general and the Lithuanian expat communities in particular. From them I learned that the vast majority of Lithuanian expats live in Britain but that there is a sizable community in Spain. I had already encountered several Lithuanians who spoke Spanish but no English in 2008 so I knew that it was always worthwhile to ask someone in Lithuania who didn’t speak English if they understood Spanish if I needed to communicate something to someone. But being in the airport and seeing 150 or so Lithuanians in one spot chatting away in their melodious language complete with their inscrutable and thoroughly un-Spanish mannerisms was stunning (and besides you can go months without running into someone who looks like they could be from the Baltics in Spain or at least that was the case where I lived in Valencia). The conversations and arguments over the overweight bag-charges in Spanish (and once even in Catalan, albeit with an adorable Lithuanian accent) were the only thing to remind me that I wasn’t in a shopping mall in Vilnius but was actually still in Spain.
Right as I got to the front of the line I heard a young boy with a working class Madrilenian accent arguing with an exasperated woman at bag-checking over an extra two kilos. He and his mother refused to let the airline officials put the extra-charge sticker on the bag and actually went so far as to roll/throw the bag back and forth between them so that the workers couldn’t get the sticker on. As I was on the scale next to them and the scale’s weight display was easily visible, the boy quickly realized that my bag was exactly two kilos underweight, ran behind me, opened my bag, put in some children’s books and an alarm clock and instructed me to put my bag back on my scale. I, his mother and the two women at the scales were all seemingly hypnotized by this strange act he was putting on and waited for his further instructions.
“Now, here’s how it’s gonna’ work” he said. “This Russian gentlemen here” (pointing to me) “has agreed to take my extra kilos in exchange for a story to be told on the plane. Now since both our bags are at the correct weight you can’t charge me.”
The two scale-operators looked at each other and burst out laughing. The boy thought he had won until one of them made a gesture to him that is usually reserved for a naughty dog and said “you can’t do that, that’s ridiculous.”
The boy’s mother looked at the woman and said: “Come on Ma’am, what’s the difference?”
The woman turned to me and said, “won’t you please hand this miscreant child back his books and his clock?”
I didn’t like her tone so I looked at her with as much seriousness and gravity as I could muster and said “the only alarm-clock I have on me is my own and I packed those children’s books yesterday.” The woman looked like she was about to either explode or turn into a shrew and turned to her colleague who was desperately trying to swallow her laughter.
“Get these ignoramuses to put their items in the correct bags or I’ll fine them both.”
“I don’t see nothin’ wrong.” Her coworker responded.
“Ah hell, didn’t you just see this boy open this man’s bag and stick in his clock and those books?”
“No,” the second baggage handler answered coolly, “I didn’t see nothin’ like that.”
The first baggage handler looked at us with this weird face that was trying to smile but was being ordered not to so that it appeared that she was choking on a fur ball and said “oh, hell, just go before I change my mind.” And so before I knew it we were both on our plane without having paid the extra fee for our bags. And that’s how I met the Little Spaniard.
Sure enough as promised, as soon as the three of us sat down on the plane the boy began his “payment” in the form of a story. He began talking in a hilarious monologue about his whole life story starting with his immigration to Spain at four and ending with his tenth birthday and a pantomime imitation of drunken goats. His monologue went on for a good twenty minutes during which time his mother occasionally peered over his head and shot me a quintessentially Lithuanian gesture that seemed to say “do you still want to listen to this? You don’t have to you know?”
The boy’s life story wasn’t particularly interesting or surprising but his enthusiasm for telling it was absolutely enthralling. After moving to Madrid he recalled refusing to speak or even try to understand Spanish which got him put in a special class for what he termed “mutes.” He didn’t like the class so he just ignored everyone and everything. This went on for several months. Then one day he got into a fight with someone during recess and when the teachers demanded an explanation and threatened to discipline him, before he even realized what he was doing he broke his silence to explain how the boys on the playground kept calling him “blondie” (rubito) and “mute buffoon” (payaso mudo) until they finally surrounded him from all sides and demanded that he speak. Then a large Arab boy decked him and the little Spaniard kicked him back. As he told the story the large Arab boy was watching him snitch on him and he expected retribution from him the next day on the playground. Instead when the boy saw him again he said “so you can finally speak?” and the two became best friends.
“And now,” he told me, “Ahmed is like my brother. Here” he said, handing me a photograph of himself a year or two younger together alongside his mother and with his arm around the shoulders of a boy standing in front of a woman wearing a burqa and a tall man smoking a cigar. “But he’s an immigrant like me so we both get to travel to our parents’ countries during the summer.”
“Lithuania isn’t your country too?” I asked.
“No,” he said “Spain, is my country, I was just born in Lithuania.”
His mother chimed in: “My mother calls him ‘the Little Spaniard’ ‘cause he’s always telling her about Spain and trying to teach her Spanish.”
“So you can speak Lithuanian?” I said addressing the boy.
“Of course, my Mom only talks to me in Lithuanian unless other people are visiting our house. So I speak it well but I say things wrong sometimes.”
“Do you know anything about linguistics?” His mother asked me, staring over her son.
“Well, actually I’m kind of a linguist” I said.
“Vale, he sometimes calques (literally translates) Spanish phrases when he speaks Lithuanian and I don’t correct him enough because I can figure out what he’s getting at so when he speaks to my parents he doesn’t even realize he’s saying a purely Spanish phrase with Lithuanian words. But he understands everything and has no problem being understood if he rephrases things.”
“Did you study linguistics?” I asked.
“Just a survey course in college.”
“What do you do now for work if you don’t mind me asking?”
“She’s a nurse.” The Little Spaniard answered for her.
“At first I worked as a maid in a hotel but I had studied nursing in Lithuania so once my Spanish improved I finished my education. I worked in a nursing home, now I work with dialysis patients.”
At this point the Little Spaniard put his hand over his nose mockingly and his mother grabbed his hand telling him something in Lithuanian. He began speaking in Spanish, all the while looking at me “so what if they can’t help it, they still smell.”
“Sometimes,” his mother said “when I have to work late and there’s no one to watch him he entertains the dialysis patients, he can be very charming so he keeps the old ladies entertained. We had a blind lady, a Lithuanian who didn’t speak Spanish. Her kids worked nights and she would have had nobody to talk to for hours if he didn’t keep her company.”
“Well,” began the Little Spaniard. “Other than the smell it’s alright, especially when Ahmed comes along to talk to the old ladies in Arabic.”
“How come he comes too?” I asked.
“Because of his religion he has to help people and do charity.” The Little Spaniard said. “His parents make him volunteer with people. They would too but they work too much.”
“He says he wants to be a doctor too so it’s a good fit” his mother added. “And because it’s a clinic there isn’t always a translator around so it’s good to have him around, especially for the blind people because with them we can’t just write something into a computer and translate it so they’ll understand.”
“Diabetes?” I asked.
“Severe diabetes cases, exactly” she said.
“But the kids are so young for this?”
“Yeah, it’s unusual but the patients like it and my boss prefers him to a dog which is what some of the clinics and hospitals are doing now to keep people happy.”
Somehow shortly after this point the conversation turned to my life and my reasons for traveling to Lithuania. To be honest I had been hoping to avoid the whole thing, in part to avoid having to explain the Holocaust to the boy on the chance that he wasn’t familiar with it and in part because it was a long story and in any case I wasn’t even exactly sure why I was on a plane to Lithuania at that particular moment myself. Still, I ended up explaining that I was Jewish, that my great-grandfather was from Vilnius, that I had been there two years earlier to improve my Yiddish and interview Jews who had grown up before WW2 and I was returning to double-check information with one of my interview subjects and visit a friend. Of the perhaps five minutes or so that it took me to explain all of this the only part that the Little Spaniard seemed particularly impressed by was my mentioning of Yiddish.
“I knew there were Jews in Lithuania,” he began excitedly “especially in the cities and that they were killed in the war but I didn’t know they had their own language.”
“Yeah,” I said “and newspapers, movies and even their own schools. Just like there’s a Polish paper and Polish schools in Lithuania today you had Yiddish too.”
“And this is different than what they speak today in the Middle East?”
“Yes, Yiddish is like German while Hebrew….”
“Is like Arabic..I’ve heard it before on TV. So what you’re saying is that there’s a whole lost world written in those newspapers in a language nobody speaks anymore?”
“Basically, yes. But some people speak Yiddish still, just not that many, not like it was.”
“Have the newspapers been archived?” His mother asked.
“Yes, thankfully.” I said. “You can read them in America and Israel and some in Lithuania too but they’re hidden away in archives on microfilm.”
“What does the writing look like?” she asked. Do they use the same alphabet as Hebrew?”
“Yes, give me a second.” I said. I looked through my bag, pulled out the Little Spaniard’s books and alarm clock and found the book I was looking for underneath; my Yiddish translation of The Little Prince I had brought with me to donate to the Jewish school in Vilnius. The copy I had was printed in both the Hebrew and Latin alphabets so it worked perfectly as an example to show them what the language and the script were like.
As I showed them The Little Prince the boy called out, almost screaming “hey, that’s my favorite book, look” as he showed me one of the books which had caused the great tumult at the weighing station, one of the same books I had just handed back to him without looking at. And in his hand was a torn ragged copy of the Little Prince in Spanish which had been read and reread to smithereens. And as he began flipping through the illustrations in the Yiddish Little Prince he began reciting entire passages of the book in Spanish for my benefit.
“You’ve memorized the whole book?”
“Yes,” said his mother “strangely enough he has.”
“The order gets jumbled though so I need to use the pictures but I have each page of my copy memorized. I often skip exactly a page.”
I was stunned. Now The Little Prince is not that long of a book, perhaps 25,000 words if that and if a ten year old in Pakistan can memorize the Quran in a language he doesn’t even speak than certainly a ten year old Spaniard could memorize a text a fraction the length of the Muslim holy book in a tongue he understands. Still, who runs into someone who has done such a thing? And how does someone go about doing such a thing?
“Why did you memorize it?” I asked.
“Because it changed my life. It’s the reason that I want to be a historian.”
“A historian?” I said, not seeing any reason why The Little Prince would lead anyone into that particular field and wondering if I had ever meet someone so young who had wanted to be a historian.
“You wouldn’t rather be an accountant?” I asked. The Little Spaniard didn’t get my reference or else simply ignored my joke.
“Of course a historian, that’s what The Little Prince is. He’s the only one there to tell his history and he does it so beautifully. I’d love to be able to explain to someone why something is so important to me as his rose was important to him. And since there is no one else to tell his story, he has to be the historian. And that’s why I’ll be a historian, to tell things nobody has bothered to remember. That’s why I was so enthused with the Jewish newspapers. Who knows what may be written there that’s been forgotten and needs retelling.”
“Here,” I said handing him a third copy I had, “have you ever read this version?”
“No, I can’t read Lithuanian. I’ve never seen this before, when and why was it translated?”
I almost got sidetracked into an explanation of how The Little Prince became the third most translated book in human history (more than 200 translations, some in languages far more obscure than Yiddish) but I caught myself in the middle of the digression and returned to the more pressing matter.
“Sure you can read it. Look, you know the alphabet already and you speak the language. And I know it’s a pretty easy language to pronounce because it’s written as it’s spoken see.” And to try to prove it to him I pulled out my Lithuanian phrasebook and read a few phrases for him aloud. By his expression, however, I saw that my butchering of Lithuanian wasn’t changing his opinion.
“Look, this is what I do” I said. “I give every one of my good friends from school who grew up speaking an immigrant language in America a copy of this book in their mother tongue so that they’ll learn to read. And when I visit friends in other countries I give them copies of the book in their own language or in a language they’re studying. I’ve brought the Yiddish for the Jewish school so that maybe they’ll see it and want to learn their own language which they no longer speak. And I brought the Lithuanian one for a good friend who I gave a copy to in Hebrew when she was learning that language. But she can already read Lithuanian well, in fact she’s writes for a Lithuanian newspaper so how about I give you the book instead but you have to promise me that you’ll read it.”
And so I gave away my Lithuanian copy of The Little Prince to the Little Spaniard, in the hope that in his quest to become a historian and tell forgotten stories he would eventually see the value of becoming literate in his mother tongue in order to tell his own. Shortly thereafter the boy, whom I noticed for the first time oddly resembled the young prince of the story in Saint-Exupéry’s drawings, began reciting a page in Spanish to himself and piecing together the Lithuanian words until his murmuring in both languages seemed to combine. Shortly thereafter he fell into a deep sleep. We soon landed in Kaunas.