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Sunday, December 4, 2011

Lithuania Redux 5: Don’t Be a white trainer in a nightclub in Kaunas

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 fifth of nine entries. (Entry one is here), (entry two is here), (entry three is here), (entry four is here) I hope to post a new entry every week.  So far I've failed at that goal.  

I actually wrote this entry in September but delayed posting it because I wanted the posts to go in chronological order.  Unfortunately, I've managed to write what would be posts seven, eight, and nine if I were going chronologically and have been unable to complete posts five and six.  For that reason this post, post five in order of appearance, is actually post eight chronologically.  The only thing you need to know to follow it in terms of background is that I traveled from Vilnius to Kaunas and met the same friend I tried to meet in post four there.  This is a misadventure we had together with another friend.  

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.     

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