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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).