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Sunday, January 22, 2012

Lithuania Redux 6: Jordan Gets Attacked by Romanian Thugs or...... Why the Insane Asylum was Insane.

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

Before I get into how I was attacked by a group of Romanian thugs I should probably remind you of the hotel in a converted townhouse where I was staying that I had termed the “mishegoyem-hoyz” (the insane-asylum). In the fourth installment of this unfortunately irregularly updated series, I mentioned in passing that in the course of one day (and my first day no less) at the hotel I had been kicked out by the owner so she could attend a fair with her kids, awoken to the same boys setting off Chinese firecrackers causing me to hide under my bed as I mistook the noise for gunfire and how seeking to relax from the stress of that incident I mistook gas-valves for the “bubble-bath” switch, which as the hotel’s owner put it to me in her broken English “Jew (you) d’nearly make da whole place go boom.” And after nearly blowing up the hotel and poisoning myself in the process she assured me that she wouldn’t “make (me) leave only ‘cause you’re a moron” because “we have not big guests’ number tonight.” So yeah, it’s fair to say that I wasn’t too impressed with the hotel’s customer service that first day and I was wondering what could possibly go wrong next. As it turned out, the competency of the hotel’s management never improved but I would become a lot more sympathetic towards them once I learned why things were so bonkers and especially after they saved me from what was shaping up to be a vicious beating.

The second day I was woken up by knocking on my door at 8AM. “Great,” I thought, “am I about to get kicked out again?” I hastily dressed, opened the door and was handed a croissant and a coke by a man who seemed completely bewildered to see me.

“You’re about twenty years younger than I’d imagined” he said, in impeccable English with an accent that was three-quarters Irish and a quarter Lithuanian.

“Why should I be twenty years older?” I said, staring at the food and wondering if it would be impolite to bite into it right in front of him.

“You’re the businessman who requested the wakeup-call right?”

“No,” I said “I’m the tourist who was hoping to sleep till ten.”

“Oh,” the man said and without a word he grabbed both the croissant and the coke bottle out of my hands and walked over to another door on which he began pounding. Now irrevocably awake and under the distinct impression that a croissant seemed like a great idea I headed out for the day. I never managed to find a croissant (I don’t recall ever seeing one in Lithuania and my attempt at ordering “crossanes” following the moronic Lithuania tourist trick of adding an es to any random word resulted in nothing but stares since no such word exists) but I did end up leading a tour of what was the Vilna ghetto and the Jewish quarter in a language I don’t actually speak, something I’ll get to in the next post. After yet another afternoon where I completely failed at my goal of visiting contemporary Lithuania and instead gave a tour in some warped parallel universe where the Holocaust had never ended, I ended up watching the World Cup with a group of German Erasmus students in Uzupis, a charming but whacky Bohemian district that declared its “independence” from Lithuania in 1997 on April fool’s day and where a giant Yiddish sign details its “constitution,” article 12 of which is “a dog has the right to be a dog.” (Don’t believe me? Well go and see for yourself!)

Around eight that night I ended up in a pub that could have easily been five hundred years old and was told by a drunken Spaniard to order “tarta americana.” I didn’t see anything on the menu that resembled “American pie” but I decided he had probably been recommending the apple pie. So I ordered the apple pie and as it turned out it would be the single best decision I made during my whole trip to Lithuania. I have absolutely no idea how or why the best apple pie I’ve ever had is served in a pub in Lithuania but just take my word for it that they’ve taken the most American of desserts and somehow improved upon it. As I was eating the strange angel-hair like cream off of my third slice of apple pie around ten at night I noticed two men in the corner of the pub staring at me and doing a pretty terrible job at trying to hide the fact that they were staring at me. It was so obvious that it seemed theatrical, like something that would happen in one of the Harry Potter movies right before the scar on Harry’s head begins to burn.

Due to my upbringing in one of America’s scariest cities I’m far more street-smart than the average American tourist and as it turns out street-smarts is one of the few things that are universally cross-cultural. If someone is sizing you up to mug you in Vilnius and is not good at hiding it, it will look no different than in Philadelphia or Timbuktu. Due to the two men staring incessantly at me I decided that the best course of action was to pay with my credit card so that they wouldn’t realize that I had a single 500 Lita bill in my pocket. (I had gotten it at a money-exchange kiosk.) Due to my terrible luck, however, the credit card machine was broken and the waitress, who either had the street-smarts of someone from the rural (American) Midwest or was just a complete moron, made a big show of handing a stunning number of 20 Lita bills back to me. Now 500 Litas is worth roughly 190 dollars so assuming the pie cost two dollars a slice I was effectively being handed 184 dollars in five dollar bills.

As I watched the two men salivating over my money while whispering excitedly I wondered why the waitress couldn’t have just given me two 200 Lita notes so it wouldn’t have been obvious that I was carrying such an obscene amount of money.

I headed out to city hall which would be well lit and reasonably full of people at that early hour figuring that I could avoid being attacked in a crowd. But I didn’t see any sign of the two men and based on how bad they were at scouting me I figured that they may very well have lost me. So I headed for the gates of dawn hoping to make it the two hundred yards past the gates to my hotel. Now being a tourist attraction the gates of dawn are fairly well lit at night and have restaurants and hotels inside of them. Outside of them (which is also right outside of the old town) the area becomes pitch black and with the exception of two or three unmarked hotels there is absolutely nothing there that suggests it’s a place that a tourist should be wandering around at night. In fact, it looks like just the place where a tourist ought not to step foot and the area’s close proximity to the central train station just adds to the lack of security.

About twenty feet outside of the gates of dawn the two men from the bar suddenly appeared about ten feet behind me. I immediately stopped walking to see if they were following me and sure enough they stopped and began conferring in Romanian. I tried to catch what they were saying, the language is related to Spanish after all and I can sometimes catch things but I realized that if I spent all my thoughts on trying to understand them I’d probably miss my opportunity to escape. I was so close to the gates that I could have probably dashed right past them, through the gates and put myself in too large of a crowd to be attacked. But I knew that if they did catch me it would probably have upset them and then they would have been all the more likely to have wanted to hurt me. I didn’t want to be robbed obviously, losing two hundred dollars, a camera and a passport in the middle of the night in a country where you don’t speak a word of the language is awful but it’s much preferable to ending up in the hospital after a severe beating in said foreign country. In short, dashing past them was out but I also wasn’t going to just turn myself over to be mugged. So I decided that my only chance of not being robbed was to pretend that I had no idea what they were up to and to seem vulnerable enough that they would feel no need to hurry up and get it over with. I hoped that that would give me enough time to sneak into my unmarked hotel right under their noses. This seemed like a very long shot, however, considering that the hotel was a solid three New York blocks from where I was. But as this was the only viable course of action I started moving again and went into acting mood; walking unusually slowly and singing out loud like I didn’t have a care in the world both to throw them off of the fact that I was on to them and to try to relax.

“oyfn veg shteyt a boym, shteyt er ayngeboygn”

Maybe I could summon some protection from the city’s Jewish ghosts by singing a famous Yiddish lullaby.

“ale feygl funem boym zenen zikh tsefloygn”

But what good would Jewish ghosts be in a city where nearly every Jew had been murdered?

“dray keyn mizrekh, dray keyn mayrev un der resht keyn dorem”

One of the men, now even with me on my left, began singing something, a sad tune without words.

“un der boym, gelozt aleyn, hefker farn shturem”

We passed a wooded area and the man standing behind me slightly to my right was speaking softly into a cell-phone and I became aware of a third figure moving through the woods about ten feet away.

“zog ikh tsu der mamen her, zolst mir nor nit shtern”

We were now even with the long row of European style town-homes, walking three wide with the figure coming out of the woods trailing five yards behind. The hotel was about one hundred yards ahead.

“vel ikh mame eyns un tsvey bald a foygl vern

ikh vel zitsn oyfn boym un vel im farvign

ibern vinter mit a treyst, mit a sheynem nign”

I’m not a fast runner so I figured they’d catch me if I made a dash for it. So I kept up the act and began walking even slower and just to throw them off asked the man to my right if he had a cigarette. To my surprise he pulled out a cigarette and a lighter, lit the cigarette, and handed it to me without slowing down. I kept the cigarette in my hand, hoping it would stay lit so that as a last ditch measure I could jab it into one of their eyes.

“Yum, biti biti biti biti biti bum”

“Yum, biti, biti, biti, biti, bum”

Roughly twenty yards to go. The entrance to the hotel was a nondescript door. You had to stand in front of a small camera for three seconds and the man at the desk, if he was there, would buzz you in. My only hope was to press the button that activated the camera without them noticing and to somehow get in the door without letting them in. The problem was that if I stood by the door it would be obvious what I was doing and they’d probably beat me. But if I didn’t stay by the door the man would not see me to buzz me in. Ten yards short of the door I put the cigarette, still lit, in my left hand and began dragging my right arm against the wall casually as if I were completely unaware that the three men now surrounding me close enough that I could feel their breath were no longer even trying to hide the fact they were about to attack me. Dragging my arm like that would render me unable to throw a punch but it would also make my reaching for the bell look totally random. The man who had been in the woods got in front of me, turned around and began walking backwards facing me, barely letting me continue. The other two cramped up against my left side. I was trapped with the wall blocking any foreseeable route of escape to my right. I suddenly felt the bell.

“zogt di mame, nite kind, un zi veynt mit trern

vest kholilye afn boym mir farfroyrn vern”

I didn’t have the faintest idea why I had suddenly begun singing again but when I pressed the bell I realized that my own voice covered over the mechanized buzz of the locking mechanism opening. I walked a full two yards past the door when without any proper formalities the man in front of me threw a punch. Being too short to get a good shot at my head he was aiming for my neck but as I had already been positioning myself to turn around to make a break for the door he ended up hitting my shoulder blade. And before I was even fully conscious of having run the distance I was on the other side of the door slamming it shut on one of the man’s thumbs.

The thumb, it turned out, was just enough to jam the door and prevent it from locking. I was stuck for nearly a full second, completely unsure about what to do. If I had continued forcing the door all the way shut I might have very well ripped off the man’s thumb but if I opened the door too much they’d pull me back outside. As if just to break the silence the man let out an incredible scream that gave the impression that far more than just a thumb was stuck in the door and I opened the door just a crack. I looked into the man’s sad eyes and as if some sort of gentlemen’s agreement had been reached he pulled out his thumb and just held his thumb in his other hand as I got the door closed. I could still hear him screaming even through the glass but the man backed away from the door. His two comrades, however, rushed the door and began banging so hard that I thought they’d surely break the window pane. I took three or four steps back, watched them from the edge of the staircase and without even realizing what I was doing gave them the middle finger. The man who had punched me kicked at the glass which visibly shook but did not give way. The four of us looked at each other stunned.

I ran up the flight of stairs to the concierge desk. It was pitch-black on the second floor and I ran right over a man who began screaming to someone else in Lithuanian. A light turned on and I found myself on the floor on top of the hotel manager who was holding a cell phone in one hand and a large metal mallet in the other. His son was about five feet away, wielding a nine-iron and looking like he was about to piss himself.

“Thank God it’s you” the manager said. “Did they get in?”


“Are you sure?”

“Yes, absolutely.”

“Are, you hurt?”

“No, I’m fine.”

“Are you sure?”


“I’m calling the police, one moment.” He began calming down his son who was still standing there ready to hit me over the head with the nine-iron despite looking like he was going to collapse from utter fright at any moment. The poor boy was so spooked that I don’t think he even recognized me as the idiot hotel guest he had managed to scare under a bed by setting off firecrackers the day before. I told the manager not to call the police.

“But we need to catch them” he answered. “We can’t just have thugs picking off tourists like that, someone will get hurt. And furthermore I won’t tolerate anyone trying to harm one of my guests. You were lucky but the next one won’t be and the cops can’t do anything without a complaint.”

Despite the manager’s protests I talked him out of calling the police. I had no desire to get involved with being interviewed by cops and since nothing had been taken and I had broken a man’s thumb (for which I still feel guilty mind you) I felt that things were more than even. Still, I didn’t like the idea that someone might get hurt because I didn’t want to go through the formalities of filing a police report so I told the manager everything I could remember about the men (their appearance, that they were speaking Romanian, their clothing) and he composed an email that he sent to a listserve for businesses in the area. The camera was not attached to a recording device so there was no picture to send along.

As it turned out the button I had pushed to get buzzed in activates not only the camera which the guest is to look into so that the manager can confirm his identity but also activates an additional camera that shows about ten feet of the sidewalk on either side of the door. The manager and his son saw what was happening and had grabbed improvised weapons in case I had managed to let any of the thugs in. Whether they would have come out and tried to fight off the men if I hadn’t gotten the door open is ambiguous to me but hopefully they wouldn’t have been stupid/brave enough to have tried that and would have just called the police.

The strange near-mugging seemed to remove a wall between myself and the family that was running the hotel and the man told me why things were so consistently bonkers. As you have probably divined from the previous entry, the man and his wife had absolutely no idea what they were doing when it came to running a hotel. As it turned out they weren’t hotel managers by trade but two teachers who had fallen on hard times, lost their home in a rural town in the country’s north and we’re put to work at the hotel by the woman’s cousin in exchange for having a place to live while they found somewhere else to go. The cousin, for her part, was in a small town near Kaunas tending to her dying mother-in-law. The two boys, having lost the only home they knew, not being enrolled in school because their parents were planning on moving elsewhere ASAP, and finding themselves in a big city that their rural upbringing made frightening, were completely nerve-wracked and bored. The fact that they had nowhere to go but the hotel’s courtyard certainly made the experience even worse. The family had been planning on leaving for Ireland, where the man had lived for several years a decade ago, but had to earn enough money first doing odd jobs and managing the hotel to be able to rent an apartment. (EU citizens can move around very easily, going from Lithuania to Ireland is not like going from Lithuania to the USA).

So in short they were in limbo and to make things worse they had inherited a business that was going bottom-up even before they took over because due to the recession there were few tourists coming to Lithuania who had enough money to avoid staying in a hostel but not enough to stay in a more expensive hotel within the old city. As it turned out I and the businessman were the only two people in the hotel (out of a dozen or so rooms) that whole week and I was the only guest the first day. And that was why the woman had been so forceful in getting me to leave for the fair because she was desperate to find something for her sons to do and me being the only guest once she got rid of me she was able to abandon her post to entertain her stir-crazed sons. It was far from professional but certainly understandable.

And so, a lot more understanding of the situation and being thankful for them having buzzed me in at exactly the right moment for me to avoid being savagely beaten, I was able to ignore the several other odd and degrading incidents that befell me during the rest of my week at the “mishegoyem-hoyz” and even left them a good review on several hotel search engines, which were, to be honest, completely undeserved. But hey, I made it out alive. And I only nearly “made d’whole place go boom.”

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