LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 48, No.2 - Summer 2002
Editors of this issue: Violeta Kelertas
Copyright © 2002 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
A BALTIC JOURNEY FROM BROOKLYN
St. Francis College
I. Gloria Lithuania
From Stockholm the flight over the Baltic sea revealed, on that cold, winter morning, a terrestrial glacier below, a water surface frozen in mounds and billows of feathery ice as far as could be seen. My wife and I were amazed at the spectacle, and marveled aloud, only later, as we descended into Vilnius airport, to realize in our travel inexperience, that we were witnessing not global freezing but mere cloud cover. It had been a trick on our eye: we had lost our visual perspective and came to realize, as most travelers to a new world, that what we imagined as spectacular was later revealed as mundane. Truth is frequently revealed in glimmers and not in a rush of light, but there are a sagacious few who can manage to comprehend the totality of such glimmers.
The Vilnius airport proved dark and dreary, even frightening to us, veiled in a damp, gray fog of misty clouds. Our American currency was exchanged, in our favor, but not before the two one hundred dollar bills were minutely inspected and closely evaluated. (We had been told to bring impeccably clean money.) Our ground transportation to the (as yet undesignated) hotel turned out to be the husband of our native Lithuanian adoption contact, and I was surprised that his car was a Cadillac El Dorado. (This turned out to be fortunate, too, since our one, shared suitcase was enormous.) My wife and I were in Lithuania for the court hearing concerning the adoption of our little girl, our daughter, so our Lithuanian was limited to Koks jūsų vardas?" (What is your name?) and similar simple words and expressions. Fortunately, many people in Lithuania speak English. I was surprised to discover, however, that there is little knowledge of any Romance languages. (Though Stendhal was in Vilnius, writing, when Napoleon marched through in 1812.)
We were not sure where we would be staying, so as we left the airport, our driver told us that (both the hotels we anticipated using were booked because of a conference and that, of course, we would be staying at the most expensive hotel in town. I grimaced to myself and I felt my (already burdened) credit card getting heavier. As he spoke, I peered out the window to observe a stern and somber scene: dark, lonesome figures in heavy coats moving with lethargy along the slush-covered streets; low, dilapidated multidwelling buildings in need of repair and paint; strange-looking stores that appeared to sell meat and basic goods. Wherever we were, it was clear that the mark of the Soviet era, overcome by the Lithuanians almost ten years earlier, had not been completely cleansed, covered, or eradicated.
We arrived at the hotel Astorija exhausted. My wife was suffering from a sinus infection, and I was apparently coming down with a head cold. These ailments were magnified by the long flight and the nervous anticipation of our court date only two days away. Although the 1901 building we were in was tastefully decorated and our room pleasant, it was small. I pulled aside the drape from the window and saw a beautiful old church (St. Casimir's) across the street. The building, like others around, was in poor condition, lacking window-glass and in need of paint, but its Gothic architecture and imposing size was a call from the past, and its permanence, its endurance, somehow mollified me.
My wife and I decided to take a walk, despite the depressing weather and our fatigue. Lithuania, in fact the town of Širvintos (not far from Vilnius), is the birthplace of my wife's maternal grandmother, so the excitement to see this old country, especially for Americans who have spent all of their lives working and going to school, not traveling, propelled us outside.
We walked up a main street toward the Aušros (Dawn) Gate chapel, a remnant of the town's medieval fortifications. We experienced visions of Grand Duke Mindaugas, a knight warrior and later King of Lithuania, who organized the nation, setting the way for a city that would become home to a range of intellectual activity, including Vilnius University. The people on the street, even when we did not open our mouths to speak, stared at us in a way that disclosed their recognition that we were different, strangers, foreign. There was a small shop comparable to what we would call a drugstore, but clearly not displaying or stocking the vast quantity of products in a similar American establishment. But many of the buildings were closed and, but for a cafe attached to another hotel and what appeared to be a bakery shop, much of what we saw revealed an economy that was at its nadir. Perhaps because it was Sunday, there were many old women on the streets, sitting quietly, bundled in layers of old clothes, each holding a wooden bowl on her lap hoping for a small coin. People passed these women without looking at them. Yet, the desperate expressions these women bore was moving, and we felt a helpless pity.
Next day, we decided to walk in the opposite direction, which, it turned out, would take us through the heart of the Old Town. Eventually we would come upon Gediminas Tower, named for the Grand Duke, who, in the fourteenth century, had a vision of a wolf on a mound, and so built a fortress there. The tower squats staunchly on a hill watching with staid vigilance the multitiered Bell Tower in the main church square, a funereal forum for the bodies of those slain by the Soviets in 1991. Used to the sprawling vistas of New York, such as Fifth or Park Avenues, we were entranced by the narrow, cobblestone, spiraling streets. The buildings were low and yielded a distinctive medieval flavor in their facades, architecture and color. There was, however, an uncomfortable discrepancy between the ancient buildings and the expensive products sold: we would find quaint, small stores with tiny wooden doors and antique signs foisting from their windows upon passersby the latest women's lingerie from Paris or shoes from Milan.
One of our first ventures was into a coffee shop (kavinė), and it turned out to be a marvel. American coffee-bar conglomerates, with their slick cups and service with an attitude, are primitive compared to what we experienced in Vilnius. Not only were the cafes clean, each with its distinctive atmosphere and decoration, but the service was impeccable. Although many local people did not smile, we noticed during our six-day stay, that they were nevertheless pleasant and agreeable, the epitome of what to an American is European sophistication of manners or culture. "The Lithuanians might not have much money," my wife would say, "but they know how to enjoy their coffee." And certainly, the coffee was the best we had ever had; the pastries and cake, too, were especially delicious (skanūs), refined to a smooth texture and subtle composition. One cafe in particular we visited numerous times, not only for what we were able to put into our mouths, but because the atmosphere and interior decoration transported us from the present back to the popular coffee houses of the eighteenth century.
My wife and I, educated and understanding, still seemed to carry within us those remnants of the ignorant American. When we first entered this particular cafe, I, perhaps because of my head cold, was too intimidated to attempt the language and told my wife to order two coffees, to hold up two fingers and say du kava (literally, "two coffee"). The young woman behind the counter crossed us with no smile and retorted, "You would like two coffees, no?" But, of course, in other situations there was no English. During one of our walks, we stopped at a newsstand (Lietuvos spauda) to buy a lollipop for our daughter. The vendor understood no English, but apparently the word "pop" was sufficient to negotiate the exchange. We discovered in some other situations that language, although it was uttered but not understood on either side, was completely unnecessary, for the predominant means of communication was cash, Lithuanian money (litas). At one street vendor, of which there are many, a calculator was used to display the amount of litas and no word was spoken by the native.
On one of our excursions through the corkscrew streets, somewhat lost, we retreated to a tiny cafe on a deserted street, and we were alone in the shop but for the woman behind the counter who spoke no English. We were cold and tired and wanted hot refreshment before the long walk back to the hotel. We were having difficulty communicating, principally because her cakes and pastries were not within ready pointing range, but then someone else entered the store, a tall, stylishly dressed woman in her late thirties, who quickly perceived our predicament and acted as our translator. We had read somewhere that the Lithuanians are akin to the Italians in their warmth and spontaneity, and certainly that was the case with this woman, who promptly (with a smile!) invited us to share a table with her.
We had not yet dealt intimately, on a personal level, with any local person, so this was quite a surprising non-peripatetic adventure for us. The woman was dressed in beautiful, expensive clothes that exuded the feel of Northern Europe in their cut, texture, and design. (On another day we discovered that the handmade woolens are an excellent value.) Our new friend appeared to be a cross between Greta Garbo and Meryl Streep. She wore a small, tight-fitting, black fur cap, seductively tilted on her head, and her makeup was rather simple, pale. She carried over her shoulder a very fine-looking, luxurious woman's briefcase. As we were to discover by the end of our visit, many of the women in the Old Town were stylish, and their counterparts would be found in Soho or on Madison Avenue in New York.
We learned her name to be Gloriana. She spoke quickly, almost with evasion. She asked us why we were in Lithuania. We could not answer her honestly, mostly since the conservative climate of the country might not be open to our endeavor. We said, (as we were instructed) that were traveling out of a curiosity about my wife's heritage.
Gloriana immediately began to speak. "I am pure. I am pure Polish-Lithuanian." We understood what she meant, for Lithuania and Poland had an alliance (with some disputes, principally over Vilnius) for hundreds of years.
"You see we have no Afro-Americans or Asians here. Our race is pure. We do not mix." She shook her head in the negative, slowly, staring at us with cold blue eyes.
She expressed interest in my wife's Lithuanian connection, but became condescending when my wife mispronounced her grandmother's birthplace. Gloriana turned to me and asked if I were Lithuanian. I said no, and then (mistakenly) volunteered that my heritage was Scottish, Irish, German, and some Italian. Gloriana shook her head in disbelief and waved her hand dismissively. "It does not matter," she said.
My wife and I stared into our coffee and took long sips to silence the conversation, but Gloriana began to ask us about money and America. She spoke quickly, narrating and inquiring at the same time, and although there did not seem to be a direct question put forth, it was clear that she held some preconception that all Americans were rich.
"We are what is called cash-poor," I said. She looked at me with a blank expression, begging the question. "We do not have large salaries, and housing in New York City is exorbitantly expensive. We bought a house and depleted our cash savings."
"But you have not money?" she asked incredulously, almost concerned.
"We have what we need," said my wife. After another series of rambling sentences, a combination of her life story and opinion concerning the economy and unfulfilled expectations, we came to realize that, whereas in America we operate by check and credit, the Lithuanians rely on cash.
Somehow, as the conversation, mostly directed by her, continued in its shapelessness, she became agitated, perhaps by the strong coffee, and blurted out, "I have privilege. I have privilege!" We were not sure what she meant, but additional exhortations indicated that she was upset by the intrusion of people like us into her country to steal potential business. My wife and I quickly put on our coats, and as I put on my beret, I bowed to her and said, "C'est la vérité."
II. Victor Vilnius
During the second of our trips to Lithuania concerning the adoption of our daughter, my wife and I, while staying in the medieval town of Vilnius and marveling at the richness of its architectural texture and depth of its historic tone, were especially impressed by the University (Alma Mater Vilnensis), once a place of astronomical study for Copernicus. The Polish scientist was a man of many facets and talents, who, despite his family's wish that he enter a religious community, studied mathematics, medicine, law and astronomy all over Europe, ultimately reconstituting the world's perception of the universe. Perhaps it is not, therefore, unusual that at Vilnius University, we encountered one man who, in particular, seemed to epitomize the thesis of Ortega y Gasset, in his essay "History as a System," that one's life is a task,1 an enterprise to be worked at with ardent consistency, a drama to be acted by each and every person.
We entered the portals of the university quietly, knowing that were we to speak English we would be revealed as visitors and therefore charged vienas litas (about twenty-five cents, U.S.). Although it was January, overcast and cold (typical weather for the region), we were immediately struck by the pleasant, comfortable colors of the buildings: gently washed hues of pink and mustard that purposefully brightened the steel-gray cloud cover.
At one point, we found ourselves in the Littera, the college bookstore, which was unlike its American counterparts since it lacked glossy magazines and paraphernalia entirely unrelated to learning. In the store, I asked one of the employees if there were any books by D.H. Lawrence, the subject of most of my scholarship. I thought it might be curious to own one of his texts in Lithuanian. The worker, extremely cordial, but without smiling, shrugged and indicated that he was not familiar with that name, so there were no Lawrence books in the shop, but would I be interested in Hemingway. I shuddered. I followed the store employee as he spoke, and I soon realized that he was taking me to a section of the shop that contained a small section of English-language texts.
I am afraid that you will not find D.H. Lawrence in Lithuania, a voice spoke from behind us. I turned and saw a man, in his early forties, tall, athletic, dark-haired, with fleshy facial features and a gentle smile. Beyond the man I could see out of the window, and his figure seemed to embody the square courtyard outside, with its one tree, spots of snow, and low, round arches in the distance. He was joined to this historic place, both at that moment and forever.
I inquired why I would not find Lawrence, but of course the ignorance of my question struck me as soon as it was uttered. The man quietly said that, although Lithuania had successfully eradicated Soviet rule about ten years ago and, subsequently, communist dominance from its ancient soil, the effects of Soviet censure and control, over many decades, had left a lasting and slow-to-disappear miasma.
How is it, then, I politely asked him, that he knew of Lawrence. He admitted that, although never having been out of the country, he could not have read the writer's work, but he had heard of him by reference, and he mentioned Lady Chatterley's Lover, one of Lawrence's best-known works because of the boldness of its theme. I asked if he had not heard of Lawrence's poetry or essays or of his masterpiece, Women in Love. He said no. Often, especially in a writer like Lawrence, one's reputation is based on popular, public opinion and not on what the writer would have chosen as representative of his essential canon.
Are you a student of literature, I asked, sensing that the man craved conversation in English. Far from being a humanist, in the narrow sense of the term as used in America, this man, Victor, was studying medical marketing at the university. Immediately I conjured in my mind the image of Copernicus and his bold attempts at reformulating society's thinking during the sixteenth century. Here, too, in this man, to utter the word marketing in a formerly communist controlled country was a bit startling. Nevertheless, there was something about this man that my wife and I responded to positively. Often, people think I am speaking nonsense when I describe to them how my initial, visceral, gut feeling of a person is often correct. Victor struck in me a sympathetic chord, and there was gentleness in his face and in the tone of his voice that clearly represented some predominate Lithuanian character.
I politely asked Victor about medical marketing, not exactly sure what its bounds would encompass, and my wife and I were surprised to learn that this man was a medical doctor who could not find work. In America, a doctor trained in an American school, is often sought after; apparently, though, socialized medicine has left little opportunity for men and women like Victor. He did not know that our reason for visiting Lithuania was to complete an adoption, but it was remarkable to discover that Victor's training, specifically, was in pediatrics and that, indeed, he had practiced for a short time. So this gentle man before us, intelligent, educated, caring, could possibly have been the doctor for our little girl. Lack of funds and a meager salary, though, forced him into unemployment; then, he had to reformulate a career and prospective future from the remnants of his medical training. For an American, a medical degree is a solid foundation.
Again I think of Ortega y Gasset and his seminal essay that, whether he was aware of it or not, is key to understanding not only existentialism, but also self and character. In the essay, Ortega says, "the determination of what at each moment society is going to be, depends on what it has been, just as in the individual life."2 In a country like Lithuania such a statement, upon reflective meditation, carries significant weight. Here, in this city of Vilnius, at the now famous television tower, where men and women, in January 1991, died at the hands of Soviets, the Baltic freedom movement began. Here, before me and my wife, was a man old enough to have lived through that moment of monumental significance and through many years, previously, of Soviet control and influence. Ortega tells us that it takes men and women like Victor, individuals (like Copernicus) who have the courage and inner strength to determine the moral and political future of their society, their community, because they have a depth of character that is unfamiliar to most Americans.
Despite the cold outside, there was a rare bit of sunshine for about an hour, so my wife and I stood by the window of the bookstore, taking in the warmth of the nourishing, godly rays while listening to the amazing story of Victor, a tale rarely heard in America but multiplied by all of the faces one sees on the streets of Vilnius. Often, after a day of wandering through the narrow streets of Old Town or the wider and more contemporary streets elsewhere, my wife and I would remark to each other how the faces of these people, especially the middle-aged and elders, told clearly through their weary, lambent eyes, dry, hard wrinkles and inured frowns, a story of trial and deprivation. It is remarkable to us that the Lithuanian colors and especially the national flag (a true symbol of a nation's character), were banned during Soviet rule. A people, its language is elemental to its identity and existence, and fortunately, during the Soviet occupation, the Lithuanians were able to perpetuate their essence of being through the written and spoken word. Many others, though, suffered intellectual and cultural oppression. For instance, I am reminded (by my erudite wife) of the essay, "A Life," in The Outermost Dream, by William Maxwell, where the American writer chronicles the sad history of Andrei Alekseyevich Amalrik, who at the age of twenty-two in 1960 suggested, in his doctoral dissertation, that Norman traders were a great influence on early Russia. For the remainder of his life, this man was persecuted, because he made use of a historical thesis that did not correspond with the political views of the Soviet system. He was crushed.
We all need to ponder for a moment how the currents of the true, pure Lithuania struggled and somehow thrived under, and in spite of this wolfish, cowardly frenzy of hate and prejudice. Further reference to Ortega reveals that our lives grant us an "onthological privilege."3 What does this mean? Since life is a task, and since we must recognize it and envision the person we strive for, we are given the privilege of formulating and consequently of achieving our being. Imagine the Lithuanian character, as a society and as an individual, one which over decades of continual wearing down envisioned an ontology that was different, that was free to speak its own language and that was free to work and suffer and fail on its own terms and by its own hands and not by the oppression of a cold, callous, careless government from another country. Ortega notes that we possess a "progressive character"4 and certainly, the Lithuanian people epitomize this, from the paradigm of the Polish Copernicus to the flesh-and-blood Victor. Freedom is a burden of responsibility, and to be free means that one (whether an individual or a society) has no static, dead being but must create it anew, reform it, reshape it from the remnants of what it was yesterday.
1 Ortega y Gasset, Jose, History as a System (New York; W.W. Norton, 1961), 165, 200.
2 Gasset, 210.
3 Gasset, 219.
4 Gasset, 218-219.