LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Copyright © 2007 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
Volume 53, No 1 - Spring 2007
Editor of this issue: Patrick Chura
“Karšta, bet gerai”: The Healing Spirit of the Druskininkai Pirtis
Stacy Larsen is a public school activist and aspiring writer. She served as Peace Corps volunteer in Druskininkai, Lithuania from 1992 –1994, where she taught English at Druskininkų 4-oji Vidurinė Mokykla. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband Sean and their two children.
The secret magic of Druskininkai is most likely known to Mother Nature alone...Taken separately, neither the mineral springs nor the pine groves or the most enchanting Lithuanian river together with its tiny tributary would reflect the overwhelming charm of Druskininkai as a total entity – the oasis of peacefulness, freshness and health, the emerald of the Dainava land. –Romas Sadauskas1
According to my friend Aušra, there was only one city in the Soviet Union where Lenin was posed sitting down – Druskininkai. When I arrived there as a Peace Corps volunteer in August of 1992, the statue had been removed, but its immense platform was still there, a giant bench on which the giant dictator once rested, so taken by the sounds of the rushing Nemunas and the fresh, piney air that he even set his book aside. His had been a prime spot, next to the river and the Physiotherapy Center, an immense, futuristic spacestation wrought in concrete, with massive cylinders jutting skyward, topped with curlicues and waves. The first time I saw it, my American mind had no other context but Star Trek. Over the next two years, I would see more jaw-dropping concrete architecture, but none as bizarre as the Physiotherapy Center in my adopted hometown. In the winter, the Center appeared even more alien, the pristine and surrounding snow underscoring the fact that nobody was going in or out.
In the years before Lenin left and I arrived, Druskininkai attracted over 100,000 visitors per year to its thirteen sanatoriums.2 Collective farm and factory workers were allowed annual visits to such resort destinations; the heavy souvenir book I was given on my arrival showed the familiar streets teeming with tourists in the summer sun, many of them eating ice cream, shopping for jewelry, and enjoying outdoor concerts at the M.K. Čiurlionis house. They were strolling the pine forests, doing group calisthenics, having underwater massage. This was the Druskininkai I had dreamed of when the Peace Corps staff went over the potential volunteer assignments. We were given brief descriptions of fourteen cities and towns, most taken from Soviet-era pamphlets and guidebooks, and it was difficult to get a clear idea of where we would spend the next two years of our lives. Druskininkai had been designated a spa town for over 150 years, members of the Soviet Olympic teams had trained and taken treatments there. As a bit of a self-proclaimed hippie, and intensely interested in herbal remedies and the powers of curative waters, I was sure of one thing: Druskininkai and I were made for each other.
I walked every day in Druskininkai – for miles. I did all my shopping on foot, no matter how heavy the bags or how far the turgus. Walking was always more reliable than the infrequent bus, and it was truly a beautiful town. Untainted by any heavy industry, its least attractive streets were those of giant cement apartment blocks, but those were in every part of the country. Of course, there were the usual grim, utilitarian stores: low, grey, unlit blocks of concrete, their functions denoted by the spare outlines of a shirt, an ox head, a milk bottle. But there was also the lake, the bright blue Orthodox church, birch trees and pine forests, sculptures of water sprites, the Nemunas, and crumbling, pre-Soviet cottages in yellow and green covered with intricate wooden gingerbread.
The Physiotherapy Center was just five minutes away from my bendrabutis, and for a couple of weeks I’d end up there after my daily walk, circling the place, wondering who thought 2 Ibid., 161. to attempt a wedding cake out of concrete, and staring at the gallery of phallic graffiti that decorated one of the mammoth twisting staircases. One late September day, I went in, stunned to find the doors unlocked. The cylindrical foyer featured a rotunda with long strings of dangling brown glass, which caught the afternoon sun like giant hunks of suspended amber. Curved staircases wound up and around, giving way to long hallways in many directions, full of rooms with empty tubs and peculiar machinery. It seemed completely deserted; and I continued to walk, even as the emptiness grew eerier. I wandered for nearly twenty minutes before meeting someone, a woman in a white dress and the tall, ubiquitous paper hat of someone in charge of something. A few stammered words of broken Lithuanian allowed me to get away with few questions, but the experience left a lot unanswered. Over the next year, I would bring other Peace Corps volunteers there, but we never made it in as far. By the following summer, the doors were locked.
I asked Aušra about the open, empty building. Where was everyone? Nobody can afford to come, she said. Before, it was guaranteed. Now nobody can pay to come. Naively, I pressed on. Why is it still open? She seemed surprised by my question. What else will people do, she asked. Where else will they go? Another sanatorium seemed to bear this out. Several times, I went swimming at the Eglė, where the mother of one of my students worked. It was one of the few that seemed to be attracting a handful of Polish visitors. Still, I was one of perhaps four people in the huge pool, one being a water therapist, while twice that number of attendants walked in and out of the area.
This was the Druskininkai I found, a place much like all of Lithuania at that time; a country left with an infrastructure its economy couldn’t support, full of people who had found their jobs suddenly obsolete or unsustainable, but nowhere else to go. My own bendrabutis was a casualty of that time. Associated with a large yarn and fabric factory located in another city, it had housed the workers during their guaranteed vacations in Druskininkai. In the two years I lived there, I knew of only four units out of eighteen that were ever occupied. Nonetheless, an attendant staffed a small room off the foyer, where she limited access to the phone, and various women let themselves in and out of my unit, just to check on the state of things.
I never realized the dream of spending my off hours in mysterious treatment regimens in Druskininkai’s sanatoriums. I did attend an exercise class at one, which involved spending nearly ten minutes navigating unlit stairs and hallways leading into the windowless bowels of the building, again without really seeing anyone. I also made sort of a deal with a man at the same place, whereby I gave him money to let me use what might then have been the only photocopier in town. But I did find an oasis in Druskininkai, and with it, a healing spirit as old as Lithuania itself.
My oddly vacant bendrabutis was just down the street from the former home of M.K. Čiurlionis, a museum that was also empty most of the time. Just beyond his house was a nearly windowless bunker of concrete, noticeably lacking the sci-fi grandeur of the Physiotherapy Center. It bore one word: Garinė. Garinė was a mystery. I couldn’t find it in my dictionary, and when I asked someone at my school, she didn’t know what I was talking about; said there was no such word or thing. Finally, I hit upon garas in the dictionary: steam. If a kavinė was a place to get kavos, then a garinė must be a place to get ... steamed? It was a dream come true. After my first visit there, alone and with no idea what to expect, I explained where I’d been to some colleagues. They were quick to point out that I had, in fact, been to the pirtis, and had no idea what the garinė name was about. Either way, I became devoted to my pirtis. Over the next two years, unless I was traveling elsewhere, I went nearly every weekend, often on both nights of operation. As I would eventually learn, Saturday night was the best time to come, the hottest time, since the fire that was built up the night before had been burning many hours by then.
For that first visit, I packed what I thought were the essentials, but I was far from fully prepared. The old woman who took my fifty talonai looked me up and down and asked “norit vanta?” Vanta, vanta. What was a vanta? I pulled out my bathing suit. No, no, she said, I wouldn’t need that. I opened my bag and she peered inside; she then took me to a storage closet where she rummaged through piles of sticks and leaves, some of them quite damp and ragged. Shaking her head in disgust at several specimens, muttering “vyrai,” she handed me a tightly wrapped and tied bundle of birch branches. “Vanta.” Within a year, just the following spring actually, I would await the new green growth of Druskininkai’s birches, rich with sap, and cut my own vanta.
The old woman took me by the arm to the women’s dressing area, and on the way, very emphatically pointed to another door. “Vyrai” she said firmly. Then, shaking her head, “vyrai.” She chose a locker and waited. “Nusirenkite.” After I undressed, she pressed the vanta into my hand, led me through the shower room, and through a door into the pirtis. “Čia amerikietė,” she said to a small crowd of women in the cement room, stretched out and seated on wooden benches that went up alarmingly high. “Nebuvo pirtyje.” Fully clothed in the broiling heat, she demonstrated the process. Sit there. Open the oven door here. I really should be wearing a hat; it was hotter that way. Ladle water from here. Water hissed on the oven rocks, and the heat became blistering. She wielded the vanta, thrashing a nearby woman from head to toe with the birch branches. As I later learned, you could do this to yourself, but it was much nicer to stretch out on a bench and let someone else do it. In time, offering to whack somebody with their vanta became my way of reaching out and fitting in without having to say much.
For two more years, this woman made sure I had the best vanta, was kind enough to let me try making my own, then gave me the best one again without saying anything. She kept me up on things, like how the vyrai were rearranging the rocks inside the oven with a stick so that they could get a better view into the women’s side of the pirtis. The foolish vyrai, who drank the large bottles of beer sold up front. They thought they were stiprūs. Everyone knew they should be drinking tea. She was delighted when I finally brought an old wool hat and a bottle of tea. Even after I became a regular, she’d come in to check on 10 me every so often, ladle on some more water, and tell someone to make sure I was getting enough whacking. She spoke no English, and my Lithuanian was far from perfect, but she never corrected me. She never corrected, and she always understood. Even the day after my first visit, after I spent half the morning with my dictionary trying to figure out how I would ask, she understood. “Pemza,” I stammered. “Aš užmiršau pemza akmuo.” She handed me the pumice stone I had left the night before.
The pumice stone, it turned out, was a popular item, and I loaned it to a few people on pirtis nights. Something I discovered at the pirtis was how strong a connection there was between Lithuanians and natural, beautiful things, even as so many Soviet-made products were shoddy and unattractive. One woman I met was intensely interested in my bath sponge. It was a sea sponge, undyed and irregularly shaped. She thought it was beautiful, and showed me hers. “Sintetika,” she said disparagingly. “Soviet.” I gave her mine, and from then until I left Druskininkai, she would come to my bendrabutis once a month or so, with a bag of fruit or vegetables from her family’s sodas. She was tall, sinewy and strong, with iron gray hair and an elegant, weathered face. She was austere, and never very friendly at the pirtis, but unfailingly brought the bag of produce, never staying to socialize.
Another woman gave me bags and packets of herbs at the pirtis, along with instructions on how to use them. Linden blossoms for colds and headaches, rue for stomach cramps, valerian to aid sleep. She told me to gather the very first tips of the birch leaves in spring, when they were still sticky, and make them into a tea. It would clean my body; make me ready for the change of season. Every source on herbal medicine that I have consulted since then has confirmed the properties of the herbs she gave me. And birch leaves also contain an oil that is known to reduce muscle tension. The only treatment that didn’t work for me was using a pine branch in place of a vanta. “Stimuliacija,” she enthused, whacking my back and legs. The tiny pinpoints of blood were an indicator that this might be too much of a good thing.
There were other women at the pirtis with whom I never socialized or spoke outside of it. Many, I don’t think I would have recognized anywhere else, especially wrapped up in the coats and scarves of winter, with the grim determination that the winter required. At the pirtis, we shed our layers, shared apples, and scrubbed each other’s backs. Braced against a wall, held firmly by one shoulder, I’d be scrubbed well and thoroughly down the backside from top to bottom, usually with a rough plaušinė ragged from years of use. It was invigorating, but also nurturing and maternal. It was hard not to feel like a child having a bath. There was no other clean like the pirtis, and no other warmth.
That first winter in particular, from 1992-1993, much of Lithuania had a chronic shortage of fuel from large debts to Russia and cut-off gas lines. For Druskininkai, this meant that the heat was sometimes not on at school, or, as was the case in my bendrabutis, set so low as to be completely ineffective. When I could see my breath in my room and wore a hat to bed, I followed my students’ lead, stuffing the window seams with tufts of wool and old stockings.
Hot water was one of the first things to go in this fuel crisis, and the problem took different forms in different towns, though none of it was ever entirely clear to me. Some volunteers had hot water all the time and didn’t know why. Druskininkai was on ever-shifting plans and schedules: no hot water at all, one week on and one week off, weekends only, and my favorite, every weekday for three hours in the morning and then again in the evening. In any case, the pirtis was the only place where I could count on a hot shower every Friday and Saturday night. It was delicious to be so overheated as to need dousing with the buckets of icy water, decadent to ladle cup after cup on the rocks in the huge oven, driving the heat to nearly unbearable and collapsing on the wooden benches. When it’s that hot, the mind can go blank, the steam can play tricks with your eyes, just breathing can be an effort. Some of the simplest and most satisfying conversations came at such times:
“Taip. Karšta, karšta.”
“Taip, taip. Karšta, bet gerai.”
Subtle variations of this breathless dialog could go on indefinitely; and I was always delighted that, even among Lithuanians, it didn’t often develop more in complexity. Nobody had much to say to one another because they either couldn’t or didn’t have to. Conversation wasn’t expected. We were all too blissfully hot and exhausted. Our bodies had nothing else to do but surrender completely to relaxation. It didn’t really occur to me then what an incredible luxury that had to be for so many of those women, in a time and place where daily living still involved so much physical labor. I was hand-washing sheets and clothes and boiling water to wash dishes for just one person. My backbreaking bags of potatoes and milk bottles came home only once or twice a week, with only one mouth to feed. Most of the women at the pirtis were doing all those things and more for whole families, often for several generations, many in apartments no bigger than the one I had all to myself.
The pirtis was both ritual and retreat; part the communal experience of vanta and deep scrubbing, part unshared and solitary. I’d sometimes bring my future husband to the pirtis, but then he’d go with the vyrai, so we’d have completely separate experiences. Only once or twice did I bring another woman with me, and they were American. Nobody that I knew from my school went to the pirtis, and so it really did become a sanctuary, a place where I wasn’t someone’s teacher or colleague, and where I wasn’t singled out or stared at for being foreign.
At the pirtis, I felt part of something ancient and alive: the enormous wood-fired oven, the long rough stick to open and close its creaking metal door, the smell of smoke and wet branches. Girls as young as seven, their mothers, their grandmothers, and their hunched great-grandmothers came there, washed one another, braided each other’s hair.
I read recently that the pirtis figured prominently in late nineteenth century youth initiation rites, largely for girls. The rites themselves are surely far older, but the interviews on which the research was based were with people who lived at that time. These rites included girls marking their maturation by a special bath at the pirtis, young women assembling in the pirtis in autumn to determine which were ready to marry, and a practice which required that a girl mark her maturation by baking bread on a Saturday so that it might be served to the women at the pirtis that day.3 This last was particularly interesting to me, since the Druskininkai miesto pirtis was only open on Fridays and Saturdays.
The Druskininkai Lenin is still sitting, now in the Grūto Parkas, a sculpture garden of fallen Soviet propaganda not far from the town. It features a gift shop with “Drink Like a Soviet” shot glasses and copies of the Communist Manifesto. The Physiotherapy Center has been razed, or vastly altered, making way for one of the largest and most elaborate water parks in all of Europe. I wish both of these ventures well. Lithuania deserves successful entrepreneurs, and Druskininkai should be a thriving vacation center again, the streets alive with new generations enjoying its charm.
The miesto pirtis is still functional. The days and hours of operation have not changed since I left Druskininkai nearly thirteen years ago. There is no website, but their information is on the city homepage. There is still cold beer for sale (for those stiprūs vyrai). I hope it never changes. Though Soviet relics and high-tech water parks may power Druskininkai’s new economy, Lithuania needs its soul, too. 3 Žilvytis Bernardas Šaknys, “Jaunimo brandos apeigos Lietuvoje XIX a. pirmojoje puseje – XX a. pirmojoje pusėje” (Youth’s Initiation Rites in Lithuania). Lietuvos etnologija Volume 1.Vilnius: Pradai, 1996, 212 summary
1. Feliksas Petrauskas, Druskininkai. Vilnius: Mintis, 1998, 15.
2 Ibid., 161.
3 Žilvytis Bernardas Šaknys, “Jaunimo brandos apeigos Lietuvoje XIX a. pirmojoje puseje – XX a. pirmojoje pusėje” (Youth’s Initiation Rites in Lithuania). Lietuvos etnologija Volume 1.Vilnius: Pradai, 1996, 212 summary