One year ago this month, I discovered Lithuania to my absolute delight, because “Nobody knows where it is, but when you find it, it’s amazing,” according to their racy tourism campaign. Actually, business brought me to Vilnius . . . but it was a pleasure.
They’re not kidding about it being nuostabi (amazing).
How could a place be so incredulously alive in the same buildings that hold onto the chains and death stains of its violent past?
Everywhere is both now and then/old and new/them (whichever foreign government/military was occupying) and us. In the self-proclaimed Republic of Užupis, “us” was a group of bohemian artists that decided to write its own constitution stating how things were goin’ be in this part of Vilnius old town including “Any artificial intelligence has the right to believe in a good will of humanity.”
Also: Everyone has the right to love and take care of the cat. Everyone has the right to look after the dog until one of them dies. A dog has the right to be a dog. A cat is not obliged to love its owner, but must help in time of nee[d].
At the Lover’s Bridge, I crab-walked with Armand (my favorite lens) to get a good angle on the locks over the River Vilnelė to Užupis. If I looked down into the water below, there were these stones balanced precariously in the water that flowed fast and dark around them. Some of the trees along the banks were wrapped with old books threaded through their spines with twine…weathered, drooping like a Dali painting.
Almost anywhere there’d be worn pavers engraved with news of who’d been shot in that random spot–some Lithuanian poet I’d never heard of before . . . a stairway up a hill is devoted to its literati, their names are remembered.
Vilnius is cloistered in resilience . . . a monument to survival, or, more accurately, to what survives.
Not just art, but the need to create it.
If Lithuania has a color, it’s red. Even the air is rufescent with the Catholic churches fogged in a thick incense of frankincense and fir resin, and the blunt cigarettes glowing in dark cafe windows as I walked at dark-thirty through Vilnius old town. The sound of red whines under the wheels of sleek cars driving too fast on brick streets . . . the taste of it is beetroot and vyšnia vyno at room temperature.
And Vilnius feels the red of dried blood . . . very much haunted by its history . . . which Ruta reminded me wasn’t very long ago.
Indeed, Lithuanians have many terms for red. There’s raudonas which is scarlet red from a cut, and rudas which is a Judas-tainted red of shame. There’s komunistinis red, and rauda, a wailing red lament . . . and revoliucinis, the red of revolution.
On January 13, 1991, my friends Ruta, Rima and their families joined thousands who formed a human chain circling the Vilnius TV tower in celebration and solidarity for their newly proclaimed independence when the Soviets forcibly tried to retake the city. They remember that night well, describing the sound of bullet tracers as we walked up the same hillside towards the tower where 14 civilians were killed in the fray.
That night we went up an elevator in that very tower under quite different circumstances. We had dinner in its revolving restaurant that is now the pride of Lietuva. I drank Starka and ate cepelinais. Cepelinais are potato dumplings stuffed with pork and topped with bacon and sour cream. Starka is made from fermented rye. I tried to decide if it burned as much as the malūnininkų did the night before, or the Trejos Devynerios did the night before that.
I’ve never had so much official alcohol. This was a business trip. I was speaking at a conference (which was dry) so it’s more accurate to say I’m not sure I’ve ever had this much unofficial alcohol . . . mano Dieve it was stout stuff. My friends were amused by my facial antics as I imbibed. Three fingers of “wodka” later (I love how the ‘v’ sound drops in and out of their language), I was thinking I’d be lucky to stand up, much less keep up with them.
I saw people drinking at breakfast, lunch, laiminga valanda, dinner, and after dinner, and night caps. I limited myself to dinner, except for this one early afternoon I went into a little cafe across from The Lady of the Gate of Dawn chapel to avail myself of their tualetas (sound it out) and a table of soccer fans invited me to have a brandy with them in a rather stoic celebration of Lithuania’s win over Ukraine.
Well, what the pragaras . . . when in Lietuva!
And, okay, there was that other time we had a drink in Trakai before lunch because it was raining and we were wet-cold. I don’t remember what it was called, but I think the name translated to “moonshine” which means the same thing moonshine means in the states . . . except stronger.
Vytautus taught me how to toast as the Deaf do in Lithuania. Since it’s not about the noise of glasses clinking for them, the etiquette is to make direct eye contact while your fingers touch.
And with that, I never want to toast any other way ever again.
Joana introduced me to the loveliest drink I had: Medaus Vyno (honey wine) one evening on Gedimino Prospektas, which is the main street in Vilnius. It shuts down to cars at 7pm every evening so the locals can walk along and enjoy the cafes, which they very much do.
These Lithuanians know how to have a good time, dausos knows they deserve one . . . they have had very bad times. The synergy of that dynamic is exquisitely beautiful. Powerful and fragile. Ancient and modern. Magnificent in its mourning or morning.
Once you’ve found it, you can never unfeel Lithuania.
I was created from the air, water, algae, spark,
and the murmur behind the hills of Vilnius.
– George Kunchin, Lithuanian Poet