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Kerry Shawn Keys minibio

“I don’t know who I am, but I have many names and live in Vilnius,” says Kerry Shawn Keys, an American living in Lithuania of nineteen years now. He is a human orchestra: translator, poet, prose writer, author of children’s books, dramatist. Kerry has already become part of the Vilnius landscape and culture. The poet Sigitas Geda said about him, “by his presence and participation in the everyday life of Lithuanian poetry, he has made us stronger as well.” Kerry, though, calls himself an “outsider”, and outsiders are generally better at seeing certain things than locals or those ensconced in everyday life, in the “system”. A view from the side is always interesting, and with that in mind, the Vilnius Review has decided to begin publishing Kerry’s short, witty essays about Lithuania and Lithuanians. So, here, each month you will find "A Palmer's Chronicle".

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Kęstutis Stoškus, Užupis street. Vilnius II, 1996, 50x40 cm. From The Modern Art Center collection

By Kerry Shawn Keys

 

Cosmopolitan, not a bad affix to this huge village. International Vilnius would have been too much of an exaggeration, as though the city was currently swarming with tribes from throughout the world, and the word also smacks of a song most Lithuanians would prefer to forget – The Internationale. “Cosmopolitan”, well, it’s more of an attitude, a way of being, an attribute that much of the stark provinciality of the rest of Lithuania hold against the capital. Admittedly, it may bring to mind Soviet cosmonauts, but they were men of action that all of us appreciate. And besides, my daughter has an orange, plastic cosmonaut from her mother’s childhood that she just adores, and the little critter is teaching her swear words in Russian since the Lithuanian language is prudish and policed by specialists in ossification. And there is the grand word “Cosmos” – a universal air to it, galactic, a showy tropical flower. “Inter?” Come on, inter what? Interferon. Interrogate. Intercourse.

Although Vilnius, by any objective historical analysis, has always been an international city, its current occupiers are for the most part Lithuanians. In the 14th century, the Grand Duke Gediminas started it on this perilous route by inviting people of all stripes and creeds to come to settle in Vilnius. It was a city of many languages, but Gediminas probably spoke some variant of Lithuanian in close family circles, say maybe something like “coochie-coo” to his lovers. Just what tribes now make up this polyglot city. Well, predominantly Lithuanians, who amazingly enough were about 3% of Vilnius’ population shortly before WWII – they were often servants for the rich Jewish and Polish burghers or mushrooms hawkers at the market. You can still detect a bucolic, ruddy glow to their features since for most of their history they were the silent-majority of moonshine-swigging  farmers and woodsmen  and women in the countryside living chaste and simple lives. Surely they nurtured the idea of regaining the Holy Land of Vilnius where the ancient, pagan fires once burned. Perhaps, why fireworks are so in fashion.

For a long time there were a lot more Polish here, and much of current Old Town Vilnius was built by their craftsmen and designed by their architects. Polish tourists still flock to the Gates of Dawn, imagining this city as a lost part of their God-given realm. You can distinguish a Polish tourist from a native Pole, because the former will open a door for you, bow politely, and speak in the same breath (or should I say breadth) of Pan Tadeusz Poland and Princess Jadvyga, and ask where they might purchase pierogis and icons of the Virgin. The Lithuanian Poles are more rustic, partially assimilated, wear cheaper crosses, and flock to church on Sundays.

Who shall we next sketch? Why not the Russians. There are the ‘Russians’ that have been here in Vilnius forever, as witness the west Rus’ian dialect in grand ducal documents. Old Believers and working class folks probably engaged in black market activities even way back then by pandering beaver or firewood and amber for political leverage.  One way to tell a local Russian from a local Lithuanian is that the former drink good vodka while the latter drink degtinė. A Russian would never get whopped by an irate Italian for ordering a ‘dagtinė’ at the bar adjacent to the Italian Cultural Center. Besides the old timers, there are the arrivistes that came along with the Soviet Union and then stayed on to capitalize on their good fortune. Except for the upper echelons among these, they are for the most part blue collar workers, or provincial bourgeoisie attending the incessant renditions of Chekhov at the Russian Theatre on Basanaviciaus Street. And unfortunately, many are self-employed as the dumpster-dippers that voluntarily keep Vilnius clean since the mayors seems to be more focused on window-dressing, cutting down lovely trees, and celebrations at the grounds of the Cathedral.

And there are lots of other tribes that make up this cosmopolitan asylum. Tartars who have their own village somewhere on the map, but mostly congregate around the bus station and are petitioning for an ordinance against the selling of horsemeat, a reputed delicacy in some Lithuanian, diplomatic circles. And there are the Belarusians who carry mysterious sacks of something back and forth to Grodno and Minsk, and have even forgotten that the lingua franca of Vilnius once resembled theirs. And there are the Karaites who occasionally venture to the capital from Trakai to perform ethnic dances, buy ingredients for authentic kibinai (pastry stuffed with mutton and onions), and commemorate their previous grandeur as bodyguards for Vytautas the Great. I suspect that the casinos are run by Vytautas’s descendants and the bouncers are Karaites. Next in line, the Gypsies. Not so many, but Gypsies are always in fashion with the liberal types, certainly not with the neo-cons or the municipality. Most of the gypsies reside on speculative land near the airport – maybe with the idea of a quick getaway should the police descend again with their Swat teams. Gypsies are famous for being nomadic and for some reason are often found on crowded buses, and in coffee table books that explore their exotic status. And then there are the Handicapped, but you don’t see many of them since they can’t go anywhere in a city where they can’t board the buses, or avoid potholes, or get up over the steep curbs – and thus are run over by the worst drivers in all of Europe.

And I guess we can conclude this menagerie of ethnic diversity with the Jewish community, but it will be difficult to be humorous. Along with the Polish, they once dominated Vilnius’s cultural life and its economy. Then came WWII, the enforced ghettoization, the Germans and their Lithuanian henchmen, the systematic slaughter, Ponar, and the deadly culling by the Kremlin and local collaborators working within the Soviet system. Now there are only a few thousand Jews left in the city, and they generally and with good reason have kept a low profile (with the exception of a couple of fist-fighting rabbis) until very recently, assimilated as a kind of virtual community. Still, many Jews continue to be prominent in the arts and in the economy, and it seems that descendants of the Diaspora in America and Israel aren’t shy about trying to reclaim their lost, Litvak heritage and “Jerusalem”. Why not settle for two Jerusalems in case you lose one. For example, restitution is a nebulous affair. How far back in time do you go, and who owns mother earth anyway. All of America could go back to the Native Americans, Israel to Palestine, Lithuania to reindeer and fly agaric. And how to restitute the soul of a people. There’s still talk of reconstructing the Great Synagogue, but maybe a more strategically located Holocaust Museum or a new cemetery where the Siemens Arena now is would be more appropriate. One could charge admission. Or maybe the visiting New York Hasidics could build themselves a louder wailing wall out of the tombstones from the old Jewish cemeteries that the Soviets so ruthlessly destroyed. Who knows how things will be a hundred years from now – Vilnius is a crossroads whose inhabitants have constantly changed over the centuries, and will continue to do so.

Cosmopolitan Vilnius is now Lithuanian Vilnius. I’ve spoken very little of the Lithuanian majority because, like pigeons, they are everywhere and reign supreme in the vibrant and energetic culture that thrives today in misty, mythical Vilnius. All the charm and progress has been theirs, along with a little help from the European Union, UNESCO, money-laundering, and NATO. They are easy to spot. Many are cross-eyed from doing paperwork for Brussels, and often have bad backs and fat butts from sitting at computers all day long – how they hope to follow in the footsteps of Ireland and not drown in a bog. And what do these white collar Vilnians do on weekends. Why they attend birthing and yoga classes or leave Vilnius to go back to their villages to pick berries and mushrooms, fish, drink homebrew in saunas, and rejuvenate from their daily coffee grind. Okay, a few return to Kaunas to get away from anything cosmopolitan and to nurse their true-blue, Barrow culture, eugenic Baltic roots – not New World tater tubers in root cellars. Roots – the Family Oak Tree kind!

 

 

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