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Laima Vince is a novelist, poet, playwright and literary translator from Lithuanian into English. Her novel, This Is Not My Sky, has been translated into Lithuanian and published by Alma Littera, the largest commercial publishing house in the Baltic States. She has written five works of literary nonfiction and five plays. Laima Vince earned a MFA in Writing from Columbia University and a second MFA in Nonfiction from the University of New Hampshire. She is the recipient of two Fulbright grants and a National Endowment for the Arts award in Literature, as well as a PEN Translation Fund grant.

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reflections on belonging

a palmers chronicle right bw

Graphic Novels

Sunset's Eye by Laima Vincė

Lina Buividaviciuteby
Laima Vincė

 

 

A few minutes shy of 10:00 pm, I rolled into the parking lot of Hotel Aviv in Dresden, after thirteen hours of driving from Lithuania, through Poland, and into East Germany, the former DDR. At the reception desk, I made the linguistic shift to German from Lithuanian, before that English in the United States, and before that Mandarin while living and teaching two years in China. The young woman behind the desk told me I was their final wayward guest for the night. She laughed when I told her about how I had driven across Lithuania, Poland, and part of East Germany in one day, stopping only twice to tank up due to Covid-19 restrictions. I was dutifully wearing my RN95 mask snugly across my face. She wore her paper surgical mask tucked beneath her chin as a sort of neck ornament.

I wouldn’t have shaved my arrival to ten of ten if I hadn’t spent the early morning hours tracking the package of playful colorful cloth masks my mother had sewn for me and mailed from the United States. Lithuania is a transit country sandwiched between Latvia, Poland, Belarus, and Russia, linking the European Union with the Russian lands. A recent Lithuania National Television news report showed packages containing drugs were increasingly entering Lithuania through the mail, slowing down the work of Customs. Mine was held up indefinitely. After my call with Customs, dragging my suitcase, stumbling in the dark on the last step of the steep staircase of my five-floor Soviet-era apartment building, I was on my way.

I have lived in Lithuania on and off since it was still part of the Soviet Union in 1988. My connection with this northern land is genetic. My grandparents left Lithuania in 1936, arriving by ship in New York where my grandfather was assigned as a young diplomat. They never returned. My grandfather became Consul General to a country wiped off the map, absorbed into the Soviet Union. My grandmother cried into her pillow every night because she wanted to go home. But she never could. My mother was born in New York. My father was a displaced person, a war refugee. He also cried late at night too, but from war trauma he never recovered from.

I had been invited by the Ministry of Culture of the German State of Hessen to spend a month in Wiesbaden at a writer’s residency. I was given the option of flying to Germany, but I chose to drive instead. Believe me, there were moments maneuvering between columns of trucks and aggressive drivers in my manual 2006 Toyota Verso when I doubted my sanity. Thirteen hours on the road gave me a lot of time to reflect. Mostly, I reflected on the intersection between geography and history.

When I was an American student in 1988 (one of few Americans allowed to reside in Soviet-occupied Lithuania) my friends from Punsk, an ethnographic Lithuanian region of Poland, invited me home with them for autumn holidays. A new border had just opened between Soviet Lithuania and Poland in the small town of Lazdijai. Since World War II the only way to travel to Poland from Lithuania had been on a laborious train ride through Moscow. My friends were thrilled that they would be able to cross this new border home. However, at the border, despite having the proper visa, which I had acquired by traveling to the Polish Consulate in Minsk, I was not allowed to cross. Why? Because I was American. Apparently, the border was not big enough to process an American passport. I was left behind, waving my friends goodbye as they drove off with their parents. A young man from our group, Kazys, whom I will always remember as the ultimate gentleman, gave up a day of his vacation to travel back to Vilnius with me by bus to try to get me on a train through Warsaw. We were told that no more tickets were available. I thanked him and told him not to lose more time, but to just go home without me.

Now I passed through this same border, barely slowing down, so as not to exceed the speed limit. Thanks to the Schengen agreement, border crossings between European Union countries are speedy and easy. In the early years of Lithuania’s independence, it was said that customs officers on this border could set themselves up for life in just a few years. In those years one could expect to wait in the border queue for days. The rolling hills of Polish farmland opened before me as I traveled small roads before reaching the highway. Was this unexpected tour of pastoral Poland the result of Waze notoriously sending people on a circuitous route? Or was this the only way to reach the superhighway? I suppose I will never know because hardly anyone sells paper maps anymore.

As the kilometers slipped away, I reflected on how far away Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia are from the center of Europe. Despite Lithuania’s claim that it is the geographic center of Europe, this boast is hardly true. Laimonas Briedis, in his book, Vilnius, City of Strangers, writes about how medieval Lithuania was a mysterious land inaccessible from Christian Europe because of its deep dense forests. These days, Lithuania is hardly accessible for travelers because of its obscure indirect flight schedules.

I remember the first time I saw Lithuania as a seventeen-year-old in 1983. I saw pine forests. A motley group of us students from the Lithuanian Gymnasium were invited to visit Lithuania on an all-expenses paid tour hosted by the Soviet Lithuanian organization, Tėviškės Draugija. This group had the mission of “bringing back the lost sparrows of Lithuania…” In a word, indoctrinating émigré Lithuanian youth like us to return to Soviet-occupied Lithuania. We traveled to Lithuania via train from East Berlin. As the train approached the Lithuanian border, we all huddled at the window to catch a glimpse of the promised land. My heart beat faster. It had been drilled into us that we were “returning home,” but I did not feel as though I were going home. Home was New York and New Jersey. I felt a heaviness as the train rolled through those dense pine forests that for centuries have surrounded Lithuania.

Now Lithuania fell away, further and further behind me. My concerns over the recent weeks of protests in Belarus began to dissipate. Lithuanian issues and political debates seemed so far away now—just a gathering of people in their dense forest home debating their own particular problems. Aspects of Lithuanian society that I find so odd and difficult to get accustomed to as an American, now seemed just that, the oddities of an isolated society somewhere far away behind me.

In Poland, the radio played excellent classical music, poems read expressively in Polish, or blared Slavo-pop music, which is not that different from American or Chinese or West European pop music. In fact, I sometimes wonder if the desperation-laden raspy/sexy female voice that pumps out the banal lyrics to this genre of pop in Russian, English, German, Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, etc. isn’t one and the same? Perhaps that voice is computer generated? Please forgive me, long drives generate these types of odd chains of thought…

When I crossed over into Germany, I tuned into Kultur, a cultural program that plays music from all over the world—Morocco to Finland. The female DJ spoke in a gentle, intellectual tone, providing fascinating commentary to each musical piece, explaining in detail the components of each Stuck, exclaiming enthusiastically at one point, “allerdings ein Akkordeon…” Her voice was a relief to listen to after the harsh robotic tones that popular Lithuanian news journalists and announcers embody as their authoritative “go-to media voices.”

Kultur played as a pleasant backdrop to the Autobahn, where drivers drive less aggressively, no longer trying to prove prowess on the road, as in Poland and Lithuania. There is strength in the choice to be gentle, only not in Lithuania. Why in the East is aggression considered positive? And why then is gentleness perceived as weakness? Everything in the West was completely opposite to how it was in the East. Even on the highway.

I realized then, driving on the Autobahn, how much I’ve missed the West. There is a specific intensity about the East. Lithuania, Belarus, Russia, Ukraine, Poland are fascinating countries. I am proud that they resisted totalitarianism and fought (some are still fighting) for democracy and independence. But it was still good to be heading West. I noted as I drove at dusk through the last bit of Poland before the German border, that the sun set directly onto the highway heading West.

*                    *                    *

I awoke in my hotel room and it took a minute for me to get my bearings straight. I was in East Germany, the former DDR. This weekend Germany would be celebrating 30 years of reunification. Almost all the TV and Radio programs were playing human interest stories about the embrace of a divided Germany after decades of division. Most of the reportage stated that even thirty years later, and despite all the economic and social programs, East Germany was still struggling economically compared with the West. Nonetheless, these days, at least on the exterior, one can hardly distinguish where the demarcation line once was between East and West. How quickly we forget the sterile environment of this former totalitarian regime.

I first traveled across the Berlin Wall in 1983, at the height of the Cold War. I was with a group of high school students from the Lithuanian Gymnasium. We made the connection with a train that would bring us through Poland to Lithuania. I kept a journal. I wrote that East Germany felt as though all the color had been sucked out of it. The lack of colorful advertising made the bombed-out buildings, at the time many still not renovated since the War, more ominous, their dull gray facades looming over the streets. I felt intimidated by the armed soldiers who patrolled on platforms above the station, guns cocked and ready to shoot down any who attempted to flee their native land.

In Berlin we loaded up a tram with our mountain of suitcases to cross the border zone, carelessly blocking the door. A man needed to exit the tram but couldn’t because of our suitcases. Being good kids, we scrambled to pull the suitcases out of his way before the door slammed shut again. The man caught the eye of our black suit clad KGB handler, apologized profusely, and fearfully sat back down, missing his stop. As a teenager who was taught to respect adults, I remember that I was shocked that this man did not reprimand us for our carelessness.

In those days there were Lithuanian dissidents in Germany who kept close ties with the underground in Lithuania. They mostly resided in Munich and worked with Radio Free Europe. They would seek out Gymnasium students, whom they felt they could trust, and give us packages of medicine, bibles, political books, letters to pass on to the underground in Lithuania during these “return to the homeland” trips sponsored by the Soviet Lithuanian government. We would travel, our suitcases bursting with gifts for relatives living in a deficit economy, and with secret items we were instructed to pass on once we reached Lithuania.

Our biggest problem was passing through the inspection that took place on the border between Poland and the Soviet Union. The size of the train rails differed inside the Soviet Union, so the undercarriage of the train would need to be replaced, as passengers patiently waited suspended a few meters above the rails. During that time, inspections took place. I was warned to hide the letters, bibles, books, and medicine entrusted me thoroughly so that they would not be confiscated at the border.

I formed what I thought was an ingenious plan to distract the border guards. Pornography was banned in the USSR. Knowing the border guards would be young men, I bought a few light porn magazines. I placed my contraband items in the lower level of my suitcase and scattered the magazines on top. My plan worked. The young border control guards spent their allotted fifteen minutes perusing my magazines rather than digging any deeper. Then, once time was up, clutching the magazines possessively, with a flourish of mock indignation, they announced: “Pornography is banned in the Soviet Union.”

As I boarded the tram now into the Alte Stadt of Dresden, I looked for signs of the old DDR. I could find none. Dresden had been bombed heavily during World War II and only a few sections of the historic city remained standing. Most of the city has been rebuilt. The tram rolled past Soviet-style block housing. The buildings were renovated nicely and painted in friendly shades. There was a cheerfulness about the city, murals painted on the sides of trams, tasteful cafes and restaurants dotting the streets.

Was there a heaviness in the air? Or did only I perceive it? Was it the heaviness of history? Was I perceiving it because the history of tearing down the Berlin Wall, uniting Germany, freeing the Baltic States, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, from the shackles of the Soviet Union is a moment in history unique to my particular generation? We were young idealistic activists during that time. Will it always be like this for me? The past and present merging together in my mind as they superimpose onto each other? Or is it because the events of the late eighties and early nineties have left an indelible mark on me, one that I continually will revisit? When will I entangle myself from the ropes of history? When can a city in the former Eastern bloc be just a city?

*                    *                    *

Madelyn, my host, met me when I arrived in Wiesbaden and showed me around the apartment I would live in for the month of October. She told me she thought it was wahnsinnig to drive from Lithuania, but then added that all their writers were a little Wahnsinn. The German writer who would be traveling to Lithuania, hosted by the Culture Council of Lithuania, opted to travel by ferry to Klaipėda, a 21-hour trip across the Baltic Sea.

In Wiesbaden, I woke to a glow of pink pouring through the skylight in the dormer over my bed. I walked into the kitchen and opened the little window that faced onto the street. A warm orange glow spread across the slate rooftops. I noted as the sun peeked over the rooftops—due East is Lithuania.

The morning sun showed me exactly the direction where Lithuania lay in relationship to my new home for a month.  When I am in my studio in Juodkrantė, I time my waking hour with the sun. As the first glow of morning light reflects against the dormer above my bed, I roll out of my warm comforter and like a moth drawn to the light wander across the street towards the bay. There I stand and watch as the orange orb of the sun emerges into blue daybreak and begins its ascent as silent tense fishermen—who have no time for such nonsense as gazing at the sunrise—load their boats and set out onto the bay.

“Drang nach Osten…” Why do Hitler’s evil words come to mind just now as I am aglow with the brightness of sunrise? And why today? On the 30-year anniversary of the reunification of Germany? The need for land to spread out and populate enticed Hitler’s armies East. The need for land enticed Japan’s army into China. Generations later, we are all still trying to recover.

Walking through the streets of Wiesbaden, I stop to peruse of the many bequem book shops that line the streets. I end up purchasing Wiesbaden, Der Literarische Stadführer for the Sonderangebot of three euro. I resolve to visit every literary site listed in this book.

At the cash register I generate small talk with the book shop owner. I talk to everyone and anyone to jumpstart my German. My mother tongue, English, may be the international language, but I have a personal rule that whatever foreign country I find myself in, I attempt to speak that language. When I lived in Beijing for two years, I learned enough Mandarin to get by, barter at the markets, tell taxi drivers where I needed to go and how to get there. In China the educated class learn English. Service personnel in shops, restaurants, hotels, and taxi drivers, who come from the provinces to earn a living in the city usually do not speak English. Sometimes even standard Mandarin is a challenge.

I was invited to lunch with Madelyn and former Minister of Culture Herr Hartmut Holzapfel. The waitress took our order, her face protected by a plastic shield. We were given permission to take off our masks to eat. Madelyn filled in a form with our contact information in case anyone in the restaurant tested positive for coronavirus.

My hosts suggested I order Schnitzel, as it was a traditional German meal, and on my first day in Wiesbaden they insisted I ought to taste German food. I ordered the local apple wine as well. Herr Holzapfel told me that it was a shame that because of the American army soldiers in the area, who prefer sweet over sour, restaurants felt compelled to add a sweet spritzer to traditional German apple wine.

My wine came and it was sour.

I asked Herr Holzapfel his opinion of Trump. These days, this awkward question is one that Americans feel compelled to ask upon first meeting a new acquaintance. It establishes values and prevents embarrassment. It also gives me the opportunity to make it known that I am not a Trump supporter.

Herr Holzapfel answered elegantly: “Like any civilized European, I am horrified by Trump’s lack of humanity.”

Madelyn said she did not believe Trump actually tested positive for corona, that it was a media ploy to play up sympathy after the debacle of the presidential debate with Joe Biden.

Madeline and I quickly transitioned from Sie to Du. She explained the transit system, wrote up a list of what to see, explained where to shop for groceries, warned me to stock up on provisions before everything closed for the reunification holiday.

Herr Holzapfel told me the story of how together with the director of the Lithuanian Gymnasium, Andreas Schmidt—or Andrius Šmitas to Lithuanians—they rescued the Gymnasium, the center of Lithuanian cultural life in Germany since World War II, from bankruptcy in 1999.

Like other schools for refugees from Soviet occupied territories, the German government funded the Lithuanian Gymnasium. After Lithuania became independent, the German government wrote a letter stating that now that Lithuania was a free country, the mission of the Gymnasium to preserve Lithuanian language and culture was no longer relevant. After 1999 the German government stopped funding the Lithuanian Gymnasium, arguing that its students could travel to Lithuania to study. Andrius Šmitas went to see the Minister about procuring funding. Minister Holzapfel explained that the only way the Lithuanian Gymnasium could receive the funding was to accept local German students and adapt the curriculum to the German school system, offering Lithuanian language and culture classes only as electives to the students of Lithuanian heritage.

“Andrius looked me in the eye,” Herr Holzapfel said, “and retorted, ‘We did not fight Russification all these decades to now give in to Germanization!”

With those words, he turned on his heel and left his office.

Over the next year the Gymnasium’s economic situation became dire. Andrius Šmitas returned to the Minister’s office and said, “I believe we have not yet concluded our conversation.”

The Gymnasium was saved.

The Gymnasium saved me.

In the early 80s the suburban New Jersey high school I attended was overwhelmed with drugs. Hardly any learning went on. I was a child during the hippy era—which I remember fondly—and a teenager in the era of hard drugs. I’m not a partier. I have no interest in recreational drugs. I hardly drink alcohol. I gave away most of the bottles of old whiskey I inherited from my grandfather as gifts. This is not because I am particularly high minded or principled. I have a hard-enough time keeping my imagination in check, so why make things any worse? I was tired of the peer pressure. I wanted out.

I’d heard about the Gymnasium from a friend who’d spent a year there. I had no money to pay the tuition. I worked a paper route. I took a summer job at an electrolysis office but was let go after three days. By the end of the summer, I had hardly earned enough to pay for tuition, much less for a flight to Germany. The situation seemed hopeless.

I wrote a letter to the Gymnasium. In my letter, I wrote what I genuinely felt. I explained that my Lithuanian language was slipping away from me with my adolescence. I wrote that I wished to attend the Gymnasium to learn Lithuanian and German, and to learn more about Lithuanian culture. I mailed the letter and said to myself: I’ve done all I could. The rest is up to fate.

A few weeks later I was surprised to receive a response from Director Andrius Šmitas. He wrote that the World Lithuanian Fund was awarding me a full tuition scholarship and paying for my airfare to Germany. It seemed hardly possible that my dream of going abroad would be fulfilled.

My mother sewed a band the colors of the Lithuanian flag onto the sleeve of my white jacket so they would recognize me in the airport. My mother’s childhood friend, Laima, whom I was named after, was the stewardess on my flight. She served me my first champagne and introduced me to the pilots. It was my first taste of adult elegance. I was sixteen. And so, my wanderlust began.

The plane made a stop in Iceland. I was fascinated by a family of tow blonde travelers from Sweden. I was mesmerized by how free and open Europeans seemed compared with more uptight Americans.

I arrived at the Gymnasium in time for lunch. I was assigned to a table of German girls. I looked around and noted that each student was uniquely individual. Each had their own style of dress, their own manner, their own sense of being. The high school I’d come from everyone conformed to one look, one way of thinking, one way of being. Anyone who deviated, was ostracized. I did not speak a word of German. I listened and just spoke however I could. My utterances often elicited laughter. The same with my Lithuanian. I just listened to how the students from Lithuania spoke and copied their words.

In Andrius Šmitas’s office, he narrated the story of how he had procured my scholarship. He chain-smoked as he talked, a hazy glow of blue smoke encircling him. I can still feel that specific nicotine taste in the back of my throat. In all the years I knew Andrius, he always smoked. He told me how a Lithuanian-American dignitary from Chicago, the head of the World Lithuanian Organization, came to visit the school. He stood in his office and boastfully narrated how dedicated he was to the Lithuanian diaspora. Andrius let him talk. And talk. And talk. When the man was finished with his narration, Andrius slid open his desk drawer, pulled out my letter, and handed it to him.

“Here is a letter from a young girl in America who would like to attend our school and learn Lithuanian,” Andrius said, adding, “but she has no money.”

He read the letter.

He had no other option than to write out a check in the amount of my tuition.

In this manner, one by one, Andrius collected the sixty students who studied that year at the Gymnasium, 1982-1983. We were mostly children of displaced persons. We’d grown up in Lithuanian diaspora communities in America, Canada, Australia, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay. There was Gabija from Mali, half Lithuanian and half African. Then there were the German-born Lithuanian students. They were the children of those DPs who could not immigrate abroad, usually because of tuberculosis or other illnesses. And then there were the children of the so-called Vilko Vaikai, the “Wolf Children.” They were ethnic Germans from East Prussia who were orphaned during the Soviet invasion, left to wander the countryside, half starved, working on farms for a little food. Under an agreement between the USSR and West Germany many of them emigrated. We were all children of history, a history we hardly knew, but one that influenced us deeply in more ways than we were able to understand then.

*                    *                    *

Over the weekend, I drove out to the Gymnasium to visit with Marytė Šmitienė, Andrius Šmitas’s widow, who taught at the Gymnasium for 44 years and had recently retired. I had not been back to the Gymnasium since I came to the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2002 eighteen years ago. Andrius was still alive then. I stood in his office as we reminisced about all the students I had studied together with. Facebook was not a "thing" yet, so there really was no way to keep track of everyone except through the occasional letter or phone call, or through the gossip chain.

I immediately felt familiar with Marytė again, as though all those years had not been there in between the time when I was a shy sixteen-year-old student from America, and she was my teacher, a young woman from Maryland, who came to teach for a year, fell in love, married, and together with her husband, full of idealism, worked towards a positive vision for the school's future. Back then all the teachers were idealists. I didn't know this at the time, but Marytė told me that for many years their full-time monthly pay was 600 Deutsch Marks (300 Euro) and that was all they had to live on. It was all the school could afford to pay.

I am not particularly nostalgic or sentimental. I am not usually one to go backwards in time and reminisce. However, as we walked through the village to the Gymnasium, and then visited the castle, Schloss Renhoff (otherwise known as Romuva) memories came flooding back to me.

I remembered how my friend from Canada, also named Marytė, and I were given a job cleaning house for an older German man in the village. We were paid five Deutsch Marks each twice a week to iron his underwear (which I found bizarre, actually), fold his laundry, cook his meals, and wash the floors. For me, five Deutsch Marks was a lot of money back then and worth the work. But what I really earned were Herr Thomas's stories. He had been one of the sixteen-year-olds taken into Hitler's army at the end of the war, when the war machine was desperate for cannon fodder. He was a soldier on the winter march into Russia.

"Es war so Kalt, so Kalt," Herr Thomas would narrate, showing us his right arm, thin and twisted from frost bite.

He explained that they did not have the proper clothing to endure the cold. All his life he has struggled with injuries from frost bite.

He also had stomach cancer. Every day a crate of beer was delivered to his home. Herr Thomas explained that the government delivered the beer because he had to drink it to cure his stomach cancer. Thinking back as an adult, I can only wonder if this was actually true...

One day Herr Thomas pulled out Tarot cards and read mine and Marytė's futures. He laid out the cards for Marytė, studied them, and with great enthusiasm told her two things: "You will be a doctor and a millionaire."

Privately, I doubted either would come true. However, oddly enough, today Marytė is both a Doctor of Psychology and a millionaire from successful real estate deals. Who would have thought?

Then he read my cards. He grew disconcerted.

"You will have a tragic life," he said. "I feel very sad for you."

He knotted his brow, laid out the cards again, and came to the same conclusion.

"What?" I thought, "how could that be? Nonsense. Marytė will be a doctor and a millionaire, and I will have only sadness?"

"Your sadness will come from two men, both of whom you will meet in the next few years. Both will love you, but you may only choose one. You will need to choose between them. Do not make the wrong choice. The consequences will be dire."

"How will I know which one is the right one?" I asked.

"The right one, may call you a Blöde Kuh, but don't pay any heed, you will know he is the right one."

To this day, this advice remains a mystery to me... Stupid cow? Why would I ever want to marry someone who called me a stupid cow?

I never had a chance to seek clarification. The next week when I went to Herr Thomas's house to clean, a woman called out to me from a window above the street, "Der Mann is tot! Tot!"

The man is dead. Herr Thomas is dead.

Just like that. This elderly teenage soldier was gone.

In 1982 there were many armless or legless older men who spent their idle hours convening on the streets in our village, sharing war stories.

They were all gone now.

The farm across the street from the school was gone. We would cover our ears on the days they slaughtered the pigs. Their screams sounded like human screams. The betrayal of trust between pig and farmer in that final moment before death came was simply too much to bear.

Marytė and I walked into the castle parlor. It had been damaged when the castle caught on fire in 1984. I gazed down at the parquet and remembered how on Saturday nights we would hang up a disco ball from the ornate plaster ceiling, turn on strobe lights, and dance, all of us teenagers twisting and swaying lost in our own private worlds, as seventies and eighties music played in the background.

A plaque listing the school's benefactors still hung in its place of honor on the wall. The plaque read: Lithuanian brothers and sisters in the free world, and all others, who in the spirit of goodwill have helped to found February 16th Gymnasium to educate the Lithuanian youth, on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of our school, the Lithuanian-German Community would like to thank you for your donations, received from the following countries during the years 1953-1956. The exact amount of dollars each diaspora community contributed was clearly counted and on display. Brazil, with all its economic instability back then, could only offer $20, but even that was duly noted and appreciated. I loved having Lithuanian diaspora classmates from Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Colombia. They were the children of displaced persons, like I was, but their parents' ships had taken them to South America, not North America. My chain-smoking tow-blonde Colombian friend Diana told me a story in her lovely Spanish accented Lithuanian about how her DP mother, then a young girl, boarded a boat to South America, while her family boarded a boat to North America. She thought: "North America, South America, how far apart could they be?" She arrived on a tropical beach wearing a fur coat. She traded her fur coat for a bunch of bananas, ate the bananas, and then set out on the streets of Bogota, looking for work. A Lithuanian priest who had emigrated to South America in Czarist times took her in to work as a maid. That was how her family got their start in Colombia.

Marytė explained that because South American currencies were weak, the school would take them, even though they could only pay a small portion of their tuition.

"Andrius would say that we will just cover the rest," she explained.

When the first director from Lithuania came to replace Andrius, she stopped accepting the students from South America because they could not pay their tuition.

That was when the old spirit of the school began to change.

Back then we diaspora Lithuanians were a community. We helped each other. We relied on each other. We donated, we gave, we supported. During school vacations those of us from overseas who could not afford to fly home would always find some place to go. Andrius would look through his kartoteka, his card file of emigre Lithuanians in Europe, and pick out a few names. Then he would make a call. That was how I ended up in Munich, in the heart of the Lithuanian underground at Radio Free Europe, over Christmas 1982.

The Gymnasium was a center for the Cold War Lithuanian underground but was also infiltrated with teachers and students reporting back to their handlers in Soviet Lithuania. Everyone knew who was on which side. But we all politely got along, nonetheless.

Then there were the dissidents who resided at the school because they simply had nowhere else to go. There was Ponas Lukošius, a tall, elderly journalist with snow white hair ,who had trained as a lawyer in prewar independent Lithuania and was involved in the anti-Soviet resistance. He ran a sort of information news center out of the Gymnasium. Marytė and I would go see him to borrow newspapers and he would give us chocolate candies with polar bears on the foil wrapping. I was thin and always hungry then, so I was grateful for the calories.

Once Andrius fooled the entire school into believing that the elderly Ponas Lukošius was taking a bride. An older woman came to our school from Berlin—was she a writer? I don't remember? Andrius put out a rumor that she was coming to marry our dear Ponas Lukošius. We formed a welcoming committee. They arrived together in the director's car from the train station. We began planning their wedding ceremony in the school park, peppered them with questions about how they met, their relationship, and so on. We were all exasperated when we learned later it had been one big joke on us—a joke that lasted the entire day and into the evening.

Then there were the times we played jokes on our school director, only they did not always turn out so well. Like the time we decided to hold a protest and sing protest songs (why I don’t remember) and camp out in the hallway instead of going to class. On that very day, by coincidence, the state school inspector paid an unexpected visit. After the inspector left, Andrius came out into the hallway, where we were all sprawled on the floor, someone strumming a guitar.

He said to us in a calm voice: "You have lost the privilege to address me as Andrius. From now on, I am Herr Schmidt." Then he turned around and returned to his office.

Nothing more needed to be said.

The education I received in my two years at the Gymnasium could not be compared with the thorough private school educations students receive today. It was more a school that taught life lessons. One teacher who shaped my character was Father Dėdinas, a priest who survived World War II as a war refugee, operated a ham radio out of his bedroom, loved the opera and sometimes brought us along with him to Mannheim Opera. He was a strict and exacting teacher. If you were drowsy in his class, he'd make you go outside and run around the building three times as the rest of the class watched through the window. He taught three subjects: Religion, Politics, and Lithuanian. His lessons on Politics still influence me today. He taught he us to recognize the difference between "Innen und Außenpolitik"—domestic and global politics. In his class, we watched films showing food waste in Europe as people went hungry. In Religion class he taught us about the seven dimensions and where the human mind ceases to comprehend rational thought and enters the realm of the spiritual. Every day at noon he would stop whatever he was doing, stand completely still, and pray for world peace.

One day we came to class and Father Dėdinas told us to sit down and write our parents a letter wishing them a good death. Immediately, the German students were in an uproar. Only a few decades had passed since World War II and in Germany then it was a matter of national priority to teach young people to think for themselves and to argue their opinion. And so, we did, we argued all time with our teachers and with each other.

Father Dėdinas listened patiently until we exhausted all our arguments. Then he explained that in the Catholic tradition wishing another a good death was the kindest and most merciful blessing.

Then we understood.

Perhaps we did not have science labs then, or a proper gym, or even art classes, or music—other than someone cranking out polkas on an accordion. The Lithuanian Gymnasium is a proper school now, fully renovated, with many course offerings. Yet I would not trade those days back then for anything. For me, those years were an eccentric school of life. Oh, but somehow along the way I did learn Lithuanian and German, history, literature, and fell in love with the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke and Vincas Mykolaitis Putinas.

*                    *                    *

Perhaps it is because I am a writer, and much of a writer’s work is to revise and to edit, I am continually tempted to revise my life, to go back in time and ask myself where would I be today if I had taken this path over that path? Where would my parallel life have led me?

And so, it is with Konstanz am Bodensee. Twice I was meant to spend part of my life in this city, and twice fate led me to Lithuania instead.

I was given the opportunity to study German Literature at the University of Konstanz in 1988-1989, but instead I received a fateful telegram from Soviet Lithuania inviting me to spend the year studying Lithuanian Literature at Vilnius University. The choice to go to Vilnius rather than Konstanz changed the course of my life from the inside out. That year Sąjūdis, the Lithuanian independence movement began.  I lived through Lithuania’s transition from an occupied country to an independent one together with my generation who had grown up separated from the rest of the world by the Iron Curtain. My visa ran out the day after Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians held hands across the three Baltic States to protest the 50-year anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. With my heart breaking—because I really wanted to stay—I traveled through Poland and East Germany by train, passing through the Berlin Wall only two months before it would fall. The writer Sigitas Parulskis, who was a friend then, and a fellow student in the literature department, said to me before I left: “You came to Lithuania a young girl, but over the year you have grown into a woman.”

His words rang true. That is why I remember them over thirty years later. That one year represented for me not only a deep historical experience, but a loss of innocence. It was the loss of innocence of a Lithuanian-American girl who had not experienced the deprivations and abuses her generation in Lithuania had grown up with, and had rebelled against, finally earning their freedom, but who had her own history, that of the diaspora Lithuanians. However, experiencing this moment together changed me forever. I saw and experienced a cynicism I had not known before. Had I gone to Konstanz instead, together with my Rutgers University girlfriends, would I have retained my innocence?

Perhaps.

But then I never would have felt compelled to research and write the way I do, digging deeper and deeper into Lithuania’s historical trauma, and by so doing, into the depth of the wounded soul. 

Would I have carried the guilt of having experienced revolution, done my part, and then leaving? It would be six years before I could go back. I returned with my family in 1995 as a Fulbright scholar to teach at Vilnius University.

This past spring, I once again was given the opportunity to attend the University of Konstanz, this time as a doctoral student in the American Studies Department. The pandemic and the quarantine in Europe kept me in Juodkrantė instead.

Is it no wonder then that one of the first things I did upon reaching my residency in Germany was to take a drive to Konstanz. I wanted to see this parallel world of what could have been.

The Bodensee region is breathtaking, serene, peaceful beyond my imagination. I would have enjoyed living there, both in 1988-1898, and in 2020. I wandered the Alte Stadt at twilight, gazing at the architecture of this city built on an enormous lake in the shadow of the Alps. I slept at an inn on the side of the lake in the town of Wallhausen, lulled to sleep by the clanging of sailboat masts. Not long after daybreak, I took a ferry over the lake to the ancient town of Überlingen. The rules and the aesthetics of the local ferry reminded me of the Peaks Island, Maine ferry, and the sensibilities of island life. I’d spent ten years of my life raising my children on an island, again in another parallel universe. Later I visited the campus of the University of Konstanz, which is now only partially open.

Did I get any insights into what my parallel life could have been had I chosen one path and not the other? No. I did not. How could I? Konstanz remains just one more beautiful place, but not a place that has shaped me.

Does fate dictate where we are on a given day at a given moment? Does fate dictate the path of our lives? Or does free will? Or a combination of both? How can we know if we are exactly where we are meant to be? Or if we have meandered off our path?

When I was a graduate student at Columbia University living in New York City, and a young wife and mother, and my eldest son Aurimas was two, for some odd reason all autumn long all I could talk about was visiting New Mexico. Why did I suddenly become obsessed with New Mexico? Then, I received an invitation and a stipend of $500 to attend the ALTA Literary Translators’ conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico to read Lithuanian poetry I had translated into English. I decided that rather than flying alone, I would include my husband and son in the trip. We drove across the country to New Mexico. In those days, we did not have money for hotels and so we were always pitching a tent somewhere. Along the way to Albuquerque we stopped for the night in the desert of White Sands and pitched a tent among the hills of alabaster white sand. My little one delighted in elephants at the time, which he called, bamblys (Lithuanian dramblys). I had taken him to Cathedral Saint John the Divine on 110th Street for the blessing of the animals on the Feast Day of Saint Francis. He had watched with awe as the ceremony culminated with an elephant being led up the stone staircase and into the cathedral, then down the aisle to the altar where it was blessed by the priest. In the deserts of White Sands, I took a stick and drew an enormous elephant for him in the sand.

We started a fire to boil water for tea and to warm ourselves. At dusk, a silhouette emerged out of the shadows. The young man introduced himself and asked if he could pitch his tent near ours. We told him, of course, and invited him to sit beside our fire for tea. After I settled my son into his sleeping bag for the night, we sat with the stranger, sipping tea. He told us that it was not uncommon for UFOs to land in the desert in this precise spot where we had camped and narrated a few stories about UFO landings.  He confided in us that he in fact was camping there hoping to see one that evening. Because we were from New York, and because we were artists and tolerant people, we politely listened without judgment. When the nighttime desert air became too cold to tolerate, and we had enough of gazing at the black sky littered with an abundance of stars, we bade him goodnight and zipped ourselves up in our dome tent. In the darkness, we never did quite see his face.

In the morning, when we awoke, he was gone. Not only was he gone, but any trace of tent marks or his footsteps in the sand were gone. Only the enormous elephant I had drawn for Aurimas remained etched in the white sand.

Did this man inhabit a parallel universe?

We chuckled and jokingly told one another that he’d probably been sucked up into a UFO hovering overhead during the night as we slept.

Yet an uncomfortable feeling remained with us the rest of the day. Where had he gone? How could he have simply vanished, not even leaving a footprint behind?

And so, do our parallel lives, the lives we could have lived, but did not have the chance to live, vanish in a similar way? Or were they never there in the first place?

I waste too much time pondering my parallel lives. Both times that I did not make it to beautiful Konstanz am Bodensee incredible things unveiled themselves to me. For that, I am grateful. I try to make each choice carefully now, weighing the consequences, the repercussions. But in the end, the choices that my heart dictate are always the right ones. Perhaps this is what Herr Thomas had been trying to tell me when he said that even a man who may call me a Blöde Kuh could still be the right man for me. Perhaps he meant that what may seem like misfortune on the surface, is something else altogether unfathomable at its core. Perhaps every experience, even those that challenge us to our very last molecule, contain their own lesson, and hence their own value? Or perhaps the past is intended to vanish, like that stranger’s footprints in the sand…

 

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Nostalgia A Meditation on East and West 03Desert Mirage by Laima Vincė

 

 

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