October 1, 2020
Yesterday, just shy of 10:00 pm, I rolled into the parking lot of Hotel Aviv in Dresden, after thirteen hours of driving. I had called the receptionist from a rest area on the side of the highway to hold my room, having been alerted that check-in ended after ten. As soon as I came through the door and introduced myself, the receptionist laughed, recognizing me as their final wayward guest. In an instant, I made the linguistic shift from months of speaking Lithuanian, before that English in the United States, and before that Mandarin in China, to expressing myself in German.
She continued to laugh as I told her about how I had driven across Lithuania, Poland, and part of East Germany today. I asked her about Covid-19 numbers in Germany. I was dutifully wearing my RN95 mask snugly across my face, obeying the rules, while she had tucked her paper surgical mask down beneath her chin. I wouldn’t have shaved my arrival time to ten of ten if I hadn’t spent the early morning tracking the package of playful colorful cloth masks my mother had sewn for me to take on this trip through Lithuanian Customs. 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 that packages containing drugs were increasingly entering Lithuania through the mail. The Customs agent explained politely that I shouldn’t wait around for my package of masks because it will take a few more days to process.
And so, dragging my suitcase, and almost stumbling in the unlit hallway, and falling on the last step of the steep staircase of my five-floor Soviet-era apartment building, at nine am sharp 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 to take his post as a young diplomat. They were never able to return home. My grandfather became Consul General to a country that had been wiped off the map, absorbed into the Soviet Union. My grandmother cried into her pillow every night for years 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, but from war trauma he never recovered from.
When I was awarded a one-month writing fellowship from the Hessischer Litaraturrat, a literary organization funded by the Hessen Ministry of Culture, enabling me to take time to work on my new novel, I was given the option of flying to my residency in Wiesbaden. But I chose to drive instead. Believe me, there were moments on the road maneuvering between columns of trucks and aggressive BMW drivers in my 2006 Toyota Verso that caused me to doubt my sanity. I have noted that on any continent, in any city, for the most part BMW drivers are above and beyond aggressive drivers. How is that? Does a certain ego choose this car? Or does the powerful engine of the BMW engender a sense of superiority on the road? Be that as it may, I made it in one piece. 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 very 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 been 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 laboriously long train ride through Warsaw. My friends were thrilled that they would be able to cross this border and return home so easily. 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, who 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, where my visa would be honored. When we found out at the train station that no more tickets were available, I thanked him and told him not to lose more time, but to just go home without me.
Yesterday, I passed through this very 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. My Irish friend Philip worked on the Schengen Agreement as a young lawyer in Brussels. I remember him telling me about it when we met for dinner at an Italian restaurant in New York twenty years after we had spent time together as students at the Yeats Summer School in Sligo, Ireland. That was an idyllic time of long walks through lush green Irish pastures discussing Irish poetry and politics.
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 hours, if not days.
I passed the border with ease, and the rolling hills of Polish farmland opened before me as I spent several hours on small roads before I reached the highway. Was this unexpected tour of pastoral Poland the result of Waze notoriously sending me on some circuitous route? Or was this the only way to reach the superhighway? I suppose I will never know because hardly no one sells paper maps anymore.
As I drove through Poland for hours, and hours, and as the kilometers slipped away behind me, I reflected on how far away Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia were from the center of Europe. Despite Lithuania’s claim that it is the geographic center of Europe, this boast is hardly true in a geopolitical sense. I reflected on Laimonas Briedis’s wonderful book, Vilnius, City of Strangers. He writes about how since the Middle Ages 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, and also because (for the picky traveler) flights in and out of the country hardly ever depart at waking hours, but usually are either scheduled extremely early in the morning or very late at night.
French President Emmanuel Macron visited Lithuania this week and his rare visit to the “deep provinces of Lithuania” caused a sensation. A dinner for the President was held in the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania, and only Lithuania’s elite and luminaries were invited. Facebook posts showed the theater director, Oskaras Koršunovas, decked out in a Hugo Boss suit, descending a grand staircase, en route to the dinner. This kingly dinner reminded me of Briedis’s descriptions of Napoleon’s stay in Vilnius before pushing on to “invade” Moscow. Every evening Vilnius’s elites wined and dined Napoleon and his officers in the palace. As we Lithuanian-Americans can testify recalling the pre-corona international Lithuanian song and dance festivals, Lithuanians like to party. This historical truth has not changed anywhere one may find two Lithuanians or more.
I meditated on the Polish pine forests as they rolled past. This region was part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. I remember the first time I entered Lithuania, as a seventeen-year-old in 1983. It was the Lithuanian pine forests that I first saw. Ever since, to me Lithuania is a pine forest. A motley group of us students from the Lithuanian Gymnasium in West Germany (at the time) 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 Lithuanians like us. We took a laboriously long train journey from East Berlin. As the train approached the Lithuanian border, we all huddled at the window to catch a glimpse of the promised land. I actually documented this moment in a photo (even then, pre-social media, I took photos of everything). I remember standing beside Marcos Lipos from Brazil and Dana Baltutis from Australia, yanking down the window in an attempt to catch the scent of Lithuania. I remember my heart beating faster. I remember a feeling that I cannot quite express in words. 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.
As I drove now, Lithuania remained further and further behind me. My concerns over the recent weeks of protests in Belarus began to dissipate. I thought of what Macron said in his talk with Vilnius University students. As America withdraws from Europe, Europeans must focus more on their own defense. Lithuanian problems and political debates seemed so far away now. A gathering of people deep in their dense forest home debating their own particular problems. The 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.
In Poland, the radio played excellent classical music, poems read expressively in Polish, or trashy Slavo-pop music, which is not that different from American or Chinese or West European trashy 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 at one point, “allerdings ein accordion…” when describing the use of an unusual instrument. Her voice was a relief to listen to in contrast to the robotic harsh tones that popular Lithuanian news journalists and announcers embody as their allegedly authoritative “go-to media voices.”
Kultur played as a pleasant backdrop to the Autobahn, where drivers ceased driving aggressively, each trying to prove his or her prowess on the road, as in Poland and Lithuania. Why in the East is aggression considered something positive? And why then is gentleness perceived as weakness? There is strength in the choice to be gentle.
I realized then, in that moment, on the Autobahn, that I’ve missed the West. There is a specific intensity about the East. Lithuania, Belarus, Russia, Ukraine, Poland are fascinating countries, and 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.