Thursday, 2 October 2014

Lithuania Letter 1: Vilnius

Vilnius is cold at night but it's a small city and a short drive from the airport. Ruta had picked us up off the 22:55 in from Stansted but since Lithuania is two hours ahead it was only nine in the evening for us. She is a young highly capable woman who loves Vilnius, a very green city, she says though it's too late to see that now. It is certainly a quiet city as we approach the river and our hotel.

What do I know about Vilnius? That it is beautiful, that it is green, and that back in the nineteenth century the greatest part of its population was Jewish, some 45% in fact, but that now it is only 0.5%. That is some vanishing, and the reason is not hard to seek.

Beautiful places with stern morals are not necessarily kind.

We sleep well though after watching almost two whole football matches through, both featuring English teams. The Lithuanian commentary is remarkably tranquil. There is no particular excitement at goalmouth incidents, serious fouls or even at goals when they are scored. They are remarked on. No one shouts or gasps. It is very calm.

The next morning after breakfast the sky is cloudless, a wonderful mid-blue, the light clear, slightly icy without hard shadows. We walk towards the old city. There are cars but very little traffic. Cars wait courteously for us to cross, the drivers gesturing us on with faint smiles. The faces - I always notice the faces especially of the women - are northern, possibly Scandinavian, with high cheekbones, large eyes, pale skin and, mostly, blonde hair. They are tall. The men and boys are even taller. They have an angelic look, their language bell-like, tinkling. The buildings too are clear and pale.

As we approach the old city we see why the city is green. Though the old streets are narrow they are not long and very soon, at the end of each, we come across large squares or open spaces each with trees at their autumnal best, green moving through to orange, great dense heads just losing the odd leaf now and then. A hooded crow, sparrows, scrappy tousled pigeons. The older buildings are either spruced up or pieces of pure tachisme, scraped, rubbed, smeared, crumbling, vanishing into themselves. It's good for graffiti too.

We enter  the Vilnaus Sventosios Dvaiosa a Baroque church full of the familiar hypnotic billowing as befits the God of the Psychotic, all voluptuous gesture and  frantic grace, as a counterpoint to the apparent calm outside. It looks somewhat like this.

But soon, not too far away, there is the contrast of the Greek Catholic Church. Plain, tall, half scrubbed clear by time and neglect.

Then it is more pale buildings, more narrow streets, more large - extraordinarily large - squares. The city must have been able to afford these open spaces since there is very little over three storeys; in the old town. Is it beautiful? Yes, I should say so.

Eventually we return to the hotel, check out, meet other writers and walk over to the Writers Union, which is nineteenth century grandeur inside, reminding me a little of the Writers Union in Bucharest.

We dump bags there and go off again down other parts of the old city, down alleyways  and passages. We stop at a bar that does lunches and sit outside in the sweetest most blinding light yet, half in shadow, lingering over beer and coffee before heading off into the ghetto.

Here the buildings are plainer, more utilitarian. One imagines the scuttling of feet into the doorways, the fear stifling the squares and narrow streets. It is marked and acknowledged but it is pretty bare save for the constant green of trees and rough grass.

Could we live here? Yes, without memory, filling our eyes, learning the bell like language, learning the manners, the direct look in the eyes that pass on and through. A good city to be young in. A good city for ghosts at windows and in walls.

At 4:30 we set out for Druskininkai, the spa town, where the festival is to take place.

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