Please note: This trip went down back in May. But seeing as Tali and I are about to head out on a major trek in less than two weeks, I’m doing my best to clear out all my backlogged travel tales; I don’t need to-be-written blog posts hanging over my head as I hit the Himalayas. That said: Lithuania. Maybe the weirdest, most unexpected trip in my growing list of weird, unexpected trips. Tali’s younger brother Ari spent the month of May living on our couch in Tel Aviv. An almost-college grad with a free summer, he made the most of his time off in our fair city by hooking up with an impressive architecture and real estate firm for an internship by day, and hanging with us by night. Having Ari live on our couch made our tried-and-true duo into a veritable gang. Don’t get me wrong — Tali and I have a great time living together, but throwing a younger brother in the mix made for a new and fun situation, in which I listened to a LOT more Phish and the Dead. The jamheads outweighed the redhead two to one. The only obvious downside to Ari sleeping on our couch was his habit of night-screaming and night-singing. It was like nothing I had ever experienced, in turns terrifying and hilarious, but sure to wake us up every time. Ari had never been to Europe. That, we surmised, was a problem. An almost-college grad without a Eurotrip to his name! Unacceptable. We tossed out the big names: Paris, Prague, Amsterdam. But one by one, those names struck out — too expensive, wrong dates, too many French people, etc. As is my tendency, I poured through the Eastern European budget airlines for a match, and there it was: Vilnius, Lithuania. For $200. None of us knew anything about Lithuania, other than it was next to Latvia and Estonia. None of us knew anything about those places either. But after a little research into Lithuania’s highlights — castles! beers! post-communism! — we were sold. We were headed to Lithuania. Because, well, why not?
We landed in Lithuania late that Thursday night and hopped a cab to our hostel — a cheap, dorm-style spot I swiped offline. Within minutes, we were dropped off next to an old church, which I recognized from Google Street View. God bless technology. We’d arrived at Home Made House, where our hostelhost Lina was waiting up for us. There were three open beds at the hostel — ours — and the others were filled with the clothes and bags of other travelers who’d gone out for Vilnius’ world-renowned (at least Lithuania-renowned) nightlife. Ari and I took bottom bunks, Tal threw her bag up top, and we were out the door to find some midnight dinner. Old City Vilnius was gorgeous at night; outdoor bars kept the cobblestone streets lively, with lit-up churches and centuries-old buildings dotting the cityscape. Vilnius has one of the largest in-tact ‘old town’ areas in Northern Europe, all tucked inside a thick, circular wall. We found a small, quiet cafe for dinner and drinks, but by the time we wrapped up at 1:30, we were exhausted — we vowed to hit the next day full steam ahead. We walked back to our hostel, where the other beds were still empty; our new roommates were partying hard. Four hours later, I woke up with a start. Ari was scream-talking one bunk-bed over. It took me a moment to realize that we weren’t in our Tel Aviv apartment, and I wasn’t in my own bed. I looked around the room — in the corner bed, a pale white girl who I’d never seen was staring at Ari, wide-eyed and seemingly about to cry. I’m fairly certain she thought Ari was possessed (this may be true). Two big dudes were passed out in the other bunkbed, undisturbed by Ari’s loud, “Rrrawrrreeenraawww.” “Ari!” I called. “Ari, shut up!” As he usually does, Ari rolled over and shut up. I smiled at the pale girl and went back to bed. A few hours later we were strolling around Old Town. All the churches and halls were open, and beautiful. The whole thing was smaller and more contained than other European cities we’ve visited — Vilnius is a much smaller animal than, say, Budapest — but that only added to its charm.
Pretty, right? How about this one…
By 11 a.m., we’d covered much of Old Town and wandered into Uzupis, an artists’ neighborhood across the Vilnia River outside the center’s eastern wall. We weren’t searching for anything in particular, but we knew when we found it: Snekutis. Snekutis is a bar, and at 11:15 a.m. on a Friday, it was totally packed. The place was a log cabin that could’ve been Abraham Lincoln’s childhood home, but the walls were lined with beer signs in Russian, Lithuanian and other languages I don’t speak. The bar was low-lit, and dozens of different international paper money was hanging above the bartender. The stereotype, of course, is that Eastern Europeans love their booze (See: the sealed plastic cups of vodka sold in Russian neighborhoods in Israel), but this was some next level shit. It wasn’t even lunchtime! We settled in, and ordered some brews.
And some more brews…
And by noon, we were full of cheap Lithuanian beer and this goopy cheese dip that we ordered with toast. Breakfast of champions. We kept on trucking back through Old Town, darting from church to church and town square to town square, eating and drinking our way through Vilnius. Around 3 p.m., we were beginning to tire. We needed a jolt. We needed an adventure. We needed a castle. The three of us walked towards the Vilnius bus station, and a few minutes later we were on a rickety, 1970′s era bus to Trakai, a one-road town 40 minutes from Vilnius. Trakai is a small strip of lush, grassy forest jutting into a big, blue network of lakes. The town’s main street leads from the vacant bus station along the water, past village homes, bars and gardens and ends at the Trakai Castle, a fortress built in the 1400′s. We stopped in a bar calling itself, amazingly, a microbrew, to refuel. The lady bartender wasn’t much for small talk, which was a shame, because we really wanted to ask her why she filled up empty plastic bottles with beer. The bar was covered in hundreds of empty plastic bottles. This is Lithuanian recycling. A crew of gruff looking old men entered the bar and ordered some beers. The bartender got to work filling up a half dozen plastic bottles. Knowing we had a long road to walk before we hit the castle, I saw an opportunity for a ride. “Hi,” I said to one of the old men. “(Something inaudible),” he responded. “Are you headed into town?” I asked. He nodded. “We’re here to visit the castle.” He nodded. We stood in silence for a few seconds. He took a sip from his plastic bottle. “Thank you for your time.” With that, we were back on the road to Trakai. The path was gorgeous; gently lapping, deep blue water and deep green trees. After each turn, we saw a brand new island across the water.
Arriving at the castle isn’t such a simple task. After wrapping through town, we found ourselves on a long dock, with a bridge connecting to another tree-covered island. We crossed the bridge and walked a dirt trail through the island. In the middle of the trail stood a short man with a tiny head and a t-shirt that read “Israel.” At his feet was an open suitcase. Inside the suitcase was a long, brown object that looked like a walking stick.
Israel's Biggest Fan! I pointed to his shirt and smiled. “Israel!” I said. He smiled and nodded. “Where did you get that shirt?” He smiled and nodded, then pointed down at his suitcase. I looked down and realized the walking stick was a dried eel. An older lady walked up behind me and pointed to the eel. The salesmen put the eel in a bag and handed it to her. “Is that… food?” I asked her like a true simpleton. She smiled, nodded and made a biting motion, as if to say, “I am about to chow down on this dried eel that I bought out of a suitcase,” then she walked away. Ari, Tali and I continued on to the end of the small island, then across the second bridge to the castle. The thing wasn’t ornate like you might picture a fairytale castle to be; rather, it was a functional piece of armor. Thick, brick walls, wide and low towers, perfectly positioned inside a natural mote.
Just then, an old man approached me and said, “Shalom!” Tali and Ari quickly, quietly backed away. Like a true simpleton, I again forged ahead in this doomed conversation. “How’d you know?” I asked. He said one word in Russian, but I got the gist: “Типичный,” which sounds like “Typichny,” which sounds like “Typical.” This old bastard just called me a typical Jew. Then he tried to sell me a ride in his sailboat. Our visit to the castle, majestic as it was, seemed a little tainted. (I’ve since discussed with a Russian friend and verified — it’s a word with a dirty connotation). That night, we gathered around the hostel kitchen with the evening’s guests. The girl Ari had frightened (who turned out to be a really pleasant Polish backpacker) had left, and a Japanese-Brazilian, an Australian and a Spaniard were left. The Australian had a tattoo on his foot that said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” and told us he liked to remind himself of that message everyday, which must have been difficult for him because from his vantage point the tattoo was upside-down. Lina the HostelMom led us to a bustling outdoor bar, and the whole crew picked up some dinner and rounds of beer. I told the table the tale of our misadventures at the castle, and I saw Lina’s face scrunch a bit. “You know,” she said. “When you showed up last night, I really had no idea. But now that I look at you, I can really see it. You all have the Jewish bone structure. And the nose.” Ari, Tali and I looked at each other instantaneously. “I once met a Jew who had those curls in his hair,” piped in the Australian. “He was really strange.” I caught myself before telling him his foot tattoo was strangely upside-down.
We weren’t sure exactly what to say. “Are there a lot of Jews still in Lithuania?” I asked, eventually. “No,” said Lina. “Most of them were killed in the war.” And that was, more or less, the end of that. It wasn’t until later that the whole picture came into focus. In World War II, about 96% of the Jews of Lithuania were rounded up and killed by the Nazis. The Lithuanians, by and large, were happy to see them go (many helped in their mass slaughter), and even happier to plunder their belongings once they were gone. The Jewish community of Lithuania today numbers in the low thousands. Before WWII there were more than 150,000. To say we looked like Jews wasn’t malicious; in a way, it was worse. Without any Jews left, our history was wiped clean. To say we looked like Jews was to say we looked like a picture she once saw. We walked home that night a bit humbled. Living in Israel has allowed being Jewish to be a given for me; in Lithuania, it was my defining feature. The next morning we set out early to soak up the Vilnius sun (so much gentler then the Tel Aviv Sun) before our midday flight home. The first stop was the Tauras Hill Flea Market, a Saturday-only strip of old Lithuanian men selling antiques and junk out of the backs of their cars. This pictures sums it up nicely:
Still, any chance to sift through weird antiques and meet some odd people is a chance I want to take. But this was the trip of me being a simpleton, and again I miscalculated. You see, when you go to an antiques market of a country with a Nazi-loving past, you end up sifting through a bunch of Nazi antiques. Oh boy, the shit we found. Helmets. Badges. Flags. Plates. Silverware. And even this tasteful candy dish:
And this little number:
Perfect for your kid's next Halloween costume. From Tauras Hill, we descended to the nearby Museum of Genocide, which is housed in a building that hosted both the KGB and SS headquarters. As such, there’s a dank, disgusting former prison in the basement that held both political prisoners (during the Communist Era) and Jews (during the Holocaust). We learned a number of things in the museum. We learned that the same ‘heroes of the Litvaks’ who fought against the invading Russians were more than pleased to help out the Nazis. We learned that in 1941, the Jews of Trakai (our castle getaway) were rounded up and murdered or shipped off to work camps. We also learned that Home Made Hostel, where we’d slept for a few nights, was in the heart of what once was the city’s Jewish ghetto. That old man’s word, typical, rang in my ears. Lithuania stands out to me as a trip that was an important mix of history and adventure. The history was sobering and often felt shocking. I’ve traveled to Central America, to East and South East Asia. And yet it was in Lithuania, the country from which many of my relatives fled in the early 20th century, where I felt like the other. In Israel, we’re at home. But in so many countries around the world — let alone the ones that outwardly want us dead — we’re still strangers. Am I sorry I went to Lithuania? No way. There’s an inherent value in understanding your tiny place in the world, even if it may be uncomfortable. Plus, now I can tease Ari about the time a Polish girl thought he was possessed.