Thursday, June 29, 2017

Lane and I Go Cruising in Lithuania

West Hollywood, June 1997

Lane and I haven't lived together for a year, and I've been sort of dating Kevin the Vampire, so we're not sure if we are a couple or not.  But we don't want to break our tradition of a trip every summer, either Europe or a road trip across the U.S.

"Paris, Brussels, and Amsterdam?" I suggest.  "We haven't been there in a while.  Or maybe Germany?"

"No Germany!"  he exclaims.  "I want to go somewhere off the beaten path.  Lithuania.  In search of my Jewish ancestors."

"Your mother was Polish -- we've already been to Poland to check out her heritage -- and your father was from California."

"But Dad's parents were Litvak -- Lithuanian Jews.  Bubbe -- Grandma -- immigrated with her parents in 1915.  She used to tell stories of the shtetl of Kvedarna, where her father was a rabbi."

The more I research Lithuania, the less I want to visit.  Granted, the Lithuanian language is the closest we have to the original Indo-European.

English:  My sausage is very big.
Hindi: Mera sosej bahut bada hai
Lithuanian: Mano dešra yra labai didelė

But it is an extremely homophobic country, like Mississippi squared.  No gay bars, no bathhouses, no nothing.  Plus 95% of the Jewish population was killed in the Holocaust.

95%!  Why would you want to go there?

But Lane is adamant about investigating his Bubbe's Rabbi father, and he is paying for the plane tickets, so....Paris, Amsterdam, and Lithuania.

Day 1:

There are no nonstop flights from Amsterdam to Vilnius, so we hav to go through Frankfurt, arriving at 1:30 pm.

Six years after independence, Soviet influence is everywhere: most signs are in Russian, not Lithuanian; there are long blocks of Brutopian apartment complexes, and statues of liberated workers gazing defiantly at the future; there are police officers and soldiers everywhere, who keep asking for our papers.

But our hotel is in the Old Quarter, on a winding Baroque street near the University and the Signatory House (where independence was declared).

We tour the rather austere Palace of the Grand Dukes and the Vilnius Cathedral, have dinner in a French restaurant, and, near dusk, see the statue of the Gaon, Elijah ben Solomon Zalman (1720-1797), a Talmudic scholar and leader of the non-Hasidic Lithuanian Jews.

Then back to the hotel and to bed, having not met any actual Lithuanians, gay or straight, Jewish or Gentile.

Day 2:

After breakfast, we rent a car (quite a feat in a country not set up for tourism) and drive to Kaunas, about an hour away, which once had a Jewish population of 40,000 (today about 500, mostly elderly).   We arrive in time for Shabbat services at the Ohel Jahov Synagogue, where the congregation consists entirely of elderly men.  We don't talk to anyone.

In the afternoon, we visit the Museum of the Devil and Kaunas Castle, then the small, austere monument to the Jews who died in the Holocaust.

"This is all very interesting," I tell Lane, "But I need some masculine companionship.  What's the point of traveling, if you don't meet locals?  Preferably hot ones."

Our Spartacus guide doesn't list any gay bars in Kaunas, but it lists a "mixed bar," Baras, which caters to "students, bohemians, transvestites, fairies, and misfits."

Although we roil at being labeled "misfits," we check it out.

Mostly students and bohemians, not a lot of cruising going on.  I try to strike up a conversation with a twink reading a paperback book and drinking beer: in his 20s, slim, pale, weird half-mohawk hair style, horn-rimmed glasses:

"Mano vardas Boomer.  Aš esu iš Toronto." (I always claim to be Canadian while traveling in Europe, to avoid the extreme anti-American prejudice.)

He responds briefly and coolly, in English.  Soon I back off.

Well, at least I talked to a local.

Day 3

Our hotel has a gym, so we can work out before hitting the road for Kvedarna, where Lane's great-grandfather was a rabbi.  It's about two hours west over flat, green countryside.

The main street doesn't look anything like a main street: just single story, gable-roofed Lithuanian farmhouses, painted orange and green, so widely separated that they seemed rural, not urban.  There's a gas station, a grocery store, a Catholic church, a row of ugly apartment buildings leftover from Soviet times, and a monument to Vytautas the Great (1350-1430), the leader of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and a hero in the independence movement.

The only trace of a Jewish presence is a small, overgrown Jewish cemetery, with fifty or so markers in Hebrew.  We can't find one for Lane's great-grandfather, the rabbi, although there are a few with his Bubbe's name that could be relatives.

The trip has been a bust: some interesting sights, but mostly sadness, loss, and loneliness.  It's an odd feeling being in a country of 3.6 million people, and not knowing anyone.

Since there's no restaurant in town, we stop at Kvedarna's small grocery store for some meat, cheese, and bread to make sandwiches.

There's a twink boy outside, eating a popsicle, shirtless even though it's a cool, rainy day: slim, pale body, pinprick nipples, tight abs.  He has the same weird hair and eyeglasses as the guy from last night.

For a moment I think it's the same person, so I say "Sveiki!  Small world, isn't it?"

He smiles.  "Americans?"

I realize my mistake.  "Taip.  I'm Boomer, and this is Lane.  We're from Hollywood, California."

"Joku."  He switches the popsicle to his left hand so he can shake our hands.  "You are from Hollywood!  You are movie stars?"

"We've been in some tv shows," I lie.

"Palike!  You will give me your...your..."  He made a writing sign.  "Why you come to Kvedarna?"

"My grandmother was born here,"  Lane said.

"Tikras!  My grandmother, too.  Maybe we  Come, cousins hug."  He wrapped us both in a bear hug.  "You come home, meet my mother and brothers?"

So we spend an hour having tea and very sweet pastries with Joku and his mother, two brothers, and two very hot friends, discussing Hollywood celebrities, Lane's Jewish heritage ("lots of Jews in Hollywood, no?"), and, obliquely, being gay:

Brother: "Do you have wives in California?"
Joku:  "Lane and Boomer don't want wives.  They are free."

Then it is time to drive back to Vilnius to catch our plane in the morning.

No sex, no gay people, that I know of.  But sometimes, meeting a local is enough.

 Especially a hot one.

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