Travel Essay: LA VILNIUS: I read in black stencil letters next to the crowned lion silhouette on a crumbling wall plaster. LA as the feminine definite article referring to the Italian word for city or LA as acronym for the city of angels, I wonder. LA: should it not be called Vilna or Wilno or even Vilnia or is street art nowadays indifferent to the grammatical discrepancy borrowed from the Italian language and the native Lithuanian masculine noun? But why should someone apply the city’s name in style of the Italian – American English?
I have hardly visited all of the innumerable angels of the numerous churches of this Rome of the East or Jerusalem of the North. As it turns out, this summer is the beginning of my independence. I will exempt myself from the conditioning of walking along the city’s attractions. Admittedly, I had read Thomas Venclova’s Vilnius: A City in Europe in advance and will have the city’s and country’s history subcutaneously present. As “freshly baked American”, I finally can drop my quasi genetically inherited German assiduousness of cultural studies. Just like after the concert in the church of St. Kasimir, I have no further need for mannerist paintings. Considering Sundays’ imminent acoustic intrusion of church bells, the sole sight of mostly baroque, neoclassical, gothic or Russian-orthodox church architecture – after years of Soviet abuse as warehouses returned to their original purpose – will satisfy me. More than twenty years ago I had subjected the city of Rome and its houses of worship to intensive excursions, which should be enough for a lifetime. First I lay blame for Sunday’s calmness on our apartment’s quiet location, withdrawn on the second floor in an old town backyard. The supposed idyll, however, is soon interrupted by a percussion drill. The following Sunday, the sky above the city will also remain blue, dabbed by clouds and completely silent.
On a Saturday afternoon we sit in one of the improvised café bars in public squares that owe their existence only to the summer, when a jingle or lean ringing of an isolated bell announces a wedding in the neighboring church. Overall, it seems the residents’ weekend employment is to get married. Which is not surprising, the couples’ evening or weekend strolls appear as if they were welded together, not only attributable to the rough condition of the paved walkways and streets. Whether before or after their marriage, female beings float like anorexic angels with ankle-length flowing chiffon dresses above the unevenness or stilt with utmost caution-placed high heels along the balancing joints – sometimes allowing the glance of a translucent like-colored, pink, hot pink, garish blue, signal green or cream worn under miniskirts.
Still in search of the capitalized graffiti letters or the angels of the city, Vilnius presents itself light-footed and extroverted as far as public places or the generosity of streets allow. Despite the street cafés and restaurants, the once Italian atmosphere imported by architects, artists and an aristocratic bride has volatilized. Besides a few sparrows, doves fletch the city, occasionally pegged out under a shrub or driven down in the asphalt, but still beckoning with an upright wing in the slipstream of cars passing by. The complete absence of squirrels cannot be attributed to the lack of fallen angels and aside from dogs in varied races conducted on a leash, almost all other animal genera are conspicuous by their absence. A cat is not obliged to love its master, but it must help him in difficult times, states the constitution of Užupis (a neighborhood inhabited by artists, musicians and poets, that declared itself an independent republic on April 1, 1997), and I ask myself whether more than the owners of the scarce three cats – on my account – can rely on this promise, especially since one of the cats will be run over during my lunch break right in front of our driveway. The cemetery guardian or should I rather say cemetery caretaker, does not seem to know the wording of the constitution although his empire of stone angels and grave crosses, formerly under custody of the Bernadine monastery and church, has been under the jurisdiction of the artists’ republic at least since 1991.
While looking at my pictures, Andrew, my photographer colleague, recognizes the same dog he had photographed years before. Obviously, the year by year chained half breed has not found a law firm that would have fought for his basic rights: a dog has the right to be a dog. On the other hand, a heap of asphalt has the right to be itself. Two times I encounter, again in front of our driveway, a bunch of towered solidified asphalt ribbons, formatted in a way that starts to make me reflect on the provenance of their nature. Were they pulled, gum-like, by the early morning workers through the opened lid from the canal or, disappeared in the underworld, were parts of them used to seal the canal? Enigmatic enterprise, enigmatic frozen mountain on the walkway. Without olfactory presence. But the coating of partly roughened, partly in the sun shining surface reminds me of an image my memory has stored of the former Carmelite monastery’s outer staircase. Kisses of pilgrims have worked their way up and under the epidermis, yes the subcutaneous tissue, in which the sore of the bare wood becomes disclosed. For centuries lips have ablated varnish, color and cambium of shin, ankle, feet and toes of the crucified in millimeter layers. A rite that initiates the ascension of the merciful mother of god to an icon, who hovers, long before the insignia of the Soviet Union, on the silver crescent of the moon above the gate of dawn.
LA, is this the group of angel-like creatures, whom I meet in the teachers’ house summer art class, boys and girls, willingly surrendering themselves to their own drafts of their role models’ art by Matisse, Chagall and Mirò or to their contemplative games behind closed eyelids? Is this my recently created digital folder with jpgs I took of women behind counters of galleries, cafés, and bakeries? Or even the gender-atypical behavior of the young man, a member of the tribal mint vinetu, an independent bookstore, café and Internet hangout place, who advertises used books wrapped in package paper for blind dates, pours out tea and sells CDs? Is it the cloned cow with grown wings climbing the wall of our seminar rooms’ courtyard? Are these the artists, female and male, who pitched their realms in district Užupis during the Soviet time? Are they the beings who appear to us in dreams, as happened to the sculptor Romas Vilčiauskas whose vision of a rousing gold angel sounds its elongated trumpet across the square today?
What kind of sounds do we hear? Do voices seem to be mixed among them? Where do they come from? From the overgrown apple orchards behind wall debris near the former ghetto? From echoes of the voices, which constituted for more than five hundred years the center of Jewish culture and enlightenment? Or from the voices still to be remembered of the Wehrmacht units, SS, operational commands and Lithuanian militias, who until the end of December 1941 rounded up three quarters of the Jews locked in established ghettos of the Old Town to the right and left of today’s Vokieçiu street? In order to subsequently carry them off to the forest of Paneriai to murder them in ditches previously dug by the Russians? The reverberation of frightened and silenced human beings who remained until the ghetto’s dissolution by the end of 1943, who were deported to concentration camps and murdered, also in other continued mass executions in order to raise the number of murdered Vilnius’ Jews from 72 000 to 100 000?
Are these the voices oppressed by Stalinism, which had to appear secular? Who had rather preferred to hide on the floor of the church roof opposite of St. Katharina, whose tiles are currently being removed carefully to cover again the repaired roof frames? Is it the liberation anthem of the Baltic Soviet Republics or the one of Užupis? Does LA stand for the human chain on 23 august 1989 when two million people of the Baltic Soviet Republics held hands to demonstrate for their independence from Moscow? This date – by no means random -marked the 50th anniversary of the German-Soviet non aggression pact and its secret additional protocol, in which Hitler and Stalin had established their interests in Eastern Europe and in which Lithuania was first assigned to Germany in contrast to all other Baltic states.
In place of the Republic’s angel Gabriel, a huge egg of stone was nested on the square’s pedestal of Užupis, years ago. What came first, I wonder, still on the search for the graffiti’s La Vilnius. The definite feminine article from the Italian, the city of winged beings, or the lion’s crowned courage and pride? When I look up, I see only the swifts above Užupis’ roofs, and I rely on the part of its constitution, which states that everyone has the right to understand or everyone has the right to understand nothing.
BIO: Susanne Eules is an interdisciplinary artist with two poetry books published in Germany and Austria. She teaches Art History/Art & Gender, German and Italian at Stetson University, DeLand. Her first chapbook “lièvre — a book of hares” will be published with dancing girl press in fall 2018.
Photo: By Jean-Pierre Dalbéra from Paris, France (L’ange d’Užupis (Vilnius)) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons