Thursday, May 19, 2016


The earliest memory I have of the inscrutable man who was my grandfather is also one of my very earliest memories. He is shifting his giant plastic hearing aid, which he carried around in the breast pocket of his golf shirt (usually yellow), so that I can lean against his chest while he reads to me from another in the series of Beverly Cleary books (which my parents must have picked out). Ramona and her father, Ramona and Beazus. The children in the stories always so much better behaved than I was. Sometimes I feel like I've spent the calmest moments of my life leaning against the chests of my grandfather, then my father. Always too many things in their chest pockets, always gaps in the story where I fell asleep.

And so I have made it to the starting point for our life in the new world, which for him was golfing and driving his domestic car down the wide streets of the San Fernando Valley in LA. Who knows if he was actually from here. The archives list Łomża as the birthplace of his siblings and parents. Were they in transit? Did the family stop and sell samovars here for a few years before heading down to Riga, on the coast, for the boat to New York? Was this just the place he had his first memories? Or did he want, already, to be known as someone from a city, not a small town in the middle of a sea of fields?

In any case, this is the name that we grew up knowing. He was the only one of that generation not born in America. He spoke Yiddish, and refused to teach it to my father, so that he and my grandmother could have a private language. He owned Acker's Service Station on Ventura Boulevard. He worked in the movies, building sets. He was fired from his factory job building missiles during the cold war six months before his pension. He used to refuse to get up from the table and help clear, after dinner. "That's women's work," he'd scoff, waving his hand. For which my 13 year old self lambasted him. When he moved to Victoria from LA in the 1990s he stopped golfing, driving and doing much of anything. He was dizzy. He watched a lot of TV. Their apartment was boiling, summer and winter. He'd paw his hand at my father, turning away, in his final years.

Vilnius has the familiar story I've not been able to become inured to during this trip. The thriving Jewish community, pre-war. The herding of Jews into a ghetto, larger, then smaller. The killing forest, just outside of town, where huge pits were used as mass burials after people were shot. 30,000 died there. Of 80,000 Jews living in what was then called the Jerusalem of Northern Europe, about 95% perished in the ghetto or the killing forest, Paneriai, or in the concentration camps. Walking with a fellow poet, Kerry, up the main former ghetto street, he told me the story of another writer, who perished in the camps of Siberia in 1943, after being part of the brief ghetto uprising (all of a few hours). It was the first time I had spoken to someone in person for two weeks about anything significant. I started to cry. His daughter was there. She was teaching me how to say hello and the names of the months in Lithuanian. "September," she repeated, and then the Lithuanian word, which I have, of course, since forgotten.

This city is a baroque jewel in the middle of forests that once held wolves and bison. Its old city streets curve like a many layered egg. They are slowly uncovering the Hebrew script on the sides of buildings that was long since covered by layers of paint and plaster. "It took them a year," Kerry told me, "to do that one bit," pointing to an entablature on an 19th century building. The ad was for salt, spices and hardware.

The people are beautiful. I am back in true Eastern Europe, where women are varied and long-haired or punk, and have nearly translucent blue-green eyes, flawless skin and an incredible knack for knowing what looks good on them. And yet you can hear a dozen languages on the street.

The Neris and Vilnetle rivers bend and bend around the city, holding it in, and its banks hold perpetual walking and biking paths. The bike lanes run along the sidewalks and I took them far out of town and then back along the river, passing the strange grey and black ravens that I've only seen here, and women or men with babies, and men in short dresses with leggings (the only leggings you'll see here, thank god). There is even the self-proclaimed autonomous district of Uzupis, where Frank Zappa is the patron saint and a constitution proclaims, amongst other things, that "Everyone has the right to understand nothing; Dogs have the right to be dogs; Everyone has the right to cry; Everyone has the right to die, but it is not a duty." I'm going there tomorrow.

I feel intensely at home. Today, I tagged along with a Jewish friendship group from Manchester on a walking tour of the ghetto. The guide had hebrew script tattooed on his inner arm. They invited me to the holocaust memorial outside of town, at Paneriai, on their giant bus; I think I will not go. I think I've had enough. Tonight, I am going to see Handel's "Alexander's Feast" in the national opera house. For ten dollars.

I am 40. I'm very accustomed -- after Spain, Mexico, Argentina, the US -- to travelling alone. But I've had so much support from people back home on this trip. I am carrying a lot of love with me. And there is this sense of entering a new period. As if this turning, with the arrival in the northernmost point in my journey, will turn back to something I didn't expect. As if the ghosts have been satisfied. I may be crying but I'm euphoric, making connection to place and person I have not made in a long time. And for my birthday, a new chapter: back to another romance culture. I'll spend a week with an old friend, Sheila, in Lisbon, which, after Warsaw, is where I'll next be.