Kakorrhaphiophobia in Kaunas

Juju was substandard, a (type 6 on the Bristol scale) piece of doo-doo induced by the hoodoo at the heart of darkness of the whodunit in the basement of my overexcited brain.

The (entirely self-generated) pressure of racing to finish my book (blovel?) leads to lapses in judgement. Phrases slip through my alarm-rigged filters that would otherwise be rejected. Exhausted, my mind inclines towards the path of least resistance; that leads to the cardinal sin of glibness.

I am terrified that this is a monumental waste of time. Or, rather, that this is a public square, and I have voluntarily exposed myself to pillory and ridicule in the deluded belief that these words justify and redeem my wrongful existence. The torturous process unfolds in solitude and silence. I may as well be in a cowl, flagellating myself with a cat o’ nine tails, or trying to Houdini my way out of a straitjacket in a mental asylum for the criminally sane by picking at it with incantations of intentionality and purposefulness.

Some years ago I attended an art workshop at an old, disused psychiatric hospital in Kaunas at the invitation of a friend (it was the same day as Eurovision – lunacy was in the air). I wandered off to explore the eerie, empty corridors, feeling at home among the vestigial groans and phantom pathologies, acutely aware that I was in a perfect setting for a horror movie. The horror, the horror; it’s latent everywhere, from aggrieved spirits in hospitals to murderous madness periodically spilling over into public squares.

The Lietūkis Garage Massacre, part of the pogrom unleashed in Kaunas in 1941, was a public event watched by a crowd of men, women and children. According to the historian Martin Rees, one man climbed to the top of a pile of (approximately 50) dead Jews, who had been savagely killed with shovels, iron bars and wooden clubs, and played the Lithuanian national anthem on an accordion. The truth behind the events of that day remains fiercely contested (i.e. Lithuanian vs Nazi culpability) but I do not want to revisit the Holocaust as an ongoing battleground for competing, revisionist nationalist identities. I only care about the fact that it could happen, that it did happen, that people stood around smoking and cheering and silently looking on in horror and clasping their hands behind their back. I was not there but the photographic trace of that day cannot be unseen, it becomes bound to pathways of thought, fused with feeling. As Laimonas Noreika, a resident of Kovno and witness of the massacre, put it: Those horrific events have been burned onto my memory and will remain there until my dying day.”

Kaunas is a mythical place in my febrile mind. If a psychiatrist were to ask me to say the first word I think of when I hear the letter ‘k’, I dare say Kaunas would be jostling for primacy alongside Kafka and King Kong. When J and I drive to the coast on our annual amber-hunting trips, a strange solemnity comes over me as we pass through Kaunas. It is as if I am afraid this most Lithuanian of cities would reject me for my utter un-Lithuanianness. In Vilnius I get by; the strange looks I occasionally receive are bearable. In Kaunas I feel alien, an unseemly abstraction among all that monotonous manliness and exaggerated femininity. Kaunas is Lithuania’s second city; it BOASTS a richly diverse architectural character and HAS a reputable university; it OFFERS boutique hotels and state-of-the-art entertainment. But there is a lingering WHIFF of the 1930s about it. Its proudly invoked Lithuanianness is little more than an insistent assertion of itself, a belligerent chant, a nostalgic refrain. Lithuanianness is a lucky horseshoe from a horse that has bolted the stable; it is a rigid patriotism holed up in a hilltop fortress of cynicism within a concrete-reinforced solipsism. It perceives the complex forces of capital and information howling through the streets as a nasty infection going around, a temporary modernity that will pass (like all fads). A few years ago the city launched a nationwide advertising campaign. The slogan was a case study in itself (I asked dozens of people if there was some cultural subtext I was missing, but no one could satisfactorily explain it). It said simply, almost apologetically: “It’s also possible to live in Kaunas.”

The day after the art workshop, my friend, his wife and I went to Liberty Boulevard to get something to eat. My friend’s attire clearly singled him out as an artist or some other artsy-fartsy type (he spends most of his time applying for funding for projects or residencies). As for my clobber, I aspire to be as anonymous as possible (earth coloured shirts, trousers and shoes to blend in with mud and shrubs). A large group of young men were standing nearby as we debated whether or not to get a burger. My friend’s wife told us to start walking away, she whispered the men were moments away from attacking us. “How can you be so sure?” I asked her. “I’m from Kaunas,” she said. “I see guys like that all the time.” Liberty Boulevard has the distinction of being the longest (1.6km) pedestrian street in Eastern Europe. I imagine that random outbursts of violence are a fairly regular occurrence with all that space and freedom to self-expression.

There are many things about Kaunas that attract me to it. Architecturally, it is more interesting than Vilnius. Historically, it is the self-proclaimed core of Lithuanian culture. Culturally, it is the only meaningful counterweight to Vilnius. I have met more people from Kaunas that I liked than from Vilnius (friendlier, less self-important). But the thing that really makes Kaunas a mythical entity for me – the hook that got under my skin – is its innocently deviant sexual wildness. The city’s populace may be lacking in philosophical sophistication but when it comes to sex the city is a European powerhouse, a regional hub, an avant-garde masterpiece.

My source is Jurga (I asked; she doesn’t mind me using her real name). She comes from Kaunas and regularly visits the city. She has a great sense of humour and is honest to a fault. Which means I believe everything she tells me. When we meet for coffee every two or three months. About her small circle of friends and what they get up to. Jurga is a good, sturdy Lithuanian name. It also rhymes with spurga (doughnut), which, if you put a gun to my head, I would say is my favourite Lithuanian word. Which is my weird and desultory way of saying that I am very fond of Jurga.

Her friends are in their late twenties. They like to go out and have fun. They like to feel sexy. They like to have sex. But they are also obsessed with finding the right man and swiftly marrying him. They epitomize, without knowing it, the tensions created by trying to reconcile free market consumerism with conservative values.

One of Jurga’s friends was briefly with a German guy who had a huge dick. It hurt her to have sex with him. She would find it painful to walk for days afterwards. He soon left her. She hooked up with a married Jewish man twice her age. The man was nice to her. He soon left her. She took pride in the fact she was studying architecture. She often boasted about it, especially when she was tipsy. She was chronically insecure. For one thing, one of her breasts was bigger than the other (perhaps the asymmetry disturbed the architect in her). Either way, she was obsessed with finding (and keeping) a man. Half a year ago she met a Palestinian man (studying at Kaunas University) in a nightclub. Right on cue, they fell in love. Now they plan to get married. Jurga feels this is a terrible idea. The man is extremely possessive and jealous. A sudden gust of wind lifted her friend’s skirt up at a garden party. When they got home the man confronted her about it. He was so mad that he punched a wall. In his mind, she presumably led the wind on, wanted it, asked for it. He calls her a whore for having slept with other men and obsesses over her “past”. He hates to see her have a good time, insists she gets dressed if she wants to go the bathroom at night (they share a flat with others), routinely checks her phone to see if the wind has been in touch with her. Jurga fears that it will end badly but her friend will not listen to reason; she says she loves him and wants to marry him.

Another friend was married to Jurga’s brother, a haulier who was away for three weeks every month. His absence upset her even though he only worked so hard to provide her with the material comfort she demanded of him. One evening (while he was away) she threw a little midweek party. At about 10pm Jurga decided to leave. She went to find her friend. Who was in her bedroom. In a closet. Fucking a man. Whose feet were sticking out. When Jurga confusedly interrupted them to say goodbye, her friend angrily shooed her away. Jurga was too kind to tell her brother what happened but the marriage soon ended anyway. The friend immediately got involved with an Armenian Mafioso. She quickly tired of him. Then she got involved with a man who had recently been released from prison for murder. She liked the thrill of being with such a dangerous man but she missed the Armenian. She has been juggling the two men for the past year in what strikes me as an elaborate suicide attempt.

In a recent scandal the head of the Lithuanian tourism department was forced to step down after it emerged that a Facebook page promoting the country had used pictures of Slovakia and Finland under the slogan “Real is Beautiful”. I asked Jurga, who is the head of an advertising company, how the deception was spotted. “Easy,” she said. “They were clearly stock photos. A rival of the advertising company responsible for managing the page probably leaked the story.”

Conversely, Kaunas was passed off as Sweden in a video by a conspiracy theorist credited with spreading the Pizzagate scandal (the video is entitled INVASION: How Sweden Became the Rape Capital of the West). Where did he get that footage of Liberty Boulevard? Did he know it was of Lithuania and not Sweden? And who cares in a world where people are just a stock of interchangeable illusions to fuck, love, marry, and divorce. Jurga’s friends are desperados in a terrifyingly abstract and meaningless realm of being that disconnects us all through its parasitic connectivity. They may be a few bytes short of a picnic but it is still sad to see young people suffer so needlessly.

Kaunas: it’s also possible to be part of a worldwide web of revolutionary alienation there.

J has been trying to get me to go on a trip to Kaunas for years but I keep coming up with excuses to put if off for another time (bad weather, full moon, etc.). After fulfilling her lifelong dream of travelling to Antarctica, Jenny Diski concluded that it is probably better to keep your most cherished dreams as dreams. That is why I would rather keep Kaunas as a myth close to my heart – I do not want to lose it to my record-breaking boulevard of broken dreams. That way I will always have Kaunas, a magical place where anything can happen.



One thought on “Kakorrhaphiophobia in Kaunas

  1. Hi, very interesting and weird read 🙂 Came here from a reddit post.
    Nice writing style, very sincere – you certainly have a way with words.
    Am Lithuanian, but screw Kaunas!


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