Vilnius city tour

An open-top bus with the words VILNIUS CITY TOUR splashed on the sides in bubbly letters regularly passes through my beloved neighbourhood of Žvėrynas. It makes its way from the KGB museum, across Žvėrynas Bridge, past Our Lady of the Sign (a showy neo-Byzantine Russian Orthodox church), to a Radisson Blu hotel by the river. I see the bus almost every day as it drives down Vytauto Street. As it approaches, usually by Chinese John (Kinų Jonas), the restaurant where G, J and I drew up our charter for drunken behaviour (fat lot of good that did), I feel a strange compulsion to look my best for the tourists on board: I feign purposefulness in my stride, fixity in my forward-looking eyes. Why would I do something so stupid? Simple: I want the tourists (distractedly curious, camera phones limply aloft) to come away with a good impression of Vilnius.

Chinese John is next to a small, overpriced bakery that sells fancy bread and cakes. I used to stop in there on my way home every Friday afternoon to treat myself to a chocolate brownie. Over time I became friendly with the young (pretty, etc.) woman who worked there. In my loneliness I even looked forward to our over-the-counter verbal transactions. In any other setting our words would have been mere pleasantries but it was hot in there, sweetness was in the air. In that cramped little space everything became creamy and crumbly. My fondness for her profiteroled. I strudeled that we could go for a walk, I knished to know her better. I éclaired that all I wanted was a walk and to enjoy her company. This I did in the form of a note. Written in sturdy, sincere capitals. Stating I knew I was too old for her but craved human contact. You seem nice. We could talk about classical music (her passion). If not I’ll understand. Either way I’ll still come for my brownies. I gave her the note, opened the tinkling door, tried to walk away like a man successfully walking away.

J was at my place when the young woman from the bakery replied a few hours later. She wrote that I also seem really nice. She initially liked the idea of taking a walk with me but then, thinking about it, it would “dishonour” her boyfriend, whom she’d been with for a really long time. See you next Friday!

It was a Friday evening. J was drinking Martini; I was cutting straight to the chase with shots. I read the message to J. “At least she replied,” she said.

It feels like I have been alone forever. At this point I wouldn’t even know how to be with someone. I would wake up in the middle of the night and push them out of my bed as an intruder. I sleep in the same bed as J most weekends but we are friends, brother/sister, soulmates (it’s an adolescent-sounding word but it is the only word to describe what she means to me). Once, in a moment of weakness, I tentatively asked J about the possibility of “looking for someone online”. J looked into it. “Forget it,” she said. “It’s not an option for you.”

So, back to notes.

I worked with young women for a few years. It was torture. Eventually I quit, tired of feeling guilty for being attracted to them, exhausted from forcing myself not to reach out across the chasm of time separating us. They also saddened me. There is some truth to the cliché that youth is wasted on the young. I certainly got it all wrong. I stupidly believed I could get all my suffering over and done with in my twenties and then enjoy a carefree life. Youth, it turns out, is so wasted on the young that the rest of your life ends up wasted, too.

In the centre (near where I worked with the young women, a zone of immense sadness and excitement) I come across a delightfully literary piece of graffiti.

“v is for vast

i is for intense

l is the lust

n the nimbostrati

i means imperfect

u quite unruly

s, sincerely yours”

I fall in love with the words, take a photo of them, ask J to track down the author for me. The graffito (-us, -um, -i), presumably written by a smallish man, encapsulates what I love about Lithuania as a universal conundrum.

In my first year here, I fell in love with the low-lying clouds. I once remarked on it to a colleague. “You’re strange,” she said (at least with a smile).

The clouds always seemed to be there (especially in summer) as I walked across Žvėrynas Bridge, lingering wisps of suggestiveness, bandages for my lovelorn psyche. The sky shorn of illusion, absorbent of anything.

And here was a casual piece of graffiti honouring nimbostrati as a quality of the city! Clouds that shroud the city in intense desire while delimiting its vastness. Scattered shreds of hope in a city that sprawls with growing self-awareness, old but young, inherently sinuous and  ungeometric, sensuous but bound by keeping up appearances, quite unruly but sincerely yours! I haven’t been as smitten by a text since A Lover’s Discourse.

A heartbreaking thought (in an email to J): “I imagined being young(er) and in love and the woman climbs the tall ladder that pointlessly leans against the bedroom wall facing the bed, she talks to me from up there, a little unsure of what she’s doing, she sticks a leg out, she laughs, says silly things, she could do anything and I would like it, because we’re in love..”

So, back to notes.

Over the course of the last six years I have given out five of them (that’s a rate of one note per 438 days), in moments of utter desperation or overexcitement, written on a page ripped from my pocket notebook, using a nearby wall for a desk. One was for a woman in her mid-thirties who worked in a Humana (a second-hand clothes store, purportedly for charity). She replied later that evening (it was a Saturday) using google translate. It was almost impossible to understand what she meant. The gist of it, I think, was that she was flattered by my note but language would be an insurmountable barrier between us.

Two notes received no reply.

In all honesty I never expected anything to happen. They were all shop workers with an air of sadness and regret about them. At best we would have gone for a sad walk. She would ask me what I think about Lithuanian cuisine. I would inwardly groan (“Of all the questions…”). We might even kiss, with tentative tongues, worms misled into the open, wriggling around to find the way back. The notes at least enabled me to say “I tried” as I returned (squirmed) to the moist depths of my loneliness.

The last note came about four weeks ago. I was walking along Gedimino Avenue looking for antifungal foot cream. I tried pharmacy after pharmacy. The last one (a sign!) had exactly what I was looking for. The pharmacist was youngish (30?) and as delightful as a nimbostratus (wispy hair, mellifluous voice). She advised me on which cream was best. We began chatting over the counter. I asked her what she would have studied if she hadn’t become a pharmacist.

“Something in the arts…”

The note as good as wrote itself.

I asked how much for the cream.

“23 euros…”

“23 euros! Are you kidding!”

I tried to conceal my outrage at the cirrostratus-high price as I gingerly took my debit card from my pocket (lacking a bulging wallet to whip out). The woman then discreetly took her personal discount card and knocked six euros off the price. I was so touched I felt flushed. After a flustered goodbye, I marched home and set straight to work on the note. It was polite, respectful, emphatically not asking for anything other than to go for a walk, in order to talk. Hope, after all, needs something to stalk.

As I marched back to the pharmacy to give the note to her, I wrote to J to tell her what was happening. She replied: “Ooh. Exciting! She probably has a boyfriend. But I admire your courage. Let me know what she says. x”

The pharmacist replied to the email address her I squeezed in at the end of the note. I am certain she replied out of pity (though grateful she replied at all).

We have been exchanging friendly, politely worded emails. The language is pitched at the level of teenage pen pals. What do you do in your free time? Who are your favourite authors? What are your hopes and dreams?

That, I tell myself, is my last ever note. On my way to hand it to her I see yet another VILNIUS CITY TOUR bus. The weather is good, the bus is full (in keeping with tourist migratory patterns). This time it passes me before I reach Chinese John (whose generous servings of Monosodium Glutamate often trick my brain into triggering my salivary glands).

There is a bright blue, rickety wooden house on Vytauto Street that impresses everyone (I often see locals stop to take pictures of it as they walk by). The house looks like something out of a pop-up fairy tale book (with a Lynchian twist thanks to its lurid shade of blue). It is old but not decrepit. The lawn is always well-mown. I have never espied who lives there.

The tourists on the bus are clearly impressed as they drive past, their journey slowed by the rush hour, clicking and filming, heads turning in slow motion (I must be in hundreds of photos, my skin-deep misery lost in an ethereal mass of superfluous imagery). For once, however, I am walking with real purpose as I come into shot. I am on my way to hand a handwritten note to a pretty pharmacist to see if she would like to promenade in the park with me. Next to a pop-up rickety wooden house (with a pop-up basement?). As I walk along, I do my best to resemble a man successfully walking along. Tourism generally irritates me; you swoop in, see nothing, swoop out. Any idiot can be impressed by a strange place (your brain tricks you into excitement as you go into hyper-alert mode). But I try to play my walk-on part for Vilnius because I love it (her/him). Lovers make sacrifices for each other; they show their best, expose their worst. They clamber up dead-end ladders and leave love notes on out-of-the-way walls. Vilnius and I are old lovers; we finish each other’s sentences, walk in silence, use the low-lying clouds as handy compresses.



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