Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Lithuanian Snapshots - Closing Picture

Is it time for lunch yet? reads Jay's text message.

It is Monday, my last full day. The weather has turned; all morning it has been spitting rain. I hop in and out of puddles and shoe-shops, trying to find something more substantial than my sparkly flip-flops. I am thoughtful, even a little melancholy. I miss my two beloveds desperately, at the same time as longing for more time alone. I spent so much of my life alone before I met the Bim that it will probably always be a state I hanker after. Time alone feeds me. I remember who I am again. I remember how to think again. I recognise this sort of time now, though (in a way I never did then, when I had oodles of the stuff ) as an important, priceless luxury.

Jay joins me for lunch at Skonir ir Kvapas, a wonderful, old-style tea-room in a picturesque courtyard where we order ginger tea with orange juice and honey. We talk for ages. I feel my conversation unfolding from me in a way I haven't for months. These conversations I've had with Jay throughout the trip are the longest consecutive conversations with a grown-up I've had in a long time. Jay is a great listener, and it feels good.

After lunch we go our separate ways with a promise to meet again for dinner. I go in search of the Holocaust Museum on Pamenkalnio 12, to complete my short investigations into Lithuania's recent past.

The Green House, a modest, green clapboard cottage, is difficult to find. It is not what I was expecting. The door is locked, though the Museum is obviously open: an ominous sign and again, not what I was expecting. No-one comes to answer the bell, and eventually a fellow visitor, just leaving, lets me in. Inside, there is no-one to whom I can pay the ridiculously small entrance sum, so I begin to walk around the house without a ticket.

There is a make-shift, temporary feel to the Museum, nothing like yesterday's exhibition, which was so expertly, expensively put together. This is home-made by comparison. I gather that it is not state funded - that Lithuania is, in fact, in some turmoil with itself about the role its own partisans played in aiding the liquidation of its own Jewish population - and that the Museum is the private project of several Lithuanian Holocaust survivors. Very little of the text is in English, so that I am forced to pick up what I can from the board headings (which are) and the exhibition's many images. They pack a weighty punch.

Pre-war Vilnius was known as the Jerusalem of the North. Ironically, Jews were invited to settle in Lithuania in the 14th Century by Grand Duke Gediminas. In the 19th Century Vilnius became the centre for the European Jewish language, Yiddish, and by the 20th Century it had become the Jewish cultural capital of Eastern Europe. Many eminent Jewish thinkers, artists, writers, scientists and musicians made it their home. Pre-World War II there were 100 synagogues in the city and six daily Jewish newspapers. 100,00 Jews lived here of a total 240,000 in Lithuania as a whole.

Today, there are just 5,000 Jews in Lithuania. And just one synagogue still stands in the city of Vilnius. It survives because the Nazis used it as a medical store. A rabbi flies in from London now and then to officiate.

I'm not a numbers person, except when they become more eloquent than words.

A short way into my tour of the Museum, a door opens and two well-dressed Jewish women of a certain age appear. There is much consternation that I have neither ticket nor a guidebook, and was not greeted on arrival. They introduce themselves by Christian name, insist I retrace my steps to the very front door. Let's start again! they say. Come in, come in! they say, opening and closing the door even though I am already in the building - Now, where did you say you were from? They hand me a well-thumbed wodge of photocopied pages - an extremely wordy, well-written guide to the exhibiton.

I find their kindly attentions extremely touching. I know these women; they remind me of candlelit Friday nights at my childhood friend Shoshannah's house, welcomed into a culture which is not mine but with which I have always resonated. Coiffeured, intelligent, good-hearted women, too concerned for your health and well-being but achingly reassuring. I think of my friend Dee, whose Jewishness seeps through her every pore and more than makes her who she is. I think of Anne Frank, who was born the same year as my mother Esme - how she, too, could have been nearing eighty now. What a body of work we lost there! It was the slim, serious little paperback of Anne's diary, slipped into my twelve-year-old hand, which started my own habit of journal-keeping, which led, perhaps, to here.

There were two ghettos in Vilnius. The Small Ghetto existed for 46 days in 1941. No-one survived it: eleven thousand Jews were marched from here to their deaths in the forest at Paneriai, some 10 kms from the city. The Large Ghetto existed for two years. A few hundred people survived it; some nineteen thousand died. Studying the maps in the Museum I realise how little the streets in the city centre have changed. I make my own, lone pilgrimage to find the streets mentioned. It is a drizzly, sombre little mission. I begin to understand why the comments of Jewish visitors from all round the world in the Museum's leather-bound Visitors Book are so frustrated and angry. The ghetto streets remain largely unchanged, but they pass almost unmarked. I find two or three marble memorial plaques, but blink and you'd miss them.

The Ghettos were made and sealed in the old Jewish quarter, in the very heart of the city. It was impossible not to know what was happening. Indeed, crowds formed to watch the Jews being marched in at the main Ghetto gates. I find myself staring into the faces of elderly passers by, silently questioning: Were you here? I ask them. Were you?

As I identify street after ghetto-street, walk the pavements, touch the walls, I remember a couple of original, black and white posters in the last room of the Museum, advertising theatrical performances. In 1942, over 120 musical and theatrical performances took place in the Large Ghetto. I am ineffably moved by this. Plays, they did plays. And music. They had a Symphony Orchestra. They took up their instruments and played. They took up their instruments and played, learnt speeches and performed. Of course. As an artist myself I understand this in a visceral, passionate way. It is how I have been taught to live, too. And so it is that in the face of this sad, heartbreaking day, I go back to my hotel room, and write.

The next day I leave Lithuania, and come home.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Lithuanian Snapshots - Four

After lunch, Jay and I visit the Museum of Victims of Genocide, housed in the former KGB building on Gediminas Avenue. It is a fine day, the sky is high and we are cheery after our filming.

We only have an hour. As it turns out I am glad, because atmospheres work on me, and the building was heaving with its history. It is a heavy-doored, stone-staired, long-corridored structure. Eerie holographic hands holding guns reach from the walls.

In the upstairs rooms -which used to be office space to the Russians, then the Nazis, and then the Russians again - is a brilliantly assembled exhibition, beautifully lit, meticulously labelled. The walls are filled with writings and photographs about the various oppressions and occupations this fierce little country has had to tolerate. Cases of priceless human ephemera pinned behind glass like so many insect specimens detail the thousands of lost, deported, murdered lives.

Downstairs in the basement are the torture cells of the KGB prison, maintained virtually untouched since their last prisoner less than thirty years ago. The cells are painted an old, puce green. They boast of the darkest places the human mind can go. The Wet Cell struck me most, a nasty, claustrophobic space with a scooped out floor which would be filled with water which turned to ice in winter. In the centre there is a tiny metal pedestal, the prisoner's only refuge from the wet. Further down the corridor I find the Soft Cell, with its strange, stupid-looking straitjacket hanging on a peg just in front of me. This cell was padded in 1973, the sign says, to stop the torture cries, and the cries from those driven mad by torture, from being heard. Nineteen-Seventy-Three, I whisper, trying to make it fit. My nineteen-seventy-three, the one that I know, held in it Jackie magazine, and the Eleven-Plus, and bell-bottomed trousers.

At the end of the longest corridor, the penultimate cell has been put to a different purpose. It is the Prison Library. Books do not belong here! is my first thought. But then I think yes, yes let there be books. Let there - as with the volume of Shakespeare which Nelson Mandela read and annotated in his imprisonment on Robben Island - be hope. Beyond, a board carries simply a series of black and white photographs, all portraits of dead partisans as their bodies were propped up in town squares against walls and fences, for the people to see. The faces of the dead are beaten and battered, but oddly compelling. I cannot take my eyes off them. In one, the eyes of a woman are like the sewn-on eyes of a ragdoll, so swollen are they. I find myself wondering what act, what atrocity, could have done this to her, and discover that I cannot, literally cannot, imagine.

I step at the last down into the Execution Chamber. I make myself step: there is no-one else around and I make the journey into this brightly lit bowel with dread. The floor is glass and lit to reveal relics of those who died beneath your feet in the sand. Thousands were shot or stabbed in this chamber. I try to say some sort of prayer for them but am so troubled that none comes. I go and find Jay. I've had enough, I tell him. Because I have. Because I can.

I run to hide in the sunlight outside. From an open window in the next building on the Avenue pours a piano solo, someone practising long and hard and strong. I remember that this building is the Academy of Theatre & Music, and almost cling to its walls as I gulp back my tears. This building houses my belief system, I remind myself, my soul.

I walk across the street to a park bench, letting the music work on me, waiting for some sign that it's about love, too, this life: find it in the brief, steadying "Grim" of nodded agreement between myself and my old friend when he too emerges into the sunshine. I put my hand for a brief moment on his arm to pin myself to the moment, here on Gediminas Avenue, beside the bloody geraniums.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Lithuanian Snapshots - Three

Astonishingly, the work itself, the actual shooting of the actual scene including travelling time and all, took only five and a half hours. I was picked up at my hotel at 7am on the Sunday morning and was done by lunchtime.

My old friend Jay was sitting waiting in the people carrier when I came down from my room. Neither Jay nor I had got much sleep, this being my only, and his first, day of filming. We greeted each other with that wide-eyed, butterfly-stomach, first-thing-in-the-morning-actor look I've come to know so well. We were taken to the unit's base camp which was in a leisure centre car park somewhere to the north of city centre and given a warm welcome by one and all. One of the actors remarked that film units look the same the world over, and we laughed agreeement. I felt a little flutter of excitement as we pulled into the midst of the service trucks - winibagos for the actors; hair and make-up; catering; the food tent. Several of the crowd eating breakfast turned their heads as we arrived. Many of the crew had been out there for some time, and were probably as glad to see us as we were to see them. Or as curious, I should say: there's an awful lot of covert curiosity about everybody else on a film set.

The director met us, shook our hands, looked weary and warm. The last time I had seen him was at the interview, somewhere in Central London. It was somehow reassuring that he looked exactly the same, down to the shorts and sandals. He asked the Second Assistant to show us where we needed to go - she showed us the breakfast tent and a winibago for each of us, with our character names printed on A4 pieces of paper pinned to the door. Another, private little flutter! Inside, fruit, bottles of water, our costumes. I got mine on and then, with as much dignity as I could muster without feeling reeeaaallly silly, had to phone the 2nd A.D. on my mobile to come and open my door, as I had accidentally locked myself inside... (Note to Self: Film Star Status not achievable until winibago doorlock mastered).

The filming itself, I am happy to report, went off with little incident. It was fun, and interesting, to be part of this international crew for a day. I gather this was the source of not a little tension on set, but I barely felt it, so glad was I to be working, and working with Jay. It was different, working with someone I knew and trusted. And we both come from stage backgrounds, feeling our way into some kind of a performance in front of a camera (later in the trip we spent an evening recounting our Most Cringeworthy Television Moments). I don't think my tiny scene was my most glorious hour on film, but I don't think I disgraced myself, either.

While I was waiting to be called, going over my lines and trying to keep my concentration (a priceless talent to an actor), Mick the Sound Man came over to wire me for sound. For those not in the know, this involved putting a little furry thing with a sticky back (the mic) between my breasts - Mick himself didn't do this, just suggested it in as tactful a way as possible and looked away as I dropped it down, then guided the wire and little adaptor box from my front to my back and tucked the box into the belt of my jeans. As we performed this intimate little operation, Mick chatted away about Lithuania, because he has worked in the country several times.

He says that he finds it a fascinating place. He says that it gets very cold in winter and this, combined with its painful history, is one of the reasons why the suicide rate is so high. He says that the Lithuanian women are fantastic - and indeed, their beauty was noted (several times) by my fellow actors the night before - but that there are two or three women for every man, so competition is fierce. I think of
the band of brides encountered the day before, and of a startling statistic in my guidebook - 57% of Lithuanian marriages end in divorce. Hmm, something not adding up, there.

Through the window, across a sobering vista of Soviet-era high-rises, he points out the TV Tower where Soviet troops killed 14 Lithuanians defending their right to broadcast independently only 16 years ago in 2001 - just months before the USSR finally recognised Lithuanian independence. He tells me about the racist attacks on one black crew member; how the skinhead right is not so very underground in certain places; how difference is not very well tolerated here: the rougher, underbelly of the country which has been nicknamed the 'Baltic Tiger'.

That night I choose to stay in, order Room Service and ruminate on what I have experienced thus far. I am deeply struck by what I am learning; while I'm not sure that I like Lithuania in the same way I could without reservation say that I liked Italy, say, when I first visited, I am intrigued by it. And it seems to be working a curious magic on me. Words pour out of me every time I sit down to write. With no thought. With no problem. In the same way that others have a compulsion to photograph, to record visually, I feel a compulsion to write. To mark-make. Set it. Not in stone, but in words.

It's the feeling I've been looking to accompany my writing for - well forever, really.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Lithuanian Snapshots - Two

I'm pretty good at taking on a new city. I know how to walk the streets with a cheap map until I get the feel of a place and the taste of its smell on my tongue.

When I was 18 I spent a month doing just that. It was my Gap year, though nobody called it that in those days. It was called Taking-a-Year-Off-Between-School-and-University, and you didn't have to consider good causes or save the world or anything like you do now (though I have to admit this would have appealed mightily to the Do-Gooder in me). No, in those days you needed an Inter-rail pass, a copy of Thomson's European Railway Timetable and enough hutzpah to go off and actually do it.

I was supposed to do my month round Europe with a horsey-looking girl whom I didn't know very well called Victoria, but luckily for me she broke a leg at the last minute. I remember stomping downstairs as only a hormonal 18-year-old desperate to have a few more Experiences can stomp, bursting in on my mother and declaring with bravado that if Vicky couldn't go then I was jolly well going to go on my own. To my astonishment, without a flicker, Esme said I think that's a very good idea, darling, and then I had to go.

So it was that one summer in the 80s I was waved off at King's Cross station with my Inter-rail pass in my pocket and a very large, unwieldy back-pack on my back. In the course of the next month I managed to see a great many European cities, stay in lots and lots of hostels, whack alot of people with the back-pack and have some truly unforgettable Experiences.

And now here I am in Vilnius, Lithuania having another one, and I am reminded on this first morning in the city of those younger days. The Old Town is a surprise of beautiful, baroque streets and cafe culture. This is a country which is finding out how it feels about itself. It's like a new-born colt trying to get up, I think, succeeding for the most part, with the occasional whimsical fall. It's an interesting place for me to be with my first allowed time alone for ages. Memories assail me, flittering like moths, one moment nowhere, the next everywhere, coming at me, my face, my hair. I can't shake them; stop, in fact, trying.

I take a seat on a pretty, flower-laden terrace belonging to an up-market hotel on Pilies gatve. I feel awkward that I don't know the language. I know in fact only one word - the word for 'Thank you' - which sounds exactly how Anna-mouse would say a sneeze - 'Aatchoo!' - so I sprinkle it everywhere, in the vain hope that smiles and sneezes will buy me and my country a good name.

My morning's perambulations have been marked by a curious phonomenon: brides and their bridal parties all over the city. When I first left the hotel and saw my first bride I thought aah, how nice, a Lithuanian wedding. A few moments later I saw my next bride, waiting to go into the Cathedral as the first one came out. Then I saw the third couple, married a good ten minutes before, doing their bridal pics on the Cathedral steps - and then, well, it went on. I became obsessed with them. I started photographing them. I'm thinking of doing a photographic medley of Lithuanian brides in my next post. Even when I left Cathedral Square and took to the side streets I came across wedding party after wedding party. Leaving church. Going to church. Clearly, Saturday is bridal day.

I eat my feta salad on the hotel terrace and listen to a boy busking by the market stalls further down the street. Elvis isn't at his glorious best played on a recorder.

Oddly, towards the end of my meal, as the Second Assistant for the shoot calls me on the Lithuanian mobile I've been given to check that all is well, a tiny moth lands on the tablecloth. It is the colour of parchment, archaic, as old as the hills. I stare at it for a long time. It's as if it holds the meaning of my morning, if only I knew what it was. The next moment, before I know it, it's gone.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Lithuanian Snapshots - One

A happy journey, squished against the window in Lithuanian Business Class, demarcated by a rather shabby cerise curtain between rows 2 and 3. The moon rises, coming into focus as we fly into night over a cotton-wool bed of cloud.

We are flying over Denmark, my co-traveller in the next seat informs me.

We strike up a conversation. He is a 28 year-old Lithuanian IT consultant who works at Canary Wharf, going home to see his family. He is pleasant enough, but by the time we touch down at Vilnius International Airport (a cosy little hanger) I am more than happy to join my fellow actors again. Of Lithuania and all things Lithuanian he is fiercely proud - and this is justifiable, given that this little nation has pulled itself up by its bootlaces, shaken off centuries of occupation and oppression and achieved an impressive economic turnaround in less than two decades.

Of England and of London he is quietly scathing. Dr Johnson tickles my ear (When you're tired of London, you're tired of life) as this jaded young North European talks to older, excitable English me in his low, serious voice. I can't help but wonder if he hasn't been hanging out with the wrong crowd. I also recognise in our short little trip together a kind of microcosmic version of history. Voting in the Eurovision Song Contest of late suddenly becomes crystal clear...

My old friend Jay - unseen for 15 years or so, as happens in this odd acting profession of ours - is in the row in front of mine. We share a giggle when he gets up from his seat and bangs his head on the overhead lockers. Jay mutters a joke about Lithuanian Business Class needing to sort out its headspace, which makes me giggle even more. My Lithuanian companion is non-plussed. He wants to know why we are laughing. He wants to know what is wrong with Lithuanian Business Class. I get a sense of the inscrutability of different nations' humour.

In my mind's eye, Jay and I descend the aeroplane steps wearing red noses, fuzzy wigs and very very big shoes.