My dad used to think motorcycles were quite absurd.
I used to think the pomp of his classical music concerts was a bit much.
We’re standing on the steps of a brightly lit restaurant in the very heart of Vinius Old Town. In front of us, there’s a tiny square, and right ahead, the rise of the National Philharmonic building. It’s a nineteenth-century classic, elegantly lit, unimposing, but it has the aura of something old and important and so sentimental all at the same time.
Dad is telling me about Chopin’s heart – buried in Warsaw. Quietly, we’re both dreaming of Havana.
We’d just come back from a family reunion. My auntie Daina, dad’s sister, whose name translates to “Song” in Lithuanian. My uncle Jonas, dad’s brother. And my cousin Gediminas, “One Who Remembers”: we last saw each other twenty years ago.
Gediminas and I were about seven years old when we had the best summer imaginable. Dad and Jonas packed a car, an old navy blue Ford, and they put me and Gediminas in the trunk because it was bigger than the back seat. We set off; dad and Jonas smoking, laughing and discussing life and whiskey from faraway lands they’d never taste. Miles and miles of sunny roads disappearing under the Ford’s tires; Gediminas and I, crouching in the trunk, playing Lands.
We went to the most magnificent places. Pajuris, a tiny town in Western Lithuania, where Jonas and dad would drink local moonshine, and Gediminas and I would go on expeditions to the nearby stream. At night, we’d sit under the stars, bonfire crackling, and listen to melancholy stories and theories about everything. We’d stay in rambling country houses and farms, and we’d wade into the meadows, waist-deep in the tall grass, as the fog crept shyly across the fields in the morning, the hazy blue of the woods shimmering in the horizon. We would go to the sea, oh, the sea, and we would build labyrinths and castles out of sand; Jonas and dad would drink cold cold beer and we would get food in small local eateries, and the waitresses would smile at us. We would climb the pale golden dunes and sit there, staring into the deep dark green of the Baltic sea, we would stare and stare until tears would start streaming down our cheeks, and then we’d get a dinner of smoked fish and dark strong ale.
That summer never happened again. There were things; my mother was ill; the old Ford vanished one day… Jonas was busy, and dad had to work, and life went on.
Twenty years from that summer, we met again in Vilnius. My dad and Jonas, Daina and Gediminas. We had beers and burgers; we laughed so much and took a photo together, and then, just before ten at night, we said goodbye again. Every look, every word, every smile was there with so much meaning, so much charge, and, although we wouldn’t admit it out loud, so much love.
We would meet again, I said, in Havana in November, oh, all of us, again. Yes, we would go to Havana, and we would drink our Cuba Libres at Hemingway’s pub. We would eat swordfish and listen to everybody in Havana – and then, we’d rent a car, we’d rent a navy blue Ford, and we would drive. To Santiago and Cienfuegos, to Baracoa and Varadero, and then we’d sit on the beach and stare into the deep, undulating blue of the Caribbean. All of us, because we made it, somehow, against all odds, against regimes and scarcity and geopolitics, against poverty and depression, loss and struggle and bleak times, there we would be.
“A clan”, – dad said, laughing, raising his pint of beer.
I’m homeless at home. The streets of Vilnius, my home town, my ghost town, my town of beautiful and broken illusions, they’re all the same, and so is St. Catherine’s church where our school headmaster once took us to see the bell tower, and the old wineries and pubs where we’d drink blood red port and smoke tobacco because we fancied ourselves libertarians and bohemians at sixteen; St.Anne’s church and the Sereikiskes Square were we kissed our first boys; the lanterns of the Town Hall Square, the labyrinth of the little alleyways of the Old Town where we’d look for spirits and answers, Vilnius Jesuit Gymnasium where I obsessively read Faust and refused to wear a uniform; it’s all still here, frozen in time, forever imprinted on the cobblestones, ever-present in the whispers of the moonlit alleys, everything, everything is still here.
Except for me. I’m staying in an old B&B right in the heart of the city, and I’m a guest now. A guest and a ghost myself. But after a while, it doesn’t matter all that much, because here, I can say “good morning” in my own language. I instinctively know where to turn when I’m driving; I can find my way back through the medieval maze that is the Vilnius Old Town; I do not have to think in English here, I don’t have to smile American and cheer Argentinean, I can nod Lithuanian and speak Vilnius. And here, only here people know that “balandis” – “April” – is the Month of the Dove, and it is called so because everyone knows that it’s the birds who, upon returning after a long winter, bring the warmth of the spring on their wings. It’s not quirky or cute or weird – here, it’s what we know, and it is part of the narrative, just like the legend of the Iron Wolf or my name or how, if a stork builds his nest near your house, it means that you are a good person. Here, there are creaky trolleybuses and pub signs, cobblestones church bells, and so much strange, sad and magnificent history.
Daina, Jonas, and Gediminas have left, and it’s my dad and me now, strolling towards the Gates of Dawn. It’s still chilly; it’s almost April, almost the month of the dove, but not yet, not quite yet, and we wear scarves. Dad says we should have one more beer, so we step into a brightly lit restaurant and order a pint.
Dad tells me about Chopin’s heart,
And I tell him about riding a meandering road along the Pacific Ocean.
We step out to smoke a cherry tobacco cigarillo. There’s something else in the velveteen Vilnius night, some strong bond, all of a sudden so palpable. I watch dad exhale a thick circle of tobacco smoke. I realize that something is gratitude.
We dream of Havana.