AN EXPEDITION WITH GEOGRAPHICAL NOTES
The names of the streets and pubs, houses and temples that I have seen are slowly receding from my memory, giving their place to longing and nostalgia. A coherent text on my journey from Klaipeda to Kaliningrad and Gdansk is a story that I have populated, while my overheard stories and the buddies’ aphorisms are sticking all over it, so that the story slowly begins to crack and come apart. So I have to be in a hurry. Because he knows his time is short. This story, it cannot be denied, is based on impromptu induced by hasty observation at a run.
- The Book. To make our journey more fascinating, we took to Kaliningrad ″The Seasons″ by Kristijonas Donelaitis, and to Gdansk – Guenter Grass’s ″The Tin Drum″.
- Borderland. The borderland near Kaliningrad. By repeating magical incantations, I am trying to revive the wilderness that is slowly crawling outside the car window, to pick a stone in the fields and find at least one hint that this area was once the Prussian Lithuanians’ world.
- Somewhere at the Duty free. A branch leaning over me from the past is inviting me to pick some blossom for my Memory herbarium.
- Visa. The Russian border guard, enclosed in a uniform, is the first and the last being whose existence can be justified rationally. He behaves politely, and inquires about the purpose of our travel. He gets interested in my colleague’s photo in her Iranian visa, and smiles at seeing the scarf covering her hair.
- The Choice. Next post. The ecological tax. ″Vam po zakonu ili po sovesti?″ (Do you pay according to the law or according to your conscience?″), – asks the eco-customs officer. For a long while, I am at loss for words, trying to unravel –which costs more money? ″Ubili dushevnoi prostotoi″ (″Your soul simplicity is killing me″), – I utter finally. ″If you‘re not coming back tonight – you pay 100 roubles less, and leave the check here″, – explains the officer. This means ″po sovesti″.
- Proportions. Once admitted inside, we make a short stop at a small town of Rybachy, next to the Soldier Liberator monument. The short-legged, big-headed, sorrowful warrior resembles a kid depressed at his development disorder, who is banned from attending the ordinary kindergarden: ″там, в парке″ (″over there, in the park″). Now his ridiculous proportions look like a funny joke of the past and an example of the above-mentioned surrealism: until very recently, many Eastern Bloc countries were forced to squeeze into such absurd proportions.
- Victory. A vivid demonstration of the victories that the Warrior has scored is the hut in the central Pobedy (Victory) street. He hit the hut with his iron fist, and it clearly became more accomodating – speaking louder than any Soviet rhetoric.
- German quality. Last year, the roof of the Kirche that is now used as a Russian Orthodox church, started to smoke. The priest got a warning, but just shrugged off instead: ″Ah, that chimney is old, it‘s German″. German means that it has functioned properly for 100 years and will work twice as long.
- There’s No Escaping. In this journey, we will return to the heritage and geopolitical topics again and again.
- Acronyms. We are moving towards the center of the district. When ″два шага до бака″ (″two steps up to the container″) remain, our range of vision is suddenly invaded by company names that look as if they have been tamped down: ″Surgutneftegaz″ (″Surgut Oil and Gas″), ″Shynmontazh″ (″Tire Installation″). We start making up neologisms that would be possible understand in three languages, saying them again and again, and enjoying this linguistic Disneyland.
- Mother Russia. Outside the car window, uncultivated fields are stretching, overgrown and becoming wild – as a metaphor for the past. The young Russians of this region turn their heads mainly to the West. Kaliningrad has grown up a generation that has never had a direct link to the Great Mother. Young people share their liberal views, and draw the vectors of their European future.
- Apocalypse. A city whose old wounds are still open in the urban landscape, whose ruins are still used to stone the paths going further from the center, is especially suitable for artistic archeology. Yes, on the surface of this land, people have managed to change the past. However, the attempt to hide it has met with a total failure here as nowhere else. An apocalyptic metaphor of Kaliningrad seems to be the view of the old Cathedral from the backwards of a block of flats – a view that is sailing away on a boat.
- Gavroche. Alexandra, whom I tagged the Gavroche of Kaliningrad, smokes her cigarette snapped in her teeth, as if she bites it through.
- Back on Track. Polish expectations are dimming the Kaliningrad impressions. The border is very near, there is a sign saying that we are passing Novoselovo. I remember the simple Russian phrase ″nezdorovitsa″ (″feeling unwell″) that once filled us with joy, when in the Balkans of our imagination, we founded a town called Nezdorovitsa and populared it with permanently hungover and just merrily unhappy people. The local name of Novosiolovo that, of course, traces back to the distant past, is also extremely playful. ″Nevesiolovo, yes, Nevesiolovo (″Grimville, yes, Grimville″), – we say again and again, happy to have found one more metaphor for this land.
- Passport. Our passports arouse their burning interest, even though we have been here many times before. Two passoprts have Iranian visas, one has a United States visa, and the other – an entry permit to Libya of the Muammar Gaddafi era. Suspicious.
- Cleanliness. The Polish border guards, male and female:
– Jaki Brudny samochód! (What a dirty car!)
– It‘s camouflage, pani! – and we show them our passports with ″strange″ visas.
The uniformed pani is also curious: she keeps asking where we are going and what for.
– Do ″Laźni″ (To ″Laźnia″ – this is the name of the Gdansk Center for Contemporary Art).
In Polish language, ″laźnia″ means a bath or a bathhouse.
Do laźni? Chyba we are kidding, traveling hundreds of kilometers for a bath?
– Yes, our car really needs it.
- Dirty Dog. In Kaliningrad, my colleague‘s has made a remark: ″In Russia, you can legally be a dirty dog, that‘s what is good″. Now I see that this is only partially true. When we were there, all the way was accompanied by an unconscious feeling that we are not safe. We understand it only when we find ourselves in Poland. Here, we noticeably recover, and feel like home. The probability of a formal bespredel (total lawlessness) decreases to a minimum, and the speed indicator, like a mustang, jumps over the comfortable Euro 2012 highway.
- Further. The landscape also changes immediately. As if we are the characters of a color film again. As if rusty fields had never been there, the hills wave in greenish and yellow. It seems that we have not just overcome the administrative border, but also leaped ahead in time – from early spring to early summer. Gdansk is approaching, so it is time to take out Guenter Grass and make his tin drum begin to speak to Poland.
- The Castle. On the way to Gdansk, we turn from the main road to Malbork, Teutonic Marienburg. In 13th century, the Teutonic Knights Order founded the castle as the residence for the Master, and it still stands there as a source of amazement and awe.
- Grunwald. Here, a whole series of historical reflections pour in. On pagan Lithuania, to whose lands this castle, as if it was from a later, more sophisticated epoch, was sending ″cultural-punitive expeditions″. On Lithuanian Duke Kęstutis who was imprisoned here, and on the Lithuanian and Polish siege after the Battle of Grunwald that has eventually come to nothing.
- Restaurant. However, on our approach to the castle, the greatest thrill is not the splendour of previous ages, but a peaceful Polish cuisine restaurant. The echo in its chambers brings us the voices of foreigners, and we soon entwine our own voices in their sounds. The river Nogat, matt and flat, calm and wide, turned away from the castle and past affairs, is flowing across the unstocked barrens.
- The Land. The Promised Land of Kashubians. The center of it, where, wearing four skirts of the same color, near Bissau, in front of Rimkau, behind Fyrek, on the Brentlau side of the road, between Dirschau and Karthauz, with her back turned towards the black forest of Goldkrug, Anna Bronski sat the other day, patted by slanting rain and smoke coming from the smouldering potato vine.
- Connections. But the most important thing that I care about is the sounding of Oskar’s drum. How will I succeed – at least geographically – to tune the imagery of Guenter Grass’s novel to the actual scheme of the city? Speaking in contemporary terms, will the program work, will the sockets and the plugs match each other?
- Finally. It is quite late, after dark, when we finally arrive in Gdansk. New Port (Nowy Port), the district that will take our three nights, is at the mouth of the Dead Vistula river, away from the city center. So we have to relieve our hunger around here, in one of the two still working cafeteria. We are proposed to try ″Baltic Pearl″ (Restauracja kawiarnia ″Perła Bałtyku″). ″Baltic Pearl″ has that home environment – the mother is cooking food, while her son, the guy with a broken tooth, is working as a waiter – where we can feel at least a little of the actual, old-times atmosphere of the seaport: next to us, young Erasmus students are murmuring in all kinds of languages, while the men seated near the window sometimes exchange a few words in Spanish.
- Geographical Note. For us, Lithuanians, going out to the Baltic means Western direction. In Gdansk, this direction is North. The wind. We can always feel Gotland hanging over our heads.
- Lazhnya. In early 20th century, the Danzig government brought to the poorest areas of the city something else than cultural oases. It founded public baths to clean up the human soul by starting from the body. Three years ago, after a thorough renovation, ″Laźnia″ has gained the function of spiritual education. What the building looked like before that, you can see by using Google Street View: look around the Shipyard Workers’ Strike street (ulica Strajku Dokerów).
- Cavalryman. One of the ″Laźnia″ guards is a true Polish cavalryman! True, he‘s no spring chicken: he has dismounted his horse, and hung his sword in the woodshed. But look at his manners!…″So, are you going to dance tonight? – he squeezes his hips in the twist movements. – How can you be in Poland and not go to the dances?″ That is one of his first questions. The second is ″What will happen to you now?″ The topic of the Kremlin aggression briefly returns to the agenda. ″The same thing as to you″, I would like to answer, but I have been on this visit just for a few hours and still cannot loosen my tongue for Polish.
- Footsteps. Gdansk. Here the scene of Guenter Grass’s ″Danzig Trilogy″ is laid: under the sky that is sunny to overcast, the little drummer Oskar, Agnieszka and Jan Bronski, and Herbert Truczinski are walking. For our minds, I guess, they are still walking.
- Hollywood. The exploration of the city is worth to start at Golden Gate (Zlota Brama). The Golden Gate has exhibited two post-war photos showing the city destroyed by the Red flood, divided into crumbly, sooty squares. These images will make it easier to acknowledge the fact that the whole beauty of the city, all the legends of judiths, whose voices are considered to sound in the merchants’ homes, have actually been resurrected from mouldering ruins. Maybe that is why in the central square you feel like in a Hollywood Pavilion, surrounded by some remarkable façades, that, presumably, have no houses behind them.
- Restoration. The Poles were restoring their Old Town for a few decades after the war. Emphasizing the importance of the Flemish, Italian and French influence, they restored the 17th-century city. But the Prussian tradition traces have been ignored, as if in revenge for the perpetual harm that the Poles had suffered from Germans.
- Geographic Note Nr. 2. Paradoxically, the thing that has actually united Klaipeda, Kaliningrad and Gdansk in this project is the German geopolitical heritage. Sometimes it seems that we are travelling over Memel, Koenigsberg and Danzig. Klaipeda makes every possible effort to preserve the ″Prussian″ wherever it finds it: for that purpose, we have canonized even the poor exile Queen Louise. Kaliningrad worships it as a synonym for quality, rationality, and the Berlin kind of freedom. Gdansk just lets it be.
- CAC. Today, several exhibition halls in ″Laźnia″ are working. What a curious thing to happen! We have come here to take a good look at the strangers, and got examined as ones. Eindhoven artists offered us to stretch outselves on the psychoanalyst’s couch and do a test that paired my traveling dusty soul with a few eccentric guys from the characters in their gallery.
- Postcard. You can admire the old quay of Motława – the brand ″postcard″ of Gdansk. Its main attraction, of course, is the legendary crane in the medieval port. Above the houses that stand by the river like a defensive wall, the spires of the Old Town Hall and St. Mary’s Cathedral are in a trial of strength with each other. A good dozen of windy medieval streets push off from the Old Motława to dive into the Old Town. The profusely decorated doors and terraces of patrician houses, the gargolas spitting out rain – all of this has been reconstructed on the basis of documents, photos and drawings.
- Pierogi. A place that is less consumed by tourists is pierogarnia ″U Dzika″. (snackbar ″At the Wild Hog‘s″). Fliaki, cakes i rachuniek. (Flaki soup, pancakes and the bill).
- Noah’s Ark. St. Mary’s Cathedral is the largest brick building of sacred purpose in Europe. From the Reformation to the Second World War, St. Mary looked at the Protestants from above. The ceiling of the Cathedral porch attracts the viewer’s attention with its stairs that lean out. They seem to be the result of the constructor’s mathematical error. But they look like Noah’s Ark got stuck in the Cathedral wall after the Flood.
- Fate. When the fate paves you the way to Gdansk, a honest reader of Guenter Grass must visit the Polish Post office next to channel Radunia (kanał Raduni). To skip the long introduction, I will just mention that on the eve of the Nazi occupation, Jan Bronski from ″The Tin Drum″, sweating heavily, smoking more than usual, was leading by the hand the little drummer Oskar. They went down the Old Town moat towards Motława, passed the barrier of heimver SS men, and before any of them expressed their proper indignation at this fact, the defenders of the building dragged them in the doors of the Polish Post.
- Skat. The grenade that, at the dawn of September 1st, 1939, fell into the third floor room, whose one window Jan Bronski was defending, hidden behind sandbags, while Kobyella guarded the other window, overturned the Polish lancers like toys and wounded the steward. It was the start of the famous skat game for Kobyella’s life, which, at the same time, was a sarcastic jest about death. The Post defenders tried to resist until they receive support from the English and the French.
- The West Will Help Us. Oskar concluded that when the Polish Post and the whole Poland are under attack, the English navy will remain in a more or less secure fjord in the North of Scotland, while the French grand army will eat their lunch and think that they are fulfiling the Polish-French guarantee treaty by conducting minor intelligence operations in the Maginot Line area. How allusive are these words today – in the period of fluctuation of the West!
- Westerplatte. Inthe morning of the same September 1st, when the sounds of the Post office siege die away, in the novel by Guenter Grass one can hear the shots echoing from the North. These are battleship ″Silesia″ and ″Schleswig-Holstein″, attacking the 180 members of the Polish crew consolidated in the defence of the Westerplatte peninsula.
- Jesus. After three hours spent in Westerplatte, I still cannot get enough of Gdansk, so I throw myself to the Wrzeszcz district, whose former name is Langfuhr. My goal is to find the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus that Guenter Grass has described so vividly in his book. Here, Oskar would stare at the altar in the left side nave that has a sculpture of Mary with little Jesus in her lap.
- Jesus 2. Oskar was excited at the idea that this kid looked so much like himself. Jesus, whose skin had the colour of boiled ham, held his little fists clenched, as if asking something to be squeezed into them. For example, the drum sticks. Oskar modestly – personally, for himself – believed that if this was done, the Son of God would come alive and begin to beat the drum.
- Confrontation. So I am eager to get to Langfuhr and see the sculpture. Unfortunately, my miracle has collapsed, too. I can hardly find the building, and when I finally do, I see that the inside of the church, whose front façade faces the railroad enbankment, has been railed off with iron bars. Here, resting his elbows against the bars, having isolated himself from the world, a tiny parishioner is making his prayers to heaven. There is one more person, a woman, who explains to me that I can only enter the church during the evening service. She wonders why I want to get there so much. I tell her about Guenter Grass’s novel in my broken Polish, and show her the book. The woman says that she knows the author, but not the book.
- Visiting the Classic. Poet Anastasia V., who has been living in Gdansk for three years, accompanies me into the night. We visit the bar ″Jozef K″ (ulica Piwna 1). With a romantic passion stirred by movie scenes, I used to try and imagine what was going on in ancient times in the pubs of maritime cities, such as Memel, Riga and Danzig. A total mess of sooty sailors and stevedores, with their skin coarse and their hands rough from the ropes, the hands that sometimes descend to pulling out the blade…Western-characters with their faces eroded by sea salt. I cannot accuse the 21st century Baltic port city of being prudent, either, but the uproar is significantly mitigated by numerous women’s voices.
- Ecocustoms. The ″according to the law or according to your conscience″ system appears to work on the territory of Lithuania, too. On the way back, I feel just perfect. The system f-u-n-c-t-i-o-n-s.
- 15 minutes. It takes just this long to drive across Klaipeda. Klaipeda is a port. It seems to say it all. It is the very essence of the city, its purpose and perspective. In terms of culture, too. Klaipėda is a city whose active life depends on the seasonal rhythm, the trade import capabilities and export perspectives, and the cultural transit.
- Crossing. What does it look like – a familiar track? A cosy crossing of three fachverks in the history of Lithuania.
- Day. You can run around most of Klaipeda public spaces very fast: all of them are located in the square of the several main streets. Liepų street, just next to it there are H.Manto, S.Nėries, S.Daukanto streets. Here is the Railway station, Atgimimo Square, the ″Meridian″ ship, the Sculpture Park, the Danė river promenade. The Old Town, the Friedrich passage and the passages of Arts and Crafts Courtyard – this is what you can see in the daytime.
- Squares. Some of the space has already been ″labeled″ with memorial monuments. Some of them are landscaped, beautiful, clean and tidy, but silent and odorless, as if they belong to nobody: no one is asking their names, as no one is interested to learn them.
- Bronze. The ″artistic development″ of Klaipeda public spaces is limited to decorative boys and girls, dogs, ghosts and mice. This art is abstract, inexpensive, does not spark off debate, the bronze does not fracture space, well, and has at least some value.
- Similarity. If we compare the three cities visually, we can see that Klaipeda is more like Kaliningrad. For the similar fate in the times of the war (it was completely destroyed) and the post-war legacy (Soviet-era architecture, mainly blocks of flats). However, Kaliningrad seems to be more fascinating. It reminds me the inside of an old electron-tube-based TV set – it has been battered, rebrazed, but miraculously, it is still working.
- In Different Ways. Many times I come and leave, moving from-over-to-across Klaipeda. It is only the locals that see their city as stable. Its is only them that see the same houses in the same streets, meet with the same people, cross the same squares, have lunch in the same cafeterias every day. The guest sees it in a different way. To the guest, the city looks like it has been put together from audio and visual fragments. And all this chaotic impression is spinning, twisting round and buzzing about until the evening, when it finally gets quiet.
- Night. Smoothing the imperfections of the day, the 12th and 20th floors of hotel Amberton reveal the night panorama of the city.
- Center. I believe that my colleagues from Gdansk and Kaliningrad will write much more about Klaipeda. Perhaps they will find the one and only place where one can immediately realize the spirit of the city. You do not necessarily have to fall under the buzz of glossy showcases and mega-tones of architectural heritage. Neither do you have to be pierced by the churches’ spires and buried under heaps of museum attractions. Even without all the valuable objects created over the centuries or hypermodern architectural tricks, the city may surprise you with its exceptional cosiness, unique colouring of some spheres, as well as with its immediate, but strong impression that would make you come back again and again.
- Epilogue. A city is like a huge text that does not have an end. It has never had it and never will. Even if you have lived in the city a long time, you cannot crave for its content. For you are just a tiny part of its (hi)story. Did we become close with a stranger? A journey is not about locations. For the one who sees it for the first time, a journey is a tour of nouns, adjectives and verbs. A journey that we retell is also full of epithets, metaphors, puns and comments. Which do we have more of?