It had been an eventful drive from Vilnius to Varena that sun-drenched spring morning in May 1985.
First was being pulled over by the USSR highway patrol. It looks fearsome just to see it here in writing on the Bernard Olcott story. But Boris the driver managed not to collect S&H green stamps from the patrolboy.
Second was a stop at a World War II massacre site to learn a lesson about oppression. A moment of irony in the USSR.
Next up was our ostensible destination, the town of Varena, Dzūkija region, in Southeastern Lithuania. My Dad’s cousin Eugenija lived there with her husband in the old part of town. Their broom-swept house turned out to be at the top of a T intersection, a few feet away from an ominous looking empty small guard tower. Asleep in the tall grass at the base was a disheveled drunk, who was quickly roused and sent away.
Eugenija’s house was surrounded by a magnificent apple orchard and had a strong country vibe. European country. Old European country, maybe like France in the 1940s. In the dining room a sumptuous banquet was laid out laced with delicacies like stuffed cabbage and borscht. The Lithuanian Stumbras vodka, as customary in all neighboring countries, was poured like wine throughout the meal.
As I was curious about my family, well, they were curious about me, the distant cousin who had reached out on the basis of a letter sent in 1957. My grandfather Michael had fallen out of touch with his family back home over the years. I had brought them the news of his passing in 1972 in our prior correspondence. But they wanted to hear everything and listened intently as I told them every memory I had of him. Olga did a great job as translator from English to Lithuanian and back again. After I told them everything about Michael, Eugenija let out that his elder brother Pranas (Lithuanian for Frank) was waiting to meet me in the adjacent village of Kašėtos after lunch.
Naturally, they wanted to hear about my Dad and so they were the first ones to hear the Bernard Olcott Story! Interestingly, on my return, Dad was interested to learn of my lunch and all his relatives (even though he never showed any inclination to reach out on his own).
Student of history that I am, I could not resist making a political jab or three at the USSR. These exchanges were limited between myself and Olga, who turned beet red when I mentioned the persecution of Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the inability of Soviet citizens to get out of the country as tourists, or worse, the shoot down of Korean Air Lines flight 007 over Kamchatka in 1983. What kind of pilot fails to recognize the silhouette of a 747, I said pointedly to her, the most recognizable aircraft in the sky?
But I quickly realized that I didn’t come to Lithuania to beat up on poor Olga. She was my minder (ie. to keep eyes on me on behalf of big brother), true, but she was doing a great job translating family banter from Lithuanian to English and back and forth.
After a few more days with Intourist personnel, I soon learned that it was more fun to joke with (or at) them rather than engage in pointless conversations about their country’s limitations (and their rejoinders about those of my country). The next week, for example, while I was on an Intourist tour of Riga, Latvia, I pulled a good one on our guide.
The fun was based on those quirky paper strips draped over and adhered to bathroom toilets in every USSR hotel; you arrive in your room, walk into the bathroom, and every single time, there is a stupid strip on your toilet announcing in English and Cyrillic, “DISINFECTED” (as in “this toilet has been extraordinarily cleaned for your comfort and security.”) Right. What if I don’t find this strip on the toilet in my local Holiday Inn? Will my ass fall off?
They kinda looked like this except of course they were cheesier and written in Cyrillic.
I saved the one from my Vilnius hotel and sure enough, found one at my next hotel in Riga as expected.
That evening, I arrived at our tour group dinner table before the others – and especially before “Lana,” our Latvian Intourist minder – got there to doctor up my place setting.
When Lana took her place at the head of the table, I was eager to spring my trap. “Lana,” I said loudly to get her attention, “you’re right, I agree with you that the Soviet Union is superior to America!” Lana looked at me puzzled; I guess she was not accustomed to American tourists defecting so easily. The hook was set.
“Look!” I exclaimed in a bogus Russian accent, pointing to the “DISINFECTED” strip stolen from my toilet covering my dinner plate. “My plate! Disinfected!”
I dramatically pulled back my chair and pointed at the seat similarly de-soiled. “My chair! Disinfected! Amazing!”
Lana playfully reprimanded me in her real Russian accent while shaking her finger at me “YOU! And your New York jokes!!!”
Speaking of toilets, back at lunch in Varena, I asked to use one at one point. I was surprised to be pointed outdoors to a rustic wooden privy. Well, as I wrote above, this place was in the deep country. It did provoke me however on my return to the table to ask one of the most moronic questions I have ever been able to conjure up in my lifetime (and probably my Dad’s as well): “what do you do in the winter (about using the toilet)?” A couple of blank looks circulated around the table, some discussion with Olga as she translated back and forth. Maybe they were not used to such questions from foreign visitors. Finally, Olga turned to me quizzically and responded with a dismissive wave of her hand, “you just go.”
That time I felt like I was the one that needed to get out more.