Tourist Numb, History-Seeped: Vilnius, Lithuania

A thing I wrote this summer while in Vilnius, all freaked out. Lost track of it (or maybe I thought I was being too obnoxious) so I’m posting it now.


There’s the usual tourist numb that begins in the eyeballs and travels down the face to the lips, down the alimentary canal, out along the nerves to the skin. Vilnius gives me no feeling at all—a neutral space where emotion could arrive. The streets are crooked brick that fills with water when it rains (Vilnians wear sockless sandals to imply the futility of resistance), the buildings are short, antique-attractive with ornate metalwork and tall windows. Vilnius is the girl who arrives toward the back of a group of shiny-haired doppelgangers, no less pretty than the rest, but there’s something forced about her and also something vacant and no matter how many times she tells me, I can’t for the life of me remember her name.


On the edge of the city is a police-enforced Rom village. The settled and their watchmen, parents stolen by nightfall. While in the most vacantly pretty of the old city, tourist chow dumplings, meat pies, sour cream borscht and brick-oven pizza beneath the windows of a building in from which a Lithuanian once fired a gun at a German soldier. The pressure of silent history is unlike a gas. No flicking of match tips could light it. The history’s gone dull, the kind of low, deep pain you learn to live with and eventually forget.

How many cities have lived on the ground of this city? Polish, Jewish, Lithuanian, Soviet, Nazi, Romany finally, panting under the bellies of deafening planes. Yet where are the remains? Digital tracings, shipped to YIVO, memory unspooling from softening cells as those who defied death curve into the long night that breathes above Paneriei and everywhere else without exception.

Any way to tell the story is an exercise in narrative. A shim. Behind it, static Vilnius, its drunks, its terse waitresses, the clink of change tells me who’s not here.

That’s not despair; that’s hindsight motherfucker.

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