My Fiction teacher and my Non-Fiction teacher are smart, funny, dark-haired Jews from Brooklyn, and here we are together halfway around the world in Vilnius, Lithuania, studying writing via SLS (Summer Literary Seminars). The bosomy, intellectual Litvak is our common ancestor, and she decamped for good reason—pogroms, pine forests, maybe the weather; after all, where else do you need to buy a fuchsia raincoat in late July? If this is mid-summer, I’d hate to meet March, but I smile because the buildings, especially in Old Town, are the color of morning light and fringed with flowers, because the stone streets roam like teenagers, no plan, twisting here on impulse and turning there, until they arrive somewhere, or don’t.
A particular sign on a particular building on a particular street I find sometimes reads INTEGRITY. Fifty years ago, even twenty-five, this city spoke Russian. Now, when I walk into a restaurant, a woman who would be a model anywhere else but who is average here greets me “Hello” and hands me a menu that knows words like “sandwich” and “vegetarian.”
Everyone from the older generation is furious, the way we would be if our kids all took up Mandarin without teaching it to us, the way the French were when “lingua franca” stopped meaning “French.” A stout older lady yells at me for a long time when I don’t understand her. It seems to make her happy so I let her, and she lets me buy my Coca-Cola Light, which seems like a fair trade, and I say, “Spasibo” quietly so that she doesn’t need to be appeased and stop yelling if she doesn’t want to.
My husband Ben speaks Russian—he’s here, taking care of the baby while I’m in class—so he soothes bus drivers and kiosk operators and street vendors. Neither of us speaks Lithuanian. We both say “Achoo” a lot, which means “Thanks.” When one of us sneezes, the other says, “You’re welcome.”
A Turkish restaurant advertises falafel. Four glistening greenish patties appear on a plate with Special Sauce. “Achoo?” I say. Skepticism evolves into resignation—they aren’t bad, they’re simply wrong. The waitress asks me what falafel is supposed to be. “Chickpea,” I say. She shakes her head. “Hummus?” I ask. No. Two El-Al pilots cross their legs and look out at the street, amused. I shrug. “Chickpea,” I say again, out of ideas. “Okay,” she says. “I will tell the cook.”
As I leave, the pilots ask me, “Why are you here?”
“To write,” I say.
“So you are here on purpose?”
They are bemused, on a layover; they had never heard of Lithuania before landing. The local parents Ben and I meet in the playground—once the ghetto—are just as bemused: we are visiting Vilnius for two weeks? Why? I refrain from pointing out that they live here. They have a daughter the age of our daughter; they want to take her with them across Route 66. Her name means Sun, a daily plea to the censorious Soviet clouds.
Our daughter’s name means Cheerful. She will eat anything except baby food. When we order herring, she fights us until we give her access to the plate and she throws herself at it like a shark, smiling through brine. She will not remember Lithuania except perhaps her growing body will, that carnivore that only moves forward.
Ester Bloom’s writing has appeared in Slate, Salon, Bite: An Anthology of Flash Fiction, Creative Non-Fiction, the Hairpin, the Awl, the Morning News, Nerve, PANK, Bluestem, Phoebe, Zone 3, and numerous other venues. She blogs on culture for the Huffington Post and is a columnist for Trachodon Magazine and the Billfold.