I had an enlightening summer in the mid ’90s. I met a lifelong friend, was employed with work I loved, and had a unique experience in a country I knew nothing about.
I was off to Lithuania! Most importantly I was in possession of a round-trip flight to Europe. My plans were to work that summer acting in Bad American TV, and then I would get to indulge my love of travel.
This American production company took a small troupe of actors over to Vilnius and used this troupe to fill in the smaller parts and background for the series The New Adventures of Robin Hood. Many of the principals and guest stars were flown in from London. Our Robin Hood was American, but other than that England was a great, easy way to get good actors and it was a much cheaper and shorter flight. The troupe was being paid a ridiculously small salary. They supplied housing and the dollar was so powerful you had to try pretty hard to spend more than ten dollars in one day. By the end of the six weeks, I would have saved enough to travel. I could hear the decadent streets of Amsterdam calling my name.
The first week I was put up in a hotel. Or, as I nicknamed it, The Little Brown Prison. The word “Bloc” in Eastern Bloc also refers to the architecture. I believe brown and cement were the national colors. My hotel room had the aesthetic of a novice nun’s quarters.
I was no stranger to low-rent accommodations. A decade earlier, right out of undergrad I enrolled in a summer session at Oxford, a joint program between Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and the Yale School of Drama. Those Oxford rooms were half the size of the Little Brown Prison’s cell. One bed, one small desk, one chair. The room in that glorious medieval university had sparse 1940s furnishings and a small window that looked over the Balliol quad. I loved that cozy room. The history of the brilliant minds that had laid their head to rest on that bed made me feel slightly smarter.
The dining hall was right out of a movie franchise that hadn’t yet been made. It turns out the dining sequences of Harry Potter were filmed next door in the Christ Church College dining hall. That room was easily half the size of a football field and could hold 226 humans. The huge Gothic stained glass window being the focal point right below the vaulted ceiling. I rarely missed breakfast and not because I wanted to eat. I can’t imagine what eggs and potatoes did to offend the person destroying them. The “bacon” was an underdone flaccid piece of pork fat. For G-d’s sake just over cook it like the potatoes.…perhaps it was a case of culinary dyslexia.
At Oxford, my studies consisted of Shakespeare in the morning and the head of the Moscow Art Theater teaching a course of masterclasses on Chekhov in the afternoon—four torturous hours of Him through a translator, hating everything I did. The Russians take their Chekhov most seriously. The irony is that he came to life when it was my turn and took a perverse pleasure in finding fault in my work. But it was the only thing that kept him awake; the work of the other students didn’t seem to plus or minus him. He once told me through his interpreter, “I have seen you at lunch on the quad with your friend—and there you have life!” Spy much?
Breakfast in the Little Brown Prison was a delightful, European-style breakfast: thinly sliced meats and cheeses. Nothing I had ever had, and all delicious. (I don’t want to know what animal parts they were made of, thank you very much.) There was yogurt and some portable fruit that I could take up to my cell. The breakfast room was in the basement: low ceilings, square, no windows. Bomb shelter chic.
I had already been to Europe alone and could get around quite nicely. Having studied Spanish and French, I could wing it. It’s amazing how far you can get with some charming butchering of a language and my own brand of “pantomime interpretive dance.” That wasn’t happening here, different alphabet. No fudging, no deciphering a label, sign, map—or anything. That Cyrillic alphabet is no joke. You’d have to have a lot of money if you wanted to buy a vowel; they have eleven.
I gave in to the ignorance and started to enjoy the challenge of grocery shopping. It was not unusual to spend ten minutes ruminating over a canned good. I remember writing in my journal about having purchased something that might be Yak brain. It was in a deli case and looked fresh. Turns out I love Yak brain.
I had always been able to learn a few words of whatever country I went to. Even in Greece—a warm people who liked the tourists’ dollars. In Vilnius, however, if I had channeled Helen Keller and ran around touching things while pointing to my face they wouldn’t have noticed because they never looked at me.
No one would make any kind of eye contact. Everyone walked with their heads down. If I happened to catch someone’s eye and smile it would not be returned and their eyes would immediately find their shoes. I was throwing out huge smiles in hopes of a connection. My smile isn’t beautiful, but I do smile with my whole face. Eyes scrunch up and my light goes on. It sounds unappealing in print; but it does get your attention.
As time went on, the experience became disturbing to me, on many levels. I knew it wasn’t me and Americans were not disliked in Europe at this time. Just the opposite. My black hair, my features and my clothing meant I was clearly from somewhere else. I had not seen clothing like the women of Vilnius were wearing since I was a little child. It was if a JC Penney catalogue from 1972 had come alive. It did nothing to take away from the beauty of the women. Nowhere had I seen this kind of beauty.
The men were the complete opposite. This wasn’t a “taste” issue; it was discussed openly among us foreigners and the single men in the crew that summer quickly found a deep, deep, love that lasted exactly eight weeks. One night when I was out alone, walking back to where I was staying, a nice-looking male started using some very broken English to chat me up. He asked if I was Turkish. Even to Americans I am ethnically ambiguous but Turkish was a stretch. This was the only time someone talked to me—it was lovely before it wasn’t. I ended up having to run up a set of stairs and quickly lock the door to the flat: the fear of being raped was another new experience.
One potential rapist still didn’t answer the question of an entire city of people who would not look at me. One day on set I posed the question to one of the crew who was local and spoke English. He told me that the Russian occupation had ended less than six years ago. Then, in 1991, Gorbachev acted up and tried to renege on giving Ukraine their independence. Not until the US took away Russia’s economic assistance did Gorby see the light and skedaddle. The statistics the crew member floated were something like one in every three familial units had been directly affected by the KGB and the Gulag. Many saw male relatives killed right in front of their eyes on their streets. Those who could get out did, but many couldn’t. It was a living nightmare. That kind of generational trauma would take more than a decade to heal from.
In my highly unscientific opinion, the exodus of men by escape/death/work camps offered one explanation of the gene pool in regard to the male countenance.
One day my driver was taking me to set, and we drove past a building, and I commented that it was a nice building. My driver with his large crooked smile and that one eye that was looking for an escape route off his face (was that eye trying to get away from the snaggle tooth?) told me it was a government building and the grand stairway leading into the building was made from the tombstones found in the old the Jewish cemetery. I felt the oxygen in the cab disappear, but his smile didn’t.
Less than three weeks into the summer, production called me into the office, and they said they were sending me home early. I was recognizable from the two roles I had done back-to-back. I was livid….okay, hysterical. I had to be out of my flat in 24 hours. They knew that the bait was being employed the entire summer. I told them off and to hold off on getting me on a plane. The producer’s son gave me the news and I am sure the big dog heard about my reaction.
Later that year the producer (who was a client of my mother’s) sent her a note telling her that she should be proud because my work on the show was outstanding. He added that the bulk of the actors they brought over needed to be overdubbed because their acting was so bad. In most cases (except for a travel nut like me) you get what you pay for. I’m certain they knew when they hired me how I would fit into the scripts. I worked cheaper than the London actors. The shittier the actor the longer you stayed to be used as background townspeople.
While I was figuring out what I wanted to do I stayed with a member of the crew. Her place was in the heart of the old Jewish quarter which then became the Ghetto under Hitler. Before the Holocaust, Lithuania had a huge population of Jews with astounding cultural riches going way back. Napoleon, upon passing through, deemed Vilnius “The Jerusalem of the North.”
The summer I was there they were busy De-Jewing the ghetto. The old buildings, which were in horrible shape, were being destroyed or painted over. The bright cheery pallette reminded me of a Walt Disney video showing us the Towns of Tomorrow where nothing bad had ever happened. All the Jewish ghettos I had been to in Europe were left as is and were lived in and commemorated. The Nazis destroyed the people—ninety-five percent of them—and the Soviets made sure to finish the destruction of their once vibrant culture.
I do not believe I’m being histrionic by saying that by the time this article is in print we may be headed for or already in World War Three. The concept that this could happen again is unbelievable, but considering the players, not so very far-fetched. Outrageous anger, fear, and futility are the thoughts on a loop inside my brain. Their intensity was being fueled by something that I couldn’t quite place.
Then one morning the door that held the memories of my time in Eastern Europe opened and I realized the faces that would not make eye contact existed in two places: in my memory and in another country in another decade, connected by oppression and the struggle for freedom. This time they will not lower their gaze.