Monday, October 1, 2018

Connection and Division

My husband and I are both introverts. Unnlike some of my more extroverted friends we can go an entire trip without speaking with anyone but each other, waitresses and hotel clerks. This trip has been quite different so far. As we sat in the Amsterdam airport, my husband was approached by an airport representative who was doing a survey on airport experiences. Two brothers in a nearby area had a chance to hear his replies and posed a question to him on what they heard. We had picked up a bit on them as well,  eavesdropping on their conversation. We may be quiet, but we are curious. Turned out we were all heading to Lithuania, them on a bit of a roots trip, something I know quite a bit about because of my involvement in genealogy. We conversed further and found them to be interesting people, continuing our new friendship one night over dinner.

We were emboldened by this satisfying connection. At a subsequent dinner we overheard someone at another table mention Minnesota, the state in which we live. As he exited the restaurant, we asked if he was from there. Indeed he was. The innocent question of what brought him to Lithuania took us down an unexpected road. He noted that he thought Western Europe was being destroyed by immigration and was doing a bit of a farewell tour. That led into a political discussion that was disturbing to say the least. 

When he noted that he considered the Kavanaugh hearing to be a travesty, it occurred to me that we might be coming to that conclusion from quite opposing philosophies. It reminded me of the time I was confused by a reference to Lithuanian partisans. I was most familiar with the Jewish partisans who fought with the Soviets against the Nazis. The Lithuanian partisans did exactly the opposite. Duh (head slap!), partisans can be on either side! As I expected, his travesty assessment was on “poor” Judge Kavanaugh.  Mine was on the Senate’s plan to vote immediately after going through the motions of hearing Ford’s testimony.

 I am not one to stand down in such conversations. Even as I have little desire to engage in pointless political discussions, I feel it important to state I do not share their view. I did so politely keeping my voice low, hoping to signal to him to do likewise. Did I mention that he was loud and opinionated? My husband and I caught each other’s eye with a mutual plea of “Get us out of this!” Hints to wind up were not working. The most cringe-worthy moment was when the Italian co-owner poked his head in nervously wondering if everything was ok. Our new acquaintance in the middle of an anti-immigration rant replied, “We were just talking about you.”

So did this encounter serve to reinforce our desire for insularity? Quite the opposite as the story continued to unfold. After he departed and we heaved a sigh of mutual relief, the restaurant owner joined us in conversation. We quickly disassociated ourselves from the prior gentleman’s views. There was no “we” involved. I mentioned to the owner that I had fond memories of his restaurant from when I was there almost ten years ago to attend the Vilnius Yiddish Institute. I still remember our very international group singing Happy Birthday in a multitude of languages to a good friend in their open courtyard where we frequently gathered. 

He told us that he was a filmmaker and for a film he is working on he had interviewed Fanya, a much treasured survivor who had taken us around the Jewish quarter and to the bunker in the forest where she was a Jewish partisan. He too had gone to the forest as part of their interview. He had also spoken with the artist Samuel Bak who was a child in Vilnius during the war and paints extraordinary work out of that experience. We had just visited a large exhibition of his work at the Vilnius Tolerance Center and had seen his work in Massachusetts, where he now lives.  Our new friend told us that after the war, those who survived found temporary shelter in the courtyard behind the restaurant where the arches of the loggia were then divided into rooms. He told us the story of a woman with whom he spoke who told him her grandfather while living there had planted a large tree that remains today. I recognized a fellow storyteller who builds connection through his stories, a welcome antidote to that earlier discussion so focused on division.

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