Most of the poems in my new book, Travelling with the Wrong Phrase Books, are set in Paris. They’re a response to my experiences in 1994, being uprooted from my usual home in a bushy suburb at Lake Macquarie to live for six months in the Australia Council’s Keesing studio, right in the heart of Paris.
But there is a also a section about Lithuania. For four days in 1994, I was there with my husband, Martin, visiting my father-in-law’s homeland, the place he’d fled from during the Second World War.
Should one of Oliver’s images for my book have a Lithuanian influence? Our plan was to have a picture at the start of each section, so yes, that made sense.
Not surprisingly, Oliver’s never been there, so has no personal references he can draw from – no family photos of memories of his own he can use, as he planned to do for the Paris parts of the book.
“Do you have photos of Lithuania?” John Knight asked. “And if so, could you send Oliver some, please?”
Oh yes, we have photos.
Old black and white images from my father-in-law’s family’s albums, which Martin has copied: his grandfather, severe and bald-headed in military uniform; grandmother equally a stranger in spite of her flower-sprigged dark dress and smile …
Then there are colour prints from Martin’s parents’ visits while the country was still part of the Soviet Union – family groups, all clustered together in Jonas and Vlada’s Vilnius apartment where they had to meet because travel to other parts of the country was restricted …
What will probably be most useful for Oliver, however, is the very large pile of prints and slides from our own trip there in 1994 – the first meeting of Martin and his previously unknown relatives.
Where to start in all of this foreign imagery? I’m happy to let Oliver look at all of it and use whatever he wants – but I’m near Newcastle, he’s in Sydney, we can’t meet up easily and so e-mail is what we’ll have to depend on.
Because all of these photos were on film, they’ll have to be scanned, or re-photographed digitally before that can happen …
First, though, there is the question of what to send. Choices have to be made so that a thousand photos don’t land in Oliver’s Inbox.
One great advantage of old style print film is that we now have all those images on paper. They are in red envelopes from a German photo shop – printed in Karlsruhe where we visited Martin’s mother’s relatives, on the way back to Paris after the Lithuanian trip – and as soon as I haul them down from the shelf in the bedroom where they’ve been stored for so long between Martin’s shirts and our suitcases, suddenly I’m holding memories in my hands.
Here again are the strange, bright-orange roofs of the old castle and museum at Trakai, beyond a bridge over turquoise water;
and here is our first family morning tea/lunch in Vilnius, at Vlada’s apartment opposite the new parliament house – such dark walls, peacock feathers, a stag’s antlers … and a mountain of welcoming food …
It is like a repeat experience of the trip in half an hour, seeing this cascade of photos from 1994.
In front of a red phone box labelled Telefonas, Martin stands beside his twin-like cousin Gedeminas. The phone box looks almost normal, but it could just as easily be a Tardis which has taken us back in time to this place with its buildings still showing damage from WWII; its houses painted government-issue yellow; its country roads through birch forests and flat, empty spaces, where old people out in the dusk were planting potatoes while wisps of smoke furled off peat in the fields.
Here is Genuta’s old house with its tarred roof and newspaper-covered internal walls, its rabbit hutch and fruit trees – the last house and defiant garden left in the centre of Kaunas, where apartment blocks and concrete grey skyscrapers had taken over.
And in the country, photos of Bobkalnis – the small summer farm the grandparents had for holidays, and where they went to hide in the forest when the Russians invaded, just after my father-in-law escaped on the last train to Germany.
Bobkalnis – where, in 1994, we were taken to look at the tomatoes in the greenhouse and the mushrooms in the damp grass under the pine trees; to skol little glasses of vodka and eat oily herrings and black bread before all the family gathered at the airport the next day to mournfully say goodbye …
We don’t speak Lithuanian. Only one of Martin’s cousins, Ruta, speaks English. And in ’94, her daughter, aged nine, was learning – “Hul-lo!” she could say. “My name is In-gu-ta.” Now she’s married to an American, and probably going between Lithuania and America is as strange to her as this visit was for us.
The photos are mainly how we experienced it – in images, mental films with a soundtrack we had to respond to intuitively, trusting instinct and Ruta’s hesitant translations when situations became bewildering.
The family was getting together, because of us, but there were tensions. They didn’t have regular contact, weren’t even sure where one of the uncles lived, until Ruta tracked him down so we could visit.
Family politics were volatile, diverse. Some went to Siberia voluntarily; some were sent there, suffered there. Some people, we suspected, could hardly bear to be in the same room together, never mind that the country was now united in peaceful independence.
Finding the photos for Oliver threw me back into that strange, far time. The picture he chose to draw shows Martin and me in Kaunas beside the Eternal Flame in Unity Square where, before Independence, a man protesting against Soviet rule set himself alight …
There are chains leading from us to the memorial park where the Freedom Monument stands. It’s just coincidental, perhaps, something Ruta, or Gedeminas, whoever borrowed the camera to take the photo, accidentally lined-up – although anyone standing there, paying sombre homage to the struggles of Lithuania which that flame symbolises would inevitably be caught, as we seem to be, by those heavy links.
But it’s an apt image. And what a contrast, like that trip itself, to the more carefree experiences of Paris Oliver’s other drawings depict.