By mid-afternoon we arrived in Vilnius. Elyseum! After nearly a month-and-a-half of carting between lonely villages, I was ecstatic to enter a real city. Klaipeda was pleasant, but Vilnius promised to be heavenly. I couldn't wait to stroll through the bustling streets and glance in a few boutiques, even though I'm the most impatient shopper in the world. My existence demanded a bite of modernity.
Arva was apprehensive after my lengthy description of the Lithuanian capital (with a few etymological distractions, mind you). But by the time we pulled off the A1, she was almost frightful. Nothing in her mixed bag of medieval verisimilitudes could prepare her for the modern metropolis. (I won't even consider what her reaction would be if I plopped her down on the New Jersey side of the Hudson.) Mega-malls, wide avenues, bulky office buildings, sprawling parking lots and, of course, insouciant Lithuanian drivers. The pallor of her face revealed the shock she was undergoing, and once again I was reminded that this strange woman whom I stumbled upon in a Suvalkija swamp was indeed from another time zone (and I'm not talking lines of longitude). I couldn't help grinning; maybe a bit of urban insanity would subdue her prickly behavior and put her in place.
My-oh-my how that turned out to be wrong.
We lucked out and found a parking spot just a stone's throw from the Neris, and we eagerly jumped out of the Golf. I proposed coffee and cake in order to rejuvenate our sluggish bloodstreams, and Arva happily agreed. After downing an aggregate four cappuccinos and seven pastries, we set out for a serious stroll along Gedimino Avenue. Apparently it had just undergone a costly reconstruction, and there were still many places fenced off, but none of this affected the princess's sense of aesthetics (whatever it is 's I didn't know then, and still don't know now). I hadn't been in Vilnius for years, and the transformation left me speechless.
I showed Arva Lukiskes Square, told her the tale of tsarist executions and the statue of the father of the communist revolution, and then gave her a brief recount of the former KGB building. (I didn't have the stomach to go inside and stare at photographs of men and women bludgeoned severely with blunt instruments of torture.) Further along we stopped at the National Drama Theater, and Arva took to gawking at the Three Muses. She said it reminded her of bygone pre-Christian lore, and I noticed that her mood perked up considerably. I may be wrong, but I swore I saw a thin smile on her face.
Well, if it was there, it didn't last long. For when we reached Cathedral Square, the contentment quickly morphed into concern. Then dismay.
"What's this?" she cried.
Ugh, I thought. "This is the Vilnius Cathedral," I explained, my tone apologetic.
"What faith is it?"
"Catholic," I mumbled, almost inaudibly.
"Horrors!" Arva was livid. "This used to be a holy site 's where Balts worshiped Perkunos."
"Well, now they worship Jesus," I said. I wasn't a man of religion myself; but I certainly didn't consider myself pagan either.
Arva pointed to the horizon. "And what's that?"
"Ah, thatâ€¦. That's Triju Kryziu Kalnas 's the Hill of Three Crosses," I dutifully explained, digging deep, mind you, in my memory to remember all the names and facts. "I think they were erected to honor monks who were slain by pagans 's such as yourself," I said. I was vainly hoping the suggestion of a minor victory would somehow dampen the effect of a major defeat.
Arva's jaw was practically hanging on her breasts. "I can't believeâ€¦. Of all the gallâ€¦ I's-â€¦. That's it. We're tearing them down tonight!"
I blanched. I could see the headlines now: Crazed Woman Chisels Down Three Crosses, Says Vilnius Cathedral is Next.
"Arva, you can't be serious!"
"Serious? Just you watch, American crusader! I'm going to teach these Lithuanians a thing or two about their true roots!"