Vilnius to Valbonne

It’s unlikely that Lithuania appears on the radar for a family reunion. Indeed, it’s not a country that usually falls within the top 10 destinations for most people I know who live to travel. And yet. For our family, spread across all rounded edges of the globe, with roots that run deep in that country, and no matter the exotic locales that many have reached in their lifetimes, it was a dream come true.

Fortunately, I’d had the foresight to arrive in Lithuania 10 days earlier, allowing me the privilege to see more of the country than our reunion’s tight schedule would permit.

A couple of days in Vilnius gave me pause to overcome jetlag, taste šaltibarščiai (the cold borscht soup that is among Lithuania’s quintessential national dishes) – and stumble upon a significant archeological dig at the site of an abandoned school, where researchers had uncovered the remains, in the vicinity of one of the city’s Jewish ghettos, of an ancient synagogue.

I spent a few days in the city of Klaipeda (in my grandmother’s time, called Memel), enjoying the sights and crowds at the Sea Festival; after which I rode a ferry to the Curonian Spit – where I trod up to the Hill of Witches, and ambled through an ancient forest until I reached the other side, where I dipped my toes into the chilly Baltic Sea. The pristine coastline invited me to walk its length, shifting between the cool clear water and grainy sand. Closing my eyes, I tried to find its equal elsewhere: It was more Perth than Bali.

From Klaipeda, I traveled – through long stretches of tilled fields and untouched forests – to Kaunas (a.k.a. Kovno). The Old Town had a special charm to it, smaller in size, with surprises (and a find of delicious chocolates, at a store open since the 1920s!) at every turn. I skipped the Devil Museum, the medieval castle (it was closed) and all the churches; though I lunched in the shade of a blazing midday sun in the central square and stepped into a courtyard ‘gallery’ where, among its quirky castoffs, murals and art pieces, I found sobering remnants of Jewish life in the neighborhood and those sights made my heart sad.

Finally, with a stop in at the city’s archives and some googling and youtubing of my own, I found the site of the school where my grandmother had studied – which, though preserved, had been transformed and expanded into the law school of one of the country’s foremost universities.

Notwithstanding the grandeur of the architecture in each city’s Old Town, the parks and cobblestoned alleys, everything felt foreign; the language, most of the food, the looks in people’s faces: I could not find a hint of my grandmother anywhere.

My maternal grandmother, Malka (we called her Sasa), was born in a little Lithuanian village, moved to Kovno to learn to sew, and, with a trade in hand and dreams in her heart, emigrated in her early 20s, to Pre-Israel Palestine. Then, years later, married with two children, she followed her husband to Canada – leaving the bulk of her surviving family (primarily her sisters and their growing families) behind in Israel.

And so, convening in Vilnius in early August, our posse – numbering over 160 and ranging in ages from two months to 86 years old – spent one glorious week in high gear.

From Trakai Castle (where we dabbled in medieval life – jousting, archery, coin-stamping, wreath-making and drinking ale) to the outskirts of the capital, where we were treated to a summer-camp-like day (complete with wake-boarding, poi-playing, tattoo-making, chocolate-fountain dipping, bubble-making and watching the Project Mayhem street gymnasts strut their stuff); from walking tours to hot air balloon rides and scrumptious meals in rye fields or on a lakeside, we were thrilled – and sated.

But, the most memorable parts of our reunion came down to this: visiting our ancestors’ birthplaces. There was curiosity and excitement – tracking down the locations of their homes (no longer in existence), hearing stories from the only great-uncle among us, born in Taurage (a.k.a. Tavrig), who could share memories of his own.

There was sadness and sober reflection – visiting a memorial site where thousands had been killed during the Holocaust, and, in Jurbarkas (a.k.a. Yurburg), placing stumbling stones (Stolpersteine) into the ground, that would for all time permanently etch into the ground a reminder of all the members of my family who were forcibly displaced and/or murdered.

But there was also joy – dedicating a new Torah scroll at the Choral synagogue, sharing stories from our ‘savtot’ and ‘bubbies,’ watching a film beautifully cobbled together from interviews from those among us, whose stories both regaled us and made us tear up. It was a gathering for the (all) ages…

Parting was hard. Each went off in separate directions; many, like myself, staying on in Europe. My compass turned me south, to France. More precisely, the south of France. A tiny provincial – or should I say Provençal – village in the hills above the Cote d’Azur. Valbonne. With a grid-like formation of narrow, cobblestoned paths, towering stone buildings, all fanning out from the ubiquitous central square and locals’ gathering place for un petit café – Place des Arcades, I might as well be living in a scene straight out of a film or a Peter Mayle novel (or should I say, his A Year in Provence, which of course I’ve been reading while here!)

Days have been spent writing, reading, tending to pets and plants, and strolling through the village. I’ve watched locals dress in traditional costume in a procession and visited an exhibition at the church. I’ve indulged in my fair share of café au lait, un petit pain / baguette, and dropped by the Pré des Arts to check in on the boules in play, and the elephants and horses at the Arlette Gruss circus set-up that just left town the other day.

Friday mornings, a.k.a. market day, has been chock full of nibbles far too delicious (and rich) to pass on; sundried tomato spread, fromage de chevre (goat’s cheese, sans doute, straight from the farm up the hill), sausage with garlic and tarama with truffle. Oh how my buds have tasted a slice of heaven!

To wash it all down, there’s been wine, side trips to Antibes and Juan-les-Pins (and upcoming, to Cannes); and walks in the forest –   specifically, a 3-plus hour amble along the Brague river (more like 4+ with all the necessary stops to marvel at the trees and pet dogs-a-passing), perfectly shaded and offering a cool stream of water trickling past me as I teeter on rocks.

My unexpected discoveries during these nature walks – finding copious amounts of figs dangling from trees and thickets bursting with handfuls of ripening blackberries –  have seemingly brought me back to the past – and to walking the Camino de Santiago across Spain, nearly five years ago. Perhaps it is no coincidence, then, that it is here, in Valbonne, where the hilly and undulating terrain and climate is not so unlike that of parts of Spain that I traversed, where I came to finish writing (and editing!) my book…

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11 Comments

  1. Oh Amit! What an incredible time you’ve had. My children’s father, my first husband is Jewish. Many of his family came from Lithuania. So much shared history, so many stories, it must have been quite an emotional reunion for you all. How wonderful to end up in France, what a treat, what a feast!

  2. Wow, your travels and family reunion sound amazing. So happy for you. Mazel Tov on the manuscript. Where to next?

  3. My grandfather is from Lithuania and so I read this post with interest and envy ( for the borscht soup I remember from my childhood). Valbonne is the place where Ben’s mother hid from the Nazis with her parents for some weeks and we know the region pretty well, with Antibes being our all time favorite. So it was fun to read about your time there. Sounds as though you were house/pet sitting? Such a gorgeous region to be sure. We were just in France recently in the Sete/ Bouziges area slightly South and East of where you were. Sounds like a wonderful reunion and overall trip.

  4. Yes Peta, it’s been extraordinarily moving and meaningful. And this is such a cute place to stay (pet/plant/house/garden-sitting), for a few more days. Cannes is on this week’s itinerary and maybe another hop over to Biot and the Fernand Leger museum. I might still make it to Antibes again or Nice (for some Chagall and Matisse viewing, ooooh!). It’s ALL so gorgeous and lush around here; I especially love the patches and fields of lavender everywhere!

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