Back by popular demand, this essay was written for Šiaurės Atėnai, the cultural weekly in Vilnius. It was translated into Lithuanian by Vladas Krivickas and appeared on August 13, 2010. Already over two years old, it’s a bit dated. But fans of the old bar appreciated the original English version, so here it is:
It’s true and final. Those of us who’ve been hoping for Suokalbis to somehow resurrect itself from premature death know the pub is good and buried. A reliable source has told me that the owners of In Vino have won access to the space in a contest. (I’m sure the contest applied—as contests do in Lithuania—identical rules to all players.) Expect the veritas of fake handbags and stolen watches to be on full display by this time next summer.
The demise of Suokalbis represents a serious loss to Vilnius, a greater casualty than most people will recognize. If you’re some swank bargoer who’s strutting around and asking What was this Suokalbis? please spare us the bullshit. You can have only one of two legitimate excuses for never hearing of the bar, and the majority takes the first: I have never heard of Vilnius. Smaller in number are those who live in the capital or have passed through—perhaps to look for a wife, eat at McDonald’s or even to work in the parliament—but take little interest in culture. I don’t only mean the grumps stocking pickles in their sodų sandeliai or the jogging suit goons yelling into phones at Akropolis. There are sophists currently lecturing at Vilnius University, voodoo priests looking over submissions to Lithuania’s publishing houses, and desk jockeys answering phones at the Ministry of Culture, all of whom will freely admit that culture bores them to the point of pain. They’ve never heard of Suokalbis and we leave them to their business. Only the uncultured require culture of others.
The rest of us are in heavy mourning. We recognize that Vilnius has fallen, virtually overnight, from a city that boasted the greatest bar in the world to one that could not maintain a cultural institution even when the place sold alcohol and allowed dancing on tables. How can this happen in a city whose grocery stores stock more varieties of beer than cheese? How can Vilnius allow the greatest bar in the world to close up shop when a mere $50,000 pays for a sewage pipe that “celebrates” the city as a European Capital of Culture?
Perhaps you’re wondering how I know that Suokalbis was the greatest bar in the world. I haven’t visited every bar on earth. But I could tell you about important experiments I’ve conducted in the watering holes of major cities, notable places like La Bodeguita del Medio in Havana, the Village Idiot in New York, Cafe Cinema in Berlin, Cafe 36 in Amsterdam and Chicago’s (perhaps less notable) Ola’s Liquors. The only bar that came remotely close to Suokalbis in terms of cultural necessity was Cafe Correto in Linz, the place like a Mad Tea Party held in a gas chamber of tobacco and marijuana (or occasional opium) smoke. But Suokalbis was superior even to Correto, and by a wide margin.
For starters, Suokalbis was in the back of the Lithuanian Writers Union. Please pause for a moment to think very carefully about this. The Lithuanian. Writers. Union. Where is the best bar in Chicago? It’s down the street from a petrol station and a 24-hour diner. What about New York? It’s attached to the Bohemian Hall in Astoria, Queens, down the street from a Greek restaurant. The best bar in Havana is actually in Miami. London has no pubs left, replacing them long ago with Diageo marketing centers. The best bar in Amsterdam used to be De Kuil (The Pit); but now that bars no longer sell hash and coffeeshops no longer serve booze, the best bar is across the street from a coffeeshop. Wander around the world’s greatest cities and you’ll find amazing pubs in dungeons and pillars of castles, in carousels and atop skyscrapers. One eccentric friend of mine dreams to build a pub on a boat, and then to drive a suicide party over Niagara Falls. Perhaps this would finally be more notable than having a bar in the back of the Lithuanian Writers Union.
Every Vilnius cabbie knew Suokalbis, something not all centrally located bars are able to claim. There are actually whole neighborhoods in the capital that get cabbies lost. Attempt, for example, to get someone from Martono to drive you to Juodvarnių Šūdų 9-toji gatvė. The driver will take you to the Dvarčionių Maxima, charge you between 20 and 40 Litas, then send you walking down a dirt road where you’ll dodge speeding cars. But a guy who spoke no Lithuanian at all could say Šuo Kalba or Cok Клубничный and every cabbie in town knew where to take him. Vilnius’ taxi drivers are known for driving foreigners along oblong routes, scratching their heads and shrugging when the cab ends up in Trakai. Yet no matter who wanted a ride to Suokalbis, the drivers moved with particular haste. They knew people leaving the bar were rarely in any condition to walk home. Or to count their own money.
Money was simultaneosly a minor and major issue in Suokalbis. You didn’t actually need any cash to get drunk; what you needed was for someone to leave a drink unprotected. Drinks didn’t belong to the people who bought them, as cigarettes did not belong to the people who had them in their mouths; beverages and smokes were simply placed into circulation. However you acquired a beer, you held onto it tightly if you wanted it for yourself; in the case that your hands were weak, you developed heinous oral hygiene. On my first visit, I bought a bokalas (mug of beer), set it on a table and turned to speak to a friend. When I turned back, an old man was seated at the table and casually drinking the beer. His mustache was like two living cockroaches, and a rare form of yeast had been cultivating in his teeth for about three decades. The guy did not have a cent in his pocket, but he spent hours in the pub and left utterly drunk, stumbling down K. Širvydo Gatvė with a spicy cigarillo in his teeth.
The bar had a strict rule of no smoking. Smokers took their habit outside or to the beautiful black and gold staircase near the Union’s entrance. Even hardcore regulars obeyed the rule, wandering from the bar to grab a smoke from a friend or the mouth of a total stranger. I had once finished rolling a cigarette and was about to strike a match when a red-bearded geezer yanked the fag from my lips and pressed it between yellow teeth. What could I do but offer him a light? Sincere happiness rose from somewhere deep in his bowels, and he asked me if I knew that he owned a sled that had once belonged to St. Casimer.
Suokalbis taught me quite a bit about Lithuanian and European historical and political figures, especially regarding their physiologies and sexual preferences, a favorite conversation topic. Unlike the regulars at a place like ŠMC or Balti Drambliai, the chebra at Suokalbis never really got into political arguments. I participated in conversations about famous figures like Napoleon and Alexander the Great and once helped a man decide if he should name his first born Bonaparte, an idea I supported strongly. Conversations about Lithuanian politicians could occasionally get acerbic, but not because of disagreements. Nationalists and liberals, Christian-democrats and Communists were all the same corrupt bastards, and sometimes you took a minute to spit and rant about one or the other. But without anyone to dispute their corruption, there was rarely any need for serious argument.
Especially once the music started. When Highway to Hell came on full blast and the whole bar spontaneously erupted in dance, you had no choice but to go with the person—male or female, young or old, showered or not—who grabbed your arm and yanked you to some corner. You could not sit at a table and mind your own business…every table was a dance floor, just as the shelf above the fireplace was a dance floor, as were the deep windowsills. You came to Suokalbis prepared to shake your ass in clumsy abandon, no need for rhythm, clubwear or even a complete set of limbs. The chebra got down to the weirdest mix of songs: a discordant bag of hard rock, hip-hop, country and cheese. Anyone traveling through Europe is bound to stumble across drunks howling Don McLean’s American Pie or John Denver’s Take Me Home, Country Roads in some beer tent or ski resort. Suokalbis also offered this painful cliche, only the crowd made up its own lyrics, and the maroon-haired woman with the loudest, near-operatic voice swung a mesh sack full of pinecones and neon socks. John Denver’s sappy plea could be followed by anything from Metallica, Boney M, AC/DC, Guns n’Roses, ABBA, Eminem or Queen. Every song played in Suokalbis was a dance song, even one composed by the Sex Pistols, and I never understood how the tables held up. When an old man dressed in tan Soviet-era trousers gyrated in imitation of Freddie Mercury, and when his dance partner — a young woman who might have worked at the reception of an area hotel — swung her round hips to Fat Bottomed Girls, you knew what it was about. When you saw a scrawney trolley bus driver color his cheeks with lipstick borrowed from a tourist — one perfectly happy to hand her makeup over — and you watched the couple bounce around to Ra Ra Rasputin, Russia’s greatest love machine, you understood that Suokalbis had a purpose. The bar wasn’t merely a refuge for the city’s 86-list or junkie pickpockets. It was a public space in Vilnius that experimented with the notion of absolute freedom.
Germany has entire neighborhoods that do this in St. Pauli and Friedrichshain. America has Las Vegas, a city that cashes in on the average Joe’s need to lose all restraint for a few weekends of his life. Suokalbis-like scenes frequently erupt in New York City subway cars and at Chicago Blackhawks games. New Orleans has Bourbon Street and Mardi Gras. Brazil has Rio. The Italians have Greece, the Swedes Denmark. A city like Barcelona, where you can walk naked along the beach, shower the sand from your body in the open, then head down La Rambla with your shirt unbuttoned, has no need for a Suokalbis. You feel like, if the impulse came on, you could get up on any streetside cafe table, take off your pants and exclaim “Freedom for Catalonia!” Go ahead if you want. No one from Falck security or Komanda A will come to beat you with clubs.
Freedom is a touchy subject among Lithuanians, rarely discussed with a foreigner like myself. If you made a sincere list of Lithuania’s greatest fears, unconscious or not, freedom would rank high. Not the freedom to govern yourself or stand up to an occupational monster—Lithuanians do the former better than certain nations that have had far more practice; as for the latter, the tiny country is a flagship example. But Lithuania does fear personal freedom, especially for an individual to admit his most sincere thoughts and feelings, first to himself and then to society. People call this a relic of Soviet mentality, but it’s uncanny to notice it among emigrants who left prior to Soviet occupation. It’s not enough for me to fear my own thoughts and feelings; my neighbors must also be afraid. If they felt they could walk up to any stranger and babble about St. Casimer’s sled, it would pressure me to admit the sled is much more interesting — even if invented — than the sausage I bought at Maxima or the trip I took to Lemont, Illinois. Casimer’s sled is a better investment — especially if invented — than the Audi I bought to make my friends jealous, bastards who skimped and snagged enough for a silver BMW that now boils me to rage. The sled is more pleasant than the abject corruption choking my society, so prevalent that I might need to strangle my neighbor before he gets his hands on my throat. My sincere ideas and feelings are more beautiful than Eurovision or Chorų Karai, but I dare not admit them to anyone. I might be called a debilas or a drunk. Go to Suokalbis, they’ll tell me, and sit with the debilai and the drunks.
This was the most common criticism of Suokalbis: no decent person should be seen in that filthy hive of idiots and pisstanks. I’ve been told this while drinking in — among other places — In Vino. Move the party to Suokalbis? A Vilnius accountant raised his eyebrows. To end any discussion, he ordered a fifth bottle of wine and got back to the business of flashing his Tag Heuer watch. There was no way to tell if it was hot or fake, and I could not be sure if his Italian shoes were pirated Chinese versions. When the accountant moved to another table for a short time, his utterly hammered wife spilled some veritas: their Audi was a salvaged wreck shipped from Western Europe and repaired by a friend. After a sixth bottle of wine, the accountant and his wife got in their Audi to go home. At this point the accountant’s friend — a man who had always wanted a Tag Heuer watch, pirated Italian shoes, a drunk blonde wife and a salvaged Audi — filled me in on a secret: the boss was driving on a suspended licence. Busted for driving drunk, he’d been unable to meet the cops’ demands.
Few Lithuanians can talk about drunkenness without painting themselves into corners. Kindergarten children avoid hypocrisy when they look out the windown and say, “The park is full of drunks.” These innocent fawns can plug their ears before the word “Suokalbis,” but they’ll eventually go to a park, ride a bus, walk past a kiosk or attend a Lithuanian wedding. The influence of alcohol on Lithuanian life and consciousness is so profound that it has shaped the language. There is a single word, pragerti, used to denote losses incurred while drunk. While you need thirteen English words to express precisely what happened, I became so obscenely drunk last night that I lost my mobile phone, Lithuanian requires two, Mobiliaką pragėriau. Perhaps you add a third for a touch of accuracy: Vakar pragėriau mobiliaką. But if you utter a fourth, you are either babbling or swearing.
Of course, it’s at least theoretically true that not all drunks and watering holes are created equal. Even the most extreme communist should prefer burgundy to babatukas. And if you’re going to be drunk, you’re better off driving an Audi than sleeping in the middle of Laisvės Prospektas. While we celebrate such things as the beer kiosks on the outskirts (or in the centers) of Lithuanian cities, it’s wildly inaccurate to compare Suokalbis to them. Yes, many Suokalbis customers were less-than-affluent, but we’ll remember that the bar was not in Monaco. It actually attracted a crowd as socio-economically diverse as any you’d find in Vilnius. I don’t only mean slumming yuppies or wandering tourists. The person who introduced me to Suokalbis is an international real estate tycoon, his wife regularly appearing on Lithuanian television. The couple’s well-educated colleagues frequented Suokalbis: accountants, lawyers, artists, opera singers, writers and poets. Those same people, to be fair, also found tables at In Vino, although they drank there for different reasons. On our first visit to Suokalbis, the tycoon told me (in English), “I come here to relax. To get away from the Vilnius bullshit.”
It might be an essentially human defense mechanism to hide one’s vulnerabilities and flaws behind exaggerated success and accomplishment. All of our livelihoods depend on the impressions we make, so we don’t downplay the importance of image. But Lithuanians are particularly cruel judges, quick to point out who has fallen shy of the status quo: wealthy husbands, slender wives, sporty cars, expensive clothes and being a “good Lithuanian,” whatever that actually means. The truth is that most Lithuanians despise this status quo, as keeping up these appearances is stressful, an absurd form of psychological slavery. There isn’t anyone anywhere in Lithuania who believes that expensive clothes and cars transform people to sober geniuses, yet people continue this impossible attempt to control the opinions of others. Plenty of well-dressed and prestigiously transported Lithuanians sincerely enjoy getting drunk and acting foolish, at least on occasion. What they hate is for people to think they’re fools or drunks. Of course, if they feel their own friends and colleagues are drunken fools, they can be sure a few colleagues and friends return the thought in kind. Instead of admitting it all in solidarity and riding St. Casimer’s sled to Suokalbis, they get together to sneer over spakling glasses of Catalonian Cava: “Suokalbis? No decent person should be seen in that hive of idiots and pisstanks.”
Well, victory is theirs. Suokalbis is dead. Even if a surrogate bar pops up in a neighborhood like Žverynas or Užupis, the experiment will never be the same. Blame the financial crisis or the decisions of the owners, but don’t separate yourself too distantly from the loss. The death of Suokalbis does not merely splatter a sub-culture across the landscape of Vilnius. It demonstrates that Lithuania is facing something much more profound than an economic crisis. The current conflict is also cultural, a struggle not only between classes but also — and perhaps primarily — between sociological perceptions. In one corner we have the people who just want to be valued for the human beings they are, even if they’re nothing more than idiots and pisstanks. In the other we have those who expect others to be something virtually no one can become, especially in hard times. Even though the second group is exhausted by itself and wishes it were losing, it’s actually winning, perhaps because the parasite of its social outlook has grown stronger than the host.
The consequences of all of this, of course, are substantial. If you are a pisstank and idiot, you’re now forced to stay at home. But if you are a sober genius, your thoughts unorthodox and progressive, the evidence suggests Lithuania won’t move to accept or even acknowledge you anytime soon. You had no use for the Suokalbis that existed, but conditions are not developing to create the one you need, a place where you might express your thoughts freely, share your vision without the fear that it might be stolen or silenced by someone it threatens. You’ve wanted to stay in Lithuania when so many have left, but aware of the situation, you’re probably looking outside the country’s borders for a place to go. If you’ve admitted it to someone, you’ve spoken quietly. You don’t want the voices to start calling you a traitor, a fraud or a bad Lithuanian.