The mayor of Omaha fiddled with his iPhone while the country-folk star of Lithuania fiddled with his guitar case.
“I still have our Lithuanian translation app on here,” Mayor Jim Suttle said, fingers flying over his phone. “Let's see ...”
The iPhone croaked: “La-bas,” a word that means ...
“Hel-lo,” crooned Virgis Stakenas, who had pulled out his acoustic guitar and began strumming the blues chords of a hit that he sings in both Lithuanian and English.
“How do you do, mmm- hmmm?”
The 59-year-old performer, who looks like Kenny Rogers, dresses like Johnny Cash and sounds like Waylon Jennings (well, a heavily accented Waylon Jennings), tapped his foot and filled Suttle's third-floor City Hall office with this bluesy number.
This seemed like a fairly typical sister city visit.
Here was a star from sister city Šiauliai (pronounced SHOW-lay), his artist wife and their daughter, who is married and raising three children in Omaha. Here were members of the city's volunteer sister city organization. Here was a photographer.
It was expected that Virgis and Ramute Stakenas would come say hello to Suttle, who had traveled to their hometown last year.
It was natural they would visit their only child, Agne, who came here for college and stayed.
It was so easy for Virgis and Ramute to just hop a plane, book some gigs and come.
And yet the fact that this moment could happen, that it could be almost mundane, speaks to how much has changed during the Lithuanian singer's lifetime.
Born after the Allied victors of World War II had carved up Europe, Virgis began life in a country under Soviet repression.
The son of a widely known urologist, Virgis was expected to be a doctor, too. But during college in the early 1970s, he realized his heart was in music.
So Virgis, whose inspiration lay in black-market Bob Dylan and not Soviet-controlled radio, bought an acoustic guitar for 17 rubles and learned how to play.
He practiced. He sang. He performed every chance he got. He let nothing stop him.
Not his crushed father, who had spent a year in Siberia as punishment for his pro-Lithuanian views and who still thinks his son's music pursuit is crazy. Not the government, which outlawed much of what came from the West, including ideas. Not even his physique, which Virgis noted “was not rock star image.”
“I was big and fat,” he said, “with the glasses.”
Special education teacher by day, musician by night, Virgis listened to outlawed Radio Luxembourg on a shortwave, soaking up Pink Floyd. He loved American country and folk music.
“When I listened to first time the Beatles, it was ... ” — his English escapes him — “... a breath of fresh air,” finishes Omahan Gediminas Murauskas, whose parents fled from Lithuania during World War II. He moved to Omaha in 1990.
Gediminas is a volunteer with the Omaha Sister Cities Association. He heads up the Omaha Friends of Šiauliai Committee and accompanied Virgis and Ramute to the Mayor's Office, serving as diplomat, historian and translator.
Gediminas explained: It's the 1970s. Virgis is beginning to perform in public. He wants to sing his own Lithuanian rockabilly and refuses to sing Soviet-style songs. Such self-expression, Virgis says, “is not recommended.”
Virgis marries Ramute, who teaches art and builds a reputation as a fashion designer. She paints exquisite scenes on silk.
Daughter Agne is 6 when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev begins to launch reforms that were unthinkable years earlier. She is 8 in 1989 when the Berlin Wall falls.
She is 9 when Lithuania becomes the first Soviet republic to declare its independence. The Soviets respond with political and economic sanctions. And then with tanks in early 1991, when Agne is 10.
The Soviet military rolls into Lithuania's capital, Vilnius. Soldiers fire on civilians, killing 14 and injuring more than 100. Amid the crowd of protesters is Virgis. Singing. Strumming.
Agne watches her nonreligious mother fall to her knees in front of the TV in prayer. The day later will be called Bloody Sunday.
Eventually the protesters prevail. The weakened Soviet Union can't stop what's happening in Lithuania and elsewhere.
Lithuania joins the United Nations and embraces a market economy.
Virgis' career takes off. He headlines a radio show called Country Party. He makes 17 albums, writes a book, and produces concerts and festivals.
Agne is 16 when her father visits Omaha to check it out as a possible sister city with Šiauliai. The Lithuanian community in Omaha, which once was concentrated in South Omaha, by then has dispersed. But Gediminas and others, elated by what has happened in their home country, are eager to build bridges.
At the time, Omaha had sister city relationships with cities in Japan (1965) and Germany (1992). It would later add cities in Ireland (2002), Mexico (2005) and China (2011).
When Agne is 20, she enrolls at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She was supposed to be here for a one-year immersion. But a husband, two degrees and three children later, she is settled.
Which brings us to the recent day in the Mayor's Office.
The Lithuanian delegation has gifts: a straw hat. A sash. A letter from the mayor of Šiauliai.
“And a little brochure about me,” Virgis says, also giving Suttle copies of several books and CDs.
“Awesome,” Suttle replies. “This is awesome.”
But the real gift wasn't anything Suttle could put on a shelf.
The real gift was a song. Spontaneous. Elusive. A reminder of how far this Lithuanian sister had come.
“Together, living is light, by your side,” Virgis sings. “You never tell me goodbye.”
Contact the writer: 402-444-1136, firstname.lastname@example.org, twitter.com/ErinGraceOWH