A couple of months back, I was approached by my friend Aiste about helping out at a charity auction. Aiste is a writer and filmmaker. She’s also one of those people who knows absolutely everyone and is involved with all sorts of great causes and events. Through her I’ve had a couple of interesting adventures here in Lithuania so when she asked if I’d like to play auctioneer I naturally said “sure!” The cause this time was the International Women’s Association of Vilnius’ annual Blossom of Hope charity event, this time being done up as a 20s themed gala with a silent auction, a live auction, dinner, and live entertainment in the form of singers and dancers. And somewhere along the line, I went from auctioneer to host and MC. The last couple of years they’d had a Lithuanian and a translator but this year, since a good number of guests would be from various embassies, the organizing committee figured a native speaker would be the way to go and I got drafted.
The timing worked out that it was just before the last week of instruction so I didn’t have final exams to worry about just yet and then, to make it a little bit more exciting, an old friend from the States decided to come and visit and due to her own teaching schedule, it turned out she’d be here for the auction, too. Everything seemed to be coming together. I’d had a brief meeting with Aiste and a Skype conference with her and the chair of the organization where we went over some details and we were set for a Saturday, May 17th show.
The way the timing worked, I was going to pick up my friend Michelle from the airport late on Thursday the 15th, crash at a hotel near the airport and then move to a more centrally located hotel for friday and saturday nights. The event itself was being held at the Vilnius Rotuse (town hall) and the hotel they got for us was just across the street. And what a hotel it was! One of the top stays in Vilnius! In fact, I first heard about it from my friend Rolanda who, every time we’d pass it, would point it out as the hotel where David Copperfield stayed when he was performing in town. Pretty swanky digs, to be sure.
We got there too early to actually check in, but they took our bags and Michelle and I were able to get in a bit of sightseeing and catching up (it had been over 6 years since I’d seen her). Thankfully, even though she had travelled over 6000 miles (like a trillion kilometers) from her home in New Mexico, she was willing to tag along on my various antics of the weekend. The first of those was a haircut to get me into the 20s look. The stylist was very cool and she wanted to go 2020s instead of 1920s and was prepared to go really avant grade with my locks. I convinced her to tone it down a bit and go instead with a Scott Fitzgerald by way of Tom Hiddleston in Midnight in Paris kinda vibe… so I went short and blondish.
Then it was more sight-seeing and shopping (had to get a white shirt and black belt – thank you H&M), meeting up with some Lithuanian friends I hadn’t seen in a while, then back to the hotel for a nice hot bath (since my apartment only has a shower, I take every opportunity I can to immerse myself in warm water) then it was practicing and learning all about the auction items. I’d never been an auctioneer before so really, I had no clue what I was doing. Michelle was immeasurably helpful as I panicked and paced, stuttered and stalled all while researching and trying to memorize interesting facts about peruvian opals and Lithuanian fashion designers and celebrity chefs. It was daunting to say the least.
Saturday was more of the same, with leisurely walks around Old Town and Užupis before a styling appointment and rehearsals before the 6pm door opening. While getting dressed, I came to the conclusion I was looking a bit Henry Jones, Jr, isn, which I was totally cool with. I was decked out in a darkish suit, white shirt and purple bow-tie. So with the metaphorical blood of the world’s most exciting archeologist in my deluded veins, I was ready. Of course, while we’re waiting for everyone to start arriving, the volunteers, all high school juniors and seniors from the American school, were being maneuvered into position and I was called into duty… to tie a tie for one of the young men. So, without having a child of my own, I have finally crossed off that particular spot on my life experiences bingo card, right down to the whole, do it on my neck then slide it onto his. It was a nice moment.
Then the evening started.
There were red carpet photos, and an hour of incredibly strong Mint Juleps as people arrived and took in the items for bid in the silent auction. I did my part as host and MC and mingled, meeting people, trying to see who I could convince to bid on things later in the evening while also just conversing with interesting people. As a number of them were from the US Embassy (among others) it was nice to be able to speak conversation English without having to worry about my vocabulary.
At 7pm, we ushered everyone in to the main hall, got them seated and the first piece of entertainment came on… a fun, jazz age style dance number to “All That Jazz” from Chicago, which ended with me onstage, microphone in hand, welcoming everyone to the event. In between introducing the chair of the night’s festivities, the nationally known soprano and her award-winning accompanist and announcing various sponsors, we had some pretty good banquet food (which, unfortunately, Michelle didn’t get to sample as she was sitting with the press).
I was just getting into the swing of things. Contrary to popular belief, speaking in front of huge crowds does not come all that easy to me, I just fake it really well. Like the first day of classes, I get stage fright and had started out pretty nervous, speaking too fast, unsure of exactly what I was supposed to be saying and, at times, feeling like John Travolta as I was introducing Lithuanians with complicated names. But I was getting there. My energy level was good, I was settling down and mentally preparing for the big event… The auction.
The whole deal with this charity is that rather than donate money to a cause or organization, they go to the medical clinics and ask what they need, then they go and buy it. In this case, we were raising money to buy biopsy needles and breast markers to help combat breast cancer. Each needle costs 50 litas (that’s the Lithuanian currency – about $20 in US Dollars or 14.50 in Euro or 150 in Guatemalan Quetzal, which is just fun to say) so I was already prepared to do conversions in my head while gather bids… I wasn’t auctioning off things in monetary units, I was doing it in biopsy needles. Much easier to but 5 needles than spend 250lts.
We had 11 items in the live auction and I think I did pretty well. I was energetic and focused and was having a good time. It was hard going though, for a number of reasons. As Fish discovered when he played Vilnius, sometimes the Lithuanian audiences, no matter how interested, aren’t very demonstrative. Here, there was that issue, as well as a general feeling of apathy brought on by the fact that the attendees seemed to be part of the same social circle and a week or two before they had all been at another fundraising auction, this one for the American school most of their children attend. One mother/Embassy wife said to me, at the end of the evening, “I know breast cancer is important, but at least with the school, we’re excited because we know where the money is going.” So while I was working my ass off, I was really playing to one or two tables at a time. When the members of a table decided whatever was up for bid wasn’t for them, they merely went back to their own conversations, leaving me to try and orchestrate bidding wars between one or two people. A couple of times, it did get a bit spirited, and the ones who were into it certainly seemed to be having a good time, so in that, I’d say it was a success.
Afterwards, several of the women on the board of the International Women’s Association of Vilnius complimented me on the job I’d done and the final tally for the night was around 85,000lts (1700 biopsy needles for those of you counting) so well done us!