“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.”
– Robert Louis Stevenson, Scottish novelist, poet, essayist, and travel writer.
Pre-Lithuania: Touching Down in London Town (Again)
After Ireland, I accepted an invitation to crash in a friend’s spare bedroom in London for a week. Little did I know she lived in the middle of Chelsea, one of the most affluent neighborhoods in London. Each afternoon I walked around the streets marveling at the number of designer stores and hot moms strutting around with suped-up baby strollers.
This area is so ridiculous there’s even a pseudo-reality TV show based here called Made in Chelsea, which I imagine is like “Real Housewives” meets “Jersey Shore” meets “Mr. Bean.” But the real kicker came on the second or third day, when my gracious host mentions in passing, “Oh yeah, Ringo Starr lives upstairs.” Of course he does.
When London is sunny and warm, it’s one of my favorite places. I could wander around Hyde Park and listen British accents all day long. And being there for the first week of the Olympics was incredible. But after a week, I was getting too comfortable. I was ready for something more unique, more foreign, and more challenging. Plus London’s arbitrary public transit rip-offs were starting to piss me off. $10 to travel two stops on the Tube is ridiculous, as is a $27 bus ride to the airport.
Ballin’ in the Baltics
Three weeks ago, I decided I would skip over Western and Central Europe and give my wallet a break [See: Practicing Poverty]. As I sat in a cafe in London ogling and overwhelmed over all the Baltic and Eastern European countries in Google Maps, I needed to decide on the next leg of the journey. Lithuania jumped out at me. I searched for the cheapest flight I could find and booked a oneway flight to its capital, Vilnius. I love the spontaneity in having no set travel plans.
Three months ago, I had no intention of stepping foot in Lithuania. Honestly, I would have been hard pressed to find Lithuania on a map. But as I found myself boarding a flamboyantly pink WizzAir plane to Vilnius, all felt right in the world.
After a short 2-hour flight, I exited the plane and did the customary pocket feel: wallet, passport, iPhone. Uh oh…no iPhone. I turned around and started jogging back toward the cabin door. Just as the flight attendant started to yell at me for trying to reenter, a friendly Lithuanian girl walks out of the plane and hands me my phone. She was sitting behind me and noticed I left it on my seat. Phew! Plus this girl was cute. Double phew!
We exchanged names, went our separate ways, and would eventually meet up later. (This may be an obvious statement, but Facebook has made it easier than ever to connect with people while traveling. It’s one of the most valuable “items” I travel with). If this chance encounter was a foreshadowing for my time in Lithuania, I knew I’d like it here.
The moment I stepped out of the airport, it was clear I was in another world. I felt like I was standing in front of a dilapidated bus station, not an international airport. After locating the correct bus route, I cheerfully handed over 2 Litas (about $0.71) as I boarded the bus toward Vilnius’ Old Town.
Immediately upon setting foot in Old Town, I fell in love. I wandered around the city streets and was in amazement at this obscure place I knew nothing about. Vilnius itself isn’t too spectacular. But I realized it’s a perfect city for me. It’s unimposing, not very touristy, small enough to walk in one day, but big enough where you can exist in anonymity if you choose to.
Plus, it’s filled with charming outdoor cafes and bars similar to many Western and Central European cities. The difference is that in these cafes, you can eat a nice meal for less than $7 and drink a tasty pint for less than $2. Also, I feel like I’ve never seen so many beautiful women concentrated in one place (granted, I still haven’t been to southeast Europe).
Love & Basketball
If the Lithuanians are united by one thing, it’s basketball. I made many new friends by telling them one of my favorite NBA players of all time is Lithuanian-born ydr?nas Ilgauskas, AKA Big Z. Some people were honestly on the verge of tears upon hearing this. They were so happy that a foreigner (and American) thought so much about something Lithuanian. This put into perspective for me how small Lithuania actually is, and how their contribution to the basketball world makes them feel significant.
Later that week in Olympic basketball, USA barely beat Lithuania. Although many Lithuanians anticipated defeat, they were proud that LeBron James said “Lithuania is a very good team.”
On my last night in Vilnius, I stumbled on a big gathering in front of Town Square. It turned out to be a celebration for Ruta Meilutyte, the 15-year-old Lithuanian swimmer who won Gold in the women’s 100m breaststroke. Ruta was making an apparence, so I stuck around and joined the pride-filled Lithuanians in celebrating their athlete. Everyone kept chanting “A?i?, Ruta!” which means “Thank You, Ruta!” and is pronounced like the sneezing sound “Ah-choo”, but with the emphasis on the “Ah.”
Next Up: One weekend while in Lithuania, I made an impulsive decision to join an annual hitchhiker’s gathering about an hour outside of Vilnius. This experience opened my eyes in so many ways that I plan to dedicate next week’s post to it.