When I awoke in my private dorm in the comfortable hostel, hours after the alarm intended to wake me for the morning run I had been putting off, I guiltily struggled through a poor substitute of pushups and squats. Reminding myself that I still had a few days left of this time of relaxation and complete break from the rigorous schedule I typically keep, I spent the next 20 minutes reading the news with a cup of tea provided by reception before showering and dressing in the same set of clothes I’ve been wearing for days.
The relaxed morning brought me quicker than planned to check out time, and it ended with a bit of a rush as I hoisted my pack for the trek toward a suggested pancake restaurant. With a brief stop at reception to confirm I was set to leave, I stepped out into the damp and cold late morning Lithuanian air. The courtyard was an empty lot of packed mud surrounded by a forest of bare trees. Despite the less than attractive appearance, the scent of the fresh air and feel of its harsh cold brought back a sense of dejavu.
The feeling was not immediately recognizable, and I stood for several moments considering where it had come from and what was triggering it. My mind at first went back to my time in Korea, but I couldn’t place a specific moment. Mulling over it, I began walking down the road of broken pavement and uneven sidewalks. With the tug of my pack against my shoulders and its weight tight around my hips, the textured grip of my camera in the fingertips of my right hand, and swishing of my jeans over warm leggings, I realized that this feeling was not from a single moment, but from a way of life that I had too long been absent from: the life of solo travel.
I had no appointments to keep, no friends to meet, no guides to follow, no acquaintances to interview, and no locals to listen to. I was alone. The day was mine.
I have fully enjoyed the travel of this holiday to this point, but it has been far more conventional than my last extended time on the road. At each location, I have had someone to pick me up or at least meet me a short distance from my point of arrival. I have been flying, which for me is a far less authentic form of travel. And at each destination, I have almost always had some local guide to take me around. I have learned much and am forever grateful to all of my friends, guides, and new acquaintances, but overdue was a time for me to wander alone and reflect on the things I had experienced.
On my second and last day in Vilnius, my only commitment was to catch a train in the early afternoon. Until then, I was to wander and find what food I could to experience the Lithuanian culture beyond the language barrier, which I must admit I have not even tried to overcome.
As I walked at a leisurely pace along the poorly maintained road flanked by construction sites, I stopped frequently to capture images of the area, something I had been utterly reluctant to do when tagging along with a guide, and I think the quality of the photos reflects that. It has been too long since I went walking with only the objective of capturing what I see.
Less than halfway to my destination eatery, I spotted a gathering that I have sorely missed since living in the US and Sweden: an open air market. A long row of wooden shelters hosted a variety of artisans selling foods and crafts, surrounded by trucks from local butchers, dairies, and bakers. Walking along the counters, perusing the options, I reconsidered my decision to eat at the restaurant. My decision to stop was made as soon as I saw the open face of a freshly cut dark loaf of bread, steam rising from its hot interior. I immediately jumped in the long line.
Securing a quarter of a loaf, I continued on. Spotting some sort of pastry displayed in neat rows before a kind-looking middle-aged woman, I stopped again. She was delivering a full order to the man in front of me, and I considered thoughtfully the array of mystery treats before me. As I looked, it appeared they were actually sandwiches, likely filled with meat. However, the man ordered one more item to go: a cup of the steaming soup, which I had not at first noticed. The steam of the soup drifted my way, and I caught the scent of the boiling vegetables and spices, and my breakfast was decided.
I settled down on a drain cover on the bank of the river across the street from the market. The view was less than glorious, but the seat was dry. The next 10 minutes were heavenly spent dipping the bread, so dense I struggled to tear it, in the mango chutney and mixed vegetable and bean soup.
Nourished for a continued walk, I packed the rest of the loaf and made my way up the hill toward my original goal. As I walked, I considered my choice of an “Indian” soup when seeking a traditional Lithuanian experience. The thought didn’t persist long because even a cursory inspection of “traditional” foods around the world typically reveals that many dishes are at most a few hundred years old. If we think about “traditional” Italian food, it invariably contains tomato sauce. If you weren’t aware, tomatoes are not indigenous to Europe. So, I postulate that whatever the style of the food, a bowl of soup made in Lithuania by a Lithuanian woman is sufficiently Lithuanian for me.
My postulation guided me again when on my way to the recommended restaurant (a touristy business with a location even in the train station), I stumbled upon a small vegetarian restaurant that was about to open in just a few minutes. Again, an excellent detour. The small restaurant felt more like a friend”s living room than a public eatery. With perhaps 16 or 18 seats, the restaurant was only staffed by one chef and two servers, who were preparing the day’s items in a small open kitchen, separated from the dining area by a high counter as any good home kitchen would have. The food, beautifully plated, clearly reflected the chef’s care for his creation, and I felt perfectly satisfied in my choice another Indian-influenced dish: curry and rice.
Feeling fully nourished, I wandered (with complete dependence on my phone as I have apparently lost my sense of direction) out to the train station. After nearly leaving my brand new mittens at the counter while buying the two-euro ticket to Jonava, I headed back into the city to see if I could find more photo subjects, but the area near the train station is far less notable. What I did find was a fast food joint that seemed to be serving “authentic” Lithuanian fare. As I had been recommended, I ordered a trio of potato pancakes. I was also offered a glass of a mystery “bread drink” that looked like beer. However, it turned out to be the closest thing to root beer I have found in Europe. Though it lacks the characteristic sassafras taste, it was similar in savoriness and feel. Unfortunately, I had to rush through my meal because I spent too much time wandering before settling on getting more food, but the rush did not take away from the deliciousness of the meal.
Now overstuffed, I returned to the station, and felt yet again the familiar sense of true travel as I located the platform and settled myself into my second class seat. Trains will always be my favorite mode of transportation.