After I learned that I could handle myself in Crete, I went home to London and spent a few weeks picking up shifts at work, catching up with friends and spending as many seconds as I could possibly cram in with my boyfriend.
Life Tip #17: Get yourself a partner who supports you travelling on your own and taking space for yourself. It changes everything.
I was recovering from the high running emotions that overwhelmed me in Spain and Greece and was feeling more rested than I had in months.
And then I felt that restless sort of itch.
The one that I often wish would go away so I could be content with, well, with being content. But it’s always there pulling my attention this way or that. It was time to book another trip. Time was running out on my visa and there were 800 more countries I needed to experience in order to keep the promises I made to myself during childhood when things were hard and money was tight and tempers flared and voices got loud more often than not.
“I am not living like this forever. Someday when I grow up, I am going to leave and never come back.”
Perhaps that should have been a huge hint to me about why I run. For years, staying still wasn’t the safest choice. It is now, but it’s hard to shake the fight or flight response, or so my therapist has told me.
I think she explained it by comparing your chosen response to a well used path. You have two options when shit gets real: stay and fight, or run and hide. Some version of both of these is always acceptable, but whatever you choose then becomes easier to keep choosing, until it’s as if there are two pathways in your brain, one, totally unused and covered with brambles that need to be worn down and cut away, while the other is a clear path through an open field, grass stomped down and dead after years of use.
Stomp your way through that path enough times and the grass gets so flattened that it becomes the only choice you see so you never stop choosing that path, even if maybe you should.
For me, that path was running. It was dreaming of a different future. One in which I wasn’t stupid or useless. One where I didn’t have bruises on my body and hand prints on my skin. One where I wasn’t hungry or scared.
So I studied maps, devoured books and magazines, plotting my eventual permanent escape to the farthest away places I could possibly take myself.
That time came. I took myself away. And let me tell you, it didn’t play out at all like I dreamed about all those years. Everything was different in all the ways you can never predict when you are a scared kid or an angry teenager or a confused young adult.
But I needed to fulfill a promise to myself. I needed to be able to feel like that 10 year old kid again, atlas in her lap, drawing circles around dots on a map and I needed to prove that I could get there. That I could save myself, in some sort of way.
Lithuania was almost as far as my child brain could imagine. I had to get there, I had to make that little girl feel like her wishes weren’t in vain. She was hoping for a different future and god dammit, I was in control now so that was the future she was getting.
I booked a flight to Vilnius, Lithuania to free my spirit and release the weight.
It’s only fitting that as I flew into the capital at sunset, I looked out the window at the bright orange sky and it was FILLED with hot air balloons. Dots of color hung in the sky for a mile. I have never had a landing like it, in all the flights I have taken and I don’t expect to have one like that again. I don’t have photos of that night, but I saw hot air balloons every day that I was in Vilnius.
I had planned 5 days in Vilnius and was hoping to do a day trip if I could, before jetting off to Stockholm for a few days. I knew Vilnius was small compared to lots of other European capitals, but I had learned a lot while in Spain a few weeks earlier so I wanted to give myself time and space. I didn’t want to rush or to wander aimlessly.
I wanted to be present and to take it all in. As soon as I left the airport to catch the bus into town, I just felt peace. I knew that I could do it. I knew the fears didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was that I was there and I was doing it and I was relying on myself. I was teaching myself to trust myself. A complicated lesson, but one of the most worthy, if you ask me.
I got off the bus near the Old Town and ended up searching for the hostel with two British guys who lived around the corner from where I worked in London. The world is tiny, clearly. We had all somehow gotten the wrong directions to the hostel and took off through what looked like the forest of Vilnius to find our hostel. We made it, but probably wouldn’t have if we hadn’t put all three of our heads together.
Life tip #85: Technology isn’t always your friend and paper maps can be a worthy investment.
I’m pretty sure I have never actually used the word ‘serene’ to describe anything (except maybe mermaids) but that’s what Lithuania is like. It’s like the most charming small town you’ve ever been to, but it’s a whole country and Russia is pretty much next door. Wild.
Five days in Vilnius is definitely too many if you are looking for adventure, but there is plenty to do without actually leaving the city. There are cathedrals and museums, a huge park with views for days, a charming old town, and all the restaurants and coffee shops you could want.
I wandered the winding streets, I walked up hills and took pictures of the city, I walked down hills and took pictures of the sky. I restaurant hopped – which I’m almost sad to say – means that I just simply ate my way through the Old Town. Eastern Europe is shockingly cheap so I simply went from one restaurant and pub to the next, eating crepes and 4 kinds of bread and every dish that included potatoes. (Also gin, who am I kidding.) I love Eastern Europe, is what I’m saying.
Fun fact: Apparently Lithuania is also known as having the fastest internet in Europe. Who knew.
Vilnius is a city filled with small gems — areas worth exploring, but that are so small, you might not necessarily book a trip just to visit these specific spots. Once there though, well, the world is your oyster and all that.
One of my favorite areas in the Old Town was Literatu Gatve which at first seems like a wrong turn off the main road. I had avoided it several times walking by while I looked exactly for it, thinking, ‘there’s probably nothing down there.’ When I could no longer make sense of Google maps, I took a chance and ended up exactly where I wanted to be. Life is funny.
Literatai Street is filled with plaques, sculptures and pieces of literary art attached to the outside of buildings, all in honor of Lithuanian writers, translators and authors. And just when you think you’ve seen it all, turn around and check out the next building because it’s covered with art too. Long live the written word!
Googling at the airport before my trip, I ended up learning a bit about Uzupis which is sort of a humorous take on an artist’s commune. It gets compared to Christiania, an actual commune in Copenhagen (and one of my favorite places), but having been to both, I wouldn’t say they have a lot in common. Uzupis is not a separate, off the beaten path type area. It’s not even a real commune, but more of an ‘independent republic’ where artists and bohemians are celebrated.
Lithuania is sort of an artsy, hippie haven, come to think of it, which may be why when I got drunk one night, I texted my mom to see if maybe my biological father was actually part Lithuanian. (Drinking with me is fun.) (Also, he’s not.) (But I just feel like Vilnius is my place!)
Uzupis is basically an arty neighborhood that you walk through to get to the grocery store, and as a visitor, you probably wouldn’t even notice you were in it, unless you saw the Uzupis Manifesto plaques lining the street. There are statues and art, if you want to explore further, but Vilnius has lots of great art elsewhere too, if you look hard enough.
If Spain was a knife that split me wide open, and Crete was the band-aid that was holding it all together, Lithuania was surely the bumpy scar that appears while things heal.
I did it. I went to a far off place. Not one built for tourists, but a place that existed on it’s own, doing it’s thing, off in the corner of the world. A place that moves slowly and has orange skies at night and old clocks that chime and dogs barking in the background of your life.
My boyfriend once said to me about my travels, “It’s like you’re just checking places off a list.”
He was right. I was and I still am.
I’m checking places off the list in my head that I started when there was no place to hide but inside my mind. The lists I made and calculated and sorted through and planned for and dreamed of. The only safe place to escape to at the time. The bruises aren’t there anymore, but the wounds are deep and so place by place, check by check, things slowly get healed, thanks to airplanes and orange skies and old towns and that itchy, restless feeling that never really leaves.