I spent the day wandering around downtown Tbilsi, going to the big market near the stadium and buying a small fan to cool me off on hot nights. I went to my favorite gelato store, Luca Polare, and then to a nice park with fountains and lots of young people. Kids were playing in the fountains, teenagers were smoking and looking at their cell phones, and adults were sitting close and talking. I’d fallen in love with Tblisi after spending a month here and didn’t want to leave. I said goodbye to my favorite places and turned my sights to the west, to Vilnius, Lithuania, where I’d been once before 5 years ago.
The usual insanity: I couldn’t find the bus in Freedom Square and had to call the company at 2am, then wasn’t allowed on the bus (they’d sold out even though I’d bought my ticket the day before). I walked on anyway and took the last seat, wasn’t able to sleep after the driver narrowly averted an accident, and arrived sleep-deprived in Kutaisi airport, where people piled onto a sleeping platform awaiting the flight. Needless to say, I made it to Vilnius. With all the stress of making travel connections, I’d been ready to go home a month ago. Something makes me soldier on – a fear of regretting the path not taken. I’d made a promise to myself before I left to honor my tired body and come home when ready. But it’s a struggle for me to listen, and this trip was no exception. My friend Tom would later listen to my tired voice and support me in deciding to come home.
I had the foresight to find a couch surfing contact in Vilnius. The young woman I ended up staying with was very interesting, helpful, and very well-versed in local and national politics as well as the impacts of Soviet occupation. While in Vilnius, they removed 4 social realism statues from the “green bridge” which had been placed during Soviet occupation. My new friend told me the background about the statues, and shared something very poignant that she’d written about not needing reminders of Soviet times, as most Lithuanians have family members that were exiled, tortured, and/or killed during that dark period of history. On that note, I went to the former KGB torture center and prison, where I learned more than I wanted about their nefarious methods. I went to the Ducal Palace which has been reconstructed based on excellent archaeology, and learned tremendous amounts about the history of Lithuania, including the period where it was under the rulership of Poland, Sweden, Denmark, the Order of Livonian knights (a branch of the German catholic Teutonic knights), amongst others.
I took a city tour which was mostly a waste of time as the guide gave almost no history and instead talked about trivialities. She did show us a statue of a Jewish doctor who had lived and served in the city before WWII, as well as a “town” (really artist colony) located on the other side of the river from the main city where they have special rules of behavior and a self-appointed king. I later found a building that had been very important to the Jews during WWII (in the ghetto) that had served as their school, place of worship, administrative center, and social hall. There were touching tributes to the Jews of Vilnius in the windows of the hall. All had been killed during the war.
I’d wanted to get a tour of the university, one of the oldest in Europe, but arrived too late. Next time. After wandering around the old town, including the hill of 3 crosses (which, like the rest of Lithuania, has many legends associated with it), I found a lovely French garden with a dancing fountain. To the tune of Michael Jackson’s Beat It, the water soared and fell, changing colors to the beat. Nearby, along the creek from which Vilnius gets its name,was delighted to discover clay tennis courts, and better yet, an international tournament. I was lucky to catch the men’s singles and doubles semi finals, and wanted to stay for the finals but decided to drive to Klaipeda for the “sea festival” instead. I’d rented a car from an online Lithuania craigslist of sorts with the help of my couch surfing friend, and after a long set of instructions from the owner, a nervous type, thorough to a fault, I set off for Klaipeda in the 28 year old Audi station wagon.