The last of my Baltic bus rides rumbled through trees and villages and toward the drab industrial outskirts of the capital city of Lithuania, the prized end goal of the Baltic roadtrip: the country of my ancestors, the place my great grandfather left by boat for New York City as a teenager. A hundred and twenty or so years after that boat ride, I was coming home.
I was met at the station by Mantas, around my age and the Lithuanian national champion. He led me into Vilnius on roads that in his childhood as part of the Soviet Union, were one lane dirt paths lined with frail wood buildings on each side. "I don't see how anyone could say Communism was a good thing," Mantas explained, telling me about growing up with lines around the block trying to buy bananas, unable to regularly access basics like toilet paper.
That was then. We rolled through the new business district and along the river, past the square entrance of the old town and into a city in full swing. Across from the towering remnants of a medieval castle we pulled into an apartment complex where I met Domas X, a local squash player who replied to Mantas' group email about a player coming through looking for a couch. Now it was my turn to talk, and I found myself in the now-familiar position of explaining to Domas just why exactly I was here standing in his kitchen in Vilnius, Lithuania.
I tried to keep it simple- I assumed English wasn't his native language and because I hadn't heard much of it lately, made sure to make my story basic, talk slow and pronunciate everything. "I grew up in Cal-I-for-nia" He nodded along. I used hand gestures to act things out when needed. When I finished, I asked for his story. A pause and a polite smile, then in perfect American English, a quick reply: "I grew up in the States and went to Middlebury."
I was standing in the kitchen of a guy who went to a top university just down the road from where I studied, at the same time as me. We had spent four years in tiny nearby towns in the woods of New England half a world away. And now we were meeting in Vilnius. I awkwardly sped back up my English.
I've learned enough times that the people make the place but man was this reinforced yet again from my weekend in Vilnius. Domas and his fiancée Agne became real friends, the type you meet as a kid or in college but harder to come by in the real world. Over mussels and beers I learned my first Lithuanian words sitting in the middle of a narrow cobblestone street from sometime in the 13th century, the table brought out by Domas and his friend the waitress so that their guest could take in the start of "Culture Night" festivities in the city.
Later we bobbed and weaved through crowds of Lithuanian families and teenagers, around young couples and grandparents, passing by an arts performance in the courtyard of the Presential Palace and a tent blaring American hip hop, through a light show along the river. Along the way Agne, from her day job as special advisor to the new Mayor of Vilnius, gave me the inside scoop on the city. "This riverfront development will be something else...this future here is just so exciting...did you know Lithuania has one of the fastest internet speeds in the world?"
I pushed past Mantas on the court next morning and afterward Domas took me into the countryside (as I learned, Lithuania is 70% forest so it wasn't too hard to reach) and toward the hundred person village of Paneriai, the home of his aunt a ways out of the city. Paneriai was established a few decades ago when The Soviets built a school on in the middle of the woods. Next to the school was built an apartment building for the school teachers and admins, and as part of the deal each person got a small plot of land. Years later when the school folded, the teachers stayed.
Domas' aunt was the former headmaster and now spends her days tending to her garden plot where we found her on a sunny Saturday in the woods that is the village. For the afternoon we took over picking strawberries and chopping wood, mincing mint and peeling carrots. Set up a rusted barbecue set on the garden and grilled what we picked, Domas and his Lithuanian buddies from the city and me. Domas told me Lithuania had a lot of lakes and he wasn't kidding- we passed three in the five minute drive leaving Paneirai, stopping by a small one tucked away off a dirt path a minute off the main road, the type of lake you wouldn't find unless you were lost or grew up in these woods. Wet and winding through country roads, Mariah Carey and other 90s jams busting out through the open windows of our car, we headed onward to the next lake pit stop. I thanked the Lithuanians for bringing me along. They shrugged and simply replied this is what you do on the weekends here- leave the city for the lakes.
On Sunday Domas and Agne drove me to a resort village of six thousand along a river a couple hours out of Vilnius, because a cafe there served special potato pancakes that just couldn't be missed. In the afternoon I organized a training and coaching clinic for a handful of the local players who were truly fanatics- asking if it wouldn't be too much for video analysis, staying with me to do my sprint intervals after the clinic had ended. At night we treated ourselves to the crown of Lithuanian cuisine, "didžkukliu" - a boiled potato filled with a pork meatball - at a restaurant that proudly displays on a chalkboard the number of didžkukliu's served to date: 2,502,700 when we left.
Afterward we walked off the didžkukliu by wandering the centuries-old streets filled with new energy, signs of new beginnings in Lithuania. The walking pushed on as the last touches of Sunday and the weekend slowly edged toward empty. From above, the remnants of the castle faded into darkness as Domas and Agne led me one last time through the last circles of mishapen, untouched cobblestone paths of an old city in the midst of reinvention. My hometown roots and new friends showing me the simple, raw beauty that is the lakes and potatoes and life in Lithuania.