There’s a certain feeling that I know all too well. It’s a combination of nostalgia and renewal, and I’ve experienced it for as long as I remember. The feeling of returning to a place as if it’s new, but knowing it still like the back of your hand. I can’t really describe it other than simply a feeling of return and arrival all at the same time. I get this sensation every time I get off the plane back to Lithuania. I spent a month there this summer, and I thought it would be similar to my past trips. However, this particular trip ended up giving me a realization about my old home and the way it has changed my view of the world.
Lithuania is a tiny piece of land, roughly the size of Ohio is squished between Latvia, Poland and Russia and rests humbly on the coast of the Baltic Sea. It is a country with strong traditions, a tough history and to this day it is known to have one of the oldest living languages in the world. However, I just call it home. Although I was born in the United States, I lived and went to school in Lithuania from the 1st to the 5th grade in the city of Siauliai. My mother is originally from there, so my parents made a sort of deal that our family would try our best to live half our lives in one place and the other half in the other. This was a bold step, but turned out to be a unique part of my life that I wouldn’t trade for anything. I learned to speak the language, as well as a little bit of Russian, interacted with the people and learned many things throughout my childhood by experiencing what it was like to live in a whole different continent. It gave me a chance to look at Lithuania and even Europe from a different perspective, and to this day changed the way I look at traveling.
My dad had a great impact on the way I look at travel. Not only because he basically decided to give me two homes, but also because of his view on seeing the new places. My father, who once bicycled from Poland to Lithuania, always told me that the best way to really experience a foreign country is in a unique, “non-tourist” way. In other words, to see the things that most people wouldn’t think to look at. To get to know the people and to look beneath the surface. To see the place as more than just a tourist attraction, but as a unique place with many faces, dimensions and stories. This was easy for him, because when he first arrived in Lithuania, his Lithuanian American parents had already taught about the culture and language back at home. But he always said that it was a completely different experience when he not only visited, but actually ended up living there for many years. He believed that by giving my sister and I the opportunity to experience two homes, it would let us become more worldly and open minded. He taught me that it was important to assess the country from all sides, even the bad ones, if I really wanted to understand it. To this day that’s what I try to do every time I go back to my second home. I try to experience something new, meet new people, and become a little closer to what I’ve missed.
The difference with my particular trip this summer is that I got a chance to experience Lithuania as if I was still living there this month. I really got a chance to get in touch with the people, in a way that I never did when I grew up here. For the first time in years, I felt really immersed in the culture of my home, as if I had never left. There was just something different. Maybe it was because I discovered little unique crevices of Vilnius (the capital) that I never even knew existed, or paid more attention to the people on my train rides from place to place. Perhaps I finally realized that the breeze hits me differently there, and that the stars are so insanely clear in the countryside that it makes you forget metropolitan areas even exist. Suddenly, this little country was seeming a lot larger in my eyes. My old seemed a lost vaster than I remember, which much more that I previously took for granted. Also, something about coming back after so many years made me understand that there is something profoundly special about the people there. Which is why I will always be thankful that I still know the language. It gave me a chance to converse with people, hear their stories and learn about how different their lives and opinions were here.
I don’t expect every non-Lithuanian to right away buy a ticket and hop on a plane there. Not everyone can right away understand how to get close to a country if they never really went there, let alone lived there. Just like I could never really understand what Brussels or Paris is like, because I was only there for a couple of days. But of course, the first days, are the first steps. And if it’s possible to take in as much as I can in those few days, then maybe I could understand the country in a deeper way.
Ultimately, that’s what traveling has really become to me. For me, to really feel like I have traveled, I have to try and immerse myself in the culture a little bit, and look at the place in a different light. Travel should be about not only visiting a place physically, but also mentally and emotionally. By not only looking at the beautiful sights, but also look at the little things that truly define the country. And this could be as simply as talking to a stranger, taking a long train ride, or visiting a rural village.
This summer I realized for the first time how much my experience living in Lithuania impacted the way I look at countries outside the United States. I was lucky enough to experience a whole other life, which in turn gave me a more diverse perspective even after I moved back to the States. In an ideal world, I would love to experience every country I visit in this way. As if it was my home, my childhood and my future. There’s just something different about traveling to a place that you once called home. It would be amazing to be actually be able to view every country from the eyes of people living there. In my opinion, this would really suffice as traveling to a new place. Although I can never experience what it’s like to call every country home, I will always try my best to. I will always look at each new adventure to a new place as a new lesson and as a new opportunity to understand a new culture and a new way of life. I encourage any future traveler to look at new places as more than just a tourist, but as a child of the world.
Written by Arbela Cabas