Sep 19, 2011

Balancing Basketball and Travel in Lithuania - Part I

>> Crossposted on '30HomeGames' blog

There are two types of nightspots. The kind that's down-to-earth, welcoming. A place where you can really get to know someone. The other type is sexier, more glamorous but image-conscious. The former is the type of setting where you can connect with authentic, local people. The latter is the type of place where groupies and fans might gather to rub shoulders with celebrities. Both have their own distinct appeal.**

This sums up the dilemma I've faced in Lithuania for EuroBasket2011 and something I imagine I'll have to contend with for my 30HomeGames ambition. My love for basketball is what brought me to Lithuania but its merely been a pretext, the amazing hospitality is what will remain with me.

Day 231
In an upretentious bar in Kaunas I met some open-minded girls who were happy to welcome me into their lives. They had a travelers' spirit, very open people and not surprisingly were on the CouchSurfing network. The second time we hung out I was invited to to celebrate the return of their dear friend from the UK, we picked her up from the airport and enjoyed a gathering at the house. This particular night was Lithuania's final match, a battle with Greece to claim 5th place honors. As the night progressed I realised that the dozens in attendance had no interest in watching the game. Surprising in hoops-mad Lithuania, blasphemous even?

I was torn, I didn't want to disrupt this amazing local experience but on the other hand I was interested in the game. I excused myself and quickly ran to the nearest bar to watch the closing minutes. The game went down to the wire but the Lithuanians hung on, the proud fans jubilant but also philosophical, mindful that it was an underwhelming result for the proud host nation. I returned to the party thinking about the balancing act I'd have to negotiate for 30HomeGames. Basketball serves as a pretext but it could also compromise authentic local experiences.

Pleasantly on the walk back, I crossed paths and high-fived my favorite international player along the dark, empty streets. I smiled. Maybe everything just works out.

Day 232
It was the day of the finals, the end of a vibrant 3 weeks for basketball fans and Lithuanians. The upstart Macedonians came up short against the Russians and the French proved no match for the dominant Spanish in the Gold Medal game.

That night, I went over my budget to attend an image conscious bar that had been tipped to host the players. Players from Macedonia and Russia were in attendance. Tony Parker arrived much later than anticipated, I left the club by the time the rest of my favored French team joined him. I'm fascinated by superstar glamour but the experience is limited when you're too detached from it. I spent the night with Serbs from my hostel, interestingly they had a lanky colleague who would happily oblige groupies who suspected he was a basketball player. He used the specious line "I play basketball but not for the national team". Genius!

Day 233
I reconnected with my new Lithuanian friends to spend a day picking mushrooms and enjoying Kaunas. We were joined by a Spanish viajero they had collected the other night and a French supporter the girls had been hosting. We were all Couchsurfers, the Frenchman the only one connected the formal way. We'd actually made brief contact the night previous in the bar full of fans and groupies. Closing my EuroBasket experience by spending the day with a Spaniard and French superfan, being hosted by Lithuanians - Could it be any more poetic?

My time in Lithuania has largely been a basketball experience but I've had many unique experiences unique to my time here
  • Befriending locals in Panevėžys, I spent the day in a leisure center, went paragliding, enjoyed a game of 1-on-1 whilst waiting for a restaurant dinner. Capping the evening with Wii Tennis, a sauna and fine wine in their lavish home
  • My first and only time hitching, I was picked up by the service manager of a lavish nightspot in Vilnius. We've reconnected a few times for shisha and chats, spoilt at the club with free entry, complimentary drinks and great company
  • Started chatting to a charming Dutchman on the bus to Nida. Enjoyed a day sharing travel adventures and musings. Reconnected with him in Vilnius in the company of fellow CSers and friends at a down-to-earth bar in Vilnius. It was this evening that led to complimentary EuroBasket tickets the following day
  • Hitting the night with cool kids met in hostels and basketball courts. Revisiting fun-loving Slovenians in multiple nightspots in cities across Lithuania
  • Picking the brains of international journalists, traveling and finding stories involving basketball
  • Talking basketball and life with the manager of the English basketball team. We hung out several days in Vilnius and shared a tent in Panevėžys, we met on the flight from London to Lithuania
My love for the game has been connecting me with locals all over Europe. Its simply been heightened in Lithuania, as hosts of an international tournament and krepšinis being their religion. Basketball and Travel - balancing something I love with something I enjoy, that's the mission for the 30HomeGames project.

** The down-to-earth bars were 'Play Club' in Vilnius and Kanklės in Kaunas. The "glamour" spots which hosted EuroBasket talent were 'Salento' in Vilnius and BarBar’a in KaunasPramogu Bankas in Vilnius is also worth a look

Paragliding on a Basketball rest day. In Panevėžys.

The mushroom picking presentation. In Kaunas.

Concerning the overlook. In Kaunas.

An evening with Lithuanian locals
(showing no interest in the basketball)

- Read Balancing Basketball and Travel in Lithuania - Part II

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