Cut the rushing and enjoy your journey

TRAVEL, they say, broadens the mind. I'm sure it does - as long as you take a mind with you and are prepared to keep it reasonably open.

Aidan Semmens

TRAVEL, they say, broadens the mind. I'm sure it does - as long as you take a mind with you and are prepared to keep it reasonably open.

There's something in Robert Louis Stevenson's old line about it being a better thing to travel hopefully than to arrive.

But even that well-worn quotation puts too much emphasis on hope, presumably applied to the destination, rather than simply the experience of travel itself.

I could have got to Lithuania a lot quicker, and a fair bit more cheaply, if I'd flown. But that would have deprived me of more than half the point and pleasure of the trip.

I'd still have seen the museums, the synagogue, the Vilnius streets I described here last week. I could still have enjoyed a nice borsch (beetroot soup) and some good blynai (potato pancakes).

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But I wouldn't have had a real sense of the geography of the country, of how it fits in to the rest of Europe and relates to Britain.

I wouldn't have seen storks circling over the Polish countryside, striding red-legged in fields or tending their fluffy young in nests built on telegraph poles.

I wouldn't have seen cows tethered to graze by the railway line or families harvesting hay fields with scythes, rakes and forks.

And I wouldn't have met Milda, Pawel or Ana. If I had, I wouldn't have had leisurely hours in a train to hold proper conversations with them.

Ana was en route from Amsterdam to a family gathering in Poznan, Poland, when I met her in Berlin.

The Dutch trainee lawyer remembers making the same trip to visit her grandfather when she was a child. Poland was then still a Communist state in the shadow of the Soviet Union.

And she recalled: “It seemed so different then. Everything was grey - the buildings, the people, all the clothes were of a coarser material and either grey or black.

“Today you see the survivors of that era, and of the war, on the streets alongside young people who couldn't imagine it was ever like that.”

One Polish survivor of that era is Pawel, and I couldn't imagine him ever being grey.

Tall, lean and extremely fit-looking, he's about my age, despite the pure white of his close-cropped hair and beard.

He's a highly seasoned traveller, having clocked up more than 100 countries on six continents.

And he revealed, surprisingly: “I did most of my travelling in the Communist days.

“People will say it was difficult to be let out from the Eastern bloc, but no - the problem was getting visas for countries who were afraid that once in we would want to stay.”

Pawel remains proudly, staunchly Polish. He has lived for spells in New York, London and Norway, but always returned to Warsaw.

His view of the changes there since the collapse of the Soviet system is not quite what you might expect.

“Heaven knows I'm not nostalgic for Communism, but life was simpler then, in many ways nicer.

“There were great parties, good meetings, more time. People weren't always in a hurry, always eager to get the next job, the next thing - because there were no things to get. There was less stress, more sociability.”

The biggest physical changes he has seen have been the skyscrapers in Warsaw and the big supermarkets everywhere. But that, as he says, is not just a local phenomenon - “I've seen a Carrefour hypermarket in Tahiti.”

Such developments also concern a Lithuanian student I met on her way home from a youth conference on climate change. Appropriately, she made the round trip to Vienna by train, though her air fare would have been fully paid.

Dressed all in black, with a wide studded belt, hair falling over her eyes and a row of piercings in her lip, Milda truly illustrated my point about keeping an open mind.

Like many Britons, she is troubled by the wave of migration between her country and ours since the expansion of the European Union. But her reasons are deeper and better.

All those cars you see with LT plates reveal a busy but tiny minority here. But they make up a substantial proportion of a 3.5million population at home.

Milda said: “So many are leaving that Lithuania is suffering a skills shortage. But not enough is done to persuade people to stay, and racism is against bringing in others from outside to do the jobs.”

From 1944 to 1991, Lithuania was part of the Soviet Union, and I was interested in how the people view Russia today.

Milda said: “Most Lithuanians don't like Russians, but being racists themselves they approve of Russian racism. They think Vladimir Putin is generally a good guy.

“Older folk are nostalgic for the Soviet Union; younger ones don't know or care about it.”

Except, of course, those as educated, interested and caring as Milda herself. Those who travel, as she does, with an alert and open mind.