22nd December 2018 —
I felt sad to leave Riga behind, but I was glad to leave my hostel. The more distance I put between myself and those creepy men, the better! I went to the branch of Caffeine of Krišjāņa Barona street one last time, more to honour my tradition than out of any strong desire for coffee. I got it to take away, and walked slowly along the bank of the canal, towards the bus station. A part of me didn’t want to leave. Something changed in me during my time in Riga. I don’t know if I “found myself” or anything quite so cliche. But I began to piece back together the parts of me that were missing or broken. They are still delicate — the glue has yet to dry. But I left as a different women than the girl who arrived only a few days ago.
I got to the bus station half an hour early, like the over-prepared control freak I am. I stood by the canal, and looked over the water to Central Market. I thought of the last time I left Riga, a year-and-a-half ago, how I’d sat under the bus shelter as rain poured down all around, listening to “Another Suitcase in Another Hall” from “Evita.” I felt I had unfinished business that time. Perhaps I did. As I left today, I knew I’d done what I came here to do, tied up my loose ends, even if in a different knot formation than I had intended.
I spent the journey watching the 2nd and 3rd Bridget Jones films (they didn’t have the first one), and drinking kvass, eating vegetable čeburekai and my favourite Latvian chocolate — apricot and hazelnut flavour, a brand called Serenāde.
In spite of my sadness at leaving Riga, I was over the moon to return to Tallinn. I feel a sense of peace in this city that I’ve never felt anywhere else in the world. I’m staying in a different hostel to last time. It’s in the Old Town, situated in a 13th or 14th century building. It’s cosy and adorable and free of creepy old men.
My second pair of jeans tore, so I had to go and buy some new ones. I remembered there was a charity shop somewhere near Viru Keskus. I headed there, by way of Raekoja Plats, where I made the questionable decision to buy some glögg. Alcohol and an empty stomach are always a fun combination, and I felt decidedly tipsy within minutes.
I stopped at Viru Keskus to buy some food. I had no idea what it actually was, but I saw the word vegan so I decided it was a safe bet. It seemed to be cheesy mashed potatoes, filled with shredded mushrooms and onions, rolled in a thick layer of breadcrumbs. It was actually decent, for something containing mushrooms (I’m still scarred by the mushroom pelmeni I bought in Riga, so gross). I then went to the charity shop, in search of jeans. Trying on clothes has never been my favourite experience. Long legs and a slightly chunky body don’t make for easy clothes shopping. But trying on skinny jeans in a tiny changing room, whilst drunk, in a country that uses a different sizing system than you’re used to? As bad clothes shopping experiences go, it really takes the cake. Thankfully, the first pair of jeans I tried on fit me.
I went to buy some food for breakfast, then headed through the Old Town to Balti Jaam Market. My body was like “vegetables…please…give me…vegetables” and I was like “gurl, did you say veggie burger? That’s a great idea!” As I ate said veggie burger, I realised I basically hadn’t touched a vegetable in my whole time in Riga. Sure, the burger was in a white bread roll, but it was filled with sweet potato, and lettuce. It was the healthiest thing I’d eaten in days, oops!
I sit in Caffeine (different country, same morning tradition). If I thought they had a hot barista last time I was here, this one is on a whole other level! He’s tall, blond, and muscular, with a tattoo of a forest on his arm. He’s the first Estonian barista to respond to me in Estonian rather than English, and, he doesn’t know it yet, but he’s my future husband. Tall, blond, lives in a different country? He’s my type to a T. I just need to make sure he’s emotionally unavailable, and he’ll be my perfect man! I deliberately sat so I couldn’t see him, because I didn’t want to stare creepily at him. But even the sound of his voice is pretty, and I am totally smitten. I mean, who doesn’t love a man who makes good coffee?
After I left Caffeine, I walked to Balti Jaam Market. For once, my intent was not to buy a burger, but to wander around the market stalls. I love this place. Mostly because of the veggie burgers, but also because it is an eclectic mix of old and new, where on your right, the stalls are at their utmost hipstery, selling overpriced pseudo-handcrafted products, and on your left, old women sell granny panties for €2.50 a pair. (Honestly, I was tempted. Possibly a side-effect of watching two Bridget Jones films yesterday).
If you go deeper, you’ll find the antiques stores. Here, you can treat yourself to a portrait of Vladimir Lenin — or Tsar Nicholas II, if he’s more to your taste — a double bass with no strings, or numerous drums. Toys, china dolls, medals and coins, soviet relics, flags…if you’re lucky, you may even find a full-sized KGB uniform! (Thankfully, I have now been here enough times that I don’t have to give myself the “Eliza, no! You don’t need this!” talk). If you leave Balti Jaam Market, and walk maybe 50 metres, you’ll find another market, in warehouses filled with old men selling second-hand clothes. Up the back, they have a whole range of Putin t-shirts. If I recall correctly the one I saw in summer last year, it depicted Putin winking, and was captioned “Mr President.” I suppose it’s not quite as disturbing as The Barras market in Glasgow, where you can find Confederate flags, or even a full-on Swastika flag (or ten).
I crossed the railway tracks to Telliskivi Loomelinnak (Creative City), one of my favourite places in Tallinn. Old industrial buildings have been converted into cafes and independent shops, street art abounds in bright colours. I wandered around the shops, playing out fictitious conversations in my head. I thought about a friend, and all the things I wanted to say to them. All the confusing things became clear in this white tiled hallway. I found the answers and they were simple.
I left Telliskivi, and walked through the Kalamaja district, where the streets are lined by wooden houses painted in greens and yellows and browns, to Seaplane Harbour. This was the closest I’ve gotten to the Baltic Sea on this trip, and it warmed my heart. Unfortunately, I couldn’t spend long taking in the view, because both my fingers and my thighs were in danger of getting frostbite. I headed into the museum gift shop for a few minutes to warm up. I gave myself a stern “no, you don’t need another Estonia fridge magnet, Eliza” talk. Once I had defrosted a little, I headed back outside, gazed lovingly for a few minutes at the waves as they lapped against the snowy shore, and headed back towards Balti Jaam Market.
My thoughts grew more somber as I thought of something my mum had said earlier, about how this year three generations of women in our family are spending Christmas alone. In case I’ve given you the wrong impression in my past two blogs, the thing I am running away from is not my boy problems or delusional mind. The reason I am spending Christmas 1000 miles from home in a small country in North Eastern Europe is because my parents separated earlier this year, and I don’t want to spend Christmas with only half my family, trying desperately to avoid the traditions we’ve cultivated for two decades. I was feeling bitter and petty, and, like the spoilt youngest child I am, I decided my needs were my priority, and that it was in my best interests to leave the country.
I have no regrets. At least it’s less fake this way. If I’m going to cry over my broken family, I’d much rather do it in Estonia than crammed into my sister’s tiny flat in Wales. So I thought about my mother’s comment, as I broke off chunks of fruity chocolate, whilst the harsh wind bit at my face. Yes, my mother is alone, and my grandmother is alone, and I, too, am alone. But we didn’t get here by accident. We all made our choices, chose solitude over family. The only difference is I did it at twenty instead of forty or fifty. So perhaps I’ll get it out of my system now, and break the pattern and avoid it later in life. Or perhaps I’ll have too strong a taste for freedom, and never find love — or choose my freedom over love. I know I am like my mother. I know I am like my grandmother. I inherited a love of astrology and a skill at baking lebkuchen. But there are some traditions I don’t want to carry on, and self-isolating is one of them. I often joke that I will die alone, but it is certainly not a future I want to envision for myself.
Perhaps it will be different for me. To me, love IS freedom, and because of that, I pray I will never have to choose one over the over. I am independent (would I be writing this from a sofa in Tallinn if I wasn’t?), but in my perfect world? I could see myself loving one person my whole life, that has always been the fantasy. I know myself, I know I go through people quickly, and when they’re past their sell-by date I have no qualms in letting them go. But I know if I loved someone for twenty years, I wouldn’t just stop, it’s not how I’m wired. For me, love is everything. And right now, that may be causing me a hell of a lot of problems, but in the long run, it’s going to make me a damn good partner.
I returned to Balti Jaam Market, and bought my favourite veggie burger for the third time this week. I was half way through when I realised how quickly I was eating, that I had barely paid attention to the taste of the food in my mouth. I thought about how in Latvia I’d eaten the same food for lunch every day. Did I buy this burger because I loved it, or because I am a creature of habit and it was the convenient option? I don’t know how to take pleasure in anything (what a sad existence I lead!). I fall into habits, I take good things for granted. What’s more, once I know what I like, I stick to it because it’s the easy option. Is this burger a metaphor for my whole life?
I walked slowly back through the Old Town, and thought about what Tallinn means to me, how I keep coming back here, time after time. I have had two great loves in my life, that lasted for year upon year: the first is my novel, and the second is Tallinn. I have loved them more than I’ve loved most people. And it hit me, that love I am constantly searching for. It’s here, all around me. I am enveloped in it. The reason Tallinn feels like coming home to me is because it’s like I’m walking around inside my own head. I feel at home in Tallinn because when I am here I feel at home within myself.
I went to do some grocery shopping, and returned to my hostel. Rather than hiding in my room, as is my great passion in life, I curled up with a book in the common room. I am pleased to report that there were no creepy men within sight! The staff are friendly, the energy is warm and lovely. I read for a few hours. A Russian toddler came and played with a wooden chess set on the table next to me. She counted in Russian, and chatted away. I couldn’t help grinning at her every few seconds. I always think I don’t like children (except my niece), but Alyssa (I think she was called) melted my stone-cold heart.
It’s moments like this that make travelling so beautiful. I know maybe six words in Russian (half of which are swear words), and she would be too young to have known any English. Yet we could communicate entirely in smiles and gestures. Our humanity isn’t defined by whether we speak English, or Russian, or Estonian, or Latvian. Language is a beautiful and powerful thing, but it is also just the surface. It is a tool we use to communicate, but our humanity comes from a place far deeper than that. I love words, and writing, and there is a special kind of joy I feel when I hear a child speaking in a language I don’t understand. But when you get right down to it, there is no difference between me and a Russian toddler. I may be slightly taller and have considerably more hair, but we are equals in all ways that matter. And this is why it is a tragedy that the powers that be want to build walls, or take my home country out of a certain union, because travel is fundamentally important for understanding ourselves, and the world, and everything that makes our species redeemable. To limit travel is to limit growth, to limit mental expansion, to limit freedom.
24th December 2018 —
Today was the day I had to get through. (My family always celebrated Christmas on Christmas Eve, the German way, rather than on the 25th). I did get through it, somehow.
I never know just how much I should disclose of my private feelings, but I’ve been open thus far, so there’s no point clamming up here, even though I don’t want to talk about my sadness.
I was fine at first. I went for a walk to Kadriorg Palace, and spent the time thinking about the characters in my novel, playing out scenarios in my head from the years between the first and second book. Then I went to Pirita Beach. I stood on the frozen sand, watching the waves crash in from the fog-covered sea.
I can’t even remember what I was thinking about, but suddenly I wanted to cry. It was the perfect place for it, as I was all alone, but the tears didn’t quite come. I shoved piparkook (Estonian Christmas cookies) into my mouth, and stared into the misty horizon. When I got back to my hostel, I made an effort to make myself some nice food, but that just made me sadder. I wanted to pretend this stupid day didn’t exist, but every time I looked at my phone I was spammed with pictures of everything Christmassy, of happy people, a world I felt completely alienated from. I wanted to cry, but I didn’t have the privacy. I sat on the sofa in the common room, reading a book. Two Austrian men sat a metre away from me. I hate crying in public, I’ve done it far too many times in my life. The presence of other people was enough to make me suppress my emotions.
When I couldn’t take it any longer, I went for a walk to clear my head. I ended up at Raekoja Plats, because the perfect place to go when you’re sick of all things Christmassy is a Christmas market.. I bought some overpriced blueberry glögg, and sat under the arch of the town hall, staring glumly at the happy people in front of me.
I didn’t want to be miserable here. But I had known all along that I would be sad wherever I was in the world, and I knew I would be infinitely less sad in Tallinn than anywhere else. I didn’t run away because I thought it would solve all my problems. I ran away because it was the lesser of three evils, and I know myself well enough to know the best way to look after number one.
As I approached my hostel, I noticed a candle gleaming on the ground below me. I stood for a moment, staring into its flames. That was when I noticed the door in front of me was ajar. Inside was darkness, save for a second candle, resting on the landing at the top of a staircase. It called to me, and I very nearly went inside, entranced by the light and the intrigue. I felt there must be a story here. But the sensible part of my brain kicked in. I know better than to trespass on private property, and I know that lurking alone in dark buildings is a sure-fire way to get murdered.
So I made the sensible decision, and ignored the allure of mysterious candles. There’s a part of me that wishes I had gone in, a part of me that craves adventure, fear, some kind of adrenaline rush to give me an emotion other than sadness. But I am too much of a good girl for that, at least on the surface. Below my controlled facade is an anarchist who does things just to see how far she can push her luck. But tonight my anarchy was subdued to a whisper, like a devil’s advocate in my ear.
I returned to my hostel and called my family. The person I really wanted to talk to was a friend, but I knew my friends would be busy with their families, and I didn’t want to bother them with my sadness, as much as I needed them right now. I made my choice, I chose to be alone, and yes, right now it is hard, especially when the people I want to talk to about it seem unreachable. But I have no regrets, I did what needed to be done. In four days I will be back home, curled up on my sofa watching Gossip Girl. Not long after that, I will be reunited with my friends, and life will go on. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from being alone, it’s that I was not designed for a life of solitude. I needed to be here, I needed to escape. But what I need more than that is the people I will see when I return to Glasgow, the people whose arms I will run into screaming, the people who chose me and continue to choose me.
Until this year, family was close blood relations, a house, a cat or two. It’s different now. Family is a collection of people, spread out across the UK. A house is no longer a home. But family is also my closest friends. It’s the people I can tell anything to, the people I will always choose to stay up till 3am talking to, the people who accept me even when I let my guard down and show them the worst parts of myself, the people who make me laugh and cry, the people who hug me like they mean it, the people who love me. In one of my earlier blogs I said I don’t miss Glasgow. Perhaps I’m starting to, but I’m not missing the city itself. I’m missing the people who turned those rainy streets into more than a city, the people who made it my home.