It’s been 37 days since I came to Tallinn, 35 since I came to the hostel. Today the weather is trying its best to convince me I’m still in Glasgow. The sudden downpours and water flowing through the streets signal that I am at home. It’s grown to feel like home in Tallinn. I’ve always been a creature of habit, in spite of my impulsive nature. After 35 days, I no longer feel like I’m travelling. I have a life here now. My coworkers have become friends and family, they are my allies. Even sharing a room with 6 other people is normal now. I, the introvert extraordinaire, cultivator of privacy, have grown used to living in a community. This place has changed me, and in 22 days I must leave behind the life I have created here.
Since I was 14 years old, Tallinn has been a place of fantasy for me. Seven years ago I wrote three novels set here. Three years ago I travelled here for the first time, and some kind of magic kept reeling me back in. When I’m not here, I ache for this place. And when I am here? When I am here I dissect the parts of me I thought were fact, and realise they were a carefully curated fiction. Whoever I think I am ceases to exist the moment I set foot on Estonian soil. I have no choice but to reinvent myself.
Before this year, the longest I’d spent in Estonia was two weeks at a time. I would come here just long enough to shake my foundations, and then I would leave — I’d find another country to run to, or I’d go back home. I never stayed long enough to see the aftermath of my reinvention.
After university finished this year, I was bored out of my brain. I quit my job after two weeks because it was hell, and I spent about a month sitting on my sofa watching Grey’s Anatomy. I pictured the summer stretching out in front of me like this, and I knew I would lose my mind. I kept joking about running away to Estonia, but I didn’t have the money. What I did (and still do) have is a talent for getting what I want, one way or another. I signed up to Workaway, and found placements in Lithuania and Estonia. My work placement in Lithuania didn’t work out. Apparently I don’t have the right personality for babysitting. I left after five days. I booked a hostel in Vilnius for a few nights, arranged a job interview at a hostel in Tallinn. I embraced the great unknown. It was the best decision I ever made. I had never felt so free in my life. I took a bus to Tallinn with no guaranteed job at the other end. It could have been a disaster.
I almost didn’t take the job. I’d been on a bus for 9 hours, my shoes were stained with spilt coffee, the cigarette smoke wafting through the door gave my a headache. I nodded mutely in response to half the questions the manager asked me, too exhausted to speak. When he offered me the job, it took all my common sense not to turn it down. But I came the next morning for my trial shift, and I felt a lot better now that I’d had a good night’s sleep. I cancelled my work placement for August, and chose to stay in Tallinn for two months. I was meant to be here. Every plan that failed led me to this place.
This is the first blog I’ve written since I started working at the hostel. I feel like I am living in a TV series here. There is always drama. This place is a microcosm of society. It is self-contained. When you live and work and socialise with the same people, it creates an intense intimacy, and people that were strangers three or four weeks ago become your whole world. Maybe the reason I don’t want to write about my time here is that I don’t want to share it. I’ve found a different side of myself here, and in 23 days from now I will have to integrate this part of me into my life back home. But for now, the story isn’t over. I’m growing and changing, I’m only half way there. A lot can happen in three weeks, and I don’t know who I’ll be when I leave.
I had so many hopes and goals when I came here. I wanted to learn Estonian, I wanted a summer romance, I wanted to finish my novel. I did one of those things (take a wild guess which one). It would be easy to feel like I’ve let myself down, like I could have done better, spent less time gossiping in the kitchen and more time being proactive.
Life isn’t made up of big actions, and as much as I want to learn a language, or have someone fall in love with me, the real thing this hostel has taught me is that all those hours gossiping in the kitchen were more valuable than I could ever put into words. In four days from now, my best friend here will leave, and nothing will be the same.
My first two weeks here were tough. I felt like I couldn’t be myself, that I didn’t know how to make people like me. Then one night I was sitting in the hostel bar, drinking ten ciders because I had a point to prove, and I started talking with this lovely Finnish girl, who turned out to be my new coworker. I told her she was pretty and asked her star sign (Drunk Eliza has a limited range of conversation starters) and one of the best friendships of my life was born.
When I was fourteen, I read a lot of dystopian YA novels, and the thing they had in common (aside from being set in post-apocalyptic wasteland versions of America) was that they involved a group of people being thrown into a new hostile environment where alliances were formed in a matter of days, where people fell in love after a week and would die for their friends in a heartbeat. I’ve always been rather intense about friendships, because I learnt about life through fiction. Here at the hostel, it’s like living in one of those novels. Time works differently when you spend every waking moment with people, and sleep a metre away from them at night. The bonds formed here are as intense as the bonds I have with people I’ve known for three years. It’s changed who I am, and it’s changed how I see the world.
When I’ve been to Tallinn in the past, I came alone. I walked through streets where my novel is set, let the characters dance like ghosts inside my mind, but I was never one of them. I was always here as a storyteller, a narrator. I usually struggle to explain what my novel is about. It’s about what it means to be human, where we draw the line between what’s human and what’s not. It’s about morality and ethics and facing the darker parts of ourselves. But for me, it’s always been about friendship. The friendship between Persephone and Phoenix is the greatest love story I have ever written. It is raw and vulnerable and intense and beautiful; it is the driving force of the novel. At fourteen, I had never had a real friendship. Now I have had a handful of them. Until three weeks ago, all those friendships were back home in Glasgow.
Now that I have a close friend here in Tallinn, it’s changed the way I experience this city. I’m not just picturing my characters, I’m almost living like one of them. The older I get, the more of life I experience, the more I understand my own novel. It’s no longer a habit to do everything alone, when I have someone to cook with, eat with, walk to the grocery store with. All those hours gossiping in the kitchen, laughing and crying in each other’s arms, didn’t just change me, they changed how I see Tallinn, how I see the city I’ve spent ⅓ of my life writing about.
When I say there’s been a lot of drama in my time here, I don’t mean the usually petty drama that interweaves itself within the tapestry of my life. There’s been drama that escalated far beyond the limits of my expectations. At first I was the main target of it. I found myself reliving the fears and trauma of my teenage years, remembering all the times I was bullied and no one intervened, all the years I spent feeling worthless because no one put their foot down and properly defended me.
I didn’t expect it to happen to me as an adult. I found myself crying in the shower, crying to my friend, crying to my boss. But I didn’t think anything would actually be done about it. I expected the cycle to play out the way it has for my whole life. And it didn’t.
I was so caught up in how I thought people saw me, trapped in my own feelings of being an outsider, that I didn’t realise I am surrounded by people who love me. I didn’t know everyone had my back. For the first time in my life, I was bullied and people protected me, stood up for me, got angry on my behalf.
I’ve spent so much of my life feeling like a victim, feeling worthless, feeling like I don’t belong anywhere and never will belong. I’ve carried that trauma around with me for as long as I can remember. This week, when someone tried to make me feel inferior and unwelcome, my coworkers unanimously supported me, showed me that I belong here. It changed something in me.
I’ve become a lot more confident in the month I’ve spent here. I stand up for myself, I call other people out on problematic behaviour. Hell, I have “fuck the patriarchy” henna-tattooed on my hand right now, I know who I am and I give zero fucks about showing it to the world. But there’s always been this part of me that doubted myself. I’d be lying if I said it’s disappeared entirely, it’s still there below the surface. But when you have so many people tell you they love and care about you, it’s hard to be insecure.
The other day, when I was still the main target of the crescendoing drama, I lay on my bed in the staff room, alternating between trying not to cry, and venting to one of my coworkers. I’ve never been good at expressing my anger, but enough had happened to make me absolutely furious, and my rants flowed from my mouth before I could even try to contain them. When I stopped for a moment to catch my breath, my coworker said something like “I’m so angry. Not punching something angry, vengeance angry.” I’m not used to people being angry on my behalf. I had this moment of “holy shit, people here really care about me!” They care about me, the person I am. The me who talks about feminism and astrology and will debate people for problematic things they say, the me who’s a bit awkward and weird at times, the me who thrives on attention and needs to be hugged more than the average human, the me who takes my job too seriously and makes the (not-so-)occasional passive-aggressive comment about people leaving clothes on the floor of the staff room. When you live and work and socialise with the same people, you can’t really hide your true self from them.
Everyone here knows me for who I am, and they love me anyway. This place has changed me. It’s shown me the best and the worst of myself and others, it has purged me of the damaging beliefs I’ve lived with for 21 years. It is intense here, it is like living in a pressure cooker. There are days when I want to get as far from here as possible, days when I’ve run to the beach in the middle of the night and screamed into the sea because I couldn’t take it anymore. But I have felt love and community here in a way I’ve never felt in my life, and it will break my heart when I finally have to leave.
A chapter of my life ended this summer. Last week, I finished writing and editing the rewrite of my novel. I’ve worked on that novel on and off for seven years, it is my longest friendship, it has made me who I am. Soon I will begin rewriting book two, and I will bring book one out into the world. Right now, one of my friends is reading the completed novel, and every time she sends me comments or thoughts on it, I get so excited. Because it’s finally real, it’s not this precious thing I am clutching to my chest, it is a real book with a real reader. In a few months, it will have a lot more readers, and my work on it will truly be done. I’ve been so scared of letting people read it, I’m such a perfectionist about my writing. I didn’t realise how liberating it would feel.
That novel was my teenage years, my journey into adulthood. Knowing my procrastination habits, book two will probably be the better part of my twenties. This series is my life’s work, and the first chapter of that has ended. It feels significant that this chapter closed at the same time I began to let go of my teenage trauma. I am an adult. I am an adult and I am mature, and I can handle the real world. I’m ready to leave my teenage years behind once and for all, because I have grown beyond them. I know who I am, I know where I’m going and who I want to be, and I’ll never be that person if I stay stuck in the past, glued into place by cycles and experiences I have long since outgrown. I don’t know where the book of my life is taking me, I’m sure there are many twists and turns ahead, but this chapter right here, it closes with a happy ending, because I am the writer of this story.