I didn’t cry when I left Tallinn. Riga was a breath of fresh air, a sunny city where the world was loud and I was quiet. I was at peace, the fiery rage I had stored in my veins finally seeped out of my body, and I could be myself again — whoever that is. Sometimes I think it’s easier to know who I am when I’m alone, because I don’t have to fit myself into any particular box. I can drift around the city, listening to Lana del Rey and getting lost in the absurdity of my thoughts. My own company is easy, I don’t have to defend myself, there’s no fear of shame or alienation.
I’ve spent my life alone. I have had family and friends and teachers and coworkers and acquaintances and random interactions with strangers, but hermit mode has always been my default. My best friend and I spend nine months of the year practically joined at the hip, to the point where it’s accepted that we are a married couple in all but name. Yet I still considered loneliness my natural state. There were so many nights I spent laughing with my friends in pubs and basements and living rooms, only to walk alone through the darkened streets of Glasgow, and feel the joy drifting in wisps out of my body, like warm breath on a cold winter’s day. Because the feeling of being loved was a temporary comfort. I was loved in Glasgow, I know that, but there was something missing.
In Tallinn, it was different. Privacy was a thing of the past. There were so many times that I locked myself in the bathroom or hid in the cleaning cupboard just so I could hear myself think, times when I ran from one end of the building to the other in a desperate bid to avoid awkward interactions. There was always somebody around, and it drove me half mad. Now I’m gone, it’s the thing I miss most. I miss sitting on the sofa and writing in my diary or painting my nails while my male coworkers watched football. I miss being not-alone without having to fully engage in conversation and drain my introvert battery. I miss the “good morning”s, the “goodnight”s, the “can I turn the light off?”s. I miss waking up and seeing my coworker’s feet sticking out of the bed a metre away from my head. I miss the solidarity, the sense of being one great big dysfunctional family. For the first time in my life, I didn’t walk home alone and fall asleep in solitude. My work life and my home life and my social life were all melded together. It was overwhelming, but it was exactly what I needed. As Charles Dickens said of the French Revolution: it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. The hostel was my own personal revolution. Fewer people were guillotined than in 1890s France, but the comparison still suffices.
I didn’t cry when I left Tallinn, but I cried when I returned. It felt like coming home. It’s the second time in the space of two months that I’ve felt that energy shift as the bus crosses over from Latvia into Estonia. The clouds in Estonia are a particular shade of grey, and the forests are dark green, and I feel at home here. Eight days ago I couldn’t wait to leave, to get out of this city and this country and go as far away as my limited budget would allow. Coming back felt like slotting the final jigsaw piece into place in my heart, to create a picture of what I love most in the world. There’s something special about Tallinn, something that has long since transcended it being the city where my novels are set.
Within an hour and a half of being back, I ran into my former boss. I think that’s how you know you’re really at home, when you can’t go shopping without seeing at least one person you know. It was a comfort after the anonymity of Riga. I haven’t been back to the hostel yet. I went to the top of the street and sat on a bench, from which I could just see the entrance. I couldn’t bring myself to go closer. My heart beat too fast, and I felt something I can only describe as panic. I wanted to run through those doors and into the arms of my friends and say “I missed you, I love you, you helped me grow into a stronger person.” But I didn’t. I’m scared that the moment I set foot in that hostel, every emotion I pushed aside during the past two months will come crashing down on me, all the pain and joy and love and frustration will overwhelm me, and I’ll break. Maybe I’m scared that it will be like I’ll never left, that I’ll sit in the common room or drink in the bar, gossip with my former coworkers, and lose myself in that world once again. I will be back in Glasgow in 60 hours from now, I have to learn to let go at some point. Maybe I’m just scared that now I’ve left the hostel bubble, I’m not a part of that world anymore. Time moves differently in that place, what if the eight days I spent in Riga have alienated me from the place I’d learnt to call home?
Home is a minefield for me now. I know my heart belongs to two rainy grey cities. Tallinn belongs to the writer half of me, and Glasgow belongs to the half that wants to work in television. Tallinn is my idealistic side, Glasgow my practical one. No matter where I settle, I will wish for the other, because neither city tells the full story. Riga is my Romantic side, full of coffee shops and long diary entries and wistful fantasies, hours spent wandering around art galleries and bookstores, telling myself that if I wish hard enough I’ll be a character in a movie, instead of a woman alone in the world.
There are times I think I love cities more than people, but it’s the people who make the cities. Riga was mine alone, I came back to myself, explored my mind in intimate detail because there was no one to distract me from myself. Glasgow was the first home I chose, it was mine because I fought tooth and nail to make it so. I built my life like a house, but I made the walls too thick and the rooms too small, and some days I couldn’t quite breathe there. Tallinn was a house made of glass. There was no hiding, it was fragile, it could be shattered at any moment. More than that, it was a house of mirrors. All the things I thought I saw in other people were myself reflections of myself. I’ve always found there is a freedom in honesty, but by the end, the life I had built here was just another place where I couldn’t breathe. Sometimes you need to break the glass, smash a window so you don’t knock down the whole house. Home, for me, isn’t one place, it is a collection of fragments from various broken mirrors, reflecting pieces of myself back to me, competing ideals of identity telling me “THIS is who you are.” I pick and choose which suits me best at any given time.
Tallinn gave me perspective on Glasgow, but it was only once I got to Riga that I had enough perspective on Tallinn to see this. A big thing for me is that I need people to fight for me. It dates back to being bullied in school, and all the people who were indifferent, or “didn’t pick sides.” It is a core need, but I forget about it, because I don’t expect it. I grew complacent, told myself I didn’t need people to fight for me because I could look after myself. In Tallinn, I had people who fought for me, people who stood in my corner before I even dared to ask.
The hostel was an intense and overwhelming world, I still have nightmares about it. I talk about my time there as if I survived a warzone. As I said: best of times, worst of times. All I know is that no matter how many people I wanted to punch in the face on a daily basis, there were always arms to cry into when I needed them. Beneath the chaos and ever-changing group dynamic, there was stability, the stability of knowing I wasn’t on my own this time.
I have many close, supportive, loving friendships in Glasgow. I have people who cheer for me, want to see me win. I have friends who’ve endured three years of me crying over boys and essays and the general pain of existence, and still love me. But there have also been times where I settled for less, where I fought for people when I knew they were indifferent to me, told myself I could change and be more lovable, prove my worth by turning into something other than myself. When I look back at the girl I was a few months ago, I want to give her a big hug and tell her not to settle, that it does get better. Love should never be something you have to beg for.
The biggest lesson I learnt in Tallinn is that your real self will eventually shine through. I have a friend who I got off on the wrong foot with at first. There was an incident involving my questionable choices and half a bottle of vodka, and I blamed him for the next few days. We then united over a common enemy, and became friends. When he left the hostel, we must have hugged about five times, and as we said our goodbyes, the thing he said that really stuck with me is “you are a strong woman.” I didn’t understand how he could see that in me. I knew I was a strong woman, but I didn’t think it was something I showed to the world. He said he could tell from my energy.
That was one of many times over the next couple of weeks where I realised people saw me, the real me. I didn’t have to do anything or prove that I was worthy of being loved. I was myself, and that was enough. I learnt that the right people will love me without me having to bend over backwards to fit into their narrow criteria of who I should be. I will take that lesson with me when I return to Glasgow. No more trying to prove myself, or fighting for people who don’t fight for me. I love myself. I love myself so much. I love my mind and my writing and my sense of humour and my green eyes and my smile. I love the way I love, I love the way I’ve grown. I love the way I rebuild myself, rise from my ashes each time I crash and burn.
The way to know you’ve truly learned from the past is that you stop looking back. I don’t want my final year in Glasgow to be a continuation of the dramas of the past three years. I want it to be the beginning of a new chapter, where I place the foundations for the next period of my life. This summer I truly stopped thinking of myself, and started thinking of myself as a grown woman. I know who I am and what I want from life. I want to incinerate the emotional baggage that has weighed me down for so long, because I don’t need to furnish my home with souvenirs from every battle I’ve fought. I don’t know where home will be once I graduate. Perhaps I’ll move to a new city and start again. What I do know is that it’s a hell of a lot easier to rebuild if you’re not trapped in outdated ideas of who you are or who others see you as. I think back to the way I used to talk about myself when I first started working at the hostel. I was so negative, so convinced everyone must hate me for being awkward or uptight or too talkative or too quiet. They didn’t dislike me, I did. I stopped seeing myself that way, I let myself grow and change, stop telling myself the same stories I’d been trapped in.
It was a unique period of my life, an experience I doubt I will ever recreate, but it taught me so much about life and friendship and resilience. For a while, Tallinn was home, the hostel was home. Technically neither of those things are now true. I don’t live in Tallinn, I am just another traveller passing through. The life I will go back to in Glasgow is my ‘real’, ‘permanent’ life. I’m not a traveller there. But home doesn’t have an expiration date. Tallinn doesn’t take up less space in my heart just because I will be gone before the clock strikes midnight on Thursday. Circumstances change, addresses change, but home is where you make it, and some days you have to accept the duality, let your heart live in more than one location.