12th June 2017 –
It seemed to take forever for the time to pass. I looked out the airport windows at 4am, and it was getting light outside, but it was still a long time till my flight. Once I was through security, I still had well over an hour to wait before I could board the plane. I didn’t want to use my phone, because I had a mobile boarding pass, so I couldn’t risk letting my battery die. I had to find other means of entertainment.
I got out my phrasebook, trying to brush up on my Estonian, but nothing would sink in. I sat for an hour, making up imaginary scenarios in my head, my last resort at entertaining myself.
The air was surprisingly cold, as I stepped outside to board the plane, and something about the chill woke me up just enough to feel a little excitement. My seat was an aisle seat, and as the passengers behind me boarded the plane, I prayed that the other seats in my row wouldn’t be taken. I had no such luck.
Two Russian ladies stood in the aisle, glaring at me until I realised they wanted to get past. One was a middle aged woman, with dyed blonde hair, and the other, I presumed, was her daughter. She was in her early 20s, with long, brown hair, and crimson, talon-like fake nails, and a pouty expression upon her face. They slept for most of the journey, positioning themselves in such a way that they blocked the view from both the windows next to our seats. This annoyed me, but tiredness soon caught up with me, and I slept sporadically throughout the flight, grateful to finally get some rest.
When I arrived in Estonia, it was lightly raining. Me, my Evil Backpack, and the Laptop Case from Hell, made our way through Arrivals, and then found a spot on the floor beside a plug socket, to rest while my phone charged.
I sat for a while, watching the rain outside the window, and thinking “holy shit, I am actually in Estonia now. How did this happen?”
I video-called my parents, to let them know I’d made it there alive, and to ask after my furry baby (my cat, William; I don’t have some secret hairy child that you’re unaware of). After that, I had to figure out how to get to my hostel.
The airport is about an hour’s walk from the city centre. I know this because last year I couldn’t find the right bus, so I had to run to the airport, and got there 1 minute before the gates were due to close. Given my past bad luck with Estonian public transport, I considered walking. After all, it wasn’t raining too heavily.
I walked towards the city, still not quite believing that I was actually here, in Estonia. I’d walked for about twenty minutes, when I saw a sign for Prisma, one of Estonia’s supermarket chains. I hadn’t eaten since about 3am, and was absolutely starving, so I decided to take a quick detour and buy lunch. It was a long time since I’d been in an Estonian supermarket, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. But the language barrier wasn’t as problematic as I’d anticipated.
Trying to decipher ingredient lists in a language you can’t understand is somewhat of a challenge, but I’ve noticed that in Estonia vegan foods are very clearly labelled as such, a lot more than they are in Britain. And the Estonian language does not have its own word for vegan, so it is the same word as in English. A giant “vegan” sticker jumped out at me, from the packet of a chilli tortilla wrap. I bought this, along with a loaf of my one true love (also known as: rye bread).
When I left Prisma, the light rain had turned to a downpour. I decided to take the tram (which I don’t mind, unlike busses). I took the tram to the Viru stop, and ventured into the Old Town on foot. I knew I would have to consult Google Maps at some point, and for that I needed wifi. The rain was getting worse, dripping down my face, soaking through my bag, running in rivulets through the cobbled streets.
I went to Raekoja Platts, and sheltered under the arches of the town hall, connecting my phone to the Tallinn City Wifi. I consulted Google Maps, and, certain of my direction, headed off.
If I were a sensible person, I would have looked more closely at the map. Instead, I spent two hours wandering around the Old Town, soaked to the skin, carrying heavy bags, on the verge of tears. Eventually, after walking around in circles for a ridiculous length of time, I ended up at Vana Viru, on the edge of the Old Town. My wifi finally connected again, and I checked Google Maps for the third time, only to discover that my hostel was not actually in the Old Town, but just outside it. No wonder I hadn’t found it before!
I got a little lost still, but soon located my hostel. The woman on reception was friendly, and the hostel had a nice atmosphere. When I arrived in my room, it was deserted. I was impressed with the bunks, in that I could sit up in the bottom bunk without banging my head on the top (very different from my cage in London!). The room was spacious, with a high, wooden ceiling, and a big window beside my bed.
Another woman arrived a little while later. We talked briefly, then I went for a shower. I love the showers here – large, metal showerheads, with water like hot rain. Perhaps I’m just used to the crappy water-flow of the shower at home, or the weird angle of the showerheads at uni, or perhaps I was just glad to be clean after all my walking, but these showers seemed far more wonderful than any shower I was used to.
Once I was clean and dressed, I ventured out to buy some food. I remembered that there was a supermarket in the basement of Viru Keskus (Viru shopping centre), and it was only 15 minutes walk from my hostel, so I decided to head there. I find it so interesting shopping in foreign supermarkets, because you can learn so much about a country, through everything from prices to what kind of products they stock. It immerses you in everyday life in a way that would never happen if you just ate at cafes and restaurants.
I was too hungry to look around for too long, so I bought some food, and headed back to my hostel. I made a simple dinner of toasted rye bread, tofu sausages, and some Estonian version of baked beans.
When I returned to my room, I had gained a second roommate. A grumpy-looking blonde lady sat on the bed opposite mine, crunching loudly on pistachio nuts, cracking the shells open with her teeth. I have a passionate hatred of people who chew loudly and eat with their mouths open. It’s right up there with slow walkers. And whilst such a person would get on my nerves at the best of times, the fact that I had hardly slept in the past 36 hours made it infinitely worse. She chewed those damn pistachios for at least half an hour. I mentally christened her the Nutcracker.
Two more occupants moved in a little while later: two friends, in their 30s. One took the bunk above me, and the other took the one above the Nutcracker. Neither acknowledged me, so they earned the ironic nicknames of Chatty and Chattier. I soon realised that the reason I felt so irritable was due to my lack of sleep, and I could feel myself coming down with a cold, so I took this as my cue to finally catch up on some much-needed rest.
13th June 2017 –
When I awoke, the Nutcracker et al were thankfully absent, which gave me the space I needed to take in my surroundings. For a moment I didn’t know where I was. My bed faces in the same direction as my bed at home, and my bed at uni, so it took a while for my brain to get through all possible locations, before remembering that I was, in fact, in Estonia.
I wished I was back in Glasgow. I missed my friends, my life, my normal routine. I had a good, hard cry for the first time in my journey.
I felt sad, and I couldn’t quite figure out why. I missed human contact. I missed having people to talk to. Mostly I missed having people to hug. There is this thing called the 5 Love Languages, which is a bit like personality types for how people give and receive love. (It’s very interesting, but I’m rubbish at explaining it). Anyway, my main love language is “loving touch”, and my second one is “words of encouragement”. So travelling alone, i.e. where I have no one to hug, and no one to talk to, means that it’s pretty much impossible for me to have the things I need to make me feel loved/sane.
I do have friends I’m going to meet with along the way, but the first of these isn’t until I’m in Latvia, at the beginning of July. And it’s not someone I know well enough for me to be like “Hi, can you please hug me for half an hour so I can feel human again?” So I must wait until I go to Lithuania, where I will see one of my best friends, before I can catch up on what will by then be an entire month’s worth of hugs that I’ll have missed.
After I finished my emotional breakdown, I headed to the kitchen, to get some breakfast. A middle-aged man started a conversation with me. He told me he was from Latvia, and was in Estonia on a business trip. I told him I was going to Latvia later this month, and that I was from England. He told me he used to live in England, and wanted to go back there one day and see more of the country. He then started talking about how English people are obsessed with football. Good to know that that’s our national stereotype. It was nice to have someone to talk to. Never in my life did I think I’d be this grateful for small talk.
After breakfast, I ventured outside. As I turned the corner from my hostel, I could see the gleaming blue of the Baltic Sea. I headed down towards the water, careful not to slip on the grassy hill which separated the stony beach from the road. I sat down on a rock, and listened to the peaceful lapping of the waves against the shore. I find water so calming, and it gave me the strength I needed to persevere through my homesickness and exhaustion.
I walked along the road, towards Linnahall, an abandoned Soviet remnant from the 1980 Moscow summer Olympics. The sailing part of the Olympics was held in Tallinn because Moscow is not next to the sea.
After exploring Linnahall, I headed into the city. I found a café called Caffeine, and bought myself a coffee, which improved my mood a lot, because it gave me some semblance of normality.
Back in Glasgow, I spent a lot of time in coffee shops. Whether it was to catch up with my best friends, or just to clear my head, going to cafes was my main coping mechanism when life felt like too much to handle.
As I drank my coffee, I began to feel much more positive. Coffee makes me feel like I can do anything (it also makes me feel like I have to message my friends and tell them how much I love them. I don’t know if this is normal). As I drank my coffee, I watched the people coming and going in the café. I saw a man who looked like a hybrid of every guy I’ve had a crush on so far at uni. He had aspects of all of them. He was a beautiful, muscular, tattooed giant, with long, blonde hair, and big blue eyes. He was so pretty! (And was sadly accompanied by a girlfriend) If you think about it, someone who is a combination of four other people I’ve liked in the past must technically be the ultimate definition of my “type”. This random Estonian stranger is the holy grail of beautiful men. What a shame that he 1) already has a girlfriend, 2) is a stranger, and 3) speaks a different language. Oh fate, how art thee so cruel? Well, I’m sure there are plenty of other fish in the Baltic Sea.
Once caffeinated, I began to reason with myself. Since arriving in Tallinn, there had been many moments where I’d wondered: what the hell am I doing here? I’ve travelled 1500 miles, spent a lot of money, devoted almost my entire summer to this, and for what? What have I gained?
Truth be told, I bought this trip whilst wearing rose-tinted glasses. It was practically tattooed upon my brain that “travel makes me grow” and “travel makes me the best version of myself”. I’d just come out of a friendship which had ended very badly, and damaged my self-esteem. I was finally getting over it, and I wanted to do something drastic. People had often joked that this friend and I were like an old, married couple. So I guess coming out of that friendship was like going through a divorce.
I’d come out the other side, everything in my life was going great, but I still had a final point to prove.
When I think of the first time I came to Estonia, I think of how much I grew as a person. And I forgot that a lot of that growth came through suffering, through crying myself to sleep every night, through being alone in the forest for 5 days without wifi. I booked this trip to heal myself, to repair my confidence and my lost self-esteem. I forgot that travel strips away everything you’ve come to rely on before it even considers building you back up.
Travel isn’t a quick fix, and the things which need healing are not what I thought they were. Solo travel is just you and your demons, all alone in an unfamiliar land. But I don’t know what my demons are anymore. I’ve hardly thought of the failed friendship which caused me to book this trip. I’ve tried to think of it, I’ve forced myself to think of the safety I used to feel when I rested my head on his chest or told him all my secrets, I tried to feel the pain of betrayal and the pain of realising that the person you hold up on a pedestal is just as damn human and flawed as everyone else. But that pain is gone. I don’t grieve for that friendship, I don’t miss him; I hardly even think about him. I am well and truly over it and those demons were put to rest long ago.
But there is still something haunting me: there must be, or else I would be happy. Perhaps this time around, my demon is simply a fear of being all alone. The first time I came to Estonia was the loneliest experience of my life, but I was used to a certain degree of loneliness. I had never had real, close friendships. But now it’s different. In university, I finally found the friendships I’d been waiting for my whole life. And so now, when I am alone, I know what I’m missing. I know what loneliness is, because I have seen its opposite.
When I left Caffeine, I went to the supermarket in Viru Keskus. Shopping is fascinating. Playing the “is it vegan?” lottery is also fascinating. Whilst products which are specifically made for vegans are clearly labelled as such, products which are “accidentally vegan” are not. Most items tend to have ingredients written in about six languages – generally all Eastern European ones – and in order to decipher the ingredients, it’s generally a case of finding a language with close enough roots to English that I can understand it.
14th June 2017 –
I slept all morning. When I awoke, Chatty and Chattier had moved out. Sadly, the Nutcracker had not. Whilst she hadn’t done anything to annoy me since the first night, I still didn’t like her sour energy. I didn’t quite dislike her yet. I have a soft spot in my heart for grumpy blonde European women, because my best friend is one, so they will always remind me a little of her, and this made me a little more lenient towards the Nutcracker.
I showered and dressed, then I got myself some cornflakes, and sat down in the common room to write in my diary. Two men were playing table tennis – very badly, because the ball kept falling near to where I sat. One of the men smiled at me, when he came to pick it up. I noticed that he was beautiful. He had thick, wavy, dark brown hair, muscular arms, and a warm smile. He looked like the second actor for Daario in Game of Thrones/Liam from Nashville. He dropped the ball yet again, and I passed it back to him, dropping my pen in the process. He passed my pen back to me, and we exchanged another smile. When they left, Beautiful Man’s companion opened a box of breakfast tea, and offered me a teabag. Clearly he knows the way to an English girl’s heart!
I headed out into the Old Town, and went to Raekoja Platts, which is a significant setting within my novels. I find it strange that I have hardly thought of my books since coming here, given that this is the city where they are set. When I first came to Estonia, everything was about my books. Yet this time it seems as though those parts of my brain and my heart have been switched off completely.
I explored the Old Town, enchanted by the medieval buildings and cobbled streets. Glorious sunlight streamed down, glowing upon my face. I went to Freedom Square, and up towards Toompea Castle, and the Estonian Parliament. I tried to imagine my characters, but they were barely ghosts before my eyes. I made my way to the viewing platforms, which offer the most wonderful view of the city. I even managed to find a spot that was free from tourists!
I do love this city, so much, and I wonder if that has perhaps been my problem. I remember when I was here last year, I wrote that it was as though I had a crush on this city, and I was disappointed when I saw its reality. But when I learnt to accept it for how it actually was, rather than how I saw it in my head, my crush on the city turned to love. Well now, my love for Tallinn is different. It’s like I returned to an old flame and expected everything to be as it was before, in spite of all the time that’s passed.
I am not the girl I was a year ago. I came to Tallinn full of expectations, as though this city could fill some void inside me. But that’s not how love works, and it’s not what cities do. I felt very small, in a way. I love this city, I idolise it. I travelled 1500 miles to be here. I made my pilgrimage, but I have nothing to offer. I don’t speak the language, and there are so many parts of this country’s history that I will never understand, because I haven’t lived through it.
I am an outsider. I am an outsider, who claims a love for a place they know almost nothing about. What is my devotion worth, to this city? What do I get in return for the love which the soles of my shoes pour into every cobbled stone they tread upon? My love is unrequited, and even yet, I know this city will work its magic and make me who I’m meant to be.
Once I left the Old Town, I went to a café on the top floor of Viru Keskus. I bought a bottle of Fanta, and sat by the window, watching sunlight shine on the skyscraper hotels outside.
I was super tired, so I headed back to my hostel soon after. I made a dinner of veggie burgers, baked beans, and rye bread, and then went to bed. I read some more of The Alchemist for a little while, but my cold had given me a headache, so I decided to get an early night.
15th June 2017 –
I woke to find a passive-aggressive note, which I can only presume was from the Nutcracker, resting beside my bed. It began patronisingly with “Dear Girl”, and proceeded to complain that I snore heavily. She claimed that she hadn’t got any sleep for the past two nights, and suggests that in the future I stay in private rooms. She ended the note with “OMG!”
Firstly, the snoring is because I have a terrible cold, and can hardly breathe out my nose, especially when I’m asleep. It’s not something I can help. Secondly, if she’s such a sensitive sleeper, perhaps she should consider a private room herself. Thirdly, passive-aggressive notes are just plain bitchy and immature. And finally, this is the woman who kept me awake the first night with her dreadful nut crunching. Snoring is not something I can control. Being an obnoxious nut-crunching bitch is something that she can definitely control.
I messaged my best friend for advice. She told me to respond with a note saying “Get earplugs”. I’m seriously considering it.
I had a good cry. I felt self-conscious and embarrassed, and worse, I felt like my room was no longer a sanctuary. I know for a fact that I’m going to have anxiety every time I go in there from now on. I’m ill, I just want to curl up and nap. I’m done dealing with hostile roommates; I’ve had enough of this.
I like my hostel; I like its aesthetic, and its staff. But I have been very disappointed with my roommates. I think I was expecting a youth hostel, with people my own age. Instead, the majority of my roommates have been unfriendly 30-something-year-old business women. I’m craving human connection, and whilst I’m surrounded by humans, I feel utterly alone.
I sat in the common room, sulkily eating my cornflakes, and wondering, yet again, what the hell I’m doing here. I leave for Tartu on Tuesday, and I can’t wait. A new location, a new hostel, a fresh start… Hopefully my cold will be gone by then, so I don’t make any new enemies.
I forced myself to stop sulking. I knew the best way to cheer myself up was to buy coffee (that’s pretty much how I got myself through the first year of uni!), so I headed to Caffeine. I was very proud of myself, because I managed to conduct my order entirely in Estonian. And I learnt a new word: suur. It means large, as in “suur cappuccino sojapiim”, also known as large cappuccino with soya milk. I sank into my armchair, and listened to the conversations around me.
I felt a tad emotional when I heard a man speaking in English. When I came to Estonia last year, the language terrified me; it was like a constant assault to my fearful ears. But now I can find the beauty in being surrounded by a foreign tongue. Since going to university, I have changed my attitude to language. I used to find it so scary to be in a country where I couldn’t speak the language, because communication is everything to me.
But after nine months living with people from all over the world, I feel differently. I’m used to standing in my kitchen, hearing my flatmate talking loudly in Italian on the phone to her family. I’m used to walking down the street and hearing half the languages of Europe in amongst the shouts of native Glaswegians.
One of my best friends is German, and another is Lithuanian; they grew up thinking and speaking in languages that I can’t understand, and yet they are two of the people I’m closest to in this world. So now I can sit in an Estonian café, listening to people chattering away in a language I can’t understand, and I can see that a language is just words; it is the surface, it is the form of expression, but it is not the meaning it expresses. Communication runs deeper than the sounds it is made up of. So I, the outsider, can feel a connection to the strangers around me, because in spite of the different languages we speak in, our hearts beat just the same.
After leaving Caffeine, I decided to go to Kadriorg Palace. I stopped at a supermarket to find some lunch. I bought some tofu croquettes, and, because I was still feeling miserable, some candied ginger and a giant bar of cherry flavoured dark chocolate, which mercifully had its ingredients written in English.
I then headed along the Narva Maantee, towards Kadriorg. When I’d come here last year, I’d gotten very lost, but this time I remembered the way, and arrived there without a problem. The first time I’d gone to Kadriorg Palace, it had been raining, and I’d been tired and miserable, and just wanted my bed. But today, almost a year later, I was able to appreciate the setting in a way that I hadn’t before.
I sat down on a bench, and ate almost a third of my bar of chocolate. I was still sulking about the Nutcracker’s passive-aggressive note. I hate awkwardness, I hate hostility. And I have social anxiety, so I find initiating confrontation a struggle. But I am also very much a “doer”, and I would rather be blunt and address issues head on, rather than letting them fester. I was very tempted to follow my friend’s advice, and respond with a passive aggressive note of my own.
I can be very petty when I want to be, and it’s something I try to keep in check. I’m an adult now, and I don’t want to be immature, when I can help it. Even if the Nutcracker was asking for it… I decided I would make a decision later.
I wandered around Kadrioru Park, through paths surrounded by bright green forest and purple and yellow wildflowers. I wished I could stay there forever, and never go back to my room.
Once I left Kadrioru Park, I went to Pirita Beach. Again, the last time I was here, it had been raining. I remember last year, walking barefoot on the wet sad, pressing flowers between the pages of my diary; it had been my second-to-last day in Tallinn. Today, the sun shone upon the sand, and gleamed on the waves of the brilliant blue water. There is something about the Baltic Sea which touches my heart whenever I lay my eyes upon it.
I eventually prized myself away from my beloved Baltic, and walked back into the city centre. I stopped by Viru Keskus to pick up some supplies for dinner, and apprehensively returned to my hostel. I’d finally made a decision: I was going to confront the Nutcracker, explain the situation, and try to discuss it like the adults we both are.
My heart thudded as my keycard slotted in the door. I turned the handle. The door swung open. A figure lay, curled up, in the Nutcracker’s bed: a figure with long, black hair.
Where I had expected to see the Nutcracker, a random Indian woman lay instead. My heart swelled with gratitude and relief. I could have jumped with joy!
I skipped down the stairs to the kitchen, to make dinner. I had been craving stuffed vine leaves for days, and I’d finally purchased some in Viru Keskus. I ate these with rye bread, and a glass of pomegranate juice. I spread myself out on one of the sofas in the common room, truly happy for the first time in days. The Nutcracker was gone! I was free.