Travel Diary — Tartu: days 1-6

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20th June 2017 –

I’d set my alarm for 8am, but I woke at 7. My main aim was to avoid the Nutcracker as much as possible. Why was she back here? What had I done to deserve this?
I went down to the kitchen and toasted some rye bread for breakfast. When I returned to my room, the Nutcracker was getting dressed. Of course she had to have a perfect body. It’s a shame that her face ruins the whole picture.

I waked right past and ignored her. It occurred to me that perhaps the reason she was back was because I hadn’t dealt with her the first time. She’d disappeared before I could decide how to handle the situation, and it had provided me with an easy way out. I realised that the Nutcracker was a bully, and this was a strange thought for me, because I hadn’t dealt with bullies since school. There had certainly been a couple of unpleasant people at uni – certainly some people who caused me a lot of upset – but I wouldn’t have classified them as bullies in the sense I was used to. (Thinking of it now, perhaps I should have).

But the Nutcracker was a bully, plain and simple. And I was so done! Perhaps I could have confronted her… But I dealt with bullies for three whole years in school, and at this point I just thought “fuck it, I am a grown adult and I shouldn’t have to put up with this.” So I ignored her, and that was that.

I left my bags at the hostel, and stepped outside into the pouring rain. I felt a strange mixture of peace and melancholia. I didn’t want to leave. In some ways, Tallinn could be seen as the most challenging part f my journey, because it wasn’t the unknown. It was a half-known place, full of memories and expectations. Now that it was time to leave, I wasn’t ready for my clean slate.

I bought a takeaway cappuccino from Caffeine, and went to sit under the arches of the town hall. The beauty of the rain was that I got to enjoy Raekoja Plats the emptiest I had ever seen it, almost completely devoid of tourists. For the first time since arriving in Tallinn, I could properly feel my characters in my head.

I sat for awhile, allowing myself to indulge in being a writer, rather than just a traveller. I then decided to take a final walk around the rain-soaked Old Town. I put my earphones in, creating a private introvert world of music and experience. My book characters compelled me to listen to “There is a light that never goes out” by The Smiths. Probably because of the line “to die by your side, what a heavenly way to die”, given that Raekoja Plats is the site of two of my characters’ deaths.

I hadn’t listened to the song in ages, because it was too closely tied to memories of a former friend. It’s seemingly the anthem of every pretentious nowhere-bound young man in search of their manic-pixie-dream-girl/sense of self. But it was the song that my characters requested, so I endured it and all the memories it attacked me with, because I was so grateful to have my characters back in my head.

As I walked towards Taamsaare Park, I finally felt my favourite character, Phoenix, back in my head. I asked why they’d only made an appearance when I was due to leave. She told me it was because this trip was about me, not them. I had brought my characters home when I’d come here last year. I had made my pilgrimage, I had served them well. But this year it was a pilgrimage from me, not them, and they had taken a step back so that I could learn about myself.

I wondered if my writer’s bloc wasn’t so much writer’s block as self block. I keep thinking that back in Glasgow I was happy, and knew exactly who I was and where I belonged…but if that was the case, why was I so distanced from my identity as a writer? Why do I hardly tell people I write books? Even the poetry I write is written for performance, rather than reading.

I don’t have the answers. I guess it’s something I must add to the list of things I hope to discover on this trip. Perhaps by immersing myself in the art and culture of all these different countries, I can breathe life into the dormant Creative that lies hidden in my soul. Perhaps this is my “Eat Pray Love” journey, but I must learn to pray to myself, and love myself, and eat myself… No, that metaphor doesn’t quite work.

I went into Viru Keskus, and took the connecting passageway which led to the foyer of Hotel Viru, on the say-so of Phoenix. This building is her domain, the setting where most of her scenes in the book take place. I surreptitiously took a few photos, so that I can get a better description of the layout, and then left before the staff could wonder what I was doing.

I remember, when I first came here last year, I took a video of me touching the outside of the building. (My characters made me do it). Phoenix demanded I do it again. As I caressed the exterior of the building, her smug voice chimed in my head “this is why we invested in hand sanitizer.” Being a writer is weird.

I needed to buy lunch, so I decided to go to Balti Jaama Turg, to have one of the world’s most amazing veggie burgers for the final time. But, to my horror, they were sold out! How could fate be so cruel? I wandered around for a little while, dismayed and miserable. It was raining, I was hungry, and I just wanted hot food. I bought coffee from a little coffee truck by Balti Jaam. It was the first place I’d bought coffee in Estonia last year. The waitress looked slightly amused, so I’m guessing my pronunciation was a little bit inaccurate.

As the caffeine began to flow through my veins, inspiration struck! I remembered there was a vegan restaurant in the old town which did takeaway cakes. I could buy lunch from there! However, when I reached the place, I saw it didn’t open till 12, and it was only 11:20.

I was feeling very grumpy by now. The only thing grumpier than Hungry Eliza is Caffeinated Hungry Eliza. I made myself breathe through my frustration. I gave up and went to Viru Keskus. I wondered if the purpose of my bad luck was to show me just how cyclical life is. I headed back to my hostel just as I’d arrived there a week ago: grumpy, rain-soaked, and eating a slightly soggy vegan chilli wrap.

I took the tram to the bus station, and went to buy my ticket. I was relieved to use the self-service machine, so I didn’t have to figure out how to ask for a ticket in Estonian. It was 12:45, and my bus was due to leave at 1:30. I bought a little tub of raspberries, and sat on a bench to wait for my bus.

By what I can only presume was a miracle (given my track record with Estonian public transport), I got on the right bus, and arrived safely in Tartu. The bus drove past my hostel, so I was able to navigate my way there without the aid of Google maps. It was a simple 20-minute walk, the majority of which was all one street.
I noted with surprise that there seemed to be a total of zero tourists in the city centre.

After checking in to my hostel, I headed for my room. On my way there, however, something caught my eye: the most gorgeous little black-and-white cat. He was so precious! I am a huge cat-lover, so the discovery that the hostel had a cat made me very happy.

This happiness increased when I saw my room. I had thought I’d booked a bed in an 8-person dorm. But it turned out it was an 8 person apartment, and a 2 person dorm. And, as of yet, there was no roommate. For the first time in a week and a half, I had sweet, sweet privacy.

I checked out the kitchen, and then consulted Google maps to see if there were any supermarkets nearby. I located one that was a 12 minute walk away, and set off. Within a couple of minutes of leaving the main road, it felt like a different world. The streets were lined with traditional Estonian wooden houses, the likes of which were common in some parts of Tallinn. The street was completely empty.

Tallinn had been quiet, but Tartu felt like a ghost town. The further I walked, the more spaced out the houses became, situated in yards with trees and cars and cats, the once-brightly coloured paint fading on the wooden walls.

The supermarket was set within some kind of shopping centre. I went in the wrong door, and ended up in a place so eerily quiet I thought it must be closed. There was a pet shop on one side, and some kind of alcohol store, and a closed clothing shop with mannequins dressed in nightgowns. The door didn’t open when I tried to leave, and I thought for a moment that I was trapped in the creepy shopping centre. Thankfully, this was not the case.

I found the correct entrance to the supermarket, and began to browse. To my horror, I discovered that, for the first time in my life, I was in a supermarket that did not sell a single soy product. I don’t expect everywhere to have the variety I am used to, but in the UK it seems that even the most out-of-the-way supermarkets at least sell a basic soy milk, whereas in Estonia they do not.

I found it interesting from a cultural perspective. But from a vegan perspective, I found it annoying as fuck.

After much searching of shelves, I finally located what I think was some kind of almond milk, though I couldn’t be sure, because the ingredients were written in Italian. Even the vegetable section was limited. There were perhaps four or five varieties of vegetables, at most. Due to the lack of vegan products, I knew I would be forced to actually cook food from scratch. I decided to buy some herbs and spices. As I tried to navigate the ingredients lists of stock cubes and spice mixes, another problem occurred. Half the products were Latvian, and hence, the ingredients were written in (you guessed it!) Latvian. I can just about read through ingredients lists in Estonian and tell if they’re vegan, but I can’t with Latvian. Next week will be interesting…

The final blow was that I couldn’t find salt. I can understand a supermarket not selling soy products. I can understand that a supermarket in Southern Estonia will stock a lot of Latvian products. But I cannot understand for the life of me why a supermarket would not stock salt! I mean, it’s SALT! I could feel myself on the edge of losing my mind. I gave up and bought garlic salt, and returned to my hostel.

To increase my wonderful mood, I found that the kitchen didn’t have a chopping board. Cutting potatoes on plates is not fun. Also, why do potatoes take so long to cook? Is there a scientific reason for it, or do they just do it to spite me? I was starving and frustrated, and my food was taking what seemed like a decade to cook. I could only hope tomorrow would be better.

21st June 2017 –

Naturally, I woke to torrential rain. I had planned to go out and explore, but the weather didn’t look appealing, so I spent some time sitting in the hostel’s little library room. It was a cute place, and it was nice to sit and relax, but I didn’t want to spend the whole day cooped up indoors. I retrieved my raincoat from my room, and was ready to hit the town.

It was a 20 minute walk into the city entre, and the rain beat down lightly and consistently. My first order of business was to check out the supermarkets, to see if they were all as devoid of soy products as the one last night. The city centre of Tartu is made up of 3 or 4 shopping centres, and a whole load of trees. I recognised the name of one of the shopping centres – Kaubamaja – from Tallinn. It was the name of the supermarket in Viru Keskus. This gave me hope!

As the store had a slightly different layout from the one in Tallinn, I first thought it didn’t have the same stock. But after a quick glance around, I was gladly proven wrong. I have never been so relieved to see tofu sausages in my entire life! I bought a small carton of chocolate soy milk, just because it existed, and left Kaubamaja.

My impression of Tartu thus far was that the city was very green and very wet.

I walked through a (very green and very wet) park, with vague thoughts of coffee running through my mind. The sign jumped out at me like a messenger from the heavens, familiar shades of orange and white… Caffeine!

For some reason, my brain hadn’t made the connection that Tartu is still in Estonia, and therefore has the same language as Tallinn, so I expected ordering coffee to be a much bigger challenge than it actually was. I liked this branch of Caffeine; it was nice and peaceful, with light-green velvet sofas, and chalk drawings on the black walls. The vibe is what I would call “mainstream hipster”, which I know is a contradiction in terms. But let’s face it, the hipsters sold out and became mainstream long ago, in the ultimate act of irony.

Once I’d drunk my life force (I mean, coffee), I went out to explore. I soon discovered the Old Town. It was smaller than the one in Tallinn, and easier to navigate. The streets were wider, and flat, whereas the Tallinn Old Town is located on a hill. I found the Raekoja Plats (Town Hall Square), which was pretty cool. The Town Hall was a pink-and-white building, and in front of it was the kissing students fountain. Yes, you read that correctly: even a statue has a better love life than I do.

I ventured up the hill behind the Town Hall, which lead to the Tartu University campus, and to the ruins of the cathedral. It had stopped raining by this point, and the sky was a glorious shade of blue. I ran around under the arches of the cathedral ruins, my inner history nerd resurfacing after lying dormant for years. There’s something about ancient buildings that will always capture my imagination, and no matter how much A Levels made me lose my love of history, this will never change.

Behind the cathedral was a forest. To be fair, the majority of Tartu is a forest, but this was an even forestier forest. (Why do I always make up words?) Throughout the forest were a bunch of statues. There was one of a tall man with long hair, I thought to myself, half-jokingly, “He’s almost my type”. I read the description of the statue, and discovered he was a Latvian-born Estonian poet. “Very much my type,” added the voice in my head. To be fair, I probably have a better chance getting a statue to like me back than any guy I’ve had a crush on in the past year.

I returned to the Old Town, and wandered around for a while, eventually coming across the Tartu University Botanic Gardens. They reminded me of the Botanic Gardens in Glasgow, and made me feel a little homesick. When I discovered the river on the other side of them, the homesickness deepened. It was hardly the Kelvin or the Clyde, but it was close enough. I walked along the riverbank for a little while, and decided that tomorrow I would explore the other side.

22nd June 2017 –

As I had seen pretty much all of the main attractions, I decided I would devote today to exploring the other side of the river. I headed to the city centre, and then walked along the riverbank. The water was incredibly still, and a dull browny-green colour. It was so startlingly peaceful here. The whole city was eerily quiet. Yesterday I had attributed it to the rain, but today it wasn’t raining, and I came to the conclusion that this city must always be this quiet. I followed the riverbank until I came to a bridge, and then decided to cross. The bridge was covered with love locks, which I found so adorable, because I am a total romantic. I crossed the bridge slowly, reading all the sets of initials on the love locks.

Across the river there was some kind of lake. The sun shone brightly, and a shirtless man walked by wearing swimming trunks. There was a wooden board at the edge of the lake, presumably for diving, and there was a playground on one side.
In Tartu they have these park benches which are also swings, and there were some of these nearby too. I completely love them, probably because I am somewhat of a child at times, and I like anything that has an element of fun to it.

I explored along the riverbank, but soon realised that there was nothing except residential buildings. There was some cool street art under the bridges, which was pretty much the only thing of interest on this side of the river. Other than street art and houses, it was mostly just grass and trees. Surely there must be more to this city than what I’d already seen. I was beginning to think that Tartu wasn’t so much a city as a forest with a few buildings in it.

The lack of things to do in Tartu made me realise just how much I took living in Glasgow for granted. I spent nine months living in city which had so much going on, and I never really made the most of it. Sure, I went to Improv, and I went to poetry nights. But that was about it. I didn’t go to gigs, I didn’t really go to events, I didn’t do enough. I was filled with a sudden determination to have a much more active life when I return to Glasgow after the summer. I want to go to concerts; I want to go to more events and more artsy things. I want to make the most of the opportunities there.

23rd June 2017 –

I woke in a weird mood. I’d had a dream that someone had tried to rob my bank account, and even though it was just a dream, I couldn’t shake the feeling of being ill at ease. Also, there is literally nothing to do here. Practically all the shops are closed because it’s a public holiday. I explored practically the entire city on the first day, so there’s nothing new to do. And I have another four days here.

I walked along an empty road to the far reaches of the city, and there was nothing but trees, and more trees, and even more trees. I kept myself entertained with my internal commentary, and I realised it’s very lucky that I find myself funny, because I would be insanely bored otherwise. It seems I have grown very skilled in the art of keeping myself company.

As I walked back to the city centre, I worked through some storyline ideas for my book in my head. Since that last day in Tallinn, my characters have been a little more active in my mind. Once I’d returned to the city centre, I went to a supermarket, more out of boredom than a need to buy anything. I went to an ATM to withdraw money, but I found that my card didn’t work. It showed the balance as 291 euros, which was a lot less than I thought was there (had I really spent that much in Tallinn? Knowing me, I probably had. But surely I didn’t spend £300 on food in a week. That’s impossible). But even though there was half the amount of money I expected, it didn’t explain why I couldn’t withdraw money.

I checked my banking app, to see what I’d spent so much money on, and I saw that it was not 291 euros, but minus 291 euros. Somehow there were 800 euros missing from my bank account. I could feel a panic attack coming on, but I forced myself to breathe through it. I told myself to remain calm, and that all I could do was contact my bank. I walked back to my hostel, trying to keep the panic at bay. I checked the banking app again, and looked at the time the 800 euros had been withdrawn. 12:45 on the 20th of June. Why was that time so familiar?

12:45 was when I’d bought my bus ticket! The ticket which cost…8 euros. I still had the receipt! I double checked the time it was bought, and it was indeed 12:45. I emailed my bank, explaining that I thought I had been charged 100 times the price of the ticket.

By some sweet miracle of fate, the money was returned to my account within half an hour. I was so, so relieved.

As there was nothing to do, I decide to read for a while. It occurred to me that the books I’ve been reading on this journey are exactly the right books I’ve needed to read at this point in time. In Tallinn I was reading Paulo Coelho’s “The Alchemist”, and it made me think a lot about travel, and about fate, and about following signs and trusting in purpose. Now I’m reading O R Melling’s “People of the Great Journey”, which seems to focus a lot on themes of personal growth and healing. It’s also really gripping, and I find it hard to put it down. It had been so long since I’d read books that I actually wanted to read, and it felt good to let myself be drawn completely into the story world.

24th June 2017 –

The cat at my hostel is the most adorable wee darling on the entire planet. We sat together in the library room, then he followed me to the kitchen and proceeded to attempt to climb on my lap whilst I peeled potatoes. He kept getting in the way, and I pretended to be annoyed, but I couldn’t help finding it so adorable. I chatted away to him as I made soup.

I lay in bed, thinking how much I love this cat, and how we’ve got a really good friendship dynamic going on. And then I realised: he’s a cat. A CAT!!! Am I losing my mind here? Have I been alone for so long that I have actually gone insane? This cat has somehow reached person-like status in my mind. I need human company. Now!

Later on, still lying in bed on the brink of madness, I felt this strange feeling of elation and freedom. I wondered if it was related to my being alone. Granted, I was on the verge of insanity and had decided that a cat was my new bff, but I didn’t actually feel lonely, per se. In a way, I felt more myself than I had in a while. There was no one to perform for; there was no pressure or expectations to live up to. I was entirely myself, without anyone else’s input, and that felt kind of glorious.

I feel like it’s the loneliest parts of travel where I grow the most. Last year it was my 5 days in the “little house on the prairie nightmare” cabin, and this year it’s my week in the ghost town that is Tartu. There’s something about being forced to be utterly alone with your thoughts that makes you get to know yourself in a way that’s impossible most of the time. Especially for someone like me, who picks up very easily on other people’s traits. For example, I copy people’s speech habits and mannerisms, without actually realising it. That’s why I’ve started swearing more since becoming best friends with my current best friend, amongst other things. And sometimes I don’t know which aspects of myself are me, or which are things I’ve borrowed from other people I’ve known throughout my life. By being alone, I can see what’s left of me when I’m not surrounded by other peoples’ influences.

25th June 2017 –

I was lying in bed, reading, when my phone buzzed with an email notification. Just a basic email about my flight to Paris next month, warning of heightened security checks after the London terror attacks. It seemed a bit odd that they’d email a month in advance, but I thought nothing of it. Then I got a notification from the easyjet app, which seemed rather odd.

Oh my god.

No.

How could I have been so stupid?

True to form, my bad luck with public transport had arisen once again. Somehow I’d booked my flight from Berlin to Paris on the 26th of June, rather than the 26th of July. How could I fly to Paris tomorrow when I’m in freaking Estonia?

It’s the kind of situation where a normal person would be really bothered by the mix-up. But as I am me, I just started laughing hysterically at my own stupidity. I am a control freak who triple-checked everything. How had this slipped through the net?

I managed to change the flight to the correct date, but I had to pay an extra £66, which I was not happy about. Still, I continued to laugh at the ridiculousness of it. Only I could be this stupid.

Sometime later, I was lying in bed (which seems to be how I spend most of my time), listening to music, and I had this sudden realisation that my life force felt so strong. I felt happy, or content, or some other kind of emotion, but there was such strength there. I scrolled through the pictures on my phone, looking for ones of Glasgow because I missed it so much, but I ended up finding lots and lots of pictures of myself.

It’s said that people photograph the things they’re most scared of losing. And sure, my phone is full of pictures of sunsets and flowers and university towers, but after deleting all my pictures of the person I used to photograph most, the face that stares back at me most frequently from my phone screen is my own. So many selfies, what a cliché I am.

There was something rather addictive about watching the evolution of my face and appearance across my nine months at uni. Watching my hair change length and colour… But what struck me the most was how happy I looked. I remembered when some of those pictures were taken – remembered being tired or ill, or having had a fight with a friend… Yet I looked happy. I was my bubbly self, complete with the trademark bright pink lipstick that marks my self-confident moods. And I realised I didn’t hate the face in front of me. Like damn, this girl was so full of life! I got out of bed and looked in the mirror to be sure, and it was confirmed: I don’t hate my appearance. Sure, I’m not short or thin or in any way “perfect”, but I do not hate myself. I love myself. I actually love myself.

Tears of relief spilled from my eyes. For the first time perhaps ever, I was not my own worst enemy. I could look at my reflection in the mirror and feel a love that hadn’t been there before. I’d always loved myself in theory, but that love had been damn hard, and many times I couldn’t make myself feel it. But now I could.

There was this elderly man who used to come into the café where I used to work, and he would always tell me I had a beautiful smile. And I remember someone from improv once saying about how vivid my facial expressions are and that it’s so entertaining to watch my reactions to things, because it’s always so visible on my face. And now I realise that I don’t have to fit a certain mould to be beautiful. I can be beautiful in my own way. I can have a bright, bright smile, and a face that’s an open book, and that can be enough to make me beautiful, regardless of whether or not I conform to society’s beauty standards.

I remember once at uni I was feeling very unhappy with my appearance. And I begged a friend to say something to make me feel better, one nice thing about my appearance to convince me that I wasn’t as ugly as I felt. And the best he could come up with was “you’re not unattractive”. I remember the exact setting. It was late November, I think. We were standing at the traffic lights on Byres Road, across from where it adjoins Church Street. I think I was wearing a purple sweater. I remember the exact moment because it damaged me. If the person you’re meant to be closest to in the whole world can’t pay you a genuine compliment, what does that say?

I thought I was over all the issues I had to do with that person, yet now I felt so angry. I knew I couldn’t possibly have fully exorcised that demon! I can finally see my worth, and it makes me wonder why the fuck did I let them get away with so much crap? I fucking deserved better! Why couldn’t I see it? Perhaps because he confirmed what I already thought about myself.

I didn’t believe I was worth much, so when someone else made me feel worthless, I felt it was what I deserved. And now, with all the wisdom of retrospect, I feel a fierce protectiveness over my own worth. Because I know that I am worth so much more than someone who could never love me with more than half their heart.

26th June 2017 –

Where some people may have a guardian angel, I’m fairly certain that I have a guardian troll instead. I checked online to see how much the bus to Riga would cost tomorrow. To my absolute horror, it seemed that the only busses were in the early hours of the morning. The latest was at 7am. I headed down to the bus station to double check. The self-service ticket machines were being repaired, so I had to wait around for half an hour, which did not help my mood.

It was made worse when the machines told me there were no busses to Riga. I could have screamed! I checked online again, and thankfully there were tickets available. However, the only bus that wasn’t sold out was the one at 3am. Why do I have such bad luck with public transport? WHY?????????? What did I do to deserve this?

I had had coffee in the early afternoon, so I wouldn’t get to sleep till the early hours of the morning anyway, and I would have to be awake at 2am to be ready to get to the bus by 3. I would not get any sleep.

I went to Caffeine to get my second coffee of the day, because I knew this was the only way I would get through this. As I left to head back to my hostel, it started to rain. I don’t mean a light rain, I mean the sky ripped itself open and poured an entire ocean’s worth of water down upon me. I walked back to my hostel, fuming with rage, soaked to the skin. I tried to make myself breathe, whispering “I am so Zen, I am so calm” over and other. Eventually I was whisper-shouting “I’M SO FUCKING ZEN RIGHT NOW!” and proving that I was anything but. The weather only proved my guardian troll theory. How can one person have such an ongoing series of ill luck?

In the evening I Skyped with some of my friends from uni. However my phone decided to be a complete pain in the ass, and the camera and microphone didn’t work with the Skype app. So I listened to, and watched, my three friends, and occasionally supplied a well-timed inappropriate comment through the written-message function. Even though I couldn’t properly participate in the conversation, it was so good to see my friends’ faces and hear their voices. It made me even more homesick for Glasgow.

I got approximately half an hour of sleep before having to wake to catch my bus.

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