There are songs I can’t listen to without being transported to another place and time. It’s useful, these days, when the height of excitement in my life takes the form of a trip to the supermarket. I can listen to the soundtrack of my past adventures, and relive the highs and lows that feel so distant from me now.
I have this internal clock, and every eight months or so it tells me “bro, you haven’t been to Estonia in a while,” and I say to the internal clock “by golly, bro, you are absolutely right!” and move heaven and earth to get myself back to Estonia. Or maybe Estonia gets me back to myself. Either way, there is a self, and there is a destination, and the two must find a way to meet. In five days, it will be eight months since I last returned from Estonia, and that internal clock is tick tick ticking away.
Usually the urge to travel comes when I feel distant from myself, when I’m so caught up in the pressure of other people’s perception of me, or the weight of my own expectations, that I need to disappear to a place where no one knows my name. Travel taught me to trust myself; it’s a reset, a reminder of who I am and what I am capable of.
I travelled every year since I turned eighteen. Every trip ended or began in Estonia, but I’ve travelled alone to a total of seven countries, and each one taught me a lesson, chipped away at the rock of my outer self to sculpt me into the person I am. I could write at length about the narrative of my travels – I kept detailed diaries throughout all of my trips – but my memory works best in close-ups and montages. I think like a writer, but I remember like a filmmaker. Below is a collection of moments that capture the beauty and absurdity of venturing to foreign lands.
1: It’s July 2017, and I’ve returned to Berlin after visiting my best friend in her hometown, Kiel. My bus reaches the city at about 3am, and I walk anxiously through the dark carpark between the bus station and the train station. It is a relief to reach the train; I feel safer there, under the fluorescent lights, than I did alone in the dark. In the seat across from me, I see a man who is the spitting image of Lord Voldemort from Harry Potter. Except he has a nose, and eyebrows, and face tattoos.
2: It is (earlier in) July 2017. I stand in the far room of Robert’s Books, an English bookstore in Riga, with a Latvian acquaintance I knew from Glasgow. We take turns recommending random books to each other. He suggests a classic straight white man book, I suggest a book on feminism, and so forth. As we peruse the shelves, I stumble upon Celia Rees’s Sovay. It was my favourite book when I was 10, and sparked my love of historical fiction, and my fascination with the French Revolution. It was the last book I expected to see in a second-hand bookstore in Riga, and something about the sight of it felt like a sign – a sign that the world is small, and interconnected, and filled with tiny coincidences to show us we’re on the right path.
3: It’s summer or autumn, 2019, in Riga bus station. I went to Riga twice last year. The first time I was there for all of 45 minutes, to change busses on my way from Vilnius to Tallinn. The second time, I was there for a week. I don’t remember which of those times this was. What I do remember is being exhausted. I wore no makeup, and the same black hoody I’m wearing as I write this. I drank black coffee from a machine, and sat on a bench overlooking the murky canal. It was an insignificant moment in the larger scheme of things, and yet such a quintessential travel experience – early mornings, bus stations, bad coffees. There is a magic in that transient state of being, to know you’re just passing through. The unknown is an umbrella term, a blanket covering a sea of horrors and joys and victories. The unknown can be terrifying, but when I travel, the unknown always leads me on the path to freedom. I miss that freedom; I miss Riga bus station; I don’t quite miss the bad coffee.
4: It’s August 2019, and my best friend at the hostel is due to leave the next day. We go to a Thai tattoo shop in Tallinn’s old town, and get tattoos together; my first, her thirteenth (?). At the start of my trip, I would barely have even considered a tattoo – I was too afraid of permanence. Something changed within me during those two months, and I wasn’t afraid of the purple phoenix that now adorns my back. When the needle started buzzing, I could almost feel its vibrations before it touched my skin. I asked my friend to be in the room, because I was certain I would need her to hold my hand. But the tattoo didn’t hurt as much as I expected, and instead we sat in silence together, whilst I considered the possibility that the tattoo artist could, in theory, draw any image on my back and I wouldn’t know until it was too late.
5: It’s July 2019. After leaving my short-lived job as a nanny, I returned to the same hostel in Vilnius I had left five days before. As I was walking up the stairs, I ran into the manager, and he remembered my name (though he mispronounced it as “El-ee-za”), and said “Welcome back!”. He was from Manchester, and later that night we had a conversation about the north of England whilst I waited for my laundry to finish its dryer cycle. I spent a total of about ten days in that hostel, and by the time I left the second time, it had already begun to feel like home.
6: It’s July or August, 2019. The months I spent in Tallinn last summer blur together in my memory. I’m in the Caffeine coffee shop on Harju street, and I order coffee in (a very bad attempt at) Estonian. I hear the barista at the till telling my order to the barista making the coffee, and I learn from the slight difference between my sentence and hers that the correct way to say “with soy milk” in Estonian is “sojapiimaga”.
7: July 2017, Prague. A beautiful man, dressed in 18th Century clothing (complete with a long white curly wig), plays cello at the side of a busy street. Our eyes meet across the street, and he smiles. When he finishes his song, I tell him I love his outfit. He asks where I’m from, and after I answer, he asks what music I like. I gaze into his beautiful brown eyes and awkwardly stammer “I like… lots of music”. Hot Cello Guy asks if I like Game of Thrones, and plays the Game of Thrones theme tune, grinning at me the whole time. He then plays, in his words, “a sad tune”, and I watch him for a while before walking away. I convince myself Hot Cello Guy is my soulmate.
8: July 2017, Paris. I’ve been travelling for two months at this point. One stolen laptop and dead cat later, and I’m emotionally exhausted, and—with just days left of my trip—nearly broke. I didn’t love Paris the way I expected to. I had little money, which restricted what I could do, and within the four days I was there I got catcalled by more men than I had in my entire life prior to (and after) that point. I had wanted to go to Paris since I was ten years old, and read Sovay, and become obsessed with the French Revolution (which then led to an even stronger obsession with Marie Antoinette, which didn’t fade for years). In spite of my state of apathy, I took a trip to Versailles. I didn’t go into the palace, because tickets were expensive, but I went to one of the gardens that was free to enter, and I let myself experience the weight of that moment: it had taken me nine years, but I had gotten to Versailles. I had made ten-year-old Eliza’s dream come true. I bought a postcard of Marie Antoinette from the giftshop, and wrote myself a reminder: a reminder that I create the life I want, even if it takes me almost a decade to do so.
9: I have a library card for the National Library of Latvia. When I first visited Riga, my laptop (which went on to get stolen in Prague a few weeks later), wouldn’t connect to wifi, and I couldn’t upload my travel blogs. My Latvian friend suggested I use the computers at the National Library, but to do so, I had to become a member. I still carry the library card in my purse, almost three years later. I’ve returned to Latvia twice since then, and never needed to use the library card again, but it’s a tangible reminder of a past Eliza. I have a Latvian library card, and an Estonian keyring; I carry my travels with me everywhere I go, until they fade into the background of my consciousness, become a part of the furniture of my identity.
10: June 2016, Estonia. It’s my second day alone in a foreign country, and I’m overwhelmed. I got lost the previous night, and spent hours wandering around in what I hoped was the right direction. It took all my strength to venture out the next day. This time I had the good sense to consult a map. I bought a small box of raspberries from a roadside stall, and walked towards the centre of the city. After about 20 minutes, I saw a building that I recognised from four years of google image searches and writing about it in my novel. The building was Hotell Viru, which becomes the Estonian Institute of Scientific Research in my novel The Purest Form of Chaos. This was the moment when it properly sunk in that this was real: I was in the land where my novel is set.
Travel transformed me into the woman I am today, and I can’t wait till borders are open and I can run away to freedom again. Until then, I have memories, and old diaries, and postcards from Tallinn and Riga and Berlin and Vilnius pinned to my bedroom wall. Travel isn’t some grand concept to philosophise about, it is a collection of moments, experiences, lives I lived within my lifetime. I keep those memories in keyrings, and fridge magnets, and library cards, but they are merely symbols. Travel is stored in the actions I choose, the decisions I make. Every time I trust myself, choose myself, act with autonomy, I have travel to thank for that. When you’ve spent weeks or months at a time knowing that everything you can rely on exists within your own body, it gives you the strength to move forward, and the strength to start again. This time eight months ago, I was in Riga, wandering along the banks of the Daugava, listening to Taylor Swift’s Lover album, which had been released the week prior. I don’t know how many months or years it will be till I can next visit a foreign country, but until that day comes, I carry my past travels in the fabric of my personality. I am a summary of my experiences, shaped by every country I’ve left a piece of my heart in.
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