I have recently discovered that if you ever wish to test the general open-mindedness of the people in your life, the best way is to tell them that you, an eighteen-year-old female, are travelling solo to, shock, horror! (North) Eastern Europe. “You’re brave,” sayeth the general population, as they cower in horror at the thought of your imminent death. God forbid a young woman travel on her own!
I like telling people I’m going to Estonia. I’ll tell anyone who’ll listen, whether that be classmates, teachers, co-workers, my cat… Perhaps it is that intrinsic element of attention-seeking that resides in all artists, but I, as a writer, am a fan of a good story, whether it be a story about myself, or about others (however, I have a no gossip policy, so only I only stories I’m allowed to tell). I often joke that, when it comes to storytelling, I have two party pieces: the fact I’m going to Estonia on my own, and the fact my sister’s having a baby. (“You’re going to be an aunty!” sayeth the general population, as I finally become an interesting person to talk to. Why does no one want to talk about government corruption, or Google’s robot army?)
If I were to look at people’s reactions to my future solo travel, the binary between the terrified “you’re so brave – I could never do that”s, and the genuine “that’s amazing/exciting”s, the split has been almost-completely generational. People my age think it’s terrifying, and people in their late 50s onwards think it’s terrifying. It seems only the middle-aged are on my side (speaking in generalisations, of course).
But it isn’t about “sides”, it’s about societal attitudes and expectations. There are three questions people commonly ask me when I tell them. 1) “Who are you going with?” 2) “Is it safe?” and 3) “What do your parents think?” (Also, 4) “Where is Estonia?”) I often wonder whether question no.2 is asked out of genuine concern for my safety, or fear of how it reflects on their own life. If an eighteen-year-old girl is brave (eye-roll) enough to travel to a country on the other side of the continent, how does that reflect on someone who’s lived their whole life in the same town, and never left? There is no right or wrong way to live, no rule saying “you must travel to be successful” or “you must not travel”, it’s a choice, and a choice we should all be free to make.
I want to travel on my own; it’s something I have wanted for as long as I can remember, and now I am making it happen. I have worked hard for this, worked long hours, worked several days a week for weeks on end whilst still being in full time education. I’ve worked hard for this because it’s something I want to do, something I need to do. I have less than a month before I’m done with school forever, and part of the process of detachment, of letting go of my childhood, is to see more of the world. I was born in New Zealand, I took my first steps in Dubai airport. I was born to travel, but I have spent seventeen of my eighteen years living in a tiny village near a small town. I want to see more, I want to grow more. How can I write about human nature, when I’ve only seen a tiny part of the world? (Pretty well, actually, but there’s always room for improvement).
Then there’s question no.3, the “What do your parents think?” Guess what? They’re excited for me, they’re supportive of me. Not to mention the fact that I’m eighteen – I’m an adult, I can do cool things like buy alcohol and watch 18-rated movies, I don’t need anyone’s permission to travel. And that’s what’s exciting, that freedom. I’m free to go where I want and do what I want, without relying on other people. And I’m not going to Estonia to go crazy, or do anything I wouldn’t ordinarily do. I’m going there because it’s one of the main settings in the trilogy I wrote/am rewriting. I’m going there to see the places where my fictional characters live, where they die. I’m still the same sensible good-girl I’ve always been, I’m just (hopefully) a much more interesting good-girl.
One of my co-workers said to me “Don’t come back with any foreign babies”. (First of all: what’s wrong with foreign babies? Secondly: I am not travelling to have babies. One grandchild should be enough for my parents in the foreseeable future). The keyword in the statement is “foreign”. Why? Because this exact same co-worker is constantly telling me I should have children at eighteen (no thanks). If I was going to somewhere like France on my own, would people have the same negative reactions? (Well, they might do after the recent terrorist attacks, but…) I feel that people wouldn’t react quite so negatively if I were going to somewhere in Western Europe, to a traditional tourist destination.
The Right-Wing political parties have constructed this narrative about foreign countries, where they lead people to think that Eastern Europeans come to the UK and steal jobs/benefits (At worst, it would be one or the other, right? No one’s gonna get benefits if they have a job! #UKIPlogic), which therefore creates negative associations with Eastern European countries. Well, guess what? Estonia created Skype, they have more free WIFI than practically every other country in the world, they are technologically innovative. This is a country that has completely transformed itself since the collapse of the Soviet Union. I don’t want to go to cliché tourist destinations with familiar histories and familiar landmarks. I want to go somewhere new, somewhere with stories to discover. I’m going to a country where Soviet architecture neighbours Medieval, where a third of the population speak a different language to the other two thirds. I’m going to a country that’s interesting.
And I’m far more scared of facing Gatwick airport or the London tube system than I am of going to Estonia. I’m not scared at all. And, as far as I’m concerned, the only people getting murdered during my trip to Estonia are my fictional characters, and that’s in my head, and set three-hundred years in the future. I can’t afford to be scared of adventure, not when it’s my form of escapism from the concerns of my day-to-day life. My first exam is in thirteen days, I get my A Level results in two and a half months, I go to university in three and a half. Those are things to be scared about, things to concern myself with, things which have the potential to uproot the very fundamentals of who I am. Going to Estonia isn’t going to break me, it’s going to make me, and I know that for certain. I’m not scared of a little adventure.