When I was fourteen and homeschooled and had nothing better to do with my time, one of my hobbies was to reread my favourite novels. I read The Hunger Games and Divergent series upwards of seven times each. In the years prior to that, I read most of the books in the Harry Potter series ten times. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy new reading new books — I read plenty of those too — but when I reread the same books multiple times, I understood them in a new way.
The first time you read a book, you focus on the story. The second time, you find all these details you’ve missed. The third, fourth, fifth time? You notice the words, the craft, the structure of sentences. If you’re reading it a sixth time, it’s become bigger than all these things. If you read a book that often, it feels like coming home.
Cities are like books, you learn something new each time you read them. Each street is like a sentence, and the more you navigate the roads and paths and intersections, the more you learn the story — or write your own.
I’m two weeks into a 2.5 month trip, and this is the first blog I’ve written. Normally when I travel I write every day. I’m still writing, but only my private diary, which is different, because it’s clunky and uncensored, and I don’t try to make the words pretty. Half my diary entries start with “lmao” or “bitch, guess what!” My diary is silly and meant only for my own eyes, and I love keeping my stories private. Privacy is a luxury I’ve never had. I only realised that as I wrote the sentence, and suddenly my entire personality makes sense, but that’s a whole other story. For most of my life, my mother published a parenting magazine, as well as related blogs and books, and I was part of the image being created, the stories that were told. I grew up in the public eye, albeit on a small scale. I’ve written blogs since at least my early teens, because that was how I was raised. I have always existed for an audience.
Don’t get me wrong, I love attention. But I have an oversharing problem, which I wasn’t even fully aware of until about three weeks ago. Part of our responsibility as adults is to take a good hard look at the way we were raised, and the impact it had on the person we grew into. Not to blame our parents, or wish they had done things differently, but to be aware of how we move through the world, and how we impact other people. Each family has their own concept of normal, and we don’t realise how different we are until we go out into the world and compare notes with other people.
I am 21 years old, I’ve grown up, and I am finally living life on my terms. So I’m going to enjoy my privacy. Some days this means changing my facebook profile picture to a sad alien holding a cat because I don’t like the thought of people seeing my face. Other days this means going to sleep without replying to all my messages. Maybe it just means I’ve learnt it’s okay to have secrets, to not be an open book to anyone who asks. My stories are mine now. They don’t belong to an audience, or to my parents. I share my stories liberally with my friends, but even then I am learning how much to tell to whom.
When I arrived in Vilnius, I was overflowing with words. I didn’t think I’d make it through the first day without writing a blog, because there were so many details. The thing that struck me most was the staircase up to the kitchen in my hostel. It looked like a cat’s scratching post, with stairs coming out at odd angles like a climbing frame. It was such a small, silly thing, and I wanted to share it. On my last night in Vilnius, I listened to a German guy play an out-of-tune piano in the hostel common area, and the room filled with eerie music. Something about this moment perfectly captured the beauty of travel, all these strangers crossing paths, showing off their quirks, leaving and remaining strangers. I’m fascinated by the human experience, by travel, by the small moments of humanity you find within hostel walls. I was fascinated, but I no longer felt the need to write about it. I let myself live in the moment, enjoy the travelling experience without going all word-vomit at the first opportunity.
I changed a lot during the two weeks I spent in Lithuania. My plans shifted at the last minute, and I returned to Vilnius three weeks earlier than expected. As I walked from the train station to my hostel, I felt like a new woman. I had made a decision the day before. I had a choice between staying for another three weeks in a work placement that didn’t suit me and was making me miserable, or jumping straight into the unknown. I chose uncertainty, I chose freedom. I couldn’t stop laughing the day I returned to Vilnius. My life was filled with twists of fate and unexpected changes of direction, and I had never felt so free. When I got to my hostel, the receptionist greeted me like an old friend, and didn’t charge me for a key deposit or laundry. I was so happy to be back there that I made small talk with other guests, smiled at strangers, practically danced around the kitchen. I was liberated, and the most liberating part of all was that I didn’t feel obligated to write about it.
Yesterday, I left Lithuania for Estonia. It was a nine-hour-long bus journey, split in the middle by a brief stop in Latvia. I’d made a choice not to go to Riga this summer. I’ve been there twice, and have a whole bunch of memories (some cringier than others). I have a soft spot for the city, but I was there in December, and didn’t feel the need to return so soon. I had 45 minutes to change buses, and I spent most of that time running around Central Market trying to find somewhere to buy food for the rest of the journey. As the bus pulled out of the city, I watched familiar streets float past my window, and felt this strange feeling, somewhere between sweetness and ambivalence. Riga is a closed chapter, a story I finished telling.
I didn’t see the Estonia sign. I was watching a movie on the TV screen on the bus, and wasn’t looking out the window. But I knew when I was in Estonia, even without seeing the sign. The energy was different. Soft grey clouds hung low in the sky, above dense forests of pine trees. The world was green and grey and beautiful, and I was at peace. More than that, I wanted to write. The first time I came to Estonia, it was because this is one of the countries where my novel is set. Maybe when I visit Russia one day, Estonia will have to share the special place it occupies in my heart. But for now, no other country can compete. Estonia, to me, is intrinsically linked to my identity as a writer. I don’t know how to come here and not write about it.
When I arrived in Tallinn, I was tired and grumpy. I had bought a cheap black coffee from a machine in Riga bus station, and proceeded to spill it all over my legs five minutes later, so I was functioning on barely two mouthfuls of caffeine. All I wanted to do was sleep. But I had a job interview at a hostel a couple of hours later, and I had to stay awake. I wanted to be miserable. I wanted to sulk and let the childish petulance of exhaustion wash over me, but I didn’t. After I’d checked into my hostel and changed out of my coffee-stained jeans, I went in search of food. I set off for the supermarket in Viru Keskus, as is practically my tradition by now. I go there because I know I can easily find vegan food, it is convenient. Viru Keskus is also attached to Hotel Viru, and in the world of my novels, the two buildings become the Estonian Institute of Scientific Research, where my two protagonists spend most of the second half of the novel. I walked through the shopping center, and half-closed my eyes. The shops, signs, adverts all washed away, and I pictured the walls and floors painted a stark white, with scientists in lab coats walking around.
After I’d bought some food, I went outside to Tammsaare Park, and sat down to eat. My novel is set 130ish years in the future, and in the world I have created, the park is a courtyard in the Estonian Institute of Scientific research, with buildings constructed around it. In my fictional world, there are flowering cherry trees there that my characters often sit under. I see Tallinn in layers now. I see the city as it is, real and alive, and I see my fictional, futuristic city, painted over it in transparent watercolour. I see spectres of my characters walking and running and laughing. Even in my tired, grumpy, caffeine-deprived state, my heart was full. Because, against all odds, I had come back. I have travelled to Estonia every year since I was eighteen, I am rereading my favourite novel. Except that’s not even a metaphor, because this city is filled with invisible projection screens, playing out scenes from my novel everywhere I walk.
After my job interview, I was ready to go to bed, but I didn’t let myself go straight away. Instead, I went to Linnahall, which is a few minutes away from my hostel. Linnahall was built for the sailing event of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, and if you walk up all the steps on the roof, you can see the sea. I knew if I looked out over the Baltic Sea, my exhaustion and grumpiness would fade away. The wind blew my hair into my face, and was cold against my bare arms, and I couldn’t stop smiling. Linnahall is more to me than an easy access point to view the Baltic Sea. It’s also the setting of a scene from the new version of my novel. It’s a small, bittersweet scene, where two characters talk about their failed relationship. They sit on the Linnahall steps, and look out over the city as they talk. There’s this line where I refer to the shards of glass that always litter the steps, the kind of detail I only know because I have been to Tallinn, and seen for myself. As I stood there last night, I looked down at my feet and saw shattered green glass on the steps around me, and I could almost see Persephone and Drew sitting side-by-side on the step where I stood.
Just under half of my novel is set in Estonia. The other half is set in Russia. I’ve wanted to go to Russia since I was nine years old, when my mother said it was a country she never wanted to go to, and I decided it must be the perfect destination. In all my years of travelling, I’ve never been to Russia. I won’t go there before I publish my novel, and I wish that wasn’t the case. There are so many details I will never know. You can only learn so much from a google search. Today I looked up at Hotel Viru, and realised that I have to change my description of the view from Phoenix’s bedroom window. In one chapter I describe the view of the Old Town from her window, but there is a scene where she throws something out the window and it hits the grass. If her window faced the Old Town, anything she threw out of it would hit the roof of Viru Keskus before it ever made it to the ground. I have been to Tallinn four times, and that detail never occurred to me until I was standing in front of the building and picturing the scene playing out. The older I get, the more I realise that “write what you know” isn’t such terrible advice after all.
I have nearly finished editing my novel. It has changed so much since I first wrote it at fourteen, and I love it and am proud of it. Soon it will be ready to go out into the world. Then it will be time to move on to book two. Book one has changed considerably, but book two will be almost unrecognisable. All the books in my series are partly set in Russia and partly set in Estonia, but book two feels a lot more Russian. Without giving away half the plot, the protagonist’s birthright and identity is inextricably tied to her Russian family. I hope I can go to Moscow before I finish writing book two. I don’t want to tell half a story, or skip over details I never knew were important. I always thought Russia wasn’t a country I would want to travel alone. I’m scared of navigating visas and the Cyrillic alphabet. But now when I walk through Tallinn, and see the faded ghosts of my characters rustling like autumn leaves out of the corner of my eye, I am called to go to Moscow. When I came to Estonia for the first time, I felt like I’d brought my characters home. But there are more characters, and more books, and maybe next year I will find a way to go further East, to go beyond the Baltics. I will go to Moscow, and write the sequel my characters deserve.
This summer I will spend two months living and working in Tallinn. I will also spend this summer finishing editing my novel. I’ve been rewriting and/or editing my novel since I was seventeen, and I’ve travelled to Tallinn every year since I was eighteen, but I’ve never done both at the same time. Now I am writing my novel in the city where it is set. 90 percent of the plans I made for this trip changed at the last minute, and I feel like the universe is putting me exactly where I need to be. I’m on the right path, I can feel it. Maybe Mercury retrograde will make me eat those words later, but right now I am happy and hopeful and free. More than that, I am a writer. I am a writer on my own terms. I’m not broadcasting my private life all over the internet because that’s the only thing I’ve ever known, or writing self-indulgent rants just to get them off my chest, I’m writing fiction, I’m writing my novel. I can be a writer without sacrificing my privacy, and somewhere along the way I forgot that.
I am Tallinn, living parallel to my characters. I am a writer in wonderland, and I can feel my novel and myself changing for the better because of it. Maybe revisiting cities isn’t so much like rereading a novel, but rewriting one. I walk the streets I have walked every year since I was eighteen, but I am not telling the same story. I am choosing new words, new sentences, cutting the paragraphs that don’t work for me. I am building my own world, and scrawling ruthlessly upon it with a red pen. Because this is my life, and it is the most important story I will ever write.