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Travel, home, identity and anonymity 🧳
Thoughts from a café in Tallinn, Estonia. 💭
Let’s do a little experiment, shall we? I have approximately one hour to write as I sit in a café in the Old Town of Tallinn, Estonia. My goal is to craft something for you with minimal editing so that I might have the chance to get something to you while we’re on this whirlwind trip through the Baltic Nations. 😊
I left Canada a mere two weeks ago with my husband, two kids, and father-in-law. Since we left, we’ve flown through Toronto and Copenhagen to Palanga in Lithuania. We’ve enjoyed the historic port city of Klaipeda and driven along the Curonian Spit to explore beaches, sand dunes, and mystic forests that sit just a few kilometres from Kaliningrad. Our wheels, and hiking boots, have taken us through Sigulda, Latvia, and Gauja National Park — the country’s largest natural reserve filled with red sandstone caves, winding tea-coloured rivers, vast forests, and trails galore. And, finally, we find ourselves in the jaw-droppingly stunning city of Tallinn, Estonia, where medieval streets meet church steeples, storybook alleyways, and top-notch restaurants.
The historian in me is dripping with details, the adventurous fuel tank is replenished daily, and the writer has been neglected due to a jampacked and exciting schedule. So, here I sit with an oat milk latte in a posh café not far from the town’s main square, where patio seating is set up along the cobblestone, surrounded by buildings painted in pastels of every hue. It is a traveller’s delight, a dream.
And here’s where my thoughts are today. As I strolled through the square, which was just starting to wake up with people going about their days, a familiar feeling descended on me. It’s the opposite of being homesick. It’s the feeling that I don’t want to return to the routines of normal life.
There’s a part of me that’s taking this kid-free hour to think about the roots of my wandering spirit and this resistance I feel to going home. Sonya Lea over onrecently put this under the microscope in an article she wrote about a missed trip to Berlin due to her husband’s very sudden medical emergency, what this tells us about a wanderer’s identity, and what she needed to let go of through that experience.
I have been an outdoor, travel and adventure writer for about 15 years now. It’s a niche I defined years ago when I realized that narrowing down my topics as a writer helped to attract the kind of work I wanted. It also helped me to step into the shoes I wanted to be wearing, so to speak. But labels have their pitfalls, too. When I became a mother and was no longer climbing mountains, and when it became unexpectedly hard to take our firstborn on anything that resembled an “adventure,” I struggled with my identity. That shift is one of the primary throughlines of my memoir, Lights to Guide Me Home. For a time it mattered to me how others perceived me. I cared so much that I drove my health into the ground trying to prove I could keep up with everything. I was trying to re-establish an old identity instead of embracing something new.
Now I’m growing more comfortable in my semi-adventurous, stretch-mark scarred skin. As I enter my forties, I have a new body to inhabit and accept. But even with some new grey hairs and mushy muscles, I can travel. I don’t need to be pushing my physical limits as an adventurer. Instead, it’s about exploring different cultures and customs that feel unfamiliar, sometimes uncomfortable. Here, each time we cross a border, we change to a new language. Unless you speak Lithuanian, Latvian, Estonian or Russian, you’re an outsider, especially in less touristy places. I can be a fly on the wall and watch life unfold, wordlessly — apart from the usual yes, no, please and thank you, which I memorize before I hit the next border. Even for a wordsmith, there’s liberation in not being able to engage in the kinds of conversations I might normally initiate. On one level, it simplifies the experience.
It’s perhaps a metaphor for what I yearn for with travel. It’s the simplicity that I crave. At home, I have more responsibilities, a bigger workload, more stuff. When we’re on the road, especially for a shorter trip, we can afford to neglect certain things for a while. I’m managing on one or two hours a day on the computer to keep up with work. I can quickly identify the essential emails in my inbox; the rest is quickly archived, deleted or snoozed until we get home. I have two or three kits of clothing and little I need by way of material goods. I have very little in a day that appears like the day before or a semblance of routine.
Of course, if I was away for longer, I might miss the conveniences of home, a well-stocked kitchen, and more time for the things I usually do to take care of myself. I’d need to establish a different balance between time out exploring and time at the desk, wherever that is. But what I think this comes down to is me figuring out that travelling, this wandering, is only partially about an identity. It’s also a feeling. Travel allows me to tap into a flow of life that’s hard to replicate at home. That’s what makes travelling so special, right? It gives us a departure from the everyday, and if it was our everyday, the reverse would also be true.
Part of the simplicity I feel when travelling is the lack of identity. Sure, the social media channels might dictate otherwise (we are working with the local tourism bureaus as “travel media” after all), but as I sit in this cafe, surrounded by locals and German tourists, I am no one. I don’t need to be anyone. I have no image to uphold with those around me. Travel affords us some anonymity where we wander.
Either way, my life is a privileged one; many of these thoughts are unimportant in the grand scheme. Here in the Baltics, I have encountered endless stories of struggle, whether under the Soviet rule or during wartimes (and there were many). People sent to Siberia. Mass slaughter. Families uprooted. Historic buildings bombed into nothing. Routine isn’t going to be the end of me.
I am privileged to travel; I am privileged to have an incredible life to go back to.
Still, travel gives me an opportunity to be objective about life at home and perhaps make a mental note of the small things I could change that might make a difference to my day-to-day experience. If my life in Banff isn’t simple enough, it’s on me to minimize my belongings, say no more often, and be more intentional about how I go through each day.
For now, though, there’s a 13th-century church tower with magnificent views of this city that awaits me. Home is still a week away; Tallinn is here right now.
What’s caught my attention lately… ✨
Y’all know I’m a fan of historic fiction. My latest read is Kate Quinn’s The Diamond Eye.
I wrote something… ✍️
On this trip, I decided to experiment with a different style of poetry. I wrote this short piece after a visit to the Hill of Crosses near Šiauliai, Lithuania.
Lost and Found
looped over crosses,
they swing in the breeze.
honour lost souls.
They hope, they weep.
Crosses cross over,
too many to count.
They lean, they speak.
The trail, well-trodden
beneath shuffling feet.
It leads the way.
Check these out too… 🙌
The Wonders That I Find - my children’s book
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