I cannot wait to do this again

Today was a very good day.

I woke at 6 AM to the easy strains of my cellphone’s alarm and the cool darkness of an early east coast autumn.

Rufus and Simon – my mum’s two ragdoll cats – skittered into my room, eager to investigate my pre-dawn activities. Simon jumped on the bed and looked at me, his amber eyes still. Rufus mewled, rubbing his head against my leg.

I had laid out my race gear the night before – shirt, shorts, socks, bra, all stacked neatly on the chair in my bedroom.  As I crept downstairs, I was careful to avoid the creakiest stair. I made it to the spare bathroom on tiptoe, where I brushed my teeth and washed my face. The last thing I wanted to do was wake my mum as I prepared for the day.

I am particular about my pre-race routine.

Clothing, face, hair, coffee, food, water.

It doesn’t matter how far or important the race – I find great comfort in this ritual.

Together with my cousin David – who was also running the race – I ate a bagel with peanut butter and watched as the rising sun softly kissed our backyard trees, leaving their leaves aglow in a golden green.

When mum woke she joined us, and we sat and joked about all-natural nut butters.

Before we left, she took this great photo of Dave and I:

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As we drove out to the Musquodoboit Trailway, we listened to the CBC and shared with each other our favourite programs and hosts. We’re both big fans of As It Happens, This Is That, The Current and Day Six.

When we arrived, we picked up Dave’s race bib at the registration desk. Although the start line was splashed with sunshine, a tricky wind immediately cut through any lingering warmth we had carried with us from Dave’s truck.

For half an hour we joked and laughed and sipped water and used the porta-potties for the last time.

When the starting gun sounded, my feet were halfway numb.

I am always afraid of going out to fast. Time and again my need for speed has proven to be my Achilles’ heel, but today I decided to go for it.

And I’m glad that I did.

I ran a personal best of 41:03. I was the first woman and sixth overall.

I love running.

I love running purely and truly, and have written at length about this love.

But I also love to see others learn to love to run.

I love to see someone cross the finish line for the first time. See them marvel at their strength. Their resilience.

Revel in the depth of their heart.

In a brief moment, they are unrivaled amazement and awe.

Today was Dave’s first race, and he was extraordinary. When he first signed up he made a goal of finishing in less than one hour. He smashed that, completing the course in 58:18.

He told me prior to the start that he didn’t intend on doing any more races. This was pure bucket-list.

Less than one hour later?

I believe his words were something along the lines of, “I cannot wait to do that again.”

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Before heading home to Halifax, we stopped at Martinique Beach.

Today, this stretch of the eastern shore seemed to burn extra bright.

A horizon of the sweetest blue, speckled with fat clouds. The brilliant sun.

White sand. Dunes that danced.

A fall air that burned our lungs and stung our cheeks.

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And in that moment, I forgot everything: I forgot uncertainty and fear. I forgot that life can be unfairly underpinned by sickness and a suffocating sense of helplessness.

I forgot distance and longing.

I felt the sun.

And I thought: I cannot wait to do this again.

Parting is such sweet sorrow

And thus, we have reached the end of our journey.

I, wrapped in blankets; my mother, asleep in the bed next to mine.

We are party animals, but only in the hours betwixt 7 AM and 9 PM.

Tonight, a large glass of red wine has left me slightly light headed and doubly giddy, but mostly content.

Copasetic.

The past ten days have been so filled with magic and adventure, with brilliance and awe. I am beyond stuffed with memories and am bursting with dreams.

We arrived in Stockholm yesterday morning.

After dropping off our luggage at the hotel, my mum and I spent the morning walking all around the city, beginning in the Norrmalm district, before moving on to Galma Stan.

We visited the parliament and the royal palace and the king’s garden esplanade. The Stockholm triathlon was taking place, and we had a chance to cheer on the athletes as they completed the running portion of their races.

I love being able to play bystander to athletic events: watching competitors is always so incredibly inspiring, and it reminds me about the amazing travel opportunities afforded to athletes who compete in different events around the globe.

I really need to start looking into the international half-marathon circuit, stat.

From the race we strolled along the many waterfronts, marvelling at all of the beautiful streets and outdoor restaurants.

Stockholm truly is one of the most beautiful cities I have ever visited. I have such a hard time describing the effect it has on me and the way it makes my heart quiver and quake.

The sunlight on the Riddarfjorden is like a million tiny fireworks exploding in unison.

The apartments and hotels that border the waterways are all unique and breathtaking in their architecture and colour; they are small but timeless castles, cloaked in history. One might imagine that their inhabitants do not age, they only grow cleverer with each passing day.

The people are tall and beautiful.

The men have amazing beards. Then women have amazing hair.

Everyone rides bicycles in suits.

After eating lunch outside of the city library, we slowly strolled back to the hotel, and I purchased a dress and a skirt.

This morning, I woke early and strapped on my running shoes. The moment I caught my first glimpse of Stockholm’s waterfront, I knew that I would regret if I left never having had the chance to run throughout the city.

My route took me twelve kilometers, across the downtown core, along waterways, and through parks. The entire time I was out, I had to keep reminding myself that my life was real; that I was here in this glorious city, doing one of my most treasured loves.

I wish sometimes that I ran with a phone, even though I know I never will. I want those moments to exist exactly as they should: transient and fleeting, gone in a flash and yet exquisitely burned in my memory and heart.

Today my mum and I walked the entire length of Djurgarden, an amazing public garden the boasts canals, amusements parks, palace residences, sprawling greenspace, running trails, and much more. After walking for over four hours, we replenished our spirits and energy stores with cookies, cake, and tea.

Afterwards, I dropped my mother off at the hotel, and I continued on walking the length of the city.

I couldn’t stop thinking about the entire trip. All of the places we visited, all of the things that we did, all of the ideas we shared, all of the laughs we laughed, and most importantly all of the memories we made.

I thought about how we are made up of infinitesimal moments, seemingly too small to comprehend, and yet more powerful than we could ever know.

Life can seem arbitrary, or meaningless. I sometimes struggle with the systems and processes we have set up to govern society, and the enduring institutions that control those systems.

But to be so privileged to travel. To see the world. To open my heart to new places and people, to expand my mind and breathe new life into the spaces when existential cobwebs have grown sticky and dull.

What is such a life.

And to be able to do all of this with my mother – a woman of strength, intelligence, and bravery; who is a little bonkers, and a lot brilliant, and who says things like, “They must have a lot of big furniture here – like long beds and stuff. There’s definitely a demand for it” after seeing a particularly tall Swede walk by.

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I will never take this time for granted.

I am the luckiest girl in the world.

To be so stuffed with splendour

When you’re travelling, it can be hard to remember about life in the real world. Your responsibilities, if any, are few and far between, and probably fall somewhere between remembering to plug in your phone before bed, and eschewing that last gin martini in favour of sleep.

I have been successful on one of these counts. (I will let you guess which.)

But sometimes, in the most magical of ways, you are reminded of your real life.

You arrive in a city that feels so much like home that you are left wistful and heartsick.

You can smell it in the sea salt air; hear it in the greedy chatter of seagulls overhead; feel it in the cool breeze that blows against your collarbones and cools the back of your neck.

This is how I felt about Helsinki.

Upon docking in the city, we left the boat and immediately rented bikes.

This system had worked impeccably well for us throughout the entirety of our journey, and we weren’t about to mess about trying something new. Helsinki is incredibly well-equipped for cyclists, and the minute we left the port we found ourselves pedaling on a well-marked (and beautifully sun-stained) sea-front path.

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One thing I should mention: our bicycles were definitely the most suspect of all of the ones we had procured to date. Mine had a front wheel that was wobblier than an amateur high-wire walker, and neither my mum, nor I had any gears.

In the end, however, it didn’t matter. We spent five and a half hours cycling throughout Helsinki’s downtown core, and out into the different parks and squares. Plus, they cost us but twenty euros, and for that rock bottom price, we weren’t expecting Meridas.

One of the more interesting places we visited was Temppeliaukio Church. Built in 1969, it is also known as “The Church of the Rock” because it was quarried out of natural bedrock. Cut into the copper domed roof is a large skylight, allowing for natural light to illuminate both the pulpit and pews.

The church has no bells but houses an amazing organ that boast 43 stops, or pipes. After checking out the inside, mum and I climbed onto the roof (totally legally, might I add) and got a closer look at the stone and how it was carved.

From there, we cycled to the national museum, Finlandia Hall, and around the glorious Töölönlahti park and bay. We stopped at the top for ice cream and cinnamon buns and laughed like loons remembering how obsessed I was with the Evita soundtrack as a child.

After leaving the park, we passed Helsinki’s train station, an incredible piece of architecture in its own right. Built predominantly out of Finnish granite, and with its imposing clock tower and arched roof, there is no question as to why it has been voted as one of the most beautiful railway stations in the world.

In and around city hall and parliament, residents were gearing up for the city’s Pride festivities: flags flew outside of every government building and the senate courtyard was a-buzz with music and revellers. We got to spend some time soaking up the atmosphere, and as the crowd gathered for the night’s festivities, I was reminded of so many amazing Pride days I’ve celebrated in Vancouver and Halifax with family and friends.

Helsinki is also my spirit city because I have never in my life seen so many hard-core runners in a single space or day. Everywhere I looked, I encountered flying Finns, outfitted in compression socks, garmin watches, and dual-breasted tetra packs. Just espying them made my feet itchy, and when I arrived back on the boat that night I ran extra hard in their, and their city’s honour.

It’s hard to properly communicate how much I felt at home in this city.

It was as if I had know it in another life.

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Lived and loved there.

Helsinki was already alive inside of my heart, lungs, and bones

Like my love too, was carved from a stone.

Kak dila, Mamuchka?

In 2007, I entered a short fiction contest through the Walrus magazine. The competition was held in conjunction with a literary seminar series that was run out of Concordia University, and the winner was awarded a full-month scholarship to attend a seminar of their choice.

My submission was a story I had written based on my relationship with my doubles badminton partner Kristy when we were fourteen years old and playing at the junior national level. The piece was choc-a-bloc full of metaphors for sex and featured the best dinner prank one can ever play (ask me about it the next time you see me). To this day it’s one of my favourite stories that I’ve ever written.

I ended up being a finalist, and as such, was awarded a scholarship to take part in a two-week writing seminar in St. Petersburg, that coming July.

I went, and for two and half weeks had one of the craziest, most brilliant, most out of this world adventure a twenty-two-year-old girl possibly could ask for.

I’ve never tired of writing about my trip, and have penned entries about the time that I got beat up by a babushka in the Russian sauna, and about the opulence and depravity of Nevsky Prospekt, and about my heartbreaking hike to the Siege of Leningrad memorial and about how the city’s heart beat has never stopped.

I’ve also written about how, even in Russia, I am always the weirdest dancer in the club.

Which was why I was so excited to return to the city – return to one-half of my ancestral motherland – with my actual mother.

I spent so much of that half-month by myself: visiting museums and memorials; eating at the strangest of restaurants and marching about huge lengths of the city. Most of my cohort was older, and while I blew off every class, they spent their days in tutorials and lectures. It can be incredibly difficult to validate a life-changing moment when no one is around to experience it with you.

I wanted to have someone there to see the beauty and the insanity and the brilliance; the heartbeat that makes this place thrum and thrive and triumph and break.

The only problem being, for the eighteen days that I called this city home, I was able to do as I wished. I could go where I wanted and take the metro when needed. I could explore the marketplace and visit the ballet and philharmonic and wander the canals and drink canned gin and tonics at the banks of the Neva.

This time, we had to explore the city by bus and listen to the same narrative by each tour guide, as they explained that the city was founded by Peter the Great in 1703 and Catherine, also a great, hated her son Paul, but really loved her boyfriend Griegory.

And it’s not as thought any of this is bad. To be able to have two days to spend with my mother in a city as dynamic and brilliant as this, is a memory I have tucked deep down into the depths of my heart.

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But I can’t help but be reminded of all of the tales I have heard and read of tourists during the Soviet era: who all stayed at the same hotel, and who all received the same tour, and ate at the same restaurants, and who shopped at the same stores. The omnipresent desire and need to control the narrative, and to define the stories, that return home with the foreigners who come to the city.

The country.

Driving into St. Petersburg from the docks, we passed a monolithic Soviet structure with the letters “Park Hotel” affixed to the top. The dichotomy between the western name, and the communist architecture was jarring. One just might think that the rooms in that structure still bugged, and that the recordings are submitted to Putin for personal screening.

Let’s get super James Bond here, why don’t we?

But I would like to stress how wonderful a time we had in Russia.

We visited Catherine the Great’s summer palace in the village of the Tzars. Old Kate was woman truly after my own heart. A pre-first wave feminist, she was all about educating women and, like her counterpart Victoria, was a total boss when it came to dominating empirical politics – going so far as to have her husband knocked-off, and then totally cock-blocking her son Paul (in the parlance of our times) until his untimely murder (aka accidental strangling.)

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We had a fantastic morning exploring the Hermitage – marveling at the exquisite and completely overdone Winter Palace.

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I absolutely loved being able to show my mum the Peter and Paul Fortress and the Church on Spilled Blood and St. Isaac’s Cathedral.

Plus I got to procure these amazing Russian author nesting dolls.

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They may just be my most favourite things I’ve ever bought.

But mostly I just loved seeing her marvel at it all. I liked talking her through how poorly people were treated during the reign of the Tzars, and how the Siege of Leningrad lasted for 900 days, and how Alexander the II was actually a liberal and a reformer, and if the Decembrists hadn’t blown of his legs things might have unfolded a little differently in this country.

It’s so interesting. Having read so much about what it was like to be a tourist under the Soviet Union, and then to experience something that felt so very similar, despite having lived a markedly different experience, I am again so reminded that no matter how much changes, things definitely do remain the same.

Which is why it’s important to have people you love with whom you can experience these moments.

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Because before I was alone.

And when you’re alone, it feels but a dream.

I love nothing so well in the world as you

Yesterday in Tallinn, we were back to our old tricks.

Upon disembarkation, we immediately stumbled across a bike rental kiosk, which was either dumb luck, or someone had called ahead to let the city know about the two Canadian women cycling their way around Northern Europe.

(I really, really hope that it was the latter.)

Either way, we were overjoyed and we immediately procured our rides for the day.

Setting off into the city’s old town, I could feel the hairs on my arms stand on end. My cheeks flushed, my heartbeat quickened. The sensation of immediately falling in love with a place is one with which I am very familiar.

The feeling I get with a city is the exact same I can get with a person. Everything in my being tingles and quakes. I know I am meant to know this space. This energy. This heart and life.

I have had instantaneous love affairs with Edinburgh and Chicago, and yesterday I left a piece of my heart in Tallinn.

The morning dawned bright and blue-skyed; the sun’s subtle heat staving off the sharpness of the sea breeze.

Tallinn was founded in 1248, but the city has human settlements that date back 3000 years. We spent the first two hours biking in and around the medieval old town and its breathtaking city-center. All of the roads in this area are paved completely in cobblestones, making our route amazingly picturesque, but bumpy as hell. Incredibly, our eleven euro bikes came without shocks, so we powered through.

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Everywhere we went, I wanted to stop and take photos. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered such an overwhelmingly photogenic city. The old town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and for no wonder. All of the buildings bleed character, history, and charm. Every corner you round, every building you encounter, you want to stop and ask: who lived here? What did they do? Who were their loves? How did they live?

All I want to do is learn and know and touch every life.

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After a few hours, we cycled into the new city, and explored the area by the capital’s soccer stadium, watching a bit of the national team’s practice session.

After a few harrowing encounters with city street sidewalk riding, we beat a hasty retreat back to the safety, if jostling, cobblestones of the old town.

As we cycled back, we stopped at the national library and learned about Marie Under, one of Estonia’s most celebrated and greatest poets. She was forced to leave Tallinn in 1944 when the city fell to USSR control and she died in Sweden in 1980, having never returned to her home.

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At the southern end of the city is Freedom Square, a space that marks 1918-1920, Estonia’s brief years of independence, before the Nazi and Soviet rules. Similar to the space that surrounds Riga’s Freedom Monument, this plaza left me with a feeling of endured (and enduring) strength, but more importantly – a fear of complacency, and the weariness and danger that comes with forgetting.

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In the late afternoon, the wind picked up, and we locked our bikes to a street lamp and found a café where we drank cappuccinos and tea. Wrapped in plush blankets, we people watched and talked about our favourite Canadian authors.

My mum is a bastion of strange and wonderful tales. Upon burning her mouth on her too-hot tea, she quipped, “Well that got rid of any green moss growing there.”

Once I got my laughter and gag reflex under control, I asked her what Antigonish sage had come up with that saying.

She lowered her sunglasses and looked me straight in the eye, answering: “That’s a Donna Gillis original.”

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As we continued into the afternoon, and we explored more of the upper and lower parts of the old town, I keep thinking how lucky I was to be doing this. To be adventuring around one of the most beautiful cities in the world, with a woman I love beyond compare.

What is my lot in life, to be in this city – a place that I feel as though I know, and that I would like to call home – and be able to just hop on a bike and explore without recourse or fear?

On our way back to the ship, we stopped at an Linnahall, an old site from the 1980 Moscow Olympics. It once housed the sailing events, and post-games, was the V.I. Lenin Palace of Culture and Sport. Now it is a dystopian stairway, and yesterday it was populated by drunk teenagers and unemployed sunbathers.

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A stark dichotomy to the six hours I had just experienced, but one that I do not discount, or look on with disdain.

This country, and its capital city, has endured extreme trauma over the course of its lifetime. It struggles, and perseveres, and finds ways to wrestle with its (still very fresh) past.

It marries the beauty of autonomy with the scars of occupation.

It is a balance.

That this ex-Olympic site has fallen into disrepair is but a truth that I, and many, many others may come and visit. We climb, and we sit, and we think about this space. This structure. And what it means. Yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

And that I how I will also think of Tallinn.

A part of my yesterday, my today, and always, always, my tomorrow.

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