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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Always best to start at the beginning

The day after leaving Berlin, we spent a day sailing the Baltic sea.

We were knackered from the first three days of travelling and didn’t wake up until 10 AM. This was a welcome surprise, as it meant I was freed from roaming the ship like a homeless vagabond simply waiting for the sun to rise (and the gym to open.)

That afternoon, I ran and mum practiced yoga and then we met up with our trivia team for another hour of putting all of our strange and extraneous knowledge to good use.

I almost keeled over with laughter as we tried to figure out what animal is thought to represent long life in Korea.

When my mum suggested the duck I knew I was a total goner. Frank from New Jersey, known already for his serious side eye, nearly knocked over his beer. Good thing for gentle Queenslander Wendy, who quickly suggested that it might be the bear.

Turns out that it was the deer all along.

Afterwards, we returned to our room and laughed ourselves silly sharing hilarious stories, including a real doozy from Bath, New Brunswick, wherein on the way to a New Year’s Eve dance at the legion in Woodstock, NB (Bath being too small to have a legion of its own) both my mum’s boots and stockings melted all over her legs, coagulating into one gooey, goopy super pant.

As my mum put it: “Buddy’s heat in his car was all messed up. I kept telling him that I was cold so he kept turning it up. Turns out, he turned it up a little too high. I got out of the car and I had these big, big holes in my pantyhose and this goo all over my legs. I had to take them off and was left with nothing but my melting boots. That guy really liked me too. He kept telling Noreen that he was thrilled to be with me. All I wanted to do was get away from him. He was supposed to be the coolest dude because he had this stupid damn car. I didn’t care at all.”

I am actually crying with laughter just writing this down. Also, should you ever want to know why I am the way that I am, it’s because of this story. Period.

We capped off the day with dinner out on the terrace, drinking white wine and talking with the sommelier, who is a dead ringer for Novak Djokovic – just with better glasses. I am, of course, completely biased, but hey, they were good, good glasses.

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As we snuggled down to sleep, we watched Iceland go up one goal over England, and I swear to goodness, even this far out from the island, I could swear we heard that entire country lose its collective mind.

Alas, that night I was back to the insomnia, and was up at both 1 AM and 4:45 AM. Standing at the rail of our balcony, I let the Baltic wind blow through my hair. Let it whip through my clothes. Let it rip through me, and into my bones.

I watched as the colours of the heavens shifted and blurred; magentas bleeding into royal blues; the yellow of a daisy’s eye; a blossom pink.

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In the silence, everything softens. Everything cools.

Night rolls on, but the light.

It persists.

By 5 AM, the sun was wide awake, breaking through three layers of curtains into our room.

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I again crept outside, and watched it burn a path across the morning seascape.

I have wanted to go to Riga since reading Henning Mankell’s The Dogs of Riga when I was 19 and in my second year of my undergrad. I was taking a Northern European film and literature class and it was the last book on my class syllabus. That year I had read 92 pieces of literature (books, novellas, plays, graphic novels – just for school alone), and by the end of the semester I was burnt out.

The Dogs of Riga was sitting on my bookshelf and I was debating whether or not I would be able to get through the course without cracking it open.

One night, instead of writing a paper of his own, Marc read the entire thing in one sitting. The next morning, the first thing he said to me was, “Babe you really need to read this book.”

And so I did. Also over the course of one day.

It was that book that set off a twelve-year love affair with Mankell. I read, and re-read every Kurt Wallender crime novel, and most of his other fiction.  It was the catalyst for this trip. It is what is taking my mum and I around Northern Europe and into the Russian motherland, as I had passed on my love (and my collection of dog eared paperbacks) to her the last summer I lived in Halifax.

So today we adventured around Riga. We learned about the city and its history, marvelling at the incredible architecture of the new town, and the warmth and magnificence of the old town.

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Did you know that that legend behind Riga’s flag is that in the thirteenth century there was a mortally wounded Lavian warrior who was wrapped in a white sheet? The part of the sheet on which he was lying remained white, but the two edges were stained in his blood. During the next battle his soldiers used the bloodstained sheet as a flag.

The country has been occupied by the Swedes, Germans, Russians (Russian empire) and Soviets (USSR).

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In the fourteenth century, Swedish soldiers hated having to walk from their barracks to the beer brewing district, so they raised money to cut a gate into the city’s walls which would allow them easy access from their homes to the streets of beer.

In 1991, as the country was fighting for its independence, and Soviet tanks were rolling into the old town, the TV station fell, but the radio building stood strong.

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The Russian orthodox church that stands in the city’s Esplanade was a planetarium under Soviet rule.

The building that once housed the Soviet agriculture institute was my favourite thing from the entire day, and is today the Latvian Academy of Sciences.

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We visited the market, and the national opera house, and the museum, and the outdoor market, and the independence monument. We had a delicious lunch in an outdoor square and basked in the late afternoon sunlight as we walked back to the ship.

I would very much like to return to Riga. To meet more of its multilingual inhabitants and learn more of its fascinating history.

Because this city is in my heart.

And its beat is strong.

Mach schnell, Mann!

Berlin is the coolest city I have ever visited.

Mum and I began our day to the sad strains of a 5 AM wake up call. A coach would be leaving the port at 6:20 AM to take us to the city, and being as it were that we were located some two hundred and thirty kilometers north of Berlin, it was imperative that we shake a leg.

The drive into Germany’s capital was beautiful. Wide, undulating fields of wheat reflected the early morning sun’s golden rays, while wind-powered turbines stretched skywards, standing a start white against the turquoise of the sky.

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I read and dozed while my mum, card carrying member of the intelligentsia, practiced her bridge game. It really warms my heart to know there are enough players out there to warrant the monthly publication of the literary piece known as ‘The Bridge Bulletin’.

When we arrived in the city, we met Andrea, our intrepid guide who would accompany us throughout the day.

After biking across two cities, my mum opted for a less-exercise intensive introduction to Berlin, so we walked and drove about as Andrea recounted Berlin’s history, beginning in 1237, and all the way up to unification.

The city was a-buzz in football fever, with some 100,000 Berliners heading to Tiergarten park to watch Germany play Slovakia in the Euro Cup.

We visited the Brandenburg Gate, the Bundestag, and passed the CDU and SPD headquarters (where at the former, I said a silent, but emphatic, hello to Angela Merkel.) Humboldt University is astoundingly gorgeous, and just standing out outside of the buildings one can understand how brilliant it would be to attend as a scholar, or be employed as an academic.

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The tomb commemorating those who have fallen in wars and armed conflict stands just across the street and was equally affecting, though for, of course, wildly divergent reasons.

The sculpture, housed inside of a building that was once a guard house for the German royal family, is a mother weeping over the body of her dead son. There is a hole cut out in the ceiling so that no matter what the outside elements, the sculpture stands firm. In the fall, leaves fall through the roof, in the winter snow. Yesterday, it is a solid stream of sunlight, illuminating her cold grief.

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At the East Side Gallery, we saw Brezhnev kissing Honecker, kaleidoscopes of colour, and calls for peace. There no better place to take arty-artsy photos of yourself, than this wall.

We slowly walked through the Holocaust memorial, and I quietly lost my mind at the family of tourists who were playing hide and seek amongst the installation, and even more so at the couples making out and sun tanning on top of it. Afterwards, we walked to The Topography of Terror, where along the way we passed the German Finance Ministry, that was once the seat of Hermann Goering’s Luftwaffe, which incredibly, was one of the only buildings not hit by allied missiles during the war. On the east side of the building, there is a remarkable display of DDR propaganda that depicts utopian socialist ideals: the happiest workers you could ever meet.

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Kreutzberg is cool. Just the coolest. And we didn’t spend nearly enough time in this neighbourhood. Alas.

Checkpoint Charlie is insane and made me feel really weird to see a place with such incredible historical significance turned into a three-ringed circus. How insanely ironic that this place, once the border crossing into a communist country and a symbol of its citizens’ loss of movement, is now a shopping centre where once can pay to have their photo taken with fake American soldiers and then eat their lunch at KFC.

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The mind boggles.

Did you know that Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport is now a space for citizens to use as they like? That people come to bike, run, fly kites, have picnics, and spend time together on sunny days? That the government put its use to vote by Berliners to see what they wanted done with the space and they overwhelmingly chose to keep it as it is, and to keep using it as a communal space?

To keep it for the people.

Sometimes I can get carried away about countries that I have read and read and read about in novels and textbooks and what I’ve seen in movies and plays. I try to live by the narratives that I have loved, but not lived. I try to imagine Grass and Boll and Remarque and Timm and Wolf and in the end I need to relinquish and let go.

Coming to Berlin was amazing because I was there with my mother. A woman who has shaped my narrative and my stories. A woman who will walk with me for two hours instead of sitting down to lunch because she knows that I want to see Alexanderplatz station even though she knows we won’t make it in time, but we’ll stumble over to the Berlin Concert hall instead, and goodness is it ever grand.

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I will undoubtedly come to Berlin again. I’ll rent a bike and see Marx and Engels; I’ll go to the symphony and visit museums and I’ll eat curried sausage in Kreutzberg and dance at some club.

But today was for mum.

Who likes Angela Merkel as much as I.

And who undoubtedly also said hello, as we passed her by.