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.

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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Cylon? You mean the robot or the tea?

Double fire!

Hey dudes.  I really hope that wherever you are, you are warm and snuggly.

Please, cozy up to a double fire, pour yourself a hot toddy, and enjoy not doing whatever it is you are supposed to be doing.

Because goodness knows, after this week, I think we all could do with some quality relaxation.

AND FIRE.