Georgia. The Caucasus begins here from one second to the next. At the place where my Russian taxi driver drops me off, the valley is broad, and the mountains look like adolescent boys. The border crossing to Georgia is one kilometre south in the notch of a mighty canyon. The three thousand meter high peaks rise in self-confidence on all sides and command awe. Instead of the military, the border is guarded by a monastery. There, I take my first break and congratulate myself on crossing the border. I have started to celebrate the small stages because sometimes the stretch in my head is so much wider than the kilometres, I physically travelled.
Balaklava is a small seaside town, former military base and tourist paradise. Old gentlemen sit with hats in the harbour, hold their fishing rods into the turquoise water and call out to each other from time to time. The people here are beautiful, like the landscape they are masterpieces of time. In the harbour are yachts from America, Europe and Russia. As usual, the rich of this earth know exactly where it's worth living. The coast is mountainous and rugged. The land in this part of Crimea falls in cliffs into the blue sea. Yellow dry grass dances with cornflowers in the evening sun and the crickets sing their evening song.
After three weeks, I finally get a two-day break. Two of my colleagues bring the children back to Moscow, two more stay in the camp with me. Apart from us, two girls remain for the second round. Since they mostly long for sleep and good food, I sneak out on my own. At half past seven in the morning, I'm standing at the bus stop. I want to see more of this place.
Here in camp, time has stopped. The wooden benches are painted in the colours they were painted in during Soviet times. The same people perform the never changing summer jobs. Most of them are tanned seniors, whose skin is leather like. I presume that they are locals, but since I haven't seen much more than the camp on this peninsula, I don't know. Like the Russians, they seem unfriendly and insist on the most abstruse regulations, but then, maybe they adapted? Some of these rules make me cringe and sometimes almost laugh out loud. For example, only ten children are allowed in the sea at the same time and ideally, after 10 minutes, they are called out. Drinking water is not important, and children are supposed to move in pairs. Always. The only way I survive this is by silently not enforcing all of the rules. It's a process, an ongoing negotiation.
This camp isn't fancy. Money is saved in all areas. Food is watered down and consists of overcooked pasta with sausage, buckwheat or rice with meat and a little bit of flabby sauce. Sometimes there is a plate of soup, and we win the jackpot when there are stuffed piroshki (Russian pastries, at times filled with jam).
The third day I dedicated to exploring the city. It was still depressingly cold. -25°C, I had trouble keeping my limbs alive. My nasal wings felt as if covered with a thin layer of ice. A weird feeling. In the shop windows, I regularly checked that no icicles grew out of my nose. My cheeks, nose, and hands were bright red from the cold, and during the day I began to debate with myself whether to call it a day and crawl into bed. I resisted this paradise-like alternative and ventured on. After all, the idea of visiting this city in winter was something I embraced full-heartedly, hypothetically.
I only visited Tampere because so many people told me that I couldn't miss it. My touristic curiosity had already been exhausted in other places, and I didn't expect to discover too many unknown aspects of Finnish life. I felt that I had seen most of it before, and I was more interested in the landscape of the north than in a large(ish) city in the south-west of Finland. However, as I had learned to believe my Finns when they recommended something, I drove to the city that is also called the Manchester of Finland.
Porvoo sits on the southern coast of Finland, one hour east of Helsinki. With fifty thousand inhabitants it's one of the twenty most populated cities in Finland. It's particularly attractive because it has a relatively large area of old wooden houses, an old town with a town hall and a cathedral. After Turku, it's the second oldest city in Finland. Through it flows the river Porvoonjoki, which, when I was there, was charmingly frozen and sang under the ice. Wale like sounds echoed across the river like an electronically distorted didgeridoo with a long echo.
In my last weeks in Germany, a good friend had directed my attention to the independent film scene in Rovaniemi. It's a town in northern Finland, on the southern edge of Finnish Lapland, at the polar circle. Here the sun sets early and rises late during winter. Also, it's damn cold. I visited a KinoKabaret there. It's a festival that is more like a workshop, where we shoot short films. A Kino cell is a group of short film enthusiasts, who meet a few times a year to realise projects in a short period. If there is a meeting somewhere, there is a shoutout on the Internet and whoever wants to come, can come. They are held all over the world. Whenever I can, I attend such meetings. You meet interesting people and get to look at a city on a whole other level. If you want to know more, read this, this, or that.
I travelled from Turku to Helsinki by train. On it, I noticed playgrounds for children. In front of each staircase leading to the lower part of the waggon was a gate to secure the children's safety. The small area in the compartment consisted of a small slide and some games. In the train I travelled with was one such compartment in each car, not like in Germany, where one, if fortunate, has access to a small glass box for three adults and two children on a train for 750 people. With each ticket came a place reservation. Therefore the train felt almost empty, as everyone sat comfortably in their seat. I liked this orderly calmness. The Finns seemed to be a people after my own heart. No one sat down next to me or tried to start a conversation. The conductor kindly told me that I was in the wrong seat: correct seat number, wrong car. It seemed important to him, so I took my belongings and waddled into the next car. As long as you follow the rules, Finland is great.
Finland. I was there. This is where I would have to organise an alternative, finally create new facts. It was the last country before I would leave the perceived security of Europe and for the time being my cultural habitat. I realised that this border crossing was one of the biggest hurdles. I have experienced not speaking a common language with the people around me before. That didn't worry me as much as my ignorance about the unknown rules and conventions. I swayed between fear of the foreign, the sheer size of Russia, entering the dominion of Putin, and the certainty sleeping somewhere in my head that beyond the borders of Europe people had the same basic needs. I now faced the tasks I had shrugged off before because I had to get to Finland first.
The best part of my stay in Sweden was the visit of the Archipelago. Islands have a special place in my heart. Here I saw for the first time nature, which should become so familiar in the coming months. The north with its granite floors, the wooden sheds, the moss and the numerous and partly absurdly large boulders. Getting to the islands was not easy. R. and I needed two attempts, but in the end, we made it. The crossing was wet, the day was wet, and in the end I was wet. Wet, cold and satisfied. Who would have thought?
R. and I had booked a cute little AirBnB, which was a little out of the way in a beautiful area in Stockholm. Nacka Strand. We wanted a comfortable place to cook, sleep and get organised. We slept in a converted shed, in front of an old Swedish house. The red kind you see all over Scandinavia. The decor in the shed was masculine, it was dry and warm, the beds were comfortable and the kitchen functional. Our hosts were friendly and helpful. AirBnB proved itself once more. Stockholm greeted us with a grey wall of clouds and the first three of the four days it was raining non-stop. Only on the last day we got to see the sun at all, which gave us a small taste of Stockholm in the summer. Enchanting.
Back to Estonia...
In Tallinn, I didn't know what to do with myself. The city and the people were lovely, and my AirBnB was great, although I originally planned to couch surf. I presumed that a little company would give my stay a little sparkle. The people I had written to were all busy doing other things; I decided to explore the city on my own. I was a bit relieved. I was beginning to realise that another random connection would not necessarily solve my problem. However, I also knew that my hands were tied, for now. I wouldn't be able to make plans or decisions concerning my travelling. I was supposed to meet my friend in Stockholm that weekend and therefore could make any significant changes (like finding somewhere to stay long term) only when I arrived in Finland. I couldn't start problem-solving just yet. I knew I wanted to do an AuPair in Russia but didn't know how to organise a visa or a family. Although I knew the relevant Internet pages, the offers from Russia were rare. Also, I was not at all sure that the AuPair would solve my problems. I found myself unable to change anything and began to explore the city.
This island is an incredibly beautiful place. There was everything I needed to live and much more. My hosts took good care of me and provided all the tips I might have needed. The end of autumn was already noticeable. The light had a winter quality and the nights were freezing. The rhythm of life, dictated by the fire, did not lose its appeal for the whole week.
I walked to the nearest town: 6.9 kilometres. I would never have done this voluntarily four weeks ago. It took me only an hour, in Poland it had been three more for the same distance. Well, an hour was still 6 minutes more than I had calculated and so I came too late for my bus. Here on the island came the buses on time or too early, I was told. I ran only pro forma to the bus stop but behold. There he was. The bus to Panga. I went in; the bus driver spoke good English (after Poland and Lithuania I am surprised when older folks speak it at all) and even a few chunks of German. He was happy to see me and chuckled at the idea of me wanting to go to the cliff on my own, which was probably a rarity. When I arrived, I understood why...
Sigulda is a small town from which you can easily explore the Gaujatal, one of the national parks in Latvia. I lived in an AirBnB, which will soon become a hostel. The owners were eagerly renovating the house during my stay. My room was huge and accommodated two double beds. Since I was there on the weekend, I had the joy to share this busy spot with the local weekenders only. The trees stood in their autumn colours, and the Gaujatal was at its best. There were gondolas, hiking trails, beautiful old wooden houses, historic summer residences and even an adventure park. With a bit of time, you could experience it all, if you were into that sort of thing. (The only “active” holiday I enjoy is skiing.) I kept to the small cafes and bakeries, where I got sweet and salty pastries for 50 cents (which tasted excellent) and made my way into the forest. There were old trees, beautiful ruins and mushrooms, mushrooms, mushrooms. Of course, there was an abundance of castles (which I foolishly ignored).
When traveling, there are places that one would not visit without the guidance of a local. Gdynia is such a place. It was part of Trójmiasto (Polish for tricity), consisting of Gdansk, Gdynia, and Stopol. It was a beautiful coast, with a beautiful beach like straight out of a picture book. Here was once the summer center of the region, or at least it looked like it was. The sun set behind the trees and as a result, the red light of the sun was lost in the blue sky. Since there were no clouds, or only a few, the dramatic effect of the setting fireball was lost on the horizon. It could have been spectacular and it felt as if all the ingredients for a magical show had come together, but unexpectedly dissolved into thin air on the spot.
In Swinouscjie, I got on the train to Gdansk and drove along the coast of Poland. I knew I missed a lot by letting the whole country pass by like this. However, I felt that I would be able to travel to Poland at any time, even if I was older, had children, or was otherwise restricted. This conviction was a little strange and unfounded, as this was the first time I visited our neighboring country but still... It was beautiful and full of forests. The train was incredibly cheap, fast and comfortable. The railway stations were either made of ready-made concrete, built during the Soviet era, like they can also be found in East Germany, or carved from wood, like before the world wars. They were made to look old. You got a feeling for how grand it must have been then, when women in furry coats, corsages and grand hats waited for steaming trains to take them away...
For the first time on this journey, right at the beginning, I realized that things are planned and then executed. I had a dream, I planned it and now I am living it. This was such a banal realisation but it hit me hard. I wanted to break into a big laugh when arriving on the beach in Ahlbeck. The euphoria rose in me as I slowly saw the sea appearing behind the dunes. The white sand on the beach and the children in yellow raincoats flying their kites looked like out of a picture book. A never-ending stream of German seniors walked along the surf while the seagulls were screaming. The sand was divinely white and warm.
For three days I went to Helgoland with my grandma. Her father grew up on the island, and together with her children, she continued to visit her aunt during summers. My mother does not seem to have been impressed by the island at the time. As far as I can remember, she was always keener to go to France. The German coast, whether the Baltic Sea or the North Sea, bored her and therefor was presented to us kids as being dull. As a result, I was almost 28 years old when I first laid eyes on what remained of my great-grandfather's home. After our little trip, my grandma showed me the old photos and engravings from and of the island. Especially some that show the island before the second world war. It must have been a very nice place. These are particularly exciting when you know the island today. They showed my grandma as a toddler on the then beautiful old pier, my great-grandfather as a tall blond man exercising on the dune, pictures of her parents in the process of being “ausgebootet” on a Börte (a very strange process in which the passengers of large ships are thrown (!) into smaller seaworthy fishing boats), pictures of the family-owned hotel, whose remaining silver spoons used to cut the corners of my mouth when I was a child, and other small details of a life completely alien to me. (The love poems and bon mots of my great-grandfather addressed to my great-grandmother, many of them quite racy, were especially wonderful.) This explained the Nordic half of my grandmother's heart, as well as her fondness for literature and poems. (There was not much else to do on the island during winter and it is rumoured that my great-great-grandfather may have been affiliated with the local lending library...).