it’s been over a month since i left new zealand. new zealand, new zealand. aotearoa. i didn’t want to fall in love with a place that everyone else falls in love with. i didn’t want to be impressed by your scenery or warmed by your people. i wanted to resent you for making me choose to give up a normal, easy life, near my family and friends. i wanted to maintain that america is still my home, that america is great, america is better. but you loved me anyway. you let me in. you carried me. and doggone it, i miss you already. i miss your simplicity, your flow. your green hills, your jagged peaks, your rivers. you’re not perfect, you don’t know how to make proper mexican food, but i miss you.
i thought that when i left new zealand, i might want to travel for years and never go back. i thought maybe i would dread the return, fear the uncertainty of what’s next. but as of this moment, i’m actually surprisingly graciously looking forward to december, to planting our roots once again in our little island. it’s not the familiarity that i miss about new zealand, nor the comforts. i’m not craving stability or security. what i miss is the unknown that new zealand has created for me. when we go back, we’ll move to a different city, make a home out of a strange apartment, and start on completely new paths, with new jobs and friends and hobbies. for once, i can’t wait. (don’t get me wrong, i’m still completely terrified about what i’m going to do with my life – but excited nonetheless.)
so why not pack up and go back as soon as possible? i want to see the world. i want the daily challenges, inspiration and introspection that only travel can bring me. i want to be humbled. i want to collect experiences before i start thinking about the anchors, and i mean anchors in a great, beautiful way: the house, the career, the babies. the investments. i want all of that, i really do, but not yet. i may not start real life until i’m thirty-five, and that’s what i’m (still) desperately trying to accept.
so for now, russia. what a wild place. cigarette smoke, sweat, rain, grey bleak block buildings, dark skies, paranoia. think: as you walk down the street, passersby stare into your eyes as if they wish it were your last day on earth. people seem stern, cold and inhuman. but then, wonderfully, they’re not! they’ll go out of their way to help you – they may yell the help at you, they may drag you by the arm without saying a word to take you where you have asked to go – but they still help. and i feel for them. their country has been through a lot. it has seen three types of government in the same century. it seems as though it’s stuck in the past, afraid of the future. some things surprised me though: it feels safe (even with the murderous stares), it’s immaculately clean, men are comfortable enough to wear man bags, and i loved it.
we stayed in a village called suzdal. i forgot to map out the directions to our accommodation, so we wandered around asking locals for help. nobody knew and/or nobody understood us. please keep in mind this was the second time i had let us down – the first being the time we missed our flights from la to moscow because i insisted we didn’t need to get to the airport early, no we could not get put on the next flight out, yes we had to buy completely new international flights – so i was not on patrick’s good side. but back to suzdal. we were pointed in different directions by the locals, so we walked and walked and walked, in the heat, with all our bags. we finally located the street name on a town map so we headed in that direction with low hopes. it was a long walk that took us very far away from the main center of town, very very far away – down a very residential street, with kids playing, people with shopping bags. we locate our street, find the right address, and it’s a big house with no sign, no indication that this is anything but a person’s private home. a cat lying in front of the door, claiming his territory. this was not our hotel. we were lost. we started to walk away. an old lady in the next house peeked behind her curtains to watch us like a suspicious nosy neighbor. we had no idea where else to go, so we decided to knock on the door of the house anyway. of course it was our hotel. a lovely little guesthouse where they speak no english and offer an interactive breakfast experience. how to eat the breakfast was, and still is, a mystery. there was a container of cereal and a container of milk, but no bowls to put it in. there was a plate of different jams, but no bread. then a girl started bringing over different plates of things, like meats and cheese, pastries, pancakes, sausages, but she brought them over as if it were a 7-course meal. the only thing we could say to her in russian was ‘thank you, thank you’ and she would nod. i have to get back to russia.
in contrast, estonia was an absolute fairytale. estonia is full of happy, non-confusing, overly friendly english-speaking IT specialists. more expectations defied. we ended up staying five days, but not because it was a fairytale. because we had accidentally starved ourselves. i’m calling it incidental fasting. incidental fasting is when a) you’re on a budget, b) you enjoy the finer things in life, and 3) you’re too lazy or incompetent to cook for yourself. so you have one fancy meal per day and nothing else. it was a great plan until it caused one of us diarrhea and both of us severe irritability and fatigue. one day we felt so weak that, when we found out it would take twenty minutes to get to the nearest open cafe or store, we scrounged the airbnb cabinets like rats and demolished a half-empty box of dry muesli while cackling maniacally. it was the best muesli i’ve ever had – it tasted like desperation. delicious.
it has also been blistering hot – the hottest it’s been in europe in decades. i do not do well in the heat. i can’t sleep. i can’t think. i get very sticky and sweaty. i get very upset. patrick on the other hand: he covers himself in many blankets and says he’s cold. probably because he has something seriously wrong with his insides, but either way it’s a point of contention.
to add to this, we had to climb 4 flights of stairs and a tiny microscopic spiral staircase to get to our hotel attic room in tallinn. a take-away pizza box could not fit up this staircase without being turned sideways, which is sadly what i had to do. there’s an amazing view of the old town from the window, but you have to lie flat on the floor to see it. we spent most of our time in estonia translating imodium and preparation h instructions from estonian to english. if i ever write a memoir, i will call this time of my life “the runs and the roids”.
after estonia we made our way to latvia where we were treated like royals by our beautiful latvian friend laura. she had recently bought an apartment that she was planning on renting out, and she let us stay there so we could have our own space. laura is one of those people who will do anything for anyone and ask for nothing in return, so we kept thanking her for buying us an apartment for our stay. ‘laura you really shouldn’t have! this is too much! you’re too kind!’ her response was ‘yea ok but lock your doors because you are in latvia’. she showed us the best that latvia has to offer: forests, castles, old towns, and some extremely impressive gas stations. i learned latvian as best as i could so i could communicate with her parents. i said in latvian: hello, my name is anna, i am from the united states, and one two three four five six seven eight nine ten. they were impressed.
i went to poland because i have always wanted to visit this place with such a powerful jewish history. my dad was jewish and i feel a strong connection with the culture, even if it isn’t my own. i visited auschwitz, and somehow i managed to lose my tour guide. this kind young man spent thirty minutes wandering all over the camp with me, looking inside every block for my group. he didn’t make me feel dumb, he just laughed with me. what kind of person loses their tour guide at auschwitz? he told me i am pretty bad at being a tourist. the highest compliment! i don’t know what it is, but travel seems to make me more irresponsible, and i like it.
and then romania because, my dad’s grandparents were romanian, and the word transylvania evokes scary/cool stuff. highlights include a neighbor with a one-eyed dog; a song patrick wrote about the roadwork progress in romania; men who walk down the highway carrying a plastic bag (where has he been? where is he going? what’s in the bag?!); our host who offered us a homemade traditional romanian spirit and washed our clothes and told us about her fourteen years of living life on a bike. she is also the first person who has noticed that my eyes are two different colours – or the first person who has dared to mention it.
there was one other thing. we were driving down a rural road, and an elderly man who was fairly dressed up (aka wearing a hat) motioned for the car to slow down. i rolled down my window. he leaned on the car and looked at me with sparkling blue eyes and weathered skin. ‘moieciu’ he repeated many times. i told him in romanian that i didn’t understand. he continued to stare. after a few years, he nodded and slowly walked around the car, opened the door and got in. this took another couple of years. there was nothing we could do but drive. we managed to communicate a bit. i told him the places we had been, the places we were going. he stared at me. he only pointed to himself and said romani. oh your name is romani? da. my name is anna! more stares. finally he said something other than romani so we stopped the car. he rubbed his fingers together – was he asking for money or was he offering to pay us for the ride? still unclear. we said ne ne ne and he said something that sounded very much like saruman and got out of the car, never to be seen again. we considered the possibility that this man is senile and was performing his regular escape from his worried family. but then a very thorough investigation concluded that he was not referencing middle earth but saying sarut mana, meaning ‘i kiss your hand’.
well old senile man, i kiss your hand too.