On October 3rd, I turned 25.
My mum congratulated me on the phone. ‘Quarter century! That’s a lot.’
Uhh, thanks, mum.
But really, 25 seems like such an imortant age. Like the seam between adulthood and whatever it is that comes before – adolescence, childnishness, youth? So in order to celebrate the occassion, I wrote 25 short stories from 25 different countries I have visited over these years.
ps. Last December I wrote one of my all time favourite posts, also titled with ‘Lost Words’. This might become a theme. You can read that post here. This time, though, the stories include some real lost words, including some snippets and half-stories I scribbled down years ago but never used in anything.
Anyway, here they are. Let me know which one is your favourite, and if you have a story of your own to share, please feel free to do so in the comments!
‘Flight to London Heathrow is boarding. Please make your way to gate number 34.’
I thought a moment of departure should feel more meaningful. More monumental. Standing in line with parents comforting fussy children, teenagers next to brightly-coloured rolling handluggage, I felt perfectly normal. After all these years and all these planes, changing continents was no more than a game of hopscotch.
Still, I couldn’t help but feel a slight sense of weary nostalgia like you do after a long trip; in one part sad to leave behind an exciting new country still teeming with unexplored adventure, but also missing home, missing your mum’s cooking and familiar water pressure in showers and unambiguous traffic rules. Me, I was glad to return home. But I also knew I was only returning to leave again.
How strange it was, to return to a place where you’re not strange at all. And always on time. I suddenly realized that I had stood in these footsteps before, five years before on this exact same date, but facing the other direction. My boarding pass stamped with the name of a dream instead that of home. Five years ago I boarded a plane to Australia for my first long trip, my first solo backpacking adventure, and that day changed me permanently.
Surely there lies some poetic irony in this, but I can’t yet quite form it into words, no, not yet, not while the sweat on my skin still smells like South America, not while I’m still dragging my protesting heart behind, the stupid heart that wants to stay, or maybe leave just to experience the joy of coming back.
I smile at the flight attendant as I hand her my boarding pass, and I remind myself, I’m only going home to be able to leave again.
2. Bosnia and Herzegovina
Sarajevo has been experiencing record rainfall this summer. All the locals tell me that this isn’t usual, no, usually they’d be hitting up high degrees and clocking in sunshine. They say it almost apologetically, like they were sorry they could not stop the rain at will.
It starts to rain again while I’m on a walking tour. The war tour of Sarajevo, to be more specific, to show tourists some shrapnel damaged apartment blocks and missile craters.
People pull up their hoods and pop umbrellas open. We hurdle under trees seeking shelter, faces frowned, arms crossed.
The guide lets us wait it out a bit, and when it seems like the worst of it is lifting off, he leads the group out again. Some people are hanging back, as if wondering if they should just stay under the feeble protection of tree branches.
‘Come on,’ the guide encourages us, ‘I survived the war, you can survive a little bit of rain!’
After that, I don’t feel much like complaining.
In another time, just a few weeks ago, we would talk until four.
‘When are you coming back to Europe?’
‘I don’t know, in a couple of weeks maybe.’
‘When you come back, run away with me. Let’s go somewhere where neither of us has been before. To a small town in Slovakia. We can get a cozy room in a town where there’s nothing to do so we won’t feel bad when we only leave the bed for a short stroll around the main square. You said no to me last time. Don’t say no now.’
Silence. Then: ‘I’m not saying no.’
Then he adds, his voice vulnerable: ‘I need to think about this. In a way it feels like giving in, you know?’
I know what he means. He means to say that he is trying to keep his distance. That one more look for either of us could make us compromise our respective freedoms, sanities and independencies. And I tell him I will give him all the time to think about it. We don’t need to decide it right away.
But I smile on the phone. ‘I can picture it in my mind. I can picture it.’
Bratislava is a dull, grey city with nothing to do but wander around aimlessly and wonder how it could all go wrong even before it started. A part of me is glad he is not here, that one part that still wants to protect him from strange things in the night. It’s not the same part that selfishly wanted him here.
He would have hated this city.
When you travel, you learn to bargain. Oftentimes it is on busy bazaars for the knick knacks and knapsacks that you bring home as souvenirs, but even more often you find yourself bargaining over less materialistic things: clean laundry, a good night’s sleep, your comfort. Most of those you are willing enough to trade for an adventure.
And sometimes you bargain on languages.
The old man with gold teeth is missing some of his real ones. He’s standing next to an antiques table, selling off his old Soviet crap to curious tourists: military medals, children’s books in Cyrillic alphabet, black-and-white postcards that are torn and ripped at the edges.
I am the first to sell him English, but he shakes his head.
Ruski? he makes a counter offer. Ukrainski?
Un poco, I say and smile.
Now I perk up. Sim, eu falo portugues!
He explains he lived in Lisbon for nine years.
Voce fala portugues muito bom, I say and laugh at the absurdity of this conversation: me, a Finnish tourist living in Poland, conversing with this gold-toothed Ukranian in shaky Portuguese.
But I guess it’s just another day in the life of a travelling girl.
The same as I know I will never stay, you know that one day I will have to stop leaving.
For the sake of you and me, I hope you’re the one who’s right.
When I left the hotel, it was still warm. I didn’t even bring my gloves. I started walking and realised soon that the lines on the map were much further from each other than they had seemed. I took a turn, took another. As streetlights flickered to life to replace the sleeping sun, I started to shiver.
I missed him terribly. I missed my gloves.
Finally I came across a little cafeteria on a side street. I couldn’t take you back there if you asked me to, I wouldn’t know how. I knew probably three words of French and used all of them to order a cheese pastry and a coffee, but the pastry was dry and the coffee was bitter and the cold air creeping in through the front door made me curl up in myself.
My hands were still cold as I walked back to the street but I wasn’t going to give up now. Finally embracing the sense of being wonderfully lost in a new city overwhelmed me like it should. Following lights and the ugly smirk of a yellow moon behind the clouds I walked to the tower and under it.
It was magical. I was lost in a fairytale I had spent the whole day looking for. I stood under the tower, basking in the yellow lights, wonderstruck at being in the presence of the most famous monument in the world. Like getting to shake hands with Grace Kelly.
Maybe, just maybe, I was all right after all.
7. the Czech Republic
West Virginia, 1958. A lush, green valley cascades under a staggeringly orange sunset, phone lines crossing over the landscape in hard, dark brush strokes. The paper feels like wax. I turn the postcard over to look at the little message on the back.
‘Excuse me, how much is this?’
‘Let me see.’ Surprisingly, the old man who runs the antique shop speaks great English. His hair is grey and he wears thick glasses, but his eyes are sharp when he takes the postcard and turns it over in his hand.
‘She was actually a famous cartographer, did you know that?’ He points at the name on the address line. ‘This must be one of her American friends.’
‘She only lived a few blocks off from here, actually. They say she was friends with Freud.’ He shakes his head a little. ‘Of course she was out of work as soon as the war came. But she was probably the most famous Czech cartographer of her time.’
I pay for the postcard and leave to wander the same streets that the recipient of the card must have walked herself decades earlier. My thumb brushes against the waxy surface of the card. Knowing about her makes this souvenir feel more intimate.
Like I was friends with her.
A friendly man in an unmarked van stops for me at the gas station just outside of Rijeka. He hauls tools and gloves and a motorcycle helmet out of my way to make space on the passenger seat. There’s a motorcycle strapped down on the back of the van like a compliant horse.
‘I’m a Hell’s Angel’, he tells me. ‘But we have a worse reputation than what it actually is. We only fight with other motorcycle gangs.’
On the two-lane highway to Pula, the van suddenly creaks and jolts, and as he pulls to the side, I look out of his window and see one of the tires calmly rolling across the road and into the ditch on the other side.
I sit in the car trying not to laugh at the absurdity of it all as road assistance helps him re-attach the tire. When he climbs back in half an hour later, he is as cheerful as ever.
‘I can’t believe that tire just fell off’, I say and laugh.
He laughs lauder, booming and bold. ‘Oh, this happens a few times a day here. Welcome to the Balkans!’
9. the UK
At 01:44, I have just finished reading another ghost story – you know the type, chat forum nonsense that people claim is real with no other proof than a stranger’s promise on the internet – when he stirs next to me in his sleep.
‘He’s coming around again’, he mutters.
Does this boy know some god awful truths that I don’t? Maybe I just heard him wrong?
‘He’s coming around again’, he repeats, shifts sides and starts snoring.
I decide to stop my scary story binge and go look at pictures of some kittens instead.
South America is full of couples. Long-term lovers, fiancées, married partners, couples on their first trip together… I swear even Paris stays second to the multitude of sweethearts that traverse this continent together.
I look at them and remember I could be one of them… But then that thought doesn’t phase me much.
It is strange how quick I’ve been to fall out of love with love itself. I used to be so desperate for any attention that that was exactly what I got. Now I find it easy to roll right out of a lover’s head as soon as I am done with him, and I waste no eyes for men that bore me.
I think this is how it’s supposed to be.
The sun is setting over Lake Titicaca. It is not a glorious one; no glowing orange or red on fire, just a modest brush stroke of pale yellow painted haphazardly on top of grey and blue slowly turning darker. It is a sunset, nevertheless, and thus, a romantic event. I look at all those lovers leaning onto each other and for a moment I let myself dream of a romance like theirs…
But then my eyes wander, and I see the four girls hopping and posing and taking silly pictures of each other. I see a man and a woman, both decades past the target demographic of a backpacker’s holiday, deep in conversation. I see the three tiny figures on the other edge of the island, trudging their way through a hiking path. There is love, and there is so much more. Friendship. Intellect. Adventure.
It is so effortless now to be happy alone.
At twenty, Phyo had already been working as a guide for the past eight years. He knew he’d get in trouble if the government found out he was talking shit about them, but either he trusted us or just wanted to let us know, because he fearlessly told us of every aspect of his life in Myanmar.
On the third day, we were walking side by side, a little behind of the main group that were deep into a conversation about Rick and Morty. I asked him about pay in Myanmar. He told me.
‘I’m the only son, so I am expected to take care of my family’, he said. ‘My father doesn’t want to work, so I send my salary to them.’
‘You provide for your whole family? How can you afford that?’
‘I could take care of them, it’s not a big problem,’ he replied, ‘but now my mum’s sister has decided to move in because she doesn’t want to work either, and I’m not sure if my money will be enough for her and her kid, too.’
I thought of my part-time job that earned me as much money in an hour as he did in three days, and of my family that would send me a hundred here or there if things got tight, and of the financial support the Finnish social system paid me just to go to university to get my degree.
And all I could say was, ‘I’m really sorry.’
I looked at him. He looked at me. He looked into my eyes and I saw him, but I can never be quite sure if he ever saw me or if his eyes were already blinded by the light of the millions of stars that he was heading towards headfirst. We extended arms. One arm, two arms. We embraced. That embrace expanded into years, and those years whirled past us as quickly as if we were both sixty. The past, the present and the future were all dancing on the tip of my tongue like the edge of the knife, and they cut me and sliced my tongue in half so the words could never come out. In the last second, the last fraction of a heartbeat just before he started pulling away, his whole life flashed before my eyes as if it had been mine to share and now I was dying. He let go of me. We smiled. I kept my heart and face closed. For if he had seen my life flash before him as I’d seen his and he would not step down and turn his back to the staggering galaxies of roadmaps and strange cities before him, he had and would never love me. He left with his lips unkissed, with a smile on them and a promise to haunt me. As I watched him pull away I felt the sharp weight of a life never lived that had suddenly come to an end, and for the first time in my life I understood my own fragility.
Grey morning light. He squats by the door. I sit on the step, transfixed on the burning end of his cigarette.
He takes a drag.
‘I’ve broken almost every bone in my body’, he says.
‘Maybe you should get less dangerous hobbies,’ I suggest.
He considers. Then: ‘Nah. I’ve lived my life.’
I have found the heart of India, and I found it in the roots of the growing nation.
We separated today for a bit for the first time on the trip and promised to meet back at the hostel by four. I took to the streets nervous but excited, tried not to look anyone too intently but looked at them when they didn’t see. For the first time in India, I was all alone and sought my way out of the touristy areas to see the parts where they say the friendliest people in the world live. Women sitting at shopfronts talked to me in languages I couldn’t recognise. Children, with no word of English on their tongues but “hello” and “photo please”, scurried on towards me and smiled shyly when I pointed my camera at them. The shutter snapped and after I’d shown them the photo, they were off, faded onto the streets where I would never be able to tell one kid from another if it wasn’t for the precious photos.
A beautiful blue gateway caught my eye. As I snapped the picture, two girls approached me and I smiled and asked if they wanted me to take their picture, too. They just shook their heads, grinned and told me to follow them. In a fraction of the second I made up my mind and decided that if I was being mugged and murdered, at least I’d die happy, and I followed them up a steep staircase to the first floor of a house just inside the gate that had first lured me to stop. We arrived in a tiny tailor’s shop, where a young-looking woman greeted me with a smile. With no English she simply asked me ‘Chai?’ and I accepted.
‘So, are you two sisters?’, I asked the girls, and they both shook their heads.
‘Friend’, one of them said. Her voice sounded vaguely impatient for excitement. ‘Can you dance?’
‘Me?’ I couldn’t help but chuckle. In my mind I was exchanging exasperated looks with a friend on a zumba class way far over, back home in Finland. ‘No. Not at all.’
‘Wait.’ The girl disappeared for a second, then returned with a cassette in her hand. She put it in the small stereo that I only now noticed, and when she pushed play, Bollywood music filled the tiny shop. She held out her hands for me. ‘Come.’
When a little Indian girl asks you to dance, you have to dance, so we did. I was trying my best to keep at her pace and she was looking at me and laughing. I spun her around but she, the master, started spinning me instead, finally tipping her body backwards leaning onto me, and then we were tapping feet, hopping around like little bunnies. Her mum had re-entered the room and was smiling at us, and I was laughing, too. There is no shame in having a 13-year-old kick your ass in a Bollywood dance-off.
Breathless, I sat down for a while to enjoy chai and coconut chocolate. I was feeling mildly embarrassed to be sitting on the only chair in the room, but they insisted. For every piece of chocolate I picked up from the bowl they offered, I broke half to offer to the girls. A third girl, my dance partner’s little sister, had emerged from somewhere, and then they performed a dance they had learnt in a movie as the rest of us cheered on.
It had started raining so they insisted I stay for a little while longer and we danced some more. When there were no dances left to dance, I sat down and asked the three girls about school. I asked what they wanted to be when they grew up.
‘A scientist’, said the first one.
‘A doctor’, said the second.
‘A doctor, too’, said the third. ‘But for animals.’
I left when the rain was still pouring, and collecting my skirts (already soaked and heavy at the hem) I skipped onto the other side of the street, feeling ever so graceless on my feet as an untrained dancer does.
Since then I have forgotten their names and faces. I forget a lot of things. But I will remember holding hands in breathless dance, spinning around an unadorned tailor’s shop as the Indian monsoon ruthlessly beat us a rhythm on the street outside.
I hope the girls became everything they wanted to be.
This is it. This is how I die. Alone and toothless in the second most corrupted country in the world. Joke’s on them, though. My teeth are not even pretty, they’re not gonna be able to sell them for much on the black market.
Wait, no. I don’t think toothlessness can kill people.
Maybe it’s all good. The clinic is clean and modern, and the dentist seemed to understand that I do want to keep all my teeth. He has been explaining everything to me clearly and slowly like I was a dumb child. To be honest, a dumb child probably speaks better Spanish than I do. Which happens to be the only mutual language between me and the man currently putting needles into my mouth.
When my gums started hurting, I began flossing three times a day, desperately doing everything I could to avoid seeing a dentist in Bolivia. But when even smiling became painful, I decided it was time to cut the crap and find help. If I can’t even enjoy memes anymore, is life even worth living?
And that’s how I ended up laying in this chair, my mouth slowly numbing from half a dozen shots of anesthesia, unable to look away from the tv playing music videos to reggaetón songs. As the dentist started scraping plaque off my teeth, I stared at three barely-covered asses twerking on the screen. I wondered what he had on when children visited.
And you know what? He did fix me up well. At least until the end of my trip. And I felt slightly ashamed that I had postponed seeing a dentist for that long, just because I thought I wouldn’t be able to find good care in a third-world country.
Did u make it?
Im probably back on my way tomorrow
Thanks for every second
Ya I’m here, gonna hit the hay soon
Where you off to?
Gonna be beautiful out there, take care
Gotta say i was hoping to still see you when i got back but no reason for you to hang around aye
I really wanna see you and I wish that would happen
But I really have to go
You gotta go for the same reason i had to go
It was good knowing you tho
I hate this
Have a good time
And good luck with everything
You’re my kind of people
The man drops me off just outside the police booths and waves me good-bye as he speeds away. The cool air gives me goosebumps, and I shiver slightly in my Star Wars tee. Still, I can see the Macedonian flag flying on the other side, its explosion-like yellow against its bright red, and it looks like one last adventure.
I wait in line between two cars. As he scans my passport, the border officer asks me if I liked Albania. I praise it accordingly and truthfully. ‘I loved it! Albania, very good.’
He smirks and hands me my passport back. ‘Albania, very good,’ he says laughing, and checks my name on the passport one last time, ‘Elina – super very good!’
I was with you on the day that Stephen Hawking died.
I walked through the door, and the first thing I said was, ‘Did you hear that Stephen Hawking died?’
We lay intertwined and still until it got dark outside and the corners of your apartment were growing black and distant. Not because we were sad that Stephen Hawking had died, but because we both understood how monumental it was that he had, and that if we could feel so similarly shaken about this one thing, maybe there was more to tie us together, and it was something to explore.
and now the argentinian is mad at me, has been for two days but instead of acting a grown-up and telling me whats wrong has decided to passive aggressively rapid fire text me from the next room over but I barely care now, we are sharing a one-euro bottle even though alysa doesnt really drink beer but there was nowhere to get wine this late at night and we are kinda laughing about how those two albanians that followed us around the fort walked past the restaurant while we were having dinner and we told them we had boyfriends – from argentina and korea – and while the argentinian fits the part, ben is a lanky white boy from australia and we are just about dying thinking of him as korean, especially when alysa teaches him how to correctly bow and he bends in the middle like a stick and we all laugh all over again but now the argentinian wants to talk and
Do you know how I got on a plane for the first time?
I was six when I got the chicken pox. It was around the New Year; I still have vivid memories of the calendar I put on the wall for that year, it was full of colourful scenes from any Disney classic that had come out before the year 2000. I might be wrong, too, knowing how unreliable a child’s mind is, but I still have those memories, whether they were real or not.
Having the chicken pox is miserable. You’re full of itchy spots and boils, but you can’t scratch, or it might leave a mark.
Of course it’s better to suffer through it as a kid, not only because it can be deadly in adults but because you’ll have your parents to comfort you.
I remember sleeping in my parents’ bed one night when things got particularly bad. While my dad took refuge on the couch, my mum stroked my hair and told me fantastical tales about Rhodes, an island she had visited when she was younger; about water so clear you could see the bottom without goggles on, and seahorses that would swim so close to the shore that even I could see them. I remember the seahorses especially. I had never seen one, and I would have very much liked to.
Later in life, mum confessed that she didn’t even know if there were seahorses in Rhodes. And when I got better and inquired after said seahorses, she was thinking, oh shoot, I didn’t think she would actually remember any of that, now we have to go to Rhodes.
So she booked the holiday. It was the first time I’d been on a plane.
I also learned my first words in English on that trip. After dinner, I’d shyly say the words we’d practiced in the hotel room: ‘Ice cream, please.’
Great time. I didn’t see any sea horses, though.
People ask me about him constantly. What he’s like and how did we meet. I want to tell them everything; because any bit that’s left out feels as important as the rest of it. How could I even begin to construct a picture of him without all the ridiculous, trivial details?
Every day we have spent together has been marvellous, but the fact that our first day together was as wonderful as it was puts all the rest to shame.
He bought me breakfast that morning and asked me about my date. I had come back to the hostel drunk and hollow, having run after the boy and kissed him hastily as he just stood there and after that just turned around and walked on. There was a bathroom stall right next to the window and by the window, a semi-broad sill, and I curled up there and hugged my knees and cried until I couldn’t cry any more.
He asked me how my date went – of course he knew I had one, everyone knew, that was the reason I had blown them off the night before when they were trying to coax me into going out with them. Months later he told me he had been disappointed to see me stay behind; the next morning, he said, he saw me there and wasn’t going to let his chance pass again.
We went for a walk around the town. It was strange. It had been exactly a year since I had last traced those same streets but with someone else. Those nights kept coming back to me in stinging, quick flashes. I felt like a ghost walking through the field of her memories; as we stood on the same viewing platform where the boy had kissed me for the first time, I looked at him and I wondered.
As we left the platform, a man wearing a Medieval smith’s leather apron greeted us. He laughed and paid the man five euros, and his hammer came down and imprinted the silhouette of the city on a piece of copper to forge that lucky coin. We were both thinking the same thing: that the luck would be for us. We had no idea how far it could carry us.
I had six euros in my pocket and barely more on my bank account. I was wearing a faded top, tattered at the edges. His hair was cropped short and he wore rings around his eyes like marks of victory, like proudly showing off all his sleepless nights. Neither of us knew of the future. All we had were brightly-coloured dreams, like neon lights, like shooting stars.
So we began.
The English chicks are at it again, choosing Abba one after the other, screaming in laughter and spilling cheap beer everywhere. One of the girls climbs on top of the loudspeaker and her friends try to drag her down, but they don’t succeed until her foot has crashed through the flimsy top, and they giggle and continue dancing, seemingly unaffected by the broken loudspeaker.
They’re all eighteen, one year too old to be dancing queens but they seem unaware of it. And I don’t despise them. I am barely older than they are. I remember well what it felt like to be like that: fresh and new and drunk and charming in my stupidity.
I shouldn’t despise them, but I do. I feel sorry and ashamed of them. I’m jealous of them.
My beer tastes like water but I keep sipping it, smiling tightly at the scene unfolding in the backroom of a Vietnamese mini-market where a stocky loudspeaker and a cheap TV screen make up for the lack of real karaoke bars in town. Vietnamese love karaoke. Establishments like this are common. For a very low price you can rent a whole room for you and your crew and choose whatever is the cheesiest rock ballad on the list mixed with old hits and Vietnamese pop music.
But I can’t sing and I’m not even drunk and I think that if I got up and left now, none of them would even notice I was gone.
All over Southeast Asia, I fall to the edge of the social periphery, to the line between dark and light. Other travellers look at me and let their gaze sweep over, as if they could only decipher a vaguely human shape and not a real girl, getting quietly drunk alone in the eye of a hurricane.
When did I become an outsider?
A couple of years ago I collected small owl statues. Why, I couldn’t tell. But when I spotted this one through an open door of an antique store in the old town Stockholm, what choice did I have but to go in?
And when I turned it around and found out what the price was, I remember thinking, that’s way cheaper than I’d expect any antique to be!
The shop owner, a man with white hair and an unsmiling mouth, let me pay for my purchase on card. Which turned out to be my doom; since the shop didn’t accept refunds for purchases made by card.
That same night I proudly presented my new owl to my friend, with whom I was staying, and when she asked me how much it cost me, I happily answered: ‘Not much! Five euros! Like 500 kroner!’
‘Uhh, you do realise that’s actually fifty euros, right?’
I did not.
Well, I studied languages. Maths was never my forte.
They thought I wouldn’t, but I ate the spider. Obviously they didn’t know me.
I would have eaten it even if I was sober.
If I could detach right now and float up, and blink my eyes and see myself from the outside, this is what I’d see.
I can see myself in the doorway, hand on the key, and I can’t tell if I’m coming or leaving. I’ve been on both sides of the door so many times. The only difference is whether my backpack is heavy with tattered clothes and cheap souvenirs or new hopes and dreams.
The new worlds, they taunt me, they rip me apart from any familiar reality I have ever known, and I love them for it. But I am an unfaithful lover, a traitor – my new life will never be enough as long as my roots extend to the hard, frozen soil of my homeland. And they are strong and steady, anchoring my heart forever to a place called home.
I will always stand there, straddling my two worlds, stuck in the in-between where leaving and coming back tear me apart in all the similar ways. This scene is stuck in an eternally spinning vortex, in the centre: me, making the decision to go again. And then come back.
As much as I am destined to go, I am destined to return. In this merry-go-round of life, it is never either-or. Go. Come back. Go. Come back.
Go, because I can.
And come back, because I cannot not.