‘Estonia’ – before going for the first time, that melodic name painted pictures in my mind of scenes from children’s books read to me by my parents. We often create an over-romanticized idea of a new place, but the moment I crossed the border, my imagination materialized.
It is one of those magic places I thought didn’t really exist, and for the three days I spent with Marko and his little brother, we did the kinds of things you would expect in a work of fiction.
We walked for hours in the dense woodland behind his house, built a raft with trees we cut down, and made a huge campfire. Navigating through the forest, it was as if he was speaking to the trees the same way that I would speak to strangers when finding my way through a city.
He told me there was a risk of encountering wild boars and bears, and he even felt the need to tell me what to do in the event of encountering one of them. I’ve never had to climb a tree before, and I didn’t want to have to try.
As we walked, we foraged berries to keep our energy, and picked mushrooms to cook that evening. I felt truly disconnected from the rest of the world; my phone didn’t even have any signal in some parts of the forest.
Marko pointed out a number of abandoned wooden houses to me – much of Estonia’s population left the country after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, leaving villages such as Marko’s either partially or completely empty. According to him, I could occupy one of them for free, given I contacted the owner and kept the place from falling apart because they still want to sell it.
Many Estonians have a sauna in their house – much is the same in Latvia and some part of Russia. In Marko’s house, it is what they use instead of a shower.
He invited me to use it, but before we went in he asked me if I was comfortable with what we were about to do. “Most foreigners aren’t,” he told me.
It turned out that they use it naked. I figured that if Marko and his brother were fine with it, then there was no need for me to feel awkward.
So, with a 27-year-old man and 11-year-old child, I stood naked in the hot, steamy room. I had a look, of course.
Marko and his brother left and I stayed behind to finish washing. When I walked out into the garden, I saw, what I think, was the gayest thing I’ve ever encountered. They were lying naked in the front garden as if they were in a religious painting.
“If you cannot walk around naked in your own front garden, then it is not a real garden,” Marko told me, as he urged me to join them.
Alas, I popped some underwear on.
My worries had been absent for most of the day, but in the evening they returned. Would I try to cover Russia in one month, or take it slow and find another way to get the visa for China? Deep down, I knew which choice I should pick but I couldn’t let myself think clearly and honestly, lest I leave myself vulnerable to failure.
That evening, Marko and I made a huge campfire behind his house. With the glittery indigo sky watching over us and mysterious mist snaking in-between the thick and tall pine trees, we left the world of introductory conversation behind and went beneath the surface to discuss some very personal subjects. Marko allowed me to truly let go of the seriousness of my situation, letting me listen to myself.
Gazing into the roaring fire as we spoke, the conversations we were having became independent of each other; I was interpreting what he saying differently to how he meant it, and vice versa.
Rushing over one month just to say I had traversed Eurasia, but missing everything in-between, seemed wrong now.
He told me that I should stay in Estonia for winter, gain residency and apply for the Chinese and/or Russian visa that way. My EU citizenship would make this very straight-forward, and I felt the lure of Estonia draw me to the idea. It felt right.
As the possibility materialized, I envisioned myself in a small cabin in the woods, keeping the fire going with the wood cut down in summer, snowed-in with just books and food.
I learned something from this – making big plans stresses me out, but making possibilities is exciting.
As the sun came up, Marko went to bed, but I went for a walk down the road near his house. It was as straight as a ruler and on either side of me were fields topped with pockets of mist which look like clouds. It was like I was in heaven.
The horizon at each end was shrouded by the similar clouds. As I started to walk, I realized I was inside a metaphor for my life – I am on an infinite road and completely free to walk it for as long as I want to. I moved forwards and the clouds continued to hide the horizon from me; there are always more things to see than I have time to.
I slept until midday and woke to the sun shining its golden rays into my room. My eyes opened willingly. The idea of spending winter in Estonia seemed too good to be true and I didn’t want to bring up conversations we had the night before, in case the fragile idea shattered while being carried into reality. But as the day went on, things seemed to be just as relaxed as last night.
Marko told me, with enthusiasm, that he thought it was a great idea. He then told me that he doesn’t live in his house between November and March and that if I was to live in it, I would be doing him a favor.
It was the happiest I’d ever felt.
The next day, I left for Tallinn where I would pick up my passport which had been sent to me by the visa company without a Chinese visa. I had imagined receiving this passport following the failed application would upset me, but not getting a the visa turned out to be one of the best things to happen to me.