“It’s medicinal!” said the young gold-haired woman working the bar in an 800-year-old cavern. Pulling out a case with heavy goblets lying on blue velvet, she poured out shots of a thick, dark liqueur. The goblet was cool and heavy in the hand, and the liqueur tasted of berries, seeds and winter night. Welcome to Riga: fourth stop on the road from London to Finland.
“How is it, traveling alone?” asked a friend by text. Hours of trudging various old towns, ruminating on the past, imagining rival futures, in cold sleet; more hours sitting and watching kilometers spin by in dust, snow, darkness and light; and sometimes good medicine found by chance, by openness to strangers, to yourself.
I do plenty of solo travel, with a family and a career in global health that span the globe. Since my divorce there’s been little to brake the perpetual motion: I can sleep anywhere with the right tune playing on my headphones: with the first chords, I nestle into the polyester rock-hard economy seat and am out cold. I have the Girl Scout badges in travel nutrition, jet lag elimination, sink laundry; I astonish some flight attendants by whipping out my own rubber collapsible cup for a beverage, to reduce single-use plastic.
That experience means I also know that traveling solo, I’m going to be invisible to half the waiters in the world, who just can’t handle seating or serving a middle-aged woman; and I know the emotional swings that come with being alone a lot. Knowing that, I still chose a holiday with two weeks of solo travel to block off time to confront the hole-pocked landscape of my neglected internal life. I’ve been working too hard for years. Sitting and walking alone for two weeks brought elation, but it also forced me to burn through strata of emotional sediment, tunnel through the hard rock of sadness and despair.
Thinking these wintry thoughts in Vilnius, I tried to be more open to listen to others: stuck my head in a punk bar near the gritty hostel and got sucked into a discussion about the European Union with the young people at the bar. “We’re just coming out from under the Soviet Union,” said the Lithuanian bartender. “We need time to figure out who we are, as a country, before we can be part of anything else.” A young woman visiting from Belarus agreed, but worried about rising homophobia, and hoped the EU would help combat that.
From Vilnius, I took a bus across green fields to Riga, Latvia. I knew zero about the town, but found a sparkling jewel, deliciously chill. At an elegant, underpriced suite in a boutique hotel, I woke up each morning to stare up at parquetry on the ceiling. In the lobby, a parakeet chirped by the elevator, and gold carp swam in a pond set into the floor. Two blocks up the street, in the National Theater, 18 euro opened up a seat in the orchestra box for world-class ballet. The bartender had spoken about reviving Latvian pagan traditions, dancing till sunlight with flowers in her hair on summer solstice. I got over my hangover with a Polish detective novel while reclining on pillows on the floor of a round tea house, where floor-to-ceiling windows overlooked the park.
More Baltic renewal and surprises lay up the road in Tallinn. The bus passed through green countryside and dense forests of tall thin trees. In one Estonian museum in a sweeping red mansion, the art showed only the old Russian and German overlords, and a mural of 30 leading Estonians lacked any women, aside from one bending over to flirt with a famous botanist, showing us her bum. But the corrective was up the road at Kumu Kunstumuseum, where curators had thoughtfully unearthed and compiled a rich exhibit of women Estonian painters.
How rare it is to see images in museums of single middle-aged women, I reflected, strolling through the galleries. We are this hidden driving force, quiet engines thrumming in the world’s machinery, but we are rarely fully visible, including to ourselves. Where is there art, film, music showing single middle-aged women as powerful, inventive, wise, funny, loving? Even our sexuality is hidden. But this means, I guess, that we can paint our own images in the world. If no one is reading the story, that means we really get to make it up as madly as we like. Maybe this is part of why I so enjoyed being in the Baltics, a region of which I had no images, no prior knowledge, and found a place in full renewal and self-reinvention.
One day, after a long, cold, wet walk, tired of fighting out the debates in my head, I decided it was time to listen to myself. I sat down in a café across an empty chair, and found myself hearing and seeing a younger version of myself, a girl who accepted from childhood that her job was to take on the weight of the world. In the rain, snow and sometimes sunlight in the Baltic states, walking through old towns, sitting in cathedrals, down streets shadowed by Stalinist edifices, I’ve had the chance to finally hear her more clearly than I did back home.
She’s become a frequent companion. I look over to check on her from time to time, and am relieved to see her gradually looking a little more rested, a little less weighed down by sadness, a touch more joyous.
In Tallinn, the hotel had a sauna and hot tub. I scrubbed out some of the sediment of the past, getting ready to start the next stage of the trip into the north, into snow and ice. Girls just want to have fun, I told my younger self, and she leaned back in the hot tub, into the bubbles, closed her eyes, and smiled.
Deveti, friendly punk bar in Vilnius with good beer selection: https://www.spottedbylocals.com/vilnius/deveti/
Secret Event, Riga bar in an 800-year-old cavern serving exclusively Latvian drinks: https://www.secretevent.lv
Boutique Hotel Kristofs, a pearl of a small hotel in central Riga: https://www.hotelkristofs.com
Latvian National Theatre, in Riga: https://teatris.lv
Kumu art museum, in Tallinn: https://kumu.ekm.ee/en/
Vegan restaurant V, delicious Estonian cuisine in Tallinn: https://www.veganrestoran.ee
Hotel Palace, with sauna, pool, steam room and jacuzzi, in Tallin: https://www.tallinnhotels.ee/hotel-palace-tallinn/