A seal of approval

I wrote this in February for my creative writing class. As Harris seems to have happened so long ago, this might be the only written post about it that I might have.

When I was a kid, the first toy I remember always having was a brown, formerly fluffy stuffed seal called Üljes (‘hüljes’ meaning seal in Estonian). It wasn’t a nice looking toy but it was my favourite.  It had belonged to my sister Liina before it became mine. Liina being 10 years older than me, had outgrown it by the time I discovered it, so there was never a fight over the possession of our seal. By the looks of it, Üljes had been much loved before I got it. It was missing all its whiskers and due to a hole towards its back end, it was also missing quite a bit of the stuffing. I suspect it might have been fluffy once upon a time but by the time it became mine, it had lost all the fluff. As a toy, it looked pretty grubby but I loved it more than anything else. 

I don’t know whether it’s because of Üljes but seals as animals bring me inexplicable amount of joy. I always loved seeing them swimming around in their pool in Tallinn Zoo as a kid and as an adult. I could have watched them for hours.

In autumn 2017 I was visiting a friend in Southern California and she took me to La Jolla beach near San Diego. La Jolla is famous for its resident sea lions and seals that come to rest and sunbathe on the rocks there. I was so giddy as I carefully tried to negotiate the rocks to sneak just a little closer to the sleeping beasts without disturbing them. I think the phrase “best day of my life” was uttered by me more than once.

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In January, before going to Isle of Harris in Scotland, I googled whether there were any seals to be seen on the island and I was excited when I found out the answer. All the stress that came with the preparations for the trip was hopefully going to be rewarded with sightings of seals!

On Wednesday, my first full day on the island, I joined the Monk for a walk up Caepabhal and round the headland. No seals were spotted but then again it would have been unrealistic to have expected to meet one on top of a hill or chilling out on a high cliff. We did, however, meet a man who despite his Southern English accent claimed to be a local. The Monk settled into conversation but I only really wanted to know one thing, “Are there any seals to be seen at this time of year?” His pessimistic answer absolutely crushed my hopes for the week on Harris.

That evening after I told Newbs the devastating news, he patted me on the shoulder and asked if I was okay. I answered no. I was genuinely disappointed that the fellow on the beach had sounded so sure about seals not being around in January. He seemed to know what he was talking about.

Despite it all, Harris was magical, with or without the seals. The mixture of snow, blue skies, wild mountains and turquoise ocean was medicine for the soul. After a few days of adventuring in the hills with the boys, on Saturday we all headed out in our different directions. My plan was to head from the cottage in Rodel to the shore and make my way up it towards Lingarabay. It was another sunny day and unlike the boys, I had no rush to get back to the house in time for rugby.

I leisurely made my way from one headland to another by picking up little sheep trods here and there. I stopped to watch the waves crash into some of the cliffs and to admire the view of the snow-covered mountains of Skye on the horizon. I sat down and had my lunch of snacks by a little frozen loch and listened to the ice crack as it tried to push the boundaries of the loch. The air was so fresh with a hint of salt. When I looked around, I could not detect any signs of civilisation around me.

Left to my own devices, my anxiety tried to cloud my head with its usual worries about everything and nothing. I got up and kept walking, negotiating slippery rocks and tufts of heather to keep my mind occupied with other things but I struggled to quiet it down completely. Coming round a headland, I was approaching an old croft, now standing stripped from roof and windows, built by a sheltered bay, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. I had a nosey around it, imagining what it would be like to do it up and live there among the heather and sheep.

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Coming across the house meant I could pretty accurately place myself on a map and as it was afternoon already, I decided to start making my way inland towards the so-called Golden Road that would take me back to Rodel. I picked up a sheep track just by the bay and was carefully trying to avoid the ice rocks, when a noise from the sea distracted me. I looked to my right and saw a couple of dark heads swimming around down in the water. I sneaked a bit closer to the edge and rested on a rock. I’m short-sighted and stubborn about wearing glasses unless I’m driving, so I was struggling to see clearly who they were. Could they be seals? But the man on beach had said there were no seals….

At first I played down my hopes and thought that maybe they were otters, which would still make it an exciting sight. I was in the middle of making my mind up, when I heard a noise down in the water much closer to where I was sitting. I looked for a source of the sound and suddenly an otter popped its head out from under the water just by the shore, looked at me for the briefest of moments in what I can only imagine to be complete surprise, and disappeared back under the water. The animals in the middle of the bay were much bigger. That’s when I knew: the three heads surfacing from the sea here and there were seals.

I sat down and just watched in awe for a couple of minutes as the three seals swam around the bay. I started to make out their dark shadows when they were underwater and even caught a glimpse of a tail or two when they dived in. I took out my camera, careful not to make too much noise, and snapped a few photos for proof. I then texted the boys that I have found seals and that they shouldn’t expect me back in the cottage too soon. Unsurprisingly, I only received abuse regarding my eye sight in reply.

I felt so privileged to witness the seals swimming around. I had a huge grin painted on my face and I had to make a conscious effort not to giggle out loud. Compare to what I witnessed in California, this was a much more intimate show. Apart from a couple of sheep that looked confused about my presence, there was no one else around. It was just me and the seals. In that moment, I forgot about everything else.

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I must have sat there for about half an hour just watching those graceful swimmers go round the bay. One of them had hurled itself on top of a rock in the middle of the bay while the other two continued to circle around it. One of them swam quite close to me at one point and like the otter, quickly dived in the water again when it realised what it was looking at. Eventually I had to admit that I was getting cold and reluctantly, I got up and started moving again. I tried to tread carefully so as not to disturb the seals. It was their home and I was the intruder.

That half an hour in company of the seals was definitely the highlight of my trip. To have seen my favourite animals in the wild meant the world to me. People often think I’m joking when I talk about seeing seals and I can’t really explain why I like them so much. The only explanation that has any logic is my Üljes. A few years ago, my mum was going through the various cupboards at home and found it again. As far as old toys go, it was one of the worst looking in the bunch. In her newly found habit of decluttering, she was planning to throw it out. Luckily before she could do that, Liina saw it and rescued our toy. Üljes now lives with her, untouched by her children for whom it’s just a grubby old seal.

Estonia – a flying visit

We had another week at the guesthouse this August booked by a group for sole use and since I had been “on call” for the previous one, it was my time to go away. Since my last visit to homeland had been in January, it was time to show my face again and save the real travelling for after the season ends.

It must be a sign of getting older but travelling is no longer as exciting as it used to be. I used to love airports, how simple and straightforward they are. I now find them annoying. Especially if you are trying to be frugal and spend the night there for an early morning flight. Glasgow airport is especially annoying because their benches have armrests between every seat so you can’t even have a sneaky nap. It’s also getting quite exhausting that I can’t get a direct flight to Estonia from this end of the country. So when you land in Riga, it’s still a long way from home. Previously I have flown to Tallinn, but since the flights were super expensive, I decided not to this time. So by the time I landed, I was not only bursting for a wee (I’ve never used the toilet in an airplane and refused to do it when it was only half an hour before landing), I was also sleep deprived and exhausted before I even reached home.

My mum and dad volunteered to pick me up and we had a roadtrip back home with a compulsory sea break near Salacgriva and a booze shop just off the border (alcohol is much cheaper in Latvia). I only nodded off a few times on the back seat and kept the parents company most of the way.

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A little indulgence in Paisley before the uncomfortable night at Glasgow Airport

After a good night’s sleep and a slow morning, I was off to Viljandi to meet up with my adopted family. J, who now lives in California, and I overlapped in our visits to homeland and as we hadn’t seen each other for a good few years, a reunion was mandatory. Especially, since she had got engaged a few days before we met and I was in for a chance to meet the lucky man for the first time. Before I stepped on the train, J asked if I’d be willing to do a kind of engagement photoshoot for them. I reluctantly agreed, mainly because they (and I mean, she) wanted to do it in the wetlands and I was dying to go there.

I was reluctant because I am not a photographer. I have a DSLR that I can barely use (it’s not even mine) and my photo editing skills end with moving the scales for light and colour settings on Google Photos. Luckily it was a beautiful evening and the setting sun created a gorgeous light. J & C were naturals at posing, so I just needed to point and shoot. In the end, I’m really pleased with the photos that I took.

Dips in to the marsh pool and a sauna later made for a perfect finish to the night. After a leisurely breakfast I went to see my aunt who lives just outside the town. I never told her I was coming as she is always home, so it was nice to surprise her. It meant a lot for me to go and see her, as I am never sure when will be the last time I see her. So whenever I’m in Estonia, I make sure to visit her. It warmed my heart to see her in good form and spirits and it gave me hope that I’ll see her again Christmas time.

Friday night was booked for a meet up with the girls from uni. I met K and K at the airport as they landed from their trip to London as well as S who had come straight from the office in Tartu just to hang out with us. We had a quick meal and then took a bottle of wine to the roof of the now empty concert hall Linnahall to watch the sunset. We ended our night in Telliskivi and after copious amount of wine, I was in bed by 4am.

Saturday was Estonian Night Run and in the morning I was really regretting signing up for it. Not just because of the headache and tiredness but also because due to various injuries, I had only been for a run a couple of times in months leading up to it. In fact, I remember the day I signed up for it, I went for a first big(gish) walk after injurying my foot at a wedding in May. I came back limping quite badly again. My foot seemed to be properly heal by the run. It was just my general physical fitness that had gone down the drain in the summer months and the five extra kilos I am carrying don’t necessarily help.

However, the run went much better than I expected. It had been really stuffy and scorching throughout the day but as I was standing in start among thousands of people, I could see the massive storm clouds gathering. I thought it would start raining before we’d be able to even set off, but it was only 10 minutes before I finished that the heavens opened up and the biggest thunder storm of the last few years took over. I crossed the finish line with a very pleasing result of 1:02:40 absolutely soaked. Very ladylike, I just used my mum’s rain poncho to give some cover while I changed every item of clothing in the middle of a parking lot in town center. I had felt really good and strong throughout the run and even my dodgy knee kept it together. (It could be that my knee was just so pleased about running on flat ground that it forgot to give me grief!)

On Monday, I my dad insisted on going for a road trip and we headed out towards Lake Peipus on the roads less travelled. I had only one request for the trip: I really wanted some pelmeens (a kind of dumplings). We stopped in Äksi Motel, which according the the placard by the church, was opened in 1989 and I don’t think much of it’s interior has changed since them. However, they had pelmeens on their menu and that satisfied my cravings. It was almost nostalgic eating there, reminded me the simple lunch canteens of my hometown where we used to have occasional lunches when I was growing up.

The weather didn’t exactly feel like going for a swim, so our main attraction by Lake Peipus was cruising through the villages and buying some local onions (the region is famous for their onions!) and smoked walleye as well as some pickled cucumbers to go with the fish. It was a real feast that night for dinner at home!

On Tuesday, it was time to pack my bag and head to Tallinn, to spend the last night with my sister and her kids. I got us some chanterelles from the new market at the train station and after we’d put the kids to bed, we tasted some wonderful craft beers and stayed up on the couch till way past midnight. The bus that took me back to Riga left at 6 o’clock the next morning and I landed back in Shap about 15 hours later.

I noticed a few things during my visit this time. Firstly, the first day or so, I slightly struggled with speaking Estonian. More than once, I found myself automatically saying yes or no in English in answer to the question. Secondly, I’ve really got used to the code of politeness here according to which you say generally greet the people you meet, say thank you if someone holds a door open or let you cross the road. Out of habit, I said hello to few people I didn’t know in my hometown and got a very stunned reaction from them. I’m no longer comfortable with not saying hello to people although I know it’s not about being rude. Finally, as I was on the train back from Glasgow towards Cumbria, I found comfort in the hills that defined the landscape. The vast and empty flatness of Estonia had felt a bit alien for me; I couldn’t grasp it. I am forever bragging to guests about how beautiful the wilderness of Estonia is and I truly believe it. But it seems that I need hills and fells and mountains to make me feel comfortable.

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It was an emotional trip being back, I found myself fighting with tears more than once. A tiny part of me had hoped that maybe it would bring me clarity about what to do next, but the truth is, I’m even more confused. I’m unsure where is home: is it here or is it in Estonia? Maybe it’s somewhere else all together?