Where do I start? 2020 was one odd year.
I am sure many will remember the departing year in a variety of, mostly, negative terms. I have seen people around me lose jobs, livelihoods and, most saddeningly and irreplaceably, lives. I have been far, far luckier than the majority and can even attest to having experienced some positive changes directly caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Early on in 2020, I made the (now laughable) travel plan, eyeing trips to Ghana, Azerbaijan, Kamchatka and Nepal, among others. The cherry on top was going to be the extended winter holiday in Chile and the Falkland Islands to mark (slightly early, but with better weather) Alan’s and my wedding anniversary (you might recall the British archipelago is where we got married in 2016). As every year, I was also going to dedicate travel time to the usual suspects of Latvia, Finland and my beloved Greek islands.
Surprisingly, whilst I did not make it to any of the pencilled-in destinations outside Europe, I was able to spend far longer in each of Latvia, Finland and the Greek islands than I had in decades. After years of juggling aggressive country-chasing with a full-time job, it was a much-needed reminder that adventure did not need to lie on the world’s remote fringes.
And I have readily embraced working remotely. Really, with the extent of our technological progress, management’s fanatical attachment to office presence seems incredibly outdated and appears to be changing very belatedly. I have not stepped inside an office since March and have missed precisely nothing about having to.
Still, months of uncertainty are taking their toll. It has taken me several days simply to sit down to type this yearly newsletter, and we are already nearly a week into 2021. Let’s not waste any more time, shall we? Here goes my traditional overview of the year gone past.
WINTER 2020: BANGLADESH, ALBANIA AND FINLAND
Against how 2020 would later unfold, the beginning of the year was rather typical for most preceding years described in this blog. Alan and I woke up on New Year’s Day in the city of Chittagong in faraway Bangladesh: I had missed the reportedly scarce and cloud-obscured midnight fireworks having fallen helplessly asleep after a busy day of sightseeing; the added advantage was, of course, feeling unusually fresh on the first day of the year.
Most of our Bangladesh trip fell into the final days of 2019, and only a tiny tail was left for 2020. We had a fantastic time exploring Chittagong’s chaotic fish market before driving to the hills of Bandarbans to observe the daily life of the various non-Muslim tribes populating that part of the country. We then flew to Dhaka and crammed our exploration of the capital into one very rushed day. I was surprised to have enjoyed Bangladesh quite this much, especially with the cold weather front descending on the country for days against all forecasts, rendering us permanently frozen. The country was vibrant, unburdened by tourism, photogenic and diverse – one of the absolute highlights of my recent travels. I certainly still plan writing about this trip here once I regain motivation.
Also worth a mention is our stopover in Dubai on the way back to London. We had made overnight stays at our much-adored Manzil Downtown Hotel a habit after relatively challenging destinations, and this was not going to be an exception. The visit was particularly fun as we met up with two fellow prolific travellers we knew from social media, one of whom I particularly admired and avidly followed. I normally avoid prolific travellers – some of whom cannot help coming across somewhat arrogant – like the plague, and it is always a relief to be proven wrong.
The holiday thrill was short-lived. Returning to work, I soon suffered from several bitter disappointments. I could best compare it with standing at the bottom end of a drained hydro dam, screaming into its walls and, unsurprisingly, hearing my voice echo back to disappear forever into the surrounding wilderness. It was an excruciating time of trying to prove the unprovable. I had rarely before felt this crushed but was clinging on to my usual dope: the travels to look forward to.
The highlight of the winter months was our weekend trip to Albania. I had only ever visited the country on business and never ventured outside the capital city. On this occasion we rushed through Tirana to head for Lake Ohrid: well-known to travellers in the region, the lake is overwhelmingly visited from the North Macedonian side, leaving the Albanian city of Pogradec an almost exclusively domestic leisure spot. We had a fantastic time amid sunny wintry weather and quickly made plans to dedicate a longer spell to Albania later in the year – those famous last words.
Before February ended, I impulsively made a 24-hour visit to Helsinki. The stressful spell at work in full swing, I judged that Helsinki would cheer me up – and it did. I spent a questionable amount of time shopping in Marimekko and Moomin stores, had my favourite rye bread burger at Hesburger, drank my sorrows away at the Villi Wäinö pub, wandered familiar streets in the frozen city centre for hours and even stopped by at my old alma mater, Hanken, for the first time since picking up my graduation papers there in 2006. It was a short trip, but I was almost feeling cured and sane again.
SPRING 2020: SAUDI ARABIA AND… LOCKDOWN
The second and last trip from my original travel plan to materialise was to Saudi Arabia. I had wanted to visit the country for a while since it relaxed its visa and dress code restrictions and, conveniently, I was missing the exact number of Avios to maintain my Gold status with British Airways. The plan was to fly into Jeddah and out of Riyadh, connecting between the two on a domestic airline.
Unexpectedly and despite my extremely critical stance on the country’s abysmal violation of women’s rights, I greatly enjoyed the trip. I would probably attribute this to the near absence of other tourists in the country, something that I value over factors like the diversity of sights or local food scene. This is another trip I would like to write about here, but one ‘anecdote’ stands out: having admired a pretty square in Riyadh and enjoyed a cup of coffee there, I was later helpfully pointed out to the fact that it was the infamous ‘Chop Chop Square’ where, until recently, public beheadings were taking place. So much for the pretty square then.
And I will not even mention how useless the Gold status with British Airways turned out to be for the remainder of last year.
Expectations vs. reality: what the ‘traditional Arabic coffee’ at Chop-Chop Square in Riyadh really meant
Back in London, I went straight into housemove mode. The flat I had been renting in Bermondsey for 11 years had deteriorated to the extent of being untenable: two decades previously, the gutter flashing had apparently been incorrectly installed above one end of the flat, sending rainwater pouring down the outer wall, saturating the outer brickwork (which developed its own ecosystem of moss, small ferns and tree-saplings) and slowly causing the inner walls of every room to become moulded up to varying degrees. It eventually became so bad that an entire wall’s worth of wallpaper came off in the living room, revealing crumbling plaster and vast patches of black mould; it was not a pretty sight and an obvious health risk, but the local council – the owners of the building – did nothing for over two years. Add to it a bath now sinking into the floor, a fusebox flagged in 2015 as only being safe if checked every 6 months (and naturally never checked again), a gas hob needing repair since 2017 to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning, the grim staircase frequently flooded by rain and now permanently reeking of weed, homeless people periodically camping just one flight of stairs away from my door by the top floor emergency roof access and next-door neighbours vociferously resenting this ‘immigrant Eastern European girl’, and it is clear why I was so desperate to move.
It took months of searching and, in early March, I finally took the leap and became an East Londoner. My new home was in Shadwell and, with its well-serviced staircase, gated rubbish area, a secure bike shed and, finally, decent internet, it was lightyears away from the dump I had left. The flat also boasted a balcony with a fantastic view towards the nearby charming 18th century St-George-in-the-East church, Canary Wharf and low-rise older buildings, which some friends labelled ‘more English than Mary Poppins’ for their iconic rows of red chimneys.
A new place turned out to be a well-timed lifesaver: just a few days later, after I had luckily escaped Riga at the last minute before Latvia went into a prolonged lockdown, my office was closed as we moved to home-working, shortly followed by the UK itself going into a full national lockdown. I simply cannot fathom spending long days working from the mouldy, dark living room in my previous location.
I am deeply sorry for everyone who has experienced personal loss as a result of the pandemic, but, selfishly, can say that the lockdown mostly brought me positive changes. Destabilised and broken by the stress of the office, I embraced remote working wholeheartedly and was soon feeling saner than ever. My dismay when gyms closed and my twice-daily swimming and fitness sessions could no longer be maintained was unexpectedly brief as I quickly rediscovered my passion for cycling and developed an exercise routine in the nearby park. It was a shame that the many trips I had planned were not happening – I was especially looking forward to the 75th Victory Day anniversary parade in Transnistria – but, after years of perpetually running out of time, I was also relieved not to have to travel anywhere. Most importantly, my family and I were all in good health.
In short, it really was not a bad spring. I zoomed all around London on my bicycle, sneaking driveway conversations with friends, amazingly getting more socialising done outside the office than ever. My job was not under threat, and I had a comfortable home to work from. And, by the time garden centres reopened in mid-May, I had become a passionate gardener and went on to create a wonderful oasis on my balcony. The weather was mostly great, and the near future not a concern.
SUMMER 2020: LATVIA AND FINLAND
I spent all of June in London, largely following the same routine. The highlight of the month was looking after my thriving garden: my John Lewis bistro set had arrived after long delays (everyone else had the same idea in lockdown) and the balcony was looking a million dollars.
I had also picked up listening to the radio and briefly became a fan of Maajid Nawaz of LBC, whom I originally discovered in connection with Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Sam Harris, two people I greatly admire. This love affair did not last long and occasionally listening to Maajid now makes me cringe and wonder why I ever enjoyed his programmes.
In early July, I was finally able to fly to Riga after the air link between Latvia and the UK was re-established; I had not seen Alan or my parents for nearly four months at that point. The summer was in full swing back home as the pandemic situation dramatically improved. I joined a local swimming pool and was soon back to my pre-COVID-19 times (though kids half my age overtaking me with ease in pro lanes continued to entertain). I bought a racing bike – whom I named Martijn after a Dutch friend – and, getting my first flat tyre within days, quickly discovered why cycling remained a relatively unpopular local sport. Alan and I spent those long summer evenings sipping craft ales in our old and new favourite hangout spots. It really was a summer of bliss, and my longest spell at home since 2003.
Celebrating my birthday on one of those infinitely long and happy summer evenings at our beloved Zilā Govs in Old Riga
Our first weekend trip post-lockdown was to Ventspils, a port city in Western Latvia where my closest relatives live. Alan and I enjoyed the City Festival celebrations in the company of my mother and great-aunt Vera and continued the party at Vera’s dacha on the banks of the Venta river. We grilled fresh shashlik, sauteed ourselves in the sauna and saluted each other’s health with shots of vodka – perfect family time. I also met my new second cousin, little Ivan, though I unashamedly found myself much more interested in his mother’s gorgeous Persian hounds Cameron and Nika.
One of Ventspils Cow Parade famous participants: the Travelling Cow (visit them all here!)
The undisputed highlight of the summer was our first proper holiday of the year, a road trip to my beloved Finland. I was a penniless student while living in Finland years ago and dreamed of travelling there extensively, but did not have the cash. Together with the Baltic countries, Finland stayed at the bottom of the COVID-19 statistics throughout the summer and travelling there was easy; to keep costs down, we brought a tent and sleeping bags and made it a camping trip.
It was quite simply a fantastic adventure and one of the best trips on our memories. From Helsinki, we drove up to Heinola and continued to Finnish Karelia, passing breath-taking lake vistas along the way. The plan was to continue climbing north to Kajaani but, the weather there taking the turn for the worse, we decided to stick to Central Finland and use the freed-up days to explore the Western coast. We camped on lakesides and the seaside, enjoying the nature and the freedom that camping offered. Having rarely camped before, I am now decidedly a convert.
Here is another trip I would like to cover here (bad, bad blogger!), but I can reveal the highlights now: Koli National Park, the old city of Rauma, flying my drone into the sunset towards the offshore wind farms near Pori and meeting the wonderfully grumpy yet charismatic owner Timo at the campsite of Kievari Rantapirtti.
AUTUMN/WINTER 2020: GREECE, LONDON, MORE LOCKDOWN AND RIGA
In the first days of September, I flew to London, which, after the relative freedoms of Latvia and Finland, felt admittedly grim. Luckily, it was only a short steppingstone on my way to Greece. Heavily dependent on summer tourism and coping well with the pandemic, Greece had long since reopened by that time, though, to reduce risks, I waited out the summer before travelling.
I ended up taking a 3-week holiday in Greece and stayed on for nearly three more weeks working remotely. As with Finland in the summer, it was wonderful not to have a fixed plan and move with the flow. I started off solo on the popular island of Sifnos, which, I discovered, boasted some of the best hikes I have experienced in the Greek islands. I continued to Sikinos – the blissfully quiet island I had previously named my favourite and one marked by surprisingly few tourists despite the many popular islands in the vicinity. I then met Alan on Naxos where I briefly rested and regained my bearings as, unfortunately, I had badly twisted my right foot on Sifnos earlier, likely fracturing my fifth metatarsal. These being the Greek islands, I did not get a chance to check; however, I struggled to walk without limping heavily on the very swollen and bruised foot for several weeks that followed.
There are plenty of hilltop churches in Greece: reduced tourist numbers meant I could have this sunset view from Prophet Ilias on Sifnos to myself
We continued to the Small Cyclades, a tiny archipelago of smaller islands scattered between Naxos and Amorgos. Having already visited two of the five islands possible to visit (and Alan none), we can finally claim to have all under our belts. We particularly enjoyed Irakleia (excellent hiking trails and welcoming local population) and Donoussa (wonderfully remote easternmost Cycladic island with the fewest ferry services), while the overhyped Sxoinoussa left us relatively unimpressed.
Sailing on to Amorgos to connect to Astypalea, we ended up staying nearly a week and falling in love with the latter. I highly recommend this Dodecanese island for all but hiking (trails there are non-existent), but it is close to perfect in all other aspects. Think breath-taking hilltop main village, wide quiet beaches with natural shade, sociable locals and an unusual butterfly shape creating multiple side roads and remote bays.
The Olympia shipwreck sank in this quiet bay of Amorgos in 1980, later to feature in the French 1988 film ‘The Big Blue’
Our next stop, via Kalymnos, was Leros. Initially disappointed by its vastly different feel to the Cyclades, we grew to like it for its unusual history: dominated by Italian military presence until the end of WWII, the island carries multiple warfare remnants and Italian Rationalist architectural heritage in the port of Lakki – a unique place in Greece to do so. Alan, personally, is dying to head back and fine-comb the remote hills looking for military artefacts.
Our last stops on this Greek escapade were Patmos and Aegina. Things had started to close off on the otherwise popular Patmos – another Greek island with a spectacular hilltop main village – but we managed to find a few open places and even developed a few favourites. Initially planning to meet a few friends in Athens on our last day, we decided to sail to the nearby Aegina instead to stay out of the virus’ main hotspot. Other than a storm raging through our final night, cancelling all catamarans and threatening our timely arrival to the airport, it was a perfect end to a perfect holiday.
Patmos’ spectacular main village of Chora, crowned with the Monastery of St John: the saint is believed to have written the Book of Revelation on Patmos
I flew to London in mid-October with the intention of packing up my life there and shipping everything to Riga. By this time, the entire staff at my organisation had been given the green light to work remotely until at least the end of summer 2021: paying rent in London while I had a flat and a hubby in Riga made no sense and, with such uncertainty, I did not want to put multiple items into storage. I decided to wait for my trusted Latvian haulier Bruno to pass by on his regular UK trip as few others took on plants and I was emphatically not leaving my balcony garden behind.
Given the pandemic situation and the impending Brexit deadline, my driver, however, had dramatically reduced his trips to the UK and I ended up staying in London for two full months. No regrets there: I enjoyed the urban cycling options being infinitely superior to Latvia and made friends with a few kids, parents and dog walkers near my usual exercise spot in the park. I even made a list of my favourite eateries to hit before I left, but, another lockdown coming into full force for most of November, only managed half. I will catch you later, the Eritrean Adulis, the Greek/Cypriot Café Aphrodite and the pub of my heart, Marquis of Wellington in Bermondsey where I never got that last pizza.
My absolute, unreservedly favourite people and places in London (clockwise from top left): the inimmitable Mark Massett at Hobbs Barbers (the day job of this multi-talented performer), the quirky manager Remzi Kozani at Cafe Brood, our old hangout at Borough Market where I pretty much lived while it was still open, and my good crew of Andy, Tom and Simon at the very Marquis of Wellington, forever my London local
I flew to Riga uneventfully in mid-December, but the stress was not over: Bruno was running late enough to get stuck on the UK side of the Channel as Europe was making itself isolated and as I frantically calculated how withered my plants were being stuck in boxes for over two weeks. Luckily, all was well in the end as Bruno arrived, rolling in true Santa-style (if a bit smelly, as he put it), at 2am on Christmas Day, missing only the reindeer and the red suit. The day itself was spent unpacking dozens of boxes and ferrying discarded packaging outside. I was ecstatic to be reunited with my London stuff.
And, before you ask, most plants survived the journey like troopers, the only casualties limited to flimsy begonias (yes, I mean it when I say I took every plant!).
With the new-found hope of the vaccine looming on the horizon, I hope that many of us will return to more normality and certainty in our lives in 2021. I would like to wish you all a very happy New Year (and it isn’t even too late for Orthodox Christmas!). Stay safe, stay healthy and keep up the optimism.