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Last year was the hardest year of my life.
The first near-normal year since the pandemic, 2022 was going deceivingly well for the most part. I had resumed travelling, visiting new countries – Mauritius and Armenia were hands-down stunning – and setting foot in new places in countries well forgotten, including Northern Iceland and the Greek islands. Things continued going well at work where I had returned to live transactions in addition to my portfolio tasks, amid good feedback from colleagues. And I had lucked out to join a local triathlon team in Riga – a group of individuals passionate, yet not fanatical, about the sport, led by an experienced, charismatic coach. With trivial exceptions, 2022 had been going well until the first days of November – the days that would mark an end of an era in my life.
Possibly my best experience of last year was joining a fun triathlon team, as a swimmer at first – our weekly summer swims are one of my favourite memories of 2022
On 3 November 2022, my world came crashing down when I discovered Alan – my husband of six years and a dear friend of 20 years – dead in our flat in Riga. He had hanged himself overnight, meters away from where I was sleeping, for me to find him, cold and lifeless, his blue eyes wide open, long past the point of no return. Alan had been suffering from the suffocating noose of depression, but his death came as a shock – a traumatic one – to many who had only known him as a happy fellow forever cracking jokes and insisting on buying everyone endless rounds of drinks.
I knew Alan well – possibly better than anyone else – but his death could not have been a bigger shock to me, either. The weeks following the tragedy remain a blur in my head. I do recall, in the immediate aftermath, creating, going through and ticking off checklists, attempting an illusion of control in my life – but I wasn’t feeling it. The excruciating pain inside my chest felt unbearably physical for weeks; but the chilling bureaucracy of death kept me focused enough, and having to care for my dog, a silent but visibly distressed witness to this nightmare, kept a wick of life inside me aflame – just warm enough to retain hope.
Layla was intrigued by this condolences gesture from my London colleagues
I continue hearing compliments for my alleged ability to cope in the face of such catastrophic adversity, and it is fair to say that I could have ended up significantly worse. This survival journey – which is far from finished – warrants a separate post (a book?); as mentioned above though, not all of 2022 was bad. I hope you have had a good start of the year – with the greatest of delays, here comes my recap of 2022.
WINTER 2022: ODESA AND TENERIFE
Alan, Layla and I welcomed 2022 in Poland’s hilly spa town of Kudowa-Zdroj near the Czech border, in a cosy company of two dear friends, Pierre-Yves and Ula. Over laughter and excellent vinyl records from Pierre-Yves’s collection, we made raclette, drank champagne and had completely forgotten how scared dogs are of fireworks. Unsurprisingly, we had spent our first hour of 2022 holding a coat over Layla to calm her down as the poor thing grew increasingly terrified of what must have seemed like the end of the world to her: a lesson learnt for us.
Already at the far end of our road trip across Poland, we drove back to Riga and settled into our usual routine. With the Omicron variant gradually calming down, I visited the London office twice; I should have technically relocated to London in September 2021 to align with my employer’s hybrid work policy but continued dragging out time whilst enjoying the best of both worlds.
One of my resolutions for 2022 had been resuming travel. Several months into the pandemic, not flying around compulsively felt like a relief; I was greatly enjoying exploring London and Riga on foot and by bicycle, and did not feel any urge to cross international borders. Towards the end of 2021, however, the novelty of staying put for months had worn off. I opened this new post-pandemic era with an easy weekend trip to Ukraine’s Pearl on the Sea – the humorous, stunning, cosmopolitan, unique port of Odesa. Tensions on the border with Russia had been building up for weeks at that point, but, like many others, I remained in denial about the incoming threat until the very end. And never mind me – all Odesa locals I met insisted that the relations with Russia were ‘good’ and not to buy into the ‘media frenzy’. We all know how that ended. May the war be over very soon.
This Monument to Sailor’s Wife in Odesa’s Passenger Port was unveiled in 2002
My other big trip before the calendar winter ended was my first ever visit to the Canary Islands. I spent five days exploring the food scene of Tenerife’s main city of Santa Cruz and hiking the incredible trails of the Anaga Rural Park. Convinced that the Canary Islands were solely a package tourism destination, I came with an open mind and was completely blown away by Tenerife’s network of numerous hiking trails offering sweeping, awe-inspiring vistas towards the surrounding ocean. I clocked up 60km of trails and 3,500m of ascent over four days, particularly enjoying the challenging – and infinitely rewarding – circular route passing the settlement of Taganana, the Afur village and the rocky Tamadiste beach. The elderly gentleman running a large alcohol store in Afur – naturally, also offering coffee – proudly showed off his photo of General Franco on the wall; lost in the hills, we were truly a world away from the rest of civilisation.
The volcanic Almaciga beach and the namesake settlement in the background
SPRING 2022: MAURITIUS, SAAREMAA AND ICELAND
I waltzed into spring in anticipation of my first long-haul trip and my first new country since the start of the pandemic: the alluringly remote Mauritius. I had been dreaming about the country for a while and it did not disappoint; in fact, I now wholeheartedly recommend Mauritius as one of the best-rounded travel destinations in the world. Where else does one get a package of top-notch culinary fusion, wonderfully welcoming locals, English widely spoken, excellent beaches void of threatening sea life, superb local rum and a great variety of landscapes? I ended up spending three weeks in Mauritius, circling the island from Blue Bay to Bel Ombre, Black River and Grand Baie, the highlights including a fantastic food tour in the capital of Port Louis, exquisite rum tasting at the Rhumerie de Chamarel, ascending the 556m Le Morne mountain in extreme humidity and my first all-inclusive experience – for only four days, granted – at a resort in Bel Ombre.
The most striking of Mauritius sunsets awaited me in Bel Ombre
Reunited back home, Alan, Layla and I drove off to Estonia’s largest island of Saaremaa for our Easter break. We stayed at a spa hotel (so ubiquitous are they in Saaremaa that one hotel chose to advertise itself by being, categorically, a ‘no spa’ establishment), ate exceptionally well at local restaurants in Kuressaare and hiked aplenty along the island’s stretching sandy beaches: a long weekend well spent.
The Kiipsaare Lighthouse off the coast of Saaremaa was built on solid ground in 1933 and gradually shifted out to sea due to erosion
My last trip before summer was a quick jaunt to Iceland. I spent four days in the northern city of Akureyri, soaking up the heat in its fantastic public swimming pool, marvelling at two humpback breaches during whale watching in the Eyjafjörður Fjord and visiting the mysterious Lake Myvatn and the adjacent thermal baths. I had picked up a bizarre stress-related illness at that point, preventing me from eating most foods, and the trip was very much a hide-and-seek of what I could and couldn’t eat – still a fabulous distraction from work.
The striking Námafjall Geothermal Area (also known as Hverir) in Northern Iceland features boiling muds and volcanic craters
Dietary struggles were not my only health-related challenge last year. Whilst walking through an underpass in central Riga on an uneventful Saturday morning, Layla and I were brutally attacked by three dogs belonging to a homeless man frequenting the area. I had barely managed to lift Layla above my head as a vicious German shepherd dog sank its teeth into my elbow and two Staffordshire bullterriers jumped around trying to reach my dog: a nightmare. Luckily, seeing the fallout, the homeless man in question fled the scene, and his dogs followed; an ambulance took me to hospital to treat my wounds and prescribe a course of rabies shots. I had to forget about swimming for 10 days; most importantly though, my darling Layla had escaped unscathed.
SUMMER 2022: ARMENIA, MALTA AND THE BOSPHORUS SWIM
With an extra day off for Her Majesty’s Platinum Jubilee, I travelled to Armenia – another new country on my world map. Basing myself in Yerevan for a week, I interchanged exploring the city with day trips to Armenia’s famous sites outside the capital. I genuinely fell in love with the beauty of Armenia, its distinct monasteries, its food, delicious in its simplicity, and its fiercely welcoming people. The Monastery of Khor Virap against the stunning backdrop of Mount Ararat has to be among the most memorable sights I have ever seen, and riding the 5.7 km Wings of Tatev cable car to the striking Tatev monastery – the world’s longest if you play with definitions – was truly an out-of-this-world experience.
The Khor Virap Monastery sits a mere 100m from the closed border with Turkey: I was told to be careful with the drone
Not long after, Alan, Layla and I jetted off to Malta for a week of sunshine. I was originally booked to take part in a four-day swimming camp with Swim Trek, but they had cancelled the key component – a crossing from Gozo to Malta – due to the disagreements with the coast guard, and I chose to take a full refund. I was glad I did: the seas around Malta and Gozo were swarming with jellyfish, and I got the worst sting of my life, making the entire half of my left calf unsightly for weeks. Whilst we found Malta relatively underwhelming compared to our respective previous visits, we still greatly enjoyed the relatively unspoilt medieval city of Mdina and Gozo’s chilled main city of Victoria.
St. George’s Square in the city of Victoria, Gozo, is dominated by the namesake basilica
One of the brightest memories of the summer were my birthday drinks in London. Alan and I had planned it as a gesture of appreciation for my favourite work colleagues, and it was a huge success: well attended, a huge laugh and a conversation topic for months to come. I tend not to celebrate my birthday, and it was a nice way to prep bidding farewell to my thirties in 2023… I’ll miss you!
This could easily have been the best day of the year
The last big memory of the summer was the Bosphorus Inter-Continental Swimming Race, an annual public event that sees thousands of swimmers attempt the 6.5km course from Asia to Europe in Istanbul, through the middle of the world’s most iconic of straits. Ever since starting training with my coach earlier in the year, I had been working on improving my technique; the currents being significantly slower in 2022 though, I had not managed to better my previous result. It was still amazing fun and, objectively, one of the best days of the year.
I had brought that Latvian flag especially
AUTUMN 2022: GREEK ODYSSEY, SLOVENIA AND THE TENERIFE SWIM
September saw Alan, Layla and I jet off on our traditional island-hopping ‘odyssey’ in Greece with the objective of ticking off some more islands we had missed on previous visits. We started with a long ferry crossing from Piraeus to the tiny island of Kastellorizo. Sitting a tantalising 2km from the Turkish coast, the island has seen its population dwindle over the years, migrating especially to Australia where tens of thousands – lovingly known as ‘Kassies’ – now claim origins from Kastellorizo.
The striking harbour of Kastellorizo (officially known as Megisti)
We continued to the peculiarly shaped island of Fourni where we nearly got stranded as our ferry north got delayed: we saved the day by popping across to the tiny neighbouring island of Thymaina, which became my 60th Greek island visited. Barely over one hundred people live on Thymaina, but the few that live there all year truly have an unbreakable spirit.
Fourni with Thymaina visible in the background at sunset
Missing out on available cabins, we roughed it out on the ferry deck to the island of Lemnos overnight. The island much felt like an extension of the Greek mainland, with few hiking opportunities and a deficit of striking landscapes; we greatly enjoyed the many stunning beaches though, and the rich World War II history added to the feel. We continued to the much smaller Agios Efstratios, formerly an exile destination for political prisoners where a sole taverna remains open year-round. Our last night was the highlight of the entire trip as a group of locals came together at the said taverna, their instruments in hand, to perform countless classics from Greece’s musical genre: it is said they do it every week, for fun. I had never felt sadder to leave a Greek island before.
The Church of Agios Nikolaos on Lemnos with Mount Athos rising in the backdrop
Our next stop was Kythnos, surprisingly fun despite its obvious proximity to the mainland and the regular overflow of Athenian weekend trippers. We enjoyed hiking to the Oria Kastro precariously perched on the side of a cliff in the north of the island, soaking it up in the natural hot springs of Loutra and exploring the maze of narrow streets in the main town, the Chora.
Kythnos Chora, a magnet of activity at dusk
From Kythnos we continued to Folegandros. Once a quiet refuge, the pretty island has seen its popularity soar thanks to the proximity to the bombastically famous Santorini; interestingly, it is particularly loved by French tourists. We then finished our odyssey in Santorini proper – mostly to use its large international airport as we were never big fans of crowded islands frequented by massive cruise ships.
Panagia, the largest church on Folegandros, is dedicated to the Assumption of the proverbial Virgin Mary
In early October, I flew to a work event in Slovenia spread between the capital Ljubljana and the stunning Lake Bled. I found organised fun with my colleagues admittedly painful and was relieved to escape to the nearby city of Rijeka in Croatia for the weekend. Rijeka is mainly known for its large port and serves as a gateway to the country’s celebrated Opatija coast, but I greatly enjoyed appreciating the city for itself – somewhat rugged and somewhat rough around the edges – a true port city.
The Bled Island inside the world-class namesake lake is insanely picturesque from the air
Just a few days before the most tragic event of my life, I would not exaggerate to say that my life was at its peak. In the final days of October, I made a quick trip to Tenerife where I took part in a 6.5km ocean swimming race from the Masca beach to the beach of Los Gigantes. While I did not do particularly well, taking a whopping 2.5 hours and having to be redirected by accompanying boats several times, I greatly enjoyed the challenge. That done, I ate exceptionally well, hiked around Santiago del Teide and swam for leisure aplenty; spending time on Tenerife is always a bonus.
Love how the float just casually tags along
I arrived home to a very happy Alan who swore he would never tire of being a ‘proud triathlon husband’ who’d take me to countless sporting events around the world. We had promptly gone shopping for a new Garmin watch – my old one had been destroyed by the Tenerife race – as well as a Garmin car camera for our upcoming road trips. Alan had put it to charge overnight in the evening of the 2nd of November.
…but he would never get to use it.
HOPE AFTER DEATH
Alan’s death truly felt like the ground disappearing from beneath my feet. Everything I had known for over a decade had been violently torn out of my life, transforming it without recognition. In-between navigating the sobering bureaucracy of a human life ending, I spent weeks drinking myself into a drowsy state of acceptance, alcohol the only substance helping me pass out into heavy sleep void of the nightmarish feel of Alan’s cold body. I could have continued sinking deeper and deeper into the vicious hole of alcohol-induced sedation, but, despite being drunk most of the time, I knew I could not continue like that.
Gathering up all my strength, I sat myself in front of a computer, on a mission to fly somewhere warm and sunny over the winter break. Possibly as a result of trauma, my brain struggled to focus on written text – I still find myself staring at work documents for long minutes, letters blurring into a black-and-white mess – and it took a full seven days to narrow my choices down to a perfect destination: the Philippines. It was exactly what the doctor had ordered and a different story altogether.
I am looking at the future with a mix of curiosity and hope. It is strange to find myself suddenly not only single, but without the man whom I knew for 20 years, my immense source of support and my rock of stability. But I know that, one day soon, wounds will heal and all will fall into place.
Rest in peace, Alan: never forgotten
I am most grateful to my triathlon team – especially Kostya and Vadim – and my coach Sasha for giving me, through sports goals as well as the unyielding team spirit, the hope and the motivation to continue living. My friend Marina has been an absolute star taking care of Layla when I needed to travel, to London or otherwise, and Layla is a big fan of her vast plot of land. A huge thanks to my friends Ilana, Victoria, Anda, Panagiotis and Valerie for spending countless hours with me on the phone and in person and helping me with mundane chores in Riga that suddenly became inaccessible without a car. A massive round of applause to Martijn, Rupert and Paul who took time off and travelled internationally to Riga to pay their respects and support me in a time of crisis. And I offer heartfelt words of gratitude to my governess, Zoya from Kharkiv – it would be incomplete to call her simply a cleaner – for ensuring that my home remained well-aired and clean even if life around me was falling apart, for feeding me home-made borscht and blinis when I lived on instant noodles, for making me laugh when the sound of laughter seemed a forgotten dream.
Thank you all. Life goes on.