Summer has arrived in Yaroslavl and I’ve been incapable of staying indoors. I’ve covered what feels like the entire city by foot in the past few days, running Forrest Gump style from river to shining river. I’ve got the blisters on my toes to prove it.
I know the city well by now. I know where to stand back on the sidewalk because the buses splash the puddles as they pass by. I know how to get to either of the two rivers from any point. I recognize neighbors on the street. It’s becoming a sort-of-home to me.
And just in time for me to leave. This experience has been the most solitary of this year of travel. But I needed that more than I knew. I needed to step back, to slow down, to simplify, and to listen.
Today I ran from the volunteer apartment to the embankment of the Volga River. I stood there for a while, watching the black water and listening to the fountains on the strelka below. If I closed my eyes, I could imagine myself in any number of cities in the world. A warm breeze, the sound of moving water. Memories came back to me without any particular rhythm or logic. I didn’t anticipate a stretch break turning into one of those sappy end-of-the-movie montages, but it did.
It’s been nearly a year since I left my job to travel, but I feel like I’ve lived three lifetimes since then. I feel significantly older and happier for all I’ve experienced. In Peru, I found community. In Colombia, love. And in Russia, what have I found? Myself, perhaps?
For a long time I bristled at the idea of traveling to “find yourself.” When people asked me if that was my reason for this year-long journey, I always said no. I know who I am already, thankyouverymuch. If I didn’t have a strong sense of self to start with, I probably wouldn’t have made the decision to do all of this. I wouldn’t have known how badly I needed it.
But I am undeniably more self-aware than I was before. Sometimes excruciatingly so.
I have made more mistakes in the past few years of my life than all the previous years combined. I’ve hurt people. I’ve seen ugly sides of myself that I hope never surface again. And I had to learn some things the hard way, like a child who doesn’t listen to his mother’s warnings and touches the flame to find out that it burns.
Despite all the dark shadowy corners I’ve had to shine a painful light into, I am proud of myself. I don’t like everything I’ve ever done, but I like who I am and who I am working to become. Most importantly, I am achingly grateful for what I have and I am optimistic for what is yet to come.
What Russia has given me is a strong dose of humility. I came here to discover and to learn and to serve, to find out what it is about this place that has always tugged at me. I’ve been staring into a dark pool of water hoping to see through to the bottom, but instead of I’ve seen my own reflection more clearly than ever.
Tonight I am leaving Yaroslavl for St. Petersburg. I’ve said goodbye to the children I’ve fallen hopelessly in love with at the hospitals and shelters. I’ve made the requisite tourist stops in the city and stocked up on snacks for the long train ride. I don’t know if I have earned the right to call this place a home in the last six weeks, but it has nestled its way into my heart for good, next to so many other people and places I now carry with me.
But my heart doesn’t feel heavy, it doesn’t feel cramped. I know there is more space to fill. Is there ever a more hopeful thought than that?