Personal post time. Three years ago, I visited Russia for the first time. It was the trip of dreams: two weeks solo in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Russia was my greatest dream. I’ve loved Russian history since I was a kid (thanks in part to the animated Anastasia movie), and as I’ve grown up I’ve only fallen more in love with it all.

When I started university in 2011, I signed up for a Russian language course on a whim—I wanted to take a language, I didn’t want to major in Spanish (the only spots left were for majors-only), and I didn’t want to take an 8:00am class.

That decision changed my life forever. My interest in Russian history turned into a full-blown, lifelong passion for Russian language, culture, history, art, music, literature, film, architecture, and more. All of this culminated in my solo adventure in June 2014—finally, finally, visiting this fascinating country. Seeing it all first hand. Using my (mediocre at best) Russian language skills in real life. Being in the places I’d only ever seen in pictures and in my greatest dreams.

As I stood in Red Square for the first time, seeing the towers of the Kremlin and the onion domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral, I let that feeling wash over me: I’m finally here.

The photo of me in front of St. Basil’s is one of my absolute favorite photos of all time—just because of how much it meant to me, and how happy I was in that precise moment in time.

I am so excited to go back to Russia. I am SO. EXCITED. Words can’t describe how excited I am. It is one of my favorite countries in the world. It is so different from the typical Western places I’m used to visiting. It is a beautiful, fascinating place. And while I’ll only be going to Moscow and St. Petersburg, and not able to explore more in-depth (riding the Trans-Siberian train is one of my greatest life goals), I know that this trip is going to be amazing. I cried reading the Lonely Planet guidebook, just thinking about how I’ll be able to see those things and visit some of those places in real life.

But my trip to Russia three years ago was also some of the worst moments of my life. I ended up getting really sick and needed to go to the doctor. First, I tried to buy the prescriptions I needed myself (you don’t need a prescription for anything except hard drugs in Russia)—but after a few days, those clearly weren’t working. So I went to an English-speaking clinic, saw a doctor, had tests done, got the prescriptions I needed, and then found out my travel insurance had expired 6 days ago and I needed to pay out of pocket. I had a UTI and then got another infection from those antibiotics—so it wasn’t serious, but it made for a painful and uncomfortable trip.

I lost several precious travel days and didn’t get to see a lot of the things I had planned. I almost fainted in the street outside the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. I had to pee constantly and I was so tired and in so much pain I couldn’t walk a lot of places.

And because I was alone and traveling solo, I had no one to help me. Because walking was so uncomfortable and I just couldn’t do it, I lived on bread and cranberry juice for days. I lost a scary amount of weight and was hungry all the time, but there was nothing I could do—I couldn’t get up and go and get food, and I’m stubbornly independent and would have felt so shitty and pathetic asking some random person from a hostel to go to the grocery store for me.

I embarrassed myself thousands of times over trying to use my broken Russian and Google translated words on pieces of paper to get the prescriptions I needed. And the lowest low I have ever experienced, I went to bed one night and was in so much pain all I could think was, “I just don’t want to wake up tomorrow, I just want this to end.” It literally hurt SO. BAD.

Getting sick like this wouldn’t have been that bad if I was somewhere I could get by in English. Or if I wasn’t traveling solo and had someone to help me. But being on the other side of the world (9 time zones) away from my family, feeling completely alone and helpless, and not being able to fully experience this trip of my dreams just really, really sucked.

UTIs ARE THE FUCKING WORST.

But getting through that experience showed me that I’m tough, and that I can get through anything. It changed me. And despite that, and everything else that went wrong on my trip to Russia, it is still one of my favorite trips of all time.

I have the Russian word for “forever” (навсегда) tattooed on my arm. I wear my heart on my sleeve. To me, it symbolizes the strength and beauty that I found in myself on that trip. And it is a reminder to always follow my dreams—forever.

I do have a lot of anxiety about having a Russian tattoo in countries where people actually speak Russian (especially if those people don’t like Russia…). But I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it, and wear t-shirts if anything bad happens.

At the Romanov graves, one of the best moments of my life

I also faced a lot of criticism about my decision to travel solo to Russia, most of which were genuine concerns for my safety. But I felt like I had to defend, again and again, my ability to travel solo safely to literally every single person I told about my trip. Bad things happen all over the world—the terrorist attacks across Europe (including the UK, where I live) in the last three years have shown people that bad things can happen everywhere. You can stop traveling, and let fear and terrorism win, or you can go about your life like normal as a sign of resistance. I will always choose the latter.

So I can’t wait to go back. I can’t wait to see Peterhof Palace and walk around the gardens and see the fountains. I can’t wait to visit the Gulag History Museum in Moscow, since I spent years in college researching various gulag-related topics. I can’t wait to see the Alexander Nevsky Monastery in St. Petersburg. I can’t wait to walk through the Hermitage singing the Anastasia soundtrack to myself again.

What it looked like outside my window at midnight during White NIghts

More than anything else, I can’t wait to experience White Nights as it should be experienced—staying up late, partying, exploring, seeing the bridges go up. I didn’t drink a single drop of alcohol on my trip three years ago (I KNOW!!!) and didn’t want to stay out late because (obviously) I was sick and I was alone. And White Nights, in summer in St. Petersburg (when it stays light outside for the whole night because the city is so far north), is going to be an amazing experience.

And I can’t wait to travel there and not be alone. I was hyper-vigilant to the point of paranoid every second of my trip. Constantly on guard, never wanting to get my camera out and take photos, nothing that made me look like a tourist. I just wanted to blend in and stay as safe as possible.

Above all, I just cannot wait to take Adam to this amazing country. It means so much to me, and is a phenomenal place to visit. I know he will love it for some of the reasons I do—the history, the architecture, the innate Russian-ness of it all. I’m already lucky that I get to live in England (my favorite country) with my favorite person. I can’t wait to take that person to more of my favorite places around the world—and discover new favorite places together!

I’m nervous. I’m scared. I’m excited. I want to cry every other second. I left a part of my heart in Russia three years ago—and I can’t wait to return to it.

Увидимся скоро, Россия!