The first time I went to Europe was in 2000, as part of Tegan and Sara, the band I formed with my twin sister when we were teenagers—which we pretty much still were on that first tour. We were just terrified: alone in Europe, barely 20 years old, no credit card. The record company gave us an envelope of American dollars, and after trying to use the cash at a McDonald’s in Milan, we ate out of hotel mini bars the whole rest of the tour.
We’ve toured all over the world since then, but it wasn’t until 2018 that I took what I now consider to be my first actual trip. I was getting ready to write the proposal for a memoir Sara and I were pitching, when my partner invited me to tag along with her on a work trip to Belgrade, Serbia. This was the first time I’d gotten on a flight and gone to a completely unknown country as a tourist, not as Tegan and Sara. It was amazing. I flew to Belgrade from Los Angeles to meet her, and the first thing I was struck by was how beautiful the city was. Super-lush, very green—even downtown there are so many waterways, and you’re often right alongside the Danube River. I can’t overstate how shocked I was by how green and beautiful everything was, especially considering how much had been destroyed in the Yugoslav Wars.
There’s a Mama Shelter hotel in Downtown Belgrade, which is where we stayed, in a really nice room with all this glass overlooking the breathtaking Kalemegdan Park. We were settling in, marveling at how beautiful everything was, and suddenly we heard an explosion. The windows rattled, and I was like, “Oh my God!” Then there was another! My partner works in cybersecurity, so she’s wound pretty tight; she said, “Get your passport, grab your stuff, move away from the windows!” We did that, ran into the hallway—which was all windows—and saw that out in the park this huge crowd of tourists was gathered around a massive cannon that was doing a daily gun salute. Once our hearts started beating again, we were like, “Well, that’s clearly the first thing we’re going to do: go check out that cannon!’’ Kalemegdan Park is part of the Belgrade Fortress, whose turrets stand atop a 400-foot cliff, right where the Sava and Danube rivers meet. We wound up spending an entire day inside the park, exploring everything within it.
Belgrade struck me as a fascinating mix of really ancient and super-modern. It’s one of the oldest cities in Europe, with cobblestone streets and very old buildings, but also lots of cool modern graffiti. There’s so much history, destruction and rebuilding on display and in the air. I was also struck by how hipster-ish it all was—young people speaking English, everyone super-friendly, stylish, and tall. I’m 5-foot-2, and everywhere we went there were people 6 feet or taller, even the women. I kept saying, “I feel like a troll doll!” And while I’m a really quick walker, I felt outpaced everywhere.
One of the most important things about Belgrade for me was that it gave me the space to write. It gave me the strangeness, the freedom, the sense of possibility you feel in being able to walk forever along those rivers, to be in a sort of wandering daydream. You find that memories come up; connections form. I completed six chapters of the book proposal there, and it was unlike any other period in my life. When Sara and I take time off the road, it’s usually to write music, and then we’re back in the studio, or we’re rehearsing, or we’re doing press. Taking a year off to write a book, that was unprecedented for us. It’s interesting, because the entire time I was in Belgrade writing, Sara was on vacation in Florida, visiting her in-laws and going to Disney World. A vacation is when you go to Mexico or Palm Springs, sit by the pool, eat and drink. A trip is when you walk 35,000 steps a day, go to war memorials, get shaken up and challenged, go to an utterly new and unfamiliar place that changes you. Belgrade was a trip.