December 9, 2012 by dsalkowski
After Thanksgiving, I got the urge for going again, so I set off again, this time to Tallinn, Estonia. I got on a bus in around midday and made it to Estonia late in the evening. Immediately after stepping off the bus, I could feel that I was now in Europe.
I’ve spent the past four months in Russia’s “most European city,” but that doesn’t mean they speak English, conduct their affairs at a reasonable volume, or understand the distinction between drip coffee and espresso. With the exception of the coffee detail, most of these differences were slightly unsettling for the two days I spent in Tallinn. I’ve grown quite accustomed to seeing guys drinking in every alley, only half-understanding the people around me, and a fairly healthy dose of national pride.
Nonetheless, Tallinn is quite a charming old city, especially the Old Town, a mostly tourism-sustained village situated in the historic, walled castle. Despite the vague Disney
Epcot aesthetic of the Old Town, it still had a pretty local vibe. I made it to a really solid pancake place, as well as a couple of really solid record stores. Vinyl is impossible to find in Russia, so I was surprised by the prevalence in Estonia. I was alsoimpressed by the support for local classical music; in a country of 1.3 million, you can walk into an ordinary music store and find a rack full of recent releases by local composers – you’d be hard-pressed to find a selection like that in most countries, and certainly in the States.
Outside the Old Town, which is enough of a labyrinth to contain most tourists (mostly middle-aged Western Europeans and young Aussies), the city is generally pretty tame, but has quite laid-back atmosphere. I spent a while skipping stones into the Baltic, roughly inthe direction of Finland, and the sun even shone a bit, which is rare in this part of the world this time of year.
The influence of globalization, which I thought was apparent enough in Russia, really hit me that night at the hostel, where I was with people from Finland, Australia, France, Brazil, Spain, Poland, and Italy all speaking English. I felt even more at home when we went to a Mustache Party at another hostel, keeping with the great American tradition of No-Shave November.
After my junket to Estonia, I came back to Russia just long enough to get yelled at at a corner store for not having exact change (a daily event here), before I headed off to Finland. Russians tend to say that Helsinki is just a boring city, but I think that’s their way of saying that its really clean, orderly, and modern.
A Russian friend of mine had to make a trip to Finland for visa purposes; although I still don’t quite understand the details, it has something to do with keeping her EU visa active, I think. Since the American passport is such a thing of beauty, I was her only friend that managed to make the trip on short notice. We took the ferry, which was actually cheaper than a train or bus, and was also basically a cruise ship with full sleeping quarters.
Once we made it to Helsinki, we didn’t have much of a plan, since we only knew two things about the entire country of Finland: the composer Sibelius and Hesburger. So after some Finnish fast food, we went in search of Sibelius.
The Finns, in all due respect, have pretty wierd taste; the main monument to Sibelius, in the park bearing his name feautures his disembodied head, opposite from a monstrosity that could best be described as a cosmic pipe-organ. After that, rather than trying to understand any other monuments, we just assumed they were somehow connected to Sibelius, which became our ongoing joke. As you can see, humor doesn’t translate too well.
We also made it to the Finnish Museum of Contemporary Art, which further emphasized the Finn’s acquired, borderline kinky taste. Other than this aspect of Finnish culture, in the few hours I spent in the fine country, the other main impression I garnered was that it must be an amazing city in the summer. Besides the fact that it would be light almost all night, the parks there are extensive and scenic, with red stones jutting out in odd formations from green fields, as well as bike lanes throughout the city. I was surprised and heartened to see the amount of bikers, despite the cold; and the cold was quite extreme.
The snow began when we got off the boat and continued until we boarded again after our day-long excursion. By the time we made it back to Mother Russia, winter had preceeded us there as well; the first heavy snow had begun to fall, which has added some light to the short, dim days. My final few weeks in the North will be marked by two things they told us to expect: darkness and cold.