On The Baltic

Trip Start Feb 12, 2008
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Estonia  ,
Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Sitting at the bar my first night in Tallin, I am listening to a live band which is evidently adored by the local crowd. I am soon approached by the large man on the neighbouring stool who leans over and first tries to speak to me in his native tongue, but after learning I am most certainly an English speaking tourist, says in a very thick Russian accent "Chuck Berry!" I start to correct him as to who actually recorded 'Blue Suede Shoes' but think better of it, nod and smile. Vasily and I have a short conversation, during which he mocks the Estonian beer I am drinking and convinces me to drink a bit of his real man drink - straight Russian Wodka, and continues to point out the original singer of songs from the band: Buddy Holly! Beatles! Chuck Berry! (again.) I just didn't have the heart to tell him we were watching an Elvis cover band.

The big Russian Estonian left at the set break and was replaced on the stool by a larger ethnic Estonian man named Kalju. The conversation was markedly different - Kalju immediately opened up to the fact he loves his wife dearly but is happy she is away on the islands with friends so he can cut loose - he had been drinking constantly for three days. He showed me photos of his lovely daughter on his phone and became overwhelmed when the band played their hillbilly twist on 'Kentucky Rain.' He spoke about how he used to have to listen to this song - his all-time favorite - in a secret room in his family's cellar as a kid. Rock n' Roll was forbidden in Soviet Estonia and he is still amazed today at what a different world he lives in from that of his childhood and early adult life. Kalju asks if I have ever seen rain in Kentucky and I said that indeed I have. And it caused major traffic problems on I-65. He found that fantastic. Then asked if I liked drinking Wild Turkey.

This trip to Estonia (and a last minute decision for a day trip to Helsinki) was the first time I have travelled alone. It is something I have always wanted to do and I am happy to have done it. There are obvious and significant negatives to travelling by yourself: When you experience something amazing and want to say "Check this out!" you get strange looks from people who don't know you rather than strange looks from people who do. But there is an opportunity to really experience the culture and meet people - sometimes out of necessity. And that is definitely a good thing.

I have been asked, "Why Estonia?" and my answer is the same as it was when people asked, "Why Kosovo?" a few years back: Because of that exact question. Why be obvious? (That and it was on Tamara's list of approved destinations - places she was okay with not seeing.) My prerequisite for my own long weekend was to visit a country I had never been to before. Tallin with its relatively low prices and perfectly preserved medieval city rose to the top.

Estonia is full of surprises. It is one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world and Tallin looks absolutely nothing like the Communist Block city it once was. In fact, if not for the food and language, I would have easily assumed I was in a city of middle or western Europe. The food seemed to be an interesting twist of Nordic and Russian cuisine. Game is popular - I tried the wild boar, as well as duck in cherry sauce. I decided to try the stroganoff my last day. They offered two versions: bear and beef. Unfortunately the bear hunt had not gone well recently so beef it was.

I made a visit outside the Old Town to the Occupation Museum - a well worth journey to see exactly how Estonians suffered through both Nazi and Communist occupation. Hundreds of thousands of Estonians were tortured/killed/deported during the reign of terror that comprised both regimes and the period in which they fought each other in the same space.

Today though old Talin is full of tourist shops, classic medieval walls and towers, fantastic steeple churches (one of which was once the tallest structure in the known world), party bars, museums, 'massage parlours' and some of the most beautiful cobbled streets in the world. In my mind, Old Town Tallin rivals the great medieval towns I have visited: Brugge, Mdina, York, Heidelberg, etc...

The people of Tallin are friendly, welcoming and almost all speak better English than many Americans. The weather leaves much to be desired but I managed to get lucky. Two days of beauty to the one day of misery. On that one day of misery I chose to take a quick trip over to Helsinki, capital of Finland.

Photos here: http://flickr.com/photos/27086162@N04/sets/72157607816365762/
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