So we’ve been looking for a place to live in the city of Tartu, you know that unappealing hellhole in southeast Estonia where there are no good indie rock bands and the best thing is the road leading to Tallinn? Yeah, that one.
Anyway, I know the Estonian real estate market quite well, having searched for and found an apartment in Tallinn back in the year of our Lord, 2003. I recall there were several kinds of apartments available in Tallinn. For starters, there were the off-limits apartments – either ones in the Old Town or those new futuristic ones out in Pirita that look like Captain Kirk’s love shack from Star Trek.
Those are off limits as my wife and I are but meager artists of the written word. We do not aspire to such eurocratic heights. After the off limits places come the wooden, pre-1940 dwellings. Many of these have been remodeled and are gorgeous. We wound up buying one in Kalamaja. But, on the flipside, the older ones have some extreme elements, such as 1) large communities of feral cats nearby; 2) wood heating, accompanied by neighbor’s house with roof burned off; 3) did I mention wood heating?
That’s right, many Estonians use puu to keep themselves warm at night, and if you look at them like they are stuck in some kind of 1920s time-warp where going to toilet means going to the outhouse and using the Montgomery Sears catalog to wipe your ass, they’ll look back at you and tell you that you are crazy and that wood heating is the best thing since fire was invented.
Of course, the ladies don’t mind wood heating because they get their husbands to freeze their munad off and go outside in the dark of winter to collect more firewood to survive, eating a bowl of gruel that has boiled over the fire as their reward for manliness.
Along with the culture shock of living in a land where using cash is quaint, but using wood to heat your room is the thing to do, most real estate agencies like to provide photos of the toilet in the apartment, just so you can inspect it online to make sure it’s safe to squat over when duty calls.
This is a very Estonian thing to do. Estonian real estate agents like to get to the point. There’s no bullshit. They show you the dirtiest place in the house and let you judge whether or not you’d consider parking your butt there and leafing through a fresh edition of City Paper.
Estonia is currently stuck in this weird limboland between post-Soviet and normal, where lots of it is starting to look fresh and new, but behind every new Selver, there is a filthy toilet waiting to remind you of the bad old days when Gorbachev was the “charismatic” leader of the USSR. Speaking of USSR, there are other apartments available, many of which were built during the 1945 – 1985 time period.
The Stalin-era buildings were mostly built by slave labor from German POWs and real estate agents might mention this to you as if you’d feel better knowing a bunch of 20-year-old guys named Friedrich sweated their balls off to build your flat, only to continue to build flats until their lives were terminated. Well, “German-built” actually means it’s less likely to fall apart, while just plain “Soviet-built” is supposed to mean that you should watch out that the place doesn’t fall down when you slam the door. I am not into these big apartment buildings. There’s something about gray apartment blocks, pelmeenid, and limited daylight that makes me want to drown my sorrows in vodka. That life just isn’t for me.
One way Estonians have sought to liberate themselves from the gray is to cover the buildings with colorful metallic paneling, which makes them look more Copenhagen and less Gorky Park. I welcome all attempts to resuscitate wounded dwellings and to bring them up to speed for our new and progressive century.
Anyway, apartment hunting is hard work, and I am actually not doing any of the heavy mental lifting. But when it comes to actually moving the stuff into the apartment, you can expect to see me there, huffing and puffing, and utilizing all those muscles I rarely get to use.