On Thursday I left my safe European home of Tartu and ventured forth across the sprawling countryside to Tallinn, a city I know well and where I lived in 2003 and 2004.
There’s relatively little on the road to Tallinn from Tartu in terms of civilization. There are small farms, and occasionally you pass through a settlement of homes that may or may not be a spot on the map.
Instead, there’s nothing but birch trees and wandering meadows. I’ve been to most of the population centers of Estonia, barring Ida-Virumaa, and I can say that, yes, it’s safe to assume that only 1.34 million people live here.
As you approach Tallinn the land becomes infinitely flatter. There are fewer trees. Instead large metal and concrete boxes, the symbols of Scandinavian and German investment, begin to dot the landscape. As it is with the larger buildings in Tallinn, I wonder if Estonia actually has enough people to work in and patronize all of these establishments. Wouldn’t it be great if we could clone Estonians or bring them all back from Canada and Sweden in about a year’s time? Now that would be interesting. Then I would believe that all of these buildings had been built with purpose.
As you get closer to the city you begin to notice another odd trend – American-style suburban homes, clustered around or near the large geometric shapes. Do people live there? It doesn’t look like it. I privately hope that the Estonian wilderness will spread like fire, and that peaceful birches will engulf these settlements, bringing them back into the Estonian context.
Then comes to airport, and then the traffic. So much has been erected in Tallinn over the past few years that shopping centers that once seemed imposing and new appear normal backdrops to busy dump trucks and bulldozers. Between the crest of the hill and the bus station, the remnants of communist neglect appear – Breznev-era buildings with weeping facades, stone walls turned muddy by traffic exhaust.
I tend to have a negative reaction to communist architectural legacy. Estonian culture is not as strong as German culture, but still the northern mindset is as infective as the Mediterranean mindset is in its context. The northern mindset craves peace and order. Ugly buildings create an impulse to paint, to scrub clean, to refinish – to make new and orderly.
Lastekodu is not my favorite street in Tallinn, but it is long and it must be taken to get to the center. The bus station is populated by rolypoly older men and attractive young women that look like they work very hard on their appearance. In a way, their attention to detail is a turn-off. Clothing is properly tucked in, boots are level, hair is perfectly tucked behind each ear – again it’s the manifestation of order. It my mind, though, computers are not sexy.
Lastekodu rolls forward and gives birth to Liivalaia, and the big signs of kapitalizm – Stockmann, casinos, …IF insurance, speakers playing pop music, young ladies with expensive manicures, young males with expensive mobile phones. The traffic is completely unpredictable and unwelcome. Still, things are quiet. Oddly enough it is the young people that make the most noise. They travel in groups and talk. I was once told that the silence of Estonia’s cities is a artifact from the Soviet era, but I think that’s clever marketing. Most other northern cities – Oslo, Helsinki – are similarly quiet. I like it. It allows me to think.
There is of course the monstrous Stalin house, which now houses a furniture store and a casino, across from Stockmann. It scares the hell out of me everytime I see it. I get scared by the idea of military parades and mustachioed dictators and posters of leaders on public walls. I am afraid of brainwashed masses stirred to unspeakable deeds by the power of control. That’s what that building looks like to me. If anything I am glad that it houses a casino. The ultimate ‘up yours, Stalin’.
After the Stockmann complex comes the Kaubamaja complex. This is a shoppers paradise. Tallinn is so much more diverse than Tartu. Unlike in 2003, I hear Estonian mostly, whereas in the past I feel I heard Russian being spoken more often. Obviously I hear Russian about 40 percent of the time, which I guess is demographically accurate. But then there’s the American English speakers in the Kaubamaja food store. How weird – they are on vacation, and I am here on business. I decide to leave them in their tourist bubble. What can you buy in Kaubamaja to eat for lunch? I choose two Dallase sai. I don’t have the patience for any kind if salat.
Finally, I roll past Tammsaare and into the Old Town with its stores of souveniirs and vodka. The smell of roasted nuts from Olde Hansa is sickening, along with the music. It’s not like I particularly dislike it, it’s just that it interferes with my enjoyment of the quiet. Everywhere there are places urging me to spend my money. Molly Malone’s tells me that it serves real Irish food. Oh joy, runny eggs, boiled potatoes, half cooked sausages, and Heinz baked beans! Yummy.
On the other hand they also offer spaghetti bolognese, which is easy to make and usually tastes good.
Walking in the Old Town is a bitch. There’s a reason they call it Pikk Jalg, it’s because it stretches the hell out of your legs. And then when you finally reach the top of Toompea, there’s another tough turn and you must continue uphill. Ouch. I wonder how it is that so many Estonian legislators are out of shape if they have to climb these hills to work.
Then it’s over to Pärnu mntee. I walk past the Pronkssõdur monument, which is covered in adoring flowers. I still can’t believe that there’s so much controversy over this one memorial. It’s pretty insignificant as far as memorials go. I imagine that we have monuments in Washington to many forgotten soldiers that most people wouldn’t notice if it went missing. Perhaps Spanish nationalists would destroy the forgotten monuments to the soldiers of the Maine who died in Havana harbor in 1898? Would Americans even care? I know the answer. The answer is ‘no’.
Crossing into the business area of Pärnu mntee. is serious business. There’s trucks spewing fumes and totally insane Smokey and the Bandit-esque drivers. On did a screeching U-Turn in front of oncoming traffic. I saw the driver and his passenger. They were laughing. They are completely crazy. And people wonder why there are so many traffic-related fatalities last year.
I happen to yell “Holy shit” quite loudly, a sentiment which is shared by nearby pedestrians on their way to attend a wedding.
To be continued …