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... They Kick You?!?!

Tallinn, Estonia

So, it's really only a 2 1/2 - 3 hour flight from Berlin to Tallinn... the amazingness of planes. Although, as Henry J. Tillman said, "The saying 'Getting there is half the fun' became obsolete with the advent of commercial airlines." For the moment, I'll bypass this statement, and choose to focus on the fact that I was in Estonia. Who goes to Estonia?

So, Estonia's actually really interesting. We got there about 10:30 pm, so everything was dark and we couldn't really see anything. That first night was fairly uneventful. Our lectures were pretty sweet, though, especially our last one. The thing is that Estonia enjoyed a very short-lived independence after centuries of being occupied by Germans, Russians, Norwegians, Swedes, Danish, usw. and right before being occupied by the Nazi forces and then "liberated" and subsequently annexed by the Soviet Union. So if you want to know what a young country is, go to Estonia. The Baltics can, simply because of this, automatically be distinguished from a lot of Eastern Europe - most countries considered behind the Iron Curtain in the Cold War were independent, but communist and very dependent on Russia. The Baltics were a part of the Soviet Union.

They still have a lot of issues with this - for one, Estonia is right on the border with Russia and even has some contested territory still with Russia. They also have a Russian minority (and other ethnic minorities who speak Russian and are sympathetic to Russia). And no one really knows what to do about it.

Our hotel was actually right down the street from the park where the infamous Bronze Soldier statues stood. These statues were erected years ago as a memorial to the Soviet troops who died in the "liberation" of Estonia from Nazi Germany. Only last year, it was decided that, because the liberation essentially meant annexation into a repressive communist regime, the statues would be removed and sent to a random cemetery somewhere in the city (no one could give us directions there...). This incited huge riots by the Russian minority and those Estonians who are more sympathetic towards Russia. It was a really big deal. Because of this rocky history, there is a HUGE differentiation between peoples in Estonia, and the Estonians can be touchy about it.

Our first day in Estonia, we headed over to the University of Tallinn. If you were to envision a post-Soviet city, Tallinn would mostly be it. Everything was rickety and run-down where we were. We meant to take the tram/street car to the university - a plan which should have worked. And, in theory, did work... until it took us back to our hotel. So we got off at a random stop, tried to get on another tram... which didn't go the whole way there. Turns out most of the trams in the entire city are either not working or not going to the right place. Whoops.

So we walked to the university, which was interesting. Tallinn has a really odd mixture of really old buildings (the Old Town of Tallinn is essentially undisturbed from its medieval structure because it was never destroyed during any wars) and old Soviet buildings. We got lost (thank you, professors) and walked for half an hour to 45 minutes... which, had we been going in a straight line, would have taken us well out of Tallinn. Finally, we made it, though. One of the students had volunteered to help us by setting up a "Tallinn as Text" program. So we all had to get into groups, and pick a theme to follow out of her options. I really wanted to be in the group about Social Disparity, which actually involved going into a really old market which really displayed the way a lot of people in Tallinn, especially the older people, still live. Tourists don't go to that part of town, so the group that did go didn't take any pictures because they stood out already, but everything looked very impoverished. I really wanted to go the next day while we explored, but some of the people who were going around with us the second day weren't entirely comfortable with that (I am increasingly repelled by "tourism," which I've always felt uncomfortable with, and really interested in finding kind of sketchy but interesting, diverse, revealing adventures.... but I'm one of the few in the group).

Anyway, my group's task was to explore the "Russian influence," which amounted to going to the palace that Peter the Great built for his wife and children as a summer retreat. But it's actually built in more of an Italian style, and, in a rather graceful move, I thought, he opened up the grounds to the public, so now it's a really big park. This palace used to house the presidents offices, but then a new palace was built not far away for the president. The paper we had told us to go find it, though, so we set off. We found another palace, but had no way of knowing what it was. There were two guards by the door, so Aymi and Katie decided to go ask. Apparently, though, you can't actually get on the steps, or the guards bang their machine guns on the ground and glare at you. Kind of intimidating...? So Aymi, halfway through asking in Estonian if he spoke English, peered around him to the plaque, said "Oh, look, it is the president's palace," looked shyly at the guard again, then ran back to us. It was pretty entertaining.

So then we had a lot of time to kill, but we saw water in the distance, and I was determined to find the Baltic Sea. Which it was. It was actually very entertaining for us to hear the presentations back at the university about what each group did. The first group said "we did this and that, and we saw the Baltic Sea!" and showed a picture of the Sea from a distance. The second group said "well, we did this and that, and we touched the Baltic Sea!" and showed a picture of everyone with their hands in the water. Then we had to go up. Thanks primarily to my determination (and insanity, especially considering I was sick), we got to say "well, we visited this palace and that palace, and we went in the Baltic Sea!" and showed a picture of us all splashing around in it. I definitely got to point down to my pants and say "I'm still wet from the Baltic Sea!" Those waves get you every time.... It was a lot of fun, though. It was about 50 degrees outside, though, and the Sea had to be even colder. It was a bad decision for my health, I found out later, but more than worth it.

Other than the lectures and the "Tallinn as Text," though, we mainly just wandered.

We ate a lot at this restaurant that was really cheap and served traditional Estonian pancakes (which are like really thick, delicious crépes) and the beer there is fantastic. We also tried Estonian vodka, which is the best vodka I've ever had (and, thanks to Sally, vodka is now pretty rough for me) and Valla Tallinn, some traditional liquor from Tallinn. We also had a really amusing conversation with Warren where
HE ranted about how unfair things were for girls, because we had to do so much to get ready to go out and all of these things were expected of us in public, whereas guys get to be guys. Period. I found it really amusing. We also talked about lots of other things, and it turns out Warren is actually very observant. A lot of things we talked about, ex: about me, didn't surprise him and when I asked why that was he said "well, a long time ago when we were kicking a soccer ball around in the group (which was maybe a month ago and we didn't know each other at all then) you told us about what traveling you had done before. And something about the way you talked about it, and about the kind of stuff you liked to do... I don't know, you just seemed so worldly that it makes sense you would have done all of these things..." It was kind of weird... but nice, I guess.

One of the first nights we were there, Aymi, Dannielle and I got hopelessly lost. We were so disoriented from the trams not working and our professors getting lost while walking, that our mental navigation was essentially useless. We were trying to get back from the Old Town to our hotel (which turned out to be 5 minutes straight shot down one of the main roads), and it turned into us wandering for 45 minutes in really shady parts of town. Finally, while standing next to a really small train station where we are fairly sure drug deals go down, we stopped a middle aged couple that looked nice enough to ask for directions. IT was quite literally, "Excuse me, do you know where Hotel Uniquestay is? It's really big, with a big orange U?" The lady didn't speak English, but the man spoke very well, so it turned into a 20 minute conversation in which he would try to explain in English and consult her in Estonian. It got complicated, and kind of absurd. Apparently there was no easy way back, we were so lost, and directions would have been useless. Finally, they talked in Estonian a bit, and the man said "Well, our car's right over here, and we would be more than happy to give you a lift. It would just be easier for everyone, I think."
A lift? Really?
We said yes. To this day, i couldn't tell you why we said yes. But we did.
So, at midnight, we followed a couple we had only known for 20 minutes or so to their car. In a dark, shady part of town. At one point we were walking and the woman was off to the side, kicking leaves up as she walked. Dannielle leaned over and whispered "I can't tell if that's really cute or really creepy." I concured.
It got even more awkward when the man left to go pay their parking fee, leaving us in the car with this woman. The whole car ride to the hotel, Dannielle (who was next to the door, I was in the middle) had a grip on my arm on one side and a grip on the door handle on the other. Just in case. But they were really nice, and dropped us off at a Hotel UniqueStay. Keep in mind, A Hotel UniqueStay. Not our Hotel UniqueStay. But we said thank you, in Estonian, and they drove off. Then we realized it wasn't ours.
I dashed inside to go to the bathroom while Aymi and Danielle got directions at the front desk, and it turns out our hotel was only a ten minute walk or so away. So we set out. And got lost. In unlit streets full of old Soviet-housing. We stopped in the only open cornerstore to ask directions, but the guy didn't speak English, and also looked like he might be hiding a gun behind the counter from the way he acted. FInally, outside, we stopped a guy about our age walking by with a laptop case, assuming he spoke English. He gave us directions easily. It was then that we realized that all of this old Soviet housing had been turned into student housing. It's really bizarre to see these run-down, concrete block style buildings, but to look in the windows and see plasma screen TVs.
So we found the hotel. And didn't tell any professors how we got back.

Aymi is teaching me the art of bumming cigarettes. For one thing, we've learned that we have a habit of getting lost at night, and, being 2 girls alone in a city at night, a lit cigarette is actually one of the best weapons/protection devices you can have. So we've gotten into the habit of going up to people (mostly guys) and asking if we can buy a cigarette or two, and offer them money. Most of the time they don't take the money - it's not polite in Europe to expect payment for cigarettes, we learned (when Aymi has cigarettes, though, she lets others bum them, so it's even). If you're looking for a good bar or restaurant, it's also a really good opportunity to ask the locals. Overall, good plan.
So, the second night there, we wanted to go out because we didn't have to be up really early the next day. Aymi, Katie, Meghan, Danielle and I went out together, and were looking around. Finally, Aymi and I went up to a group of five Estonian guys to bum a cigarette and ask advice. It turns out one of them (his name was Haiko...) was actually turning 22 that night. They said they were heading to "Club Hollywood," which was the hot-spot of Estonian night-life and really expensive, so they never went. But they had heard that when it was your birthday, you can get ten people in for free, so they were going to all try and go. They were five, we were five, they invited us along. Turns out the rumor was true, so we got into the most popular Estonian club for free, and hung out with Estonians all night, and got to skip the line in.
This is where the oddly segregated Estonian mentality comes into play again. Russians go to this club, too, obviously. So we were all waiting to check our coats, etc before going in, and some drunken Russian comes up to us, speaking in Russian. Aymi tried to say she didn't speak Russian, sorry, whatever. Haiko shows up and says "No, don't talk to the Russians," and tells this guy to go away. The dialogue essentially went as follows:

Haiko: No, don't talk to the Russians!
Aymi: Why not?
Haiko: You just don't. They are bad people.
Aymi: But... but why are they bad people? Why can't I talk to them?
Haiko: Do you not know about Estonia and Russia?
Aymi: No, I do know, really. But you weren't really alive then. Your parents, yes. But why do you hate them?
Haiko: They are just bad people.

  • *at this point in the conversation, as part of the offered explanation, Haiko pretended to kick something.

  • Aymi: They kick you?!?
    Haiko: No.
    Aymi: You kick them?!?
    Haiko: Never mind. Just don't talk to them.

    We haven't figured out yet if the Russians kicked the Estonians, or if the Estonians kicked the Russians, or if he was telling us WE should kick the Russians, or if that was just his way of expressing anger. No clue.

    Of course, when we left the club, three guys from our group were waiting outside to get in. They asked how it was, and we said "Eh, it was okay." They asked how much it costed us, and we said we didn't know, we got in for free. They asked how much the drinks were, and we said we didn't know, the Estonians had bought us drinks all night. By the time we actually left, Warren was mad. Which was even funnier, considering the conversation we had already had at the pancake place.

    My last good story about Tallinn was the last night we were there. Aymi and I went out to wander around, and ended up finding a hookah bar. So we sat in this hookah bar (which was really a bar in a concrete box that happened to sell hookah) for hours. We got stuck in between two groups of Estonian teenagers who seemed to know each other, so we felt awkwardly in the way, but it was really nice to be able to rant about anything and everything over hookah in Tallinn.

    permalink written by  lost_red_balloon on September 22, 2008 from Tallinn, Estonia
    from the travel blog: The European Union
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