Saturday, December 08, 2007

from Tallinn, Estonia: neighbors

Growing up in Poland, I considered the Baltic states as, well, Russian. Oh, sure. Once I started reading the papers, I knew that Estonians, Lithuanians and Latvians would prefer to be referred to as Estonians, Lithuanians and Latvians, rather than as Russians. I figured it was like the Quebecois. Small, ethnic states, having a fit over being part of a larger country.

This isn’t the place for a history lesson, but in case your knowledge of the country is a tad fuzzy, just take in this much, for the purposes of this week’s Ocean reading: Estonia is hard core Estonian. In spirit and culture and folksong, if not, in the past, in nationhood. (The Swedes controlled it. Then the Russian Tsars. Then, for the first time, in 1919 – independence. Only to be done in by both the Germans and the Russians during World War II. Handed over to Stalin after the war. Reclaiming its nationhood and independence in 1991.)

Is there a Russian presence? Considering that 30% (40% in Tallinn) of the people living here are Russian, so Russian that they can’t even pretend to speak the difficult Estonian, you might say that there is indeed Russian in the air. And there are souvenirs, left over from the Soviet era. Abandoned coastal naval stations. The ubiquitous Soviet era housing blocks for the working poor. And a tight border between the two countries. So that even if I wanted to (and I did want to), I could not, on short notice, cross over to the “other side.”

So why am I here? Because I am from a Baltic nation too. Poland is a mere spray of Baltic sea water away. You want to know your neighbors.

And I like going to places in seasons that appear inhospitable. Poland in December or January. Quebec in February. Iceland in November. Estonia in December. It fits.

My plane pushes through many layers of gray and lands in Tallinn. An airport almost the size of Madison’s. Two other airplanes in sight – Czech Airlines coming in, Polish Airlines going out. I’m in Eastern Europe alright. And in the far north of it. So much so, that if I wanted to take a hydrofoil across the Baltic, I’d be in Helsinki in less than two hours.

It’s not below freezing now, but it’s cold. Biting, wet cold. My hotel rests at the edge of the old Medieval heart of the city (the Three Sisters: there they are, three buildings standing next to each other:)

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It’s just past three. Getting darker by the minute. I remember this about life in northern Europe. After three, you need a flashlight.

I’m tired after all those flights, but I am anxious to hear Estonian and to get moving. I walk up the cobbled streets, past spires and old walls, past bakeries with gingerbread and coffee houses, endless coffeehouses with people, huddling over warm drinks.

It is an utterly dazzling place. Beautiful, even in the dark.

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out one corner-room window: old warehouses

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The Square has a Christmas market. Like Krakow at this time. And I see the woolens and the stalls with hot mulled wine and smoked cheese and I think – I really am close to home.

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smoked cheese, sausages, rheindeer something or other

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hot fire, hot wine

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girls in hoods, looking at necklaces

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But the language is a puzzler. I can do a handful of words – no more. English is spoken tentatively, but I dare not dig into my store of Russian words and phrases. Their bad English is better than my bad Russian. Besides, I want to stay on the good side of the language barrier.

In stores and restaurants, I am again reminded of Poland. The books refer to Estonians as reserved. In Poland, we call this expressionless face, encountered in virtually every store and place of service – dour. It takes a lot to get a north-eastern European laughing out in public. Something to do with the long winters and past poor states of the economy.

I eat dinner at a local folksy place. The Estonians are ordering big plates of grilled meats and cooked cabbage. (Exactly. Polish fare.) I settle for an appetizer of herring, boiled potatoes and pickled onion.

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And pan-fried chicken, with a nice mushroom cream sauce, more potatoes and raw cabbage.

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The food is well prepared and quite good. Regional seasonal to the core. I could have opted for the hams and blood sausages off the Christmas menu, but this was a transition day for me.

In the hotel, I listen to the sounds of the night. Voices of strollers, heels against the stone treets, loud against the silence of a sleeping city. I eat poppyseed cookies and sugar coated linden berries and I contemplate opening a complimentary little bottle of Liviko. But in mid-thought, I give in to sleep.