The trip to Estonia takes some time. If you fly Finnair you might get a seamless connection out of Helsinki, but most often you need to change flights, in my case at the Prague Airport.
The last time I was in the Prague Airport, prior to this trip, was in 2004 when we first moved to the United States. I recalled that they had the most excellent salami sandwiches in the cafeteria, and, sure enough, this time they were still there (fresh ones, don't worry) costing whatever amount of Czech money they did. I ate two.
I have been to Prague before and I found it a romantic city. It lies in a hazy valley along a river in the plains of central Europe. Czech women, or rather, Czech women, Polish women, Slovak women -- they all know how to draw attention to themselves. One word comes to mind: outrageous, in the way that Dan Ackroyd and Steve Martin would say it in their famous "We Are Two Wild and Crazy Guys" Saturday Night Live sketch.
I feel like Prague is an outrageous kind of town: the kind of place where you take in the outrageous sights, dinner with outrageous women with outrageously (dyed) blonde hair named Milla or Lenka. You dine on outrageously greasy Slavic food, top it off with some outrageously cheap Staropramen, and then to bed for love-making to outrageously cheesy saxophone solos. And they have good salami sandwiches.
But Estonia is not outrageous. Looking out the window it looks like the rest of Europe (and that means you too Finland). It's green with rolling hills, rednecky farms, winding roads, with pockets of broccoli-like forests in between. If you are lucky, your roof is orangey-brown, tiled, and dates back to the age of Hansa. If you are unlucky, it's drab and gray and Soviet and dates back to the 1950s.
What has always hit me when I enter Tallinn is the immediate coolness of everybody and everything. It's like taking an aspirin, and I can only compare it to getting off the bus in Oslo or Stockholm at 5 am in October. There is this silent chill, even though it is sunny and warm out.
I think the first actor that induces the decline in emotional temperature is the architecture. Everything is a) in order and b) cute. Each sign is both threateningly sterile and childish at the same time. It's like the symbol for the children's playroom at Kaubamaja. It's just a little monkey, but his expression makes us wonder if he is hiding something.
Another factor that contributes to Nordic climate control is the advertising. I would have to say that if there is one overlooked medium for expressing Estonian identity today it is its local advertising field. Every large company, from Hansapank to Estonian Air to EMT to Elion indulges the locals in calm, northern tones of light blue and gray, along with a spike of catatonic yellow or orange to spice things up.
Fluffy white clouds drift through a peaceful sky, coronating a sensitively yellow flower, and framing a blonde lady with a smile that communicates a feeling of tranquility, as opposed to outrageous happiness, holding a mobile telephone. Need I say more? Less inspired Estonian advertisers are content to just put a nice photo of a tree up with their slogan and company name. It has the same placid effect.
The actual slogans are, again, cute and sterile at the same time. In fact, the Estonian language also falls into this category. Take the word "kuuüür". It looks cute with all of its little diacritical 'ü's. But really, it just means 'monthly rent'. Usually, though, it is to the point. The ad for a trip to Oslo is a picture of a Viking ship bathed in a red bloody sunset. What does it say below? "Come to Oslo for an outrageously wild and crazy time!"? No. It says "Tallinn-Oslo". How perfect.
Some Estonian women try to dress as Czech women. In this regard they fail miserably. You might see them walking half naked down the street on the way to the bus station. But talk to them, and you'll be met with the same expression of the monkey at the mängutuba in Kaubamaja. This is a nation where you can watch a whole episode of Benny Hill and just sort of digest it, emitting a few chuckles, most likely towards the end in the vein of, "that Benny Hill, why is he riding a bike all the time? Silly person."
Though Estonia is productive its citizens -- and 115,000 stateless people -- operate in some kind of twilight between just being asleep and awake. It as if they are all sleepwalking through their jobs. They do them well, but with little fanfare. You are sent by the zesty Czech stewardesses to passport control where they treat you with all the pizzazz of rinsing the sink out after brushing their teeth. I once smiled at a Finnish passport control officer, who in turn bared his teeth at me in a painful attempt to copy my gesture. The Estonian ones wouldn't even bother reciprocating.
The changeover to Estonian temperature will continue throughout your day. You may meet a silent bus driver named Rein who listens to Estonian standards of the 1930s on his trek to Tartu and back. Or there is the train conductor Aime, who will exchange money with you while averting any direct eye contact. These are all characters in this entirely not outrageous country, where the most fiery politician looks up while he talks and plays with his hands, summoning the wisdom of Milton Friedman. They act with the same love of communication as the concierge at a hotel in Nuuk. That is not to say that they aren't polite, gregarious, and borderline warm in their dealings with you, especially if those dealings involve alcohol or, to a lesser extent, caffeine.
Some people are turned off by the "wall of ice" they meet when they come to places like Eestimaa. When I told people I was studying in Copenhagen, I was told that I was crazy and I should head to someplace like Rio. The only difference is that in Rio, the other dudes carry weapons and might beat you up for looking at their sister the wrong way. In Tallinn, as in Copenhagen, they stare at their beer and mutter to themselves. There is an atmosphere of restraint and appreciation of silence. For a New Yorker like myself who has suffered through the ups and downs of the East Village on a Saturday night, living here takes on monastic dimensions.