laupäev, märts 17, 2007

A Day in Tallinn Part I

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 ...

13 kommentaari:

space_maze ütles ...

It's strange .. I've never found Stalin's house-with-the-star particularily imposing and scary. If anything, it's just been a pleasant reminder to how pathetic the Soviet Union is in the eyes of modern Estonia. The great contribution of Stalin's era is .. one funky little ugly house, in a relatively abstract part of central town.

Anonüümne ütles ...

Such a different perspective... as a local, when walking around in Tallinn, I see more what I know has once been, or will be, and only a little of what's actually there. Example: One of the mysteries of this city is the river that went missing, first got put underground, then to non-existence. I sometimes try to follow its course - best visible/imaginable along Maakri street. Don't know if you've heard of it.

Segasumma Saara ütles ...

Pärnu maantee "road(way)". (mnt is a shortened form)

Maybe strange, but I'd even prefer that Stalin era monstrous house to some of the ugly modern architecture (I still sudder when I see the Viru Keskus from the Postimaja side).

Anonüümne ütles ...

Traffic in Estonia is my biggest concern living here. A green light at a crossing doesn't in any way give you right of way. It's merely a suggestion that if you'd like you could try cross to now. I have been a cat's whisker from becoming a pan cake on three occasions since coming here. Each time I remained standing in front of the vehicle trying to make eye contact with the driver. They always look some other direction, embarrassed because they suck so mercilessly hard at driving. I'm extra vigilant when I'm out with my daughter. I stand at least ten feet from the roadside and when we cross I'm like a human shield. It probably looks silly, but I see so many lousy drivers every day. Sometimes I see their handicraft after the fact. Just last week I observed a light post completely bent over on the side walk because some idiot ran right into it, right where people walk. As a father it also gives me ulcers to see all the teenage girls running across the street outside kaubamaja, dodging busses and cars, just to save three seconds.

Unknown ütles ...

I went to Tartu yesterday. It was a surprise how beautiful it is compared to Tallinn (where I had been on Friday). The university campuses, nice old building that are painted over. It seems kind of more sustainable than Tallinn with it's architectural development. Tallinn is just "ooh-ooh, let's put this huge glass box between those wooden buildings". Tartu is like "hmm, let's make this actually fit the rest of the street, shall we?". The only bad thing I found in Tartu is how the inside of Tartu Kaubamaja is a 1:1 copy of Viru Keskus. Really, can't they think of anything more original and a bit less ultra-modern?

Anonüümne ütles ...

Behind the wheel is the only place where we Estonians get passionate. If there was some other place where it could happen, there would be a lot more of us.

Anonüümne ütles ...

It must have been a really bad day for you. It's amazing how many negative things you've noticed - you even found the sweet, mouthwatering smell of the roasted almonds irritating...

Anonüümne ütles ...

There are quite many Stalin-era buildings in Tartu's old town (half of Raekoja plats, actually) that mix in with the early 19th century ones so that you don't even notice - but as Stalin's architecture is also known as "Socialist Classicism" this should not surprise that they blend well. There are also several Stalinist buildings in Tallinn's old town, erected to fill the holes from the war, that do not seem very out of place.

And you don't have to walk the Lastekodu street to get from the bus station to the centre - you can just as well use Juhkentali or Tartu Rd, also chosen respectively if you decide to take a bus or tram to town.

Giustino ütles ...

It must have been a really bad day for you. It's amazing how many negative things you've noticed - you even found the sweet, mouthwatering smell of the roasted almonds irritating...

I had a great day. But there's something - I don't know - there's something about the nutsellers with their costumes that makes me want to run.

It's a little too Disney for me. I think it's that they see me and they think 'tourist', so they look at me like 'come, buy some nuts' - and the thing is that I've had plenty of nuts in the past. I don't need anymore nuts.

The same thing with the ladies selling amber jewelry. I just want to wear a sign that says, "I'm not here to buy any roasted nuts, amber jewelry, or discount vodka."

Giustino ütles ...

One positive thing I noticed is that many of the wooden dwellings in central Tallinn have finally gotten a facelift. That made me happy.

Anonüümne ütles ...

Justin, you don't need a sign to say you are not a tourist, just shave your head and nobody will bother you anymore.

Then you'll be truly, to paraphrase the line from the cult flick 'Tulnukas', "eesti mees, kes elab eestimaal."

Anonüümne ütles ...

Tallinn does get a little annoying when it's overrun with tourists.

On the other hand, Tartu's Old Town is tiny and the rest of the city looks as ugly as any soulless, dilapidated suburb in the U.S.

What saves Tartu is the rural, folksy, homey feeling combined with the youthful exuberance of its students.

What may preserve Estonia is the government's policy to keep non-EU, non-educated immigrants out of the country.

It wouldn't take many Turks, North Africans, and Sub-Saharan African refugees to turn a once idyllic country into segregated ghetto with exploding crime. Just look at Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, France, Germany, Spain, the UK, and every other country that made such a mistake.

Anonüümne ütles ...

I am one of the rare natives of Tallinn whose parents and grandparents lived there. No Justin could make me nervous with his comments, no hideous Viru centre, because it is my home town (not city). As I am travelling a lot around the world, I still prefer my home town. I have seen SO many foreigners who ARE nervous, because they believe that the simpleminded Estonian students and otherwise Estonians who have no taste nor order are the rule. Meeting my family has always made SUCH foreigners (but not the others) nervous. You know what? If you came to Estonia to have the confirmation that only people like you live in this blessed land, you are bitterly mistaken. That is why even the smell of almonds drives out the rage in you. By the way, you do know, don't you, that underneath Estonians there is German aristocratic culture? Underneath only, as I said. But enough to drive you nuts, ha?