So I borrowed this post’s title from one of my favourite Bob Dylan songs, and one of the best Quebecois idioms. Not that it really applies much to what will follow. I wasn’t cursing when I arrived in Tallinn, though it was pouring rain and I got drenched the moment I got off the pier. I didn’t get stoned either in Estonia, nor did I find Tallinn to be backwards like, you know, something from the Stone Age. (Ok,that was forcing it).
Like I said, it was raining pretty hard when I got off the ferry from Helsinki. It was wet, cold and grey. I was thrilled! This is what I thought my first visit to the Baltic’s should be like. A miserable chill to the atmosphere, suffering. Suffering, but not in vain. This is what freedom earned through perseverance, non-violence, and endured captivity must look like.
I can’t help but get historical; I was in Tallinn on a historic day. August 20, 2012 is a record setting day. It’s been twenty-one years since the restoration of independence from the Soviet Union. That’s the longest Estonia has ever been a free state. A European country, twenty-one years! They beat their previous record of twenty set back in the inter-war years, the beginning of which was when they signed a peace treaty with Russia. About that…
It’s quite remarkable really that a European state would have such little experience with independence even though they have a history going back centuries. If Poland is the battlefield of Germany and Russia, what does that make Estonia? They had to deal with those two war obsessed nations, and in earlier eras, the Nordic powers of Sweden, and Denmark, and even Poland for those who remember when they use to be an empire.
So, no kidding they jumped on NATO and the EU (although, I had a political science professor who would argue that the EU membership disqualifies sovereignty).
That’s enough of the academics.
Tallinn is a small capital city, so it’s easy to navigate based on intuition and observation. Old church steeple taller than everything else, well, that must be the old town.
I needed to get out of the rain so I ducked into what I thought was, from the outside, a café. On entering it looked more like a nightclub with a long white bar and vodka adverts everywhere. But then the waiter was dressed smartly, and was very professional in his service which would suit a fancy restaurant better. Indeed, it was a mixture of all three. I was hungry and he suggested that I order the slow cooked venison (reindeer).
I was surprised when he brought me this large rectangular plate with indented edges. In the middle of the plate was the venison meat rolled in thin slices served with a black current sauce. On the left were smoked asparagus, grilled cherry tomatoes, and three little balls of a Dijon/wasabi concoction. The right had a tiny yellow apple and some red currents. The meal was gastronomic, delicious as it was beautiful.
The experience was completely unexpected, and set the tone for what the rest of Tallinn would present to me: Unassuming, quietly brilliant, and a mixture of different influences.
The next day was cold, like 13 degrees. Dark clouds hung in the sky heavy, despite a strong wind. I went back to the old town to participate in a free walking tour. The old town is this quaint medieval town with red cobble stones, and triangular brown shingled roofs. Many tourists showed up for this cute, youthful and energetic guide. She told great stories, often told good jokes and anecdotes that were a bit cynical. A few things I took away from her:
– After China, Estonia has the most per capita atheists in the world. 16% of a population of 1.3 million believe in a god in any way, shape, or form. Reasons for this: Soviet times, sure, but their history goes further back. Remember all those conquerors? They forced their religions on the Estonians. Surprisingly, they never really held.
– When the Soviets bombed (though Yeltsin wasn’t really sure if they did when he half assed a general apology for occupying Estonia) during WWII, it was the day after international women’s day (which is a big deal in Eastern Europe). The men, as they would, celebrated hard and weren’t able to fly the bombers as scheduled for the next day. So it was women pilots who bombed Tallinn, which is why only a third of the city was destroyed.
– Russian culture can be overbearing, and Estonians bitter to that. A large population of Estonia is Russian, but their souls belong to the Swedes. Swedish banks dominate in Estonia.
– A matter of pride is that the revolutionizing software, that for one has changed the way I communicate and travel, was created and designed by Estonians: Skype. It was financed by no other than the Swedes.
– There was a competition for the most beautiful language. Who won? Who do you think? Obviously, Italian. But Estonian did come in second, and then I remembered the one Estonian word I know, terviseks. It means cheers, but it sounds like something much better.
It was a very informative, short and sweet tour. She also suggested this great little bistro under the town hall where you can get elk soup and meat pies for 1 euro, and home brewed beer for 2 euro. It’s all served in clay dishes and the setting is in a cool, large grey-stoned cellar. The girls served in their medieval dresses. Very charming. There’s just so much to like, so much value in this charming little city.
The one thing that I didn’t expect from Tallinn, especially on a national holiday, is how quiet it is. People weren’t really celebrating, there weren’t any big festivities. Maybe re-independence day conjures too many negative memories. Sure I saw people drinking in the streets, but I’m sure they were just drunk Russian tourists. I guess it’s a sleepy city, tired of going outside.
The wind finally blew the clouds away right in time for the sun to peer out for the evening. I had a vantage point on the seventh floor. By the time sunset hit around 21h, the sky over Tallinn was calm with golden yellows, soft blues, and radiant oranges. The city in a well deserved rest.