So after much planning, we traveled to Tallinn, Estonia, St. Petersburg and Moscow last July. Yes, July of 2008. When I got back, I got swept up in work, school, etc., and didn't write much about the trip besides this quick summary and some travel-inspired reflections on identity. Almost a year later, I'm finally getting around to blogging the trip here.
Here's what's coming: photos of the glorious St. Petersburg, a comically harrowing account of how we almost got arrested in Moscow, notes on Russian fast food and more. I will be posting updates all week.
Let's start with Estonia. Why Estonia? I had wanted to visit one of the former Soviet Baltic countries; my parents had been to Tallinn for their honeymoon and were curious to see it again.
We spend two-and-a-half days in Tallinn, which, in hindsight, is too much. Tallinn's famous, mediaeval old city is charming and tiny. In the morning on our first day, we get lost strolling the labyrinthine streets; by that afternoon, we can traverse the old town in about 15 minutes.
The guidebooks say Tallinn is a well-preserved mediaeval city, but it reminds me of an outdoor mall. Stylish teenagers stroll around in groups; tourists drink beer in outdoor cafes; girls in faux-mediaeval costumes sell sugared almonds. The shops sell expensive knick-knacks, but I see more browsing than buying. What’s outside the old city? I guess it’s the real Tallinn where people live and work. We walk around the old town's perimeter, then take a bus ride to Kadriorg park and palace, about 20 minutes away. The park paths lead to a small beach on the Baltic sea. It’s a chilly and overcast day, but dozens of wedding parties are posing for photos.
We stop for coffee and good, cheap pastries at a bakery on the outskirts of the old city. Closer to the center, everything is expensive. What’s worth a splurge? Kuldse Notsu Kords, an Estonian restaurant that serves soups like svekolnik and entrees like this stunningly delicious potato-wild mushroom-and-cheese casserole.
Everywhere we go, I hear Russian. The guidebooks advise travelers to speak any language other than Russian in Estonia. This Baltic country was occupied by the Soviet Union for years; Estonians resent Russians, the books say. The books also tell me that 25% of Estonia’s residents are ethnic Russians. I see them everywhere—they live and vacation here, they work in shops and restaurants. When I speak English to the shop clerks, they don't understand. I switch to Russian and get what I need.
Has Tallinn changed a lot since the Soviet times? I ask my parents.
Sort of, they say. The luxury shops weren’t here before, of course. But Estonia has always been one of the least “Soviet” USSR satellites. In the 1970s, says my dad, when he went to Tallinn for the first time, he ordered coffee. It was served in a dainty cup with a little pitcher of cream on the side. This still amazes him. Had you ordered coffee in Russia at that time, you’d get a chipped glass of murky liquid!
Somewhere I read that Estonia is the most successful of the former Soviet republics. Everything here is Western: service comes with a smile, the clerks are friendly, money is easily exchanged. If this doesn’t strike you as important, keep reading about my experience with customer service in Russia.Sometimes remnants of the Soviet era seep out. A drunk Russian at the airport loudly complains about a lost suitcase. A shop clerk in the old city chases after two kid shoplifters, yelling, in Russian, “I’ll kill you, fuckers.” We get unceremoniously kicked out from the city's train station as we wait for the overnight train that will take us to Russia.
Someone barks: It’s 9 p.m., the station’s closed, go wait outside. People get up and drag their suitcases. The sun is setting and it’s getting colder. In eight hours, we’ll be in St. Petersburg.
Next: Crossing the border into Russia, an adventure.