Sunday, June 07, 2009

A Yulinka Cooks travelogue: When in Tallinn. Part 1 of 6.

Last summer I went to Estonia and Russia. It was somewhat of an epic trip, a blast to the past, if you will. You see, my parents and I immigrated to the U.S. from Russia in the early 1990s. For years, we had talked about taking a big family trip to Russia. My dad and I, after all, had never been back after the move (my mom goes back on her own every four or five years).

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.


Juli said...

What a glorious post! I've got tears in my eyes thinking of Tallinn. It's changed so since I lived in the Soviet Union (before the breakup), but it's still Tallinn.

We went there on a weekend holiday once (from Leningrad/St. Petersburg) and it was sooooo luxurious, so European. The showers in the hotel were modern and clean, and that was such a change from drab, and stacks of Pravdas as toilet paper. (Yeah, the hotel had real toilet paper!)

I didn't know how badly the Estonians resented the Russians, although that was a time when they were still under Soviet control. I remember asking for ice cream (in Russian, nobody knew English at this particular restaurant), and the lady was so angry, she set the ice cream down on the table HARD. It almost flew out of the dish.

I didn't get it, but some Russian friends who lived in Tallinn explained.

That lady is the first thing I think of when I think Tallinn.

I look forward to your next installment!

adele said...

Interesting. Is it possible to get around Estonia if you only speak English (and some French)?

Mrs. M. said...

Juli--Yes, I heard that Estonians really resent Russians, but I didn't experience that during my (admittedly very brief) stay. Rather, Tallinn felt like a small German or French city where everyone happened to speak Russian.

Adele--You can get by speaking English in any of the EU countries, I think!

Lea said...

It was nice to see these pictures. I lived 2 hrs from Tallinn. Moved to America 25 years ago. Never went back to see it.

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