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2012 Narrative Travel Writing Contest 2nd Place Winner

Tall Tales of Tallinn

Into the Wild Wild East of “Europe Minor”

Tallinn, Estonia
A photo of medieval Tallinn, Estonia by mdid.

Of course in Estonia everyone is a spy!

Ah yes, so true, and that includes the suspicious-looking mustached man over there, with the Coke-bottle specs and tan Burberry trench coat, rifling through an unread Pravda on a park bench in Medieval “Old Town” Tallinn, the newly capitalist capital of Estonia.

Saved from the ex-Soviet Union not too long ago (1991), after several decades as an unwilling partner and sullen SSR (the Russkies invaded right after World War II), the Western-leaning Estonians preferred to be electromagnetically neutral like their nearby northern Finnish cousins.

In fact, the “Cold War” here was fought not so much with propaganda but with penicillin.

Still, way up yonder in the Wild Wild East of “Europe Minor,” a strange new ultra-capitalist “market economy” involving unregulated capitalism, resembling in some ways the unofficial  “black market” of the glory days of Stalinist-style totalitarianism, is poised to perform at least as well as fellow EU partners and bailout grubbers Greece, Portugal, and Ireland. But almost nobody is sure what the Estonians have to sell—yet.

But the eternal conundrum of “nothing much really in the shops” hasn’t stopped a veritable hydroelectric dam burst of new tourists and entrepreneurs from flooding the city. “After all there is money to be made here,” confirmed a cocky backpacker from, of all places, “Belarus”! (Until I met him, I was sure Belarus was an imaginary kingdom whose very existence was unconfirmed, since no one has in fact ever been there: have you?) Also, I met a lot of guest-worker-visitors from the “Stans,” apparently still more comfortable with Marx than Mohammed.

However, as one of the proud and the few American transplants in Tallinn, here not only to witness the changes but to help out, practicing proprioception in time and space, Rockports repetitively flapping on the cobblestones, with a vague magazine-article assignment “on spec” since I was considered only a “stringer,” I was keen on getting the skinny on a city that looks like it hasn’t changed much in the last several centuries.

A unique form of “voluntourism,” my work as a largely unpaid stringer, rather than an established journalist demanding standard rates per column inch, I found to be a fantastic way to throw myself into a mesmerizing foreign culture and meet the mostly congenial populace, with the hidden agenda of stealing a few good quotes. At least, I wanted to dig up enough funereal dirt on the unique mores and memories of its over 400,000 inhabitants to (maybe) claim a “kill fee.”

* * *

One thing about AWOL capitalism, it ushers in both the best and worst of globalization gone amok, including the wrong world music: how many times must I listen to that repetitive maudlin pop song “The Rhythm Is a Dancer” before the deejay is arrested abruptly for outright treason? But at a “private club” (a mostly Estonian affair unless you have local friends), which masquerades as a glitzy red-carpet nightclub, I thrilled when I saw a fabulously beautiful Scandinavian model with high cheekbones, er, eating with a knife and fork an imported banana!—a sure sign of “luxus” in a nation far from the CIA-sponsored fruit republics of Central America. I wondered with a laugh if it was Chiquita or Dole?

* * *

One day I decided to depart the remote YHA Hostel inconveniently located several bus switches away in a residential area rife with trees that resembled Camden, New Jersey, but with strange signage. So startled was the tall manager that I actually wanted to leave, he confided with an acid whisper, sotto voce, “In the city right now there are many ‘Asians.’”

He evidently meant “Middle Easterners.”

And when I checked into my new one-dollar flophouse in the centrum, I met some of them.

Two obvious Arabs, who for my benefit pretended to be “Italians” when they found out I was American, did indeed look like swarthy terrorists, and maybe they were?

       “We are from Roma,” one of them said suavely (also a term for “Gypsy” in these parts).

       “You know, yesterday some scaffolding in the Old Town fell on a man and killed him dead,” the other, a dead ringer for Ali Baba without the djellaba, added apocrophally. “I looked, and like that! He was dead!”

       “Ah, sorry, but I really have to go,” I managed, anxious to get away and sightsee.

       “Ah-so, jah, jah, then, as we say in Italy, ‘Ciao, bello!’”

       “Bye!” I was out the door and onto the cobbles like winged Mercury delivering a Fedex parcel.

Now I’m not that big on “sightseeing” other than drinking in the atmosphere over a café machiatto: I don’t last long in museums and always feel like punching docents. I however am never unmoved by great architecture, especially by Tallinn’s unique Gothic and Baroque churches, pastel facades, and heroic statuary, all of which evidence a 14th-century Teutonic Knights touch seemingly more German than Germany.

This, after all, was an integral port of the legendary Hanseatic League. Verily Viking Central. Tallinn’s Town Hall Square (“Raekoja Plats” in Estonian) and its surrounding historic district (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) is like a little “Prague” or “Krakow,” except without all the tour buses and trite buskers. My favorite sights included ... but wait, how did I get here?

* * *

Arriving from Helsinki a while back aboard the ferryboat Albatross (an omen of bad luck in these parts), with a copy of The Sagas in my backpack, I felt like a cold-eyed Viking prow crossing the blue water bile of the Baltic. I was a proud Wagnerian Norseman riding like a Valkerie through the “Ring of the Niebelungen” (whatever that is). The magical port of Tallinn twinkled like a colorized destination in a Tintin comic in the sunlight.

I was ready.

On dry land, I hiked up into the city proper with my Lonely Planet guide open to a map, dry skunk mouth rasping for moisture, thus wending my way through the Viru Gate into the Old Town toward a much-needed mug of prize-winning microbrew at the prosaically named “Beer House” (Dunkri Tanar 5 Old Town, tel: 627-6520).

I was in no hurry to find a hotel, having stupidly made reservations, alas, at the YHA (rather than one of the wonderful “old world” luxury hotels), located far from the action. Nah, I’d catch a cab later, when the spell of arrival had worn off. Especially when I was staring up at northern Europe’s oldest surviving Gothic Town Hall, dating back to the 15th century, with its whimsical guardian named “Old Thomas” perched like a persnickety pigeon on the weathervane.

Divided roughly for unsophisticated ogs into the Upper Town, with its landmark Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevski Cathedral (built 1894 to 1900), and the Lower Town, with its former world’s-tallest-building St. Olaf’s Church (built 1549 to 1625), Tallinn is not the place to commit blasphemy or misplace blame.

Still, I said the equivalent of “Oh, shikes!” when I ducked under the ribcage of St. Catherine’s Passage, along with hundreds of other pilgrims.

But the most impressive edifice for me was away up on Toompea Hill: the 13th-century “Toomkirik” (Dome Church), the oldest church in all of Estonia. On this same hill, the “German Order of the Knights of the Sword” built a fort in the 14th century near the burial mound of Estonia’s mythical first king, Kalev, perhaps as a warning about who was now in charge.

But signs of modernity, too, are worth mulling over in this dizzying demesnes. For example, I was surprised that both Skype and Ericcson have headquarters here, and no less an authority than the The New York Times named Tallinn the new “Silicon Valley of the North.”

 * * *

I hope I don’t sound precious when I reiterate that “ethnic” Estonians seemed like magical otherworldly beings to me. They would cluck endlessly like canny aliens at revivified kaffes in their “secret” Finno-Ugric tongue “Estii”—related to Finnish, Hungarian, possibly Turkish, and not much else. Unfortunately, I could tell some of them were talking about me. However, mostly they harped about the still-resented Russian occupiers, wondering when they were finally going to leave—if ever.

Why would any Russian emigré ever want to leave this Baltic paradise with nice beaches and empty islands reminiscent of  “The Vineyard,” a kind of proletariat Club Med, when the alternative was to return to Medvedev?

And that was when I met the “colonist” from St. Petersburg, Vladimir. He was arranging a display table outside his shop with a Cyrillic sign and not much else, when I stopped by to take a look-see.

“Welcome! Call me Vlad!” he greeted me like expensive Caspian caviar, which in fact he sold: Beluga and Sevruga, apparently well past their expiration dates. Like many Russians who stayed, this admitted ex-KGB character refused gainful employment slaving in an Estonian company, “Da, da, da!”  But only in order to be an “entrepreneur” catering to the increasing trickle of tourists still interested in Communist kitsch and totalitarian tchochkas: Lenin pins, Soviet champagne from Georgia, “peasant” Matryushka dolls, pieces of the Berlin Wall. . .

“I don’t make much money, but maybe you buy something,” Vlad coaxed with reptilian mirth.

Easily duped, I did buy something: a small nugget of amber resembling a piece of rock candy dropped into Charlie Brown’s Halloween bag. It looked delicious, like caramel!

“Here, buy these too—cheap!” Vlad pushed.  He grabbed a handful of what looked like rounded kernels of unpopped popcorn—same color, same texture. “Ha, ha, these ambers just wash up on the shore on Estonia’s beaches anyway!”

Which gave me an idea: a lightbulb materialized in a cartoon bubble over my head: I would go to the beach!

But when I got there, aha! The beach was completely empty.

What’s more, the pale sky looked moribund, filled with the promise of downpour, the clouds the color of colostomy bags. I removed my shoes and waded out into the water, which was way too cold to swim in. Like an anonymous watercolor, Estonia was surely beyond our wildest dreams, but not our budgets.

Yet scouring the beach for free amber, I found only one piece—no, that was sea glass. I had been had by Vlad. He had probably been here before me and taken it all away. Over 80 percent of the world’s amber comes from the Baltic, but I guess I was just unlucky enough to not find any.

“Amber,” I was surprised to learn later from a Google search, if you’ll excuse my ignorance, was not, as I mistakenly thought, a semi-precious gemstone at all, but an Eocene-age 60-million-year-old fossilized effluvia (resin) from sap-bearing trees, mostly conifers and angiosperms. Amazing to behold, many pieces of translucent amber (also known succinctly by scientists as “succinite”) have literally trapped in time prehistoric insects and leaves, thus providing an alchemical mirror into Edgar Rice Burroughs’s The Lost World.

Standing solo at the water’s edge, dreaming of mermaids on the edges of “Age of Exploration” mappa mundi, I felt like the lonely protagonist of Richard Matheson’s apocalyptic novel I Am Legend (also a lame film starring Hollwood fresh prince and lawn jockey Will Smith), about, no less, the “Last Man on Earth.”


Sitting at an al fresco restaurant (that’s Italian for “outdoors”) whose name I can’t locate in any guidebook, but which is within view of the stately Canadian Embassy, I met a group of merry Americans who turned out to be low-level diplomats. Unlike travel snobs who sneer at fellow Americans abroad, I was awful glad to meet them.

“I bet they would hire you at the Canadian Embassy over there, even though you are American,” Pat, the elegant leggy consolate staffer, egged me on, before abruptly interrupting herself. “Uh-oh, oh-no, we’ve got company. . . .”

I looked around and spotted an obvious “snitch,” sporting secret-agent sunnies, obviously listening in to our conversation, standing by the entrance like a Beefeater.

Which was exactly what we were doing: eating beef. (Estonian moo is excellent, even though EU regulators criticize the quality of the cuts). My filet, shaped like a beveled doorstopper, was juicy and rare.

All of a sudden a swarm of angry bees landed on my beer bottle, and before you know it I had absentmindedly taken a sip of suds and swallowed one, who had on the way down savagely stung my tongue.

       “Ugh, my thung is thwollen!”

       “What what?!” Jack, a young diplomat vaguely resembling Matt Damon from the Bourne films, managed. “What’s wrong?!”

       “A bee thtung my thung!!!”


Using the yuck WC at a dive bar near the harbor, featuring rolled-up rubles instead of TP, the grim Bolshevik manager arrived and began yelling at me, until I said, “Pozhalusta” (Russian for “Please”). After that it was all smiles. He even patted me like a hororshow comrade on the back. I was becoming expert at defusing potentially charged political “sitches.”

Back outside I heard yet another American voice and instinctively searched it out.

       “Don’t tell me you’re in the mafia!” the American bruited vehemently, with real venom, when I sat myself down uninvited.

       “No, no, I’m just a tourist!” I said.

The collegiate-looking American then introduced me to his Swedish colleague, Per, who cheered me, “Skol!” Both of them were crackerjack  journalists with an unimaginably sophomore English-language newspaper lamely called “The Tallinn Post” or “The Tallinn Times” or something along those lines. I had already read an issue with some anger concerning all the typos. But these eager expats were just starting out, so I decided not to be too critical.

       “It is, a, so exciting here, a, with, all, a, the changes,” Per swooned in singsong, sounding for all the world, as all Scandinavians inevitably do, like the Swedish Chef from The Muppets. “Firstaburdawurdafurda!”

       “Yes, there are very few American tourists here right now, so you must feel a little like a celebrity.”

       “Yes, I mean no, not really,” I wavered uncertainly. I was feeling a little woozy.

Blotto on cheap “wodka” and caught in an existentialist funk resembling brainwashing, I let the two foreign journalists, who, after all, maybe were just “pretending” to be foreign journalists, cart me off in their loud Lada car as if I were The Manchurian Candidate ready for my mission. Abruptly, they stopped the Russian-made monstrosity and let the engine idle, pointing out the window at what they said was the local Freemason temple: a small neo-Greek Revival house with three Doric columns, which resembled a Main Street bank or a Deep South frat house.

“We have to be sure,” the American said cryptically under his breath to the Swede, who silently nodded his assent. Eventually, I threw up in the car, so they dumped me at my 1-dollar hotel in the centrum and left me holding a Hefty bag of heave. We approximated, I think, a “secret handshake,” and then they motored off in obvious need of a new muffler and a few more phonecalls home to their parents.

* * *

As I approached the much-anticipated finale of this essayistic excursion into the so-called New Europe—or, better yet, “Europe Minor”—I can’t help but deem the piece more suited to a glossy consumer mag such as Condé Nast Traveler or a sophisticated online such as The Smart Set, rather than a business pub nobody really reads except for stock quotes. I wondered if the piece was a tad too long; maybe my readers would feel a little bit miffed? I mean, what’s this? “I thought this article was supposed to be about Baltic amber?!” the ornery editor at the financial rag raged to me over the phone.

“But I promise you, it is.”

Before I at last left Tallinn, to secure my theme, I purchased a pair of (cheap, cheap, cheap) amber earrings as a stocking stuffer for my girlfriend in New York at a former Intourist shop, which hadn’t bothered completely whitewashing the palimpsest of the old obsolete sign—much like amber transfixes us with time-lapsed images frozen from eons ago.

Hence, I boarded the slow train belching a maelstrom of smoke and bolted back in time like relativity for the Latvian capital Riga, wildly waving arriverderci...

Note: For another contest-winning entry from John Edwards on Transitions Abroad, see Beirut in the Baltics: Into the Wild Wild East of "Europe Minor".


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