Nov 07

Thoughts on Estonia

by in Postcard Valet, Thoughts On..., Travel

The easiest way to get from Helsinki, Finland, to St. Petersburg, Russia, is by train.  It’s a straight shot, takes about three and a half hours.  Since St. Petersburg was our next destination, taking the train was everyone’s first suggestion.  We didn’t take the train.

We skipped a lot of Europe when we skipped from Bulgaria to Finland, and I wanted to see at least some part of it before we slipped into Russia.  Estonia, which was right across the Baltic Sea, was an easy choice.  Close, cheap, and also sharing a border with Russia.

We left Helsinki on a giant cruise ship (the word “ferry” just didn’t seem to apply) and a couple hours later, we were in Tallinn.  We spent a night and a day there, exploring the city, and loved every minute of it.

European Union

Estonia was our first border crossing within the European Union and we weren’t prepared for it.  We disembarked from the ship with a few hundred other passengers and followed them through the long and twisting corridors of the ferry terminal.  We passed through a couple glass doors and suddenly found ourselves standing next to a line of taxis.  Hey, what the heck?  Did we somehow miss immigration and customs?

Nope.  There was no immigration, no customs.  As we skipped back into the terminal to withdraw some more Euros from an ATM, I reflected on just how much more convenient life in the Union must be for the people of Europe.  Crossing from country to country didn’t seem to me to be much different than crossing from state to state in America.

Only bummer is we didn’t get any new stamps in our passports!

Castles

To be honest, Oksana and I have had it up to here with museums and churches.  At the beginning of our trip, we sought them out, but after awhile they all start to look the same.  I know that Europe has some of the best churches and museums in the world, but I didn’t miss them.  But the castles… well, now.  That’s a different story!

North America, South America, and Africa have their ruins, but none are what you would call castles.  Of all the places in the world, Europe dominates that particular architectural category.

In the middle of Tallinn, they still have parts of the original medieval walls that surrounded the city.  Inside the wall, much has changed, but they still have remnants of the original structures – turrets, churches, and the like.  Even though the city is milking every last tourist dollar out of the winding, cobblestone streets, we enjoyed walking around all afternoon.

Tallinn gave us just a tiny taste of that old European architecture, but it was enough.  I want to go back for more someday.

Living Conditions

Estonia, which was a Soviet state just twenty years ago, is by all accounts thriving today.  We could tell.

Our hotel was on the outskirts of the city and there were no restaurants around.  Around dinner time, we found ourselves walking a couple miles through darkened neighborhoods to the only open supermarket in the area.  It gave us a good chance to see how people lived (at least in the suburbs of Tallinn.)

Both Oksana and I were struck by the newer, modern architecture of the apartment buildings.  They were all angular cubes and big glass walls.  Further back from the main road, the neighborhoods took on a surprisingly American quality with houses and yards replacing apartment complexes.

Outside the capital we did see the remnants of economical Soviet living – those giant, rectangular monoliths of grey cement – but it appears as though Estonia is distancing itself from that style of construction as fast as they can.

Car Culture

This one, I’m not so sure about, but it seemed like Estonia also has a strong car culture, just like the U.S.  We did see a lot of people driving (and not in old beat up Ladas, either), but mostly it was walking the suburbs that we guessed how prevalent car ownership must be.

We were quite surprised, that first night, how far we had to walk to find any open store.  In Bulgaria, for instance, apartment complexes usually had convenience stores operating on the premises.  If not, you rarely had to walk farther than a block or two to find a store selling water, soda, candy bars and gum.

Perhaps the giant supermarket we found on the periphery of Tallinn simply put all the smaller mom and pop stores in the area out of business.  At any rate, I can only guess that anyone shopping from there would need a car to get their groceries back home.

Language

We passed a mother and her 10-year-old boy on the street as they were headed toward the local cineplex.  Oksana heard him remark excitedly, in Russian, as they walked by, “What do you think, mom?  Should we pick in movie in Estonian, Russian, or English?”

Amazing.

Consider the language influences on Estonia.  First, they have their own language, Estonian, which is probably more related to Finnish than anything else.  From World War II until the 1990s, Russian was taught concurrently in the schools, making most of the country officially bilingual with two state-sanctioned languages.  Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Estonia has gone back to officially only supporting one language, but in practice there’s a good chance that a person on the streets speaks three different languages!  With their introduction into the European Union, learning English has become much more important.

Rollerblades

I guess rollerblades are still big in Estonia.  As we walked through the park on our way to the city, we saw quite a few people out exercising their legs.  Now that I think about it, there’s probably still a large contingent of Americans who still use rollerblades every day – I’m thinking about places like the beach in Santa Monica – but in small town rural Alaska?  That fad has passed.

Baltic Weather

The weather in Tallinn is extremely fickle.  We spent one full day walking around the city and it rained on us at least half a dozen different times.  In between, lots of blue sky and puffy grey clouds scuttling by.

I would guess the cool climate and turbulent Baltic Sea have a lot to do with it.  Tallinn is probably the sort of place where you always bring an umbrella “just in case.”

The danger in commenting on the weather of Estonia, of course, is that we were only there a day and a half.  Who can say what it’s like the other 363.75 days of the year?

Customer Service

It was a chilly the morning we walked into the old city of Tallinn.  The sun was shining (between squalls), however, so there were plenty of people out in the streets.  We passed one café where a few customers were sitting outside, trying to soak in some sun on what would probably be one of the last warm days before autumn took hold.

Here’s the cool part: They were all wrapped up in blankets.  I’m not sure I would have noticed, except that in the short time it took us to walk past, we saw a waitress come out and drape one over the shoulders of a couple sitting next to each other.

I love that idea!  Besides the romantic notion of sipping a hot mocha under a blanket in the sun, it’s just good business sense to find a way to stretch the allure of outdoor dining a few more days into the colder seasons.

I’m surprised this idea hasn’t caught on in Alaska yet.  There are so many days, especially in spring and fall, when the sun’s out, but it’s just not quite warm enough to enjoy it at an outdoor café.   Someone up there should invest in some Snuggies!

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Postcard Valet is a travel blog and video podcast by Arlo and Oksana Midgett. They just returned to Juneau, Alaska, after almost three full years of travel and living abroad. Many of their stories, photos, and videos have yet to be shared...

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