Is it boring to read someone gush about a country? Are you suspicious that there might be unstated reasons for the gushing? I don’t trust anyone who gushes about Sweden at face value. There has to be something involved, a “Camilla”, say, or an obsession with priest cheese (really, you’ve got to try it), but I am gushing about Estonia, and while I do know three Estonian girls, they all moved away long ago and this isn’t about them. Also, Estonia is flat, and flatness is associated with boredom. The highest mountain (in all of the Baltics) is only 318 meters (1043 feet) but Estonia is an alluring Denmark flat (undulating land), not a harsh Netherlands flat (laser-sharp lines.)
Part of the reason I love Estonia is due to my timing. Just like my visit to Bulgaria last year, it was just out of the clearly delineated “season”: warm, few people, off-peak prices, and altogether perfect. For the beach town of Parnu, especially, there is a rigid notion of when the season is—usually school holidays—with little flexibility. It could be snowing on June 1, but if that’s when the season starts, then all of the shops will be open. If it’s a balmy 24C a few days before June 1 with a few hundred people along the beach looking for food or drink, only one or two bars are open. If I came back to Parnu one week later, I might hardly recognize it through the bustle.
Not Much of a Border Story:
At the beautiful Russia/Estonia border, Ivangorod and Narva Forts face each other with a small, meandering river and its grassy, green banks separating them. On the Russian side I tried not to laugh as a stout woman pored over my passport gravely, inspecting the added pages, and running her hand over the binding. I always have to suppress giggling when officialdom sees my passport—I would make an awful smuggler—because it is as if in this moment my traveling has to make sense to someone, and it’s absurd. In my twenties and thirties I got asked a lot about my job, how much money I had, my intentions, etc., but these days, hardly at all.
She was checking the stamps page by page until she got fed up and reached for her phone, but after a while of fiddling with it she went for the walkie talkie. Something was said. She waited. The time dragged on; I made a point of not making eye contact with the the people behind me in line. Just when I thought I might be in for an interrogation, in her impatience she grabbed her rubber stamp and made a very good impression on the page with the other Russian stamp so the next border control agent can have an easier time trying to decipher it all.
See? Told you it wasn’t much of a story. Same with the next one.
In the excitement of being in a new-feeling country, I did the normal thing of first checking out a supermarket. So much can be learned from a country by its supermarkets. I saw this refrigerated strawberry thick paste/cream thing (above) and was flummoxed. I approached an older woman and just as I started to ask, I caught myself too late: older people in Estonia are much less likely to speak English, I’d read. However, it was as if this erudite woman speaking the Queen’s English hangs out all day in the refrigerated aisle waiting to educate bewildered foreigners about Estonian dairy products.
“I don’t know if you are able to imagine,” she started in a slow, suspenseful tone, pausing long for effect while I wondered about the effects of aging in isolation, “but this is something very common in the Baltic countries. Perhaps you might be familiar with something similar in Germany called quark—”
“Quark!” I almost shrieked, afraid that I might be stuck in the store for hours, “Yes, I know quark, I understand,” and profusely thanked her and bowed while walking backwards, which I learned from the pros, the Japanese.
Maasika kohupiimapasta is delicious stuff. Tastes like quark.
Maybe being in big cities for the last three weeks made me open to something different, or was it the weather? That new car smell because it has been 20 years since I was last in Estonia? Whatever the reason, Tartu struck me as gorgeous with its big leafy trees, overflowing greenery in parks, a lovely river, young vibe due to it being a college town, even a little Cuban shack bar by the river adds to its character. I was immediately enchanted by all the old wooden homes, not spruced up, but lived in. Tartu is cozy.
Parnu on the coast might even be more impressive given the summer crush of people: perfectly laid out, each park idyllic, everything just the right size, the beach has nice facilities, there’s plenty of beach volleyball courts; I saw a yoga group, a sports camp for young girls, and at least three different tennis clubs nearby.
Another reason I enjoy Estonia so much is that it feels I am visiting in a special era, that it’s all going to change soon. I think years from now Estonians will become all nostalgic when I tell them I visited in 2016. “2016,” they will say, with a faraway look in their eye and a heavy, “We were young then.” (Israelis always get like that when I say I visited in 1992.) Parnu looked familiar, like a less-developed Jurmala, Latvia, where I was last fall. Change feels inevitable.
From my last visit in Estonia twenty years ago I remember only a few things: there were two main places to sleep: upstairs at the bus station (noisy) or the youth hostel that shared the same front door as a strip club. You walked in, and the right arrow was for the hostel, and the left, a strip club. Some travelers who seemed to ordinarily have an excellent sense of direction found themselves lost night after night.
Also 20 years ago I found the worst toilet I have ever seen in my life at the border to Russia in Narva. This time my bus into Estonia also made a ten-minute stop at Narva, and I leapt out to investigate, but the old toilet doesn’t exist any more. Kind of devastated, I have to admit. Progress?
I met Julie from Connecticut in Tallinn and we had a chat. She said she has been reading my blog for four years. The lesson is if I’m passing through wherever you happen to be, don’t be shy about reaching out. I like meeting people. When Julie emerges from her intensive psychotherapy I bet she’d agree.
I’m using Airbnb a lot. It’s addicting to be able to find a single room for the same price as a dorm bed. What I often do is only book one night and then ask the host how much it would be if you can pay directly for subsequent nights. Airbnb is taking cuts from both ends, so they will always agree to this and it is always significantly cheaper. It could backfire if the host has a booking for the next night. This happened in Tallinn but my host agreed anyway, giving me his room and sleeping on the couch.
There are several bus companies in Estonia and prices are low; hitchhiking should be done for fun, not to save just a few euros. Lux Express is spreading out its tentacles beyond the Baltics now. Booking is cheaper online. Parnu to Tallinn was almost two hours and only five euros.
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