Jumping All In to Tallinn

xeno n. The smallest measurement unit of human connection, typically exchanges between passing strangers- a flirtatious glance, a sympathetic nod, a shared laugh about some odd coincidence; Moments that are fleeting and random but still contain powerful emotional nutrients that can alleviate symptoms of feeling alone.

As beautiful as Stockholm was, it was still tainted with the sad loneliness of goodbye and thus I was glad to be moving on.  For one thing so I could afford to eat something besides pasta, granola, strawberries, and some Tesco’s finest peanut butter I had brought with me from the UK, all of which had literally sustained me for three straight days.  Unfortunately, leaving meant I had to be up 4:45am to catch an early ferry across the Baltic.    You know how some things sound bad in the beginning but then end up not being as bad as you expect them to be?  Well my 4:45am morning was not one of those things.  It was just as awful as you would assume 4:45am would be.  So in my sleep dazed stupor, I threw on Nellie, choked down a bit of the shitty free hostel coffee, and was on my way.  The walk to the ferry port took me around 45 minutes and I showed up at 6am for my 7am ferry, as the receptionist at my hostel had suggested I get there an hour early. Turns out, I did not need to be there an hour early.  She lied to me.  I could have gotten an entire extra hour of sleep, which was a thought that miserably ran through my head on repeat as I sat there for an hour waiting to board. 

Boarding finally opened and I lugged my massive amount of stuff onto the Baltic Princess for what would be an eleven-hour journey across the Baltic.  A fun fact I recently learned before boarding: In 1994, the MS Estonia, and its namesake’s most prized ship, sank in the middle of the night doing the very crossing I was about to go on.  In the end, it cost 852 lives making it the deadliest shipwreck disaster in the Baltic Sea in peacetime.  I think the lesson in all that is to never be too proud of a ship (yes I’m referring to you Ms. “unsinkable” Titanic).  I could only hope the Baltic Princess wasn’t actually regarded as royally. Spoiler alert: We did not sink.

The ferry was far fancier than anything I had imagined, actually resembling more of a cruise ship than the mental image that I associated with a ferry.   With over eight levels, several bars, a children’s area (complete with a ball pit), and an arcade, I figured I would be able to keep myself entertained… at least until I discovered that prices on sea weren’t any cheaper than those on land.  13€ shitty lunch buffet?  I’ll stick to peanut butter and strawberries, thanks very much.  Instead, I settled down at a nice window table near the deck doors and opened up my computer, alternating between going through photos, screwing around on the internet, and writing.  I was very nearly caught up on my blog at this point, but naturally, I had only my “Goodbye Oxford” post left, which I knew was going to be a struggle to write.  And struggle I did.  It took nearly the entire ride to finally finish the post because I could only write bits at a time before simply getting too sad or frustrated and restlessly storming out on deck where I could let the icy Baltic winds take any tears I had bubbling on the surface out to the sparkling blue waters.  Even inside, I got weepy at points, but I also didn’t really care if passing people gave me judgmental looks.   I have chosen to surrender my dignity when I travel because dignity weighs a lot and trust me, my pack weights enough as it is.

It was during one of these weepy points when I met a fellow American traveler who later sat and chatted with me.  I found out his name was Joel, an American photographer who traveled for about six months every year.  “Wow, that’s living the dream,” I told him, seeing the very incarnation of something along the lines of what I wanted to do.  “It is, but it also gets pretty exhausting being away from home for so long,” he replied.  A few months ago, I would have scoffed at that notion, but now, I could see where he was coming from, which was an unsettling feeling.  It’s always concerning when you find the flaws in the things you love, but finding flaws and difficulties doesn’t mean you should abandon them.  Make no mistake, travel writing is still what I aim to do with my life, but I’ll also appreciate those periods of being home.

Finally, after eleven long hours, I was in Finland. Yes, that’s right, Finland, not England.  “Finland, Finland, Finland! That’s the country for me!” Or so I would sing if I felt the same way.  In truth, I was a bit unimpressed with Finland, which was especially disappointing for me considering I have Finnish heritage and I spent a lot of mornings at my great grandfather Pa’s house hearing,   “It’s that Finnish blood.  That’s why she loves fishing so much.  And why she’s got such boats for feet.”  And now you know why  I am the way I am.  You had to have thick skin to survive even the smallest Kinman family gathering.

Unfortunately my long day of travel wasn’t over yet.  You see, ferries from Sweden to Finland don’t run all the way to Helsinki, but instead stop at Turku.  If you’ve never heard of Turku, it’s probably because you’ve never taken a ferry and that seems to be the only purpose of the city.  My destination was Helsinki and to get there I had to get on a two hour train.  Much to my pleasant surprise, the train was waiting directly across the road from the ferry port.  However, since when booking tickets I had assumed the train would only depart from the central train station, I had booked a train not set to leave for another two hours to give myself time to get into town.  Getting on this one was unlikely but ideal and since I didn’t really have much to lose, I went up to conductor, showed him my ticket, and asked if I could get on this one instead, and by ask, I mean used a series of simple words paired with a lot of pointing between me, my ticket, and the train.  Finally, he seemed to get it and motioned for me to get on the train.  Thank God for Finnish indifference. 

The train ride was actually quite pleasant, as miles of beautiful Finnish landscape rolled by the dusk that I knew would last for another six hours or so.  Here, I was even farther north so I would have been surprised if it even got totally dark at any point in the night.  Not that I would be there long enough to find out.  In fact, I would only be in Finland for one night and my plan was to get out as quickly as possible, mainly because like its Baltic rival, everything was ridiculously expensive.  Even the cheapest accommodation I could find, Cheap Sleep Helsinki, was costing me over 20 for the one night I was there.  When the train arrived in Helsinki, just after 10pm, I trekked about three miles (thankful it was still so light out) to my hostel, where I crawled into bed and mentally prepared myself for yet another ferry ride the next day.

The next morning, I was up and out of the hostel as fast as I had come in and off to explore a bit of Helsinki before leaving it.  Luckily (or unluckily I guess) my hostel was on the very north edge of center city Helsinki and the ferry port was in the south, meaning I would have to see a great deal of Helsinki anyway to even get to my ferry.  I spent the next four hours, slowly making my way the seven miles through the city, which was not nearly as exciting as I had hoped.  Aside from Helsinki being rather dull on the whole save for a few nice parks and churches, those seven miles felt like seventy with my pack on  While I had become conditioned to the weight of my pack by the end of my last traveling stint, two months of sitting on my butt, writing papers and eating peanut butter straight out of the jar as a word count reward had virtually erased all that progress and I was starting at ground zero again.  By the time I could set it down on the ferry, I was quite certain my collarbones would be blackened and indented. 

This ferry was thankfully much shorter than the last one and a few episodes of Archer later, I was standing in Tallinn, Estonia.  Even better, the ferry port was quite close to the Old Town where I would be staying and less than a half hour later, I was settled into the Alur Hostel, my home for the next four nights.  From the minute I stepped into cozy, cave-like atmosphere of the hostel common area, I knew I was going to like it there.  If you do any amount of low budget travel, particularly solo, you will quickly find that hostels widely vary on the type of interactions they breed.  Some hostels are very solemn and bleak, existing for no other real purpose than to give you a bed at night.  Some hostels, on the other hand, can be a fun part of the experience of a city itself.  Those hostels just offer a vibe and environment that makes it really easy to connect with other travelers.  This hostel was one of the latter.  During my four night stay, I met a host of new friends, including an Australian guy named James that I ended up going out to the bar with and talking about anime for quite a long time (interestingly enough, as travelers we are not ashamed of watching anime and people are a lot more willing to fess up to it when you know you probably won’t see somebody again) on my second night there and a wonderful rag tag group made up of two Canadians, Christale and Trampis, and a Irish guy, Dario, but more on them later.

On my first night in the city, I decided to wander around a bit at dusk just to get a feel for what I might be able to do the following days.  After spending a couple hours wandering around the beautifully quaint streets of Tallinn’s Old Town, I eventually found a lookout point located in upper Old Town that, as the name might imply, offered a beautiful view of the lower Old Town stretching out until the orange terra cotta rooftops faded into normal city that eventually faded itself into a mass of forest.  All of this, of course, was framed by the bright blue Baltic waters sparkling in the not too distant distance.  Tallinn seamed to possess a little bit of everything.  I sat there on the stone wall of the lookout platform beneath a grafittied bit of wall that appropriately read, “The times we had” and read until the sun sank from the sky and brought a chill with it.  It weird to think how chilly it actually is here for near July, even weirder to think that Montana is currently way hotter than it is here, though I suppose it is facing a much hotter year than usual.

The next day was my day to explore the city, primarily the Old Town.  Old Towns are generally quite small and while the Tallinn one wasn’t really an exception to that rule, it was endlessly fascinating.  Between its quaint little buildings lining the maze-like cobblestone streets and funky little shops selling everything from nesting dolls to Baltic Amber stones (I felt like a celebrity there), there was always something to see.  Around lunchtime, I even stumbled into a traditional medieval pub just off the side of the town square.  Inside, you could choose to eat either elk pie or a limited selection of pies and either beer, cider, or wine to go with it.  I paid exactly 1€ for my cabbage pie and sat down next to the window and proceeded to read by candlelight (as no electrical lighting was used in the place) for the next few hours while it rained outside.    The fact that I had recently finally decided to undertake reading the A Song of Ice and Fire series, better known as the books behind Game of Thrones, just enhanced the atmosphere even more.  They say the air of Estonia makes you free- granted the saying comes from an ancient law that if a slave escaped their master and managed ot live in lower Estonia for 1 year and 1 day without being caught then they were free- but as I discovered hidden gem upon hidden gem, I found truth in it, too.

Making breakfast the following day was when I met Christale, Trampis, and Dario.  Instantly gravitating toward them because they sounded quite American (Canada I found out but whatever, close enough).  We started talking a bit and I found out they were hitchhiking across Europe and had ended up in Tallinn quite by accident.  As a result, their plan was to leave that day and try to make it back to Lithuania, their original destination.  But after I told them my plans for the day to walk down to Pirita beach, about 10km outside of Old Town, they were tempted to stay and after double checking to make sure the hostel had room for them one extra night, they decided to and so we set out on a long but pleasant trek to the beach.  A walk that would have taken me just over an hour took us over two, but that’s because we weren’t in a hurry.  We were just enjoying the walk along the shore talking and getting to know each other.  I was quite glad to have company once again.  Other people serve as a nice distraction from thinking about Oxford, which still takes up a large portion of my thoughts.  Those feelings of loneliness are getting better, but they’re still there, just below the surface that solitude scratches away.  It’s not even the verbal interaction that is important.  Often times, we walked along the shore in complete silence, lost in our own thoughts.  Even once we reached the beach, we all laid on the soft sand, soaking in the warmth of the sun’s rays, each reading our own book.  For near two hours, we hardly spoke.  But the very presence of mutual friends is reassuring, comforting.  Whlie the beach was beautiful and peaceful, our hunger eventually drove us to start the 10km trek back.

Despite how shattered we were by the time we returned to the hostel and ate dinner, there was an event the hostel receptionist had told us about happening that night that we intended on checking out.  Apparently, an old abandoned Polymer factory about 30 minutes walk away had been repurposed by a group of young people and transformed into a cultural hangout that they held events at every once in a while.  Tonight was one of those events, and so, at 10pm we set off into an unknown area of Tallinn city itself.  After passing a random bachelorette party on the sidewalk that offered us shots of Jaeger as we passed by (none for me thanks, I had my fill of Jaeger at Oxford), we made into a slightly sketchy and quiet district of the city.  Had it not been for the receptionist’s specific instructions on what the factory looked like, we would have never found it.  On the outside, it looked like nothing, a rusted old building with utterly nothing going on inside.  However, once we squeezed through the chained together gate, the factory opened up and we could hear music from the upper floor.  Now I know what you’re thinking.  A chained gate and a creep old abandoned factory in the middle of nowhere Tallinn?  Danger, danger!  But the thing with me is, telling me something is dangerous is the surest way to get to me to do it. 

And so I waltzed into the abandoned factory, up flights of stairs lined with beautiful graffiti and murals until we found the center of excitement, a small little room lit in psychedelic colors with the most random assortment of pagan decorations and charms.  We had arrived just in time for a traditional Estonian dance lesson.  We gathered in a circle and for the next 40 minutes, learned this crazy little group dance during which I learned two things: 1) Estonians really like spinning around in circles, and 2) I was really out of shape.  By the time we finished and went out on the balcony for the next part of the evening, I was sweating.  But the cool night air took that away pretty fast and pretty soon, a six man band of drums, clarinets, and saxophones made their way out onto the balcony to perform for us.  Their name was the Baltistani Orchestra and man, were they amazing.  While the instruments were some I was familiar, the sounds they were having them make were not.  It was a wonderful hurdy gurdy mix of upbeat folk music and at times I couldn’t decide whether I was more entertained by the music itself, or the crazy way some of the locals were dancing to it.  You know how they say, “Dance like no one is watching”? Well, these Estonian people have that down to a tee.  By the time we finally pulled ourselves away from this amazing group of Estonian hippies, it was 2am, though looking at the still light sky, you could never tell.  And that was what I called a genuine cultural experience.  It was far from the typical tourist event and arguably going to this sketchy factory was a little dumb but by going out on a limb, we ended up having a once-in-a-lifetime Estonian experience that I’m sure none of us would soon forget. 

With one full day left in Tallinn and my new friends hitting the road with thumbs out in an effort to get to Vilnius, I decided to try to learn something about the city and took a free walking tour of the city.  The tour began with an Estonian history lesson, covering the 11,000 years after people first settled in the country, which sounds a lot more daunting than it actually was considering nothing really happened for the first 10,000 of those.  And even since then, Estonian was never really much of a major player in any of the world’s events.  Rather than fight, Estonia has always adapted more of a non-conflict attitude and thus would generally just surrender to whatever country was currently knocking at its gates.  I mean come on, it’s parliament building is pink- sorry, “manly salmon” (what, because pink can’t be manly? I don’t appreciate your gender normativity, Estonia).  As a result of this non-conflict attitude, Estonia changed hands a lot, from the Swedish to the Germans to the Soviets, all several times.  Their motto through all this, “Well, it could have been worse.”  As of now, Estonia is in the midst of their longest stint of independence in history, a whole 24 years since their last gain of independence in 1991, which was remarkably achieved by no causalities.  Estonia is probably one of the few countries to ever be able to boast that.  This is primarily due to the fact that Estonia may be rather pacifist, but it is also very good at using circumstance to their advantage.  During the Russian Revolution, for instance, everyone understandably started to ignore Estonia and they used that as the perfect opportunity to just sidle their way to independence.

Then with our tour guide Helli, a fun and spunky little Estonian girl with an arsenal of punny jokes that I absolutely loved, I spent the next two hours walking around the very streets I had wandered two days ago, this time assigning some meaning to what I was seeing.  I learned that the medieval tower in Tallinn is actually a site of an old dirty joke.  During Ivan the Terrible’s reign in Russia, both Russia and Sweden were vying for control over Estonia.  Considering Russia’s ruler was named Ivan the Terrible, Estonia made the very difficult decision to open up their gates to Sweden instead.  After Ivan’s downfall, they found some old Russian cannonballs that had been fired at the city and mounted them on te side of the tower next to some of their own.  As Russia’s cannonballs were quite small in size, they of course became an innuendo’s for the size of Ivan’s balls.   They are almost as proud of that joke as they are of their wall, ironically nicknamed the Wall of Sorrow.  It is considered the best preserved medieval wall in the world and bolstered by that confidence, Estonia even submitted it to the Seven Wonders of the World exhibition.  Too bad their competition was the Great Wall of China.

Churches in Estonia are interesting considering the country is far from religious.  The churches, in fact, are not particularly used as such, considering Estonia, being one of the last pagan countries to be influenced by Christianity, is one of the least religious countries in the world, with only about 15% of its population aligning with any organized religion and only up to 30% claiming any sort of spirituality.  Their churches, as such, are used for other things, mostly museums today.  Fun fact: After the Soviet Union took control of Estonia for a while, Estonia went to them and requested they fund a rebuild of Tallinn’s major church that was destroyed during the war.  Obviously, Soviet Russia wasn’t going to endorse any sort of religious institution but Estonians themselves only wanted it rebuilt for its architectural value and thus proposed a variety of other uses for the building if the Soviet Union agreed to rebuilt it.  They rejected all suggestions until someone sarcastically proposed a museum of atheism.  And you know what?  Soviet Russia agreed to that one (shock).  To clarify, it is no longer a museum of atheism. 

In addition to learning about the city, I learned a great deal about the people of Estonia, for instance how they don’t particularly like chit chat and generally keep a pessimistically low level of expectation.  In Helli’s words, “If you don’t expect anything, you might be surprised,” which is a motto I have lived by for years.  So all in all, between the Estonia’s cynical lack of expectation, introverted nature, and belief that wifi is a basic human right (seriously it was so easy to get free wifi), I felt the overwhelming urge to start yelling, “Estonians, you are my people, Tallin is my city.  I’ll give up vegetarianism and eat your elk stew if you let me stay here.”  Needless to say, I repressed the urge.

After the tour, I made my way outside of Old Town, this time in the opposite direction of the beach to Tallinn’s Kalamaja district.  Kalamaja was once considered to be the dangerous, shady area of Tallinn but today it had evolved into a Bohemian sort of neighborhood with odd shaped wooden houses and unique little cafes.  On the far side of Kalamaja, however, I made a particularly interesting discovery: an old abandoned Soviet prison that was, for some reason, open.  While you could not get inside the prison itself, the entire yard was open with no visible security or safety measures.  Rolls of rusted barbed wire hidden in tall patches of grass?  Yeah that seems safe to allow the public in there.  But other than that and a great deal of very interesting graffiti, there didn’t appear to be much there.  As I made my way around the back of the prison, however, the yard suddenly opened up and the sea sprawled out in front of me, complete with a little beach and a snack bar set up in front of the barbed wire fence separating the beach from the sea.  Nothing like staring out at the metaphorical embodiment of freedom and enjoying an ice cream cone from behind steel bars.  What a strange little place this was.   After sitting there for a while, I returned to Old Town, to my favorite place in all of Tallinn: the lookout point.  I settled into my spot on the wall and watched the sun set over the rooftops one final time as violin music drifted up from somewhere in the maze below.

That night, as I was sitting in the hostel common room that night doing some writing, a fateful encounter occurred.  Down the table from me, a pair of older women sat chatting and I couldn’t help but notice how distinctly American one of them sounded.  Bolstered by the travel induced confidence to approach strangers, I asked where they were from.  One of them, Inge, was from Denmark, and the other, Margie, was in fact from American, southern California to be specific.  Denmark and the States aren’t exactly close so I asked how they had come to know each other and they launched into another travel unique tradition of telling total strangers your life story.  Apparently, they had met while traveling through Africa when they were young and had stayed in contact ever since.  Though their daughters had each stayed with the other during trips to their respective countries, Margie and Inge hadn’t seen each other since 1982, but you would never know it by looking at them laughing and joking as if no time had passed at all.  I began talking to them and found myself entirely enraptured by their stories.  Here were two women who were once just like me and here they were again, still doing the very same thing, proving that travel and adventure is ageless.  It’s not just something you do in your early twenties but rather a lifestyle you choose to lead.  Listening to them was like a reaffirmation of everything I loved about travel all the while staving off the fears that it bred within me.  Sometimes, when your travel and you meet so many amazing people just to say goodbye, you can’t help but start to feel a bit pessimistic at the possibility of maintaining those relationships.  Margie and Inge were proof that it is possible. 

Margie told me several stories of chance encounters and the threads that tie people together that, when repeated, seem so far fetched, but go to show just how small the world really is.  It’s ironic that as travelers, hungry for infinite new places, are the first to really experience that sensation of a common thread in the universe.  Especially for me, in the fragile state of missing my Oxford friends I was still in, witnessing an actual instance of successfully maintaining those bonds was incredibly comforting and uplifting for me. “The connections you make when you’re traveling, they don’t fade.  They just take effort,” Inge said, but effort is always something I am willing to give.   Their last piece of advice: Meeting people is what makes travel truly special.  You can go infinite place and see infinite things but eventually, without something more attached to it, it all just becomes “another fucking rock or another fucking church” to see.  And that, my friends, is true travel wisdom.