HELSINKI AND TALLINN TRAVELOGUE

HELSINKI, FINLAND AND TALLINN, ESTONIA

 

At the beginning of April, my university in Ukraine announced that April 26-May 4 would be a week off for Orthodox Easter (April 27) and Labor Day (May 1).  I decided to take advantage of the time off to do some traveling.  While most people were going to warm places like Crimea and Crete, I decided I wanted to explore Finland and one of the Baltic countries, Estonia.  My travel journal follows below. You can also see pictures online (click on the folders for Helsinki or Tallinn).

 

Friday, April 25/Saturday, April 26, 2003: Journey to Helsinki and a night on the town

 

Like most of my trips out of Ukraine, this trip began with an irritatingly long journey. Friday night I left Khmelnytsky at 11:30 p.m. on an overnight train to Kyiv that arrived at 8:30 Saturday morning.  I bought an espresso from the train station kiosk recommended by my colleague Olena, and had it along with some paska (?) I had left over from the day before.  Paska is a traditional Ukrainian Easter food, a frosted sweetbread with raisins. 

 

After breakfast I caught the next available bus to the airport, and had what seemed like an interminable four hours to kill before my flight. The airport had Internet access, but the prices were insane so I passed.  Instead I sat at a café and had another coffee which turned out also to be insanely expensive (18 grivnias, about 3 dollars).   Finally at about 12:30 it was announced that my flight was open for check-in. I got my boarding pass, went through passport control and waited again to board.  I flew on LOT Polish Airlines to Warsaw, and changed planes to another LOT plane for Helsinki. 

 

I arrived in Helsinki at about 7:30 in the evening.  As I walked through the airport I studied my surroundings intensely, trying to absorb as quickly as possible the atmosphere of the place.  I noticed three things:  lots of parquet flooring, a near-quiet airport with almost no people, and the Finnish signs.  Finland is actually a country with two official languages, Finnish and Swedish. But I didn’t notice the Swedish language signs right away.

 

After picking up some more maps and guidebooks at the tourism bureau in the airport, I went outside and waited for bus 615 going towards downtown.  The bus was recommended in Let’s Go Eastern Europe.  (Helsinki is treated as a gateway city in that guidebook.)  When the bus arrived, my jaw dropped.  It looked like new. It had cloth seats. It was spotless inside and out.  Well, it was 3 Euros (nearly 18 gryvinas, compared with the 40/100 of a gryvnia for a city bus in Ukraine) but it was still a welcome treat.  And it made me all the more sorry that most Ukrainians cannot yet experience such luxuries.

 

When we arrived at the train station square I got out and noticed a Sony Jumbotron screen. Finland was hosting the World Hockey Championships.  Although it was barely above freezing, there was a good-sized crowd outside to watch the Finland national team play Austria.  It seemed to me that Finns don’t let a little cold weather stop them from going out and having a good time.

 

Because of the championships, the hostels were already full for Saturday night when I had called the day before to reserve a room.  I had had to call a hotel booking service mentioned in Let’s Go (+358 9 22 88 14 00) to get a room for the night at Hotel Finn, Kaevankatu 3, telephone +358 9 6844 360. It wasn’t a full-scale hotel exactly—it was a single floor of rooms in an office building. It was cozy but clean with a bed, a TV and a shower in a very convenient location.  That was all I could ask for. 

 

I dropped off my stuff and went back to the square to watch more of the game.  Although it wasn’t “White Nights” yet, I noticed that at 9:30 p.m. it was barely starting to get dark.  But by the end of the second period I was bored of the game and a little cold, and hungry as always.  I peeked in a restaurant called Zetor (Tractor), but with the t-shirts in the gift shop it looked very touristy. I went into an Irish restaurant across the way, but it didn’t serve food.  It didn’t even have any Finnish beers on tap.  I went next door to a place called Praha (Prague). It also didn’t serve any food, but at this point I felt I shouldn’t be picky.  Besides, it seemed like a fun place. I tried something called Golden Cup Perry, which turned out to be a pear-flavored alcoholic drink, kind of like a hard cider. Weird but good.  Even weirder, they offered to put ice in it.  I declined the offer. I noticed that unlike other parts of Western Europe, Finns appeared to use plastic to pay for just about everything, no matter how small the price. I was definitely gonna like it here.

 

After my drink and the end of the hockey game (Finland won), I wandered down Mannerheimintie, a main street in Helsinki, to look for a place to eat. I’m not sure at what point I figured out that ravintola was the Finnish word for restaurant, and not the name of a restaurant chain.  Anyway, eventually I stumbled on a place called Simone Wok and Pub, located at Simonkatu 9.  The menu looked only mildly interesting, but the 80s American music drew me in. I’m glad it did. The Asian noodle soup in a coconut curry broth was excellent. They served it and then put a bib on me.  I wish I could say I hadn’t worn a bib since I was a baby, but there was a restaurant in Colonial Williamsburg a few years ago that gave me and my family bibs the size of small tablecloths; it is an old tradition there.  This was a modern-looking restaurant so I think it was just their attempt to help people keep themselves tidy.  The lemongrass brulee was to die for.  Even the water was good; it had wedges of orange and lime in it. I can’t say the same for a cocktail called Apple Crisp, which tasted like cough medicine.  But overall my experience at this restaurant was a highly positive one.  It was here that I asked the waiter to teach me the Finnish word for thank you—kiitos.  I probably didn’t need to learn it; everyone I had met so far spoke fluent English.  But I wanted to make that overture to Finland, and I wanted to know it for the sake of knowing it. 

 

Sunday, April 27: Helsinki museums and movies

 

I had to check out of the hotel at noon. Since I had paid 65 Euros for the room, I decided to spend as much time in the room as I could to get my money’s worth.  Also, foreign language TV shows are not dubbed in Finland, so it gave me a chance to watch some American movies. I saw “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” and an M. Night Shamalayan film about a kid who is looking for God.  Appropriate for Orthodox Easter Sunday, I suppose.

 

After I checked out of Hotel Finn, I walked a few blocks down the street to check in at the Hostel Erottajanpuisto located at Uudenmaankatu 9, phone number +358-9-642-169.  Like Hotel Finn, the hostel was on a single floor of what looked like an apartment building that had been converted to office space.  It wasn’t as well maintained as Hotel Finn, and I had to have roommates, but it was 43 Euros a night cheaper. 

 

The shops in Finland are closed on Sunday but open on Monday. Museums in Finland are open on Sunday but closed on Monday.  So after having a sandwich and a latte at Café Lapsipalatsi, the choice of what to do for the day was clear.  I am not usually interested in modern art, but my gut told me that Kiasmus, the museum of modern art in Helsinki, would be interesting. And it was. There were two main exhibits. One was called “The Night Train” and it was based on four parts of an old Finnish movie. The spookiest section of the four was called “A Ghost at Noon.”  The point of this section was to demonstrate to people that things are not always as they appear.  There was one exhibit with a room of furniture and what appeared to be a mirror. But when someone in the room put their hand through the “mirror”, I realized it was just a framed, square hole, with identical furniture on the other side in a mirror image.  Looking through the hole myself was like being a vampire for a moment.  Or not existing.  In another exhibit, there was a true mirror, a table, a red curtain, and two track lights. When I stood in front of the mirror, the lights reflected off the curtain and into the mirror to create a multicolored, halo-like effect behind my head. I couldn’t see how that was possible.  Even the bathrooms seemed to be designed like a work of art with lots of steel and nonparallel geometric shapes.  Each stairwell had a different view of the street outside and the floors below.  I felt like I was looking at everything for the first time, and questioning everything I saw.  I have never been so moved by modern art before.

 

The other exhibit I saw was a collection by a Nigerian Englishman named Yinka Shonibare.  He had digital photographs of himself as a Victorian dandy from an Oscar Wilde play, and he took traditional African prints and created 18th and 19th century clothing and a family of astronauts with them.  In an interview he said he wasn’t even sure himself what his art means.  Was he trying to challenge traditional views of aristocracy, or was he trying to be a part of the aristocracy?  

 

When I finished viewing the exhibits, I went to the museum’s free Internet kiosks and checked my email. I also went online to find information about movies.  On Saturday I had seen signs at the Finnkino movie theater for “The Pianist”, but on Sunday the signs were gone.  I took a stab in the dark and typed in www.finnkino.fi, and kept clicking on things until I found a schedule.  There was a showing at Tennispalatsi at 5:30 and 8:45 pm. 

 

Since I still had time before the 5:30 movie, I walked down Mannerheimintie past the Parliament Building and Finlandia (a music hall, not the vodka company’s corporate headquarters) to the Finnish National Museum. On the outside it looked like a church with its tall spire, but inside it was like a combination of the British Museum and the Smithsonian. It had artifacts from Finnish life and history dating from prehistoric times to the year 2000.   Looking at the exhibits here it seemed to me that in all the places I have traveled to date, the same things endure in substance and value:  weapons, tools, jewelry, household goods, practical and decorative furniture, photographs, and clothing.  The only thing I couldn’t comprehend is why spears and knives always endure.  Will the human race always be a violent one? 

 

There were other interesting exhibits on Finnish history in the 20th century, and on toys over time.  But I have to admit that one of my favorite exhibits was on Sancta Birgitta. There was (or is?) a village in Finland and an order of nuns named after her.  She was born in 1303, so the exhibit honored her 700th birthday.  She died in 1373. That is 600 years to the year before I was born. And I bear a variation of her name.  Maybe it means nothing; God knows I am no saint.  Maybe saints don’t even watch over Jews.  But something is gracing me with fortune in this life; who is to say it isn’t her?

 

My brain full, I left the museum and wasted a lot of time wandering around looking for Tennispalatsi before I finally asked two security guards in the Metro station for directions.  I had to walk by a construction zone, and I noticed that the crews had to dig through what looked like sheer rock.  I felt like I was at the edge of the Earth, or on another planet altogether.

 

By the time I got to the movie theater, there were less than 10 seats left for the 5:30 show and they were all up front.  I found out that in Helsinki theaters, when you buy a ticket you also choose a seat assignment, like buying tickets for live theatre. I thought that was nicer than the scramble to find and save seats that takes place in American theaters.  I decided to buy a ticket with a good seat in the middle of the theater for the 8:45 show.

 

Now I had three hours to kill before the movie. I wandered around the shopping center. All of the shops were closed, but there was a bar called William K. Beerhouse. The beer I had literally and figuratively was not memorable.  I saw a Chinese restaurant across the street, but it didn’t look very good. I decided to go back to Simone, but it is closed on Sundays! So is Jam Jam, a nearby restaurant and nightclub. I decided at this point the only places that were going to be open besides McDonalds and Hesburger were the touristy restaurants. So I headed to Zetor.  It turned out to have a pretty good menu of Finnish cuisine. I had Karelian Stew, a hearty dish of meat and vegetables with mashed potatoes.  Perhaps it was a bit pricey at 11 Euros, but it beat Mickey D’s.    

 

After dinner I walked back to Tennispalatsi and saw “The Pianist”.  What a sad and powerful movie.  I could see why Adrian Brody won the Oscar for his performance; I believed that he really was this man going through these horrible trials, and not just an actor playing a role.  I didn’t know that parts of the movie were in German.  The subtitles for the English and German dialogue were all in Finnish, so I had to rely on my knowledge of German to get the gist of what they were saying.  I only say that as a caution to others who might think about seeing this movie in a non-English language theater and don’t know any German.

 

Monday, April 28:  Helsinki travel planning, shops, sights and movies

 

This was not the best day of the trip for me.  For breakfast I went to another café on Mannerheimintie for an espresso macchiato and a roll similar to an American cinnamon roll without the glaze. It was okay, but not as good as the coffee and food at Lapsipalatsi. Then I wandered briefly around a department store called Sokos.  The clothes were expensive so I didn’t buy any. But I got a Mother’s Day card for my mother in Finnish.  I’m not sure how I figured out that it was for Mother’s Day. Perhaps the Finnish word Mummille on one card and the Swedish word Morsdag on the display sign helped clue me in.    Perhaps it was all in my imagination.  Whatever.  From the store I went across the street to a Postal Museum, which turned out to be closed for renovations.  But the post office was open, and it had free Internet access.  If I didn’t like Finland before, I was really liking it now.

 

Now it was time to turn to a more serious task: planning my trip the next day to Tallinn.  I had seen a TV show on Sunday morning that looked like a Finnish travel show, and from that I managed to figure out the Finnish word for travel, and thus figure out that I was standing in front of a travel agency and not a bank.  I went inside and asked for help booking a ferry trip to Tallinn. First, I found out that because of ice on the Baltic, the express boats (one and a half hours) were not running.  Only the “slow boats” (three and a half hours) were running.  Second, because of the Labor Day holiday on May 1, a lot of people were travelling to and from Tallinn. The boats returning from Tallinn on Saturday and Sunday were completely booked, and the hotels that go with packages on the Eckeroe Line were also completely booked.  I bought a phone card and tried calling the hostels in Tallinn—sure enough, they were completely full. I also tried calling a Tallinn homestay service, but the number didn’t work. I was slightly relieved though—I had heard enough stories about Ukrainian homestays from Peace Corps volunteers to know I needed something that would allow me more mobility and independence.

 

The travel agent suggested I go up the street to the Tallink ferry office to see if they had any space.  Tallink ferries also had no return trip space on the weekend, but I was able to book a trip leaving Tuesday morning at 9:00 a.m. for Tallinn returning to Helsinki Friday night at 8:00 p.m., with three nights in Hotel Viru (breakfast included).  It cost a small fortune (300 dollars), but I felt it was either that, or deal with the hassle of showing up in Tallinn without a hotel, or not go at all. 

 

Feeling dejected and ashamed of spending six months of a Ukrainian teacher’s salary for a three-day trip, I walked outside and pondered what to do next.  Let’s Go said that the 3T tram line is the cheapest tour of the city.  I got on, but it seemed to be going only through residential neighborhoods. That was interesting in itself, but I didn’t see anything that looked like an attraction.  Perhaps I had gone in the wrong direction on the tram, I thought. 

 

I saw a harbor area with large cruise ships and I decided to get off the tram.  About this time, it started to rain.  There were a few fresh fish and vegetable stands in the harbor, as well as people selling arts and crafts, handknit goods, and Russian fur products.  It wasn’t fun to look at them in the rain.  In the distance ahead loomed a building on a hill.  With its black-roofed spires, dark red stone walls, and the dark clouds above, it looked like the hotel from “Psycho”.  It turned out to be Uspensky Cathedral, a Russian Orthodox Cathedral. I went up the steps hoping to find sanctuary there from the rain, but it is closed on Mondays. And it was Easter Monday so it wouldn’t have been open anyway. 

 

Despite the rain, I had to keep going. I walked down Aleksanderinkatu to Senate Square and Nevsky Cathedral, a typical Russian dome-shaped building. I was surprised to see a statue of Czar Alexander II in front of it.  Finland was a part of the Russian empire in the time of the czar, but it gained its independence after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. 

 

I kept going down the street and ended up back at the train station. I went to the tourist office in the train station to try to get ideas for things to do on Saturday in Helsinki, since I hadn’t planned to be in Helsinki on Saturday and the tourist office is closed on Saturdays.  I was advised to take a bus an hour outside of Helsinki to a town called Porvoo.  I took a brochure and thanked the assistant.  I had lunch in the train station restaurant, an Art Deco cafeteria that made me feel like I had gone back to 1930s America.  The soup was pretty good; the sandwich wasn’t bad either. 

 

After lunch, I went to a shopping mall called Forum. I ended up at a café called Fazer; there is a chocolate company in Finland by the same name.  I saw a treat with ribbons around it, which I guessed was a treat for the May Day/Labor Day celebration. It is hard to describe what it looked like.  Imagine small, thin pieces of dough fried and woven haphazardly together in the shape of a roll and dusted with powdered sugar. Like a dehydrated, shrunken funnel cake or sweet, dry spaetzle.  It was only a Euro or two, so I bought one along with a cup of tea. The treat looked better than it tasted.  Live and learn.

 

After I finished, I went downstairs to the movie theater and saw the 6 p.m. showing of “The Hours” (Tunnit in Finnish).  I had read the book, and the book and movie complimented each other nicely.  After the movie, I walked up towards the hostel and stopped in a restaurant/bar I thought was called “Memphis”, like the city in Tennessee. But on the menu it said “MPHIS”.  That was weird.  But I stayed anyway and had a good triple decker tuna salad sandwich with seasoned fries. It is now possible in many places in Ukraine to get sandwiches (two pieces of bread or rolls with stuff in between) instead of butterbrot (one slice of bread with meat or cheese on top).  And in some places, like Top Sandwich in Odessa, it is pretty good.  But the sandwiches in Finland are superior. No doubt about it.

 

After dinner, I went back to the hostel. I had had to change rooms (this happens in hostels because of their reservations system; don’t ask me why).  A man walked into the room and was surprised to see a woman there (usually HI hostels have only single-sex rooms).  I went to reception and was told I had been given the wrong room number. So I moved once again. I ended up with a couple of the same roommates I had had the night before, but I still didn’t really chat with any of them. I don’t know why; I just wasn’t in the mood. 

 

Tuesday, April 29: Journey to Tallinn and Tallinn sightseeing

 

I left the hostel around 8:00 in the morning. I had been told at Tallink that it was short walk from the hostel to the train station, about 15 minutes.  It was more like 25 because I had to walk all the way to the other side of the U-shaped harbor.  But I got a nice picture of the ferry and the ice along the way, not to mention some exercise, so I guess can’t complain about that.  I felt like I was at an airport. There were signs directing cars to Eckeroe Line and Tallink ferries and signs for customs. Of course, those cars would be driving onto the ferry, not dropping people off. And it makes sense that it would feel like an airport. I mean, think about the word airport. Air port. Ports on the sea came first on this world.  I should say that airports feel like the Helsinki ferry terminal, shouldn’t I?

 

Anyway, I went inside and checked in, and then went through passport control.  Passport control seemed pretty tight to me.  The border guard looked very carefully for my entry stamp.  The stamps in my visa are all over the place, so it was hard.  He must be used to backpackers, because he thought I had entered from Frankfurt in March until I showed him the Helsinki airport stamp.

 

I walked down a ramp (like a doublewide jetway; perhaps I should call it a shipway?) onto the ferry. The last time I had taken a passenger ferry was from L.A. to Catalina.  That was a small boat and I had had to take a Dramamine to keep from getting seasick.  But this was like a big luxury cruise ship. It even had sleeping berths, probably for the longer trip from Tallinn to Stockholm.  I sat in one of the dining lounges. For breakfast I had a tray of Karelian pastries.  No, it’s not something from a Star Trek episode. Take a flat wheat-colored bread (like one side of a pita pocket), put it into an oval shape the length of your palm, and flute the edges inward.  Fill the middle with an unknown white starchy substance, and on top lay “egg butter”, butter mixed with chopped hardboiled eggs. It was much tastier than it sounds.  And definitely better than the coffee.  To pass the time I read my guidebooks, listened to music, studied Estonian phrases (a lot like Finnish in many ways), looked out the big bay windows, and tried not to watch the American soap operas on TV. 

 

When we arrived in port, I went through customs, got more guidebooks, and started walking to my hotel, Hotel Viru.  I could see it looming in the distance, a large, gray rectangular box that must have been built in Soviet times to serve as a proper contrast to the elitist beauty of the spires and roofs of Old Tallinn.  Once inside, however, I felt like I was in the hotel of a modern country that is ready to become a member of the European Union.  It was clean, with lots of wood, steel, and a simple carpet pattern.  Like the outside image of this hotel, though, I could still feel vestiges of Russian or Soviet life.  For example, the building was under renovation.  Right next to my room was a gaping hole where what looked like a new elevator bank was being installed. The noise was unpleasant.  I dropped off my stuff in a beautiful, modern room with the bed at an odd angle, and a shower that was not completely enclosed from the rest of the bathroom.  These little surprises reminded me a lot of the surprises I get living in Ukraine.  Not unpleasant, just surprising, almost amusing. 

 

I left the hotel and went across the street to start meandering through Old Tallinn. I will tell you now that as I was wandering I pretty much had no idea where I was or what I was seeing. In the evening when I went back to my hotel I sat down with the map and my digital camera and tried to figure out where I had been. I was mostly successful.  From this recreated memory, I now know I saw Viru (Street) and the old town hall, St. Nicholas Church, Fat Margaret (a former cannon tower which is now the Estonian maritime museum), the Great Coast Gate with a beautiful stone crest, and parts of the original town wall from the 13th or 14th century. I also saw a memorial of some kind, a steel arch that had a large gap in the middle. 

 

I had originally planned to go to the one of the medieval restaurants for lunch, but it was hard to find. I walked into a bar that I thought was called Au Le Coq, but is actually called Nimega Bar.  Au Le Coq is the name of the beer they sell there. The beer was pretty good.  I had seafood soup, and then the lunch special (like a blue plate special). For 40 Estonian kroners (less than 3 Euros), I got  a “cutlet” (a ground beef patty; Ukrainians also use the word cutlet to describe this dish) with a creamy mushroom sauce, potatoes, and beet salad.  Everything was tasty. The meat tasted more like meat than the meat in the cutlets in the cafeteria in my university.  And it was nice to have a sauce with flavor for it for a change.  I’ve learned to love beets in Ukraine so that was fine.  But the potatoes were the best because these weren’t just any potatoes to me. In my childhood, these potatoes were known as “Grandma’s potatoes” because this was exactly the way my great-grandmother used to make them--cut into large chunks and boiled or baked first, then fried with paprika or some other kind of seasoning.  I had never had them in Ukraine.  My great-grandmother’s sister-in-law was from Lithuania. I asked myself, did “Grandma’s potatoes” originate from the Baltics?  Or were they from her village in what is now Belarus?  In the end, the answer didn’t and doesn’t matter.

 

The other two experiences of the day were clothes shopping and coffee drinking.  My friend Renuka had told me about the wonderful wool sweaters in Estonia.  I went to a shop called ReWill that was having a sale.  I wanted to try some sweaters on but there was no dressing room.  No problem:  the sales clerk simply went to another part of the store, and I stood out of sight of the main entrance.  A sign I have definitely lost some of my American sense of modesty.  I ended up getting a 100 percent wool black sweater with a beige, grey, and blue-grey pattern on it for 490 kroners. Not bad.  Especially since I wore it for the next three days because it was so cold.  Now I only needed gloves.

 

Near ReWill, I found a coffee shop that also sold truffles and other chocolates. I had an espresso macchiato and an Irish coffee chocolate. Yummy!  I sat in a wooden chair at a table with a rich, red cloth tablecloth. I felt like I was in someone’s living room in the olden days.  It was so wonderful I used my map and phone book that evening to figure out that the place was called Café Chocolaterie Kohvik, and its address is Vene 6.  Vene, by the way, is the Estonian word for Russia.

 

By 4 or 5 in the afternoon, I was wiped out.  I went back to my room and spent the evening watching the “the Sopranos”, a British version of “Thirtysomething”, BBC World, and other good TV shows I can’t remember.

 

Wednesday, April 30:  More Tallinn Sightseeing

 

I woke up again to the noise of drills and what looked like a cold, rainy morning. I went downstairs to the second floor for breakfast. It was a first-class breakfast buffet with something for everyone—herring, grilled and cold vegetables, deli meats, cheese, beans, oatmeal, scrambled eggs, bacon, Karelian pastries, yogurt, cereal, toast, and rice cakes advertised as gluten-free. 

 

After breakfast, I headed out to Old Tallinn again.  I stopped in a mini mall to look for black pants. But everything there was made by Italian design. Which is a nice way of saying it was made for models who are 6 feet tall and weigh 90 pounds. 

 

I went to another clothing shop to look for wool gloves. The sales clerk immediately spoke Estonian, English, and Russian to me.  She helped me find a lovely pair of gloves for 145 kroners, and we started chatting. Her name is Astrid. She is Estonian, but she left for America when she was 21, and as she put it, didn’t know enough to be scared.  Just as I felt when I left L.A. for D.C. after college.  She lived abroad for 20 years and then came home.  She said that because she has traveled abroad and was married to another foreigner (an Englishman), she has a different mindset from her peers and from her mother.  But she wasn’t apologetic about it. In fact, she seemed to put the onus on her reserved, oppressed colleagues to adjust to her more open and direct nature. And she is having an impact; they are starting to change.  Talking to her was like finding a kindred spirit.  It made me feel better about the choices I might make in the future.  If you want a good pair of gloves or a sweater, or just want to chat, the store is called Aplexs Tekstiil, Viru 20, 64-40-221.  Tell Astrid that Bridget the American from Ukraine sent you.

 

After I got the gloves, I found my way to the tower called Tall Herman, a palace (now Parliament? I’m not sure), a post office in a building that had some kind of connection to Peter the Great, and two viewpoints of Old Tallinn. Then I found a stone area called the Kings Courtyard. It was almost too much beauty to absorb in one day. 

 

I went down the hill and ended up at an Indian restaurant called Elevant.  I am not a vegetarian, but there is something about vegetarian Indian food that is so good I don’t notice that there is no meat. I had vegetable vindaloo (incredibly spicy, but it hurt so good) with rice and Indian bread, and two guava shakes to take the heat off.  I sat in large wicker chairs looking at yellow walls listening to very mellow folk music.  It was so peaceful.  I did some more meandering and bought some postcards in a gift shop. Then I went back to Café Chocolaterie for espresso to write the postcards. I sent them from the post office in Old Tallinn.  If they all arrive, I’ll know that Estonia is ready for Europe. If they don’t, I’ll know it’s still like Soviet times.

 

By now it was about 5 p.m. and I decided to have happy hour at Arizona Saloon.  I had Saku, the Estonian national beer, which was pretty weak. The nachos were even worse. The chips were warm, but the cheese was cold and had no heat.  And there was only enough for two or three chips. I asked the waitress to bring me another dish of cheese, hot.  I watched another hockey game for a while, then went back to my room.  I had heard that the eve of Labor Day was a big party day in Estonia, and I wanted to get ready to go out. Not too far though—the hotel has a club called Café Amigo, and hotel guests don’t have to pay the entrance fee. Plus there is an entrance from inside the hotel.  I showered, styled my hair, checked my email at the free computer kiosk, and then went to the bar. I had some really good wine, and watched people dancing while I waited for the blues band to come out. I saw some people on the dance floor wearing white hats with a black brim, similar to a boat captain’s hat.  I knew from the Finnish National Museum that these were Finnish graduation hats. The width of the black cloth on the hat indicates the language of the wearer; Swedish speakers have wider strips. 

 

The blues band was good but they played a set for only half an hour. Then it was dance music again. I was bored before midnight.  I was never into the “club scene” when I was in my 20s, but suddenly I felt old.  Whatever.

 

Thursday, May 1:  A Day of Rest

 

This day looked even colder and rainier than the day before. I went down to breakfast and pondered why the hotel staff wore orange and black hats from Halloween for Labor Day.  I knew most of the shops and restaurants would be closed because of the holiday. There was supposed to be a concert somewhere, but I couldn’t get motivated to go. I was tired of going out to movies.  Going bowling seemed pathetic.  I decided I just needed a day to do nothing.  And besides, I had spent all that money on the hotel room, I might as well get my money’s worth. So I stayed in all day and watched TV.  Which may seem silly since I could have done the same thing in Ukraine. But in Ukraine everything on TV is double tracked, with English and a layer of Russian or Ukrainian over it.  And I don’t have BBC World or Deutsche Welle at home. 

 

I finally went out in the early evening to dinner. it was so cold and windy I ducked into the first decent place I saw, a place called Kaar Baar (the Bear Bar).  There were pictures of fish dishes that looked good and reasonably priced.  I asked the waitress a question in English which she didn’t quite understand and had a hard time answering.  Then I heard her talking to the bartender in Russian, and I realized I was in a Russian-speaking bar.  I asked her in Russian if it would be better if I spoke in Russian.  She said yes.

 

The red wine was really good, as was the black bread and the fish with fried potatoes and vegetable garnish. But while I was eating, a meister came do some scary looking repair work on the men’s bathroom with what looked like plumber’s snake.  Yes, I was definitely in the Russian part of town.

 

After dinner, I went next door to the Irish pub, since I had heard Irish pubs were expat hangouts. But I didn’t see anybody interesting.  The Irish coffee was good.  But as I saw the names Tanya and Oksana on the servers’ nametags, I knew once again I was in the Russian part of town.  Not a bad thing, just interesting that I could see and feel the difference. 

 

Friday, May 2:  A final tour of Tallinn and return to Helsinki

 

Once again, I lollygagged in my room as long as I could.  I had a late breakfast, then checked out and put my bags in the left-luggage room. It was a sunny and crisp day. I decided to stay out of Old Tallinn; it was time to explore the “real” city.  I started walking down Narva Mnt.  I don’t know how “Mnt” is pronounced, but I think it is a word that means “a highway going towards the city of Narva”.  I walked for a good half an hour past people, older, more functional buildings, and a few embassies. I saw the Ukrainian Embassy, a stark white building with the Ukrainian trident-like symbol on it).  My heart fluttered at the sight of it.  I walked on and crossed the street to the beach on the Bay of Tallinn, a bay of the Baltic Sea. I like putting my hands or feet or whole body in different lakes, oceans, and rivers as I come across them in the world, but because of the cold I just barely allowed my finger to touch the surface of the water. 

 

I went back across the street and followed the signs in the park to Kadriorg, a palace commissioned for Catherine the I by her husband, Peter the Great.  It is an aristocratic palace with a carefully sculpted back garden.  Allegedly it houses a sculpture collection that is open to the public, but I couldn’t see a way in.  I also noticed in the garden that there was a section that was fenced off. I thought it was just closed while they finish repairs, and that it would be open later in the summer. But when I kept walking up the road to another palace nearby, I discovered the palace next door to Catherine’s Palace is the palace of the Estonian president.  Two guards with rifles and a short set of steps were the only thing that separated me from the front door of the great pink edifice.  All I could think of in that moment was my president’s White House and everything that protected it from entry.  How nice for Estonia that it doesn’t need so much security. 

 

I sat by an unmarked statue in another part of the park and soaked up the sun, then walked through the park and past an old school and a modern-looking football stadium until I ended up down the street from my hotel. I had gone in a large circle somehow.  I didn’t want to go back to the hotel or Old Tallinn. Instead I went in the supermarket across the street called Selver. It was gorgeous.  I got some provisions for the return ferry trip.  I saw the “new Tallinn”—department stores, large bank buildings, etc. It felt like Helsinki or another western European city.  I had lunch at a place called Peetri Pizza. For 40 kr I got a large pizza that was really good.  I ate what I could and took the rest with me to eat on the ferry.  

 

After stopping in vain at a few department stores to try to find the new CD by the American band The Bangles (I’d been hearing the new single on the radio), I grabbed my bags from the hotel and walked back to the ferry terminal.  Passport control took forever—I didn’t get through until a few minutes after 5 for what was supposed to be a 5:00 p.m. departure.  The dining lounge I had sat in on the way to Tallinn was completely full, as was another bar. The only bar with seats available was rather dark.  I milled around as much as I could, went outside to take pictures of the ice on the water, and sat in the few areas that weren’t official dining areas or bars to have my pizza and mineral water. I finally returned to the bar with seats in time to hear bad Finnish karaoke. Although there were some English language songs in the karaoke book, I didn’t get up and sing. 

 

When I arrived in Helsinki again, I treated myself to a taxi to the same hostel I had stayed at before. An odd combination to say the least.  I went right to bed and watched BBC World and movies for a while (also odd to have a TV with cable in a hostel room), and went right to sleep.

 

Saturday, May 3:  Suomenlinna Island and another night on the town

 

I got up and went back for breakfast one more time at Lapsipalatsi café, and back to the post office to check my email.  I had lunch at the Kiasmus museum café, which was okay.  I went to a bookstore to browse, and then found a walking street of shops and cafés. The name of the street escapes me now.  It was only +8 Celsius (46 degrees Fahrenheit), but it was sunny and for the residents of Helsinki this was spring. Many people were sitting outside at cafes with small tables three rows out from the wall that reminded me of Paris.  I didn’t stop to sit but kept walking to Market Square.  There were many more merchants out than my last time there, so I bought some nice souvenirs.  An employee in the hostel had told me the night before that if it was sunny I should go to Suomenlinna Island instead of Parvoo. Suomenlinna is a 10 minute ferry ride from Market Square and has a fortress which is a UNESCO world heritage site.  It truly was lovely, but I was suddenly wishing I had Reeboks or hiking boots—many of the paths were made of large rocks. 

 

I walked to the fortress and on my way a man asked me in Finnish presumably to take a picture of him and his girl friend.  I said “Yes” in English. They took my picture in return. It turned out okay. The fortress was really lovely.  I still don’t quite understand Finnish history; I think it was a Swedish outpost if I understood correctly.  The archways and stone rooms were amazing. But I was equally awestruck by the child climbing around on an ice floe like a seal, the view of Helsinki from the island along with ice and haze, and the old boat dock.  I stumbled on a game of cricket nearby. I am not sure why it was being played there. And I still don’t understand the game, either.  I saw three people acting out some kind of historical interpretation, but it was in Finnish so I had no idea what was going on. 

 

I walked back in time to miss a ferry back to Helsinki by 30 seconds.  I went into a nearby bar for a glass of wine. I got on the next ferry 20 minutes later and debated whether to go back to the hostel, put on warmer clothes, and then eat, or to eat first and then go to the hostel for the night.  I decided on the former. I ended up talking to my two roommates. One was a girl from England who had graduated from university, er, college, had spent 4 weeks studying Russian in St. Petersburg and was getting ready for a 3-month internship in Moscow. The other girl was a college student from Austin who was studying in Moscow.  As we talked about our lives and about life in Russia, I was glad to be living in Ukraine. I’ve never had to wait 3 hours in line for a train ticket, and the train prices are the same for everybody in Ukraine. 

 

I told the two ladies that I was going back to Simone if they wanted to join me. We walked down but it wasn’t as good as last time.  The soup wasn’t as warm, the water wasn’t as cold, and it seemed to be hard to keep the conversation going.  After dinner the girl from England decided to go back to the hostel.  The other girl followed me down to the train station square again. This time Finland was playing Ukraine.  Again my heart soared at the sight of Ukraine, and I knew I had to be careful not to root too loudly for Ukraine or against Finland.  But it wasn’t easy. In the first period alone, Finland scored 4 goals.  I couldn’t watch anymore. (I found out later from Ukrainian students that the final score was 9-0.)  The girl from Austin wanted to find a club, but I wasn’t really into dancing and the one club I knew (Jam Jam) wasn’t her style of music. So she went back to the room and I kept wandering. I found another movie theater, Kinopalatsi, and bought a ticket to see Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine”.  I was still really mad at Bush about the war, and it seemed like a good way to protest his foreign and domestic policy.  It was hard to watch it in a foreign country, though.  A lot of the people in the movie said and did things that made Americans look really stupid. I felt like the audience was laughing at all of America as it watched and laughed.  That issue aside, and the fact that the movie rambled on a bit long, it sent a very interesting message about guns and gun violence.  It suggested that the reason that America has more gun-related murders than other countries is twofold:  we have a culture of fear propogated by news media, and we have a messed up welfare system. 

 

Sunday, May 4:  Return to Khmelnytsky

 

I got up early and walked down to the train station square to catch a bus to the airport. I didn’t see signs at the bus terminals for the bus I needed, so I went to plan B, the Finnair bus terminal. But the office is closed on Sundays, and I didn’t see a schedule. Fortunately, inside the train station are several electronic tourist information stands. I was able to find the bus schedule and platform number for bus 615, saving me from having to go to plan C (a taxi).   I got on the bus and paid my 3 Euros. Halfway through the ride, ticket control got on to check people’s tickets.  I panicked. I had paid but had not received a ticket. Fortunately, they understood me in English when I said, “I paid 3 Euros,” and they got my ticket from the driver.

 

I checked in, had a donut at Robert’s Coffee, and did some really last minute shopping at the department store Stockmann (got some of that Fazer chocolate). I got my Bangles CD, and a CD by a female Finnish rock singer named Maija Vilkkumaa.  I have no idea what she’s saying, but she rocks. 

 

The flight to Warsaw was nice. Finnair is a wonderful airline.  I changed planes in Warsaw and then arrived in Kyiv.  I swear, Boryspil Airport in Kyiv makes me hate traveling and is the worst way to welcome people into the country.  I waited forever to go through passport control and customs.  By the time I made it out, the thought of spending another 7 hours in Kyiv, then taking an overnight train to Khmelnytsky and only having 5 hours to prepare for a class, sounded awful. A taxi driver asked where I was going and I said half-jokingly “Khmelnytsky”.  He said a taxi could take me there in 4 hours!  The price was atrocious, but I was able to bargain it down to something that was still atrocious.  I’ve decided it was worth it though.  Kyiv was cold and grey that afternoon, but the road to Khmelnytsky was sunny and warm. The trees were either in full white blossom or a bright green that suggested the energetic beginning of spring.  The driver had a nice car (a Volkswagen Jetta) and was chatty but not overly chatty.  When we got to Khmelnytsky, my taxi driver stopped to ask a local taxi driver for directions, and ended up paying the taxi driver 6 gryvnias (a little over a dollar) to take me home and save him a long trip out of his way.  That was understandable.  And then I was home. And as good as it felt to leave Ukraine and as much as I enjoyed my journey in Helsinki and Tallinn, it felt good to be home again. 

 

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