Estonia - Balling it in the Baltics
Getting to know Tallinn
Strolling from the ferry terminal into the Docks area of Tallinn (humming "Back in the USSR" incidentally) one of the first sights is a burnt out building with a Union Jack on the side. Destroyed British Embassy? No, it was merely graffiti. We pressed on.
The Old Town area of Tallinn must be amongst the most beautiful in the world. Fortress walls enclose a myriad of winding, cobbled streets, architecture in turns denoting Venetian, German, Danish, and a host of other influences - reflecting a nation that has ruled itself for barely thirty years out of the past eight hundred, with Denmark, Germany, Sweden and the Soviet Union in control until independence was finally reclaimed in 1991.
Meeting the Locals
For the average Estonian male, getting dressed in the morning must be a relatively simple affair. Heavy boots, dark grey jeans and shirt, leather jacket, and mandatory crewcut, before he goes off to stand on a corner discussing "business" with "associates". The ex-KGB look seems to be very 'now', so it's a surprise to find them among the most welcoming people in Europe.
On the other side of the coin, genetics seem to have given the fairer sex a pretty good deal here - for an illustration check out the male to female ration at your average hostel: about ten to one. Local hangout for the week was Brutal Caf?(the coffee definitely lived up to the name) with Beauty Salon next door and Modelling Agency across the street. Dreadful exploitation.
Cluas heads to the Underground Bar for, reputedly, "the Best Party in Tallinn" (their own words). Flying Finn immediately takes on a new meaning as a group from Helsinki (three hours away on the ferry) challenge the locals to a boxing contest, and having warmed up with copious amounts of vodka, finish a distant second.
Most amusing is a guy who the Cluas party, in a masterstroke of inspiration, decides to call Fat B*stard. Our bearded man is about 300 pounds over a healthy weight, wearing a yellow t-shirt, Reebok sneakers and nerdy square glasses. He is (ahem) attended to by some of the most beautiful women this side of Bratislava. He is also shown unfailing respect by all the aforementioned KGB types. Personnel decides after a few pints that Fat B*stard is an escaped Computer Programmer from San Jose, who after making millions from an IPO, has retired to see out his days as a Mafia Kingpin in Tallinn.
Escaping the Soviets
Seeing the outskirts of the city one realises exactly why Estonia is clamouring to embrace the image of Western living. Right beside the bright lights and tourist appeal of the Old Town is a Tallinn blighted by decades of neglect and poor management. Locals reside in apartment blocks eerily reminiscent of 1984 - tiny living space, faulty lift, decaying buildings - repeated again and again over a barren, polluted landscape. A telescreen and the Ministry of Love were about all that were missing from the picture.
The finger of blame for all of this is firmly pointed at Russia. Witness the following quotes, from tourist brochures: "...in 1944 Soviet forces bombed Tallinn for absolutely no reason at all..." or "...the last Russian soldiers were deported in 1994 and for Estonia, the Second World War finally came to an end." It's no wonder a billboard campaign is attempting to convince Estonians to embrace the 500,000 or so ethnic Russians still living in the country.
Current problems aside, it's clear that Estonians have worked tirelessly since independence setting their sights on a happier future. Old Town aside, the move to a "Western" style of living is more Scandinavian than American, more IKEA than McDonalds - one would think aiming to be another prosperous Scandinavian capital in two to three generations. Given the distance travelled in the past decade, one wouldn't bet against it.