Greetings from Tallinn, Estonia, a small, but tech savvy country where Skype was invented and school children learn programming in the first grade.
After a mentally taxing trip to St. Petersburg, I'm thrilled to be here. We've been blown away by the beauty of the Old Town, the foodie culture (at non-foodie prices) and exceptionally friendly people. So far, the only negative is that we were awakened once at 3 am by the drunken patrons of Kismiss, Azerbaijani Restaurant & Disco. I believe they were speaking Russian, but since the language sounds unbelievably angry to my ears (lots of harsh 'sh' sounds), I couldn't tell if a fight was breaking out or if the person was drunkenly repeating 'I love you guys' over and over again.
The heavy duty walking continues, with our year-to-date high being 15 miles (30,000 steps) during one monster day in St. Petersburg, but while my food consumption and walking have been in good ratio, Estonia might blow it for me. Coinciding with our plan for a bit of down time (less touring) would be my discovery of kohuke: individually wrapped cheesecakes. One of very few truly authentic Estonian foods (they have been occupied by Sweden, Russia and Germany and have integrated many of those countries' food traditions), these things are everywhere and cheap, too, like 25 euro cents each.
My pants are crying out for mercy.
And now, more random thoughts from the road with the latest installment of Things I'm Getting Used To
The Kindness of Strangers
We had heard about these 'magic moments' of travel with locals, but it's not like we were combing the streets looking for them. Until Estonia, we have had fun interactions with locals, but nothing I'd consider magical.
- Drinking beer with Arild and Philip in Norway while they built an IKEA shelf and made disparaging comments about the Finnish
- Discussing the NBA with Frederick and Michael in a British pub in Stockholm
- Helping Tero, a Finn, practice his English while listening to a story about his trip to Germany where he drank apple wine and listened to an organ grinder. PS. The Finns have a specific word for organ grinder but he couldn't translate it into English so he walked around the Helsinki ferry terminal asking anyone if they knew the translation. At last, a kindly babushka came over with the words written on a piece of paper. How a Russian grandma had this information, we'll never know.
But the most memorable experience thus far has occurred in Tallinn.
Perry is a long-time practitioner of Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) and over the years has attended classes in different parts of the world while traveling, which he has found to be a great way to connect with local people. It can be intimidating, especially where they speak a different language, but with his easy going personality and the generally welcoming BJJ community, he has always had great experiences. He found a place he wanted to try in Estonia and when he returned that night, he conveyed how nice everyone was and that he was going back the next day for a daytime class.
Meanwhile, I was trying to figure out a way to get a reservation at Rataskaevu 16, the number one rated restaurant on Trip Advisor. I don't always select restaurants this way, but the reviews were just so rapturous, I had to experience it for myself. I had stopped in personally once and called twice and was told they were fully booked every time.
So you can imagine my shock when I got a text from Perry advising me to meet him at Rataskaevu 16 at 3 pm. He was cordially invited to lunch after his training session by a guy who works 'at a restaurant in the Old Town.' Turns out this restaurant was indeed the one that was seemingly impossible to get into, Rataskaevu 16!
I'll cut to the chase. It couldn't have been more magical if I had been served by Penn & Teller. These folks are doing something really special here with simple food expertly prepared and beautifully presented. But it's the service that really sets them apart as the servers truly care about what they are doing and speak with such affection, I don't even think my grandmother made me feel as loved at the table.
What made the experience especially meaningful, however, were the people we dined with. We traded stories and laughs with the Estonian BJJ guys for over three hours. We learned what it was like growing up in the Soviet era and heard some inside jokes about Latvians. It's been a long time since I've had such stimulating dinner conversation only to be outdone by the food we were eating. We had a multi-course meal that was out of this world...and we paid nowhere near what it was worth.
This alone was generous enough, but our host then gave us a list of insider tips for places to visit the next day and also invited us back for dinner the following night, where he personally served us yet another gastronomic experience complete with local digestifs of sea buckthorn and Vana Tallinn.
I tell this story not to boast, but only to illustrate how the kindness of strangers makes the world a beautiful place. Someday soon, I vow to make a foreign person feel as welcome in the USA as we were made welcome in Estonia.
Love Means Never Having to Say Your Gray is Showing
In the name of saving money, Perry has reluctantly agreed to help touch up my roots with box color. It turns out that his attention to detail and natural artistic talent lend themselves perfectly to the task of painting my head. Love that guy.
Food Shopping Shenanigans
You would think that after 25 years of grocery shopping (and cooking) for myself, it would be like second nature. But for some reason, the first time I enter a new store, my brain encounters some sort of paralysis where I can't remember the ingredients for a grilled cheese sandwich.
Just like driving on autopilot where you suddenly realize you can’t remember the last 5 minutes, you don't realize how the mind shops on autopilot. In the cart it goes: bananas, carrots, bread, milk, etc, etc. You know the aisles, you know when your ketchup is on special, you know where to find the individual Haagen-Dazs bars that can be eaten in the car and evidence hidden before you get home.
So when I actually have to think about what to buy, the paralysis sets in.
So far, it's happened in every country and every store. It starts out fun. Oh, look at this. Hello, what is THAT? And so on. But at some point, you look in your basket and there is only coffee and chocolate. Nothing that spells out a meal.
Then there is cooking in a foreign kitchen.
If you have ever had to cook in a different kitchen from your own, you might have encountered a bit of difficulty in deciding what to make. Are the proper spices in the cupboard? Is there a peeler for the carrots? Is there a colander to drain the pasta?
Because of this, you aren’t going to write your grocery list the same way. At home, you look in the fridge and cupboard before writing down supplemental ingredients, or maybe you holler ‘What do you want to eat tonight?’, adding whatever the other person responds with. In someone else's kitchen though, you can throw the list out the door.
Consequently, my current on-the-road cooking repertoire is uber-simple and reminiscent of my early post-college attempts. You have money for something more than ramen, but lack the experience and kitchen accoutrements to make something really good. Chicken stir fry. Pasta and canned tomato sauce. Frozen veg and jar of curry. The most gourmet thing I've made so far is caprese salad.
Perry is a champ though and eats whatever I make without complaints. Love that guy.
Being Underdressed for Everything
If you know me, you know I like clothes and dressing up such that I often tend to be overdressed. I knew going into the trip that I would have to set aside those ways and embrace a new casual side of me. Neat and tidy, but definitely function over fashion.
I was fine until we hit Russia. I had heard that Russian women dress up for everything, which is part of their reputation for beauty. It's true, and the women in heels particularly astounded me. Young mothers navigating baby strollers on cobble streets and older women striding along running errands- they were all doing it dressed to the nines and in sky-high heels.
Prior to Russia, I thought my city joggers, flats and daypack looked traveler-chic. Now, I'm just a slacker, but Perry never complains.
Love that guy.
Next time on Gobsmacked...
Rough & Ready Helsinki