So, I'm on this trip. Oh, you know? Anyway, one of the biggest reasons for embarking on this adventure is to gain some form of wisdom through new experiences and introspection. So far, I'm getting the latter two in spades- each new place brings a goulash bowl full of happenings and if you have read any of my previous stories, you know introspection is my constant companion (also known affectionately as 'all up in my head').
But wisdom has been a bit more elusive. Knowledge? Sure. I've compiled the following pearls for your future European travels.
- Weigh your produce and print out the little sticker thing-y. They don't look it up at check out.
- Ask for the price of street food before you take out your money.
- Knock on a closed bathroom door in the event a French tourist inside has failed to lock it. Sacre bleu!
- Always have a printed ticket on the train from Slovakia to Hungary or risk being thrown off in the middle of nowhere.
- Be sure and smell 'chocolate milk' before consuming in case it's actually drinkable chocolate yogurt. (Perry's top tip)
I've discovered it's difficult to identify wisdom on the spot as lessons are typically learned after the fact. Plus, I have no time to get all existential when I need to focus my mental energy processing what I'm seeing and just generally navigating daily life in a foreign city. But in between mundane tasks like food shopping and buying train tickets, the quest for wisdom remains in the back of my head, pressing me with well intentioned, but often conflicting advice. FIND MEANING. BE IN THE MOMENT. DON'T TAKE YOURSELF SO SERIOUSLY. SLOW DOWN. HAVE FUN.
I'm not ruthlessly hard on myself. I know that it's just a trip and the future of humanity does not rest on what I 'get' out of this. Some days might bestow meaningful enlightenment and others superficial entertainment. That's ok. It's the balance that is a bit trickier. I didn't join a monastery (this ain't no Eat Pray Love baby) so I don't need to be in a perpetual state of philosophical contemplation, but it isn't one big vacation either, so an endless diet of tourist attractions and good times seems a bit shallow. Aha, but what defines a good time? That's a future blog post.
Anyway, poor Estonia is where I was decided to dig a little deeper into my experiences, which is a lot of pressure for a small country still shaking off nearly 50 years of Soviet rule. However, I was determined that it wasn't going to be just a country I collected, like a souvenir spoon. In Estonia, I was going to get beyond surface impressions and tourist attractions.
Most tourists spend a day in Tallinn, which is a shame as it justifies at minimum, a long weekend. We stayed a week which allowed me a few days to just hang out like a regular person. Hoo, there's some wisdom right there!
As I started this write up, my notes looked a bit like this.
- Enormous section in the supermarket devoted to prepackaged snack cheesecakes/curd snacks (already mentioned this in previous blog)
- Burgeoning foodie scene (already mentioned this in previous blog)
- Attended an Estonian premier league football match with 200 people in a 10,000 seat stadium (apparently basketball is their thing, who knew?)
- Visited our first cat cafe
GAH! Uncovering deep and meaningful was going to be harder than I thought. Let's start with why we went there in the first place.
I knew very little about Estonia before we visited Tallinn, its capital and largest city. While we were in St. Louis, It caught Perry's eye as it ranked highly on such progressive lists such as The Freedom Index and Human Development Index. He was the one to suggest it might be a cool place to check out and something off the beaten path. So, as I do, I read up on it. Estonia has long struggled to establish its identity, with Denmark, Sweden and Germany all having a period of rule and influence before being occupied by the Russians over 300 years, finally gaining independence in 1991.
There are hints of a communist hangover in the form of Soviet era buildings that need rehabbing and an economy that, while growing quickly, still lags behind their wealthier Nordic neighbors, with many young Estonians putting in long hours to make ends meet. However, this enterprising country has shed its Russian shadow by building a modern, forward-thinking society with focus on technology, education and personal freedom. Highly tech savvy, Skype is one of several e-companies founded in Estonia (often dubbed the Silicon Valley of Europe), where most of the development team and half of the employees are still based today. In addition to teaching programming to first graders, the country strives for ubiquitous internet access, providing free WiFi in many public spaces. Furthermore, education is free and public transportation (at least in Tallinn) is complimentary for city residents.
They are also musical people with the Estonian Song Festival, one of the largest choral events in the world with 100,000 participants, held every five years and native Arvo Part is one of the most performed living composers in the world. Here is a sample of the music from the Festival.
So, what did we actually do during our time in Tallinn? Here are the key areas.
We spent most of our time here. One of the best preserved and intact medieval cities in Europe, this substantial area is full of historical sites, museums, shops and restaurants. You can easily spend a couple of days meandering around on foot. A gourmet food culture is emerging with many great, yet inexpensive restaurants on offer, including can't-miss Rataskaevu 16. If you don't get in, never fear, Pegasus is just up the road and owned by the same management team.
Museums at Kadriorg Park
Just up the road about 2 miles from Old Town is this significantly large and well-kept park filled with museums and relaxing green spaces. KUMU is an outstanding art museum, while Kadriorg Palace-- admittedly small and underwhelming compared to other European palaces-- is a pleasant diversion.
J Poska is a street leading up to the park that contains many historic wooden houses, if you are into that kind of thing. Don't forget to check out the seafront and Estonia Song Festival grounds. We didn't get to the TV tower, also nearby, but heard several reviews that the price wasn't worth the experience. I recommend climbing the tower called 'Kiek in de Kok' (try not to laugh when you say it out loud) for outstanding views at a fraction of the cost.
Telliskivi is a former dilapidated Soviet era warehouse district that has been converted into a hip and vibrant area of restaurants, cafes and galleries. Go for a wander and then stop for lunch at F Hoone. Your tastebuds (and pocketbook) will thank me later.
There is plenty of shopping to be had in Tallinn and part of its economic development plan is to transform the downtown in a shopping mecca. With three malls, including a brand new high-end Stockmann, they are on their way. While we did a bit of nosing around, these crazy cat people found that we could not resist spending gobs of time at Nurri Cat Cafe. Yes. We. Did.
I can't say I got beyond tourist attractions, but the decision to stay a week helped me truly appreciate and enjoy my time in Estonia. I also can't say if I'm any wiser, but we are definitely planning to return. Wisdom tells me that any place with great food and kitties is worth my time.