Finding Nemo

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Tallin: Return to the West

Feeling bullish in Tallin
Although Russia is thought to part of Europe, it isn't. Russia is its own animal: forever half European, half Asian, yet neither. When you look at Russian faces you can make out the just so slightly narrower eyes in both men and women. Perhaps this is an advantage in terms of beauty, as it gives an air of exoticism. Yet when you first meet a stranger, the eyes are cold. Not trusting. It reminds me more of China than, say, England or Spain or Brazil. Americans, perhaps the friendliest to strangers of any culture in the world, often complain of European 'rudeness'. (Europeans of course view the easy American smile as suspicious, ignorant, and fake, even if it may not be.)

Which is quite ironic. Because it is Europeans that often complain of Russian 'rudeness'. I was once in a high-end nightclub in Moscow, talking to a go-go dancer in a glittery short dress, who had just descended from her dance cage and spoke surprisingly excellent English. And she told me something that stayed with me. She said, "When you meet a Russian, they don't smile. But if they do eventually smile, you know it is real. Genuine. And once you become friends, Russians are the most loyal and true friends you will ever have."

Tallin whimsy
That stayed with me for a long time. Eastern Europeans and Russians have been through hard times. They do not present an easy smile to strangers. But they are fiercely loyal to their friends and family. I had deep respect for that idea. However, it is a situation that can be difficult for the traveler, who does not always have time to get past the initial cold stares.

So it was as if a weight was lifted when I finally arrived to Tallin in Estonia, one of the perfectly happy small little corners of Europe. In Russia, things can feel heavy. The machinery works but sputters. In Tallin, just a short jaunt from Russia, things suddenly felt clean and easy. Everything worked. The parks were green and pretty and full of fountains. The espresso tasted delicious and people were genuinely nice to each other. There was no crime to speak of. It felt almost Disney-esque, but without all the bullshit and plastic. Tallin was a little tiny utopia, dancing in the sunshine, a stone's throw away from a shadow.

At day's end, everyone piles onto the fun train to go home
Estonia's old town reminded me of Bruges. A supremely pleasant place to while away a few days, exploring the old cobblestones streets of the city center with its piles of outdoor cafes and beer trolleys. A day might consist of climbing a few gothic church towers, then plopping yourself at a table with tall cold Pohjala and listening to the cheerful little pop-up busker bands.

I stand by my claim that borders are wormholes. The distance you cross is nothing. Yet, each side is a different universe. It is always a bit jolting crossing these boundaries. Just as I was taken aback crossing from Mongolia to Russia, I was again feeling almost out-of-body bizarre in "have-no-cares" Tallin after leaving stern mother Russia.

Narrow old town streets

Proof I am definitely back into Western culture

Old and new

Best Cities in the World, part III

Queenstown: Best city in the world?
The candy spires of Moscow's St Basil. The wine, song, and tango of Buenos Aires. The trippy Gaudi art and nonstop party of Barcelona. The gothic beauty of Prague. The pure melting pot cosmopolitan energy of New York.

What makes a city special, unique, and wonderful?

What are the best cities in the world?

I've been to over 50 countries and there are certain places that imprint in your mind forever. Northern Zanzibar's pure, remote white-sand beaches. The humbling, awe-inspiring view of Everest from Kala Pattar. The overgrown romantic jungle ruins of Ta Prohm temple in Cambodia.

But there is something irresistible and exciting about landing in a new city for the first time and setting out to explore. Cities have energy. Bustling people. Incredible churches and temples. Famous museums. Architectural wonders. But most of all, cities are where you meet the locals. Wandering down into a cave bar in Prague, or getting invited to a table of raucous Chinese in Lijiang, or having a tall blonde beauty buy you a shot of vodka in St Petersburg and venting about the problems of Russian men. It is in cities where I have felt the most excited about meeting people and getting my first sense of a new country.

Captivating Capetown
Now, these are completely subjective rankings, and they are mostly "first impressions." I realize that you cannot truly understand a city in a few days. That said, sometimes meeting a new city is a bit like locking eyes in a bar. It's love at first sight. Puppy love, perhaps.

Vancouver and the Canadian Northwest
A couple of notes:
1) It's only fair to rank major cities / capitals against one another, so I didn't include (in this list) gorgeous towns like Hood River (Oregon), Bruges in Belgium, Suzdal in Russia, or picture perfect Hallstatt in Austria. Hmm. It's clear I need to make this other list though! So many beautiful towns in the world.
2) I have a "1 city per country" rule because otherwise this list would get too long. Each city listed is my favorite of that country.
3) For the US, which has more amazing cities than I could possibly ever rank and list here, I have chosen "Southern California" as a placeholder somewhat arbitrarily. Seattle and Portland have better outdoor choices, San Francisco and New York are more true cities, but Southern California is not a terrible place with its perfect weather, beaches, mountains, wine regions, and up-and-coming downtown hot spots. This list is not to rank US cities; rather, it is to rank international cities against a pretty nice US region. Perhaps in another post I will rank US cities. (Feel free to swap "Southern California" with the US city of your choice in your mind.)
4) My taste in cities is probably different than yours, so it's only fair that I list my criteria. Basically, I take 5 categories and rank each city on a scale of 1-10, than just add up the totals to get my rankings. Simple. As you can see, for me, it's not just about the city itself. It's really important that a city is located in a cool region and has outdoorsy awesome as well. I realize that's not important for everyone, but for me, it's yuuuuuuge.

My categories:
1) Postcardiness -- is a city beautiful? Does it have lots of pretty parks, fountains, cool buildings? Does it have a certain charm and atmosphere? Does it make you fall in love right off the plane?
2) Things to do in the city -- is the city bustling with interesting museums, hopping bars, great food, trendy night clubs, and postcard attractions?
3) Beaches / mountains / outdoors -- is the city located in a region near beaches, mountains, or other awesome outdoor activities? (Queenstown, New Zealand gets a perfect 10 in this category.)
4) People / food / culture -- are people closed off and xenophobic or do you get hauled up onto a Yunnan stage and asked to chug beers? Do you feel like you are in an exotic place, far removed from your comfortable living room back home? Is there live snake on the menu?
5) Liveability -- does it feel safe to walk down the street? how expensive is the city? What is traffic like? Are there jobs other than selling coachroaches on a stick? Could I see myself truly living here, munching kebabs and mint tea, enjoying my airy man-skirt on the veranda?

That's it! Pretty simple right? Now, this is the 3rd time I've done a ranking like this, and as I've visited new cities it was clear that I had to update the list. If you are interested, here is my original ranking, and my 2nd update. I will have a 4th update after posting my travels through Eastern Europe and the Middle East soon ... for now, here is the 3rd set of rankings. Enjoy!

Time to pack my bags ...
Sooo many questions right?

I will try to anticipate a few here:
Q) Why did you rank Rio as a "1" in livability?
A) Rio is incredibly beautiful and fun. At the same time it feels fairly dangerous. When I swam at Copacabana I watched (and smelled) raw sewage flow right into the ocean.

Q) Why did Kyoto only get a "5" in livability?
A) Kyoto, and Japan in general, feels difficult for a foreigner to penetrate past the surface. There are certain bars and parts of the city where, as a gaijin, I will never be allowed. And Japan's cities are quite expensive. Despite all this, Kyoto came out near the top of the rankings so that says something.

Q) How dare you pick Munich over Berlin for Germany's best city?
A) I love Berlin, it's a riot. However, there is something very nice about getting a pleasant buzz at a centuries-old beer hall, then walking through a park with nude sunbathers to watch river surfers.

Q) Where is Seattle? Or New York? Or San Francisco? Are you crazy or just stupid?
A) Sure am! My blog is called One Dumb Travel Bum after all. Please read my notes above as to why I didn't include all these US cities ...

Q) Where is Copenhagen? Or Oslo? Or Dubai? Or Iceland?
A) I haven't been to these cities yet. Excuse me while I cry ... ok ... I'm back. Reykjavik, Copenhagen, you are both very, very high on my must see list.

Q) Va te faire foutre! How can the city of light be ranked as a mid-level city?!
A) Excusez-moi. Sorry to burst your bubble. Just kidding. I'm not sorry.

Ooooooo!!! This was fun! Excuse me, I need to look for houses in Capetown ...