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

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