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Estonia in Glorious Eurovision

Why do I do it? Why do I pick out the trainee check-in desk clerk just because she looks nice? Her boss hovered over her, prompting her with every line, which she delivered as though she were a hostage making one of those phone calls to her parents (I’m OK, I’m being treated well, please tell the Government to release the Libyans etc.). Deep down I knew that this marked the beginning of a long separation between myself and my bag. The plane to Stockholm was one of the smallest I had seen, and that included several model aeroplanes. As I climbed the three steps and smiled at the inevitably attractive air hostess, I remembered my last plane trip, a particularly joyous occasion six years ago when I returned from spending a year in Germany. Manchester had never looked so inviting as on that day. I quite liked flying really, apart from the takeoff, where I always closed my eyes and tried to nod off, since if I am going to die I want to be only ninety per cent aware of the fact. JZ Skyways, mmm… doesn’t have the reassuring ring of BA or Lufthansa does it? Anyway, once that we were level and the cold chicken and rice came round, I relaxed and begin to fall into a sort of fitful doze, occasionally prising open a tired eye to take in the wonderful view of the Baltic and the island-infested Swedish coastline.

Meanwhile, a brief, very brief stop in Stockholm and a transfer to a bigger, but just as empty plane to Tallinn, capital of Estonia. And after a gourmet snack of a ham sandwich with a barrel of salt poured onto it, we skimmed above the forested hinterland of Tallinn and landed at the airport. The terminal itself was just one long greenhouse. There was one entrance, two passport officials, and a very empty arrivals hall. This was, of course, because this was the only plane that had arrived at the airport for some time, days in fact as far as I could tell. The one baggage carousel was empty in minutes, the arrivals hall was empty in minutes, all except a bored looking woman in the baggage office, and me. It was no place for agrophobics. The carousel was switched off, no more bags. I had problem. Which is exactly what I sorrowfully said to the bored woman on the baggage desk. But wait, she speaks English! Hurrah! After she had taken my baggage tag, having rejected two bits of boarding pass, she showed me a chart with about twenty different types of bag on it. Choose one, she said. Of course, none of them looked remotely like my bag, but I pointed to one and she informed me that my bags would not be here before midnight. Smelly undies in the morning then.

I changed some money (virtually coinless society, they even have a 4p banknote) and leaving a trail of cheese biscuits leaking from my pockets along the gleaming, spotless, slick as glass floor I went to wait for the bus. The normal rigmarole for catching buses in Continental Europe is a bit of a trial, as invariably it requires buying tickets from those little kiosk places that stand on every street corner and usually in between as well, not to mention having to work out how to punch the damn thing in the machine on the bus, whilst a plain clothes ticket inspector circles around the helpless floundering foreigner. With zero knowledge of the local language it is never an enticing prospect. Imagine my delight when all I had to do was get on the bus, chuck some cash at the driver, and say “Kesklinn” which meant “Centre”, a fact conveniently displayed on a nearby roadsign. The ride took about five minutes, which made me realise that Tallinn is possibly the only capital city in Europe where one could walk from the plane to the city centre in less than half an hour. We came to a sort of commercial area, with a hotel where half the bus got off, so I followed (good tip, always follow the locals). Feeling liberated without my heavy pack, I wandered off down a bit of an alleyway where lots of reconstruction was taking place and emerged at a small but very modern and extremely clean hotel with nice English speaking staff. They even showed me to my room, rather than just throwing the key at me and going back to the crossword. The room was big with a modern bathroom, a double bed (!) a telly, and a fridge! I gratefully flopped on the bed awhile, had a shower, idly nodded off and checked that the telly worked.

City Square I emerged into the blissfully warm Tallinn evening and headed for the old town, a matter of yards from the hotel door. The Old Town offered a melange of styles and atmospheres, on the one hand Eastern European with the endless kiosks and cobbled streets and street hawkers and view of the more Soviet architecture beyond, but also the Western designer shops and electrical shops and of course MacDonalds, and in some ways it felt even Mediterranean with the narrow streets and the old city walls and archways and pavement cafes and, of course, the sun.

I walked steadily up the hill, past the locals and the surprising number of tourists up to the town square. Always a good place to get your bearings. The town hall square was a modest affair, set on a slope with a slightly unusual town hall set to one side. You tend to expect ornate, gothic town halls of large dimensions whilst travelling around Europe, but this one was small, white-washed and covered in scaffolding, understated yet refreshingly simple. Most encouraging were the ring of pavement cafes and bars which encircled the square, well patronised and, as the sun cast it’s long shadow across the shiny cobbles of the square, tempting beyond words. I stopped at one and had my first Saku beer, pale, thin tasting, but refreshing, then again canal water would have been refreshing in this perfect setting. Tallinn seemed to be a very good place to sit and do nothing, just sit and have a beer, nothing more required. The atmosphere was very laid back and easy, but most noticeable was the lack of any threat or hassle or aggressive beggars which you tend to get in capital cities. Everyone who passed seemed to be enjoying life, not exactly shouting it from the rooftops, but just feeling very happy. The people were markedly Scandinavian, either blond and beautiful, or pale with jet-black hair and deep green eyes. This trait was particularly prevalent amongst the women, who were the most stunning human beings I had ever encountered in my relatively short existence. So I had another beer, which was almost the same price as in Britain, a minor irritation. I noticed the Scandinavian strain as I was travelling from the airport and was struck by the contrast between the relatively well-groomed people and their drab Soviet surroundings. Rather like the entire Swedish population had been forcedly transported to Kiev or somewhere. They were out of place, indeed they had been out of place since 1945. A Western European people, their homeland Russified, but their genetics unaltered.

Talking of Russification I climbed the hill towards Toompea, leaving behind a chanting troup of Hare Krishna monks in Raekoja plats (Town Hall Square). The Hare Krishna movement is rapidly becoming the religious equivalent of McDonalds, you turn a corner, and hey presto there they are. Toompea offers a great contrast. It was, and still is the symbol of power in Estonia, having been the place where Tallinn was founded as a fortress back in the 13th Century. To stand on the Castle Square today is to witness an amazing contrast in historical fortune. This one site tells the story of Estonia as well as any history book ever could. Approaching from the Kiek in de Kök, a medieval tower of which more later, on the left you have the modern centre of Estonian government, Toompea Castle, not really a castle at all, more of a palatial rather uninspiring complex of government offices, not unattractive as such things go, but hardly a tourist board dream. On the right is the vastly more interesting Alexander Nevsky Catherdral, the spiritual heart of the Russian community and a none too popular symbol of past repression for the native Estonians. The building itself is very impressive, Orthodox domes and gold being the order of the day. Intrigued I went in for a look around. Orthodox cathedrals are very different to Anglican or RC churches. There is no real nave and nowhere for the congregation to sit, just an open area and then a low barrier behind which the alter stands and the service takes place. To my delight a service was due to begin in five minutes. Looking round at the worshippers, I was struck by the diversity of people attending and their strange attitude to it all. Naturally many of the people were small wrinkly plump Russian babooshkas. Almost all the women, even the young kids, had their heads covered by a variety of headscarves. Some of the attendees were dodgy looking blokes in tracksuits, often with shopping bags and smelling of booze. There seemed to be a kind of hypnotic quality to what they were doing. Everyone crossed themselves as they came through the doors, but many did this continually through the service, walking aimlessly around and then stopping suddenly in front of a candle or an icon or just in a dark corner and then crossing themselves till their arms must have ached. Just for variety they occasionally gave a short bow. They appeared and disappeared like phantoms. A few women clustered nearer the altar, as if transfixed. Children wandered around munching bananas, clutching dolls and crossing themselves of course. After a few minutes of this odd activity, a bloke in robes came out and standing at right-angles to his flock chanted in a staccato monotone for about ten minutes like some sort of auctioneer. He was followed by a guy in a flowing beard, who emerged from the partitioned choir behind the altar. The Jesus lookalike couldn’t even bring himself to look at the church, turning his back to us straight away. His moment was yet to arrive. After a touch of chanting he turned round and came among us, waving incense. I always thought that they just waved it randomly around, but I was wrong. Everyone got a face full of it, even I was spotted, skulking at the back. Receiving an icy stare I too was wreathed in incense smoke and nearly chinned by his metal censer. Tallin As I left I saw a man bow so low that he touched the ground. And then he crossed himself of course. All very bizarre but very touching and an experience guaranteed to leave a lasting impression. Outside Russian beggars sat on the steps, as Estonian government officials came out of their offices and into their BMWs. How different it must have once been, how richly ironic it all seems now. Role reversal at it’s harshest. I walked along Toomkali past the shuttered houses and twisting alleyways. After passing a number of the omnipresent souvenir shops and postcard touts I came to an open area where a terrific view of Tallinn could be had. Below me was a cluster of old medieval buildings, all with bright terracotta roofs, so tightly packed that they seemed to be on top of one another. In the near distance the Baltic shone blue in the evening sun, the ferry dock harbouring a bright white ferry bound for Stockholm or maybe Helsinki. As I was caught in this reverie and about to take a photo a tall bloke with messy blond hair said, “Hello again” “Hello” said I, nonplussed by the inference that we had met before. “You were here yesterday, I remember” said Goldilocks. “No I wasn’t, I’ve only just arrived” said I, feeling an unwanted conversation beginning to develop.

He made some small talk for a few minutes, where are you from, are you on holiday etc. and seemed a pleasant enough bloke. By some cunning conversational manouver he steered the conversation onto music. It was then that he revealed his raison d’etre. Inside a leather bag he was carrying, were a stack of CD’s and tapes, obviously not for his own consumption. He started by telling me that if I liked music I should get a CD by Camille, an Estonian folk singer. Thanks for the tip, mate. But I am far too polite and weak-willed to get rid of these people and soon we had moved on through some Estonian crooner from the Sixties and some very depressing folk music type thing. He had a walkman with him so that nice tourists like me could listen to all this while they enjoyed the view and planned their escape. The strange thing was that even though it was plainly obvious that he was attempting to sell these tapes, he never once actually asked me to buy or told me a price, it was as though he was doing all this just to improve his rather garbled and parrot like English and to entertain lone tourists. Which is why I spent about half an hour chatting to him.

I began to be struck during his conversation just how many people spoke English here. I suppose they didn’t have much choice really. Estonian is, along with Finnish and Hungarian, one of the Finno-Ugric branch of languages, which means that these languages resemble no other in any way whatsoever, apart from a few languages spoken by lost people living on the periphery of Western Siberia and the North of Russian. Even then, Hungarian is about as intelligible to the average Estonian as say, Portuguese is to the average Brit. So for the Estonian, you either learn a widely understood language, or you live forever in No Man’s Land.

The language itself is vowel-obsessed, words generally have about six “o” or “ö” in them not to mention sackfuls of “a” and “u”. The result is akin to listening to a man with his mouth full of wasps. Anyway, eventually he pulled out a tape of the Estonian Song for Europe since 1996 which I was genuinely interested in. We swapped opinions and stories about the Eurovision Song Contest for a while, I said that the contest had long been a big joke in Britain, and his wry smile suggested he thought it was a big joke too, but he was a salesman and his enthusiasm knew no bounds as he displayed his astounding knowledge of Estonian songs in the Eurovision Song Contest. He then told me that Latvia had come third in this year’s contest, a fact of which he seemed immensely proud, but then I suppose anything which gets the Baltics noticed on a Europe wide stage has to be good news. I shoved 100 kroon into his hand as he wrote down the name of the Latvian song contest heroes. The next day I came back to this spot and turned straight back round as I saw him talking to someone else he had doubtless “met before”. I didn’t particular want to become one of the few people he really had seen before.

Time to eat. I walked down the hill, towards a recommended restaurant serving Georgian food, the ethnic Estonian stuff could wait. One of the few happy legacies of it’s Soviet past was the presence of a Caucasian community from Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Their role in life was to provide the Estonians with a touch of exotic cuisine and the English tourist with the bizarre thrill of eating a cuisine unknown in England in a country unknown in England. The restaurant was minimalist and very dark, the whole thing being lit by about three or four tiny nightlights. The other customers, all three of them, were English, which was surprising. The menu consisted of a variety of kebabs and a few weird and wonderful things like “Azerbaijani meat dish” (any clues?) and Georgian cheese with cowberry sauce. Unable to resist a cowberry I ordered that plus a chicken kebab with potatoes and those long green pepperoni things you get in kebab houses and Arab pizzerias. Even more bizarre was the complementary aperitif, a thimbleful of some spirit and a sort of burnt piece of bacon, which the waiter (there were two of them, twins I think, or perhaps they were the same person using mirrors in a very cunning fashion) explained was Georgian vodka plus smoked meat. Very nice, as was the cheese and cowberry, which was in contrast to the kebab which had been fashioned from a very, very old hen. However, relaxed by the vodka and the pleasant night-time atmosphere of downtown Tallinn, I retired to my hotel, only to find that my shaver was on the blink. Experimental beard time I think.

For someone who hates breakfast, correction English breakfast, an Estonian breakfast was a dream. Why do the English think that the only food fit to be eaten at 7.30am is fatty bacon and greasy eggs, glue-like porridge or tasteless cereal? I would much rather have salami, cottage cheese or pickled herrings, which is fortunate, because that was what was on offer.

Before I did anything, I needed to retrieve my pack and rescue my underwear and such from the clutches of the baggage office at the airport. Negotiating the roads with great aplomb and feeling proud of it, I caught a bus up to the airport, which was even more deserted than the previous day. Noticing that my cheese biscuit crumbs had been swept away I knocked on the window of the left baggage office and announced my presence with a cheery “Hallo”. The baggage man told me in a “why do I bother” tone that my bags had been delivered during the night by taxi to my hotel. What a great place! They even delivered your bags by taxi! I made a mental note to repeat this ruse the next time I went on holiday.

Retrieving aforementioned backpack from the hotel reception, I headed out into town. The plan was to go to a former Soviet Submarine base, to have a look at Estonia’s recent dark history and to spend the day in the nearby seaside town of Paldiski. I don’t know why I wanted to see this naval base, since by all accounts there was nothing to see apart from some derelict barracks and, more interestingly, empty missile silos. I think the silos probably tell you why it sounded fascinating, not so much a case of what was there now, but the mere knowledge of what it had once been. Empty or not, this place was big shit in it’s time. However, the day didn’t really pan out how I had imagined. I set off around the edge of the old town towards the train station. I was soon sidetracked into the old town itself, via something called Fat Margaret, who was not a “she”, but an “it”. Besides, the Estonian women could never be called Fat Margaret.

Our Maggie was in fact some kind of fortification, one of the surviving towers of the medieval fortress. Tour groups, mostly American or Japanese took endless photos. Down the road I found something much more interesting. An unremarkable plaque stood on the wall, thanking the British Navy for their part in the 1918 War of Independence. Firstly I didn’t realise that there had been a War of Independence and secondly I felt rather pleased that the good old Brits, eternal good guys of international relations until Thatcher got into bed with Ronnie, had played such a significant part as to be honoured in this way. Were there any survivors remaining in the UK? Did they really know or care where or what Estonia was? Or were the Estonians merely part of some Europe wide diplomatic power game?

I refuse to be cynical however, so let’s continue walking around the city walls, impressive ramparts to my right. Walls metres thick. I crossed from this deeply impressive historical promenade, across to the station to buy a train ticket to Paldiski. Noticing that the woman in the ticket office had a Russian name on her badge I bought a ticket in Russian and found that the next train left in two hours time. Oh darn. The train station was, to say the least, pint size. The platforms went up to number four, there was one ticket window and the trains looked as though they had been made by Hornby. Talking of pints, I went into the nearby café and had a cheap pint of beer.

One of the lovely things about coming to Eastern Europe is the total disregard people have to the norms and rules of drinking in the morning. No matter what the time of day, it always seems to be time for a drink. On my last trip to Prague we stopped at a desolate service area on the Czech border. After a few minutes of mooching around the shop, everyone got back on the coach and I happened to glance at the petite blonde sitting across the aisle. She was cracking open a tin of fairly powerful Czech beer. Nothing unusual in that, you may think. Not your normal tipple at 6am in the morning though…

I spun out the beer for as long as possible watching with amusement as hundreds of teenagers with armfuls of newspapers failed miserably to sell even one of them to the few commuters and old ladies with shopping bags who were passing through. With over an hour to go to the train I climbed the steep walkway back up to the old town. Puffing and blowing like the out of condition wretch that I am, I reached a sort of viewing area at the top, full of postcard sellers and cafes. I stood for a while, looking out to some of Tallinn’s less scenic areas and then turned to move on. Facing me were a phalanx of photographers, press people, TV people and police, all following several VIP’s in suits. Alerted by my journalistic instinct I hung around staring at them as though I had recognised my long lost twin brother among the crowd. A big blond man pointed out several landmarks to a big bland man. Then they trooped off down the hill. I ingratiated myself with a Canadian couple who seemed to know what was kicking off here. “Who are these people?” I said. “The Prime Minister of Iceland apparently” said the clearly henpecked husband. “Quick, get after them”, said the clearly over excited and probably menopausal wife. “There he is, come on”, she said, virtually orgasmic in her glee at having seen a European head of government.

To tell the truth, I was quite excited myself, thinking it unlikely that I should bump into Tony Blair one day whilst strolling around Skipton Market. The next day I saw a picture of the Estonian PM, Mart Laar, in the Irish Pub, and recognised him as the big blond man. What a great place, I thought, for the second time today. Running down the hill past the multitudes of tour parties, I found myself in the Town Hall Square, as I would do so on numerous occasions during the next few days. The appeal of the place is not hard to pinpoint. I sat in the sun an Estonian pavement café with a glass of Estonian beer and a plate of Chicken with mushroom sauce (snot) and tiny chips served stone cold and buried in an avalanche of paprika. Weeks of planning flew out of the window. Meticulous scrutiny of travel guides and train timetables over endless months were rendered useless at a stroke. The beer was cold, the sun was hot, the view was terrific. A Japanese man with a straw hat and a collection of cameras grinned as he sipped a glass of beer almost as big as himself. This really was the life. Who cares about a rotting old submarine base anyway, I thought, as my 25p train ticket was relegated to the status of souvenir.

When I finally stirred myself from my slumber in the sun, I made the bold decision to walk along to the Kadriorg Park, reputedly one of the most attractive areas of Tallinn. I wandered through some drab streets towards the ferry port. The boats docked were quite large impressive affairs, I had never really noticed that ferries were so big before. Kadriorg held quite a few attractions, one being the Presidential Palace, to which I now headed. On the way I was approached by a drunk Russian, presumably wanting money. Amazingly it was the only such encounter I had during the whole of my Estonian sojourn. Kadriorg was a lovely peaceful place, wonderfully verdant, much of it being kept as semi-wilderness, which made a change from the clipped lawns and stubbly grass of English city parks. The absence of beer cans, dog shit and syringes made another change from English city parks. The President of Estonia, Lennart Meri, was a leading dissident throughout the years of Soviet control and attempted Russification. The first Foreign Minister of the newly independent Estonia, he was elected President soon after. He has use of the Presidential Palace in Kadriorg, a far cry from the austere Buckingham Palace and oddly likeable. Designed in 1718 for Peter the Great it is not a stunning building but it does look fun to live in, surrounded by this public parkland (no keeping the public at arms length here), it’s outer walls a rich shade of deep pink, it’s gardens and fountains unpretentious but soothing, rather like the country itself. A residence to reflect the country and president it serves. The back of the residence is much more interesting however, since this is where the guards keep watch. Anyone who has been to London to see the Queen (figuratively speaking) or even to Prague Castle will know that the guards are the main attractions at these places. Vast crowds throng to watch them march up and down to brass bands and hand over to another troop of two dozen Grenadiers, adorned by bearskins, tourist fodder for pageantry junkies. This was very different however, no one was watching the two young lads on duty as they stood like wax dummies outside a residence that few terrorists seemed likely to target, guarding a man who few people would ever wish to harm. A young lad of about ten sat on a little stool with a drawing board and sketched the palace in silence. Imagine that happening in Britain? No, me neither.

The whole scene was so perfect, I wanted to sit down myself and sketch the lad sketching the palace. Then I remembered that my artistic skills sat on a par with my ostrich breeding skills, so I moved on. Walking back to town along the promenade by the Baltic, I paused briefly at a monument called Russalka, which seemed to represent some kind of sea rescue in the early part of this century. Further down the road, down at heel Russians, mostly old women and grubby kids sat about on the rocks at the sea edge. Some looked mournfully out to sea, perhaps looking for a route back to their former existence and an escape route from a country who would rather they go back to Mother Russia, from whence they came. Sad.

Back in the Old Town I popped into the Kiek in der Kök, one of the remaining towers of the town’s fortifications which housed a museum. Quite a bizarre one as it turned out. The downstairs section was given over to a truly gruesome photographic exhibition, completely out of character with the tone of the museum. The following themes were covered; pigs being slaughtered, knives cutting piglets throats, graphic shots of porcine beheadings; naked women sitting amongst ruins and devastated buildings; close ups of arses. I hadn’t eaten yet. Upstairs was less stomach-turning but infinitely more conventional, covering military paraphenalia from long forgotten conflicts between Sweden and Russia and such. One statistic I noticed from the exhibits stood out. Apparently, Tallinn has lost 50000 residents during the last ten years, evidence of the essential transitionary nature of the Russian population and of Estonian attitudes towards their unwanted minority. As I left I spotted a car with a Russian numberplate, driver feverishly tinkering about underneath the bonnet. Russian car clapped out. Create your own metaphor.

I made it to a pavement café in the main square, Russian owned. Tempted to drink myself silly, I observed the more sober citizens gathered around me. A couple who were clearly having difficulties sat awkwardly, silent and barely maintaining eye contact. A Finnish girl who was wandering around Kadriorg earlier laid out her many guide books and postcards and cast furtive looks around her, as though she were being watched by the secret service. At the top of the town hall, I noticed a green serpent sticking out of the wall, wobbly crown on his head. I drained my pint hastily, hearing the voices in my head once more…

Diverted by a very Western shopping centre with very Western prices, I arrived back and prepared for a night on the town. The sheer opulence of the shopping mall proved that the Estonians had come a long way from the traumatic days of rationing and rampant inflation of the early Nineties. In a way the country was like an baby after it’s umbilical cord had been cut, the difference being that it was not instantly obvious who was going to mother it. The centre was full of people wandering aimlessly around, bumping into each other with a flagrant disregard for those little courtesies required when one physically bumps into another.

Perhaps I was just being very English about it all. My electric shaver was still giving cause for concern, and I thought I might look for a new one. From the day of my first shave I have never used a blade, the very thought makes me cringe. Imagine my euphoria when the reluctant appliance spluttered into action when I tested it back at the hotel. I decided I would have a European night, a meal in a “European Union” theme restaurant, which would clearly never be permitted in Britain, and a few drinks in the Irish Pub.

The enthusiasm in Estonia for acceptance into the European Union knows no bounds. Understandably, the country desperately wants to be seen as a truly Western country, divorced from their past and all things Russian. They also want a share of the investment and development funds which would surely come their way if and when they are accepted into the club. They were the first Baltic nation to be accepted in principle when membership talks begin in 1998, along with Hungary, Poland, Slovenia, Cyprus and the Czech Republic. Many small countries in Europe think the same way. They see being in the EU as a way to wield real influence in the world, an influence and attention they could never hope to attract as a small country on the periphery of world politics and economics. Estonia was always the most Westernised part of the Soviet Union, largely due to the unique position that Finland enjoyed vis a vis the USSR and their cultural affinity, not to mention physical proximity to the Finns. The Tallinn Government continued to look to Finland as a major trading partner and link to the EU. Thus all this Euro-mania manifested itself in the shape of CD hawkers who knew the Eurovision Song Contest like we know the 1966 World Cup winning team, and weird restaurants whose entire menu consisted of signal dishes from each of the EU countries. Wishing to find something different I decided to find something from Denmark. Do you know of any well-loved Danish dishes, apart from bacon? Me neither, which probably explained why the presence of Denmark had not been required for the menu. Most of the other dishes were pretty standard, moussaka for Greece, paella for Spain, chicken curry for Great Britain, so I went for Sweden which turned out to be a pot full of baked potato and cream with pieces of anchovy in it. The result was not unpleasant, but it was not the spiciest dish I have ever tasted. At one point I thought I could taste garlic, but it may well have been a figment of my imagination. They played weirdly evocative songs like Elton John’s Nikita and the Scorpions’ Wind of Change. The walls were adorned with pictures of the fifteen EU countries. Big Ben was, of course, the GB entry. Banknotes were plastered on the wall and behind the bar, a la English pub fashion. Doubtless they would prefer them in the till.

Just to immerse myself fully into the local culture, I went to the Irish Pub. From experience, pubs of this type were almost exclusively for the use of expats. It was refreshing to see that this place was frequented mainly by Estonians, or they could have been Finns, famous for their alcohol soaked existence. In the corner was a small knot of Scottish blokes in kilts, either football supporters on their way to Latvia, or expats. Scotland was very popular in Estonia, ever since the infamous incident when FIFA ordered Estonia to play a World Cup match against Scotland during the afternoon because of concerns about the floodlights. The Estonians refused so they didn’t turn up. The Scots kicked off and then simply walked away, leaving the sets of supporters to have an impromptu match and a few ales in the pub afterwards. Thus the Scots gathered something of a cult following. Sitting down with my pint of Kilkenny (well it was cheaper than at home you see) the only cult following I was doing was after one of the waitresses who was the most lovely girl I had even seen. She had big deep brown eyes, a tiny but perfectly apportioned body, and lovely shoulder length, auburn hair. In a pony tail. I was smitten. In my drunken state I scribbled some notes, which I transcribe for you now. Please tear this page up if you adhere to high moral standards.

When I had finished dreaming about the lovely waitress I went to have some intelligent conversation with the Scots, most of whom were indeed on their way to Latvia to see the World Cup qualifier. They informed me that tickets were all sold for the Scotland end of the ground, but from past experience I should be able to get tickets easily for the rest of ground, which was encouraging. To cap off my European evening I had a burger from a Finnish fast food shop called Hesburger, where the burgers were fine and the fries, in true Finno-Ugric style, were stone cold. I fell asleep watching an hilarious programme on Finnish TV about how to speak English, involving a school, three ramblers getting into a lather over looking through binoculars (Would you like to have a go? Ooh, yes please), lots of ice and snow, and an interview with Gillingham FC’s manager from around 1992. All very strange.

I woke to a blue sky and warm sunshine, like stepping out into a washing powder commercial. I planned to go back to Kadriorg and do one or two of the museums. If you are into museums and such things, don’t go anywhere in Europe on a Monday, or in the case of Estonia, on a Tuesday. Wednesday is the day on which these things open. On the way I passed the ferry port once again and did some boat spotting. I wondered idly whether there was such thing as a “boat spotter” as in “train spotter” or “plane spotter”. Whilst planes are interesting if only for their final destination, trains are devoid of even that. To me trains have no aesthetic value whatsoever, they look the same and they all travel on the same track. What are those numbers on the side, serial numbers or something? It’s like someone collecting postcodes, a totally arbitrary meaningless number created by civil servants. So what if this carriage is an LSD014468, it’s a bloody train carriage, not a sodding panda. I imagined some anoraked Estonian lurking around the corner with his flask of coffee and pickled herring sandwiches, trembling with excitement because an ETA9775 from Helsinki was just about to cast off or whatever boats do. Anyway, leaving behind the ships, I walked along some streets to Kadriorg Park. The route was much more interesting than I had remembered from the previous afternoon. There were quite a few old-style plank houses interspersed with the drabber apartment blocks. The old houses looked as if a gust of wind would blow them down, put together as they were from hundreds of wooden planks, all with very makeshift looking fences. Kadriorg itself was looking even more perfect than before. Ornamental ponds lined the path, all with little islands in the middle with little houses for the ducks. They were so pristine, you could even see the bottom of them. Further into the park little wooden cottages began to appear, again made from planks, but this time brightly and newly painted in blues, greens and pinks. I passed a sumptuous tennis club, the like of which is seldom seen in the UK. Judging from the standards on court, these were probably the elite of Estonian tennis. Adjoining the club was the National Stadium. You can tell much about a country from their football stadiums. The joy of it is, that wherever you go in the world there will always be a football stadium. In a strange way it is a soothing thought. This one was clean, new but tiny, with scarcely enough seats to accommodate say, 4000 fans. Indeed football has never really taken hold in Estonia, even under the Soviets the local sides were notably unsuccessful. The weather doesn’t help, neither does the smallness of Estonia and the cultural affinity with Finland, which is another notable footballing underachiever. The lack of security in the stadium was amazing, just one gate and half-arsed turnstile and then nothing but an iron railing about two foot off the floor to stop me frolicking on the pitch. This was three days before a big World Cup qualifier against Portugal. Imagine if you will a World Cup match taking part on a school pitch, or a lower league Rugby Union ground, and you will get some idea of the level we are talking about.

Anyway, not everyone likes football, so let’s talk about Peter the Great. He was probably Russia’s most famous Tsar, the Tsar who first opened Russia up to the West, although we are talking in relative terms here, before his reign during the late 17th/early 18th Century, Russia was about as well known in the West as chicken curry. His great achievements were the establishment of Russia’s navy and the rise to prominence of St. Petersburg, always the most Western of Russian cities. The reason for bringing him into this article is because he had a small house built for him in Tallinn, which I decided to visit. For a Tsar, the house is amazingly modest, simply a living room, bedroom and, upstairs peculiarly enough, a very small dining room with just enough room for one wooden table. The bedroom held the most fascination, the whole thing kitted out with replicas of the Tsar’s furniture, hence a very low four poster bed, sagging alarmingly in the middle and a sort of little cupboard. There were also a few plaster busts of Peter and Catherine the Great. He looked like a big bloke with a big bulbous nose and flowing locks. While I was making my quick inspection and wondering where His Imperial Majesty took a dump, the little ticket man in the entrance hall was pacing the room. He rose from behind his table to reveal a pair of baggy pantaloons and a tricorn hat (think Napoleon) which he plonked on his head with a kind of weary realisation that he would be the butt of every school child’s laughter as soon as they came through the door. Suppressing a furtive snigger, I left him to his fancy dress and strolled on through Kadriorg. Little man-made waterfalls, peeped through the trees, here and there would be sculptures of famous Estonians like Jan Koort, he was famous to the Estonians anyway. He appeared to have been wearing an astronaut suit when he posed for the statue. Unless he was the Michelin man perhaps. There were also little stone memorials to soldiers of the Red Army, mossy slabs of stone, hidden away in obscure corners. Not the most popular people in Estonia, it has to be said, but to the credit of the Estonians some respect had been shown to their memory.

Further up the road were the Song Grounds. Let me explain a little about the significance of song to the Estonians. The Estonians, along with their Baltic neighbours, held regular Song Festivals, a showcase and celebration of Estonian folklore and culture, and a symbol of their nationhood. We are not talking about a Eurovision type thing, or the Reading Festival. This is an almost spiritual occasion, full of national significance. I had listened to the sort of music sung by vast choirs, all clad in national dress, and it sounded very haunting, almost religious, and not the sort of thing you could unwind to at the end of a hard day at the office. The modern Estonian drive for independence is commonly thought to have started from the 1988 Song Festival where 100,000 people packed into the Song Grounds night after night. Later that summer rallies were held which attracted 300,000 people. Now this sounds a lot, but step back, take a deep breath and contemplate the following: 300,000 represents over 20 per cent of the Estonian population. That is the equivalent of 12 million UK citizens attending one rally in one location, in the unlikely event that a location could be found to accommodate such a gathering. What a staggering thought, and one which reinforces the meaning of independence and freedom to these people. After digesting these figures, I expected more from the Song Grounds, but it all looked oddly insignificant, just one stand and a long grassy bank. A lone German was trying to sing and produce an echo from high up in the stand. To imagine a crowd of over a quarter of a million in what looked like a provincial skateboard park was beyond my comprehension.

Walking along the main road towards the Estonian History Museum at the Maarjamäe Palace, a car stopped abruptly at the side of the road, causing the cars behind to swerve and narrowly avoid a pile-up. The occupant addressed me in Russian, I think he was asking directions. Not much road etiquette round here thought I. The Maarjamäe Palace was a 19th Century construct, a mixture of mock-medieval and 20th Century sanatorium. Originally it was occupied by a Russian nobleman, and after a chequered life was awarded the History Museum in 1975. Before I launch into a history of Estonia between the wars, a few observations. Looking round an Eastern European museum can be a trying experience. Not only are English guides and labels thin on the ground but you tend to be followed as you walk round. There is generally an old woman in slippers and wearing a long dark green coat like an old greengrocer, who makes sure you have seen everything and then opens the next door, turns the light on, and then another woman appears who repeats the whole operation. So, it can be a bit irritating.

Anyway, Estonia has been independent before, between the wars from 1918 to 1945. Whilst Hitler and Stalin were plotting how to divide Europe, Estonia was a reasonably stable, prosperous part of the world. The Estonians won their freedom in the 1918-20 War of Independence, after having been part of the Russian Tsarist Empire. A fairly motley looking army with a few make-do-and-mend tanklets were allowed to defeat a Red Army who clearly had little stomach to battle over a tiny country on the periphery of the old Empire, they had more pressing business deeper within Russia. The Estonian forces were marshalled by Konstantin Päts, a significant figure in Estonian history to whom we shall return later. The new Estonian state proved to be relatively prosperous and progressive, but politically unstable and constantly insecure. The country had eleven presidents in just twenty-two years, ten in just fourteen. Education and social security was well developed, though everything seemed to be heavily influenced by the state. The course of Estonian history changed slightly in 1934 with the rise of independence hero Konstantin Päts to the presidency. By nature, Päts was an aggressive politician, nationalistic with an authoritarian streak. A parliamentary crisis allowed him to exercise ever more power and in 1938 direct presidential rule was imposed as Päts began to portray himself as the saviour of the Estonian people. The pictures on the wall show the transition from dour parliamentarian to an almost Mussolini-like figure, puffing his chest out, attracting the adoration of the masses, glorifying the symbols of the Estonian nationalism. The storm clouds continued to gather over Estonia, and the sky fell in for them with the signing of the Molotov-von Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, an act reviled across the Baltics, which granted domination of Estonia to the Soviets in return for their acquiescence in the Nazi’s struggle against the Allies. On a flimsy pretext, the Soviets overran Estonia in June 1940. Attempts were made to mobilise Estonians against their brethren, the Finns, or the “finnic-vermin” as the Soviets so charmingly described them. Elections took place in which Soviet stooges, unsurprisingly won a sweeping “victory”, and as a consequence the country was admitted to the USSR. Briefly. During this time, thousands of Estonians, including the entire Government and virtually every former President, were deported deep into the Soviet Union. The museum seemed to make much of this. Interestingly, they made less of the next four years under Nazi domination. At the very least, everything was depicted in a more sympathetic light. Photographs showed young Estonians in SS uniforms, ready to “fight Bolshevism”. Newspapers were displayed, eulogising the partnership between Nazi Germany and Estonia. In general Estonia suffered less under the Nazis than their Baltic neighbours and the peoples of Eastern Europe. Two factors helped the Estonians during this time. One, they were not a Slavic people, indeed they were all two willing to help in the fight against their Slavic neighbours, the Russians. Neither did Estonia have a greatly significant Jewish population. Only 4000 people were killed at Kloostra, the one concentration camp on Estonian soil. Their ranks bolstered by Red Army defectors, the Estonian SS provided 10000 troops for the Eastern Front, though they were in reality little more than cannon fodder for the Nazi war effort. Still, much was made again of this period, endless photos showed young men in SS uniform, fighting the Russians, side by side with the Nazis. It was all a bit creepy really. The Estonian government, a puppet regime under the directorship of Dr H. Mäe, was showed giving an enthusiastic reception to Hitler and other high ranking officials of the Nazi regime. Anyway, the Nazis left the Estonians to their own devices in 1944, after which a Protection Force was set up to resist the Soviet advance, a fight they conducted with desperate tenacity. The museum went very silent about what happened next. Basically, Estonia was overrun, forgotten by the West and subsumed into the USSR. Partisans amazingly held out till 1950 in the forests, a motley collection of old men in fur coats and adventurers with revolvers known as the Forest Brothers. The reconstruction of a typical Forest Brothers hut made it look terribly exciting and a rather romantic experience. But of course, I knew that I could not be further from the truth.

I left the museum and walked further along the seaside promenade, looking out to sea, beyond the polluted shore. I soon came to a windswept, neglected monument, commemorating the Estonian soldiers who helped the Soviets to victory over the Fascists. On the evidence I had just seen, there would have been considerably more Estonians helping the Fascists to keep out the Soviets. The place had a slightly eerie feel about it all, the style highly reminiscent of an Aztec temple, though I thought it unlikely that the Aztecs would have used concrete breeze-blocks as a construction material. I also doubt that the Aztecs would have had a problem with people dumping beer bottles in these sacred sites. I climbed the gently inclined concrete boulevard up to the steel grey “temple” itself. Towering above was a breeze-block column in the style of Cleopatra’s Needle (correct architectural term is stele I believe). A Russian girl and her immeasurably less sexy mother (presumably) took some photos of the column, the daughter pouting and posing provocatively, as though she were on an FHM photoshoot. I was tempted to tell them I was a photographer from a men’s magazine and could she pose again for a few shots, only this time with a few minor adjustments… The cheque would be in the post.

Back in town, I began to notice just what a small place Tallinn was. Small was certainly beautiful. I saw the woman from the passport control in a café; the man from baggage control coming out of a flat; the non-communicating couple with problems, dragging suitcases across the cobblestones, the woman shaking her head, bemoaning her incapable husband. Nevertheless it all added to the impression that Tallinn is an incredibly small and close-knit capital city. I could make myself at home here, I thought. I hoped that the Estonian Tourist Board would make a virtue of this small-town atmosphere in future. I hope they also make a virtue of the hyper-friendly knitted garment sellers along the old town walls on Vana-Viru. All of them were Russian and I ingratiated myself with them by managing to hold a semi-coherent conversation with them in their native tongue. Any tourist visiting Estonia must buy one of these patterned jumpers, mainly because it is the most traditional and authentic present on offer, but mainly because they are warm and look reasonably attractive. In a Norwegian fisherman sort of way, you understand.

After a ritual wash and brush-up, I donned a pair of decent trousers and headed for a night on the town, determined to get as inebriated as was safe to do for a single bloke alone in a strange city. Although I was alone, I never once felt threatened or intimidated by Tallinn and it’s people, in same way I would feel slightly intimidated in, say, London. The whole atmosphere was one of security, peace and gentle fun, even late at night. I went for the traditional Estonian meal I had been promising myself for the past two days. Vanamaa Juures was a small cellar restaurant furnished in pre-war fashion, old clocks and antique radios and snapshots of a probably long gone family. If the setting was twee and cosy, the menu was extraordinary. My eyes immediately alighted upon the words “Bear roast” and I was hooked. I had perhaps expected wild boar or possibly elk, but bear?! The table of Danes behind me asked the waitress in an incredulous way, “Is that really bear?” I had to find out how it tasted. I just had to. I wondered how they actually acquired bear meat. Did they have bear farms in the woods, or did someone come to the restaurant one day and say, ” Alright, darling, I’ve got some lovely bear meat in the van for yer, love. Top quality gear, only don’t tell everyone, we don’t want the whole town to know. Know what I mean darling?”

Anyway, bear does not taste like chicken, it tastes like peppery beef. My bear must have been either lazy or old because it was a bit stringy. The meal was quite a charming attempt to present a traditional “Sunday” roast, as well as the obligatory dump truck sized mound of sauerkraut I got one roast potato, one Brussels sprout, and some diced carrot and turnip, handy for decorating the cobblestones with later on. Just to emulate a gluttonous old bear, I had some pancakes (of the Scotch variety) with honey. Food seeping from my ears I went for a drink in the Irish pub, to ogle my flight of fancy (she looked rather less appealing tonight) and to have some one dimensional conversation (football) with the various Scots gathered there. I sat there with my pint of Kilkenny, feeling very happy indeed. I loved this friendly, easy-going town where you could see the Icelandic PM in the street and drink beer at 10 in the morning and walk around the city centre at midnight and feel completely safe . Why, even the bar staff knew what I was drinking after only two visits. I walked down to another, seedier bar for a very swift drink, but as I seemed to be the only customer apart from a smooching Russian couple, I moved up the road to an American bar, where I sat outside in the surprisingly warm September night and contemplated my next move.

To my surprise I wandered into the Irish pub again and propped myself up at the bar. I attempted a conversation with a very drunk Scottish gentleman on my right, called Big Tom. He wasn’t an I-want-to-be-your-best-mate type of drunk, rather the I’m-going-to-stare-at-you-as-though-I’ve-done-a-brain-swap-with-a-moos e type of drunk. As Big Tom acrobatically reeled backwards into a corner table, I headed off. As I turned the corner to the hotel I decided to nip into one of the seedier than seedy bars (the other one was an “adult bar” called Pussy or something of that nature) next to the hotel for a nightcap. The pub was basic, what would be termed in the UK as a real spit and sawdust place. The barmaid was a giant, and possibly transsexual. She had a hidden clause in her contract preventing from making any friendly gesture towards the customers. I took a seat behind a pillar and watched the unfolding entertainment, namely karaoke. Most of the patrons were squat little Russian guys, unshaven and dripping in jewellery. There was also a more elderly party of Russians, the women short but plump with flowing dresses and ash-blond hair. An old Russian chap sung something which sounded like “Tulips from Amsterdam”, but wasn’t. Being a karaoke fan I asked for a list of English-language songs. Nyet, comrade. Pretty soon though I sought compensation by participating briefly in the dancing which had started up. Typical Russian stuff, shuffling around in a circle, lots of clapping, drunk old man in the middle of circle doing an impression of a dancing tree. The next thing I remember was tapping on the window of the hotel to let me in, since I couldn’t open the door for some reason, which they did with a cheery grin. In a British hotel, I would have been persona non grata for such a crime

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