Last Few Days in Tallinn

Leaving Siam

The taxi-driver who took us to our accommodation in central Tallinn apologized for his English. I told him I didn't speak Estonian at all, and he said, 'It is normal.' He was a great admirer of the British sense of humour, he said, particularly hyacinth. Hyacinth? Ah, Hyacinth Bucket (from the TV series Keeping Up Appearances). 'Yes,' he said, 'Hyacinth Bucket,' and chuckled. He added, 'Estonia has Chinese President.' I took this to mean that the President of Estonia was of Chinese extraction, another sign of an increasingly multicultural world. In fact, the President of China was visiting Tallinn, so there was a large police presence in the Old Town. The street where we were staying was full of embassies, and at one point we saw a Russian General leaving in his official car, surrounded by officers, all of them wearing those extra-large caps they have.

Looking Towards Raekojaplats

The fine weather was over. For the rest of our stay we had grey skies and rain. We didn't much mind this, except that all our photos of Tallinn had been wiped from the memory of my digital camera when the batteries gave out (it took me about two months to work out this was what had caused it, so you can see how technical I am), and we had to photograph it all over again in less flattering conditions. It is still a stunning city in any light. But we didn't do much sightseeing from now on in any case, just a bit of shopping and a lot of eating and drinking. We were looking for amber for souvenirs, and were at first put off by the prices. The shops have magnificent amber necklaces in the windows, strung with huge polished beads in yellow, red, green and black amber, clear and opaque, with or without inclusions (the little bits of prehistoric leaflitter and animal life that got trapped in the pine resin when it was fossilized). They were all far too expensive for us, and we concluded the market was geared to rich tourists on Baltic cruises. But when you go inside and make it clear what your budget is, the shop assistants start opening drawers and taking out the amber mis-shapes, the equivalent of the deformed chocolates you used to be able to buy cheap. Arguably, these have more character than the perfect beads - Creina, for example, ended up with a necklace of what look like amber shark's teeth.

Windship with Oars of Light

The other thing we did in the last couple of days, was to meet a couple of people who could tell us more about the literary and cultural life of Estonia. The British poet Philip Gross, whose father is Estonian, had put us in touch with them. We talked to Mati Sirkel of the Writers' Union over a beer on the pavement of a cafe called Pegasus, which turns out to belong to the Union itself. He told us that, despite Estonia's high literacy rate and impressive literary tradition, academic creative writing doesn't exist there and public readings have only just got started. He has been organizing regular readings in Tallinn, but it's a struggle to get the audiences. He gave us a book of Estonian poetry called Windship with Oars of Light, featuring in parallel text the work of Jaan Kaplinski, Doris Kareva and other leading poets.

Our second meeting was with Tiina Laats in the pleasant, airy offices of the Estonian Institute. She confirmed all that Mati Sirkel had told us: two British novelists had recently been on a tour of Estonia, and audiences had been disappointing, simply because there's no tradition of this kind of entertainment. The Estonian Institute publicizes Estonian culture internationally, and Tiina gave us a selection of their pamphlets and magazines, which I've drawn on in compiling these pages. She told us about the rural farmhouse where she would soon be going with her family for the summer: very basic, with no running water, just a well. St John's Day, 24 June, is the big summer festival, when many Estonians retreat from the city to spend six weeks in the country.

The Baltic

Standing outside the small airport on our last day, I could just see a glimpse of blue on the other side of the road. It occurred to me that in our ten days in this Baltic country, we'd forgotten to go and look at the Baltic itself. In fact there are many more things I'd like to do - visit some of the islands, see some more of the forests and wildlife, and the bits of Tallinn we missed. We hope we'll go back some day.

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