Toole Castle on the Gulf of Finland [again, courtesy of the panorama setting on my camera]

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Eid l Kabir

     It's Eid el-Kabir, one of the most important Muslim holidays. On this occasion, every Muslim family who can afford a sheep is obliged to buy one, sacrifice it, and then eat just about all of the organs. The holiday lasts five days total, from Wednesday until Sunday--but the last two or three days are like a gentle awakening from vacation stupor, a return to the normal cycle of day-to-day life.
     My family hosted three slaughters in our living room, because we have the biggest house among all the relatives. Also, our living room has a drain in the corner, which proved to be very handy in cleaning up the mess.
     I thought my presence for the ritual would be an inconvenience, or at least an irregularity, and it was with meek expectations that I asked if I could take a few photos of the event.
     "Mashee Mushkil!" I was told. No problem at all!
     As it turned out, I wasn't the only one to wield a camera for the slaughter. Camera phones, camcorders, point-and-shoots...everybody had some gadget in hand. Anyway, photos and such will come later. Let's start at the beginning of the day.
     I awake at a quarter to 7. The sunrise call to prayer is thickened this morning by a chorus of cheep thousands strong, bleating their last heartfelt bleats across the city. I think about going for a run--yesterday's early morning jog was nice--but I decide against it. It somehow seems irreverent on this holy day, and I besides, I don't want to clash with holiday preparations in the street. I imagine harried Muslims carrying last-minute sheep home on their shoulders, or children sent out by their parents to find just one vital bunch of mint for the afternoon tea.
     I clomp up to the rooftop and watch the sunrise through squinted lids, my whole body slowly shaking off the rigor mortis of a long night's sleep. Already some fires in the street are smoking, contributing the first clouds in the haze of sheep smoke that is to envelope Fez today.
     At about 10 o'clock, the festivities begin.
Three sheep, slaughtered one by one on the living room floor. It starts with everyone standing in the living room. Nothing out of the ordinary, but we're clearly waiting for something. And if you look close, you'll notice rolled-up sleeves, grimy workshirts, and splattered track pants; all perfect attire for a sacrifice.
     First, my host father and his brother bring Sheep #1 down from the room that has served as their pen for the past few days [side note: it has been great: their room was directly above the bathroom, so every morning when I washed my face and took a whiz (I'm bringing that euphemism back if it's the last thing I do, dammit), I could hear them clattering around, nuzzling the hay and bumbling into one another's natty hides]. The sheep is wild-eyed and flighty. My host dad pulls its legs out from under it and holds it steady by the hooves, while his brother spreads apart the thick wool on its neck, clearing a spot for the knife. The air in the room is alive with the chatter of an entire Moroccan family; words and exclamations are punctuated with the groans and grunts of the sheep.
     When they cut the throat, the frantic bleating ceases, only to be replaced by a rasping scrape of breath, taken in not from the mouth or the nostrils but from the brand new opening in the throat just below the jawline. The sheep bleeds out for a while, my host uncle kneeling on the neck to hasten the process. Then he wrenches the head around 180 degrees and takes it off completely. Next they remove the front legs, cutting from below the knees or elbows or whatever sheep have. After that, my host dad pokes a hole on the inside of a hind leg, puts his mouth to the opening, and proceeds to inflate the sheep. Now, I'm not a medical doctor, but I assume this helps separate membranes and what-not, making the sheep easier to skin. Once the sheep is sufficiently bloated, they string it up by it's hind legs and skin it, and then remove all of the organs, separating the edible from the garbage. And hardly anything, I soon realize, is garbage. The next two hours are a blur of bloody wool, innards, and smiling relatives.
     I want to write more. And I will! But later. Now I must return to the city. Here are a few pictures of the holiday to tide you over until next time. And if you would like to see a video, let me know. I feel a little odd about posting it on the blog; it's really graphic. Is that something I could get in trouble for?

This is my cousin Abda il. He's a hyper, sweet little kid who spent the holiday flitting around the room, dodging blood smears and trying his hardest to get into every picture and video.

Dear old Baba, blowing up the sheep.

I have no idea who this man is (the one reaching into the carcass). He burst into the living room shortly after we killed Sheep #2. He was accompanied by a teenage boy; the two of them made quick work of skinning and gutting the first two sheep, then left.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Into the Hamam

It's half past 11 p.m. in the Medina of Fez, and I'm face down on the floor of a public bathhouse, while a man whose name I don't even know works up a lather on my back and scrubs me down with a brillo-pad glove. This is my friendly neighborhood Hamam, and my very first (much needed) bath since coming to Morocco. My host father is the aforementioned nameless man. Already I've been a week in his home and I still don't know what to call him. I've heard him referred to as Baba a few times, which is the Darija equivalent of "Daddy." I have yet to adopt this cutesy term of endearment, but I'll need to figure out some name for him soon. As a rule, people don't really introduce themselves by name in this family. I think this is because everyone comes and goes with such regularity, formal greetings and goodbyes aren't necessary. It's basically understood that you will see the other person again, and probably within a couple of hours. 

Anyway, back to the Hamam. Also known as a Turkish bathhouse, the Hamam is a public place where people come to relax, socialize, and get clean. Hamams are segregated by sex; ours is for men from 6 am to noon, for women and small children from 12 until 9, and then for men again from 9 until midnight. Just about every neighborhood in the Medina has a Hamam. My family--like many in the Medina--doesn't have a shower in the house, so everyone goes to the Hamam once a week--twice a week in the summer. And if you think one shower per week is not enough, you clearly have not been to a Hamam.

And until now, neither have I.

I am completely clueless in the Hamam, so I mostly keep a sharp eye on my host dad and try to do as he does. First we grab about eight big blue buckets, and line up with some other men by a fountain of hot water. We fill our buckets and then find a spot in the corner of the room. We dump out a bucket of water on the floor, and then sit in the hot puddle. The bath has begun. From his toiletry kit my host father procures a sandwich bag full of what looks like axle grease. He slaps a handful into my palm and mimes a scrubbing motion on his body. I follow suit. Every few minutes he dumps a bucket of water over me, while I frantically scrub at myself, trying to work up a lather and rinse off within the same bucketload.

Then it's time for the scouring.

Shick. Shiick. Shiiiiickk. This is the sound of me losing skin. As my father labors away across my hide, I notice white flecks on my bathing shorts--spongy crumbs of sluffed off skin. The novel experience of being vigorously scrubbed in a public place is complicated by the fact that I'm not sure if this is customary, or if I'm receiving special treatment. Do all Hamam-goers help each other in this way, or is this process usually reserved for infants and the infirm? There's no way to know, so I might as well just enjoy it while it lasts. This proves more difficult than it sounds--my host father scrubs very hard. It's no problem for most parts of the body, but he gets really overzealous with the armpits and the collarbone area, two very tender spots.

The shower chamber is a large vaulted room of glossy green and umber tile. It's clouded with steam, and cluttered with the clatter of men maneuvering their plastic buckets and toiletry kits. Two young men sit together in the corner, several blue five-gallon buckets of hot water by their side. They look on, probably curious and amused to see this pasty Westerner in a Hamam for the very first time. My host father taps my shoulder and gives me a smirk, nodding toward the men as if to say, "look, you have an audience," then dutifully continues to scrape off several pounds of my flesh.

After that, my host father retreats to the other room to scrub himself (so I was getting special treatment back there) and I sit amongst our buckets, following the example set by other men and massaging my legs, arms, and chest. Then we shampoo, followed by one last scrubbing, this time with a softer sponge. By the end, I'm pruney, pink, and thoroughly refreshed.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Entry: In Which I Can't Remember the Numeral of My Last Entry, So I Will Not Include One in the Title. [there are photos in this post!]

     A view from the rooftop. If I understand my host sister correctly (and there's a good chance I don't), the building that looks like a castle is actually a hotel. Notice all the satellite dishes; they're scattered all over the Medina rooftops.

     My room. It's furnished with a big bed and several long couches, so I can practice many different techniques of reclining and lolling about. I'm not sure how old my house is exactly, but I know there are engravings in the walls that date back to the 12th century. Now, I don't know if the engravings were restored and installed in the house or what, but I'd believe it if you told me this house was about 900 years old. Something about it just feels ancient: thick stone walls, an open courtyard for a living room, high ceilings, a tiny winding staircase, etc.
The aforementioned mosque, seen from the roof.

Here I am in a Quranic school in the Medina. These little schools are for kids from about 2-5 years old. They're pretty much the same as preschools in America (snack-time, singing songs, etc.), except the children study the Quran. We stopped to visit one of these school on our tour of the Medina last weekend, and the children sang us some songs, recited the five pillars of Islam, and showed off their language skills (Fus'ha, English, Darija, and French. These kids are amazing!). The little girl sitting in front of me also gave us a lesson on pronouncing some letters of the Arabic alphabet. "Very good," she said when we had finished mucking through. [side note: I'm not sure how I ended up being the only visitor sitting in the tiny-sized desks. The little guy in the red sweatshirt seems to be wondering the same thing.]
A communal bakery in the Medina. Families from various neighborhoods bring their unbaked bread to this man, who marks the loaves of dough (using the the white stick you can see in his mouth) to indicate which family it belongs to. Then he bakes the bread in a giant stone oven the size of a living room and stacks the finished flatbread on a shelf, ready for pick-up.

That's all for now. 

Monday, November 1, 2010

Another Truncated Entry

Okay, Morocco:
I don't know what to say. The first time I used the bathroom, I peed on my leg. This is not my fault. My family has a Turkish toilet (i.e., a hole in the ground with a giant cork in it and a bucket of water beside it). It's tough to get the perfect squat on the first try, but I'm improving with each day. Considering it has only been a few days, I'd say I'm pretty good at using the bathroom, if I may toot my own horn.

Moving on. My house is across the street (a street scarcely more than five feet wide) from a mosque, and I hear the call to prayer three out of five times in the day. This mosque is only one out of hundreds in Fez, so each call to prayer is a veritable orchestra --something between dueling chainsaws and the battle-cry of a swarm of angry, pious bees.

Moroccans really know how to relax. Never before have I spent so much time just sitting in the company of others, doing nothing in particular. It's fantastic.
Aggh, I must go. I'll be late for class if I go on any longer. I promise I'll post a video soon.


Friday, October 29, 2010

Back in the Saddle

Okay okay okay. I've really fallen off the blogwagon this time. (Spelling that as one word makes it sound like some sort of ominous, repulsive swamp thing. I don't really feel that way about blogging, it's just hard to be disciplined sometimes. It's a little like flossing. And I have never fully boarded that wagon.)
Anyway, I kind of want to talk about Barcelona, but I think Morocco is much cooler. A couple pictures from Spain should suffice, and then a quick explanation of Morocco, and then it's off to class for me.

So, #1: Spain 

Montserrat. How cool is this? There's a monastery up here, and tons of old fortifications built into rock faces. The mountains are unlike anything I've ever seen. The cathedral is pretty touristy-- everything smells like ice cream cones and cotton candy in a way that reminds me of Disneyland. But the trails are great and the views are breathtaking. 

#2: Morocco
Sorry, I have no time right now. Class starts in two minutes. I promise I'll return soon and tell you all about Morocco. For now, let me entice you with the promise of a video clip of my winding walk home through bazaars and alleyways.  


Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Entry IX: In Which I Ponder Something Dumb, and Should Just Not Worry About It

     I worry that I am leaving the impression on my host parents that I am an asocial recluse. I spend a lot of time sitting in my room scrolling through PDF files of class readings, and paging through my textbook. I feel like an all-around useless member of this quasi-family, emerging from my room to lounge around with them for mealtimes, and occasionally watching the news or some Estonian TV program, but generally staying anchored to my upstairs bedroom. I'd like to hang out with Riina and Aivar more, but it's hard to stay glued to a news report or sitcom I can only partially understand when papers require writing, articles and chapters must be read, and friends and family overseas should be corresponded with.
     I have been telling myself that they understand I am busy, that they know it's nothing personal. I have to tell myself this, because otherwise I feel like I'm playing the part of a broody and ungrateful adolescent, taking up space in the house but not really making myself part of the home. I am aware that this perceived dynamic is starting to edge into the way I interact with Riina and Aivar: I think I'm being a little awkward around them. I need to get over this, to shake this feeling and just relax. That's all that will improve the atmospheric disturbance in the house, whether it's real or all in my head.
     Another way to look at it is really quite simple: it doesn't matter if host family relations aren't sunshiney right now, because I'll be in a different country in a little over a week.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Entry VIII: In Which We Excurse For The Last Time

Well, I've done it again. I've successfully put off chronicling a weekend excursion until a week after the fact. I could blame technical difficulties again, but I would only be fooling myself and insulting your intelligence, gentle reader. In any case, this waiting game will continue no longer. Allow me to tell you a bit about last weekend's trip to the south of Estonia.

Last Friday, we piled into the bus at 8:30 and puttered out of the city center. I felt tired and a little ragged around the edges. My mouth was dry and filmed over, thoroughly flavor-scorched with Riina's garlicky beet salad from breakfast. Speaking of the morning meal, it seemed like my food was upset with me; it had formed an angry ball in pit of my stomach and proceeded to tumble and twist malcontentedly every few minutes. I wouldn't say I was hungover, but I definitely drank a little the night before, and my body knew it. [side note: I went to a club called Plink Plonk the previous night, where I saw some excellent music. The first and best band was a hip-hop/jazz/blues ensemble whose show I stumbled upon in a street fair back in September. I was ecstatic to see them again, and this time I remembered their name: Külalised, meaning "the guests."]
Well, excursions wait for no man -- or his physical malfunctions -- so I would just have to get over it.

On our walk through Viljandi
Our first major destination of the day was Viljandi, the artsiest town in Estonia. It is home to the Viljandi castle ruins, originally built by --you guessed it-- Teutonic Knights. The ruins are cool, as ruins tend to be, but the real point of interest in this town is the Viljandi Culture Academy, a school specializing in art, music, theater, traditional handicrafts, and more. We got a tour of the main university building by a soon-to-graduate student of cultural event planning. Swimming in scarves and clinking her bangles, our guide proudly led us through art studios, set shops, dance studios, and black boxes. Overcrowding was the theme of the day; she would introduce rooms by stating their holding capacity, then proudly follow that with how many people they actually fit inside, which always exceeded the limit by at least 100 people. 

After an hour it was time to go, but our tour guide promised she would see us at the folk music festival later that night; she had helped plan this particular cultural event. We toured a manor house in the afternoon before returning back to town for the folk music festival. There, I fell in love with a folk quartet called Gjangsta. Cameras weren't allowed inside, so I have nothing to offer you but a hearty recommendation.

It seems that I've already spent a few paragraphs of this entry and I haven't really said all that much about the excursion. So, time for a shotgun retelling! Here are some highlights:

Sangaste Loss is either a red brick castle that looks like a mansion, or a red brick mansion that looks like a castle. Whatever you choose to call it, it's beautiful, and heavy with the history of about three hundred years. And it's bigger than any human could ever need. In my wanderings, I went down an extra flight of stairs and ended up pacing the long halls of what seemed to be a haunted hospital in the basement. It was immaculately clean but completely uninhabited, with some doors spookily ajar to pitch black rooms. Outside, the place is itching with decadence: rolling lawns, serene ponds, mighty oaks just beginning to shed their leaves...the place practically screams for a match of croquet.

Pastoral Estonia.
Suur Munamägi (Big Egg Mountain) is the highest point in the Baltic states. By all accounts, this isn't saying much. The hill (it's less of a mountain and more of a hill) is only 1,043 feet above sea level. But still, superlatives are always nice for bragging rights, and Estonians are very proud of their Highest Point status. They lord it over their Latvian neighbors, whose tallest peak is a full twenty feet lower than Suur Munamägi.
Suur Munamägi tower. The observation deck up top was inhabited by a middle-aged couple who made out for the entirety of our visit.

At one point we drove through a slice of Russia. This piece of the country protrudes into the Estonian road system, and travelers are permitted to drive through. However, getting out of the vehicle is strictly forbidden. I don't know what would've happened if we had stepped out of our van. Our driver made it sound like the forest would explode in siren song, and Soviet tanks would come crashing through the underbrush flanked by armed guards. We decided not to test this theory, instead choosing to take pictures from inside the van. Now I can say I've been to Russia (for about 35 seconds).

Well, that's all for now. I have a paper to write and an accordion to play. And I'd like to take a walk --it's supposedly the last day in a string of nice weather. Rain and sleet are on the way, which doesn't bode well for me. I didn't pack enough warm clothes for the Estonian autumn, so I have resorted to using my travel towel (super absorbent and compact!) as a scarf. If I tuck the ends into my jacket, it looks like an honest-to-god article of clothing. I'm not sure how the towelscarf will perform in the rain; I think the absorbency might work against me in that case. I guess I'll find out soon. Nägemist! 

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Entry VII-b: In Which I Excurse Some More ["Excurse" is the verb form of "excursion." I just invented it. Do you like it?]

I'll stay focused on the excursion for one last entry, then it's time to move on. After all, I've got to tell you about my latest experiences with sauna, salted fish, homemade vodka, and yes, even psychological research (Oh yeah, that's why I'm here).

After the bog, it was off to Lahemaa national park. Lahemaa (meaning "Land of Bays") covers about 725 square kilometers, making it the biggest park in Estonia. It includes in its territory several bogs (which we had already come to know so very well), several small fishing villages, beaches, and many spots for nature walks and hiking. As we drove out of the forest surrounding the bog, sniffles resounding throughout the van, it was clear we wouldn't be making use of Lahemaa's nature trails, at least not right away. Before doing anything else, we would check into our hotel and change into some dry clothes. Otherwise, we risked a mutiny without a doubt. 

Ah scenery

A view from the watchtower
     We stayed the night at Sagadi Manor, an old Baltic German manor estate that was converted into a hotel with a restaurant and a couple of museums. My first impression of the lodging was skewed by my soggy state; all I noticed was the heated tile flooring in the bathroom -- which I reveled in by sprawling on the floor for several minutes. After heating up in my water closet terrarium, it was time to explore the park a bit. We drove north to a small stretch of beaches, scattered with massive boulders left in the wake of an ancient glacier. I had heard that the Baltic Sea was not very salty, so I tested the claim, ladling my hand into the lapping waves at the shore and taking a little sip. It's true, the Baltic tastes very fresh. I would later find out that the Baltic is also notable for its industrial pollution. So far, I haven't died or developed super-powers, but the semester is young -- we'll see what happens. After the beach, we drove to a little fishing village called Käsmu. We crowded into a dimly lit museum (which was also the home of the curator and his family) cluttered with very old, very cool nautical items. In the backyard of the house stood a four-story observation tower. Not so long ago, this tower was constantly manned by a Soviet soldier, eyes to the Baltic Sea, and now it was my turn.

Sagadi Manor: I told you pictures couldn't do it justice
     The next morning, I got up early at Sagadi Manor and took a walk. I knew I was in a pretty part of the world, but I wasn't expecting to be struck so hard by my surroundings. (Pardon me in advance, because I might wax sentimental here.) The beauty made me hungry and wanting for something I couldn't define. It created something like an ache, but it was enjoyable, and palpable enough to make my eyes water. I walked by the old stables of Sagadi Manor where a film of dew covered everything, attesting that this morning was yet untouched. I felt every sensation a little sharper; everything seemed a little more worth attending to. I had felt this before, I knew it, so I filtered through my memories, perhaps to match this with a similar experience I'd had with beauty. This never works, and that morning at Sagadi was no exception. Instead the mental run-through left me with an inventory of every achingly beautiful place I've ever been imprinted in my mind. It was enough to intensify the feeling tenfold. I was reduced to tottering around the Sagadi estate, snapping pictures in an attempt to preserve a piece of the morning. Eventually it was time for breakfast, so I made my way across the courtyard back to the hotel. The quiet of the morning was hard to break, even when I got close enough to the hotel to see the comparative bustle going on indoors. I paused a moment before stepping inside. A flock of geese glided by in a flutter of movement overhead, like fingers barely sweeping the surface of still water. And something about that seemed final -- a good closing to the morning episode. 

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Entry VII-a: Catching Up [a blog miniseries brought to you by procrastination and technical difficulties]

     I realize that I have been putting off writing a blog post for several days. Part of this has to do with the fact that I can't upload pictures with this computer; I have to go to the library or impose upon my host parents' machine. But mostly I'm avoiding another entry because I'm worried I won't be able to write thoroughly enough. I'm paralyzed by bloggable material. A lot of the paralysis is due to last weekend's excursion, wherein we trekked all over the north of Estonia. I don't want to leave out anything important, but the prospect of writing down everything that happened makes me tired. So, I'll do it a piece at a time, and I'll make no lofty promises of full disclosure. If you feel like something is missing from the story, let me know and I can add the desired element, whether it actually happened or not.

     Let's begin at the beginning of last weekend's excursion. We left Tartu at 8:30 Friday morning, carried out of the city in a fourteen-seater Peugeot bus we had chartered until Sunday. Our first stop was Kakerdaja bog, in the north of Estonia. We drove deep into a forest where we met Triin, a slight woman with sheered short hair, a gentle demeanor, and the finest of outdoor apparel. She emerged wordlessly from her little red van and pulled out several big plastic bins. One had a supply of rubber boots, the other was filled with what looked like miniature toboggans--or plastic snowshoes, if you prefer more conventional similes. I skipped the rubber boots and went straight for the bogshoes, thinking with confidence that my trusty Keens would see me through the bog safely. I strapped on a pair of red ones. I was ready to go. Then Triin informed us that we had to walk several hundred meters before actually entering the squishy part of the bog. I unstrapped my red bogshoes.

Preparation for our soggy descent into the bog.

     Long story short, Keens were not enough for the bog. I almost immediately stepped in a soft part and sunk down past my ankle, soaking my jeans and filling my ultra-absorbent shoes. But, the damage was done, so now I could get just as waterlogged as I pleased. With every step, I could feel the ground around me move. When others bogshoed up next to me, I could feel it in the ground, and see the surface of the bog tremble. Between 90 and 99 percent of the bog is made of water, with the peat moss and foliage on top providing only a scant surface for walking. At one point we came upon a black patch of what looked like mud.  Triin poked the rear point of her bogshoe into the muck slowly and deliberately, like someone prodding their french fry into a pile of ketchup long after their hunger has been sated. Looking around to make sure we could see the bubbles burble where she broke the surface, Triin explained that this was a pocket of CH4. The gas causes the moss and water to stagnate and turn black. She told us that the CH4 is flammable, and if you were to strike a match or a click a lighter right next to one of the openings made by an invasive bogshoe, you would see flames. Of course, it was raining at this point and no one had fire, so we couldn't test the claim. 

This tree--one of the biggest ones growing in the bog--is used by birds as a tool for procuring seeds from pinecones. See the cones wedged in the crevice in the bark? It's a hands-free device for seed-eating. Pretty cool. 

Our plywood path home.
      Another long story short, two people fell into the bog. First Maria sunk down in a soft spot and lost one of her shoes. Both shoes were retrieved, but not before she was submerged up to her knees. It required several people to pull her out because the ground was so unstable and the moss layer over the water so thin. Soon after, Dominique followed suit and fell in. Again, removal from the squelch was a lengthy procedure. With more bog-intimacy than we bargained for and a lot of wet socks, we retreated from the bog, seeking a quick return on a narrow boardwalk of two-by-fours. As we tramped back to dry, solid ground, bogshoes unstrapped and held uselessly at our sides, I found myself looking at my feet--my squelchy Keens, called upon to do the duty of rainboots--and I wondered how these boards beneath me were managing not to sink to the depths of water, peat, and the ghosts of Estonians past. I still don't know the answer to that question. But the boards were sturdy indeed, and we made it back safe and sound.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Entry VI: In Which We Go A-Viking

     Come Sunday, it's time for a trip to a Viking village out near Tallinn. I'm told we have a reservation for the Viking longboat, and I'm not really sure what that means. My imagination tells me we'll be supplied with a shield and an oar before hopping into a seaworthy ship with burly, dirty men and puttering around in the Baltic Sea, maybe heading over to Finland for some pillaging or popping down south to burn some Latvian villages. In my heart, though, I know this is not the case. I try to keep my expectation low or non-existent, which is difficult for me because I really like Vikings and I'd like my wildest Viking dreams to come true at this village tourist attraction. As it turns out, I'm coming to learn that I like the idea of Vikings more than I actually understand the real history of Vikings. "Viking" is kind of an amorphous term I guess, and has been hi-jacked by storybook tales and Hollywood. I've checked out a couple of books from the university library in hopes of educating myself and becoming a true Viking enthusiast--a connoisseur even. Anyway, allow me to tell you about this village.

     We meet Riina's brother Jüri and his family at the village. We make our introductions and pile into the Viking boat, donning bright orange lifejackets and potatosacklike canvas tunics (authenticity is key at the Viking village). Our captain's name is Anu. She's a loud-voiced woman with an infectious casual air, and if I understood Estonian, I'm sure I would've appreciated her sense of humor. She directs our rowing, shouting from the helm: "Tüürpoord!" (starboard) "Pakpoord!" (port) and "Kõik koos!" (all together). 

     After an invigorating trip down the river, it's time to throw axes. Well, only one axe--but we throw it many, many times. Here is a nifty video of me ineptly throwing our axe. I hadn't quite gotten the hang of it at this point, but rest assured, I eventually figured it out and made the wooden target feel my Nordic wrath. You can't see it in the clip, but this courtyard was lined with painted plywood cut-outs of fierce Viking warriors who scowled at us fiercely for the duration of our visit.

     Post axe throwing, we gather for a Viking chicken dinner at a Viking gazebo next to a Viking pond. It's getting chilly outside, so there is no leisurely dining in the traditional Viking style. We finish our meal and, eyes to the threatening clouds overhead, say goodbye. Jüri's oldest son Karl plays guitar, and we make plans to get together and play music in the weeks ahead. With that, we pile back in the car and return under overcast skies to Tartu, where homework and a fireplace full of dry wood await.

     Overall, not a bad Sunday! If you're ever in the area, I encourage you to check out the Viking Village. That being said, my host family paid my entrance, so I don't know how much it cost and cannot say in good confidence that it's "worth it." On the other hand, you can't really put a price on public restrooms refurbished to look like Viking lodges (see below), can you? Follow this link to learn more:

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Entry V: Estonia's Greatest Hits [so far]

Some cool things about Estonia (with photo documentation!):

     Love of learning. September 1st is the day students of all ages begin classes in Estonia, and it's a big deal. On my way to school, I got stuck behind multiple gaggles of students on their merry way, many of them bearing bouquets of flowers for their teachers. All of these young scholars were presumably more on-time than I was, as they moved very slowly, much to my frustration. Then, a few blocks from my classroom building, I stumbled upon a parade complete with a marching band and couple of military regiments in full regalia. There was no one lined up to watch, no fanfare surrounding them. It felt almost intrusive to take this photo. They blustered by and I continued on to class.

Lodi, docked at the boat yard on Emajõgi
Aivar and Riina above-deck on lodi
     Boats. One Thursday morning, my host parents scheduled us a boat ride in a 14th century cargo barge, or lodi. This one-masted sailboat used to carry cargo like furs, wax, honey, and wood between Russia and Estonia, traveling on lakes and rivers. This particular boat is a recreation of these long gone barges. It is a short, squat vessel as far as sailboats go, measuring in at 12 meters in length and 7.5 meters in width. Stay tuned for more from the boat department, as I will be visiting a Viking village this weekend and possibly doing a little sea-faring in a Viking ship.

Walking home at about 4 p.m.
     My daily walk home. The trek from my house to the social sciences building on Tiigi street is about thirty minutes or so, and fifteen or twenty of those minutes are spent on this path along the river. In the morning I pass old men donning windbreakers, baiting their fishing poles and opening their tackleboxes for the day. In the afternoon I pass these same men again, still reeling in catches. Some of them now have a beer in one hand, fishing pole in the other, with several empty bottles nestled in the riverbank sand at their feet. The afternoon is also the time for rowing clubs to practice in kayaks and shells, and for high school kids to hang out at small docks along the bank, backpacks strewn on the planks.

Dinner: peas, cucumber salad, potatoes, pickled mushrooms, and pig tongue
     Food. Estonian food is damn delicious, and thankfully, my host family insists on feeding me a lot. This morning I finished my breakfast of pork dumplings, sour cream, and horseradish, cleaned my plate completely, and set my fork and knife neatly side by side on the dish, a customary sign that one is all done.
     "Steven, eat more food," said Riina from the couch. (That's another nice thing about meals here: we eat in comfy chairs and couches. I don't think this is a cultural phenomenon, just a really awesome feature of my host family.) It wasn't a question, it was an order. Well, the dumplings were delicious, and there was plenty left, so I obliged. I am coming to realize, there is always plenty left to eat. I thought maybe Aivar and Riina would stop preparing such huge portions when they realized I didn't have the appetite of several lumberjacks, but the piles of food show no sign of abating, so I'll have to adjust.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Entry IV: In Which I Learn A Valuable Lesson

     They say that study abroad is a time of self-discovery--a time to learn something new about the way you think about the world, and gain insight on long-standing misconceptions. I'm not sure if a single semester in another country is guaranteed to rock one's world to the core, but the self-discovery bit definitely rings true. I learned something about myself last night: I hate clubbing.

     My host brother Ott knows some people who know some people, and he often gets free tickets to the nightclubs in Tartu. His favorite is a place called Club Tallinn, and he invited me to come along with some friends last night. Earlier in the evening, I went out and about downtown with a few of my classmates. We hung out at a little bar called Zavood before merging with an amoeba of European exchange students we bumped into at the Kissing Students Fountain in the town square. We bar-hopped for a bit: first to a hip little place called Noll, then to Underground, a gritty basement bar with Dragonforce blasting through the house speakers and a clientele clothed almost exclusively in studded leather. It was a good night. I felt I was finally getting to know some students outside of the group of Americans with whom I traveled here--not to say I don't like my American classmates, but a big reason I'm in this program in the first place is to meet people who are distinctly not American. Anyway, at midnight Ott called me to say he'd be in front of Club Tallinn at a quarter till one. I felt a little tired, but I didn't want to turn down his generous invitation. Besides, I'd never been "on the list" before, and I wondered how that felt. So I agreed to meet with Ott and his friends at 12:45.

     The club was hemorrhaging into the street, and its contents were desperately trying to get back indoors. At least, that's what it felt like from where we stood on the sidewalk. We were a group of five: Ott, Maili, Maili's brother Rene, Rene's girlfriend whose name I didn't hear but pretended to anyway when we were introduced, and me. House music pulsed weakly through small speakers overhanging the front double doors, offering a diluted preview of what might await everyone teeming up the wide front steps. We could get in no problem, Ott said, but we just had to push through the mass of people and give the bouncer our names. So in we went. The crowd was desperate and aimless at the same time. From a distance, it looked like a riot, with everyone clawing tooth and nail to get through the door. Once I was inside of the clamor it felt much more serene, and easy to shoulder through. A lot of people didn't seem to really know or care where they were heading. They just stood around, bumping into each other and occasionally leaning in the direction of the burly guy dressed in black at the door, with embroidered security badges on his chest and sleeves. The air was thick with the scent of with minty chewing gum, alcohol, unwashed hair, perfume, and what I strongly suspect was Axe body spray.  It was intoxicating, and I almost understood the lazy nature of the throng. Maybe this was the party. Why go inside?

     But free tickets are free tickets, so we continued. I should tell you right now, I won't be able to accurately describe the interior of Club Tallinn. I had never been to a club before last night, and I don't really know the right words to do this place justice. So I'll do what I always do when words fail me: I'll reference "A Night at the Roxbury." 

     Remember that movie? Remember the clubs? Good. That's all you need to know. It was like that, but with a younger crowd. Smoke machines pumped out thick plumes that enveloped the dance floors, and black lights illuminated glow-in-the-dark paint that was so edgily splattered all over every surface of the room. Velvet couches lining the walls offered a resting place for tired, sweaty dancers. That was their purpose in theory at least. In practice, they were the territory of brooding young men who looked sober and grim but also glazedly drunk at the same time. I will never understand how this is accomplished.

Looking back, I think I should have gone to the bar, ordered a beer, put a serious expression on my face, and sat anonymously on a couch to watch girls dance from a distance. This at least would have allowed me to blend in. Instead, I tried to have fun. And nothing could have prepared me for how awkward I felt, and how awkward I appeared to others, throughout this whole experience.

     Not long after I first got out on the dance floor, a girl yelled something in Estonian in my ear. I put on my confused foreigner face and was about to tell her I couldn't speak her language when Ott's girlfriend Maili swooped in and screamed that I was American. The girl smiled in a motherly sort of way and yelled in my ear again, this time in English.
     I tried to look gracious, good-humored, cool, and self-deprecating all at the same time. It's a facial expression somewhat like a frown with smiling eyes. I make this face a lot. I have pictures.

     Oddly enough, this girl's comment made me feel a lot better; it sort of broke the ice. I thought I could maybe, just maybe get over my awkwardness and have a good time. Unfortunately, the music was pretty awful, and I just couldn't get down with it, no matter how hard I tried. But I stuck with it anyway. I didn't want to leave Ott, Maili, and company. They really wanted to show me a good time I think, and to run out would be both insulting to them and embarrassing for me.

Artist's conception of Club Tallinn. Yes, there was a topless DJ.
    But I couldn't take it for much longer. About half an hour after we arrived, Ott danced up to me through the crowd to put a hand on my shoulder to ask at the top of his lungs, "WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!" He looked at me bemusedly, jiggling around to the rhythm of "Waka Waka" and snapping his fingers. He bit his lower lip and scrunched up his face, savoring the melodious strains of Shakira's masterpiece. I had no idea what he meant by this question. What did it look like I was doing? I was dancing in a subtle, classy, and understated way, of course. Also, I was glancing around self-consciously every nine seconds, and periodically checking my feet to see if my white socks/dark shoes combination was as glaringly uncool as it felt.

     I danced for a bit longer. Sometimes in the general vicinity of others, sometimes completely alone. Finally, after another twenty minutes of this, I looked around and realized Ott and Maili weren't close by anymore (I had long since lost track of Ott's other friends). They must have gone to the smaller dance floor at the back of club, or walked off somewhere to be alone. Perfect, I thought. Here was my chance to escape. I danced away from the middle of the dance floor, trying to appear inconspicuous as I drifted away (the effort was unnecessary; no one had noticed me anyway). I got my jacket from the coat check at the front door and hit the street. Stepping into the cold night air outside the club, I felt instantly better. The smell of car exhaust, cigarettes, and the gyros from a nearby late night fast-food joint that capitalizes on drunk hunger pangs was a rich olfactory mosaic that meant my freedom.

    It was two in the morning. I enjoyed my walk along the river back home, and entered a dark and silent house. It was bed time.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Entry III: Meeting the Family [or: how much of this awkwardness can be chalked up to a cultural divide, and how much is simply my social ineptitude?]

7:20 p.m. 
    On the train to Tartu, only a few minutes from our final stop. It's been a lazy ride spent fooling with my point-and-shoot camera settings, reading my novel, practicing some Estonian words, and drifting off to sleep. But now I can't sit still. Nervousness at the thought of meeting my host family has seeped under my skin and won't go away. After holding off the anxiety all day, I can't stop thinking about how things might go. How do I behave when we are first introduced? Do we hug? What will we talk about on the car ride home? I even started rehearsing potential conversations in my head, plotting a course of action for every possible conversational parry and thrust I might face. If they say "Welcome to our home (or in Estonian, tulemast), then I will reply, "Thank's a beautiful house." That's the only appropriate response I can think of. Even if it is not a beautiful house, I know I will use this line. The bits of dialogue I am storing up right now comprise my safety net, they make me feel a little secure.
     My nerves aren't unwarranted. Every other student has been in contact with their family via email, but somehow my introduction email didn't get through to my host mom's address. She didn't receive my message until two days earlier, and I only read her response (a brief message assuring me I was indeed still her host son, and she would pick me up and bring me to shelter this evening) about ten minutes ago. She signed off at the bottom of the message: Riina. Deja vu. I think back to the frisky drunk girl in Tallinn. For a second I'm lost in thought, imagining a household with her as a mother figure. Odd. I'm pulled from this bemused reverie when we clatter to a halt at the Tartu station. We pile off the train and into the crisp dusk air.
     There's a gang of Estonians down the track, a loose assemblage of small families, solitary men and women, and a few couples. Our hosts. We walk towards them, and stop about ten feet away, luggage set down at our sides or in front of us like shields. We all--students and families alike--smile nervously at each other, never settling on a particular person, not sure who belongs to whom. One by one we are introduced to the family mob, and we depart with our matches.  I am last, and the only host left is a round-faced woman with silvery hair. She's beaming kindly, and her eyes crinkle in a way that reminds me of my parents. This is Riina. I walk up to her and extend my hand for a handshake. She puts her arms out and steps up for a hug instead. I think we'll get on fine.

      My premonition from yesterday is right on: things are going smoothly with the host family. A quick introduction: Riina is my host mom. She's a good-natured woman with a soft voice and an easy smile. She works in the Information Technology department at Tartu University. Aivar is my host dad. He's a quiet man, though my impression is colored by the fact that his English isn't very good (so he says; but I think it sounds pretty great considering he didn't begin studying the language until adulthood). Aivar has a wiry, solid frame, craggy features, and a wry sense of humor that breaks through the language barrier in the form of impish grins and the occasional wink. He is a woodworker, a dog-lover, and the best cook in the house. Ott is my host brother. He's 22 years old, and starting his first year at the agricultural university in Tartu where he studies hydro-engineering. Maili is Ott's girlfriend, and she is completing her last year of flight school, where she studies navigation. Ott and Maili just moved into an apartment across town. Riina and Aivar seem to expect them to return soon, seeing as they don't have any money for food. There are two big, friendly dogs in the house named Ups and Nuki, and one elusive cat named Minni. (Or "Minni-Raisk" when she's stealing food. Riina tells me this nickname translates roughly to "Facking Minni.") This is the family.
 Tonight, I take a sauna in the Estonian style with my host parents. The first step is going to the store for beer, because as Aivar informs me, "sauna is not sauna without beer."
    Riina and I drive a few blocks to Konsum, an Estonian chain grocery store. Walking in through the sliding doors, I feel obnoxiously eager to soak up new sights and make observations (e.g. "Oh wow, the grocery carts are a little bit smaller here," or "there sure are a lot of beers sold in plastic bottles"). I'm a little more excited than I should be for a trip to the store, I suppose. It's just that the idea of foreign products and advertising is really cool and unusual to me: what are Estonian staple items? What is Estonian "junk food?" What's difficult or impossible to find in your average store? How do Estonian companies get people to buy their stuff?
     Tonight, our only goal is sauna beer, but once we enter the store Riina wants me to take my pick of drinks and snacks. I'm not very good at receiving this kind of generosity, and besides, the huge variety of choices--all labeled in Estonian--paralyzes me completely. Mostly I follow her around and release non-committal ho-hums at her suggestions, then arbitrarily pick something off the shelf and say aitah ("thank you") as I put it in the cart. Our haul includes little hotdogs, kefir, apples, garlic black-bread croutons, a Latvian fruitjuice that is supposedly quite tasty, and a giant milk chocolate bar called Mesikäpp (meaning "honey paw" or bear; the mascot is a teddy bear). Also included in our cart are the ingredients for the Mexican food I'll cook for family dinner later this week (side note: tortillas at Konsum don't come in little rounds, but in towel-sized sheets folded up in a square). 
      After we check out, I steer our cart to the door. Riina stops me with a hand on the shoulder and directs me to pull the cart our of the flow of traffic. We stand by the storefront window, next to a rack of toilet paper. Riina has the receipt in her hand.
     "I always check," she says with a smile, and begins reading through the receipt from the top down. She holds the long strip of paper with her finger tips at either side and feeds it through her hands like a typewriter's platen. It doesn't take long, but long enough for me to wonder if this is common practice in Estonia or just my host mom's unique behavior.
     "Okay, it's good," she says. As we wheel the cart out to her car, a little black SAAB, she explains that many stores frequently overcharge customers. Konsum and Maximart are two of the worst places for that sort of thing, she says. She doesn't know why this is--doesn't know if it's some devious part of cashier training, or just incompetence or technological error. Whatever the case, she's made the best out of a bad situation: Instead of paying the fee required to withdraw cash with her debit card, she just uses her card to buy groceries where she knows she'll be overcharged, then confronts the cashier and collects the money she is due.
     This host mom of mine is a crafty lady. This craftiness, along with her fondness for chocolate and good taste in beer, make her very well-suited for stocking the pantry.

P.S. Stay tuned! More on the inevitable Estonian weight-gain as it develops.


Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Entry II: Night Life and a Language Lesson

     "I think I'll leave you alone and you can two go and...yes. Goodbye."
She spoke with her hands, a task complicated by the plastic cup of beer in left and the sprig of a cigarette in her right. She turned from her two companions on the sidewalk. They leaned against the stone facade of the bar, arms slung low round eachother's waists and standing with hips touching, swaying almost imperceptibly to the American pop music leaking out from indoors.

     I was standing about ten yards away--or meters I suppose, now that I'm in Europe. I was outside of a bar called Hell Hunt, apparently famous in Tallinn. The others were indoors, settling up their bills; then it would be off to another bar, or maybe back to the hotel if nothing was open. I was a little tired, and returning to my room in the City Hotel seemed pretty appealing, especially now that the night was getting colder. I was thinking this, leaning against the storefront window of the bar when she walked up to, half a smile playing across her face, an expression softened by the evening's cider. She planted her feet somewhat unsteadily in front of me and said something in Estonian.
     "Vabandust," I said, offering my apologies. "I don't speak Estonian. English?"
She looked a little surprised, a little pleased, and took a drag from her cigarette.
     "You speak English? Where from?" Her accent sounded almost like Cockney English, extra pressure pushing out the long vowels, and gritty hard consonants led with the jaw.
     "America--I mean the United States." Her eyes lit up, immaculately plucked eyebrows arching a gentle crease in her forhead.
     "Ohhhh!" she said, bending deeply at the waist so her cheek brushed my chest. "America is cool! I want--" she pulled from her cigarette. "So badly to go there. So cool."
     "Yeah, it is a nice country," I said, trying to speak slowly and avoid conractions as we'd been told to do. "But Estonia is cool too. I like it here a lot." She nodded along, ear tilted up to me.
     "Yes, you like? I live here."
     "In Tallinn?"
     She nodded, lips pursed on her last drag, then flicked the butt onto the sidewalk. "I am local. It's okay. Not cool like America." I smiled with only the right side of my mouth and shrugged. "Estonia is here: okay." She held her free hand flat in the air in front of her chest, palm down, as if showing the height of a younger brother or sister. "And America is here: coooooool." She brought her hand high above her head, reaching with her fingertips and standing on her toes, revealing delicate hips and a small navel beneath her lifted skimpy tanktop. She lost her balance and dropped back to her heels. Her hair was in her face. She brushed it aside and took a long drink from her cup.

     We talked for a while. Her name was Riina. ("You won't know to spell it," she told me. "It is Estonian.") She had traveled to Finland, Sweden, France, Germany, and Egypt. (About 5 times to visit her brother. Egypt, like the U.S., is cool.) She spoke Estonian, German, French, and English. She kept apologizing that her English wasn't very good, but I thought it was excellent--easy to understand even through slurred speech.
     "I am done telling every place I went, so...when you get here, to Tallinn?" At this point the others spilled onto the sidwalk, reaching into fleece sleeves and zipping up hooded sweatshirts. I introduced her to my classmates.
     "You are all students together? All American?" She asked. "Wow! I thought Americans would be...fat. And stupid. But you are not this." We all laughed. Earlier, over dinner, Larry had told us that Estonians didn't have an opinion of the United States one way or another, didn't harbor the usual prejudices for Americans. I guess not.
    "No, because in the movies Americans are this way," she added, inhaling deeply from another cigarette she had procured from her back pocket a moment ago.

     Two of her friends ("friends" in the sense that they met about fifteen minutes earlier, and drank together inside for a while) joined us: a Spanish guy named Sergio and a Frenchman named Nicolas. I recognize Sergio from the twosome Riina left behind when she first approached me. In introducing ourselves to Sergio and Nicolas, some of us toyed with rudimentary French and Spanish, but it turned out they spoke English. We made fast friends.

     "So you are in Estonia, but you don't speak our language. Why not?" The local girl asked, bringing up the obvious question. She stood next to me, leaning against my shoulder. It was partly flirtation but also for balance I'm pretty certain.
     All of us Americans of course leapt lamely to our defenses, collectively muttering that they don't teach Estonian in America, it's the education system, and we'll start classes soon anyway, so then we'll know. She offered to teach us Estonian, to give us our first lesson.
     "Okay, so: Üks, kaks, kolm, neli. Okay?" 1, 2, 3, and 4 in Estonian. "Üks," she said expectantly.
     "Ooks," we chimed back.
     "No no. Not ooks," she screwed her mouth into a perfect circle, aping our long English "o" sound. "Üks. It's different. Üks. Üks."
     After a try or two we got it right, correctly pronouncing the umlaut over the 'u.'
     "You are all American, yes?" she asked us again, maybe for the third time since we met.
     "Yes," we answered, nodding and smiling. Her hand was snaking under my hoodie, absentmindedly untucking my shirt a bit at a time.
     "Mmmm. Well, your English is very good." It took a moment before I realized she wasn't being sarcastic.
     "Thanks," I said. "It's all we've got, so we better do it well." She tried to wedge her hand under my waistband and snug along my hip. Her hand was rougher than expected, with callouses where her fingers met the flesh of her palm. They were cold as hell, too. I stood up straight and redirected my lean away from her a bit. She settled for putting her hand in my back pocket.

     We all talked for a while, sharing of our time in Tallinn: how long we will stay, what have we seen, what is most beautiful, and what do locals think of all the tourists? Sergio and Nicolas worked in Barcelona, doing computer programming or something like that. They were visiting Estonia for two or three days. Riina asked us if we were American several more times. She periodically leaned in for hugs and asked me for kisses.

     After a long engagement on the sidewalk in front of Hell Hunt, our group parted ways. Riina and Sergio stumbled down the street together (Riina stumbled while Sergio steadied her), and Nicolas joined us in the search for another bar, which we soon found in the form of "O'Malley's," an odd hybrid of Irish pub and glitzy karaoke bar.

    We stayed for a while at O'Malley's, and added our names to the long karaoke lineup. I joined Dominique and our new friend Nicolas for a trio performance of "Bootylicious." I thought I was at least a little familiar with this song, but soon realized I had absolutely no idea how it went. Thankfully, Nicolas didn't either. We mumbled into the microphone, "I don't think---ready...for---jelly...jelly," and variations on that theme, while Dominique led the way. After that, Nick and I did a soulful rendition of "Wonderwall." This was a good choice for the occasion: there was a group of young British men in the bar, and they sang along passionately, standing up and raising their drinks to the rafters.

     Soon it was 2 o'clock, and time to return to the hotel. We talked and laughed together on the way back home, all of us pleased that we had decided to ignore jet lag and stay out that night. The streets had mostly emptied: it was a Sunday night. Before bed, it occurred to me that Riina was the very first Estonian I had met since arriving. I wondered if any others would try to put their hands in my pants.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Entry I: In Which We Arrive in Estonia, Get Our Bearings, and Walk A Lot

     Tere ("Hello" in Estonian)! 
Here it is, the first blog entry of my fall semester abroad. I won't spend too long on a lengthy preamble setting the scene, because I have a lot of writing to do if I hope to keep track of all that has happened so far, and I don't want the vivid but fleeting memories of the last several days to take flight from my head before I have the chance to get them written down. 

     Suffice it to say I was very lucky to get into a cross-cultural psychology study abroad program put on by Beloit. I, along with eight other Beloit students, will spend eight weeks living and studying in Estonia, followed by eight weeks in Morocco.

     So without any further ado, here is a recap of my travels so far, cobbled together from notes and recent memory:

2:45 p.m.
     Terminal M15 of O'Hare International Airport. I'm not far from the rattling metro and the windy beach of Lake Michigan, but I feel leagues away from Chicago proper, where I spent the last few days. 
Still having a hard time understanding what's about to happen. I'm going to Estonia? Estonia? The best way to purchase a grasp on the whole thing is to focus on minute detail. Like this: In a matter of hours, I'll be sipping ginger ale (I almost always drink ginger ale while flying--it's a tradition of mine) thousands of feet above the Atlantic Ocean, perhaps passing over Greenland or swinging by Iceland.

5 p.m.
     After a solid 24 hours of travel, we arrive in Tallinn. The flights were great: We were actually served dinner and breakfast on our transatlantic jaunt to Stockholm, and a flight attendant cruised the aisle at one point, handing out hot towels for all. With a newfound love for SAS Airlines and a blossoming case of jet lag, I hop on the bus to downtown Tallinn along with my classmates and our professor Larry White. We throw our bags in our rooms at City Hotel and meet in the lobby to go out to dinner. My first impressions of Estonia are superficial and not particularly insightful--as all first impressions must be, I tell myself. Some things I notice:
1) The toilets are smaller here. 
2) Waiters don't expect tips.
3) Estonian lemonade is unlike anything I've ever had. Not better, not worse, but different.  
4) The air feels wonderful, cold and clear, like home on the Oregon coast. 
5) Hand soap smells different.

5:30 a.m. 
Tallinn at 7 a.m. 
     Wake up a little too early and can't get back to sleep. I get up and go for a walk around Tallinn with Nick, who's also having trouble sleeping. It's cold and quiet outside, the city hasn't yet awakened. Armed with a city map from the hotel lobby, we meander down a residential street, all the while pointing out obvious and mundane details like the woodwork on houses and the wording of street signs. We stumble into a gorgeous city park with a large pond in the middle, graced by two silent swans and a smattering of mallards or some kind of duck. We walk through the grounds of Kumu, the Estonian art museum, and then move on, crossing an overpass that affords us a view of the Tallinn skyline from the south. We pass through a fairly rundown neighborhood of apartment buildings, and then cut through the downtown area again, this time heading north to the shore, but cruise ship terminals block our way to the water. After about two hours we return to the hotel. 

Outside of a food stand at the market.
     After breakfast at eight o'clock, Nick and I are in for even more walking: today is the day of our walking tour of Tallinn, in which Larry hopes to tire us out completely, so we can collapse at the end of the day and get over our jet lag. Our first stop is the open air market on Kreutzwaldi Street, where we must find the Estonian words for cucumber (kurk), sausage (vorst), honey (mesi), and some other foodstuffs. The market is a sight, and my favorite part is the produce square. It smells cool and fresh, strongly of dill, with a hint of earthy mushrooms and fresh fruit and berries. Below the produce, the foodstuffs, the clothing and knick-knacks, there's a lower level devoted to liha, or meat. Never before have I seen so much and so many varieties of meat. I don't buy anything at the market today, but I have my eye on the bakery booths. I resolve to return tomorrow, kroons in hand. 
Russian vendors at this market know exactly what we need:
Crocs. And more Crocs! And fake Crocs!

     We spend the rest of the day walking in and around Old Town, the oldest part of Tallinn. We see sights, snap pictures, and swarm with fellows tourists, many of whom are Europeans who flock to this medieval piece of Tallinn from their cruise ships for only a few hours before setting sail for another Baltic port on their itinerary. 

     The architecture is a hodge-podge of Swedish, Danish, and German influence. Baroque, Gothic, and Neo-Classical buildings cozy up together and crowd the streets. But the streetscape of Old Town is dominated by limestone towers and walls, fortifications built by Teutonic Knights in the 14th century. Cool, eh? 

A view from the upper sector of Old Town, across the rooftops and out to the Gulf of Finland.

    Narrow and winding cobblestone streets snake their way through Old Town, leading use from one spot of historical significance to the next, with frequent pauses for Larry to impart impromptu "cultural lessons." Some topics covered include the rudeness of pointing with the index finger (just use several fingers or the whole hand), the Estonian norm of subdued behavior in public, and the proper way to line up and pay for foodstuffs at a cafe (money rarely exchanges hands directly, but is set in a small tray on the counter). 

     After hours of walking, we go out for pizza at a little restaurant off the beaten tourist path. I know not to expect traditional pizza, but the toppings still surprise me. Tunafish? Crabmeat? Pickles? Like all other food we've had so far, this pizza is nice and savory. (There's an Estonian saying that goes something like, "better a salty morsel than a square meal of sweet.") Far more exciting than salty pizza is this: I can drink beer! So I do. Several of us order a dark beer that's popular here. It's delicious, and goes wonderfully with our unconventionally salty Baltic pizza. 

My first legal beer, consumed in public proudly, without fear of retribution. This is a milestone. 

     At the end of the day, I feel a lot like a tourist. I'm not certainly not the student of the world my fantasies had me morphing into after my first footstep on Estonian soil. But I've learned a lot in the last day or two, and I know there's only more to come. I'm loving every minute of my time here so far, and and this point I'm honestly a bit too shell-shocked by the reality of it all to explain why. Hopefully I'll become more articulate as the semester continues.