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

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.