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

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. 


  1. Glad to hear you've arrived safely and are enjoying yourself. Drink a beer for me!

  2. Wonderful first post, Steven. Keep it up! I certainly let my blog falter while I was abroad, but that doesn't have to be you!

    Since you will not be writing for the Round Table this semester, I'm just going to have to get a dose of your writing through your blog. Stay well..


  3. هدِهِ المدينة جميلة جِدٌاً!!
    أتَمَنٌى أنْ تَسْتَمتِعَ كل برنامج