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

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.

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