Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Neitsitorn Cafe

Ah, well, the last time I was in Tallinn, one of my favorite places to write was at a cafe high up in an ancient tower called the Neitsitorn. Tallinn's city walls are interspersed with these towers, many built in the 14th and 15th centuries. "Neitsitorn" actually means "Virgin Tower" and the name is ironic, since at one point in it's history, this section of fortification held a prison for prostitutes. There is a catwalk near the top of the wall, and the Neitsitorn cafe had tables arranged all along it, with great views out over the old town and on to the Baltic Sea beyond.

This time, alas, the Neitsitorn cafe is no more, but when I walked up there, I found that the next tower over now has a cafe. It uses a separate section of the same catwalk. Wonderful! Today was a great day to try it out, with temperatures here in Tallinn in the high 70's F (mid 20's C). So up I went. The first thing that was a little unfortunate, was that halfway up the stairs there is a landing where they make you pay 2 Euros to go the rest of the way. Ok, well, what are you going to do? I paid and went on up. The next thing that was slightly disappointing was that a cup of coffee cost 3 Euros, or roughly twice the going average. I did get my coffee of course, and it was worth it to spend a part of my afternoon there, but I don't think I'll make it a regular part of my cafe tour. Five Euros ($7.25) is a bit steep for a cup of coffee, all up. Still, it is hard to complain, being here in Tallinn on a lovely spring day such as today!

Monday, May 30, 2011

Photo of the day

Today's photo is a bit of a cultural disconnect, with the intersection of two ancient cultures. Here is the Peking Chinese Restaurant, tucked up against a 14th century section of the Tallinn city wall. I haven't actually eaten here yet, but who knows, perhaps I'll give it a try!

Sunday, May 29, 2011

A rainy Sunday

Today was cool and damp here in Tallinn, which made for a good day to write. I ended up inside a little cafe in the Old Town, pictured here on the right. One thing about walking around Old Town Tallinn is that it doesn't take much to make believe you've been transported back to medieval times. Indeed, these streets look much the same today as they have for centuries, with ancient city walls and gates still largely intact after more than 600 years. This city is living, breathing history. As a writer here, I'm also in good company historically speaking. Three doors or so down from the apartment in which I'm staying is a house where Fyodor Dostoevski once stayed. The year was 1840, and Dostoevski was a young university student, visiting his brother who attended school here. Today a marble plaque attached to the exterior marks the building. Maybe with some luck, the great Russian novelist's influence will rub off on me. Or at least perhaps I'll be similarly inspired!

Friday, May 27, 2011

Made it to Tallinn!

It was in 2002 that I first came to Tallinn, Estonia, to spend four months working on a novel. On that trip I made some great friends and had a fantastic time. I've been meaning to come back ever since, but for one reason or another, it took me nine long years. Now, finally, I'm back! My friends Peeter and Aivar picked me up from the airport, and suddenly it was just like old times! I've rented a room in an apartment in the heart of the old town with great views and a very nice roommate. Pictured here is the view from the living room on the night I arrived, taken around 11 p.m.

So far I've noticed a few differences about the city since I was here last. On that visit, the economy was really picking up steam here and the downtown was abuzz with building activity and high-rise cranes all over. Now those projects are complete, but with the slumping world economy, the building boom seems to be over.

The other big difference is that tourists seem to have discovered this place in a big way! Back in 2002 there were surprisingly few tourists for a place as picturesque as this one. Perhaps it was considered too edgy then, being a former Soviet state, but now it is part of the EU and things have definitely changed.

Yesterday I took a stroll around the old town to re-acclimate myself and I stopped by a cafe tucked into an small courtyard just off the main square (right). It was one of the places that I used to like to write, and was always fairly quiet. This time I could hardly get through the alley and into the courtyard as it was choked with tourists, mulling around taking photos. And this is only May! I'm wondering what July will be like. In any case, I'm thrilled to be back here and now that my jet lag is wearing off it is time to get to work, since sadly, Sweet Ophelia refuses to write itself. :-) So here we go, off to the cafes!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Business or vacation???

Tomorrow is the big day when I head off to Europe for the summer to write and see some friends. I called to notify my credit card company that I would be over there for the next three months, and the customer service agent said, "Is this business or vacation?" I found this to be quite a perplexing question. Those were the only two options. In the everyday world of normal people, those are the only conceivable reasons for going to Europe, apparently. But this is not a business trip. I don't have a "job" per se. I'm going to write, sure, but I could be doing that anywhere. It's not vacation. Who goes on a vacation for three months? And a vacation from what? Writing? No, I'll be doing that...

This is just another small example of the no-man's land I seem to find myself in on a regular basis. Living an existence outside the societal norm can be a confusing endeavor. I guess I just don't fit inside the box. Oh well, it gives me something to contemplate while I sip my latte in an Estonian cafe. In the end I told the agent it was a "working vacation." I guess she can make what she will of that.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

On my "so-called" writing

I was reading an article today in The New Yorker about a Russian poet, Joseph Brodsky. In 1964, when Brodsky was twenty-three years old, he was arrested for being a "freeloader." The Soviet state felt threatened by intellectuals. They didn't like the concept of a man sitting around writing poetry. There had to be something subversive in it. They wanted to lock him up. Part of the court transcript went like this:

Judge: Tell the court why in between jobs you didn't work and led a parasitic lifestyle?

Brodsky: I worked in between jobs. I did what I do now. I wrote poems.

Judge: You wrote your so-called poems? And what was useful about your frequent job changes?

Brodsky: I began working when I was 15 years old. Everything was interesting to me. I changed jobs because I wanted to learn more about life, about people.

Judge: What did you do for your motherland?

Brodsky: I wrote poems. That is my work. I am convinced... I believe that what I wrote will be useful to people not only now but in future generations.

Judge: So you think your so-called poems are good for people?

Brodsky was found guilty and sentenced to five years labor in a small northern village.

Now I'm not trying to put myself in the same category as Brodsky. He went on to win a Nobel prize in literature. I'm writing popular (I hope) fiction. But I definitely feel his pain to some small extent. I spent the last 20 years going from job to job in order to support my writing. To me, it was the writing that was always my occupation, even if it didn't pay the bills. But in ours, as in any society, it is how you make a living that defines you. When you go to a party and meet someone new, one of the first things they are bound to ask is, "What do you do?" If I were to say, "I'm a writer," that inevitably leads to the next question, "What do you write?" Keep going down that rabbit hole, and eventually the questioning leads to, "Well how do you make a living?" That is the crux of the matter, to an awful lot of people, just like it was to Brodsky's judge. If I consider myself a writer, but make a living teaching snowboarding, then to most people I'm not really a writer at all, I'm a snowboard instructor, or a furniture mover, or whatever else I happen to be doing for a paycheck at the time.

To a writer, or a poet, or an artist, the work is never really about making a living. At least it shouldn't be. It is much more than just that. It is a calling. With the advent of the ebook revolution, however, I am beginning to make a living at it for the very first time. For so long I've wanted to say, "I'm a writer," without having to go through all of the qualifications. It has long felt like I myself was on trial each time I made that statement, but no more. It is my occupation, it is my calling, it is finally, at long last, it is how I make a living. That in itself is a huge relief...

Thursday, May 19, 2011

T minus 5

Five more days until I head off to Tallinn, Estonia, to spend some time writing and seeing old friends. I've rented a room from a friend of a friend in the heart of the old town and can hardly wait to go! Nine years ago I spent four months in Tallinn working on a novel and it was one of the great periods in my life. I made some good friends, hung out in the cafes of this charming medieval capital, played lots of soccer and thoroughly enjoyed myself. This will be the first time I've been back since.

I've spent quite a few summers away in various places, including London, Budapest, Ukraine and Australia (our winter). Usually whenever I go away for an extended period of time, it almost never fails that the swell of the year comes along within a week or two after I've gone. Being that I'm a surfer, it is hard to take when I'm thousands of miles away and have to hear all about it from friends and family back home. This time, perhaps it is a good sign that the swell of the year (so far anyway) actually arrived today. What a change that is! Now I'm happily exhausted after a day in the surf. I'll take that as a good omen for a promising summer ahead.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Seven Things: Work, Writing and Research

Thanks to Janice Horton for including me in the Versatile Blogger Awards, whereby I am supposed to mention seven things people might not already know about me. Since I tend to live a peripatetic life, I've decided to list seven places that I've lived before, in no particular order. So without further ado:

1. Cleveland, Ohio: I grew up in Southern California, but I was actually born in Cleveland, where I lived for the first three and a half years of my life.

2. Toowoomba, Australia: I was a foreign exchange student here in this small town in Queensland.

3. On a boat in San Francisco Bay: A friend of mine offered to let me live on his boat in Sausalito once for nine months while I worked on writing a few screenplays. I loved falling asleep to the rocking and rolling of the waves.

4. On a ship in the Pacific: I worked in the engine room on a ship laying fiber optic cable from California to China. We spent a month straight at sea with no sight of land.

5. Washington, DC: I went to visit a friend once in our nations capitol and loved it. I ended up renting a place and staying for three years.

6. Budapest, Hungary: Two years ago I spent the summer in Budapest. It was a wonderful place to write; cheap rent, great cafes, and a fabulous library in an old converted palace.

7. Tallinn, Estonia: Nine years ago I spent four months in this lovely medieval city on the Baltic Sea. In fact, I loved it so much I've decided to go back. My flight leaves in ten days.

So that's it! If anyone else wants to join in, copy and paste the logo above on your blog and comment here so we can check your page out. Thanks again, Janice!