Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Land of the Midnight Sun

I'm just back in Budapest today, by way of four days in Finland.  I was there visiting my exchange-student sister and her family.  Riikka lived with my family for a year when I was in high school, and she still feels very much like a sister to me.  This past weekend I was fortunate enough to be able to join them in their midsummer celebrations at her husband's family cottage two hours north of Helsinki. 
This included about 30+ family and friends, staying up all night, singing, and burning a big bonfire by the lake.  It was a wonderful time, and I'm grateful for having been included!  Now I'm settling in a bit at my friend's flat in Budapest where I will spend some time writing, and hopefully be done with my new novel very soon!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Blogging on the Baltic

Today's post comes from a boat in the middle of the Baltic Sea!  I've left Tallinn behind, at least for the time being, and am heading for Helsinki.  The last time I was in this part of Europe was nine years ago.  I moved to Tallinn for about four months and settled in a little bit to work on a novel.  During that stay I got to be good friends with two local guys, Aivar and Peeter, and they helped make my time in Tallinn the memorable experience that it was.  This time I enjoyed catching up with them over the past month, including last night when we went out for a last few beers.

Thanks guys!  I also had a chance to catch up yesterday with another friend from that trip, Marina, who met me for coffee.  Happy birthday Marina! 

So while this stay in Tallinn was shorter, it has also provided me with a lot of good memories and new friends.  Hopefully I'll be back before too long.  Now it's off to celebrate a rainy midsummer holiday at the summer cottage of an old friend and her family in Finland.  Off the grid for the next few days...

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Classic Cars Invade Tallinn

It was a bit surreal this weekend as classic American cars invaded the streets of Tallinn during some sort of car rally.  They came from all over the region to cruise up and down the streets of Old Town.  Somehow, in contrast with the surroundings, these "old" cars didn't seem so old!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

More Patarei Prison

 Today I thought I'd just add some more photos from my visit to Patarei Prison, which closed down in 2006.  When you go there now, the grounds are open to the public as a "Cultural Park."  Nothing much has been done to improve the grounds since the prison closed.  They just threw open the gates.  There is rubble all over, and razor wire strewn about (watch out, kids!).  You can clamber up a rusty ladder to check out the guard towers if you'd like and nobody seems to care.  In fact, there's hardly anybody around even.  Inside one of the towers I found old Russian language newspapers dated from before the prison closed.  If you pay 2 Euros you can go into the inside yard (pictured above) and wander around in some of the damp and gloomy prison wings to your heart's content.
Many of the rooms were left as they were.  Prisoner's books and water bottles and magazines are still strewn about some of the rooms.
 I wouldn't want to have any surgery here.
 Thirty minutes a day in one of these tiny "walking" yards.
 The view to freedom...

Thursday, June 16, 2011

A little football...Euro-style

One of my favorite things to do here in Tallinn is to get out on the pitch and play a little soccer with some of the locals (that's me with the ball).  The first time I came to the Baltics, in 2002, I knew that I wanted to spend three or four months working on a novel that I was writing.  I wasn't sure which of the three Baltic capitals I wanted to stay in.  I started in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania.  It was nice, but I decided to go to Riga, the capital of Latvia, to check that out.  I was definitely more inspired there, and actually spent some time looking for an apartment.  Then I met a guy in a cafe who was taking a bike tour around the region, and he told me how great he thought Tallinn was, so I took a bus up to take a look for myself.  Once I'd seen it, I was actually torn between Tallinn and Riga.  They both had their good points.  In the end, what swayed me was that I found this soccer field, just outside the city wall near the hostel where I was staying.  I walked out and talked to some people about getting in a game.  In the end I hooked up with a group that played twice a week and I was sold on Tallinn.

This time, when I came back to town, my friends from nine years ago, Peeter and Aivar, picked me up from the airport and mentioned on the way into town that they were involved in a weekly game at the same field.  Perfect!  Below is Peeter, in the middle, with a remnant of the wall in the background.  For me, soccer adds much to my stays here for many reasons.  First, it's great to get the exercise.  Second, it is a way to feel connected to the local community that tourists rarely get.  It is also a way to make local friends.  And lastly, there is just something spiritual about losing yourself in the game.  When you spend most of your time sitting at your laptop struggling at an intellectual pursuit, it is great to get out there and spend a few hours involved in such a physical endeavor.  Sadly, today was my last day playing soccer here in Tallinn, at least on this trip.  Next week I'll head to Finland to spend the midsummer holiday with some old friends, and then it is off to Budapest...

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

A hard place to do hard time

Down on the waterfront, not far from Old Town Tallinn, sits a crumbling old building first built as a cannon battery in 1842.  This is Patarei.  It was later turned into a prison, and operated as such until it finally closed in 2006.  Now the government has thrown the doors open to the public.  For two euros you can wander around inside, pretty much at will.  This has to be one of the dankest, gloomiest places I've ever been.  The first floor was so clammy even on a warm summer day that the walls were dripping wet. It was fun to spend an hour or so wandering around.  I'm glad I never had to live there.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A quiet cafe...

I came to Europe this summer to soak up the ambiance, see some old friends, meet some new ones, and also to spend time writing in some of the quaint cafes.  This is one of my favorites, the Chocolaterie Pierre, in the Meistrite Hoov (Master's Courtyard) in Tallinn's Old Town, not far from the apartment where I am staying.  Today it was nice and quiet, so I ordered a coffee and a pastry and got some work done, at least until it started pouring rain!  Luckily they have inside seating as well...

Monday, June 13, 2011

Views from St. Olaf's

Tallinn's St. Olaf's church, or Oleviste, was the tallest building in the world from 1549 until 1625.  Today, it still has impressive views for anyone willing to climb the 200 stairs to the viewing platform in the tower.  After meaning to get around to it for a long time, I finally made the trek up today (thanks to my friend Olga who took me there!).  Here are a couple shots of old town from the top.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

A bit of historical contrast

One thing that is a bit unusual about being in a former Soviet country like Estonia is that the architecture from that period provides such a stark contrast with anything built before or since.  Downtown Tallinn is now filled with modern glass office buildings.  Beside it is the Old Town, with buildings and fortifications dating to the thirteenth century.  And then, scattered around the edges are these hulking concrete buildings that are mostly falling down.  One of these is the Linnahall, pictured above.

In the Old Town, just a few hundred meters away, city walls built more than five hundred years ago are still holding up remarkably well.  The Linnahall, a concert hall built in 1980 for the Moscow Olympics, is already disused, abandoned and falling apart.  How can a 500 year-old building still be in great shape while a 30-year-old building is falling apart?  It is astonishing, but I think it comes down to two things.  First, of course, is the shoddy construction.  No stone and concrete building should be crumbling the way some of these are after such a short time.  Second, people just don't care enough about most of these buildings, or have the resources available, to maintain them.

 And so, the Linnahall, and other Soviet-era apartments and buildings crumble away.  During the Olympics, Tallinn was the site of sailing competitions.  Today the Linnahall, overlooking the Baltic Sea, is a place where locals hang out on a sunny day to soak up the sun while drinking a couple bottles of beer.  The rest of the waterfront land around this complex, for large distances on both sides, is just abandoned lots.  In most places, a waterfront area like this would be some of the most desirable property in town.  Not here, but who knows, maybe some day...

At least one thing the Linnahall provides is a good canvas for the city's graffiti artists.  Nobody seems to mind too much, in any case...

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Train Yard

I was walking to meet up with some friends last night and went past this train yard.  I think part of the charm of Tallinn is that there is a picturesque old town, and a modern new downtown, but you don't have to go too far to find places that are a little run down and slightly rough-around-the-edges, including scenes like this that have a beauty all their own.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Another nice day in Tallinn

Here is a picture of the Viru Gate, one of the main entrances to old town.  This gate was originally built in the 13th century, and while it isn't completely intact, what's left seems to be holding up pretty well (though some of what you see was added later).  The street winds up and around to the main square and the town hall (the minaret in the distance).  With temps in the high 70s F (mid 20's C), lots of people were out and about strolling the cobble stone streets today.

Monday, June 6, 2011

A day at the beach...Estonian style

The weather in Estonia lately has been fabulous, with warm temps and long days.  Currently it is only dark out from about midnight until about 1:30 in the morning, which leaves lots of time for outdoor activities, like heading out to the beach at nearby Kadriorg.  Unfortunately the water is still a chilly 57 degrees F (14 C), so only a few brave people were swimming and I wasn't one of them!

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Photo of the day

Here's a classic view of the old town from a lookout up on the castle hill (Toompea). In the background is St. Olaf's church, which was first built in the 13th century and was the tallest building in the world when its steeple was expanded around 1549. The apartment where I'm staying is just past it to the right.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

More Old Town

So after a brief detour yesterday, I've decided to get back to posting a few more photos of Old Town Tallinn today. As I mentioned in a previous post, sometimes walking around Old Town I feel as though I've stepped into a time machine and gone back to the Middle Ages. This is especially true around some of the less-traveled back streets, where there are very few cars and hardly even any people walking about.

Even in the area around the central square, the tourist crush is not quite as bad as I first anticipated. Much like last time I visited nine years ago, it does get quite crowded when there is a cruise ship (or two) in town. In between these times, however, it is fairly manageable. We'll see how this goes as summer gets into full swing! (At right is the same quiet back street as above, a little further down.)

Currently the Old Town Days Festival is in full swing, which means concerts and events all over town. The other evening I was lucky enough to find my way to a music school just up the street, where the local singer Mari Kalkun was performing. I think I was the only foreigner in the place, and even though I didn't understand a word, it was still fantastic! She's got quite a voice on her. (At left, the same quiet back street yet again.)

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Hello Iran!

So I was looking at my page stats just now, and I saw this under pageviews for today:

I just wanted to say that I think it is very cool that people in Iran are checking out my blog! You've got to love globalism! For anyone out there in Iran who is reading this, feel free to leave a comment and say hello if you'd like. Or not, if you don't want to. Either way, thanks for stopping by!