Following from last week.
*I have been lucky enough to always have warm and sunny weather while visiting Estonia. It was a treat to sleep with open windows. Texas is hot, and windows are kept closed so as not to burden the air conditioner. My visits have been in summers, but then again Estonia is as far north as Juneau, Alaska, and could be expected to be cooler. An exception to sunny days was the day last summer on which a parade to the song festival grounds was scheduled.
Estonia has become a Mecca for tourists. A large number of tourists in Tallinn are Finns. One of my relatives, a waiter in a restaurant, said he could tell the nationality of a tourist from his order : Germans order wurst and Finns like salmon or pepper steak, whereas Estonians are content with simple dishes and beer. It seems that people from the outside are more interested in Estonia’s past visiting historic sites and museums. For example the Museum of Occupations gets a great portion of visitors from among the Finns rather than natives.
I enjoyed the varieties and taste of Estonian bread, which has a texture much different from the foam-like highly processed bread most common in American grocery stores. Estonians value locally grown foods. Restaurant meals were less expensive than in the United States. The Eesti Maja in midtown Tallinn is a great place to meet friends and order Estonian specialties like sült and rosolje. But a foreign menu is also available in many restaurants. When I did not want to spend my limited tourist time eating, fast food restaurants could be found. The McDonalds golden arches are conveniently located near the historic Viru gate, to the annoyance of local people.
In 1990, I saw many houses in Tallinn still with pockmarks from bombings 46 years earlier. Today all is repaired, as if the war has finally ended. Russian-language street signs have been removed, which indicates that the occupation too has ended. If highway signs are posted in two languages at all, the second language is English. New buildings are rising in the city centers of Tallinn and Tartu. Hotels are first class and so are their prices. Twenty-three years ago I limited my time in the city so that I would not have to use public toilets. Now toilets conform to Western standards. The worst was the toilet in the Tallinn airport. It too is now new and clean, but in the arriving passenger section it accommodates only one person at a time.
In Estonia the roads are paved, except for some village streets. In most cases there are road signs. Between Tallinn and Tartu roads are being reconstructed to carry heavier European trucks. Russian-made cars have almost disappeared. People drive mostly Mercedes and Audis. The traffic was frightening, because all drivers seem to be in a terrific hurry. When I drove at the legal speed limit cars sped past me with the driver looking at me as if to say, “Why do you, old man, loiter on the street ?” The most dangerous section I encountered was in front of the Estonia Theater. The country is small and everything is in close proximity, so speeding can save not much time. If one drives from one side of Tallinn to the other side, say from Mustamäe to Lasnamäe, at 70 km/h instead of the permitted 50 km/h, the most a driver theoretically can save is four minutes, and in practice less. In Texas we also have cowboys on the streets, but Tallinn seemed to have more of them, as if the reserved Estonians acquired horns when they got behind the wheel.
I got lost driving in Tartu, searching for the National Archives Building. The city fathers of centuries ago built the streets so narrow that many can carry only one-directional traffic. The one-way streets seemed to be leading always out of the city.
Devices to prevent car theft were recommended, such as the steering wheel lock or an alarm system. I was advised not to carry my wallet in my back pocket, but I did not feel in any danger of pickpockets. Often apartment doors are made of steel and have multiple locks. If someone alone inside required help and was unable to open the door, how could anyone get to him ? In Soviet times the apartment buildings’ staircases were odorous, because any drunkard could relieve himself on his way home. Now doors leading to the street are locked, and the inhabitants have keys. Some years ago I encountered apartment houses, which had no doorbells on the outside doors for a visitor to announce his arrival. The only solution was to call the apartment by cellular phone. If I did not have a phone or the inhabitant’s number was unlisted, I had to wait until someone with a key arrived, and was thus required to do some fast-talking to be let in. Now the street doors have ringers.
I received a EEK 500.00 (about USD 40.00 ) citation for illegally parking in front of the Pirita cloister. This seemed excessive, especially since the parking lot at that time was essentially empty. The Estonian police were businesslike and courteous.
The bus network is extensive and the buses run on schedule. One can live well in Tallinn without a car and enjoy everything that the city offers. In America a cultural life without a car is almost impossible.
The world has shrunk, now that a tourist in Estonia can keep in touch with those at home by an Internet connection. Many American programs are available on Estonian television.
Estonia has changed a lot from the time of my first visit in 1974, when my travels were severely limited by the Soviet occupation. A very Western country has emerged from what seemed a backward country just 30 years ago. People are concerned mostly with the present; they are pragmatists, to the frustration of many of us émigrés. Estonia is a tourist-friendly country, especially for those who can get used to the reserved and cool nature of the people. There is much historical to see and visit that gives insights into Estonia's past. Searching for one’s "roots" in Estonia has become easy if you rent or borrow a car, have a cellular phone, and have a “nest” where to leave your suitcase.
Of course, these are just my personal observations. Every visitor to Estonia sees something different. It would be nice to compare my impressions of modern Estonia with others. In any case, my explorations in Estonia over the years have strengthened my bond with the country of my birth.