#16 - The Baltics & Russia
Jeff Willner - 31 October, 2001
(St. Petersburg, RUSSIA) - Sally peered through the
windshield in amazement, "Oh my gosh he's taking a piss!" That's how
we first met Kalev. After five days of wandering through the Baltic countries,
we'd decided to head into the Estonian countryside for the weekend while
our Russian visas were being processed. Autumn leaves crackled in the
stubborn cold, the forest smelled of earthy comfort, and the Baltic Sea
lapped on a black pebble shore. There was only one problem, the summer
season was over and we couldn't find a decent place to stay. Kasmu is
a seaside town with a highly recommended hotel - that was closed. And
so as we drove forlornly through the tiny village hoping against hope
to find some other place to stay, we came up to this drunken Estonian,
peeing on the side of the road.
"Hey, hey, shtop! I want a ride to Tallinn," he slurred. "Sorry
we just came from there." We began to pull away. "No! I am the police!
Show me your passports!" he hiccupped. He was so whipped we had to laugh. "No
passports, but can you tell us where there is a place to stay?" "Of cooourse!!" his
eyes opened wide. "I know the perfect place, come, I will get in and
take you there." We paused. Janet opinioned that she would rather not
ride with a high vomit probability. "How about you walk ahead and we
just follow you." "Oh! OH! I will ride on the front bumper of your beautiful
truck!" And up he went. So we started driving and as we did we passed
his friends, Mihkel, Andres, Joak, they all climbed up and were belting
out the lyrics of "Smooth Criminal" as we bumped down the road. Turning
onto a grassy lane, we pulled next to a snug summer cottage, the guys
piled off and crowded around the truck windows. "This is the Villomann
summer house, we are here for the weekend, you must come and have some
apple wine!" You know that feeling you have standing at the top of a
high-dive platform, where you have to pause to suck up your gut before
you take the plunge - we had one of those, and then piled out and went
Fate is a funny thing. A few sips of homemade apple
wine (delicious), turned into an invitation for dinner with homemade
smoked fish, and then board games Estonian style (cheating is encouraged,
breaks are frequent, and the game is abandoned halfway through). Tarvo
and Ann Villomann were our hosts, their son Andres was one of the young
twentysomethings we'd picked up. They twinkled, more guests showed up
(beautiful women), and we were taught how to toast in Estonian - basically
it sounds like 'terrible sex', so that's what we yelled as the rounds
went round. Though only twenty-two, Kalev turned out to be Estonia's
most popular TV sportscaster, though you'd never know it watching him
work through the potato juice (vodka). Three hours into the party our
host announced, "And now, sauna!" So we did. Tramped out to the little
wooden house, stripped down, and talked sports (Tarvo works with Kalev
at TV3). He may be in his fifties but Tarvo can take the steam! He poured
enough water on the hot rocks to scar the inside of my nostrils and talked
away like it was nothing. I made a break for it when he went to get more
They insisted we must sleep there for the night. By
hour five, Sally, who had sampled the liquid hospitality a bit too enthusiastically,
announced that she was 'Done!', turned into the living room and toppled
onto a couch. More food, more laughter. Hour seven, the beautiful women
had to drive back to Tallinn an hour away, I was sad, all the men were
sad, it was just quite sad. A little after midnight we curled onto couches,
and so the party faded. A memory crossed my mind from Sudan, when Gulin
had said "Jeff, sometimes you have to accept the kindness of strangers!" It
was an unexpectedly great night with some amazing people that capped
our trip through the Baltics. And it was wrong!
You see, in order to keep the Baltics straight in
your head there are certain generalities that are assigned. Allow me
to enlighten. First the similarities, all three countries are small.
Lithuania (bottom), Latvia (middle), and Estonia (top) are stacked on
top of each other with the Baltic Sea on the west and Russia on the east.
Roughly the same size, they are primarily farming countries with gorgeous
showcase capitol cities. All fled the Soviet Union in the early 90's
(led by Lithuania) and all are eager to formalize ties with the west
including joining NATO. Oh, and one other thing (and I am not alone in
making this observation), Baltic women are beautiful.
Now for the differences. Lithuania is at the bottom
of the stack next to Poland. Did you know that in the 1500's, Lithuania
was a dominant power in Eastern Europe and even Russia was cowed by it's
presence - and that after joining with Poland the combined countries
ruled territory from modern day Finland down to the Black Sea! Lithuania
is different in that it remains predominantly Catholic like Poland, while
the other two Baltic countries are Protestant. And Lithuanians are the
most emotional of the three, described as the 'Italians of the Baltics'.
Their friendliness is reflected in the fact that we didn't need visas
or car insurance to visit - which I thought was rather decent of them.
Latvia is in the middle. It doesn't have any large
trading partners on its border (except Russia and they don't count) and
like Lithuania it is not heavily industrialized. But, it has Riga! Riga
is the biggest and most beautiful of the three Baltic capitals. All of
them have a cobbled old city with churches, old guild halls and shops.
But Riga's charm extends concentrically for a dozen more blocks outside
the old city, with the largest collection of early twentieth century
Art Deco buildings in the east. We only spared one day and night for
Riga, but the city is a charmer - I could have stayed a week.
At the top is Estonia. Actually it is at the top more
than just geographically, the country is a poster child for globalization
in the 90's. Exploiting its proximity to Finland, the country has attracted
a flood of foreign direct investment and as a result boasts an average
GDP twice as high as it's Baltic neighbors. So it is the economic powerhouse
in the region. Tallinn, the capitol city, is also very nice and a short
ferry ride away from Helsinki. But Estonians are famous for their reserve
- the opposites of the Lithuanians. So you see, it was quite unexpected
to find ourselves in the thick of a terrific party in 'reserved' Estonia.
After breakfast and fond goodbyes we found a converted
country manor in Palmse where we lounged in comfort for the rest of the
weekend. Walks in the woods, dinner beside a crackling fireplace, a Jacuzzi
tub in the bathroom, a wee dash of civilization in our otherwise hostel
to hostel existence. That morning as we left the house the band of lads
piled into their cars to dash back to the city. "Be sure to tune in at
7pm!" roared Kalev as they pulled away. So we cranked up the hotel set
and gathered round to watch. Sure enough, at 7:20 the sports show started
and by gosh there he was intoning like a professional - he was quite
good. Fate really can work strangely at times.
As with most of the other countries on the State Dept.
watch list, we'd been told horror stories about driving in Russia, the
bribes demanded by police, the state of the roads, and on and on. But
on our return to Tallinn we found our visas ready and processed (2 days,
$80/ea) and the drive across to St. Petersburg was hassle free.
Constant rain dampened the allure of Russia's fabled
gem. We tramped up and down Nevsky Prospect, the main shopping street
in the city, visited the Hermitage (truly one of the world's greatest
art museums), saw some mindblowing mosaics inside the Church on the Blood,
and toured the Museum of Art with its dazzling array of Russian painters.
For a change we had a couple days in the same place, and so I ducked
off on my own and had a luxurious afternoon in the terrace lounge of
the Hotel Europa. Not being on an expense account, I reluctantly passed
the caviar bar, the private billiards room, the spa, and the formal dining
hall. But I sprung for 'Afternoon Tea' on the terrace, an assortment
of little sandwiches, smoked fish, pastries, fruit, and fresh coffee.
A couple hours of nibbling and a fresh copy of the Economist, it was
like recharging mental batteries.
Janet is a die hard Halloween dress-upper. She had
met a Russian woman while shopping and had gone with Jody to have lunch.
They returned Halloween evening with 'costumes' which consisted of glitter
masks and alien antenna thingys that clip on the head. Four other Russian
friends had joined the ranks and we all set off to find a St. Petersburg
Halloween party. However, after slogging through the rain and shivering
in line for half an hour we ended up at the Metro club where antenna
thingys looked totally dorkish. Or I thought they looked dorkish till
mine were confiscated by a Russian beauty who compensated me with a kiss.
Did I mention the beautiful Russian women? Anyway, we were definitely
ready for bed by 3am but our Russian friends said that they had to stay,
the drawbridges over the Volga are open from 2am to 5am and they couldn't
get home. No wonder the nightlife goes all night.
It is strange to watch the sun begin to set at 4pm,
evening comes so early in the winter. I can't help but think that's a
catalyst for the parties and social life that are a fixture in the region.
We were a bit sleep deprived when we set off toward Helsinki and the
start of our Scandinavian adventure, but happy. I added Vilnius (Lithuania),
Riga (Latvia), and Tallinn (Estonia) to my list of undiscovered tourist
treasures, and thanked the kindness of strangers that made our visit
to the Baltics and Russia truly memorable. Here's to you Estonia, 'Terrible
PS. By the way, if you are looking for a good book
to read, "The Wind-up Bird Chronicle" by Haruki Murakami is a stunner.