in search of the paala järve vaala baar

ONE DAY AFTER MANY HOURS of work, I decided to explore Paalalinn. This is not something I usually do on purpose. In fact, the more years pass, the more I try to avoid leaving the Old Town and its environs altogether. I have all I need here, food, shelter, clothing, vinyl records, and the gym at the Grand Hotel where I can work out and watch documentaries about Stalin in peace. Everything that anyone could ever need. Yet I decided to go and seek adventure in Paalalinn. There was something there that people said I should see.

Paalalinn is a district in Viljandi about which I know very little. I don’t even know how it got its name, or if there even ever lived someone named Paala. A few years ago at Vinoteek Mulks, I did meet some old-timers who had grown up in Paalalinn before the building boom of the 1960s. They said that Paalalinn used to be a country place, before all of the housing projects, and children frolicked in the forests and along the streams there. At some point though, they built those large apartment buildings, and the man-made lake alongside them, now called Paala Lake. 

This is now a popular summer spot for locals, who come to sun themselves on its sandy beach, play on its playground, and buy ice cream from a small ice cream cafe at lake’s edge. This is also, as I recently learned, the site of an intriguing dive called the Paala Järve Vaala Baar, or the “Paala Lake Whale Bar.” It is built into the side of one of the hills. Apparently, it is such an inspiring place that Puuluup, the eclectic musical duo, had to write about it. In the video for the song, they can be seen swimming fully clothed and singing in the water, as well as wrestling in the beach sand. The song itself is structured like choral music. There is a mysterious, Eastern inflection to this tune that recalls the incantations of holy monks. Puuluup are like monks, I have thought, which makes it strange that they would hang out in bars, especially this bar I had never heard of. Somehow after years of living here, I had never managed to encounter the Whale Bar. 

Because of this, I decided to undertake my pilgrimage.

Getting to Paalalinn is not difficult, but not particularly pleasant either. I walked past the two buildings that burned in the summer down Jakobsoni Street, following the road past the earthworks for the hospital that’s being built, and then by Leola, that building that encloses another legendary underground bar, the one that locals call auk or “hole,” presumably because once you go in, you never come out. Also, auk, as I have learned, means “blood” in the Inuit language. Something to keep in mind. At last, I came upon the lake and saw the buildings of Paalalinn towering against a gray horizon. The people of Paalalinn are different from the ones in the Old Town, but how, I cannot say. The few I saw on my walk seemed indifferent to me, neither particularly happy nor sad, and I decided not to trouble them with my search for the Whale Bar. Instead I pressed on toward, eventually discovering it across from the beach. There was a table outside the bar, and the door was open. Smoke curled from a chimney which, because of the way the bar is built, made it seem as if smoke was coming out of the ground. Inside, a client was talking with the bartender, but they stopped their talk as soon as I entered. 

“So this is it,” I said, admiring the place.

“This is what?” the bartender said.

“The Paala Järve Vaala Baar, of course.”

“No,” the bartender said. “This is the Järve Baar. The Lake Bar.”

“But I thought there were supposed to be some whales here.”

“No,” said the bartender. “There are no whales here. There is a lake here though. That is why it is called the Lake Bar and not the Whale Bar. I don’t know why people keep coming here and asking about whales, really. It makes no sense to me. There are no whales in Paala Lake.”   

“Maybe because it just sounds nice,” I said. “Paala, vaala. See, it’s like poetry.”

“You’re probably right,” said the bartender.

I ordered a drink and took one last look around the bar, whatever its name was, and left. This trip to Paalalinn was over. 

Recently while talking with a local writer friend whom I will call Jaak, he remarked on how much he has missed Venice in the pandemic years and, to cheer him up, I suggested that they could replace the streets in Uueveski, where he lives, with canals, and that way he could take a gondola to the cafe in the morning instead of his bike. “And look at all the work they are doing on Uus Street,” I said, referencing the construction that has left this major thoroughfare completely dug up. “They’re already installing the canals! All they have to do is fill Uus Street with water and it will be ready.” Jaak was not amused. He wanted the real Venice, not some fake Venice, but as I walked back from the bar in Paalalinn, I considered how much of our town experience is imaginary and how much of it is real. In some ways, Puuluup’s Paala Järve Vaala Baar really exists, for many even moreso than the actual bar. And my idea of turning Uueveski into the Venice of the North is now unforgettable. Close your eyes and you can see it. So, who knows, maybe in a few years there really will be a Whale Bar in Paalalinn, and gondolas on Uus Street. 

All we have to do is dream and dream well, and our dreams will become the new reality.

***

An Estonian version of this piece appeared this week in Sakala.

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