za tallinna, za rodinu

Tallinn-Väike train station, December 2021

ZA TALLINNA, ZA RODINU. I saw a Soviet World War II propaganda film once, where the soldiers were singing, “Za Stalina, za rodinu,” (“for Stalin and the motherland!” in Russian) and so I think of this song when I come to Tallinn, mostly because as soon as I disembark at the train station, I am greeted by little clumps of ancient babushkas chittering away like city pigeons in Russian, the language of Tallinn’s sizeable linguistic minority. Tallinn is not essentially a Russian place though, so much of it is Scandinavian cookie cute commercial culture (the advertisement for the bakery Gustav painted on the trams, for instance, or even just the muted colors of the buildings, nothing loud anywhere, no neon orange or yellow, everything pastel this and creamy that, so mild and so restrained). There is this cartoonlike, childlike quality to the urban culture, it’s as if I am living in a life-size Christmas story of sorts, complete with the picture perfect Christmas fair in the Town Hall Square, or the indigent man mumbling to himself and sipping happily from a can of beer on the side of the road. There is also that brisk sea air chill, which you miss when you live inland, but which is unmistakable. I’m happy I have known this place and for such a long time. There are few other places I have known as long, and with such repeated interaction. Even cities I have spent a lot of time in, like San Francisco, those visits are in and out in a flash, I see some trolleys rolling by, have a look at the Golden Gate, visit the Haight maybe, get lost in the Presidio, and then it’s done. Or Reykjavik. I take the bus from Keflavik, check into the hotel, buy food from the Bonus supermarket, have a swim at Sundhöllin, interview Kári Stefánsson, buy some autographed Sjón books at Hús máls og menningar, and it’s over. It’s not like Tallinn and me. We go way back. We’ve got stories.

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