the soul of tallinn

IN SOME WAYS today is not the ideal day for Tallinn. The weather is gray, the snow and ice are melting together. The sidewalks are slippery. In a word, one might say it’s depressing. But I noticed how some pigeons flew out of a tunnel by the Baltic Station. That was funny and lifted my mood some. Again, the same Old Town, the site of the Puppet Theatre (and isn’t it absurd that the Puppet Theatre was so successful, and of such high quality? We are talking about puppets here. These are children’s toys. Yet many successful, great actors got their starts there). Then Hirvepark, a noteworthy place in Estonian history. All these houses. All these dwellings. What is it that makes Tallinn Tallinn? An Italian restaurant, an Irish pub? And which is my favorite place? Reval Café? A boutique, a jewelry shop, with Russian sellers. Old LPs in the record shop window, where happy ladies pose sometime in the 1970s, back when sex was still exciting. I searched for the soul of Tallinn everywhere, but it was hard to find. Is Tallinn in Vapiano, where they ask for your COVID pass and identity document, and a Nigerian makes me Insalata Deliziosa? Or in the Õhtuleht Building, where there are beauty salons, cafes, and wedding dresses on display in the first-floor windows? There are people in the streets who are headed somewhere. Russians, Germans. I suppose it’s always been that way. Tallinn. An international place. The trams move forward, the casino lights blink on, and company meetings continue. This is how one gray January day passes in Tallinn. Elegant ladies with small dogs. Young fathers with baby strollers. One even has twins. Somewhere at the edge of the Old Town, I see a poster for a play. There are lots of women on the poster, but one catches my eye. Who is she? I take a photo and then later do some research. I learn that she is a young actress. I just wanted to know what her name was, but so what. Now if I was to meet with her, I would have to tell her the embarrassing story about how I once took a photo of a poster that featured her, because I thought she was a beautiful girl. I am not sure if this is strange or not. At least I haven’t built a shrine to her in a corner of my house adorned with her photos. I was just curious. Good luck with your career, young Estonian actress! Naturally, I find my way back to Fotografiska. A safe place where one can get some work done. Some American dance music is coming from the speakers. A turmeric milk, also known as a golden latte. I hear all kinds of languages. There’s a Russian man at the neighboring table, but the others are Estonians. Women with children, with laptops. The girl behind the counter was born in ’97. Which is no surprise, as she is 25 years old now and works in a café. Completely normal. I don’t want to tell her that I came to Estonia in 2003. I don’t want to hear how she was in kindergarten back then. But at least she speaks with me and looks me in the eyes. It’s nice when a Tallinner looks you in the eyes. Soon I’ll go back to the book shop and buy that Icelandic chick lit I saw before for my daughter. I think she likes these kinds of surprises, that “Daddy brought me something from the capital!” For her, Tallinn is a fantastic place, full of second-hand shops, interesting cafes, new experiences, and friends. I am happy she can discover her own Tallinn this way. I’m not bored here, but where is the soul of Tallinn? Does it even exist? Honestly, I feel pretty lonely here in this café. One woman sits behind a laptop. The next one is behind her laptop. The third is the same. The fourth is looking at her phone. In the hallway to the toilet, there is a portrait of Scarlett Johansson on the wall. To think, I came all the way to Tallinn just to see Scarlett Johansson on the way to the WC. Maybe some people think that all of these trimmings make Tallinn more international, but they also make it more generic. I think I’ll go and have a look around in Kalamaja. Maybe I’ll find some old fat cat there, or see an ancient drunk between the renovated old buildings. At least something without elevator music, turmeric, and quinoa.

This piece was written originally in Estonian and appears in the Estonian magazine Edasi.

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