Estonia: Exploring the Quirky Baltic Country

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The thing is there is just oh-so-much to tell about my two weeks back in Europe that I’m not sure exactly where to start. It’s not that it wasn’t thrilling, surreal, fantastic and unforgettable—it was, trust me, it was—it’s just that I’m so overwhelmed by how much I crammed into those two weeks—being nearly reduced to roadkill in Helsinki, meeting up with six random friends from different periods of my life whose paths just happened to cross with mine, being moved nearly to tears by so many facets of Berlin’s turbulent history—so maybe I’ll start from the very beginning (a very good place to start).

You see, I’ve been promising my friend Katrina that I’d visit her in the capital of Tallinn for three years now. I honestly don’t think she believed me, because she has plenty of European friends who have never even bothered to take the hour-and-a-half flight to the former Soviet nation across their own continent. Why on Earth would one of her few American friends make that journey from the West Coast? But I’m not traditional, as you’ve probably come to find. Besides, I like going places that get me the response, “umm, is that a country?” (as America’s failure to instill a sense of geography in its students from a young age was recently made aware to me).

I would say Estonia lived up to every expectation I had, but truth be told, I didn’t really know what to expect. I believed it to look like some sort of fairytale land, and it did. I expected the food to be heavily influenced by Scandinavian cuisine, and it was (more sandwiches for breakfast, blech). I assumed the young and beautiful would be donning a tapestry of the 80’s finest fashion, and they were. I figured Estonians liked to hit the bottle, and—well, once again, I was right. What I didn’t expect was how much I would fall in love with the wee country in just five days.

Katrina and her boyfriend Erkki could not have been more accommodating hosts to our friend Hanna Axelsson (she has one of those names that is so fun to say, you always speak the first and last), who flew in from Sweden, and me. They’re in the middle of self-renovating their flat, so while there was no electricity in the bathroom (showering by candlelight is sort of romantic) and the kitchen was, well, not a kitchen, we slept on mattresses on the floor, hit the hookah, reminisced about old times and had ourselves a Bohemian time. It was so fun, like a big college sleepover all over again.

They drove us all over the city and beyond, giving us a more detailed tour than we could have ever paid for. On our second full day in Tallinn, we packed up Erkki’s Mini and headed to Estonia’s summer capital, which was just as freezing as the city—oh, I failed to mention it was in the 70’s the week before but topped 50 during my visit, of course—but the light couldn’t have been more spectacular.

We went to an all-night party in an artists’ studio, after which I was made to drive a stick shift for just the second time in my life (the first—alone in the Pyrenees—not ending so favorably) at 5am to a “barn” where we were all sleeping, as per the norm, I was the only one sober (our second straight night of being out that late, mind you).  Designated driver, story of my life. Luckily, it’s light about 22 hours a day at the moment, but it still wasn’t an enjoyable experience. The three in the back had enough common sense to keep quiet and not laugh every time I stalled, which was smart on their part, as Erkki manned the gears and coached me through shifting. Note to self: Must learn stick before going on The Amazing Race.

When we got to this “barn,” I half expected us to be sleeping in the hay with horses as stallmates, but instead said barn was a cute little cabin where we all slumbered side by side on the floor—me and 30 of my closest Estonian pals.

We got up, had more sandwiches for breakfast—oh, how I began to long for my banana nut Cheerio’s—then hit the road back to Tallinn.

Along the way, Kata and Erkki kept pulling over unannounced. As they were speaking Estonian, Hanna and I hadn’t the slightest clue what was going on. They didn’t care to inform us either.

Without warning, they would swing an abrupt, 90-degree turn onto these non-roads off the highway—are they taking us somewhere to kill us? I wondered, I’m pretty sure I remembered to flush the toilet and throw away my floss, but maybe not—and jump out of the car beside these abandoned, decrepit houses.

Turns out my hippie pals were just scavenging for furniture. Well, why didn’t you say so? I mean, I was once a New Yorker myself, I can dumpster dive with the best of them.

When we got back to Tallinn, Katrina had an election to cover—she’s the official photographer for the majority party—so I finally got a cat nap. Then Erkki woke me up to ask if I’d like to go to a barbecue with him. Why sure! We also partook in a favorite Estonian pastime, soaking in the sauna (that trailer-looking contraption in the photo below, which almost everyone has at his or her house) and hot tub. Followed by some ATV riding through the woods and along the beach bordering the Baltic Sea. When Erkki suggested we take the four-wheeler out at, oh, 8pm, I figured we’d go right then. But no, his friend Ollie instisted we wait until dusk, which was well after 1am (on a school night! don’t you people ever work?). The sun was just setting for its two hours of sleep, making for one of the more surreal experiences of my life.

I like to think I’m fearless—or rather portray myself as such—but I’m not. I simply don’t let Fear be a backseat driver on any of my follies. Rather, I slam it in the trunk where it belongs. Sure, I was constantly terrified he was going to hit a rock or tree and my time in Estonia (not to mention, on Earth) would come to a screeching halt, but of course we were fine. After awhile, I just had to start worrying and enjoy myself, because dude! It was awesome.

I can’t thank Katrina and Erkki enough for their amazing hospitality. It’s one thing to go somewhere new as a tourist; it’s completely another to be welcomed into a local’s life for a few short days. I’m only hoping they come out to California soon—ahem, 2010 wedding, ahem—so I can repay the favor.

  • June 18, 2009

    That trip sounds AMAZING. Maybe one of your most amazing. From my perspective, I mean. Which sounds pretty strange when I say, “Kristin’s trip to Estonia — that was my most amazing Kristin trip yet.”

    But I’m that you, as always, get my drift.

  • June 18, 2009

    Hey, that was an interesting read(may I say picturesque read!?!), and now you have me singing Do Re Me in my head. Oh, and you some job(ref: your previous post) woman!:-)

  • June 18, 2009

    Oh! And do I win a special prize for detecting the reference to The Sound of Music up in the first graf?

  • June 18, 2009

    In an aside to Teej(who ofcourse will not see this message….just brilliant…and yet I continue): I seem to be comment stalking you quite unintentionally today!

  • June 18, 2009

    Okay, I GIVE UP! 🙂

  • June 18, 2009

    And before you yell Off with Her Head or something like it(sigh, yeah Kristin, I’m talking to you now)…I apologise for this in Comment No. 2…
    [Oh, and you some job(ref: your previous post) woman!]…. a whole new meaning there…

    Let me say it again then, proper et al this time….Oh, and you sure have some job(ref: your previous post) woman!

    ~~~retiring defeated~~~

  • June 18, 2009

    Oh fun! (Except for that whole roadkill thing!) What I wouldn’t give to shoot at that abandoned house!

  • June 18, 2009

    What a wonderful trip to Estonia. Travelers, like yourself, are always the ones to visit friends in far away places. But how delightful to be hosted by friends. Maybe you need to learn to drive the stick when the back seat isn’t full of potential hecklers. Love the abadoned building. Did they find any furniture?
    Look forward to the rest of your adventure.

  • June 18, 2009

    I have always wanted to got to Estonia, your trip details motivate me to look into it again. Great photos!

  • June 18, 2009

    Sounds like a spectacular trip . . . beautiful photos!
    I need to hear more about the jacket you are wearing in the 5th photo.

  • June 18, 2009

    Gorgeous trip K!!! Don’t know where you found all the energy, but I’m glad you did. I’ve been wanting to hit up the beaches in Estonia for a long time…

  • June 18, 2009

    I’m with you on the geography bit. I’ve had adults ask me if Poland is in Asia. Because I, obviously, look Asian. Shame…

  • June 18, 2009

    sounds so fun!
    and i have to say – everytime i watch the amazing race and they get the car with the stick shift, i always say – damn. must learn stick shift before the amazing race!

  • June 19, 2009

    I’ll teach you stick if you take me on a trip with you.

  • June 19, 2009

    I’m with Lori on this one. Give me a week with a camera in those beautiful ruins of Estonia! The shot with Hanna Axelsson in the window could be REAL creepy if I didn’t know her as a sweet, demure and (mostly) harmless Scandinavian versus a SLASHER GHOST living in the shadows with handmade dolls that resemble YOU. 🙂

  • June 19, 2009

    I so love living vicariously through you and your travel stories!

  • June 19, 2009

    I can’t even drink alcohol because I don’t digest it properly. My husband is constantly joking that the only reason he married me was so that he always had a designated driver. So the story of your life is, sadly, the story of my life too!

    It sounds like you must have had such a lovely trip =) And what better way to spend a trip like that then with friends? (On that note, it also sounds like you deserve a couple weeks of catching up on your sleep!)

  • June 20, 2009

    So fun! And I just watched your entire Amazing Race video, it was awesome!

  • June 21, 2009

    Kristin, my boyfriend and I JUST got back from Vienna and Budapest, and, as is his custom, at the end of the trip, he asked me where I wanted to go next (I think you two could be traveling soul mates)… he lobbied for Estonia, Latvia, and Russia, but I wanted something more plush and predictable like London or Paris (so boring, traditional, but reliably beautiful and wonderful). Well, I think you may have swayed me with this post. It looks absolutely stunning!

    I look forward to seeing more and will be sharing photos of our trip soon!

  • April 12, 2012

    We are so the same person! I loved reading this post + Latvia; I’ll be adventuring in Estonia in May, and was debating where to go in the several days I have between Tallinn and Berlin…I may have just been convinced to spend the time exploring the rest of Estonia! Any other travel suggestions from anyone?

    Can’t wait to visit and blog about this one myself!


    • April 12, 2012

      You definitely should! I’d recommend renting a car and seeing the countryside, maybe visiting Parnu. The country is so small and it’s not a scary place to drive–we hardly saw any other cars on the road during our side trips–that it’s the perfect place to explore on your own. Have an awesome trip!

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