11 July 2008

Baltic Unease

"Poor, poor ghost," she murmured; 
"have you no place where you can sleep?"
"Far away beyond the pinewoods," he answered, in a low dreamy voice, "there is a garden. There the grass grows long and deep, 
there are the great white stars of the hemlock flower, there the nightingale sings all night long. All night long he sings, and the cold, crystal moon looks down, and the yew-tree spreads out its giant arms over the sleepers."
Viginia's eyes grew dim with tears, and she hid her face in her hands.
"You mean the Garden of Death," she whispered.
Found scrawled on a door in Tallinn, Estonia
- From Oscar Wilde, "The Canterville Ghost" (1887)

We had trekked by train and ferry through Scandinavia and eventually found ourselves in Helsinki, Finland - the Jewel of the Baltic. In the train station we marveled at the exotic destinations on the enormous schedule board - Turka, Lahti, St. Petersburg, Moscow. Russia was so close. We explored the old city, reveling in the Art Nouveau and neo-classical architecture. Particularly the gigantic, white Helsinki Cathedral, helping lend the city it's epithet, "The White City of the North." We dined on reindeer, cold smoked perch, pea soup, and cloudberries. We also enjoyed some particularly hearty beers and a wicked vodka-like drink called Koskenkorva on a roving bar. It was an old trolley converted into a pub and it made it's way around the downtown area, people jumping on and off to imbibe. While perusing the harbor area, we stumbled across a fast ferry launch with trips to Tallinn, Estonia. We made a spur-of-the-moment decision and bought tickets for early the next morning.

We arrived on time and made the quick hour-and-a-half jaunt across the Gulf of Finland to the capital city of the old Soviet buffer state. The morning was grey and dreary and oddly quiet. The ferry dock was utilitarian and foreboding. Imposing guards with sub-machine guns stood at attention. We had a disquieting feeling, and thought back to those old Cold War movies depicting the harsh life behind the Iron Curtain. We made our way through the dense fog. We had to march through a cold, lonely industrial area to reach the medieval old town. We passed a gated iron door on which someone had scribbled a melancholy quote from Oscar Wilde. This added to our growing anxiety. Sounds were muted, and the occasional slam of a door was over-harsh and was like an attack on the quiet. It made us jump. We passed an old, bullet-pocked building. Burn marks and the scars of explosions etched it's surface. There seemed to be no one on the streets, and we felt as if we were intruding, or had missed the message to clear out of the area. 

After some time the fog finally began to lift and the grey landscape regained some color. The sun began to shine down and suddenly people began appearing on the sidewalks, coming in and out of shops, talking in the lanes. We turned a corner and arrived at the central square to find cafés putting tables out on the sidewalks, waiters in starched collars laying out linen and flatware. Old people sat together gossiping and laughing. Young couples were shopping and smiling. In a matter of minutes our mood and outlook went from one of unease and nervousness to feelings of warmth, hospitality, and some relief. We ended up having a grand time in Tallinn.
KJT - Helsinki, Finland & Tallinn, Estonia (1998)

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