When I jumped ships from English teaching to freelance copy-editing for the Moscow Times, I needed to procure my own visa. The usual solution for freewheeling foreigners was to pay a visa agency for an invitation, then fly to a third country to apply for a biznez visa. This is how, one grey November at the turn of the millennium, I spent several days alone in Tallinn.
I left Moscow from the other Sheremetyevo terminal, a half-lit dingy hall that served former Soviet republics and satellites. Arriving in Tallinn, the first rapturous adjective that came to mind was normal. I’d only been in Moscow a few months, but bright, clean, modern, welcoming, well-lit, Tallinn struck me as wonderfully, reassuringly, ecstatically normal.
The new airport was still under construction, thanks to EU funds. The temporary terminal was a tin shed by Ikea, neat and modern and impeccably laid out. The young woman who checked my passport smiled and said welcome, as if she were genuinely glad to see a foreigner in Estonia. The police wore what appeared to be blue romper suits; I couldn’t take them seriously, after the hulking Moscow militsiya. I’d never been pulled up in the Metro for my dokumenty, like other foreigners, but that was only because I blended in. I hadn’t come equipped with a proper winter coat and when winter hit, I’d bought a fake sheepskin dublyonka from an outer-suburban Moscow ‘things’ market. I looked as drab as everyone else.
For my first two nights, I’d taken the luxurious precaution of booking, through the visa agency, into the Tallinn Holiday Inn. Brand new, it had a functional, prefabricated feel, as if unloaded directly from a large crate sent by Holiday Inn HQ somewhere in America. The desk staff were young, friendly and eager to speak English.
At the breakfast buffet, there were three kinds of pickled herrings, muesli and yoghurt, eggs and sausages, pastries, bottomless coffee, fresh and stewed fruit, cold meats and cheeses. The choice and abundance were overwhelming. I loaded up my plate and couldn’t finish it all. The restaurant menu featured a picture of broccoli. In Moscow, I’d only seen broccoli, Spanish and shrink-wrapped, at Stockmann, the Finnish supermarket for rich expats and New Russians, the kind who almost ran you down in their Mercedes SUVs.
The Russian consulate was in the Old Town. The grey stone buildings and winding cobbled roads had a stark, scrubbed, yet slightly run-down appearance. In Western European cities, old towns like this were tourist havens. In 1999, Europe was not yet a web of Ryanair flight paths.
Passing the Cyrillic brass plate on the consulate door, I felt a twinge of dread. This whole visa arrangement seemed so patently shonky. But the unsmiling official was more interested in the US$100 fee, which I extracted from beneath layers of clothes, than in the nature of my biznez. The visa would be ready the following day. I almost collapsed from relief.
I stepped back out into the street, past the no-longer sinister brass plate, into the freezing sunshine of Tallinn.
Being on your own in a foreign city, when nobody else knows where you are, can feel like you’ve vanished off the earth. This is what some people want, and even seek out. On that day, I wanted at least one person to know where I was. Back then, I didn’t have the option of checking in on Facebook. I went to the post office and made a very expensive phone call to my mother.
Coming out of the phone booth, I was approached by an elderly woman. She asked, in Russian, where she could post a letter to St Petersburg. I told her that I didn’t know—one Russian phrase I’d completely mastered—and pointed to the nearby counter. The young woman behind it replied in Russian, efficiently but somewhat coldly.
In Japan as a student, I’d been friendly with an Estonian postdoc, Meelis. He’d been forced to study Russian at school, to the level of being able to read Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Envying him this skill, I’d been shocked by how much he hated the language. How can you hate a language? I’d wondered, in my naivety.
On the streets around me, people wore ski jackets and colourful Western-style clothes. In my heavy dublyonka, I looked like a peasant come to town. When I asked a kiosk-holder directions, in English, she replied in Russian.
The recent past was clearly visible, not yet cleaned away by Scandinavian-style modernity. Street signs were still bilingual (Russian, then Estonian) and buildings were covered in a layer of communist-era industrial grime. Beneath this, I glimpsed Tallinn’s older Germanic past. I sat in a brasserie, in a dark-wood booth, and decide against the cream-glutted cakes, exhibited in an elaborate glass case by the till. Elderly women chatted over coffee, their pelts of fur hung by the door.
I had dinner at the hotel (I’d been thinking about broccoli all day). Sitting alone, I was approached by a middle-aged Finnish guy, an economist on EU business. His English wasn’t that good, but he was determined to be friendly and it had been 48 hours since I’d last spoken to anyone. He came from northern Finland, from Karelia, the region that blurs into Russia. He described the solitude, the pine forests and lakes. I was entranced, until he started talking about drinking. Finns drinks more than even the Russians. Apparently it’s normal to drink until you shit yourself. He thought this was hilarious.
He invited me to join him and his colleagues later at the bar. The hotel seemed full of middle-aged men on some sort of business. Through the fog of my ridiculous innocence, the situation coalesced into a recognisable cliché. I wouldn’t be going anywhere near the hotel bar.
I collected the visa the next morning. My reason for being in Tallin fulfilled, the prospect of two more days alone in Tallinn suddenly seemed very long. I tried to get an earlier flight back to Moscow but none was available. Prolonged solitude in a completely strange location can corrode the boundaries of your insignificant existence. Facing down a weekend in Tallinn, completely on my own, I started to freak out, ever so slightly.
I didn’t have any contact details for Meelis, but Estonia is a small country. A friendly young man on reception looked him up in the phone book for me. There was one slim phone book for the entire country. About five people had the same surname and initial as Meelis. The receptionist rang them in turn, but none was Meelis.
I couldn’t afford to stay on in the Holiday Inn, so I schlepped my bag to a bed and breakfast in the old town that only cost $12. The set-up was friendly and amateurish, as if the owners had so recently gone into business that it was still an adventure. A young woman with earnest, elementary English told me that she used to be a champion chess-player and travelled to Moscow all the time to compete.
The only other guest was a Dutch woman, with the self-sufficient, short-haired look of an experienced solo traveller. We sat in the kitchen and exchange stories. Marieke used to have some high-stress corporate job in Amsterdam but was made redundant. The pay-out was enough for her to study photography and to travel. Enduring a high-stress job for a few years seems well worth it, as long as you get a redundancy.
In the evening the chess-player was replaced on the front desk by a youngish white-blonde man with grey teeth and Christopher Walken eyes. He told us he preferred the hotel to be empty, because guests made ‘vibrations’ that upset him. He’d spent some time in an asylum, but he was better now. He assured Marieke and me that our vibrations were just fine.
Marieke thought this was funny. I did not.
A group of Irish musicians were due to book in later that night. They had a regular gig at an Irish pub in the Old Town. In Tallinn at this time, Irish pubs were exotic and popular. The musicians made such a noise coming in after midnight that at breakfast the next day a prim young Estonian couple complained about the ‘drunken Finns’ who’d woken them up.
Marieke left for a stint of volunteer work at a commune, and I was alone again. In Moscow, I was used to spending lots of time on my own, but in Tallinn, as an accidental tourist, I was so out of context that this unwanted solitude was disorientating. I did the sights, using the What To Do in Tallinn booklet from the Holiday Inn.
In late November, Tallinn was as bleak as any northern European city. Like a long-haul transit passenger stuck airside on a stopover, I wandered about like a sleep-deprived ghost, spending money I couldn’t really afford on food and glossy magazines to kill the time.
On the last day, I gave up being a tourist and looked at the cinema listings. The only English film was the Austin Powers film, The Spy Who Shagged Me. This was not normally the kind of thing I’d pay to see, but I was desperate to get out of my own head.
The chess-player explained how to get to the cinema, deep in the modern, unvisited, dull part of Tallinn, a grey landscape of factories and identical high-rise housing. (A few years later, walking along the canal on a leaden Christmas day in Edinburgh with a man whose callousness and cruelty had reduced me to abjection, I was reminded of these Soviet-era tower blocks.)
The film was subtitled in both Russian and Estonian. I sat amid an audience of young men in camouflage gear and synthetic-looking sheepskin hats and young women in short skirts, despite the freezing weather. I was probably the only foreigner, most certainly the only Australian, in the Tallinn cinema that afternoon.
In the airport the next day, I overheard two men speaking Russian in deep voices. They were both thickset, wearing heavy leather jackets and real lambskin shapka. That yeasty Metro smell seemed to rise off them. The sense of dread returned. Perhaps I didn’t need to go back to Moscow.
Then boarding call came and I lined up at the gate behind the two Russian bears, meekly taking my place in the little plane.
And when I arrived back at Sheremetyevo, everything slipped back into place. I got straight onto an overheated, mud-splashed grey bus, the windows so dirty that I couldn’t see out. Nobody smiled. Going through the ticket gates at Rechnoi Voksal metro station, I had the strangest sensation of arriving home.