“That statue,” said the tour guide as the bus rolled past an enormous bust in a garden of Tallinn, “is not Lenin. Many think he is because of beard, and hat. But he is famous Estonian general. The statues of Lenin and Stalin we take into one place, and we call it the Garden of Russian Monsters.”
It was our day in Estonia, a walking tour of an old town. Level: strenuous! Three hours of walking over cobblestones, the brochure warned. It was warm, which no one had expected - the days have been cool and overcast, and as the tour guide explained Estonia gets 70 days of sunshine a year. “After you,” she says, “we have 69.”
It was quaint and historical in the way of a small Baltic city, if I may make such a presumption; not a backwater, but a place that was always fought over in the course of securing something greater. A square on the board, pieces pushed this way and that - the road to glory, not the destination. It had stout walls for defense, but the guide explained that the Estonians are practical people, and regularly surrendered rather than have the walls breached. So the point of the walls was . . . ? Mattered little in the long run, for Estonia was finally freed to be its own nation, and could lets its pride unfurl like a bright long pennant from the highest spire in the land.
The first stop was a square with a pink building commissioned by Catherine the Deuce, because everything else was drab and old or burned down and she wanted nice things. It’s the Parliament now.
On the other side of the street - and this was no coincidence - the Russian Orthodox church, Alexander Nevsky.
It was built to serve the cause of Russification, a monument to Tsarist’s obvious favor with Bog, and the interior was an impressive display of power - artistic, theological and political. The great gilded screen, the solemn icons, the burning forests of red tapers, the ribbon of Cyrillic around the room to remind everyone that Bog spoke the language of the conquerers. The name is important, too: Nevsky is famous for victory at the Battle of the Ice, where Russians whalloped the Teutonic Knights, who were heavily Estonian. So it’s a big “so there,” in its name, too.
A panorama of the interior can be found here.
There was an old woman in a shawl begging outside the church. The guide explained with a crisp dismissal: “about old woman you see. There is no reason for her to be poor. There is social safety tax in Estonia, very high. It is 33 percent for everyone. For this school is free, medical care is free, taking care of poor is done this way. She is begging because there is tradition in Orthodox church that if you give to babushka, one sin of yours, is forgiven. She only come when cruise ships come.”
Unsentimental, that one, but there was something else: disdain for the traditions of the interlopers.
The more humble Lutheran church down the street was utterly different - spare, lighter, more human. The pews dated to the 18th century - tall boxes with doors on the end, reserved for the best families. Family heraldic crests lined the walls, brought by relatives for installation when a great man died; two small skyboxes, obvious latter-day add-ons, served as rooms where the nobility could be above the commoners, and conduct themselves as they pleased behind smoked glass. Pictures were forbidden but I mistakenly took several with my cellphone.
The guide made a point of calling our attention to the Soviet remains, how ugly they were, how out of character with the city they were; while the big hotel was certainly a landmark, it had been thoroughly bugged so KGB could listen to everything. And now, Estonia is free, has e-elections, and made a point of electing young people to office because that was their way of ensuring they had nothing to do with Communism. Oh, and we invented Skype! You have heard, no?
Off to the old old center, where a massive ancient town hall still stands.
The walls have the collars they placed around dishonest merchants for a day’s worth of pillorying. A woman could be put in pillory for . . . too much gossip. How much was too much, the guide did not know. A merchant could escape having rocks and eggs thrown at his head if his wife stood in front of him, and thee-oh-re-tically a man could do the same for wife. But there are no records of this.
We were let loose to wander in the market, poke our heads in Europe’s longest-running pharmacy - seven centuries old it was, and perhaps also the birthplace of Marzipan - then we continued to another church to hear some medieval music. Since I don’t like medieval music - all those hey-nonny-nonny lyrics and buzzing sackbuts and plinkey lutes - daughter and I toured a room with a large altarpiece:
And some reproductions of the larger work:
Interesting expressions on the crucifixion observers: Hey, whaddya gonna do. That’s certainly the deadest looking Christ I’ve seen in some time. There’s also the obligatory Madonna-and-child in modern garb, with a baby Jesus who either had a cold or a taste for the grape:
The woman on the left certainly looks as if she’d rather be anywhere else.
The church had been bombed by the Soviets, mistakenly, then rebuild and opened as a museum. “They did not want it for church, because they only allowed one thing to believe in,” she noted. She had previously noted that the Orthodox Church was tolerated, but some of the priests were KGB. “You confess a sin, the next day, you are no longer around.”
The floor was original, and contained the marks of 16th century tombs. Bones beneath, I believe.
On and on through the wandering streets, past two guys playing “Hotel California” on guitars, up to an overlook that had a great view 89% of the people only see through a viewfinder - people walk up with the cameras, take a picture to show the folks back home where they were, then leave. I took a little extra time to look with my own eyes, drink it in, marvel at the moment. My God, I’m in ESTONIA. Being bumped by someone from Japan who just barged in front of me! Now let’s have roasted almonds and look at some amber.
For our last jaunt we spent 10 Euros to walk along the top of the old ramparts, a perilous journey that required taking steep pie-shaped steps in near-darkness with little to hold on to; you could imagine the men running back and forth, arranging the archers in place by the slits, hearts pounding, mad with panic: okay, they’re close, isn’t it time to surrender? Right? Now the citizens stroll along and look at the street below, where they sell linens and sweater and coffee for 1.60 Euros. Peace and freedom; pride and composure. A marvelous little civilization.
On one wall, a board where things could be posted.
There was a meme stick figure, familiar to internet denizens all over:
My daughter grinned and pointed:
“Challenge accepted,” she said. Sums up Estonia well enough.
Yesterday was a day at sea. I love days at sea. Nothing to do but read and dine and walk around and play games in the Crow’s Nest. My daughter and I played UNO with a deck made of three different decks, soaked in some kind of humid fluid; it was like shuffling a stack of dead fish. Played trivia, always a highlight. We had a team of four - myself, my wife, daughter, and a nice lady from Canada who was either Winifred or Mildred but probably Harriet; she kept saying she wished her husband was here, because he knew something about everything. She contributed one proper answer, which had to do with the Royal Family. She also jogged my memory about the capitol of Indonesia, which was necessary as the home of the Petronas Tower. Fifteen questions, with a bonus: first #1 hit by a Beatle after the breakup. I thought: George Harrison. Everyone said no, no. Paul McCartney. I stuck to my guns.
JC the Cruise Director ran trivia; I think I mentioned him. It’s a hard job, and the people who do it are easily lampoonable. An excess of cheer and a game-show host personality is what you usually get, and he had those, but he was British, and quite clever. I met him at the reception for First Class passengers -
Oh, did I mention we were First Class? Yes. Because we're special. ELITES. At the last moment we got an offer for a larger room for a pittance, and I leaped on it, intending to surprise my wife. By larger, I mean: larger. Holy crow.
This included access to the Neptune Lounge, which has a proper coffee maker that made espresso, all sorts of edibles during the day, concierges named Roxy and Rosa who knew you by name after one day. Quite a treat. The first night we got to meet the Captain - about seven feet of bluff hearty Canadian, and the head of the kitchen, and JC. Anyway, JC described the trivia prize as “absolutely worthless,” a Holland America pin with “paint guaranteed to run on contact with water.” They always downplay the miserly quality of the prizes. But I liked the pins. I wanted a pin.
And I got one: our team, the VIKINGS, won. Only the second time I’ve won trivia on a Holland America voyage. (The Beatles question put us over the top.)
What next? My wife went off to something or other; went to high tea with my daughter. This is her favorite part of the day at sea: ceremonial presentation of mid-day adult-sanctioned dessert. The line surged from behind with genteel impatience, as people got that electric anticipation of myriad sweets in diverse forms. It wasn’t as bad as breakfast, which is human nature at its worst: all you need to know about people you can glean from their breakfast line behavior. The Europeans are famous for butting in line, I hear. Old cranky Americans aren’t exactly demanding, but tend to treat the boiling tireless Phillippinos as non-entity toast-dispensing automatons. I was behind an elderly Japanese man with turtle eyes, who just pointed at the things he wanted. When he wanted more he made an impatient pile-it-on gesture.
Then he said: EX! SCRAMB EX!
The server said “Scrambled eggs? Yes? Right here!” Big smile.
“No,” said the Japanese man. “NEW ex. Fo.” He held up four fingers. “Fo. YOU MAKE.” And so the server had to find four eggs to crack on the grill and make new, right there, because the customer is always right, and if he complains, there will be a black mark, and the contract may not be renewed, and the remittances home to the family stop, and shoes have to last longer.
So you have to be kind. Apparently I wrote something on a previous form, though, because there was a letter in my stateroom noting that I’d been less than utterly thrilled by every aspect of my previous journey. Can’t imagine what it was, but apparently I gave a few eights on the scale of nine. They wanted to make sure this horror was not repeated. I think the faucet was loose, now that I recall.
Anyway, High Tea was fine. Then we went back to the room and finished watching “Megamind,” which we both love, and decided to take a short nap. TWO HOURS LATER we woke; wife on the couch, asleep as well. After Formal Dinner, my wife and I decided to try Movie Trivia. Twenty clips, name that movie. Full house. Mood: tense! Trivia is serious business.
I was surprised how many people got “Pleasantville.” The real stickers: Wyatt Earp, and “The Two Jakes,” which I got because Jake’s office was different. The Vikings won again - clean sweep on the ship’s Trivia events.
We won some coasters.
Now I’m out of the suit, sitting on the veranda, watching the sea slide by. Next: another thing I never thought I’d do. Next: Russia.