I’m livin’ large in Estonia…and marveling at the exciting change this region is undergoing. On a visit to the Baltic region back in the 1980s, labor was cheaper than light bulbs…when touring museums, an old babushka would actually go through the museum with me turning on and off lights as we went from room to room.
Those days are long gone. Estonia’s thriving capital, Tallinn, is like a Petri dish of capitalism. Since Estonians won their freedom in 1991, it has blossomed. The country has the strongest economy, most freedoms, and highest standard of living of any republic that was part of the USSR. (Locals claim that, by some measures, they are now one of the freest countries on earth.)
While traveling here, you can’t help but ponder the great irony of Russia’s communist experiment. Statistically Russia–once the supposed champion of radical equality (as far as Leninism and Marxism was concerned)–is now infamous for having the worst equality. Estonians are much better off today than Russians not because they have more money per capita (they don’t), but because the wealth in this country is distributed much more evenly. Observing the differences between societies, it seems that the distribution of wealth, if you honestly get right down to it, is what much of politics is about.
Today, for my mid-morning coffee break, I stepped into a courtyard. At the entry the landlord hung a photo of the place in 2000…it looked recently bombed out. Today, it looks much the same but inhabited by thriving little businesses. I wanted to sit at the courtyard’s trendy little cafe with its wicker chairs rocking on the rough cobbles. The seat I wanted seemed empty but it had a vest hanging on it. So I looked for another empty spot…it had a vest too. I really, really needed a coffee. Then I realized every chair had a different vest hanging on it. Estonian chic. Tallinn is thriving with little creative businesses.
After traveling in Norway and Sweden, it’s refreshing to be in a cheap country again. Being able to order without regard to price stokes my appetite. And with the fierce language barrier in non-touristy eateries here, it’s good the economic stakes, when mis-ordering, are not high. (Imagine, there are only a million people who speak Estonian–a language related to just about nothing, yet spoken with a noticeable gusto. It occurred to me, I don’t know a single word in this language–making it a strong contender for my worst language in Europe.)
It poured down rain today…locals claim they really need the rain. But it makes my research so messy–balancing a goofy little umbrella on my head and shoulders, hovering over my treasured notebook, trying to keep it dry. I have a pocket sized black notebook (Moleskine…I’m evangelical about Moleskine books) and the part of my guidebook I’m currently working on (ripped out of the big book with the cover stapled on–so it’s both pocket-sized and official-looking). When my border scribbles and notes get wet, I get very anxious.
By the way, many travel writer’s pride themselves in not taking free rooms thinking that might corrupt their assessment. I take free rooms all the time and–don’t tell the hoteliers who host me–this is, ironically, not in their best interest. I must sleep in 70 hotels a year (140 nights, average 2 nights each). I can’t begin to actually sleep in each place I recommend. By sleeping (for free or otherwise) in a place, I catch things you wouldn’t catch otherwise. Last night: thin walls (persistent snorer), no dark window covering (big problem especially in the north, he “ran out of steam” in the remodel), and lumpy pillows (you don’t appreciate a good pillow until you sleep on giant cotton balls). His listing took a hit.
I was noticing how, for the first evening and morning of my time in Tallinn, I didn’t meet one American…no one recognized me. I was a little disappointed. There were lots of tourists…but nearly no Yankees. Then, the cruise ships unloaded their day-trippers. Wow, it was one big PBS love fest…old home week. I had travel buddies on each corner. There must be 50 Americans visiting via cruise ship here for every over land traveler. Estonia is being discovered and it’s about time.