Today started out sublime. Haapsalu was one of the favoured resorts of the Russian Tsars for decades, and the promenade and many fin de siècle buildings are still standing. It’s one of those towns that wears its tourism standing well, like Hoi An in Vietnam and Luang Prabang in Laos. Not overrun, not overdeveloped, just graceful, accessible, good food and pleasant surroundings. (“Boring in the winter,” though, complained the woman behind the desk at my hotel this morning).
Because it was such a lovely morning and the promenade was right there, I took myself for a walk along the sea before I left. I hadn’t done that before — most mornings I’m hopping to get on the road, after breakfast (where I squirrel away a cheese sandwich), 15 minutes doing the NYT crossword while listening to the BBC world news morning update, then off. Today I did the breakfast, theft and crossword rituals, but spent half an hour going for a walk. It was my second last morning on the bike part of this trip, and I wanted to slow down.
The sea was flat, the terns and gulls were busy, a few older men were fishing, one tourist was running, two or three people were walking with physiotherapists in front of the beautifully situated neuro rehab centre next to my hotel. (I told Danny that if I get a brain injury, this is where I want to come). I wandered, took photos, breathed in a day of perfection.
I had a fleeting thought that I could stay in Haapsalu an extra day and then take the train to Tallin. After all, 400 km on a loaded bike was nothing to sneeze at. But I’m a weird completist so I packed up, got on the bike and left.
Like leaving Parnu, I found the instructions to find my way out of Haapsalu frustrating. “Find the city centre and at the main junction turn left toward Tallinn and Paldiski.” No mention of *roads*. I figured it out, but needed google, despite the pile of maps stuffed into my bike bag.
The first leg was about 12 km along the main road to Tallinn, on helpful, easy bike path separated from the road. Seeing distance-possible signs to Tallinn made me wonder again if I should just keep going — 95 km along this road would be tedious, and possibly truck-y, but not impossible. But when the bike path ended, I turned, as I was supposed to.
I’m going to take a turn into my inner dialogue here — the thing that was swirling for me in this ride, other than sheer pleasure in a truly beautiful, relatively not-windy, blue sky day — was a gnawing sense of the ending. I get like this as I start to finish things — I get impatient to be done, and then in the last moments as the time has run out, I have a deep pinch of sadness that it’s done. I noticed this a lot when I was scuba diving, always tracking with one part of my brain how long I’d been down, even as I was oohing at what I was seeing. As the 50 or 60 minutes started to get closer, I would get restless to be done. And then, as soon as I got the signal to surface, I would be suffused with resistance to ending.
I think about this a lot, about how hard it is for me to just be where I am, not be thinking about where else I might like to go someday, or what I will do when I get to Tallinn. (Some spa pampering, some different clothes). I don’t think I’m alone in this. But just being in the moment is such a vital practice for me about being peaceful with uncertainty, letting go of trying to control the uncontrollable. (This is what I teach and coach, often, but it’s certainly an example of something that’s in the centre of my life because I have to learn and relearn it).
Today, like yesterday, I stopped when I saw things that made me happy. A bench along the promenade honouring Tchaikovsky that played one of his symphonies. Fieldpoppies. The sweetest little pieces of land with cabins and outbuildings that look like they grew from the ground. The ruins of a 13th c monastery. My first glimpse of the sea after a day mostly inland. I played podcasts for a while but turned them off, because it felt like everything on Ideas was about an intractable problem. I just breathed where I was.
I knew nothing about where I was going tonight, but I should have felt a hint when I was buzzed by two fighter jets about 25 km from my ultimate destination. It felt strange to realize that I’m close enough to the Russian border I can’t be sure they were NATO jets. The unease about the state of the world tickled my underbelly again.
As I got closer to Paldiski, I saw shipyards, petrochemical and oil tanks, ships, large trucks, people in military uniform. The wind got whippier off the sea, and as the town unfolded, I realized I was in the most working town I’ve been yet. Everything was 5 or 6 floor soviet-style apartment blocks, utterly utilitarian.
My directions were vague, but I was reassured that the B&B I was headed to was in google. After some hoo ha (and encountering the least appealing sushi restaurant I’ve ever seen), I found the address.
There was no sign. There was an ancient little shop with two pigs heads thrusting out of the top, curtains drawn. A place I inferred was a bar because of the stylized P with a beer foam head on it.
This is the moment where “travel” transmutes into “adventure.” Tentatively standing up my overloaded bike, I went into the bar. “Hotel?” I said to the only man in there, who was eating potatoes and watching tv. He grunted and pointed behind him, in the direction of the shop.
I went into the shop. It had a huge case of meat and some candy behind the counter. “B&B?” I sad to the woman, thinking wildly, I don’t want to sleep in a butcher shop! She shook her head angrily and grunted, sweeping her arm in a half circle.
I went back outside and found a tiny sign that said “rooms and apartments for rent.” I opened the gate and went around to the back and knocked on a huge steel door. It opened and I asked “B&B?” A woman up a flight of stairs nodded. I pulled out my voucher for the night. “Am I in the right place?” Yes.
All right. Soviet era utility it is.
Mariska showed me my apartment — twin beds, a defunct kitchen, a WC and a horrifying shower room. She turned on the boiler, and when asked, showed me the wifi and made me a cup of tea.
I showered, happy with the hot water, glad I had my own soap, contemplating surprise. Haapsalu, the guesthouse by the sea in Varbla, the food in Parnu — all excellent surprises. This one, a little more disconcerting. But bracing. A chance to see a town that isn’t oriented to tourists, to eat good Russian food in the one restaurant among a sword and dagger collection, to feel the edges of constraint in a country I really haven’t felt much but landscape in yet. The perfect last night before I arrive in Tallinn.