I wrote two more posts for fitisafeministissue on my cycling trip:
Why do a self-guided trip?
And some practical lessons from my cycling experience.
And now I’m home!
Working away, work work work.
I wrote two more posts for fitisafeministissue on my cycling trip:
Why do a self-guided trip?
And some practical lessons from my cycling experience.
And now I’m home!
Working away, work work work.
I felt nervous about going to Russia, the same way I felt about Myanmar and China. I’m a relatively intrepid traveler, but the combined force of a different alphabet, not so much English and a regime that feels repressive makes me quiver a bit. But I had the most magical times in Myanmar and China, and being in a place in the flesh among people just living their lives makes all of the warnings about surveillance, data-hacking, personal danger, vague feelings of unease all recede. Going into a place, the Warnings are loud; when I’m in a place, what I notice is the woman trying to pretend her shoes don’t hurt her, a couple telling each other about their days walking home.
I took the train because it felt romantic in the literary sense, the right thing for Intrepid Spinster Wandering the Globe. (But I also upgraded, because I can, and I like to lie down whenever I can. Unlike all of the Emperors and Queen and writers like the Brontes who slept sitting up. When did people realize that lying down to sleep wasn’t flirting with death?).
I liked that the Conductrice (there is no other word) for our first class wagon was wearing a skirt and comfortable shoes and a little hat with a red hammer and sickle emblem on it. I liked that the food in the fancy car was delivered by a woman with two reusable shopping bags, one with a snack pack of a bad packaged croissant, a yogurt and an apple juice, and the other a plastic box full of still-warm blintzes.
There is something about a train frontier that’s unique, not the stamp stamp stamp of airport immigration or the oddly intimate interrogration of having a border guard peer into your car. Especially when no one speaks English. The officials come to you, one at a time, in your little personal cave, and observe the nest you’ve made in 3 hours, the half empty haribo bag. First the Estonians, handing you back the papers you’ve filled out and flipping to find your entry stamp in Frankfurt and stamp you out, then a looooooooong wait while they cover the entire train. Then a creaking across a long high river bridge, past the red post marking Russian territory, guarded by one soldier on the river bank. Then the Russians. So many of them. The kind woman who takes your passport away to inspect the visa that cost $600 but will give you freedom to move about without a guide, the man with the broken nose scar who peers into the carriage and looks around, the two men with the sniffer dog who licks your hand (blintzes), then the woman who asks you about anything to declare and looks upward, decides to leave you alone.
And that’s it, after more than 90 minutes. You fall asleep, ish, in your little nest, hoping the Conductrice will wake you up when it’s St. Petersburg. You wake to see the 1030 pm sunset over the fields, and wait as you flow through the edge of a city, then get off the train at midnight in a huge station that has withstood wars and rebuilding and time and deprivation. And a loud anthem spreads through the station, greeting you. A song of St. Petersburg.
And in the station, like at the Great Wall of China, the first recognizable brand is Subway.
I’m only here in St Petersburg for two days, and I booked a driver and guide to go to the palaces outside the city for tomorrow. With one day only, it was a moral imperative to spend most of it at the Hermitage.
Like most people, I suspect, I had this notion that there was “a lot of art” here but I really had no clue of the scale. It’s as if the British museum, the Louvre and the Vatican tossed everything that wasn’t a headline artifact into a slightly crumbling version of Versailles.
I don’t usually spend a ton of time when I travel in the places where clumps of people disgorged from tour busses shuffle along following a person with a held up flag, but sometimes it’s inevitable. And the thing about the Hermitage is? Even with rows and rows of squatting busses waiting in Palace Square, it’s still not crowded. The museum is in the former Winter Palace, partly in a specially built gallery that was created in the mid 19th c, and partly in the royal apartments. So it’s a squash of Rembrandts and DaVinci madonnas Medieval holy art and all the Italians of the Renaissance, ancient artifacts from all over Asia, along with tiny glittery dresses, suits of armour and walls and walls of portraits of emperors and noblemen and soldiers.
In the great hall crammed ceiling to floor with portraits punctuating enormous — and I mean enormous — images of Peter the Great and his ilk, I was momentarily overwhelmed. I sat down on a bench and read a couple of chapters of Anna Karenina on my phone to right myself, while the Chinese ladies who never take off their wide visors milled around me.
The tour groups were good because I got to pick up some tidbits of info without the strain of shuffling in a claustrophobic clot. This gold peacock clock was commissioned by one of Catherine the Great’s lovers to win her favour. When it chimes, the peacock tail fans out. They only let it chime once a week now to preserve the mechanism.
Even after just two hours, I was glutted in the Hermitage. I felt like a foie gras goose stuffed to the gullet with stimuli. I kept looking until I found the gold encrusted, recently restored golden chapel (a degree of gilt I’ve only ever seen before in SE Asia). That
That was enough. I took myself off for a simple lunch. More beets — I’m about 14 % beet at this point — then I went in search of tampons, because I keep forgetting I’m the woman menopause forgot.
They keep them behind a little locked cabinet in the tiny pharmacy. As I was prowling around looking for them, I came across a pretty young woman in a pristine short white dress and high wedges retouching her look. This included sniffing under her arms, applying deodorant and generally reprinting her face. I was glad when I saw her put the deodorant back into her purse — I thought it was a tester.
I wandered over to the Church on the Spilled Blood (high noon, so the truly astonishing colours of the edifice don’t show up in my photos). Mosaics everywhere. Astonishing centuries of human time handcrafting this church.
As I wandered out again, I came across three wedding parties doing photo shoots. Brittle young brides teetering carefully across cobblestones. One set doing a carefully choreographed dance in front of the Winter Palace with a violinist and three photographers. Faux-aristocracy.
I had read that they had recently moved the French Impressionists to the General Staff building across from the Hermitage. This move is clearly recent since the vast building, which I entered with the same ticket, was almost empty if people. But stuffed with French art. Whole rooms full of Matisses, Picassos, Rosina, Cezanne, Degas, Monet, Gauguin. Along with a few Van Goghs, Kandinsky, late 20th c Russians and galleries full of porcelain I ignored. A feast, still being created.
Today I ate wild Estonian mushrooms in an Oriental duck salad, had an excellent thai massage and flagellated myself with birch leaves in a Russian sauna with naked old women and small children.
It was a very improvisational day.
Yesterday I realized that I’d misplaced my dates a bit and thought I was leaving for St. Petersburg tonight, but it’s actually tomorrow. I was a bit at a loss at what to do with the found time. I put the question to my FB hive, and the majority opinion was to take the ferry to Helsinki, with a strong undercurrent of “simmer down and do nothing.” My sister asked me a good question — what will you be happy you did a month from now? — while advocating for not cramming too much in. Bonne describing the ferry as “basically a booze cruise” where a man belched right in her face was another point in favour of staying put, but I was still open-ended when I went to bed.
I woke up at 7 to the orchestral song that wakes me up and sends me to sleep every night. The first night I thought I was imagining it, but then I recognized that it happened every night. I tried googling “what is that music I hear at 10 pm in Tallinn” but that led me to apophenia, hearing music that isn’t there. I was pretty sure I was hearing it, but this place does feel like there are a lot of ghosts about. The woman at the hotel desk finally told me this morning that it’s the national anthem, which they play when raising and lower the flag on the tallest tower of old town. Tonight maybe I’ll stay up late enough to see them lower it. I should find out more about bits history.
This morning, sore from my run yesterday in worn out shoes, the anthem was a soundtrack for supreme gratitude that I had so much choice, completely unfettered time. The sky was grey and any remaining intention I had for the ferry dissipated. I started making plans, but was quickly thwarted from doing anything. The spa where I wanted to have a massage was fully booked, the excellent restaurant I ate in the first night was booked for dinner, it was grey and looked potentially rainy so I didn’t want to rent a bike. So I just decided to wander and to make up my day as it unfolded.
My first stop was a bookstore on the edge of Old Town for a new journal (channeling my friend Grace), one made up delightfully from the cover of an old children’s book. The title means “Far off over the river,” which seems about right.
Wandering back toward Teliskivi, the design-y, hipstery creative cluster where I hung out yesterday for a while, I passed the Thai Orchid Massage spa, and, channeling my sister Melissa, impulsively went in. A self-appointed doorman let me in, clearly vetting me based on the sign on the door that they provide REGULAR massage. They had room right then and I had an excellent thai massage, focusing on my poor feet and legs and neck. She was gentle and put magical healing ointments on all of my bruises.
After restorative tea, I headed for the food trucks in Teliskivi, and had an excellent salad with chicken while christening my new journal. I then found a coffee shop and wrote and read for a bit more.
Then channeling my friend Jessica, I headed for the authentic Russian sauna. Men and women separately, with beer and sodas available downstairs. As utilitarian as it gets, but right in the heart of history.
The ritual is simple: you can rent a towel and get a little sitting on mat, for about 3 euros. You walk up two flights of stairs, past some ancient faux leather loungers. There’s a steel door, and inside, a sagging changing room with wooden lockers. Beyond that, a room filled with benches and taps and plastic basins, a couple of showers and a seriously questionable jacuzzi. Beyond that, another small version of the shower/basin room, and then the sauna. That’s it.
I cannot over-emphasize enough the importance of the shower shoes.
I watched for a bit in the basin/shower room, but basically people were just washing themselves. I followed the old woman with the toque who came in at the same time as me, and went into the sauna with my watch, a bottle of water and my little mat.
It was… searingly hot. Dark, hissing, like the breath of a dragon hot. In my usual way, I crawled up to the top bench, my feet generating new words for “zowie that’s hot” as I climbed — and then I scampered right back down to the bottom bench. My old lady companion with the toque began to whack herself with a bundle of leaves. Another woman came in with her own bundle of leaves, and little droplets flew off them as she whacked. Back, front, legs, thighs, whack whack whack.
It was unbearably hot for me, and after 5 minutes I went out, let a cool shower wash over me. Two women were covered in mud. BYOB and BYOM. Bring your own branches and bring your own mud.
I went back into the source of all that is true, lasting about 6 minutes this time. I once outlasted all of my colleagues in a (culturally appropriative) sweat lodge in a misguided leadership ritual in the late 90s. These russian ladies were another-species level of more stoic than me.
After my second turn, I was kind of at a loss. I was baking from the inside out, like being heated in a microwave. In the small basin room, I just sat on my little mousepad mat, unmoving and absorbing. The second, non-toque lady, sat across from me, both of us just… sitting.
I showered again, and decided that I was done. Some kind of heart exploding event felt very possible. I wrapped myself in my towel and went to sit in the locker room. Five minutes passed and I couldn’t stop sweating. I felt good, but.. boiled dry, like a teakettle left too long on the stove.
I went downstairs to return the towel and I saw the basket of birch branches I’d missed on my way in. Sticks! I could have my own sticks! I paid for a second towel and a bundle of sticks and went back up.
I waved my sticks at the old ladies. “I have my own sticks!” Now they were my friends. One nudged at me that I should put my (truly gross) keens in the locker so no one would steal them. The toque lady showed me how to soak my sticks before using them, and kept saying massag! She pushed a basin toward me and said Foot.
I went into the sauna with my wet sticks and started whacking myself.
It was blissful. Like flossing the outside of your body. With nature.
Whack. Whack. Whack.
I did three turns through the sauna with my own sticks, and was then both thoroughly baked and basted. Between the thai massage and the russian birch leaves, all of my blood had visited the edge of my skin over the course of the day and trembled back again.
I sat in the chair in my towel for a while , watching a few more Russian ladies come in. After their saunas, they just sat in the change room for a while, just being. Steamed, whacked, whole.
If I lived here I’d come here once a week. With shower shoes.
“Are you happy?” I asked my cab driver after a delicious meal tonight.
“NO! he said. “I am happy in Espana!” He was born and raised in Tallin and had just finished telling me that everyone in Estonia has a vitamin D deficiency. Considering his English wasn’t super high level, it was a very sophisticated train of thought to wander down.
I fell into the trap yesterday of making a generalization on Facebook about Latvians vs. Estonians based on my vast 10 days experience here. Several people commented that they knew a lot of nice Estonians — and I have encountered many nice individuals. But there was a huge contrast between total exuberance of encouragement and helpfulness I had in Latvia (see my post from my first day of riding), and much more stoic acceptance of my presence since I crossed the border. Of course individual people have been kind, and I never had a bad experience in a single place I stayed, with the mild exception of indifferent, slow service in a restaurant in the more touristed town of Haapsalu. And I think the Estonians I’ve encountered have less English than the Latvians, and are just relieved to make it through a conversation. But on the whole, no one expressed joy at my riding alone from Riga, and no one offered to help. That was fine — just interesting, in contrast. And since I’ve been in Tallinn, I’ve met lovely people — a young server in a restaurant last night who is about to go study at Imperial College in London, and who drew a maple leafs/heart icon on my bill; another server who ran after me to make a suggestion for a non-touristy coffee shop. But there is just an air that is less… joyful. Exemplified by my cab driver, and the weariness of the town I spent the last night of my ride in,
It’s a curious thing — according to the world happiness Index, Estonia is way down the list at 66. Particularly interesting when you realize that Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Iceland (and Canada) are in the top 10. (Latvia is 54th, which isn’t that far off so statistics mean nothing really lol). I suppose this is a result of history, and edginess at the uncertain state of the world given its role as a buffer between Europe and Russia. Karl-Ander, my lovely young server explained to me that the huge amount of restoration going on right now in Old Town is for two reasons — it’s Estonia’s turn to be part of a presidential trio of leadership of the EU in the second half of 2017, and next year is the 100th anniversary of the Republic of Estonia — “but with Brexit,” he shrugged, “the future is uncertain.”
What is certain is that Tallinn is a remarkably lovely city. The medieval old Town is miraculously preserved given all of the backings and forthings of history, and even though parts of it are a bit thronged with tourists fro cruise ships and the like, they stick to certain spots. There are parks everywhere, and I stumbled across an amazing installation of plants in one of the parks for the Tallinn Flower Festival. The weather has been perfect, and there is a visible spirit of contemporary design everywhere. Really interesting jewellery and clothes everywhere.
Today was a recovery day for me, more in spirit than in body. I walked more than 18 km, tromping around the city on a self-guided walking tour through old town and on a shopping quest. I needed a new bag because I threw away the cheap duffle I brought as a carry on after my flight over, and I wanted some clothes that weren’t completely scruffy. I found the fringes of Estonian design, and bought a really interesting … garment … (kind of an indoor coat), some tshirts, a bracelet and, at the Estonian equivalent of the Bay, a very sturdy carry on bag. I also found an excellent bookstore with good English books, now that I can take a couple of paper books with me instead of just my ipad. And at the end of the day, I went for a run through the park around the medieval wall, chasing some children through a hedge maze.
I had dinner at a well-reviewed place that would take me out of the touristed area, and I went perhaps a bit too far — it was a beautiful restaurant in an old manor house on the edge of the park named Kadriorg (Catherine’s Valley), after the czarina. Another reminder of the Russian history of this place. The food was excellent but the service a bit lonely — at one point I was the only person left on a freezing terrace, shivering under a blanket, and my server had disappeared. I did not feel like a princess.
The wanderings, the finding interesting things I needed, a short but settling run, good food — this all put me back in rhythm for another day to get ready to go to Russia on Tuesday night. I realized I have a blip in dates on my visa (my train gets in at midnight of the day my visa is for, but now I’m worried they might not let me board), so I’m trying to make a plan B without fretting. And continuing to read Anna Karenina. Is it wrong that my favourite character is Levin?
Well, last night in my Soviet-style guesthouse? The one above the butcher shop? The one where I had my own apartment, but one of the doors was mysteriously locked, and there was a kitchen with an unplugged fridge, and the shower room felt like it had echoes of being used for a felony? And I had the little room with the twin beds that didn’t have a lock of its own? The one with the big steel door downstairs I had to lock with a key I then had to keep near me while sleeping in case of fire? Along with my headlamp so I wouldn’t perish while trying to find the keyhole? That guesthouse?
Yeah, I will confess here that I pulled the other twin bed against the door.
Slept like a baby.
I was eager to get on the road this morning, with a “let’s get this job done” air about me. My calves are very tight and sore, and I had to stretch and massage and then use my “white monkey eating peach” hot rub I bought in Laos.
I was also a little iffy about the route. I saw in my trip notes last night that there was heavy construction in the first 15km which was the only road out of town. Since Paldiski is a port, there are a lot of trucks along that road. My trip notes suggested I might want to take the train to Klooga (cutting off about 20 km) or all the way to Tallinn — but also noted that the railway was also under construction, and I might have to transfer to a bus part way, which might not take my bike.
Along the main road, Tallinn was only about 50 km from Paldiski, and after fuss/conferring with my sister and a friend last night, I decided to just ride.
And of course, no construction at all. Smooth road, okay shoulder, trucks in nice predictable little clusters.
About 15 km in, I saw a sign for a Holocaust memorial, 2 km off to the right. I knew there was something Holocaust related in the town I was in last night, but I hadn’t been able to find it. I figured I needed to go see it.
Down a narrow forest road, a moving memorial to a death/labour camp I’d never heard of, where Estonian Jews were mass murdered. I thought I knew a fair bit about this part of history but I think east-of-Poland has always felt like a bit of a blur.
The memorial was several long concrete formations like shards of glass, over a long pathway, each exhibiting a significant part of the story, with two larger memorials, one on the site of the single day murder of 2000 people. I walked around the bird-chirpy lonely woods and thought about all of these dark craters of history just behind those rows of trees.
Part of me was wondering a bit about the location for the camp, but when I got back to the road, I realized that there were railroad tracks just beyond where I’d turned. Of course. The same tracks that ferried people here in cattle cars, still in use. The same tracks I’d have taken my bike on.
When I was in Riga, I went to the museum of occupation, and there was an exhibit about cattle cars, how some people were shunted back and forth across Latvia in the cattle cars for months as territory changed hands between the Soviets and the Germans. There was an account from one woman who lived in the car for months. This would be one of the places those cars ended up.
I rode on, glad I’d stopped.
The next major leg of the ride was idyllic. Perfect cool, sunny, clear weather, the vast majority of the distance on actual bike paths next to a main road. I ate my cheese sandwich next to a tiny waterfall about which a big deal was made. There was supposed to be a lunch place, and I wanted a cup of tea, but when I approached the door, a woman yammering on a cellphone at one of the outdoor tables got up and closed the door, not meeting my eye. I guess she was on her break? There was also no place to throw out any garbage, and the porta-johns were beyond foul and depositories of people’s lunch waste — like a cardboard box for a whole pie. That’s what happens when you don’t give people a garbage can.
After the waterfalls, it was really the outskirts of Tallinn. It’s Saturday, so lots of road bike riders heading out of town. I noted that of the dozens of cyclists near Riga, during the week or today, only two of them were women. And only the women returned my greetings.
I finally caught a tailwind for part of the ride, and was downright gleeful about it. Good flow, everything working — until the cycle trail ran right into massive construction in front of a mall on the edge of the city, and I found myself first riding on sand, then inside the barriers of a serious road-digging operation. (I skedaddled). That threw me off my instructions, and I ended up totally the wrong way at the beach, where women in bikinis pumped up inflatable kayaks and dozens of pale Estonians sunbathed, despite the 15 degrees.
Finding my hotel was tedious and involved a lot of squinting at google maps (which has weirdly decided to be black), through my sunglasses (making it harder), while navigating traffic. I found the place, anti-climatically. No cheering crowds of people, no one handing me a freshly squeezed passion fruit. Just me looking like a chaotic mess trying to sort out the bike, the bags, a need to put it in the garage and lock it somehow.
For the rest of the afternoon, I was mildly grumpy. Partly there are more tourists here and I had to search for a table for lunch, and dealing with my bike in the hotel was confusing, and the guy who came to pick up my bike was downright pissy — but mostly, my sense of purpose was suddenly gone. I feel done with riding right now. I don’t know if my legs could take a ton more of pushing that load — my feet hurt, I am flirting with sciatica in my right leg, and the backs of my calves are scraped up from catching on the wrong side of the pedals. But seeing this country this way, winding my way around the sea, making friends with the wind, feeling this world from the ground up, finding my way without drama, moving completely at my own speed and under my own locomotion over more than 500 km — it lets me be the me I most like.
I’m not going home for another week — I have a few days here in Tallinn then St. Petersburg — and I will find my new rhythm. Grateful for this time and space. And for an excellent vegan meal with the delightful server Karl Ander tonight.