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.
There were about 12 people there — a small naked blonde family and middle aged and old Russian ladies. Everyone was very practiced, with plastic baskets of soaps and unguents, loofahs, shower shoes.
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.