Why Russia was important

I’m back in Tallinn, after an early morning train. This time I was sharing my little cabin with a woman who was asleep and snoring slightly when I crept in, the Conductrice shhhhing me gently with her fingers. I listened to a podcast about the Romanovs, half asleep, until we got to the Russian border, when the attendant came and woke us up. My cabin mate sprang up, changed out of her pyjamas, put on some lipstick and spoke to me in English. She was a breeder and shower of St. Bernards, on her way to a dog show in Narva. Her five dogs were in a car with a handler. Her sister lives in Houston. She was a builder of apartments the rest of the time.
I was glad for the chance to chat with someone random before I left Russia. Now that I’m officially “on my way home” (I fly back to Canada tomorrow morning), I’ve been musing on what the whirlwind trip to Russia “meant.” Curiosity, mostly, and a chance to see the Famous Things of the World — but also, a bit, engaging with the nervousness I have around certain places. I alluded to this yesterday, and I was trying to articulate the source of it. There are places where I feel a certain kind of confidence, where I know “how to do it” — places that are easy to navigate for Canadians, like Western Europe and SE Asia.  And now, because of familiarity, East Africa. Even when there is real potential “danger,” like in the DRC, I’m still confident about how to navigate them. But there are places that make me more anxious, and Russia is one of them.
Part of it is the uncertainty about how much of the prevailing public temperature about places is genuinely a concern or not — how likely IS It that my devices will be hacked and my identity stolen? That I’ll stumble across some mafia deal gone wrong and end up murdered in a Russian sauna? Not very. But part of it is not knowing what channel of recourse there is if something goes badly, and part of it is simply the risk of difficult interactions because of language.
But even with those things, there’s a huge gulf between genuine alarm and what really happens. I actually get lost a fair bit in cities with different alphabets, but so far, I’ve always found my way home, even that time in Mandalay when no one knew my hotel. (Somehow, magically, in the dark, I ended up on the back of someone’s motorcycle pulling up to my hotel). I used to get very very anxious in foreign cities when we couldn’t find cabs to get home late at night (ask my poor ex about the two spectacular meltdowns in San Francisco and London), but now, I just assume I’ll find my way.  I couldn’t find my pickup from the train at midnight on Wednesday; I just made sure I got rubles from the ATM before I left the station (always have local cash before you leave the airport or station), and found a taxi. I was fine.
I think Russia represented something more than basic travel discomfort, though, something about, in a way, confronting the rise of “otherness” that has emerged in the world. I hinted at this with my jokes on FB about how the gilt-dipped baroque palaces of the Romanovs seemed to be the model for Trump’s decor and his view of the world. It was a joke, but it wasn’t — there really is something nested in the space of venal excess about a worldview where the acquisition of money and power are the end in and of themselves, where displays of that money and power stand in for virtue, where might reigns supreme and the suffering of so many as a result doesn’t matter. Where, in fact, those who suffer deserve to, because they haven’t demonstrated that they are as “deserving” — i.e capable of strong-arming others.

Like so many people I know, when I let myself think about it, I’m absolutely distraught about the current state of the world, the brutality, the misogyny, the homophobia, the privileging of wealth and might.  Learning more about the history of Estonia — 800 years of other powers taking over its land — Sweden, the Danes, Prussians, Germans, Russians, Soviets, more Germans, more Russians — was like nodding along to a long-repeated story. This tiny country continually invaded, seized, for access to its ports and routes to Russia, with no regard for its people. In one of the museums of Estonian history I visited, there was a little video that had little figures of the population of Estonia going up and down as different powers converted them, slaughtered them, made them flee.
I think I partly wanted to visit Russia at this moment in history to confront a little bit all of my unease at the apparently intractable divide that is getting stronger and stronger in our world. It was a welcome coincidence that it was my (late) mentor’s birthday while I was in St. Petersburg; as Linda and I said in text, what would Barnett make of Trump, of the Putin/Trump alliance, of the complete breakdown of cosmopolitan communication, any space for bringing opposing viewpoints about what constitutes good in the world together. I wanted to reduce my personal “othering” of Russia.
I got the gift of the perfect person to help me do this in the guide I hired to take me to Pushkin and Peterhof yesterday. I splurged on a driver and personal guide for the summer palaces at the encouragement of my friend Pamela, thinking it would be really good to actually have someone to talk to about everything I was experiencing. I was lucky enough to end up with a guide (who I won’t name) who was perfect for me — she said how much she appreciated that I could walk, and fast like her, so we covered all of the fountains in the lower park of the Grand Palace, and we talked about how we both love to travel, and don’t get bored with our own company. And later in the day, she opened up about her unhappiness at the regime, and how much her son hates Putin, and how although he is a brilliant student, she is afraid he will be barred from university because he’s actively protesting.

If I lived in St Petersburg, she would become my friend, and we would march briskly through the streets together. She gave me a hug at the end of the tour. But she gave me a lot more than that — she gave me a face, a name, a story, a son, to recognize that the world that feels full of animosity is filled with people I care about.


Wandering in Tallinn 1

“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?

Paldiski~ Tallinn — 526 km in total

So remember my post the other day about how I try not to engage with my fears too much while I’m traveling?

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.

Very helpful.

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.