Photo Update: Tartu

When my alarm went off at 4:15, I couldn’t believe I was back in the old routine. Fortunately, I wasn’t. It was just the beginning of one more adventurous piece of this long journey. My host in Tallinn commutes the three hours to Tartu, a small southern city where she spent high school, for a lecture every Tuesday. As a way to see more of tiny Estonia, I decided to join her. As thanks for my host’s hospitality, I got up early to make breakfast; I really have missed the joy of cooking.

We slipped down the rickety old stairs just shy of 5 am while her boyfriend was still snoozing. The train was long, but it was comfortable and equipped with wifi. When we arrived, she informed me that public transport is really unnecessary in such a small town. It took only a few minutes to walk to the downtown area, a classic yet clean series of cobblestone streets, strewn with fine restaurants and cafes – what you might expect from a small Eastern European college town.

After grabbing a cup of coffee and a pastry from the Werner Cafe, an establishment with a prolific history that goes back more than a century, she went to class, and I set off a-wandering. It didn’t take long to find ruins, mystical gardens, and moss-covered forests straight out of a storybook. Though grey and rainy all day, Tartu offered some fantastic scenes for playing with my camera. Here are the best shots of the day:

Finding Comfort

The cobblestones continued to rise up between the ancient stone wall on one side and the tall row of facades on the other. A straight and smooth steel railing split the path. At the top of the hill, a wrought iron gate stood open beneath a white stone archway, the sign beside it clearly welcoming. Each rising step brought into the view the contents of the shops inside the windows of the facade. In one, mannequins dressed in snowflaked wool sweaters and knit caps. In the next, painted trinkets and memorable souvenirs. In the last, a long wooden table in front of a typical bar devoid of patrons at the early hour. As I approached the gate, I began to pick up the faint sound of music. Passing under the arch, I noticed that a sign beyond advertised a now-closed cafe. The shadows chilled the narrowing passage, but the sound of festive melodies drew me on. Beyond the cafe, the stone alley broadened into a long courtyard, and the music revealed itself to be of a genre lost centuries ago. Rising to my right, an ancient castle wall betrayed the medieval origins of the place. The cold, still air carried the faint scents of a smoldering hearth pouring its white smoke into the damp autumn sky. The sound of the jubilant music, a laughing child, and the whispering of the torches that flanked a stone staircase mingled in a gentle harmony. The smell, the sound, the sight; they transported my mind to that romanticized era of knights and kings, of myth and legend. Regardless of the facts that kerosene powered the torches, the stone steps led to a themed restaurant, and the far arch of the castle wall sported a neon sign advertising the museum inside, Tallinn had cast its spell on me.

I set off from the United States nine months ago on a journey to find a place where I felt at ease. Before setting off, I had identified the nations of Northern Europe to be potential future residences, but I knew that it would take personal experience to make any educated assessment. I knew it was highly unlikely that Asia would offer any of the cultural aspects or social structures that I sought. i held out hope that I would be able to recognize the difference in Europe. By most modern maps, I have now officially departed Asia, and the change was palpable.

More than once I have found luxury along my travels that to me had cost very little, but the Estonian bus that carried me from Saint Petersburg rivaled any business class flight. Arriving in Tallinn, I immediately noticed the cleanliness of the bus terminal and the coziness of the adjoining cafe. With my host, I experienced the affordable yet efficient and attractive public transportation as we rolled along through the capital city that feels more like a small town. Reaching his neighborhood in the suburbs, I felt immediately at home among the large parks, low wooden fences, and quiet streets. The damp air and cold overcast sky couldn’t shake the feeling of comfort that just felt so right.

After separating from my hosts this morning, I met with a couple researchers at the technical university to discuss a potential graduate program, and then set off to explore the city alone. Eero got called away from class for a full day of work and was unable to meet for lunch but suggested that I go to the old city and find a vegan restaurant, minimally named V. After a bit of confusion in getting on the right tram, I wound my way into the relaid cobblestone streets and medieval stone walls of this ancient city. Though well after a normal lunch hour, the small restaurant was full, and I had no desire to compete with other patrons who had intelligently made reservations, so I went for a photo walk. Around each corner and down every stone alley, the excellently preserved city astounded me.

After getting thoroughly lost, I stumbled upon the restaurant again to find multiple open tables. The waitress greeted me in perfect English and showed me to a small table with a pillow-lined bench seat on one side. I unashamedly took my seat alone at the table, having grown accustomed to dining alone over many months in a part of the world where communication was always a struggle. After giving me a few minutes to look over the detailed menu, she politely took my order, given in full, proper English sentences. While waiting patiently as soft indie cult classics played in the background behind Finnish and Estonian conversations, I got lost in a well-written long form article in from The New Yorker about the immigrant communities of Paris and munched on soft multigrain bread and olive oil.

When the dish arrived, I fought the urge to take a picture of the culinary masterpiece – my  shamelessness only goes so far. On the large white dish, two slices of firm tofu, slathered in a spicy ginger sauce, laid on a grilled pineapple ring atop a tower of quinoa and green beans in the center of a sea of creamy Thai sauce. That description is the closest you’re going to get to understanding how delicious it was – yet another example that we can create fully satisfying and nutritious meals without animal products.

Wandering back out through the darkened streets of the early evening, the sun having set early in mid-November, I got lost yet again among the mystical alleys and towering castle walls and church spires. There are some historical cities that, when introduced to modern business, become an unappealing clash of time periods that makes what should be wondrous ancient architecture feel fake and artificial – the random and unsightly pieces of history in Seoul or the filthy and disrespected (even if insanely fun) French Quarter of New Orleans. Then there are cities that have retained the beauty of a time long lost even as upscale eateries and clothiers move into the outmoded structures. These are cities like Prague and even the much younger Annapolis. I confidently assert that Tallinn is among these cities.

I have been in this city for less than 24 hours, but I already know that it is a place I could live. Whether Estonia will offer the life I am in search of or if the university here will provide the type of education best for my goals are far from settled, but I can safely say that this is the first place I have felt truly comfortable since I left my birthplace. At the end of this little adventure, I will return to the United States for an undetermined amount of time, but Tallinn will remain in my heart with this small taste of home on the road.