Sunday, September 13, 2009

Onward to Estonia

Well, today I'm off to Estonia – of course, by doing that it means I miss Finland's bigged comic book convention, being held ever so close to where I'm staying. When will I even get the chance to go to Finland's biggest comic book convention again? Mind you – when would I have ever got the chance to see Estonia again? So the choice really was a no-brainer – especially considering I had already purchased my ticket to Tallinna. I'm sure this was the best choice. Comics are all fine and well – but, travel...

Is it wrong that part of me wanted to see Estonia because that's where the little hobbit tells his parents that guy from The Mummy was from, after Pauly Shoare thawed him out of ice? What can I say, I take perverse delight from Pauly Shore movies, and the next time I watch Encino Man, and the Fat Hobbitses say “Uhh... Estonia, he's from Estonia,” I can say “I was there.”

Now, of course, this was all dependent on me waking up on time. And waking up on time was a sickeningly early 6:00am.

Upward and Onward
I fell asleep at 10:00 the night before, and as such found it quite disconcerting when I heard my new roommate (EuroHostel has two people rooms, rather than large dorms) scream, “boo!” at five in the morning. Hearing that word is more terrifying than anything you could imagine from watching early morning cartoons – and looking around, I saw nothing. He was not peering over me, ready to plunge a knife into my body, with accompanying slogans slurred in his British/Taiwanese accent. He still seemed to be in his bed, sleeping. So back to bed with me. Further shouts in his sleep assured me that this was simply a normal thing for him. And that, in and of itself, is not slightly bothersome at all.

I rushed out of the hostel, in order to make it to the ferry docks on time, noticing as I made my way towards the central station, that none of the traffic lights were on, nor were any of the walk signals. I can only assume that late at night Helsinki becomes a free-for-all on the roads, with whomever has the most powerful vehicle being named the winner.

The cathedral, whose step were always filled with tourists and locals alike was completely abandoned, and quite remarkable looking in the early morning light. Street sweepers were driving their tiny vehicles up and down the sidewalk, no doubt cleaning up after a late night. Only a handful of people occupied the streets – none of which seemed to be in any hurry to get anywhere.

I reached the station just after my bus, 15A, pulled into the station. Hopping on board I paid my 2.50 and took a seat, carefully following our progress on my map, lest I miss my stop. Of course this was all for naught, as the bus was a direct route, and had only one stop at which everyone poured out, heading to the ferry docks.

I'm on a Boat
Inside I wandered towards the Eckero Line check in booth, and waited twenty minutes for it to open. Once I reached the front of the line, I was told I already had a boarding pass and did not need to check in. Of course I didn't – why would I? That wouldn't make any sense at all. So onto the ship I crawled, which of course, left me with another question. What was I to do once on board? This wasn't a ferry – it wasn't designed to simply take people from one side of the waters to another. This was a full out cruise ship. The other passengers seemed just as confused as I did.

Having fully explored the inside and outside, I noticed that there were no plug sockets anywhere – yet there were television sets. Surely they must have been receiving power somehow? Of course – the sockets were mounted high on the wall. Now armed with this knowledge I started my search once more, and discovered one (one!) socket available for use. Quickly clamoring to that bench, I plugged in, and opened up my laptop. I have three games on it, and I'm sure I'll hate the – oh what the hell is this? A group of Spanish tourists just sat down on the bench opposite, and started to blare their cellphone's mp3 capabilities. Yes, please, at 8:00 in the morning, there's nothing I'd rather hear that your music. I'm sure everyone in this room really wants to hear what you think the latest hits of your country are. They're called ear buds. Honestly, is Canada just a country where we believe in not bothering other people – are we the aberrations? - anyway I'm sure I'll hate all the games by the time my three hour cruise to Estonia is complete. And just for added fun, I had an hour to kill before the ship even started moving.

It's not even worth considering the three and a half hour journey back yet, nor the fact that I don't have any Estonian money. All that will be dealt with in time, I'm sure.

To Old Town and Beyond (a little bit)
And all that was delt with. It turns out there was a lady more than happy to change my money on board the ship – and even if I had managed to miss her, I ran into an even happier lady, offering better rates. Such is life in the money changing business. Sure, I only missed out of 3EEK (about thirty cents) but that could have been a coin to add to my jangle jar. It's best to just leave that one alone for now.

So off I headed into Estonia with 75EEK to my name. I didn't think I'd really need more than five euros worth of money, as I'd only be there a few hours. Stepping off the ship I followed the crowd to Old Town, stopping for a moment at a souvenir shop to see if they had any stickers I could add to my laptop. I am trying to get one from each country, after all.

Unfortunately all the stickers were half the size of my computer, and as I was only in Estonia for a handful of hours, I didn't feel that it deserved that much real estate. That, and it would cost half the money in my pocket to buy it. Notes with 25 as a value, I like that. Who needs multiples of ten these day? What a mathematical wonderland international currency can be.

Stepping through the city gates I was immediately overcome with the feeling that, yes, this is what an Eastern European city should feel like. This was a foreign country without any doubt. And then I started to look around. Everyone had a camera around their neck. Everyone was looking around, craning their neck back as far as it could go. Everyone – so it seemed – was also speaking English.

Old Town Tallinn (whether there is an 'a' at the end of this word or not is a matter of much debate) may seem to hold everything you would expect from an Eastern European city, but it is more of a dream, than a reality; old town is a city closing its eyes and thinking back to a distant time when uneven cobblestoned roads were the height of technology, and city walls provided safety and comfort for every day citizens.

The only people here were those dressed in period costumes, leading tourists around by the numbered group, or selling roasted nuts from stands, talking on cellphones all the while.

The true city is, of course, outside the walls of Old Town, as much a metropolitan as any other nation's capital. But for the afternoon, I was willing to suspend my disbelief, half shut my eyes, and imagine myself in a different world. Where every other store was a souvenir shop now, I could only imagine what they once might have held. Every nook, every cranny, every tiny crawlspace I could picture children playing in, hiding in, and escaping from an unwanted eye within.

And the high grounds in the city? If you feel like climbing a number of stairs up up and up, you'll be rewarded with fabulous views over the Old Town, and the rest of the city. A map labeling all the lookout spots can be found in your free copy of Tallina Today, available from the information booth, and port. Or – you could just follow the large crowds of people.

Looking over the old city, allowing your eyes to play off the various spires, and red roofs below, streets crowding and emptying as walking tours pass by, you can certainly drink in the flavour of this wonderful place.

McDonald's... Refuge for the Disconnected
But then, as so many things do, it came crashing to a halt. I found myself outside of the McDonalds, situated right in front of the main gate. The Disney World shell fell away, and I was back in reality. Actually, I was inside McDonald's buying a Chicken, Bacon, Onion combo. I had apparently chosen the wrong line, because six people were served on either side before the manager realized the person serving the woman in front of me had just gone on break, without finishing the order. Teenaged girls – they're the same at every McDee's around the world, it seems.

And let me tell you, they are as easily frustrated. In placing my order, I asked for the combo, which I received. It came to 75EEk. I tried to hand over my money. She would have none of it. Did I want ketchup or mayonnaise she asked? Still I tried to just pay. The total was what I had – there was the money, thrust towards her seventeen year old hands, unsure of what to do as I'd not yet answered the question. Did I want mayonnaise or ketchup? O.K. - fine. I wanted mayonnaise. New total 81EEK. I didn't have 81 EEK! Couldn't she see I was trying to give her my only 75? Didn't she understand that this transaction should have ended moment ago? Now I had to tell her – stop – though I wanted mayonnaise, I've never been in a place that charges for it, or ketchup. In fact what is McDonald's international doing charging for something here that they give away in mass quantities elsewhere?

Her face moved from shock, to horror, to pure unadulterated anger – finally coming to a rest on disgust when I told her that I would like to cancel the mayonnaise. Was I sure? Did I understand that doing this was not the simple press of a button, but rather a series of buttons so beyond her blonde haired understanding that it would require the advice, mentorship, and shoulder to cry on of a manager? Was I aware that I had ruined her day, all for the price of 6EEK. Did I know what wrath I had just brought down upon myself?

Looking at her fuming in the corner, while the manager scanned cards, and entered secret codes, I certainly became aware. Still – if 75 is all you have, 75 is all you can pay. Certainly she could have fronted me the extra six. I would have paid her back next time I was in town. I'm good for it. Honest.

But no. There was no luck, and of course, no ketchup. McDonald's fries are nothing more than a vessel for that sweet sweet condiment, yet here I was eating them salted and unloved. (brief tangent: for those who find double salted liquorish disgusting, let me tell you – I found a pepper flavoured variety here in Finland.)

With my meal fully in my possession, and most likely glistening with international teenaged saliva, I made my way to a table, causing much concern to the three six year olds who were attempting to save it, by running one direction then the other, rather than just sitting down at it. Taking bite after bite of my international varient, I noticed everyone typing away on their laptops.

Well what fun that looked like, so out mine came, and – crash. I had caused mass damage to my Office Suite and would need to repair it. Except I didn't know how. Thirty minutes of research later, all was corrected by three reboots. Why three? I don't know. But crisis averted. I'd also managed to wait out the rain that began falling whilst I drank my super sized (read: medium in North America) soda.

And Back We Go
Back on the street, I took a final look around, and then made my way to the boat.

Had I seen Estonia? Had I even seen Tallinn? I'm not really sure. I've seen part of it, and that's something. Certainly I had an experience or two here – it was more than a airline stop over. So yes – I've seen part of the city, and a few meters outside the fantasized walls.

Now, it's back to Finland for a final sleep, before boarding a plane for Oslo Norway. I was in Finland this morning, Estonia this afternoon, and I'll be in Norway tomorrow. My life is... different now... though it's still mostly the same.

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