Tallinn, Estonia and Helsinki, Finland

Tallinn felt like a much more Scandinavian city to me than its neighbors in the Baltic States. Having not really travelled much in Scandinavia, I dont have much to base that off of, but it seemed more like my idea of Finland than Russia. There were a lot of primary-colored buildings that looked like Ikea, and it was very clean, with lots of helpful maps all over. Mostly, though, I think it was because Estonian is one of the few languages, along with Hungarian, that’s closely related to Finnish (in the Finno-Ungric language group). So there are lots of words with umlauts, and pointlessly repeated letters. Like stop signs say “stopp,” and hotels are called “hotell.” Why they need those extra letters I dont know. I even saw some triple letter combos like ‘aää.’ And for the last decade Tallinn has been a big destination for Finnish vacationers, so at this point it feels way more western than other formerly-russian cities. But it’s still definitely post-soviet at the same time. It’s a weird mixture.

Tallinn is a really beautiful city. Of all the “Old Towns” I’ve seen on this trip, I think Tallinn’s is definitely one of my favorites. Another UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s built on a little hill with lots of Orthodox and Catholic churches all over with great steeples piercing the skyline. All the buildings look medieval and ancient, and there are old town walls, and the oldest town hall in europe (the tower of which has one of europe’s tallest toilets in it — like 70m tall, for the guards). It has all the good bits of all the other old towns without much of the bad things (there is a McDonalds though). There are towers called funny things like Tall Hermann, and Fat Margaret’s Tower. The day I was there, there was some kind of estonian song festival going on, with a parade of people dressed up in traditional Estonian costumes, which was pretty amusing. Cool city. It’s hard to describe, but its a very picturesque, pleasant place. There’s not much to do in Tallinn, not a ton of museums and touristy things, though there are a ton of touristy souveneir amber shops. So some people might not like it, but I liked it a lot. I definitely would like to go back to estonia again. There’s a lot of the country I skipped. Its supposed to have amazing natural parks, but I didnt see any of that.

From Tallinn it was a quick 1.5 hour ferry ride across the Gulf of Finland to Helsinki, and just like that I had left the old Eastern Bloc after almost 6 weeks. I was back in the West. Immediately everything was a lot more expensive. My tour through post-communist europe was pretty awesome, on the whole. I’ve been in 14 countries so far and also been to 14 UNESCO World Heritage sites (and will go to one more of each before I’m done). I’ve been through 13 currencies, which is particularly cool since in a few years most of these countries will most likely be on the Euro. It’s like traveling in western europe was a few years ago, and I enjoy seeing all the different money, so that’s kinda fun, though also confusing and annoying at the same time. I now have loose change in Euros, Slovenian Tolars, Croatian Kuna, Bosian Konvertible Marks, Serbian Dinars, Macedonian Denars, Bulgarian Leva, Romanian Lei, Polish Zloty, Lithuanian Litas, Latvian Lats, Estonian Kruna, and now British Pounds. They all have their associated “cents”-equivalents too, but I cant remember all the names. My favorite though were bulgarian stotinki, which I always mispronounced as “so stinky.” In general most money is pretty boring to look at. Some national hero type guy on the front, and random abstract art on the back, in odd colors. Some countries had more interesting things like picutures of telescopes. Slovenia and Estonia both had pictures of cool birds, so they get props for that. Croatia had fish. Romania’s is cool because it feels like it’s made out of plastic, and has little transparent plastic windows in the middle of the bills. Still, why is all money basically boring and the same? It’s just pieces of paper and metal to which we assign arbitrary value. C’mon eastern europe, have some fun with it. How bout a picture of like a cool spider or something? Or something more interesting than busts of moustached national heroes, like moustached national heroes on horseback? or in funny hats? Or more interesting color schemes. Im a big fan of the US all-green thing, which is unique in its understatement (and how many american things can you say that about?) Really, I’m just waiting for the day that some government decides to sell advertising space on its money. I cant believe nobody’s done that yet. It would be a great revenue source for the government, making money while printing the very money they’re making. And what better way for an advertiser to reach the prized and elusive target market of “people-with-money-to-spend”, than to advertise directly on the money? A consumer might say to themselves, “hmm… what shall I do with this here dollar I have? Oh look, the dollar says I can spend it at McDonalds! what a good idea.” Its a goldmine.

Anyway, Helsinki was pretty cool. Nice city, built around a harbor with tons and tons of little low islands. Helsinki is all about water and islands. I was only there for less than a day, so I just barely saw the city. I took a ferry over to the Suomenlinna fortress on an island in the harbor, which used to guard the city against Russian attack. It dates from the 18th century sometime, I think. It’s a pretty huge, really well-preserved fortress, with lots of cannons and cool dark tunnels to explore. Cool record of military architecture of the past. Another UNESCO site. I think at that point I’d been in a UNESCO site every day for almost 2 weeks. If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen em all, or something. So yeah, Helsinki seemed like a nice place, though I’ll have to come back again to give it a more thorough inspection.

And now I’m in London, which is great as usual. I love London. I went to the Saatchi gallery and the Tate Modern, and to a good Monday-night club (they have good monday-night clubs in london). I watched the royal horse guards prance around practicing for the queen’s birthday next week. I saw a screening of Kiarostami’s new movie ‘Five,’ which is just five long shots of the ocean, which was really cool. There’s so much art and culture in london, I could stay for months (and have). I’m only here for a couple days en route back to the US, though. But I’m not coming directly back to the US. More on that later.

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