I had a spectacular time in Estonia. As most travelers know, loving a country has as much to do with finding the right people as it does with how cool it is. Find two or three buddies you click with, and you can have a good time in the most boring place on Earth.
The same goes for boredom. You can be in the most magical place possible, which, sometimes, can be enjoyed alone, but it’s almost always better with great travel companions. I love traveling solo, because I don’t want to compromise my trip (or budget) for anyone else, but the best times I’ve had are the ones spent in good company.
That’s what happened in Estonia, basically every day. As far as I can remember.
Advantages of travel buddies:
- Getting drunk alone is creepy and weird.
- Talking to yourself all day will make people think you’re a psycho.
- You can go swimming while someone else watches your wallet.
- You can swap cameras and you can be in your own pictures.
- How else are you going to refill those tiny airplane bottles of shampoo without begging for fellow backpackers to give you a refill?
I rest my case.
So here a few highlights of my time in Estonia:
Exploring the medieval capital of Tallinn
Tallinn has everything a backpacker could ask for. Winding cobblestone streets, medieval city walls, spiky towers, cheap beer, and the Depeche Mode Bar. All Depeche Mode, all the time. Don’t judge me.
Due to its history of having been conquered about 4,000 times by its larger neighbors, the city is a multi-ethnic blend of several different heritages, and its architecture will alternate between medieval stone wall and trendy modern nightclub and back again.
Though it’s heavily touristed (especially by neighboring Finns who drop in for cheap drinks), it didn’t feel overwhelming to me, especially after wandering through the awkwardness of Riga. It felt much more like a fun, laid-back crowd to me, without the seediness of certain Eastern European capitals which shall remain nameless.
But the best part was running into cool people. Whenever I walk into a hostel, I always wonder if I’ll happen to be in a room with people I click with, or if things might have been different if I had picked another one, or shown up a few days earlier or later. You never know who’ll be there, and it turned out that I ran into some great people, from England, Scotland, the US, and New Zealand, and we all had a great time. They, of course, had the illustrious pleasure of my company, which I can only assume was one of the defining moments of their thoroughly enriched lives.
We hung out, wandered pointlessly around the city, went for drinks, laughed so hard we cried, and did ridiculously silly dance moves while everyone else in the club gazed upon us in abject horror. I named it the “skydive,” and it was magnificent.
On to Tartu
My first Couchsurfing experience involved a university professor who happened to be going from Tallinn to Tartu the same day that I was. Sometimes things just work out.
As much as I love meeting fellow backpackers, I love meeting locals. They actually know what’s going on and can fill you in on weird mysteries that no one else can, and Professor Local told me all about which neighborhood was full of hipsters, pointed out the Soviet hammer and sickle still carved into some of the buildings, explained why Estonians have creatively decorated doors (because the Soviet concrete block buildings are boring and it was the only way to decorate anything!), and what it was like to be part of the human chain which spanned all three Baltic states. “Yeah, I was part of the human chain. Pretty much everyone was.” Way to go, Baltics!
So it was nearing the end of the school year, and he had lots of papers to grade, so I had some time to wander around the city alone, and somehow managed to find myself in the midst of an Estonian drum circle in a closed-down church undergoing renovations:
The camera didn’t let me rotate video. Sue me!
I still have no idea what was going on. I think they were a theater group rehearsing a play, and I just wandered in with them, then the teacher asked me why I was wandering randomly away from the group and exploring the church, and I told him I was a weird foreigner that didn’t know what was going on, and he laughed and went back to teaching. Fun times!
And then I was walking along a bridge, and I ran into some backpackers I had met back in Tallinn. That’s kinda what happens along the backpacker circuit. It’s especially common in the little countries, where most people are only visiting three or four cities anyway, and there’s a good chance you’ll run into somebody or other you’ve seen a week before.
So we’re all having dinner together and reminiscing about backpacking experiences and getting local knowledge history lessons when Mr. Professor takes a phone call and proceeds to start talking in Estonian for a while. We keep talking, then he turns to us and says “Do you guys want to go to one of my student’s graduation parties?”
Yes. Yes we do.
So that’s how we found ourselves in a rented out party room in a bank with 50 Estonian college kids partying til morning. The other American guy just walked up to random Estonians and said “hey, I’m a weird foreign guy. Talk to me.”
They offered us wine. They asked us what the hell we were doing there. They invited us into the sauna. They poured beer on the hot coals so it smelled like freshly baked bread. They invited us to climb out the window and sit on the rooftop and watch the pseudo-sunset of their super-long summer evenings. They sang. They formed circles of friends which then proceeded to tunnel into the archway formed from two people holding hands until everyone was so tangled together that no one could move. They sang some more. They offered us more wine.
Good times were indeed had by all.
It’s not so often everything comes together like this, and plenty of times you’ll meet people in hostels, talk to a few locals, and it’s just a brief moment of conversation, and then you move on. Sometimes it all comes together and it’s great. This was one of those moments. Backpacker buddies, new local friends, a random invitation to a private party, and a whole lot of fun. Nicely done, Estonia. Nicely done.
Narva and beyond
At the edge of Estonia lies Narva, which stands alongside the border of Russia. Actually, Narva has a castle right along the riverbank which forms the border, and the Russian town on the other side, Ivangorod, has a castle of its own. They stare each other down, and it’s pretty neat. Plus, swing sets and stuff. It’s great!
The town is 90% Russian, and I thought it would be a good place to practice my rudimentary Russian skills, but every time I tried to speak Russian they’d tell me they were Estonian and English was better. Oh well.
The country’s Soviet history is still plainly visible in places like Narva, where the vast majority of the population is Russian, and the older generation speak it exclusively, but the signs are in Estonian. Language rights are a big deal in many of the ex-Soviet states, where the native population wants to speak their own language, but the Russian populations have spent their entire life speaking theirs. It’s a matter of pride and politics, and cross-cultural challenges remain. It’s likely this legacy and its impact will continue for quite some time.
The town was also cut in two when the Soviet Union dissolved. Russians in Narva were stuck in Estonia, and people in Ivangorod were stuck in Russia, but cut off from the busier city center of Narva. Nowadays it’s not so difficult going back and forth, but it’s still a border crossing, and includes a passport check, so it’s not just a walk down the street.
It is, however, a walk. It’s an odd thing to walk across an international border, especially if there’s no bus ride before and after, and I can’t recall any other time I’ve done it. But after going through customs, I walked right into Russia.
Loving my Estonian adventures
I had a great time in Estonia. It was one of those weird moments where everything just comes together, and is the reason I travel. You meet people from all over the world, you learn all sorts of tiny little things about places on the opposite side of the planet, you get drunk and naked in the sauna, and you sing independence songs with a bunch of handholding strangers. Life is brief, friends and loved ones, and these are the moments to cherish.
Oh, and they have Wi-Fi everywhere. Even in public parks!
Anyone been to Estonia? Share some thoughts!