In which the daylight slips away

Posted on 27th December 2023

Off to the cold! Landing in Helsinki at around 7 AM, it’s still pitch black outside. The situation does not change much as I catch the train into the city, and even by 9AM, it’s still dark as night outside. Further, no one seems to be up and about. It’s freezing cold (-15 degrees), and despite changing into thermals in the train station, I feel wholly unprepared. This is exacerbated as my only shoes are thinly insulated sneakers with linen socks. Oops.

The ferry is comfortable but crowded. It’s also packed with video poker machines and I’m suitably unimpressed. Out the window, it certainly seems we’re far north. There’s a desaturated blue hue to both the sea and the sky, giving the world a dreamy feel.

I take the opportunity of the ferry-downtime to find and book a hostel: “Fat Margaret’s”, which seems to be just outside the main tourist attraction of the Old Town of Tallinn.

When the ferry arrives, I’m immediately caught in the bluster and snow. It’s only a fifteen-minute walk to the hostel, but trudging through the snow with a small wheely carry-on makes it feel like thirty minutes. I finally arrive and the hostel is dead quiet. The only sign of life is a receptionist smoking outside the door.

After settling in my spacious private room (which cost a grand total of AUD $30 nightly), it was off to make the most of the few hours of daylight. First up: a walk to get oriented with in the Old Town.

Unfortunately, the cold had a predictable—but unexpected—side effect. My camera battery drained rapidly, to the point where I was able to take very few shots before it died! iPhone to the rescue?

In the centre of Tallinn’s Old Town there was a lovely Christmas Market. I would some come to learn that every major European city has one, and that they compete for awards. The vibe is very small town-y and vendors offer touristy trinkets, hot wine (Glogi), meaty foods of various sorts, and of course–a central Christmas tree.

The next day I woke up earlier, to go visit the main synagogue of Tallinn (which my dentist in Australia had thought was stunning). Unfortunately they had just instituted a policy of needing advance booking for security reasons and I had forgotten to even bring ID! After some back and forth in a mix of Russian, English, and Hebrew, I was allowed to visit the Synagogue (though not the accompanying museum). Both were in a fairly substantial gated compound that included a school, the shul, the museum, and offices for the community. Once in, everyone was exceedingly friends–barring the disgruntled guards. After speaking in Hebrew near the entrance to the synagogue (within the compound), a friendly man said he’d take me for five minutes to see the sanctuary. This quickly turned into a half-hour guided tour on the Jewish history of Tallinn.

For the remainder of daylight, I returned back to the Old Town to catch a free walking tour. The tour guide was ebullient but was not ready to engage in a critical discussion of some more challenging aspects of Estonian government and politics. Of particular interest to me is the e-voting system, which has long come under fire from security experts for a variety of flaws. One big take-away for me was how the people of Estonia suffered for substantial periods in serfdom to neighboring empires. Estonia’s history as an independent country was short, and proceeded by a long and brutal history of subjugation. Fortunately as a tourist however, despite the sordid history, many of the historical buildings survived with only limited bombing during WWII.

I had little energy in the evenings in Estonia, and also had work to do, so unfortunately nothing to report on the nightlife, other than a visit to a cute artists colony in the newer part of the city.

However, Riga would be a different story.

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