Visiting Russia just got Harder

I missed this, but late last year Russia introduced compulsory fingerprinting for all foreign visitors:

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has ordered fingerprinting of foreigners as part of the processing of visas to enter the country.

The decree, signed by Putin, explained that the move hopes to help the application of law enforcement, tackle illegal immigration and prevent terror attacks.

Decree…hopes…terror attacks.  Hmmm.  How many terror attacks within Russia have been carried out by foreigners?  And when I hear the word “decree”, why is it that I immediately think of this store?

“It is expected that biometric data will be collected mainly at the visa centers, which would make it possible to avoid long queues at the Russian diplomatic missions where, as you know, people come not only to get a visa but to resolve many other issues as well,” Yevgeny Ivanov, head of the consular department of the Russian Foreign Ministry, said.

Introducing new bureaucratic hoops will make it possible to avoid long queues?   More on that later.

The move comes after the Foreign Ministry proposed to introduce biometric data for foreigners entering Russia, in response to the EU’s proposed plan to take fingerprints of all Russians wishing to enter the Schengen area in Europe from 2015.

This is half the problem with Russian immigration laws: most of them are retaliatory.  Now I’m the last person to defend western immigration requirements, and the UK’s are as dumbassed as anywhere’s, but deciding to introduce additional hurdles for visitors to Russia in response to EU proposals is simply stupid.  Putin may not have noticed but his currency collapsed recently and the Russian economy – so dependent on imports – is in the shit.  One of the best ways to bring in hard currency is to get tourists to come and swap their Euros, Dollars, and Pounds for Rubles, and this will be much easier to do with a weak domestic currency.  Erecting barriers to make the entry of those tourists harder makes no sense whatsoever, but then Russians appear content with being poorer and less well-fed in return for being able to engage in ineffectual political posturing.

I heard about this new requirement because a British friend of mine is currently going through the visa application process, and had to go to the Russian embassy in person to get fingerprinted.  The agent advised that delays of up to an hour could be expected (so much for avoiding long queues), only when he got near the front of the queue the whole system packed up and he was told “to come back tomorrow”.  So far, so Russian.  Fortunately he lives in London and so this was easy enough, but anyone coming from say Manchester and visiting one of the two centres – located in Edinburgh and London – would have had to buy another train ticket or book a hotel, and take another day off work.

And this is where Russia is going badly wrong.  There are a handful of people who want to visit Russia, and they will go through this pantomime one way or the other.  But Russia loses out on the speculative tourists who plan to go “somewhere” and then look at their options.  A few years back another friend thought about going to St. Petersburg for a weekend and asked me what was involved.  By the time I had gotten halfway through the letter of invitation, the agent, the $100-$200 fee, the form-filling, the requirement to have a hotel booking, the registration on arrival, and the rest of it, he’d already said “Nah, forget it, I’ll go somewhere else” (and the fee has gone up since the fingerprint requirement came in).  So much of European travel is people looking for quick, easy breaks.  When people have a choice of Tallinn, Riga, Vilnius, Prague, Bratislava, Budapest, Krakow and a dozens of smaller cities in Eastern Europe that they can visit without a visa, why would anyone who wasn’t specifically interested in Russia go there?  The Ukrainians figured this out back in 2005, and allowed EU citizens to enter the country visa free, thus adding Kiev to the list of cities above.  Perhaps more importantly, it meant Europeans could visit Ukraine’s prime holiday area in Crimea much more easily, and that played a large part in my decision to go there in the summer of that year.  Only now Europeans wishing to visit Crimea need a Russian visa, which can’t have done much for the visitor numbers.

So of all those people considering a trip to Russia, how many will decide it’s simply not worth the bother, especially if the price ends up including a return train fare, a hotel in London, and two days off work?  My guess is a lot.  Putin’s decree has made it as costly and as much effort just to obtain a Russian visa as it is to take an actual holiday to a neighbouring country which offers better service at cheaper rates to begin with.

Somebody, somewhere, obviously thinks this is smart.

Ah, so it was all bullshit?

This is long overdue:

The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) says electronic devices such as mobile phones can be left switched on during flights.

EASA says that electronic devices do not pose a safety risk.

The restriction on using mobile phones was almost as stupid as the requirement to turn off “electronic devices” during taxi, take-off, and landing.  If any aircraft, ever, had displayed the slightest sign of inteference from a mobile phone or other device, the whole fleet would have been grounded immediately.  The “because it may interfere with the aircraft’s navigation system” was a lie, pure and simple.

It came about, in my opinion, due to a confluence of several things which can be observed separately elsewhere.  The first is the phenomenon whereby people feel empowered by a uniform and delight in telling other people what to do, even if this means causing them unnecessary inconvenience.  Pilots have always overestimated their own speciality: modern aircraft are not like those of two or three generations ago, and pilots are simply too numerous for the job to be that difficult.  They do an important job, and you’d want a good one to be at the yoke if something went wrong, but the manner in which they like to portray themselves belongs to an era which has long since passed.  And nothing reinforces their sense of authority more than ordering passengers around in the name of “safety”, not even the tedious reminders that “this is a non-smoking flight” (the last of which took place around 16 years ago, at least in the US) and pointless information regarding the aircraft’s speed and altitude.

Then you have the trolley-dollies who, having to put up with shit from passengers for most of the flight, enjoy nothing more than to harangue them during the fleeting moments they have some authority.  I’ve noticed they’ve even taken to ordering passengers to remove headphones during take-off and landing, no doubt citing the importance of passengers being able to hear announcements in the event of an incident.  Although any passenger who is unaware of an announced incident during take-off or landing is almost certainly unconcious or dead, and not merely listening to music.

Coupled with this is the dumbfuck, luddite mentality amongst most people who lack the basic scientific knowledge to laugh in the face of anyone who says an iPod will interfere with the correct functioning of an aircraft.  Aircraft are constantly bombarded by all sorts of electromagnetic waves, particularly during taxi, take-off, and landing when they are near the airport and other aircraft, who are all communicating with one another.  To the degree that any component of the aircraft could be unduly influenced by electromagnetic radiation – and this is doubtful – the device and its cables would be shielded.  An iPod would produce some electromagnetic radiation, but this would be almost undetectable without specialist equipment set up right next to it.  It is simply impossible for an iPod to interfere with a plane’s equipment.  But most people lack any kind of technical knowledge and, in the fashion of Pavlov’s dogs, simply nod dumbly when somebody in a uniform tells them to do something vaguely to do with technology – even if the person in the uniform is employed primarily on looks.  I particularly hate the request to switch off “all electronic devices” because its ludicrously broad criteria makes it impossible to comply with.  My watch is electronic.  How do I turn it off?

It’s bullshit masquerading as safety compliance, and I hear enough of this in my own industry.  Mobile phones are banned on all operational sites where hydrocarbons may be present, yet there is not a single example, anywhere, of a mobile phone causing a spark.  Mythbusters tested this to death and couldn’t get a solitary spark out of a mobile phone; they also couldn’t get aircraft instruments to react to a mobile phone, either.  Of course, most people will say “well, if it makes us safer, even by a little bit, then it is not too much to ask”, and indeed they do say this.  And they know nothing about risk, and even less about people’s actual preferences: if it wasn’t too much to ask, the stewardesses wouldn’t need to check, would they?

I can see why they banned mobile phones: airlines simply didn’t want the hassle and complaints associated with people taking on phones on an aircraft, so they came up with some safety bullshit as a way to enforce compliance.  But now technology has advanced to the point that money can be made from people making calls on flights, the regulations prohibiting phone use have magically disappeared.

This is welcome, but it’s a shame they had to bullshit us for two decades in the first place.

A Trip to Adelaide

Given I shall soon be leaving Australia and unlikely to return for some time, I decided to do a bit of local tourism, with my first destination being Adelaide.  Other than it being the scene of an unimaginable slaughter a few weeks back, I didn’t know much about it and half the people I spoke to said it was lovely and the other half said it was full of inbreds.

I flew down on Virgin Australia, a flight of an hour or so, and as I found when I went to Sydney the domestic airports at each end were models of efficiency and organisation.  I have to hand it to the Australians, when it comes to making domestic air travel as painless as possible they have it nailed down, at least insofar as the airports are concerned.  With an absolute minimum of fuss I was checked in and at the departure gate within minutes.

I caught a taxi to my hotel which was situated bang in the middle of town on Hindley Street.  For the price it wasn’t bad (a fraction of the cost in Melbourne), but it was a bit dated and I didn’t bother eating there: hotel breakfasts in Australia, like everywhere, are a bit of a fleecing and so I made use of the McDonald’s over the road more times than was probably good for me.  I had arrived on the last Friday before Christmas Day, and there was much revelry in the air of the office Christmas party kind.  The bars in Leigh Street near my hotel were mobbed, music was pumping out of one of them, and so after a quick kip I went out to join the fun.  But first I needed some food, and I went up and down Hindley Street at least twice looking for somewhere to eat.  In doing so, I discovered that Adelaide’s busiest street (aside from Rundle Mall) consists almost entirely of:

  1. Strip clubs
  2. Asian massage parlours
  3. Adult video stores
  4. Hookah cafes
  5. Dodgy bars and clubs
  6. Dodgy takeaways

I couldn’t find anywhere that looked suitable to eat, so I went into one of the bars and ate a hotdog.  Coming out, I wandered about some more.  The streets were beginning to fill up with Adelaide’s youngsters, the girls of which were often slim and pretty (they wouldn’t stay that way long) and wearing next to nothing (like they do in Liverpool) and speaking in godawful accents (like they do in Liverpool).  At least half of them had tattoos.

The main attraction in several of the bars, according to the signage, seemed to be 24-hour poker machines (or pokies, as they are called in the excruciating local vernacular).  Clearly the gambling addiction in Australia isn’t confined to Melbourne.  For sure, you’ll find fruit machines in most English pubs, but they’re not advertised on enormous banners outside to the exclusion of anything else.  Half of these places were less bars than gambling dens which served alcohol.  I also saw Aborigines for the first time in Australia, and they didn’t appear to be doing too well.  They were a couple of old men and an old woman, all barefoot, and seemingly drunk in the middle of the street (more so than the rest of the locals).  One of the men had a bandage on his bleeding head.  The woman was dancing drunkenly in front of an elderly busker who was playing an electric guitar which had been smashed up.  It wasn’t a pretty sight.

I went into a packed bar on Leigh Street where I sat at the counter drinking something or other, before going to the next street where there was a Russian-themed bar.  I walked in and discovered the barman was from Nigeria, Port Harcourt to be precise.  The Russian theme didn’t amount to much, and so I talked to the barman about Lagos instead.  Shortly afterwards two young fellows came in and sat nearby and we got talking.  Turned out they were natives of Adelaide and once the inevitable ribbing about the cricket had finished, we got stuck into a fair bit of alcohol.  At some point some Nigerian mates of the barman came in and we had a jolly good laugh about Lagos (I forget what they were doing in Adelaide, but I think one of them might have been running a backpacker hostel, or something).  As the night moved on, an Australian girl joined the two lads and in with the general festivities.  After an hour or so, one of the lads and the girl went home and the other lad, Adam, and I went a-bar hunting.  We wandered into three or four packed bars, drinking and bullshitting in each one, and then at some point after midnight went into the Adelaide casino to prop up the bars there.  Whereas the Crown casino in Melbourne is impressive in size and probably style also, the same can’t be said for Adelaide’s.  It looked like a pretty seedy joint, half full of middle aged married or divorced men coming from the office parties and drunkenly trying it on with their middle aged married female colleagues.  It was painful to watch, but by this time I was getting pretty drunk and really wasn’t so bothered by my surroundings.

It got to a point, sometime around 2 or 3am, and the streets were an utter carnage of drunken revellers, when we decided to go to a bar I’d passed several times on Hinkley Street called the Woolshed.  We went in and I found myself in the biggest shithole since my days of drinking in Manchester.  The first thing that hit me was the smell.  Since the smoking ban, bars have gone from smelling of smoke to smelling of BO, stale beer, farts, and backed-up toilets.  It was honking.  The carpet was sticky, which is a sure sign of a certain type of establishment, and the music absolutely bloody awful.  There was a mechanical rodeo bull set up in one corner with drunk girls dressed in tiny dresses trying to ride it without any success, but attracting a sizeable audience nonetheless.  I poked my head in the toilet and found a proper, British club style arrangement: cubicle doors hanging off, graffiti everywhere, the seat ripped off, the porcelain cracked, both toilets blocked with bog roll, a pint glass in the urinal, and the whole floor covered in piss.  The whole place sent a wave of nostalgia over me for the many dives I have patronised, and I loved it!  I felt right at home.

And so Adam and I were off, drinking ourselves into oblivion, watching plastered, sweating halfwits trying it on with anything vaguely female, and who they outnumbered by eight to one.  Somehow I got talking briefly with some girl who looked about 20 who had two strange words tattooed on her inner wrists, which turned out to be the names of her daughters.  The music got worse, but the dancing – if you could possibly call it that – had no greater depths to which it could sink.  I stayed on the edges, guzzling bourbon by the tumbler, watching Adam try his luck with anything which passed his threshold of interest.  He was one hell of a drinking buddy, and I was mighty grateful for his company.  We went to the first floor level, up a ludicrously steep flight of stairs given the state of the customers at that point, which was packed full of people of all ages, shapes, and sizes.  One thing I like about these shithole clubs is they are egalitarian places with no pretentiousness.  I detest pretentious bars and clubs – Melbourne has them by the dozen – pretending to be as hip and trendy as Manhattan’s newest gay bar, when in fact they’re just your standard, boring dump with a lick of paint applied.  The Woolshed by contrast didn’t pretend to be anything other than an absolute, end-of-the-night dive and as a result everyone was there only to get hammered and, for a lot of them, to pick something up. Everyone was clearly enjoying themselves at any rate, and I didn’t see a sniff of trouble.

I saw lots of things which I really wanted to remember so I could blog about them, but alas my memory failed me in most instances.  I blundered into one group who had a teenage French girl with them, who had been sent from Paris to stay with her cousin and learn English.  Quite what sort of English her parents thought she’d learn in Adelaide, and quite what words and phrases she’d learn in the Woolshed at 4am is anyone’s guess, but I was able to speak French with her for a while.  My French language abilities are rudimentary in the extreme, but compared to everyone else in the joint I might easily have passed for Gerard Depardieu.  Eventually she cleared off to smoke outside with her friends, and it was pushing towards about 5am when I realised that the place was now half empty and I’d lost Adam.  At this point, or somewhere around it, I stumbled the short distance back to my hotel and went to bed.

The next day I thought I’d better do something productive to justify my coming to Adelaide, but unfortunately I looked around and realised it was already mid-afternoon.  That’s the problem with going out until dawn and getting up after lunch.  So I took a stroll up to Rundle Mall, the main shopping precinct, in spitting rain which was not what I’d expected: Adelaide had experienced one of its hottest days on record two days previously.  There wasn’t much to see, although I did stop to watch this guy play his guitar in the street, which was very impressive and his method was something I’d never seen before.  Australian shopping areas aren’t much to visit, and I was feeling pretty rough, so I decided to spend what was left of the afternoon in the cinema, watching American Hustle which, after a slow start, I quite enjoyed.  I went out that evening to get something to eat, again struggling to find a proper restaurant just by wandering about and looking, settling for a burrito at a Mexican-themed takeaway joint.  I tried to go back to the Russian-themed bar for a quick drink but found it closed for the staff Christmas party, and I really couldn’t be bothered to look anywhere else and so went back to the hotel and watched test match cricket between South Africa and India.

I got up a lot earlier the next day and looked at the range of brochures on display in the hotel advertising things to do in Adelaide.  The problem was, none of them advertised things to do in Adelaide: everything involved travelling outside for anywhere between 20 and 100km.  The things people recommended I do – mainly winery tours – were outside the city, and when I looked at the things for which you can book a day trip I wasn’t overly excited.  Most of them seemed to involve travelling an hour or so to a place where there really wasn’t very much, and none of them interested me.  Even the winery tours didn’t appeal for two reasons.  Firstly, wine in wineries is no cheaper in Australia than it is in a supermarket, which defeats the primary purpose of going on a winery tour: to get pissed cheaply on good wine.  And secondly, I’m moving to Paris in a few weeks where I will be drinking good wine until it comes out of my ears at a fraction of Australian prices, and likely doing plenty of winery tours over the course of the next couple of years where the wine is practically free.  So it wasn’t something I felt a real urge to undertake when in Adelaide.

Just to ensure that my trip didn’t just consist of me getting totally pissed and going to the cinema, I took a stroll down to the river, opposite the Adelaide oval which is undergoing renovations.  I was tempted to hire a pedal boat in the absence of anything else to do, but they were sorry looking things and customers were not allowed to take them out of sight of the hire point.  Then I looked at doing what was advertised as a river cruise, but when I enquired what there was to look at the best I could hope for was “grassy banks”.  Not even a kangaroo or a bunch of convicts.  The park area along the river was quite nice though, and I took a few photos mainly to justify having lugged the camera with me from Melbourne.

IMG_2621IMG_2626IMG_2627IMG_2628 I suppose it was a Sunday afternoon, but there really didn’t seem to be much going on.  My walk back to the city centre took me through the university campus where there were flyers advertising some Marxist snoozefest of the type which has been a stock feature of university campuses across the western world for about 5 generations now.  IMG_2629A Marxism conference promising “ideas to challenge the system”.  Really?  New ideas these, are they?  You’ve got to hand it to these lefties, they don’t give up.  A resilient bunch, and each generation seems to put forward enough numbers to pick up where the last lot left off.

I briefly went into the Museum of South Australia which, from what I could tell, was a museum of whale bones and Pacific Island cultures, before giving up on finding anything else of interest and going home.  Aside from a passable Indian curry that evening and the flight back to Melbourne, that was pretty much Adelaide for me.  Not really worth the trip on the face of it, but I did need to get out of Melbourne and get my mind off some serious work issues, and the night on the piss with my new friend in the Woolshed adequately served that purpose.  So I’m glad I went.

Last Month in Australia

At some point in January I will be leaving Melbourne and moving to a new assignment in Paris, where I expect to be for the next 2-3 years.  It was always expected that my assignment to Melbourne would be short-term, with the work here due to finish in early 2014, although I would have liked to have stayed another 6 months or so to enjoy the warm weather (which has finally arrived) and a bit more sailing.  Apparently you can sail on the Seine, but you need to tack an awful lot.

With the exception of the sailing, which has been brilliant, I’ll not be too sorry to leave Melbourne.  I suspect my view of the place was tainted with difficulties I had at work, to put it mildly, and this is quite often the case: my view of somewhere largely depends on how happy I am in general, and on international work assignments this is inseparable from the situation at work.  For this reason, and for the fact that I arrived in winter when it was cold and wet, I am probably judging Melbourne a little harshly and I advise readers not to listen to my views on the city too closely, but I generally found it overrated, ridiculously expensive, geographically isolated, and quite dull.  I’ve previously gone into detail about what I liked and didn’t like about Melbourne and I’ll not bother to repeat it here, but it’s not a city I’d make any effort to come back to – even if it wasn’t 22 hours from Europe.  I’m not even sure I’d come back to Australia, to be honest.  If I was based in Thailand or Singapore then there’s a good chance I’d fly down for a week or two to see some people or maybe dive the Great Barrier Reef, but I’d not be flying long-haul for a holiday here, and I’ve got no interest in looking for work in Perth, Brisbane, or any of the other oil and gas centres.  Australia, despite the insistence of practically everyone I’ve ever met that things would be to the contrary, just didn’t really do it for me.

However, I enjoyed my visit to Sydney and I have decided to make the most of what time I have left here to do weekend trips to Adelaide and Hobart.  The latter I will be visiting between 27th and 31st December, the flights for which I booked completely forgetting that Hobart is the (fairly obvious) finishing point of the Sydney to Hobart yacht race, which takes place between Boxing Day and about 28th-29th December.  For a member of the Royal Melbourne Yacht Squadron to forget this is pretty damned slack, and I was punished accordingly when I found a solitary hotel room left available in Hobart for the period of my stay, which is going to cost me just shy of $1,500 for 4 nights.  The good news is I ought to be able to access the Royal Yacht Club of Tasmania thanks to the reciprocal rights I enjoy through my own club, so expect to see me propping up the bar listening to stories of the race from salty old sea dogs.  Then it’ll be back to Melbourne for New Year’s Eve.

A Decade in Exile

On June 12th 2003 I was sent on my first overseas business trip to Oman, via the United Arab Emirates, and never really came back.  I consider myself to have emigrated on this date, even if the practical arrangements were sorted out back in the UK over 2 weeks in the following August.

Since then I have:

  • Visited 35 countries, 19 of them at somebody else’s expense.
  • Made 192 international border crossings.
  • Worked for 5 companies, been fired from 1.
  • Held a work permit in 4 countries, lived in 5.
  • Learned 2 languages (one to a basic level, the other to intermediate).
  • Got platinum membership with both a major airline and a major hotel chain.
  • Made some cash.

Sometimes it has been brilliant, sometimes it has been utter shite.  One must take the rough with the smooth.

Baltic Trip Part 5 – Vilnius

To travel from Riga to Vilnius I once again booked a seat on the Lux Express bus, costing me 23 Euros and taking four and a half hours.  The bus was identical to the one which carried me from Tallinn to Riga, and once again the atmosphere, for the first hour or two, was not tranquil.  Some utter penis was on the bus in the form of a middle-aged man who looked every inch the stereotypical Jewish guy who still lives with his mum.  He was bald, had milk-bottle glasses, and was wearing Ugg boots with his jeans tucked into them.  If he wasn’t still a virgin then I’m the Queen of Sheba.  Anyway, no sooner had we set off when he made a series of long phone calls, some personal and some work related, during which he bellowed in Russian at the top of his voice.  You couldn’t hear yourself think, and I was unfortunate enough to be sat opposite him.  This went on for well over an hour, him treating the bus like his office and yelling down the phone without an iota of consideration for anyone else.  The only other passenger at the rear half of the bus (in the first class section) was a Swedish lady who didn’t seem bothered, or was too polite to show it.  I put up with it for about forty five minutes before I gathered my stuff and stomped off to the back of the bus and as far away as I could get in lieu of punching him in the side of his fucking head.  Once I couldn’t hear him so much, I calmed down and enjoyed the rest of the journey.

As with the last bus ride there wasn’t much to see, and again the most interesting thing was whizzing past the old border control buildings and checkpoints as we crossed into Lithuania.  It was dark by the time we reached the outskirts of Vilnius, and we passed one or two giant shopping centres before the coach pulled up in a sizeable bus station and we all got out.  It took a few minutes to find a cash machine (Lithuania has its own currency as well, Litas, which are about 3.45 to the Euro) and then another few to find the nearby taxi stand, during which time I was joined by the Swedish lady from the bus who was as unfamiliar with the place as I was.  I jumped in a taxi, and asked what language the driver spoke.  It turned out he preferred Russian, which apparently is pretty common for taxi drivers in Vilnius, with a lot of them coming from Belarus.  So off we went to the Novotel situated just on the edge of the old town, but on the other side from the bus station.  it was about 5pm, and for the first time since I’d left St. Petersburg I saw traffic, and we were stuck in it.  Fortunately, my driver must have learned his trade in 1990s Russia because he mounted pavements, jumped lights, and went the wrong way down streets, huffing and puffing and swearing in Russian.  It was all very nostalgic.  Even with the traffic (which, to be honest, wasn’t a patch on traffic you’d find anywhere else) we got there in about 30 minutes, and I went to check in.  Thanks to several lengthy business trips and the Accor hotel group, by virtue of their being French, being the preferred hotel chain of my employer I hold Platinum membership at the Novotel which means I am likely to get an upgraded room if I ask for one.  So I did and I got it, and damned nice it was too!

My room overlooked a large square boxed in by official-looking buildings, and beyond to a reasonably sized city which had several modern office towers and other modern buildings, with a row of small hills in the background.

Vilnius 01Looking out of the window and driving from the bus station, I got the impression that Vilnius was much larger and more modern than Riga, although it turns out that Riga has the larger population.  Nevertheless, Vilnius looks and feels more like a medium sized metropolis of the sort you can find anywhere in Europe.  Indeed, it didn’t feel uniquely Baltic in the way Tallinn or Riga did, and seemed more mainstream European.  All the usual retail outlets were there, including a Marks & Spencer, and it looked as though investment was not as limited to Scandinavians and Finns.  Whereas Tallinn was a small medieval city, and Riga was an industrial city with a strong bar, club, and backpacker scene, it was harder to pin any particular label on Vilnius.  As I say, it was more like a mainstream European town, and you’d have to look pretty hard to find any evidence the Soviets were ever there.  Admittedly I didn’t explore much outside the old town and the area immediately north of it where my hotel was located, so maybe I missed something.  But what it did have in common with the other Baltic States was that it was clean, organised, cheap, and safe and a very pleasant place to spend a few days.  It was also bloody freezing.

It had occured to me that I hadn’t really gone out and enjoyed myself (meaning, get blind drunk) since I left St. Petersburg, tending to hang around quiet-ish bars and strike up conversations.  So when I saw Vilnius had a hustle and bustle about it which I hadn’t seen in Tallinn or Riga, I decided it was high time I checked out a club or two.  Sitting in my hotel room and skimming the internet, I discovered a club called Tamsta on the other side of the old town which is a dedicated live music venue and came well recommended.  There are usually established bands playing at the weekends, but Wednesdays was apparently an open mic night, so I thought I’d go down and check out the local amateur musicians.  As you may have gathered from my last night in Tallinn, I like this kind of thing.  To get there I had to walk about 25 minutes through the old town, keeping an eye on the GPS to navigate the narrow streets.

The old town of Vilnius is nice, lots of narrow streets giving onto squares with churches, an old university, or the town hall.

Vilnius 02It was not as quaint as the old towns of Tallinn and Riga, and modern buildings had crept in to a much greater extent, although in a tasteful manner (with some exceptions).  There was plenty of snow lying around, and often I had to walk in the road as the pavements were either too narrow or blocked altogether.  By the time I went out, the traffic had mostly died down, but there were still noticeably more cars than I’d seen in the other cities.  I was feeling hungry, and so when I happened to pass by a restaurant called Meat Lovers, I decided to give it a try.  It turns out this place is fairly well known, and it was pretty good.  It was almost full, but I persuaded the waitress to allow me to take one of the reserved tables on the condition I was out within an hour.  The menu was on a chalk board on one of the walls and judging by its contents, the place was well named.  I ordered a huge burger of some sort and a large local beer.  The other patrons were, in general, young, attractive, and having fun.

Once fed, I walked across the town hall square and along a very narrow street until, after a bit of looking around, I found the place I was after.  I went inside and paid a tough looking Russian the equivalent of 5 Euros to go inside, and put my coat into the cloakroom.  Finally, I had found a venue with a cloakroom (of sorts).  This was one of only two I saw on my whole trip, both of them in Vilnius.  I continued up some stairs and entered into a purpose-built venue with a stage at one end, a bar running down one wall, lots of chairs and tables in the middle, and a veranda running around two sides.  I headed for the bar.  I asked the barman, in English, to pick a language in which I’d address him from thereon.  He laughed, and said “English, of course.”  Like Latvia, it appears the only people who speak Russian in Lithuania are old or have a Russian parent.  I found that even my attempting to speak it didn’t go down too well on occasion.  So I parked myself at the bar with a drink and waited for the performance.  It was obvious from early on that this wouldn’t be an open mic night as there was a full set of equipment on stage and the place was filling up rapidly.

On the hour, whichever one it was, the curtain was whipped back and a band consisting of middle-aged men launched into some serious rock music to huge cheers from the crowd.  I joined in just for the hell of it.  They belted out a decent rock song, sung in Lithuanian, and went straight into the next one without pausing for breath.  When they stopped to let their front man address the crowd, he did so in Lithuanian, and as such I had not the faintest idea what was being said.  But the music was good, the sort of 80s rock you’d hear the Russian bands such as Mashina Vremeni or DDT play in their early days (although probably not as good).  I noticed the crowd was either folk in their 50s or people in their 20s, with a generation in the middle missed out.  I spent the first set trying to work out if this band was playing its own stuff, because everyone seemed to know the lyrics and was singing along enthusiastically, yet the crowd and venue seemed too small for a famous band.

The answer was supplied between the sets by a chap who I’d heard speaking English at the bar earlier, and so to whom I put the question.  It turned out the band was Poliarizuoti Stiklai (tr. Polarised Glasses) who made it pretty big in Lithuania in the 1980s before tailing off thereafter, but apparently still draw a reasonable following from people who were (presumably) young, drinking, and getting laid during their heyday.  That certainly explained the age of the crowd (the younger lot were probably those who had grown up listening to their dad’s records).  One of their biggest hits, which they played twice for us that night, is in the clip below.

The chap at the bar was an American working for the US embassy in Vilnius and turned out to be a top bloke who invited me to join his table, made up of other embassy staffers.  He told me Vilnius was a pretty good place to be sent with the US diplomatic service because it was quiet, safe, the Lithuanians are generally pro-American, and Vilnius is a fun place to live.  A lot better than Lagos or Islamabad, I’m sure.  Ironically, the lead guitarist of the band was working in the American embassy: when the band declined in the early 90s he figured he needed a more reliable source of income so took a job with the Americans, but still playing with the band once or twice a week.  Because of this connection, one of the Americans from the embassy managed to get himself on stage and sing two songs – Whiskey in the Jar and Everything About You, the only non-Lithuanian songs sung all night – and did an exceptionally good job of it.  It was quite obvious he’d been in a band before, and when I asked him he confirmed as much.  When the second set ended, a good number of the crowd rushed towards the stage to get autographs and photos with the band, so although I suspect their fanbase is small, they still have a passionate following.  For my part, they were well worth the 5 Euro entrance fee.  If I’m ever in Vilnius during one of the summer music festivals, I’ll see them again for sure.

The band wrapped up and everyone started to leave at about midnight.  I left with the Americans, walking with them as far as the town hall square before they left for home (unlike me, they had to work the next day).  However, they did point me in the direction of  a nearby club which was, they said, my best bet for a decent night out.  I was in no mood to go home.  I followed their directions and as I stood outside where I supposed the place to be, a young chap dressed up against the cold gave me a big grin and asked if I wanted to go into the strip club in the same building.  I didn’t, but decided to stop and talk to him anyway.  He was a friendly chap, and did his level best to get me inside before admitting, having been prompted by me, that the place was empty, the drinks extortionate, and the girls very, very ordinary.  He was one of the few people I met in Vilnius who spoke Russian, and we chatted for a while.  He said the club I was heading to was good but empty, and I’d be better off coming back in an hour or so.  He pointed to a bar across the square and recommended it as a good enough spot to wait, and suggested he might be in the club once his pimping duties wound up and we could get a drink.  Which sounded fine by me.

The bar was located only 100m or so away, and it turned out to be full of Russians.  I sat down at one of the only free tables, right in the middle of the room, and took in various couples or small groups of youngish people enjoying what looked to be the last of several drinks (most of them had got up and left within 30 minutes of my arrival, I hope not on my account).  They all looked a bit rough, as in not too polished, an image not helped when a group of two Russian couples came in with one of the girls wearing what looked like a set of pink pyjamas.  At best it was a fluffly aerobics tracksuit, although God knows why she was wearing it to a bar.  Still, it wasn’t a bad place to swallow vodka and coke for an hour while I was waiting for the club to fill up.

I eventually wandered over at some hour which might have been 1am.  You tend to lose track of the hours when it gets dark at 4pm.  Salento, as the club was called, was much like any mainstream club you’d find in Russia or elsewhere in continental Europe, with the same music you can hear anywhere.  It wasn’t busy, maybe 40 people in a club which could take four or five times that number, and most of them were young girls in their 20s, dancing badly in groups.  For my part, I headed straight to the bar and started drinking vodka and coke.  I think it was quite cheap, but by the time I figured out what this Lithuanian money was worth I was back in Nigeria and by then I didn’t care.  I know I went out with a fistful of notes, anyway.  I’d not been at the bar long, not long enough to finish my first drink anyway, when I started talking to a girl stood nearby and who, she told me later, thought I was a local.  I blame the haircut and underfed look.

Sadly I wasn’t a local and instead she found herself talking to a Brit who lives in Nigeria.  She had dropped into the club out of boredom, I think, after having been out buying groceries, including a jar of olives which she still had with her.  She was intent on dancing to every other tune, during which I remained rooted to my place at the bar and drank.  But she was matching me drink for drink.  More people arrived, but people were leaving at the same rate, meaning there was a steady turnover of people and the place never filled up.  There were still quite a few young women, and several men in their 30s, including an Italian who was absolutely enormous and looked as though he’d take ages to beat up.  Fortunately that wasn’t necessary (never mind doable) as his brief conversation with me was friendly enough.  I didn’t budge for hours, never stepping onto the dance floor save for once brief and misguided instant, and just ordered drink after drink and Rasa, my friend with the jar of olives, kept pace with me right up to me leaving sometime around 4 or 5am.  At some point I ran out of money, but Vilnius being civilised and not full of thieving bastards, I was able to pay by credit card.  Only in order to avoid the transaction fee, I decided it was better to buy four drinks at once.  I vaguely remember the walk back to the hotel through streets narrow, twisting, and frozen, although how I navigated them is anyone’s guess.  The streets were utterly deserted, quite unsurprisingly, so I couldn’t have asked for directions.  At any rate, I had fulfilled my mission to find a club and get hammered.  And I never did see the pimp again.

By this time, I had had enough of doing touristy stuff, such as wandering around old towns taking photos (which is why I have so few of Vilnius).  So I decided to relax and, also because my head was pounding from the night before and it was afternoon anyway, I decided I’d spend what was left of the day in bed.  Only there was some bloke in the square outside busking with a concertina, and the noise of those things could penetrate lead.  On and on he droned and had I a rifle I would have shot him from my window, which would have been a shame because he was very good and he knew a lot of songs.  Only these things aren’t appreciated when they are outside your window and you have a hangover.

When I woke up I found a text message from Rasa asking if I wanted to go to a traditional Lithuanian restaurant that evening.  I did.  So later on I found myself being led sheep-like into a restaurant situated in the basement of what must have been a very old building.  From a small entrance lobby you had to go down a very steep, twisted flight of stairs, ducking under a very low beam, which brought you into a low-ceilinged corridor with several rooms branching off in which the tables and chairs were located.  After a bit of wandering around poking our heads into various rooms (the place was a rabbit warren) we settled on one location where we found a free table and waited a while for the waiter to turn up.  It was all done up in an olden style, but the details escape me.  But it was very nice, only there was no obvious way out if the place decided to suddenly catch fire.  Thinking it unlikely, I didn’t worry about it.

The menu came around and all of it looked good.  It was quite exotic, with most dishes claiming to be the product of a hunter’s encounter with something that moves fast through a forest.  I settled for a soup made from beer followed by wild boar goulash.  I felt like Obelix.  The soup arrived and it was superb, but it was pretty filling (as soups in these sort of countries tend to be), which meant that when the wild boar goulash came around I couldn’t eat much of it.  I was terribly disappointed because it was really, really nice.  I don’t think I’ve ever been more upset about not being able to eat something before.  The whole lot was washed down with a fine Lithuanian beer which, according to the menu, comes from a brewery in Klaipėda which was set up in the late 19th century by a chap called Reinecke, which went a long way to explain its quality.  It was an excellent choice of restaurant.

Afterwards we went to a street full of bars, where Vilnius’ 25-40 crowd was out in force.  There was no shortage of bars, most of them ranging from very busy to packed to the rafters.  We went into one which slotted nicely into the latter category, where I managed to find 2 square feet in which to stand wedged in the corner while Rasa got some drinks in.  Of course, for a bar made for 60 people 3 small coat pegs had been attached to the wall so unless you could find space to add yours to the enormous leather, fur, and nylon tumour that was protruding from the far wall then you had to stand about in your jacket, allowing you to experience how the Michelin Man feels when he takes the London Underground at rush hour.  I stashed mine beside some hippies who were sitting on the windowsill, and eventually stopped complaining.  The crowd was mixed, but one chap I remember, because you see him in every bar in the western world which caters to the thirty-something crowd: thick glasses, a beard, wearing a funky t-shirt, and without a shadow of a doubt in his fourth of fifth “final year” of a music or modern politics degree.  At one point he set off on a quest to find a pen and paper with such determination that I was curious enough to peer over his shoulder to see what he was going to do with them once said objects had been obtained.  He drew a Chad.  We proceeded through another one or two bars of similar nature, and everyone seemed to be having a good time.  Certainly the atmosphere was good, and everywhere was packed.  I went home with the impression that the nightlife in Vilnius is pretty much what you’d find in any decent European city, and there was plenty going on.

In Lithuania I did detect a certain attitude towards Russia (or at least the language and its connotations), but I’d stop short of describing it as hostility.  I was more like “Russia was then, and it was shit, and now we have moved on, and it is better, so why would we be interested in anything Russian?”  And as I neared the end of my trip through the Baltics, I began to think that they might have a point.  I remember years ago talking to an Uzbek girl in a dodgy club in Dubai who complained that the Russians had come to “their country” and taken all the resources, money, etc.  This is hardly a novel complaint, I hear people whining about it all the time (ironically Russians too, in the context of the international oil projects on their territory).  But if you were to take an objective look at what the Soviet Union did for the regions which became the independent Central Asian states, you’d be hard pushed to deny that they didn’t bring with them a lot of development and improvements.  When the Tsarist Russians first moved into what is now Uzbekistan, the place was unbelievably backward.  Petty tyrants ruled small pockets of territory in the manner of medieval lords, often unaware of the regions beyond their borders, until deep into the 19th century.  Literacy, numeracy, and all the other indicators of human development were practically non-existent outside a very select elite.  By the time the Soviets left a hundred and something years later, your average Uzbek, Tadjik, and Kyrgyz was literate, numerate, more often than not well educated, and could expect to live as long as his comrades from the west of the empire.  Secondary industries had been introduced, cities built (and in the case of Tashkent, rebuilt following the earthquake of 1966) which were not exactly modern by western standards but were as good as the Russians enjoyed in Europe, cities equipped with schools, hospitals, universities, and other marks of development and civilisation, from which the population would without question benefit greatly.  Not that I am endorsing the Soviet regime and its policies in Central Asia (many of which brought about abject misery); but that the Russians brought certain, major benefits which the regions would otherwise never have had is to me pretty incontestable.  When you look at their neighbours – particularly Afghanistan – it is hard to imagine that a Central Asia without Russian involvement would have resulted in anything which could be regarded as an improvement on their status in 1990.

But when you look at the Baltics, it is extremely hard to make the same argument.  Had the Soviets not imposed themselves for half a century and more, would independent Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have nonetheless enjoyed the rewards of modern cities, industry, electricity, health, education, and transport systems?  Well, yes they would.  Unlike say Tadjikistan, the development of Lithuania was not dependent on being ruled by a government in Moscow.  Debates may be held over whether the independent Baltic states would have prospered more or less than as part of the USSR, but an independent people free of idiotic communism would unlikely have done much worse.  In my opinion, the Baltic states would have done just fine on their own, even better if they’d formed a loose federation among themselves, and joined Nato and the other European institutions.  I’m sure many Russians, if they were to read this, would point to the Baltics’ lack of resources – meaning oil, gas, and timber – as a reason why they could never have prospered, but that can easily be dismissed by pointing to the fact that Finland had vastly fewer resources than the USSR yet enjoyed a much higher standard of living.  Plus, as a cursory look at Nigeria will tell you, having oil, gas, and other primary resources is not in itself a guarantee of prosperity.  I don’t see any reason why the independent Baltic states could not have developed and prospered along the lines of Denmark, Finland, or Norway following WWII.  And from what I can see, the Baltic people do have a useful resource: themselves.  Small, well-educated populations tend to enjoy high standards of living, as Scandinavia and Finland demonstrate.  And, again from what I can see, the Baltic people tend to have more in common with their western neighbours than Russians in that they don’t seem to fuck each other over at the first opportunity.  When money arrives in a government account in Tallinn, Riga, or Vilnius to fix roads, the roads get fixed (even if perhaps some gets skimmed off).  When money arrives in a government account in Russia to fix roads, the money turns into a fancy dacha for the mayor built in full view of everyone and the roads stay broken.  I’m being a bit simplistic here I know, but I have written at length about the importance of trust in making a country rich, and I don’t believe that the Baltic states are cursed with the same degree of corruption, bureaucracy and greed which has perpetually condemned Russia to fall way short of its potential.  Interestingly, I reckon that the Russian populations of the Baltics would realise this very quickly were they to ever be transplanted to Russia, and would likely find they have more in common with the non-Russians they left behind than their new Russian neighbours.  I know this was the case for one Russian woman pushed out of Lithuania following independence, and found her new neighbours in Sakahlin to be a pretty hopeless bunch.

In short, the educated child of a Kyrgyz engineer who had been through the Bishkek Academy of Sciences would be hard pushed to claim that he doesn’t, in some small part, owe his status to the Soviet Union.  But it would be very hard to make the claim that the educated child of a Lithuanian engineer would, were it not for the Soviet Union, be eking out a living in the forest and unable to read.  And that, I think, explains the attitude which I felt in Latvia and Lithuania towards Russia and the aspects of Russian culture imported during the Soviet era; it’s not hostility, it is one of utter indifference or, when faced with it, slightly irritated contempt.  The Soviet Russians were never needed or wanted, nothing is owed, they just want to be left alone.  There were no chips on shoulders that I could see.

Estonia is probably the exception because the politics there has made the problem of cultures and identity more acute, but I didn’t see much nationalistic fervour in Latvia or Lithuania.  Certainly they’re a proud enough bunch, but they don’t seem to have adopted the overly patriotic stance of the younger generation of Kazakhs, for example, which seems artificial and ever so slightly forced, as if they are trying too hard.  Quietly confident, they define themselves as who they are rather than who they are not, which was good to see.

Being small countries, the future economic development of the Baltic states will depend on the fortunes of the rest of the world, especially Europe.  But I don’t see any reason why their futures should not be bright, with the only dark spot being the identity politics being practiced in Estonia which is driving a wedge between people who, if just left alone, would probably work things out for themselves.

As for Vilnius, it is a city in which Europeans would perhaps find it easier to live than Riga or Tallinn, it being (seemingly) larger and more cosmopolitan than the others.  I’m sure I’ll go back to Lithuania as I would like to go to the Curonian Spit, for no other reason than it looks interesting, a bit like the Outer Banks of North Carolina or the lagoons at the north end of Sakhalin Island.  And I’d like to go to Klaipėda, probably at the same time, for the single reason that a terrible battle was fought there in the closing months of WWII, when the town was called Memel, and is described in harrowing detail in The Forgotten Soldier which I read in my teens and never forgot.

But – and I think you’ve all got the message by now – I’ll make sure I go in summer.

Baltic Trip Part 4 – Riga

I booked the bus between Tallinn and Riga by searching online and finding Lux Express.  For the princely sum of 27 Euros I got myself a luxury seat which included free wi-fi, free hot drinks, a bottle of water and snack bar, a power socket, and a TV screen showing videos (the normal seats were 21 Euros, the main difference being that they were in pairs) for the journey which took about 4 hours.  Boarding was exceptionally easy: show your ticket to the conductor, either on a phone or printed out, along with a passport or ID card and on you get.

The bus was about three quarters full, mainly with students.  The seat was pretty comfortable but the first hour of the journey was marred by a group of three girls and a boy crowded around the seat in front looking at pictures on a laptop from a recent trip and screeching hysterically at every photo.  And there were about 200 bloody photos.  They were babbling away in a language I couldn’t catch, but I suspect they were Latvian.  I wished they’d sit down and shut up, and eventually they did.

There wasn’t much to see driving south through Estonia from Tallinn, with the countryside being made up of flat snowfields and patches of forest.  The only vague moment of excitement came when we crossed the border into Latvia (there was no stopping, we just whizzed past the signs), before the snowfields and forest patches resumed.  I passed the time by snoozing and watching stuff on my iPad, and the journey was comfortable enough.

I noticed as we drove through the suburbs of Riga a lot of bicycle shops.  I asked somebody about this later and was told that cycling is something Latvians have taken up with some enthusiasm only recently, but obviously few people try it in winter (although I did see a few riding through the snow).  We were dropped off at Riga’s central bus station where I hoiked my bag on my back and trudged off in the direction of my hotel, which was situated a short distance away in the old town.  Before I got to the old town I had to walk through a pretty dodgy looking area and through an underpass, which turned out to be the edge of the Russian, or Moscow, district so named because of the ethnic Russians who live and hang out there.  It probably looked worse than it was, and in any case I wasn’t hassled, and soon found myself trudging through narrow streets covered in snow looking for my hotel, passing several backpacker hostels on the way.  After consulting the iPhone’s GPS a few times I found it, and was checked in within minutes.  But I did notice that my phone’s international roaming didn’t work in Latvia, whereas it worked everywhere else.  I have no idea why.

The Hotel Centra was located smack in the middle of the old town, and this is why I chose it ahead of the Radisson Blu.  They only had suites left when I booked, but at 75 Euro per night it was within my meagre, oil-funded budget.  The hotel was a refurbished old building, and as such the rooms – or at least my rooms – had very high ceilings.  The suite consisted of a corridor, small bathroom, a gigantic living room complete with chandelier, and a reasonably sized bedroom.  I was really quite surprised by the size of the living room.

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And yes, those are white fluffy bath robes you can see on the bed.  Quite what I was supposed to do on my own in a living room that size I don’t know.  You could have used it to hold a cattle auction.  It had a four piece leather suite and large flat screen TV whose picture froze one evening and stayed like that until I checked out.  Otherwise, I lounged on the chaise longue reading my book.  The bedroom was nice but a bit cold due to the large windows, but they had provided a portable heater which I plugged in, turned up to full blast, and left that way.  The wi-fi was free and fast, but didn’t work at all in the bedroom, worked fairly well in the living room, and was perfect in the bathroom.  And whereas this was not a problem for me it being winter and street traffic very light, in summer you would get a lot of street noise coming through as the large windows offered almost no soundproofing.  Given it is located directly opposite two bars, this is worth noting for anyone looking to stay here during summer.  But otherwise, the hotel was great.

I didn’t know anyone in Riga, and nor did I have any Latvian friends putting me in touch with helpful family members, so it was down to me to explore on my own.  The snow was coming down quite heavily when I arrived, which at least brought the temperature up a bit, but I wasn’t in much of a mood for wandering around outside for hours.  I tramped around a few churches and what I took to be the town square, taking a few photos as I went, before walking past a small restaurant which advertised traditional Latvian dishes consisting of ham, potatoes, melted cheese, and other stuff all thrown together and baked or grilled or something.  And that sounded just right for me.

It turned out this was a Russian place, or at least the staff and other customers were Russian speakers.  There was an older couple in one corner in the company of a rather good looking younger woman, and in the other corner was a half-Asian chap who looked like the type of gangster you see in Sakhalin billiard clubs with another, equally good looking younger woman.  I spent a few minutes trying to decide which girl was the better looking before I caught myself, realised that nobody is as good looking as my wife, and gave up the whole exercise.  I ordered some fish soup followed by the ham, cheese, and potato mess which they talked about outside, washed down with a local beer, and it was all  very good.  I would tell you how much it was, but I honestly don’t know.  Latvians have their own currency – which is actually a “strong” one, with 1 Lat being worth 1.4 Euros – and so it was a bit like spending Monopoly money.  I am confident it was pretty cheap, though.

This was a Sunday evening and hence the old town was dead, but just walking about you could see the potential.  There were bars everywhere, punctuated with backpacker hostels every few streets, and clearly this is a destination on the backpacker circuit with the bars catering for a younger, travelling student crowd.  I had left by the weekend, but I suspect it got quite lively and in the summer months very much so.  This concentrated nightlife aimed at backpackers and foreign students was a feature of Riga which I did not see replicated in Tallinn or Vilnius.  The old town was nice, but not as quaint or picturesque as Tallinn, and there were no attempts to play on a medieval theme, but it was obvious that visitors would find more going on here.

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The next day I stood beneath one of the nearby churches in a freezing wind waiting for the walking tour of Riga, a similar affair to that which I did in Tallinn and enjoyed so much.  This time there was only one other person in the group, a Canadian student who was doing a short tour of the Baltics before going to meet a friend in Stockholm.  Our guide was a young Latvian girl, I suspect a student, who was pretty enthusiastic and helpful but lacked the charisma and wit of the Tallinn guide.  Although to be fair, the Estonian was a very difficult act to follow.  She led us out of the old town, explaining that this part can be explored in a short time without a guide, and into the Russian district from where I had walked the evening before.  The first thing we encountered were a set of enormous hangars, originally built by ze Germans for building zeppelins some time around WWI, but were now used to house an enormous Russian market.

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We were taken through the market, which was impressive in size, but to a veteran of Russia like me looked no different in form or style than the standard rinok which can be found in any Russian town: lots of small stalls selling exactly the same stuff at exactly the same price manned by fierce Russian women who could all be sisters, with babushkas running about in between wearing massive coats and barging you out of the way.  It was nice for a bit of nostalgia, but I think the Canadian found it more intriguing.

We then walked through the Russian district, past stalls selling Chinese-made Christmas tat, and into a “black market” run by Russians which sold absolutely anything from the guts of TVs to antique wooden skis, and show shovels to army surplus clothing, almost all of which was likely stolen from somewhere.  Taking photographs was discouraged.  From there we went to the Jewish memorial, built on the site of an old synagogue into which the Nazis herded a load of Riga’s Jews before setting the building on fire.  According to my guide, Riga still has a sizeable Jewish population.

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Next on the route was one of Stalin’s gothic skyscrapers of the type you see in Moscow, which was originally built to accommodate, of all things, farmers’ conferences.  However, once completed the authorities thought, probably with good reason, that farmers don’t need to talk about crop failures, unmeetable production targets, and grain confiscations in skyscrapers (an old warehouse would probably suffice) and so used the new building to house the Academy of Sciences, where it remains to this day.  Our guide told us there was a public viewing platform up near the top, but when I went back the next day I was told it was closed in winter.

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Riga is built on a river, but from what I saw doesn’t seem to make good use of it.  One side is industrial, and on the other side a main road separates the buildings from the water, meaning the streets don’t hug the river in the way say Paris or St. Petersburg does.  Perhaps there is something going on along the river in summer, but when I thought a walk down by the river would be nice in any case, I found that it wasn’t.  As a tourist, you’d barely know the river was there.  The walking tour took us around the area outside the old town, which consisted of streets much longer, wider, and straighter and buildings larger and grander than I saw in Tallinn.  That’s not to say the city is particularly impressive, but it was clear that Riga was considerable larger and enjoyed more commercial and industrial prominence than Tallinn.  I’d say it looked a bit like a small, old German city.  Not that I have been to many of them, but I drove through a few in June, and you could see that the Germans had been in Riga (prior to the Nazis) and also the Russians (prior to the Soviets).

Like Tallinn, the town did not look particularly wealthy, but nor was it run down, although some old buildings looked derelict and unkempt.  One of these was the former KGB headquarters which for obvious reasons touches a nerve with many Latvians.  Riga’s police took the building over following independence, but understandably abandoned it later on when they realised that working from a building notorious for being one in which many Latvians were tortured, deported, or killed was probably not good for public relations.  There are plans mooted to turn it into a museum, but the city’s large ethnic Russian group are opposing it (I think on grounds of cost and utility, rather than ideological).  From what I could gather, Latvia’s Russian population is larger and more integrated than in Estonia and there doesn’t seem to be the same animosity between the two groups.

Like Tallinn, there is a lot of investment from Denmark, Sweden, and Finland in Riga, but more so, and you could see plenty of businesses and logos to reflect that.  Swedish banks seem to have moved into Latvia in a big way, for example, and the shopping centres were Finnish or Swedish.  Wealthy Russians have also invested heavily in property, no doubt as a vehicle to getting their money out of Russia.  Latvia is also a recipient of EU development funds which, coupled with the inward investment from their wealthier neighbours, was probably the reason why it had an air of quiet confidence about it.  A tourist visiting Riga would find it a clean, organised, and competently run city.

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That evening I headed out into a blizzard in search of something to eat and some entertainment.  Finding nothing that looked better than where I ate the evening before, I went back to the traditional Latvian place and ordered the same ham, cheese, and potato concoction I’d previously eaten.  I have no idea whether it is traditionally Latvian or whether the chef is a student chucking leftovers together, but it was tasty and stodgy enough to ward off the effects of wandering around in a blizzard.

Afterwards I roamed the streets looking for a decent bar and stumbled into one called Leningrad, located down a narrow back street.  I plonked myself at the bar, cursing Latvians as I had done Estonians and Finns previously for their inability to provide somewhere to at least hang a damned coat, and ordered a Latvian beer.  The bar was some retro, student type place which looked as though it needed a clean, and was staffed by a bearded chap in a hat and glasses who I am pretty sure was Jewish (a theory supported by the Jewish knick-knacks on the shelves behind him).  He shoved a beer under my nose and went back to his conversation with his mate.  The bar wasn’t busy, just three or four groups, some speaking Russian and some Latvian.  Latvian was another language that was completely new to me.  It is nothing like Estonian, and similar only to Lithuanian, and therefore I was as completely lost as I was in the other countries.  But, like those places, the locals all speak English well enough that no tourist would have any difficulties.  I found that in all the Baltic states, English is by far the first foreign language of choice for the younger generation, with Russian following some way behind.  In general, if somebody is under 50, they only speak Russian if they have a Russian parent, otherwise they know only a smattering of words.

So I was sat at the end of the bar, not exactly minding my own business and open to a conversation or two, when a young guy who had been sitting at the other end in the drunken company of a very young looking hippy-ish girl passed by to go to the toilet.  When he came out, he stopped and spoke to me, asking where I was from, and the conversation started.  Early on, he asked if I spoke Russian, and I said I did, so the conversation switched briefly to Russian.  Immediately he said my accent was complete shit, which it probably is, and said that he had lived in England for a few years which is why he could speak English so well.  Which he could I suppose, but his vocabulary and accent was no better than that of any random Russian who you meet in an office in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk.  He then blurted out a series of seemingly random statements and questions, which led me to tell him that I was married.  This had an effect on him, as he immediately bawled that I was a “loser” before embarking on a story, the central theme of which was that he was somewhat of a playboy and could do what he liked but, for one reason or another, he is currently shagging his step-sister.  I rarely ask people for advice on women these days, but if ever the need arises I’ll not seek it in Latvian bars.

During the conversation, a tough looking Russian had come in wearing a big coat, bald head, and beard who was drinking tumblers of neat whisky quickly.  Somebody else had ordered the Latvian drink black balsam, a herbal liqueur which involves blackcurrant which everybody drinks but I didn’t try (I don’t know why, I just didn’t).  The Russian turned to me and started a conversation which went as follows:

Him: I don’t like them (nodding at the drinks).

Me: What?

Him: Blacks.

Me: The drink?

Him: Yes.  Blacks.

Me: Why not?

Him: A nigger cut my hand (drawing a line with his finger across his palm).

Me:  Huh?  Where, here?

Him: No, in London.

And then he went back to his whisky.  I rarely ask people for advice on race relations these days, but if ever the need arises I’ll not seek it in Latvian bars.

By this time the seat next to me had been occupied by a red-headed girl who, it turned out, spoke pretty much only Latvian and a bit of English but told me there was a decent bar around the corner where she sometimes worked.  And with that, she tootled off.  I finished my beer, uninterrupted by further instances of incestuous or racist locals, and wandered off in search of this other bar.  It was located off a small square at the back end of the old town, and didn’t look very welcoming, but I went in anyway.  The place was almost empty, save for five or six people sat at the bar, which was manned by a chap with a beard and woolly hat who looked like he belonged on a Barents Sea trawler.  It didn’t surprise me that he had Lynyrd Skynyrd playing in the background, but that suited me fine.

I took a seat at the end of the bar beside a chap who looked like a bear and needed a bath, and ordered a vodka and coke.  Everyone knew one another, and were clearly regulars.  I stood out like a sore thumb, and eventually The Bear spoke to me.  He was a nice enough chap and gave me the lowdown on the bar, Riga, and Latvia in pretty good English.  He told me that the barman was Russian, and the three of us switched to Russian at which point, I have no idea why, I talked about the difficulties of running a business in Russia.  The barman agreed with me, anyway.  There were two fellows in their late 20s stood behind me, one of whom was hopelessly drunk and was doing his level best to stand up.  And there was a couple at the other end of the bar, and in between The Bear telling me about the beautiful sand dunes along Latvia’s coast I managed to ascertain that the man had worked in Africa in telecoms, and the girl knew almost no English and even less Russian.  Before I could get to talking to the bloke about where exactly in Africa he worked, I got cornered by another chap who was actually quite nice, but was quite pissed and gave me a twenty minute sales pitch on Latvia of the sort you’d read in a brochure pumped out by the Ministry of Tourism.  All the while The Bear was giving his own competing guide to Latvia.  I lasted about two or three (or was it four?) more vodkas before escaping while everyone was outside having a cigarette (indoor smoking is banned across the Baltics), but not before I had noticed that the drunk bloke behind me had collapsed across a sofa and his mate was attempting to carry him out.

I was intending to go home at this point, thinking that a Monday night in Riga is not likely to offer much else by way of entertainment, and it was about 1o or 11pm anyway.  But as I came up to my hotel I noticed the bar opposite was pretty lively and so poked my head in, decided I’d have one in here, and plonked myself at the bar (jacket in a heap on the stool beside me).  Having found Russian works in the other bars I’d been in I ordered another vodka (or was it whisky?) in Russian, but when I asked the barmaid how much, she replied “dvadsat shestdesyat”, which means twenty-sixty.  This made no sense whatsoever, but I shovelled across a 20 note and realised that she mean 2.60.  She was young.  Looking around, the entire bar was young.  I was the oldest person in there by at least 10 years, and probably nobody in there spoke Russian at all (I later found out this was indeed the case).  After that, I pretty much gave up trying to speak Russian in Riga.

The bar was busy, the reason being that there was a karaoke night on and it was packed with students (some of whom I met in the bus station in Tallinn, where I found out they were from various parts of Europe studying in the Erasmus programme in Oslo), off-duty barmaids, and other young folk.  The singing was bloody awful, and for the large part sounded as though somebody was ironing a sack full of cats.  I grabbed the song list, had a careful look through (there were songs in Latvian, Russian, and English) but decided there was nothing in there that I’d attempt and resumed my position at the bar.  Before too long, everyone was completely pissed.  I wasn’t too bad, I can generally drink whisky (or was it vodka?) by the litre if I mix it up with coke and have a stomach full of ham, cheese, and potato something or other.  It was quite a nice atmosphere, I had a quick chat with a couple of blonde girls sat next to me who turned out to be barmaids in the same place only enjoying a night off, and chatted briefly with the barmaids who were actually on the clock.  There were no barmen, I think the owner – an Australian, I later found out – employs young pretty girls to get the male backpacker crowd in.  I was more interested in the availability of cheap Stolichnaya and the proximity to my hotel.

At some point, some chap in his 20s who was completely pissed came and stood beside me.  He asked me where I was from, and I told him, and then he proudly announced that he had spent a year working in the UK.  Oh, I said.  London?  No, Northampton.  Oh, I said.  He then told me he was working there in a Marks & Spencer factory making sandwiches.  Oh, I said.  He then asked if I had ever eaten a Marks & Spencer sandwich.  Yes, I said.  He then asked when it was, because perhaps he was the bloke who’d made it.  A long time ago, I said.  He then asked what type it was.  All sorts, I said.  He then started to list all the Marks & Spencer sandwiches he had made in his factory in Northampton.  Fucking hell, I said.   I rarely ask people for advice on making Marks & Spencer sandwiches these days, but if ever the need arises I’ll seek it in Latvian bars.

I liked Riga, but the bar conversation was proving to be hard going.

And it didn’t get any better.  Shortly after the sandwich guy had reached cheese and rocket salad on his list, a plumpish girl, who might have been Latvian but looked more Italian or Greek, stumbled into me completely hammered and asked where I was from.  Wales, I said.  She replied thusly:

“Oh wow!!!  My future husband is from Wales!!!”

Imagine.  Anyway, I asked where abouts he was from (he wasn’t in the bar).  Newport, apparently.  Possibly the biggest shithole in south Wales (and boy, there are some worthy contenders for the title), but there you go.  She then shouted stuff at me, which was her way of making conversation, doing well just to keep herself vertical, and spent the next quarter of an hour running between various groups and me telling everyone I was from Wales, stopping only to squawk out some song on the karaoke machine with a sound like a circular saw catching a nail left in a piece of timber.  But I noticed as the night wore on, her future husband got relegated to mere boyfriend and finished up as “a bloke I know”.

Meanwhile, Sandwich Man had jumped back into the conversation and after a bit of yelling at one another, he and she got into an argument about who knew the UK best, which manifested itself into them shouting random place names at each other, with me sat between them on my barstool getting sympathetic looks from the barmaid.  I quickly reversed out of my position and took up another in the far corner and tried my best to look like a potted plant or something.  I don’t know what time it was by the time the karaoke wound up, the pissheads fell into the road, and I found myself one of the last to leave (still fairly sober), but it was late.  Fortunately, my hotel was only a few yards away.  Unfortunately, some dickhead had spilled a glass of something sticky over my jacket.

I didn’t do much the next day.  In fact, I can’t remember what I did, but I’m guessing I slept in late, read my book, and wandered around the old town some more.  It was still cold and snowing.  I decided that two nights of ham, cheese, and potato thrown together in an iron skillet was enough traditional Latvian food for one trip, so found myself a pizza parlour and was served by a student who I think had had a tree fall on his head.  Afterwards I intended to go home as I had a four hour snooze on the bus the next day to prepare for, but I shoved my head in at the bar I’d been in the night before and stopped for a quick one.  There was no karaoke that night, nobody telling me about his sandwich preparation career, and nobody bellowing “Cardiff” in my ear.  In fact, I was pretty much on my own in there, but it was too early to go home.

Before I’d finished my first drink, a girl sat down a few seats along who I recognised as being one of the barmaids from the night before.  We got talking, and it turns out she is a jazz singer (confession: I didn’t know jazz featured singing) who also works part time in the bar, and had just finished a performance.  Her English was excellent by virtue of her having lived in London for a period (I didn’t ask if she made sandwiches), and despite her being 20 years old she was capable of more interesting and intelligent conversation than any of her compatriots I had met thus far.  In fact, she didn’t seem 20, she came across as few years older, and I got one hell of a shock when she told me her mother was 37.  That’s two years older than me.  I hoped I didn’t look as old as I felt.  Nevertheless, Elita – for that was her name – stuck around and it was well past midnight by the time I paid the bill and crossed the road to my hotel.  She was good company, and I was glad of it.

So, in summary.  Riga was nice, but like Tallinn it would be better visiting it in summer when I am sure it would be very lively.  But it would likely be full of backpackers and students, which might not be the scene you’d be looking for.  Latvia does have a long and supposedly interesting coastline which I think would be well worth checking out, so once again, head for the countryside after a few days in the capital.

Baltic Trip Part 3 – Tallinn

Booking the ferry between Helsinki and Tallinn is remarkably easy, and can be done online.  All you need bring with you to the check-in desk down by the harbour is your booking reference and a form of ID, and within 10 seconds you’re issued with a boarding pass.  However, the crossing is a popular one – costing 38 Euro (one way) for a foot passenger and taking only 2-3 hours – and as such there was a bit of a queue to check in and a bit of a crush to board the ship.

From what I could tell, the trip to Tallinn is popular with Finns who I can only imagine are going there to consume or buy cheap alcohol (or probably both).  Nice as though Estonia turned out to be, I find it hard to believe that approximately 2,000 Finns were all travelling to Tallinn on a Thursday morning in winter for tourism. For a start, none of them had any luggage.  This ferry looked all the world like a booze cruise, alcohol being a fraction of the price in Estonia as it is in Finland.  The ship was mobbed.

I haven’t done a lot of sea travel, and I still harboured (‘scuse the pun) romantic visions of sitting in a deck-chair watching the dolphins leap in front of the prow, whilst sailors sung jolly sea shanties as they manned the rigging.  Or at least, I thought it would be interesting and there would be stuff to see.  As it turned out, the ferry was a floating bar/restaurant/duty free shop.  There was no seating area as such, all seats were located in one of the bars or restaurants which made up an entire deck.  There was even an English pub on a lower deck.  Everyone else boarded, found a seat, and sat down to eat and drink with all the excitement they would muster if boarding a city bus.  I chucked my bag in the luggage room (surprisingly small until you realise that only you and five other passengers have any luggage) and rushed about looking for a window seat.  All of them were taken, so I parked myself at a table in the middle of the bar, disappointed.  I was at least hoping to look out of the window.

As things turned out, I wasn’t missing much.  When I did squeeze between two tables and pressed my nose against a window, I saw nothing but cold, grey sea and falling snow.  I followed the signs to an outdoor bar on the upper deck, and was quite surprised to find the door open.  I stepped out onto metal deckplate covered in an inch of ice, and thought whoever made the decision to install high railings around this area was a smart fellow.  Beyond was a sheer drop to the sea, and it was pretty frightening to look over the edge.  I shuffled along to where the bar was, thinking of how nice it would be in the summer when it was not minus something, snowing, and blowing a gale.  It really was cold.  Arriving at the seating area, I found the bar (unsurprisingly) closed and a small group of Russians sat around drinking beer and smoking.  They were probably Siberians and found sitting indoors too stifling.  I didn’t hang around long.  Satisfied that there really isn’t much to see on a ferry crossing between Helsinki and Tallinn, I went back to my table in the bar (shared with an elderly Finnish couple who spoke no English whatsoever) and made use of the free wi-fi until a lot of shuffling on the part of the other passengers told me we were getting close to docking.

The disembarkation was crowded but otherwise straightforward, and stepping into the snow outside the arrivals terminal I opted to take a taxi to my hotel rather than use the free bus, which looked as if it had adopted the same passenger management system used by Lagos public transport.  I wasn’t sure what language they spoke in Estonia – turned out it was Estonian, would you believe? – and so grunted to the taxi driver in a mixture of Russian and English.  He replied in English, which was good enough for me, and a very short while later we were pulling up outside the very nice Nordic Hotel Forum which, like all the hotels I stayed at from hereon, was far cheaper than you’d find in western Europe at 90 Euros per night.  In Paris, 90 Euros would get you a small space beside a tramp under a railway bridge, and a smelly sleeping bag would be extra.   The hotel was modern, situated right in the centre, and had a spa with sauna and swimming pool and a bar which guests could use (I did).

I was not alone in Tallinn.  My friend Julia is an Estonian citizen, ethnic Russian living in London, whose sister Alla still lives in Tallinn, and so she put us in touch in order that I had somebody to show me around.  That evening, we met in the hotel lobby and, after a brief discussion in which I said I would like to go somewhere normal and Estonian, she led me on a tour which ran into the old town, through the old town, out the other side of the old town, across some railway lines, through some industrial area, and eventually winding up at an old fish warehouse in the middle of nowhere.  Runners of the Tallinn marathon would have recognised several waypoints that we passed.  An old fish warehouse in what looks like a deserted part of town is an unlikely location for a bar, but what it lacked in location it made up for in warmth (I was freezing outside), beer, price, and atmosphere.

Tallinn 01

It was busy enough that we got the last free table, and I wasted no time in ordering a local beer and some food. The waitresses spoke English and Estonian, and I noticed the menu carried the same two languages, with Russian being excluded.  Alla, who speaks Estonian, took care of the ordering, leaving me to conclude that Estonian, like Finnish, sounds like utter gibberish to this untrained ear.  It must be a nightmare to learn.

There was some sort of corporate function or party going on an adjoining room, which consisted of traditional music, some less traditional music, gallons of alcohol, and lots of people dressed formally dancing in a big group or with people who were not their spouse.  In fact, it looked a lot like a Russian party and I was a little disappointed that I could not join in. The food arrived, some sort of soup and half a pie.  It was a lot better than the food in Helsinki, but that might be because I had been taken to the right place by a local.  The beer was also good, and I drunk plenty of it whilst Alla, who inexplicably doesn’t drink, cemented the stereotype of British tourists in the Baltics more firmly in her mind.  Declining to recreate Robert Falcon Scott’s final moments by walking back to the hotel, I insisted on a cab, which cost about 5 Euros in any case.

The next day we went to the Tallinn zoo.  I am still not too sure why we went to the zoo in the middle of winter, but it had something to do with Alla’s course (she is a student) having a module on mink breeding, or something, so she had to go and see how it was done.  And her being a good hostess she invited me along, and me being up for doing anything slightly silly in a foreign place, I accepted.  So we took the bus to the zoo, situated a little way outside the centre in one of the suburbs, and got off at a large and modern shopping centre which stood opposite.  On the way I was able to look at Tallinn in a bit more detail than the night before, it being light for a few hours.  Firstly, Tallinn is very small.  We were able to cross a good portion of it in 10-15 minutes by bus.  Even though this was a Friday morning, there was very little traffic, I am guessing due to the small population rather than a lack of cars (and drunken Finns don’t use cars).  The cars were modern, the streets were well maintained, signposted, and lit, and it looked like a small, smart, but not fabulously wealthy city.  There were few tall buildings (the tallest being a medieval church and a Soviet-era hotel), but clearly there had been a lot of investment from Finland and Sweden: most of the shopping centres, including the one we stopped at, were either Finnish or Scandinavian, as were banks, hotels, and other major businesses.  When I enquired, I found that Finland and Sweden are the largest foreign investors in Estonia (now part of the EU), which makes sense.  Also, Estonia has been on the receiving end of EU development funds, which appear to have been put to good use in making Tallinn look like a decent city.

Having taken a coffee in the shopping centre, we crossed the road (pedestrian crossings painted, little green men working and traffic lights obeyed) and met at the entrance to the zoo a gaggle of students – all female – and a male lecturer who were all dressed up for a few hours wandering around outdoors.  Fortunately I was similarly dressed, but sadly not physically prepared like these hardened Balts were.  The lecturer gathered everybody around and spoke for a while in Estonian, which no doubt included the query “Who the hell is he?”, but I couldn’t understand a word and everyone was too polite to come up, prod me, and ask me in person.  I don’t know, but I’m guessing oil and gas engineers don’t normally turn up at Tallinn zoo in winter to crash in on university classes studying mink breeding programmes.  Anyway, nobody seemed to mind me being there, and off we went.

We went past a few cages with birds in, some of which I recognised.  The Steller’s sea eagle I knew from Sakhalin, where the projects had to take great care not to disturb the peace and happiness of this bird, which was supposedly vulnerable to disruptions but was quite happy to sit on top of cranes.  There were one or two other creatures I recognised from Sakhalin, but sadly no greater drunken Scotsmen, fighting Russian welders, lesser thigh-booted vixens, or diminutive Uzbek taxi-drivers.  The birds were pretty impressive, especially the eagles and evil-looking vultures.  We then went onto the small furry animals bit, and then onto a pen with camels in, one of which had two humps and was covered in shaggy fur and from Central Asia which looked quite content, and another, larger camel with one hump which was stood in two feet of snow and looked as though it was thinking that the Sahara desert was a long way away indeed.

After a bit of walking and me getting very cold while not understanding any of what the lecturer was saying (to be fair, Alla did try to translate some of it for me), we went through a tiny door into a set of pens which I could not stand up in.  These Estonians are obviously small folk, probably due to the cold and the fact that when they order a pie, they only get half of it.  The lecturer fiddled about with some trap doors connected to each pen and came out with a mink in a small cage who was snapping and snarling as if he had just been woken up for no good reason.  I could see his point.  I wasn’t so much interested (I have a brother who kept ferrets and polecats and have seen these creatures before), but the rest of the class were and the lecturer spoke enthusiastically about how they were kept and selected for breeding.  Or I assume he was.  For all I know, he might have been advising the girls on how many they would need to make a nice coat.

Just as my body was going into a state of cryogenic suspension, we were led into a separate building which was much warmer, mainly thanks to a couple of African elephants which lived inside it and, specifically, an enormous pile of elephant dung which lay steaming in the  corner.  I got myself as close to it as I could, rubbing my hands together, and trying to not to breath in too often.  In this building we also saw snakes, pygmy hippos, and an armadillo which the zookeeper took from his cage and somehow managed to drop.  It’s a good job these things come in Kevlar.  We were also shown cockroaches which were merely larger versions of those which run about my apartment in Lagos (and which I spray mercilessly with insecticide, although I kept this to myself).  All in all it was quite a nice zoo, although most of the exhibits were not in their cages, presumably tucked away somewhere for the winter (or lying frozen under three feet of snow).  Towards the end, the lecturer came to speak to me (his English was excellent) and I mentioned that, on certain measures, I live in Thailand.  This aroused his attention and he said he was going there on a working holiday soon, and asked if I could recommend any nature reserve worth visiting.  I looked at him blankly.  I know almost nothing about Thailand, let alone the country’s nature reserves.  Now if he’d told me he was going to get pissed in Phuket and wanted to know where to watch the NRL on a Saturday afternoon, or where to find a good pool table where you’re not hassled by hookers, or where you can find a naked tattooed Thai woman to whack you with a length of rubber hose, I could have told him (Suzy Wong’s at the end of Soi Sea Dragon, for those interested in that last one).  But nature reserves?  I was stumped.  I felt like a complete Neanderthal, although I redeemed myself somewhat by managing to talk fairly intelligently about Africa and Guns, Germs, and Steel.  I liked this guy.  I often admire somebody who is passionate and well informed about a subject, even if I don’t take much interest in it myself.  And apparently he rides about on a Harley Davidson in the summer time.  Shortly after leaving the elephant house, I abandoned the zoo in favour of going back to the hotel and jumping in the spa, where I finally got warm again.

The next day I arrived outside the main tourist information centre just before noon to partake in the Tallinn walking tour, which is a free tour of the city conducted by a local volunteer (the same concept can be found in cities everywhere apparently, but this was the first one I had taken part in).  Needless to say it was absolutely freezing, but nevertheless 25 people had turned up for it.  Our guide was an Estonian girl who was very charismatic, highly entertaining, and I think a little mad.   In her bright, sing-song voice she gave us some insight into Tallinn, Estonia, and the life therein, often in the form of very informal anecdotes and snippets of information.  She used a wonderful, self-disparaging humour, which focused a lot on the number of attempts Estonia has had at being (and remaining) independent and the trivial issues which arise in matters of local politics and the dealings with their neighbours.  Apparently, the other Balts consider the Estonians to be “slow” (which, incidentally, is how the residents of St. Petersburg see the Finns), and so she asked a Lithuanian in the group to tell an Estonian joke, who in turn piped up: “Who is that standing there?  An Estonian running!”  She told us the story of the public toilet which had been installed at a cost of several million kronas (Estonia now uses the Euro) to the city treasury (the toilet is here), and pointed to the tower that traditionally flies the flag of whomever is running the country that particular week.  She told us that the Christmas tree in the Tallinn town square is the oldest (in terms of tradition) in the world, but that Riga made the same claim about theirs.  The matter was resolved when Tallinn took credit for having the first town  square Christmas tree, whilst it was conceded that Riga can claim they have the first decorated town square Christmas tree.  Such weighty matters concern the citizens of the Baltic states!

The city of Tallinn is nice, with its principal attraction being the “old town”, the medieval centre with its old buildings and town square featuring the aforementioned Christmas tree and, like Helsinki, a Christmas market selling, among other things, knitted woollen garments of every description.

Tallinn 07Tallinn 08Tallinn 05Tallinn 09
Tallinn 06Tallinn 03

The town was orginally German, having been set up and run by German knights, or something like that.  I did read the history but got mixed up in the history of the other Baltic states, and various invasions from Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Russia, and anyone else who fancied taking a pop.  But the Germans were definitely there, and this can be seen in the architecture which has a distinctly Germanic feel to it.  There was also a beer hall right in the middle of the old town.

Tallinn 04

Tallinn plays on the old medieval theme quite a bit, more so than Riga for example.  There were people dressed in medieval rig, town criers, peasant women selling stuff from a barrow, and even a bloke running an archery range near the city walls.  As I said before, the city is not large and the old town is very small.  The walking tour took under 2 hours, although we did hurry it along a bit to prevent anyone from freezing to death.  And despite the numbing cold, I did take a few photos on the way.  Tallinn is very picturesque, more so than the other Baltic capitals.

Tallinn 13 Tallinn 12 Tallinn 11 Tallinn 10 Tallinn 02One of the things our guide mentioned was the prevalence of free wi-fi in Estonia.  Almost every bar or restaurant had free wi-fi, and the same was true for a lot of public spaces and the bus station.  Free wi-fi is a fundamental human right in Estonia, and this was pretty much the case in Riga and Vilnius as well.  And the Estonians have gone some way to making their country paperless, with tax returns and university applications, for example, being done entirely online.  Our guide told us that she was most surprised when she went to study in France and found that pieces of paper, complete with stamps and signatures, were required to do anything.  I found that I could book my bus ticket to Riga online and not even bother to print out a ticket: just show the confirmation email on your phone to the driver.  There are things the rest of Europe could learn from the Baltic states, and this was one of them.

It was inevitable that I would notice that the Estonians’ attitude towards the ethnic Russians – and the Russian Federation – was hostile.  There were very, very few signs, notices, menus, or anything else in Russian, and Cyrillic lettering was conspicuous by its absence.  The teaching of Russian in schools is being phased out, if it hasn’t been already, and the Estonians seem bent on eradicating every aspect of Russia and its culture from its society.  Which is obviously a problem when a quarter of the population are ethnic Russians.

This is an issue on which I am completely torn, probably more so than on any other subject.  Firstly, I can see the Estonian’s point of view.  By some accounts, the Soviets – who I equate with the Russians and reject the notion that Russians are absolved of responsibility of the actions of the USSR – killed or deported a third of the Estonian population from 1940 onwards.  The Estonians were effectively colonised by a foreign superpower, which ironically was at the time running about the world denouncing colonialism and imperialism, cheered on by supposed “anti-imperialists” in the west.  Estonians were stripped of their status as an independent nation, forced to adopt Russian as their primary language, drafted into the Soviet Army, and hundreds of thousands of ethnic Russians were transplanted onto Estonian soil, all on the orders of a government in Moscow.  Given that this happened within living memory, a mere 70 years ago, it is hardly a surprise that the Estonians, now that they have regained control of their country, want the Russians out and their imposed culture with it.  Russians no more belong in Estonia than the British belonged in Rhodesia.

But.  And this is an important “but”.  What happened, happened.  Regardless of anything, Estonia now has a Russian population for whom Estonia is home and cannot be expected to “go back” to Russia, a country which is not theirs either.  Those individual Russians who now find themselves living in Estonia are – mostly – in no way to blame for what happened.  Of course, those who formed part of the ruling elite, lording it over the Estonians and enthusiastically carrying out Moscow’s wishes to the detriment of the Estonian population should be hounded out, if any have been silly enough to stick around.  But the ordinary Russians, the factory workers, teachers, engineers, doctors, etc. and their families are human beings who cannot and should not be punished for what their countrymen did, regardless of how bad it was or how recently it occurred.  Their human rights should be respected, and isolating them in a country where the only language they know is being eradicated as a matter of government policy is wrong.  Now I am quite happy for the Estonian government to tell the Russian government where to get off at every opportunity, and indeed I think they should be demanding reparations (I’ll return to this topic when I write about Lithuania).  But the ethnic Russians in Estonia should be treated as full citizens, even to the extent of ensuring their cultural heritage – however repugnant it may seem to Estonians – is preserved.  It is not their fault, any more than it is the fault of black Americans that their ancestors were sent over in slave ships.  However, if the ethnic Russians form a political party and agitate for closer cooperation with Russia, possibly to the detriment of Estonians?  Well, I don’t know.  It’s a difficult one.

And really, I am split on this.  The Estonians have a strong point, but the ethnic Russians are being clobbered unfairly.  The Russians are in a similar situation to the French who found themselves in the newly independent Algeria, foreigners in the only land they’d ever known which, until a few years before, was considered by almost everybody to be as part of France as Brittany.  The moral of the story is clear: do not ship your population off to colonies where they will be despised in the event of independence, unless you can be sure you can hang onto the place. And there’s the issue.  Who would have thought in 1983 that 25 years later Estonians would be hounding the Russians out?  I wonder how many of Beijing’s leadership believe it credible that Tibetans will one day be hounding out the transplanted Chinese from their territory?  Very few I’d imagine, but history shows that the boot can shift to the other foot very quickly indeed.  And for the folly of the politicians it is the individuals, often ordinary folk, who bear the consequences.  I really hope the Estonians and ethnic Russians can find a way to get along somehow, and the more extreme elements on each side are marginalised.

On my last night I went for a wander through the old town looking for a decent bar.  It was quiet for a Saturday night, but Tallinn isn’t really a party town.  I stumbled across a joint opposite the main tourist office which had a couple of guys setting up guitars in a bay window, so I went in and sat down.  It turned out to be a Russian bar – everyone in there was speaking Russian, pretty much – and two student types were giving a very amateur performance to what looked to be a group of their mates, which eventually degenerated into a jam session.  Nevertheless, it was pretty entertaining, and my only disappointment was that they didn’t play any Russian songs.  By the time they finished, one or two of their fans were absolutely hammered, including a young chap who was having serious difficulty standing up.  He embarked on a loud and abusive argument with his more sober girlfriend, who utterly failed to get him to behave, giving up and walking off, and then he decided it would be a good idea to join a table occupied by two middle-aged Finnish couples and engage them in drunken babble.  The Finns were not impressed, but Russian men take some discouraging when they have decided it is you who will be target of their drunken outpourings.  One of the Finnish men stood up and looked as though he was going to plant the Russian right in the face, but the Russian was fortunate enough to have a mate along with him who dragged him outside and threw him in the snow.  Such a scene in a Russian bar was as familiar to me as an old pair of gloves.

I liked Tallinn, and I would like to thank Alla for showing me around, answering questions, and listening to my opinions on the somewhat uncomfortable topic of ethnic Russians in Estonia without whacking me over the head with a bottle (although she did suggest I should perhaps be left in the ape enclosure of Tallinn zoo, albeit for different reasons).  I don’t believe it is a city where you’d want to spend a lot of time on holiday, a few days is sufficient, after which it would probably be worth going to explore the coastal regions.  But for a weekend break it is great, and I’m sure I’ll come back before too long.  But in summer.  For the love of God, only go in summer.  Tallinn is freezing in winter.