The Problem of Modernity (or, what I don’t like about the Louvre)

One reason — but by no means the only reason — why I travel is to see what the world has to offer. Museums would seem, at a glance, to be ideal places for this. After all, many, many people have already spent an awful amount of time, effort, and money to go out and find cool stuff, and then brought all that cool stuff back into a convenient location. Sometimes this works beautifully.

And sometimes it doesn’t. The Louvre is a case in point. It’s a frustrating place.

l1

THE LOUVRE

There are other tourist destinations I’ve been horribly disappointed with and for the same reasons (it’s the crowds), but with an art museum, it’s more pathetic. When the art inside is of enormous cultural significance, or was explicitly created to spur contemplation, it’s far worse still. (When there’s an important historical context involved — the Anne Frank House comes to mind —  it’s about as bad as it gets).

This is a simplification, but in short, the reason the museum exists is to make you think, and you can’t think when a billion people are stumbling around, gawking, pointing, farting, posing for cliched photographs, or scheming to pick your pocket.

THE LOUVRE!

THE LOUVRE!

Here we have a problem. The stuff in these museums is generally important; the world needs to see things of beauty, things of historic and cultural value. It just doesn’t need to see them this way.

If one thinks of a museum as a torchbearer of civilization, as a didactic institution with a mission to enlighten, educate, and elevate society, then the Louvre is, on balance, largely a failure. If one thinks of it as a business whose mission is to collect revenue, it’s a smashing success.

Thousands upon thousands shell out their €12 every day to file in through the doors and stand cheek-by-jowl as they are herded from one damn thing they don’t understand to another. Large gangs are led about on prepackaged tours, where the guides — some gamely, some resignedly — try to explain this or that to their charges, but they rarely get through. How could they? The tourists are more interested in taking a picture of themselves in front of a famous work of art, the children are bored and fidgety, the noise level is at a constant roar. Many tour operators, even if they had good intentions in the first place, have just given up and shuttle their customers to what are euphemistically called ‘the highlights’, then it’s off to the cafe for a €10 croissant.

THE LOUVRE!!

THE LOUVRE!!

I’m sorry, but it bothers me that in this day and age thousands of people daily pay for the privilege of slugging it out gladiator-style to get a front-and-center photograph of the Mona Lisa. This is idiotic for several reasons. For starters, the Mona Lisa has been photographed endlessly; there isn’t a single hamlet in the deepest rainforest where the image isn’t available. There is no need to take a picture of the damned thing. None.

And it’s a silly, mediocre throwaway portrait. Not only is it not Da Vinci’s best, it’s not his best by a long shot, and it’s not all that great in general. It’s technically competent, yes, but so are 10,000 other unassuming portraits in the same damn collection. Everyone goes to see the Mona Lisa because they’re told to go see the Mona Lisa, and when they go to the Louvre, they’re buying a product and they expect to get what they paid for, and goddamnit, they’re gonna push their way to the front and click the shutter.

Some artwork is best seen in the flesh, so to speak — the Louvre has some colossal Davides, some outsized Caravaggios, the winged Nike — but a bland, muted portrait the size of an album cover just doesn’t need to be. But the relentless ka-ching of the cash register means the masses will continue to file past for the conceivable future.

It doesn’t have to be this way, does it? Could we not collectively put our heads together and come up with a better way to present such work to the public?  Is this really the best we can do?

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The sequel was good but I like the original more

Before I get started, it has been brought to my attention that I have been remiss in failing to previously mention the invaluable work performed by Travel Buddy in navigating the highways, byways, and snickleways of Britain. Rest assured such oversights will not occur again; those responsible have been sacked. Now, on with the show.

So, Old York. The city so nice they had to make it twice. Don’t forget to tip your waitresses and I’ll be here all week, folks.

In all seriousness though, from time to time in your travels you come across a place where you think “I could live here. I really could.” York is such a place. Its a college town nowadays, with a tidy, compact city core, tons of pubs and eateries, and that wonderful, pop-in-for-a-pint-mate northern vibe. It’s fantastic — though it hasn’t always been.

Its roughly 200,000 residents live atop roughly a billion years of history, and not just boring old we-found-some-pottery-and-arrowheads history either — serious wars have been fought here, kings (some you’ve heard of!) have connived and schemed here, plagues ravaged, Vikings plundered, Scots rampaged, and… actually now that I think about it, this place is pretty dangerous, statistically speaking.

First settled by mesolithic people about 8000-7000 BCE, the stone-age inhabitants were kicked out by Celts, who in turn were booted by Romans, later to be supplanted by Angles, then Saxons, then Normans, then tourists. It’s been rough at times.

But here’s the thing. You can’t dig more than a few feet in York before finding something old, and presumably of interest to someone. York is such a rich archaeological site that the authorities — quite literally — don’t know what to do with it all, so some of it is just left hanging around outside. There’s warehouses of artifacts that haven’t been examined yet, but the stuff that seems sturdy is left outdoors, like these roman coffins.

roman-coffins

though they did remove the corpses.

That one wall in the above photo encapsulates a fair amount of what you’re dealing with in York. The small, precise stonework at the bottom of the wall is Roman. The larger stones on top were added in the middle ages by the Anglo-Saxons, in a vain attempt to keep out the Vikings.

The Roman name “Eboracum” was turned into “Eoforwic” by the Saxons, and perhaps this is what upset the Vikings, but no one knows. All we know for sure is that they were mighty cross when the stormed the place, and started calling it Jorvik, which is altogether more pleasing, but after William the Conqueror rolled in, he had to — in the fashion of conquerors — change the name yet again, this time to Yerk. Thankfully vowels have shifted since then.

Anyway, eventually a huge abbey was located here, along with a hospital and — not making this up — a rehab center for drunks. The abbey became tremendously rich, and thus a target for Henry VIII. But rather than send his army to destroy the abbey, he simply gave the townspeople carte blanche to tear it down, and use the stones to build new houses. This is all that’s left.

dfwh8

don’t mess with Henry. Seriously, don’t.

So, the townspeople of Ye Olde England tore down the abbey, and built a batshit-crazy pile of leaning shanties and goofy lanes. It was a fair trade, I guess. Anyway, some of these medieval lanes still exist, like the famous Shambles (named after the old Danish word for ‘butcher’s shop’, since this is where the butchers were).

just imagine this full of dead animal parts.

just imagine this full of dead animal parts.

You can spend hours wandering around — indeed you probably will, since the street layout is baffling and the pubs are numerous. But then you’ll turn a corner and find such a spectacularly goofy street name you’ll need photographic evidence:

whip-ma-whop-ma-gate

 

There’s a lot going on here, so let’s take things one at a time. Yes, the name of the street is “Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate”. Yes, the address is 1 1/2 Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate. Because England, that’s why.

Some locals swear that the street name is derived from an old law allowing men to legally beat their wives on that street, but like all stories too good to be true, it is false. The town’s stocks and posts used to be nearby, though, so perhaps that’s a more accurate explanation. But there’s no written record, and in York, that’s mighty suspicious, because they have written records for damn near everything else.

Anyway, I could go on for days about this place. I haven’t even mentioned the unique-in-the-world preserved medieval city walls, or the astounding museums, or the markets, or the night walks, or the immense norman York Minster. I just don’t have time or space here. Suffice it to say that York deserves not just one visit, but several.

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Notes on driving in Britain

thecar

our mighty steed

The UK has some of the world’s safest roads. The locals like to say they’ve got the safest roads in Europe. Apparently they don’t consider Norway and Finland to be part of Europe, which have lower death rates per 100,000 population.

How you measure road safety determines who comes out on top, and who comes out on bottom. India, for instance, has far and away the most absolute road deaths at 105,275 per year (as of 2009 by the World Health Organization’s reporting), followed by China (96,611), the USA (42,642) and Russia (35,972). The USA and Russia still have relatively safe roads, though, given their populations. But India and China are just plain bad no matter how you slice it.

Anyway, where was I? Oh, yes, Britain. Right. The statistics show the UK to be very safe to drive in. I suppose this is because most everyone here is lost and driving at about 15 mph looking for a spot to turn around. In vain, I might add. The problem with driving in the UK is most emphatically NOT driving on the left, steering from the right, shifting with your left hand, or even the roundabouts. These are all easily mastered in about 10 minutes. No, the real problems stem from:

  1. Signage. The UK is of two minds when it comes to road signs. The first, and most prevalent, can be summed up neatly with the phrase “too little, too late”. I thought the Danes were bad with their street signs, but Hamlet has nothing on The Bard in this regard. The Brits are positively fiendish in the clever cloaking of the few signs they do bother to put up, and they like to position them about 1-2 meters in front of the roads they point to (on the highways). In town I couldn’t tell you because I so rarely saw them. Alternatively, the second British mind kicks in at odd intervals and presents you with a massive sensory barrage of willfully obtuse and complicated signage, a dense, intimidating, and impenetrable fog of circles and arrows and meaningless route numbers and parentheticals and color-coded text. When you encounter one of these barrages, you’ll know it, and you’ll rue the day you were born.
  2. The road system. Heaven forfend a road run in a straight line for more than two miles. I understand it’s a dead letter ripping up the cities from their centuries-old street “plans”, but the highways and byways are just as medieval, and just as crazy, because the speeds are so much higher. Actually now that I think about it this may be a factor in why the roads are safe here: you’re constantly (and I do mean constantly) engaged in merging, checking the route, navigating roundabouts, and switching lanes. So much so that there is no time to fall asleep, check your phone, or even get complacent. Keeps you on your toes.
  3. The roads themselves. They’re just inconceivably narrow, and there is no place to pull over or turn around in the entire country. Trust me on this one, I just checked.
  4. Britons. Or, rather, some of them. Many natives are polite, cautious drivers. Some, however, are addle-pated pensioners with nary a clue of the mayhem they leave in their wake, and others still are simply mental. Even in L.A. I’ve never experienced such tailgating. Oh, and the ponderously slow, heavy farm equipment which is, unbelievably, let onto major highways, causing massive backups.

    no really, this happens all the tme

    no really, this happens all the time

Anyhoo, we navigated our trusty little 1.2 liter Vauxhall Corsa (AKA “the gutless wonder”) from Heathrow to Salisbury, to Bath, Dorset, Avebury, the Cotswolds, Leicester (motto: “UK’s most enervating roads!”) and finally up to York. Along the way we saw a gorgeous little country, sparkling and green and friendly. We saw stone-age monuments from our car windows, found a jousting tournament, and never did figure out how to get the radio to work or the rear wiper to stop.

It was a blast.

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Wot’s in a name, eh?

First, the travelogue. Left Bath this morning and headed for Avebury, where a massive neolithic henge sits. The locals have collectively shrugged their shoulders over the years at the stone-age wonder in their midst and went and built a village right through it. Hey, the sheep have to graze somewhere.

avebury

Then, off to the Cotswolds. The aforementioned sheep made towns like Chipping Campden rich in the 14th and 15th centuries. After that they entered into a graceful decline. Kind of like me.

cc1

What’s been on my mind today is accents and speech patterns. Most British accents are very easy on the ears. From the clipped, clear RP of BBC announcers, to the slow hum of Somerset and Dorset, to the lilt of Wiltshire, the accents share a mellifluous, pleasing quality. Any woman working behind a counter or bar is incapable of saying “hello” — instead, you get this rising “hi-ya” that is so endearing you can’t stand it. It’s adorable, and I’m not being sarcastic.

When an American busts into the room, you know it. American accents are known the world over for their grating, or at the least forcefully demanding, character, but what’s really got my goat today are the Canadians.

Dear Canada: I love you dearly, but I have to set you straight. You may think you don’t sound like us, with the “aboots” and “ehs”, but I’m here to tell you that the minor vowel shifts don’t constitute an appreciable change. I can also tell you that you are, if anything, even louder than USAsians, and your habit of bedecking yourselves in maple leaves and Canadian flags cuts no ice either.

This bothers me, because every last Canadian I’ve ever encountered abroad seems obsessed with not seeming like they’re from the US, and this is pointless. The people who will judge you unfavorably based on where you’re from won’t care that you’re from America’s hat and not America, and everyone else won’t give two shits in any case. All the flags, Canadian shirts, and maple leaves just makes you look desperate. Your costuming won’t get you better treatment, because you’re focusing on the wrong things. Vowels and sartorial concerns aside, you’re indistinguishable from the stereotypical American. You’re still way too loud in restaurants, you complain to the skies about the slow pace of service, and you walk four abreast on narrow sidewalks. Just relax. You’re not fooling anyone, nor do you need to.

Categories: cunning linguistics, travel | 3 Comments

An Addendum to Mr. Cranky Pants’ Post

Hi,

Travel Buddy here. I don’t understand why Horace Farbuckle was just a poo-butt on his last post. But I’m here to add a little positivity to the blog. Yes, Bath is not London or Paris, so he really shouldn’t compare the cities. The Roman Baths were really interesting, and I am really lucky to have been able to see them.

Dirty Romans bathed here.

Dirty Romans bathed here.

And I got to taste some of the healing water. It smelled worse than it tasted. Horace and I agree that it tasted like warm water out of the tap. I don’t understand the big deal.

Yum!

Yum!

As a horticulturalist I love this city. It has won the Britain in Bloom competition so many times, it is no longer allowed to enter. What I find interesting is how many plants I learned in my classes are planted in yards here. But it makes sense. The British are the ones that got us all into ornamental horticulture. As it is, the city is covered with hanging flower baskets.

pretty flowers

These types of hanging baskets are all over the city.

And, of course, it has an abbey. We didn’t go in. How many churches can one person see in their life?

Yes, another church.

Yes, another church.

So there.  It wasn’t all bad 🙂

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Taking a bath in Bath

For the impatient: Bath is fascinating, for fifteen minutes. After sixteen minutes, it’s as dull as a wet weekend in Wigan. Which is not to say it’s unpleasant. It’s just crashingly dull once you’ve seen seen the Roman Baths and toured the old city.

Representative moment: On the (very fine and informative) walking tour, while our group was navigating a busy sidewalk, a local woman saw fit to comment to no one and everyone how much she hated the fucking tourists. Having lived in tourist towns myself, I could halfway understand the sentiment, but I’d only venture such opinions in my callow twenties. This was a full-grown woman, so I told her to fuck off.

I mean, really. Listen, lady: either (1) you’ve left town and gone somewhere in which case you’ve been a tourist at least once in your life or (2) you’ve never left town, in which case you’re a parochial, cosseted moron. You tell me. In any case, if you don’t like living in a tourist town, leave. Bath has been a tourist town since the 1730s, so it’s not like this is all a sudden development.

Actually, Bath has a rather sordid past, once you scratch past the paper-thin gilded surface of Jane Austen’s insufferably proper novels. Bath’s éminence gallant and dandy-about-town Beau Nash (who did more than any other single person to re-establish Bath as a destination) didn’t pull a salary from his official position as Bath’s Master of Ceremonies: all of his considerable income was derived from raking off the top of the numerous gambling (and according to some, prostitution) establishments.

So far, so good: a town with a seedy past is halfway into my heart.  Too bad nothing of the modern city comes to mind so much as Dorothy Parker’s riff on Oakland: “There’s no ‘there’ there”. Modern Bath has been thoroughly scrubbed and sanitized of the criminally creative. There is a handful of crazy people, though.

America has no monopoly on assholes.

America has no monopoly on assholes.

Anyway, where was I? Oh, right. I don’t want to sound like I’m slagging the place — I’m not — I’m just feeling a bit… underwhelmed. I suppose that’s to be expected in a place with such a past — the present just can’t live up. Well, it does in a place like London, or Paris, or Berlin, but those are major world capitals. So it’s unfair to hold Bath to such a standard but for some reason I’m feeling uncharitable and I think that pinch-faced, snooty local had something to do with it. That and the cost. There’s no bargains here. And everyone is under the delusion it’s acceptable to bring dogs and children into pubs. Actually, now that I think about it, this place sucks.

Wait, I’m being irrational. I should be praising the town to the skies, just to get every last person on Earth to come here and get in Miss Pant’s way. Come to it, maybe that’s what’s been motivating everyone who’s talked this place up over the years. So come to Bath. Bring your dogs. And kids.

In all seriousness, though, The Garrick’s Head pub is a fine establishment, with good food and an impressive collection of real ales and ciders on draft. So do give them a visit.

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Back in Blighty

Ah, Britain. Funhouse mirror of the world, an alternate universe where everything is so familiar and yet ever so slightly skewed. Time to see it in some depth.

what the hell i don't even what

what the hell i don’t even what

It’s a good thing I know how to drive a stick, since automatics are hard to come by. Shifting with my left hand took me all of five minutes to get used to and by now feels completely natural, as does driving on the left. It’s not as big an adventure as I’d have thought.

someone has to put an end to this

Though not everything is as it should be. Someone has to put an end to this.

Anyway, we drove around a lot on our first day, and eventually came upon this odd pile of rocks. It was so unusual, it seemed worth photographing:

buncharocks

It appears to some kind of henge… made of stone.

Then we were off to Dorset (which means, incidentally, “inescapable trap of doom” in Olde English) for a fun ramble through what the locals laughingly call ‘roads’. On our search for the Cerne Abbas Giant, we blew past Thomas Hardy’s house, or something (I’ll explain the problems with signage some other time) and found towns with names like Piddletrenthide, Droop, and Folly. Not making those up. More towns in the area are called Straightoutta Compton, Belch, and Melting Slagheap. Okay I made those up.

Much more to come…

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From Ono to Oh, No

The Hawaiian word Ono literally means “delicious” but like most useful words, it has many other, related meanings. Oh, dat sweet Chari girl, she so ono, yeh brah?

Anyway, when referring to restaurants, ono means more than “the food is good”. It means it’s worth going there for a variety of reasons. In Hawaii, even a place with mediocre food and ‘meh’ service can still rate an ono designation simply because the drinks are knockout strong, or the view is fantastic, or the gimmick is endearing, or whatever.

Sometimes, you get lucky, and find a place that has several ono attributes. We found one such place in Lulu’s, a small chain whose Waikiki location has an excellent view right across the street from the beach, a tasty (albeit limited) menu, fantastic service, and good prices. The staff at Lulu’s introduced us to an off-menu libation — the “Adam’s Apple” — a mix of half apple cider and half Sam Adams Boston Ale. (They really need to put that one on the menu.)  Or there’s Nashville, a silly little joint smack in the Waikiki madness that prides itself on being Honolulu’s only shitkicker bar. I liked it; if only because it’s a dank, incongruous little hole-in-the-wall defiantly flipping the bird at the Louis Vitton set that clogs the sidewalk outside.

Ah, but this is Waikiki, and places like Lulu’s and Nashville are vastly outnumbered by establishments that are less ono and more oh, no. I present to you the best of Jimmy Buffet’s joint:

yikesYeah.  It’s a margarita that tasted like toilet cleaner.  But it comes in a novelty, take-home cup shaped like a blender!  And it was only $16, so quit complaining.

I did a little digging on Mr. Buffet, and it turns out he’s quite the astute businessman. Americans love a winner, so from that criteria, we should be holding parades in his honor monthly. His net worth, from his music, record labels, restaurant chains, publications, movie studio holdings, and various investments, is routinely estimated at upwards of $400 million. He certainly spent a good chunk on his Waikiki flagship, with a crazy coral-reef interior, three bars, giant video screens showing costal scenes, and the like, but coming from the man who made a living searching for his lost shaker of salt, an undrinkable margarita is just pathetic. Come on, Jimmy — it’s the one thing I was there for. I’m not anyone’s idea of a foodie — I can overlook the bland chicken wings and the hot, limp caesar salad, but the hacks you hired to man your blenders cranked out this… this thing. And I could have sworn I ordered a regular, and not a virgin, margarita, but if there was booze in that it was doled out with an eyedropper. I had great margaritas in an astoundingly eclectic eatery in Sofia, Bulgaria once. If a Bulgarian-Mexican restaurant with fried egg-covered pizza on the menu can produce a drinkable margarita and you can’t… well, you’re just not trying.

 

 

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The Sky’s the Limit

As it turns out, I’m not the only, nor indeed the first, person to think it ironic that something called the “Pacific” ocean would be home to some of the bloodiest and hardest-going battles of the Second World War. I had the great fortune to meet and spend time with a man who thought much the same — seven decades ago — as a young naval air crewman hopping from atoll to atoll, chasing Tojo back to Tokyo.

chick-n-me

His name is Chick — simply Chick — and he served in the Pacific during the war. Now, he’s a docent at the excellent Pacific Aviation Museum, part of the Pearl Harbor Memorial Sites. He’s full of stories and good information: take, for instance, the plane we’re standing in front of.  That plane — that particular plane, not a replica, not one of its type — crashed into Lake Michigan in the 1940s during a training exercise, where it sat for over fifty years. The waters of the lake were so cold that the plane was remarkably preserved when someone finally hauled it back up to the surface. There was still air in the tires. Come some restoration work, and the thing still flies (in fact, it’s logged over 300 hours in the air since it was recovered, original engine and all). They don’t make ’em like that anymore, and sadly, they don’t make enough like Chick anymore either.

There’s two hangers full of military aircraft at the museum, and in front of one of them, two original 40mm anti-aircraft batteries sit, awaiting restoration. “I’ll tell you, those made one hell of a racket”, Chick recalled, pointing at the forty-mil guns. “First time I heard those go off, I didn’t know whether to shit or go blind. So I guess I did both.”

Also at the museum is a fully restored Japanese Zero:

restored-zero

And the rusted remains of one that was shot down and crash-landed on the island of Ni’ihau:

20130402_100323

This is a good story, and bears repeating. During the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese pilot Shigenori Nishikaichi had a problem. Mainly, his Zero had a bunch of holes in it that it hadn’t had when he’d taken off earlier in the morning. These holes made his plane to difficult to fly, so he crashed it in a field on the tiny island of Ni’ihau. There, Nishikaichi managed to secure the cooperation of a handful of Japanese immigrants along with some small arms. He then took some local Hawaiians hostage to await rescue by the Japanese Navy.

This didn’t sit well with Ben Kanahele, a native of the island and all-around badass. Kanahele decided to put an end to Nishikaichi’s tomfoolery after Nishikaichi and one of his confederates took Kanahele’s wife Ella as a hostage. Kanahele “picked up the pilot and threw him against a wall,” but the dazed Nishikaichi was still able to get off three shots, all of which struck Kanahele. And we’re not talking “grazing” here, Kanahele was shot in the crotch, for crying out loud. This, apparently, only served to piss him off (and Ella, too) as the enraged Ben started to smash Nishikaichi’s head with a rock, while Ella cut his throat with a knife.

Ben eventually died, only a few years ago, after living for a long time in well-deserved peace.

BUT WAIT THERE’S MORE

Because that’s not my favorite story from the time. That distinction goes to the rarely-told tale of one Roy Vitousek, a lawyer and amateur pilot, and his son Martin. I first heard this story years ago and could scarcely believe it, but here it is: One fine morning they decided to rent a Aeronca 65TC, registration number NC33768, and buzz about Oahu, as was their wont. Only this morning was December 7th, 1941 and the planes that greeted them in the skies were not Roy’s buddies in the US military but Nishikaichi and his pals. The Japanese proceeded to put several holes in Vitousek’s rental, probably invalidating any insurance Vitousek had on the plane, and definitely sending it crashing to the ground. Vitousek pere et fils then crawled from the wreckage and hid in some bushes until the attack was over, not yet realizing that they had become the first Americans engaged by the Japanese in WWII. “Sorry I was late for breakfast, honey”, Roy had to tell his wife later. “But we were attacked by the frickin’ Japanese Navy“. Or something to that effect. Oh yeah, the museum has that plucky little Aeronca 65TC, fully restored:

20130402_095324

Several long stories short: this place is fantastic for WWII and/or aviation buffs. And even if you’re not either, give it a go. And if you run into Chick, shake his hand and thank him, for just being what he is.

Categories: how conventional, World War Tourist | 1 Comment

Estonia

The world is so small

Had one of the best tour guides you could ask for — Andrei, a young Estonian national who knows his country, and loves it, and wants to show it to visitors. We cut a triangular path through the nation, from the capital, Tallinn, to the main university town, Tartu, to the Russian border at Narva, and back to Tallinn. Along the way, we met Estonians, Russians, students, farmers, boutique museum operators, Swedes and Finns. We saw bucolic countryside, medieval castles still defiantly facing their age-old rivals, and the leftover detritus of decades of Soviet occupation. We saw a young and vibrant nation, facing problems to be sure, but facing them with confidence, energy, and hope. Nothing drives this home better than Tallinn’s Museum of the Occupation, which has placed the busts and statues of prominent communists down in the basement, exhorting the entrance to the toilets.

We also saw Europe’s finest, most extensive, and best-preserved medieval city: Tallinn’s Old Town.

Naturally, there’s a healthy dose of tourist tat here, absolutely to be expected in a city with such a picturesque setting and decades of pent-up entrepreneurial spirit. Students hang around the main square, dressed as executioners, milkmaids, jesters, and any other cinematic tropes, trying to push fliers for restaurants and bars into your hands. Endless stalls of suveniirid vendors hawk amber (from Lithuania), matryoshka dolls (from Russia) or “handmade sweaters” (origin unknown, maybe China). Buskers, jugglers, and magicians line the streets. Intimidatingly tall Russian and Ukrainian girls stand around the entrances to the “gentleman’s clubs” and “massage parlors” that openly advertise “soap-erotic massage” and the like, subtly beckoning (subtly, because while prostitution in legal in Estonia, pimping is not, and hence they need to be careful not to proposition clients too aggressively).

It fits with the old town’s heritage, really. Up the hill is the old center of government, where the powers-that-were ruled over Estonia through the centuries, but the lower town was a Hanseatic league freetown, lovingly embracing commerce and wheeling-dealing, while thumbing its nose at the deacons up above. For the better part of eight hundred years it was thus, and in the context of this history, the German and Soviet occupations were just a brief interregnum.  Things are basically back to normal here; take that for what you will.

The world is too big

I’ve been to a few former Soviet countries, and in all of them, I have found elderly people out on the streets, selling whatever goods they have to offer for a few lev, euro, or koruna. Here in Tallinn’s old town, they’re selling blueberries and cloudberries and red currants (these are bursting from every vine in the parks and forests, free for the picking). Call me a softie, but nothing breaks my heart quite like the quiet dignity of these old people, just doing what they can to get by.

I have no difficulty in declining the buskers and ticket touts. I walk through the cool of the evening, dodging the stag and hen night crowds, muttering ei aitäh to the kids handing out fliers for the strip clubs, but I avoid looking too closely at the the two old women with plastic cups full of berries. I have five euro I don’t need in my pocket and I want to give it to them. I want to think it will help them out in some way, but I don’t want it to be true that five euro will make a difference to anyone. This is Europe, I tell myself, the land of universal health care and social safety nets; I don’t give panhandlers in Berlin a nickel, why is this any different? But then I see an old man two benches down, and I remember that Estonia, with all its virtues, is no Sweden; it is not a welfare state. This man could be chronically hungry, it could be he needs my money. But who am I to know? The old folks smile as I pass. Are those calculated smiles? Are they performers, just like the buskers and Ukrainian girls?

I don’t know, and I realize I don’t have the capacity to even find out. The world has suddenly become too big for me to take in. I move on, leaving them in the night’s chill to whatever awaits them. It is time. Time to go home.

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