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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Am I Really, Truly Here?

We loaded into the car Saturday morning to drive to Haapsalu, just about a two-hour trip from my friends' house. On our way in, we stopped at a small museum dedicated to Swedes who lived in Estonia. The centerpiece of the exhibit is an embroidered wall hanging that depicts the important events in Swedish/Estonian history. The whole place was homespun and charming, and our host was enthusiastic to show us around.

Somewhere along the way, I mentioned that Nancy Bush was going to be in Haapsalu. (The Internets told me so.) I told my friends that she was a knitting author who was primarily responsible for bringing Estonian knitting, specifically Haapsalu lace knitting, to the attention of American knitters. She was, I explained, a bit of a knitting celebrity. Despite our best efforts (and to my friend Stig's great disappointment), we did not manage to find Nancy on Saturday. (I suppose this entry could have well been titled "Confessions of a Knitting Stalker," though stalker has such negative implications. As it is, my mother has accused me of stalking a certain male rock star, to which I reply, "It's not stalking if I pay him to see him.")

Vendor Selling Smoked Fowl
The White Lady Days or White Lady Festival is an annual event named for the town's most famous legend. In short, it is a tragic tale of boy meets girl, boy sneaks girl into the cathedral dressed as a choirboy, boy and girl successfully manage said deception for a couple of years, then boy and girl are put to hideous, painful deaths upon discovery of their misdeeds. Girl then shows up as an apparition in the cathedral window during August's full moon. (There is even a lace pattern depicting her in the window.) There are craft and food vendors, singers and dancers, a large-scale outdoor pageant that begins at 10:30pm, bands, and the like. I will admit that I did have a hard time wrapping my American brain around the notion that people were buying and eating all manner of meats, cheeses, and fish that was sitting about unrefrigerated and open to the elements. I did not see anyone dropping dead in the streets, however, so it must have been fine. (While most things were smoked, it was still pretty warm out, and it did give me pause before tasting any samples. Clearly, I survived.) My friends took me to the most charming cafe in an art gallery on the main street. This place was so delicious, so delightful, that after we had lunch, we returned a few hours later for...CAKE! And, after my friends departed for home, I went back a third time, where I was greeted as a regular customer and treated to...FREE CAKE!!! (I ended up eating there one additional time before leaving town. Fortunately, my friends gave me a gift of the cafe owner's cookbook, which I am madly, passionately in love with. It is so charming and features two of the best things I are while I was there. In fact this was her second book, and I located her first book through a Russian bookseller, and it should be making its way to me soon.)

A Charming Building. A Former or Current Bakery, Perhaps?

Haapsalu is a delightful seaside town. The likening isn't quite right, but it shares certain characteristics with New Orleans. There are lovely frame buildings with charming details, but many are in disrepair. There is that essence of decadent decay that I quite love. The streets twist and turn, and the cobblestones threaten to reach up and trip you. Each time you walk the same street, something else beckons your attention. I quickly fell in love with the place.

This building reminds me of Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop in NOLA.
A lot of attention and capital has been dedicated to the promenade along the sea, and it is stunning. The walkways are lovely, and the views are magnificent. Apparently, in winter, this very shallow part of the Baltic freezes, and you can drive across from Haapsalu to a neighboring island.
The gem of the promenade is the Kuursall. This building, with the nearby band shell, and its lacy, gingerbread trim was the perfect backdrop the the Haapsalu Lace Day on Sunday.
I would be cheating you if I didn't give the Lace Day its own entry. There are pictures of lace, and ladies who make lace, and contests for making lace that deserve to be highlighted. My apologies for stringing you along. but the day was so full of "pinch me" moments that you deserve to see as much of them as I can fit in here.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Leaving Helsinki

Day 2, Helsinki: After the concert, I made it back to my hotel thrilled to have been at what was instantaneously a legendary show and a bit sad that I knew I'd be leaving town the next day. I'd gotten just the tiniest taste of Helsinki, and I really enjoyed what I saw, even through my jet-lagged haze. I would love to return.

In the morning, I decided to muscle my bags on the tram to get to the ferry terminal. What I didn't know was that the tram stop is some distance from the terminal, is in the middle of a construction wasteland with lots of barricades, rubble and gravel, but no signage.  You would think that I would be able to see the water and ships in the distance, but the nondescript buildings on the horizon blocked any view that might have been had. I finally reached the proper place covered in dust and somewhat worse for wear. Thank goodness for my compulsion for being early, because it left room for the wandering, and the ferry left six minutes prior to the published departure time. If you ever go to Helsinki and plan a ferry ride to Tallinn, spring for a cab. I certainly will next time.

A couple of glasses of wine on the trip over helped soothe my jangled nerves, and when I arrived in Tallinn and was met by my friend, I was relaxed and ready to go.

My time in Estonia began with what would become a familiar refrain: "Would  you like to go have cake?" Cake was a catch-all phrase for dessert and having it was a frequent activity. Desserts in Estonia are lavish in appearance, but are a bit lighter than what we're used to. Cheese-based cakes (cream cheese, ricotta, farmer's cheese) are prevalent, but are lightened with gelatin. I saw not one cupcake anywhere, whereas we can't seem to escape them. I also learned that decaf isn't an option, and so I just ordered a plain old cappuccino, not my normal double tall, non-fat, decaf cappuccino. This is a change I have maintained. It's so much less fussy. 

We went to a rooftop cafe at the Radisson which gave me a great view of the city. After that, he drove me all around, giving me a "greatest hits" tour: the Song Festival grounds, the Presidential Palace, the historic area full of wooden houses that are being renovated by ambitious homeowners, old Soviet housing, fascinating woodland cemeteries, the television tower that played a large role in the country's move toward independence, around the Old Town, and then out to the golf course where they live. Everyone should have friends who live in such a magnificent setting. Sitting on a deck in Estonia with a view of the Baltic knitting lace is the way to go, trust me.

On Thursday, we (my friend, his girlfriend, and I) toured the Old Town together, stopping in several museums (adorable, tiny ones consisting of one room, art museums, and, most charmingly, the puppet theater museum, which was very, very sweet.) We ate lunch in the square, at a restaurants that specializes in modernized Estonian cuisine. We climbed up to Toompea, the high part of the upper city. We stopped in at the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. We walked and walked up and down twisty, uneven streets until I was  completely turned around. Fortunately, I would have three days on my own the following week to redi reorient myself and redisccover, which was good, because I was already intrigued and charmed by the place.

On Friday, I was given a choice: go for a hike or go eat cake. Um, cake please. We went to Kadriorg Park, to a charming cafe. Kadriorg was built and named for Peter-the-Great's wife, and is a beautiful part of the city. It was a great couple hours spent with me asking a hundred questions about Estonian life, and my friends inquiring about current events and life in the States. (My friend was a foreign exchange student at my high school, and has travelled extensively in the US (even living here for a time after), and he shares my interest in politics, so there was much to talk about. And shake our heads about. And commiserate over.)

We went to the Kumu, the large art museum. The building is interesting, and I did enjoy some of the collections, especially the room full of busts. After another day in the city, we headed back to relax at the house before going out to eat at a casual seaside restaurant. It was lovely--the air smelled briny and crisp--and the simple grilled fish I had was delicious. I loved the cucumbers they have in Estonia. They're small, nearly seedless, and have dark, bumpy skins. They were so very, very tasty, and I wish I knew what the variety was. One of the appetizers we had was pickles with sour cream and honey. Odd, and yet so good. I also tried herring in various forms, and confirmed that I am just not a fan. I don't think I was in a single restaurant that didn't have multiple preparations of it on the menu.

Seaside Cafe

 The next day, I was planning to say goodbye to my friends and take the bus to Haapsalu, but they decided they wanted to take me there and spend the day, which was a bonus. In Haapsalu, things were about to get yarny...

Monday, August 20, 2012


Sometimes circumstances align in ways too perfect to seem random. After two years of trying to arrange a trip to Estonia with false starts, cancelled workshops, and the like, things came together in such a remarkable way that it was clear that this was how it was supposed to be.

First off, I found out a few years ago that a high school friend who had grown up in Sweden now lived in Tallinn, Estonia. He was surprised when I told him how interested I was in the culture, specifically the history of knitting, of his adopted country. An invitation to visit was extended. I set about trying to find a knitting tour or gathering to base my trip around. I thought I had found a group of Irish knitters who were going to be going, but that fell apart. Then I found an Estonian pair (one of whom, coincidentally, was a friend of my friend) who were putting together a workshop.Then that disintegrated, delaying my trip for at least a year. When the Springsteen Wrecking Ball tour was scheduled, I decided that I really wanted to cross seeing Bruce play in Europe off my bucket list, and I could tie that to a trip to Estonia. I tried for tickets to the shows in Gothenburg, Sweden but got shut out. When tickets went on sale for the last European show in Helsinki (a short ferry ride from Tallinn), I went for that. The tickets I got were not good seats, but I had them. I was going. I cleared the dates with my friend, and then discovered another knitting workshop that would be starting the day after the concert and would include a trip to Haapsalu. Perfect. Beyond perfect. Then that got cancelled. Undaunted, I decided I was going anyway. The ability to combine my loves for Springsteen and could I not?

I took this trip alone. It raised a few eyebrows when I told people that's what I was going to be doing. I'm quite comfortable traveling by myself, and while going abroad to two countries I had never been to before, and whose languages I did not speak (save six recently learned words of Estonian), might have been somewhat intimidating, I was excited to face the challenges that Finnish trams and Estonian menus might present. (I should add that this was my first trip to Europe, so my choice of destinations was a little unconventional, I suppose.) And, I was going to visit with my friend for part of the trip, so I did have someone in the region should things get crazy.

I left Chicago at 3:30pm on July 29, landing in Helsinki at 8:30am on the 30th. I took a bus into the city, checked in at my hotel, had a shower to wake myself up (despite an Ambien, I hadn't slept on the plane), hopped a tram to the market square, and less than four hours after wheels down, I had Finnish wool in my mitts. I spent the day just wandering around in a bit of a jet-lagged haze. Something you should know about Helsinki: street names are on teeny, tiny little signs on corner buildings, and are in both Finnish and Swedish. Streets seem to change names at every turn, and there are a lot of curved streets. The map I had was not consistent in its use of either the Swedish or Finnish, and with my addled brain, I got a bit lost. Getting lost afforded me the opportunity to see some interesting streets and architecture that I wouldn't have otherwise, and I eventually got myself to a place where I could find a tram back to the hotel. At dinner, I had an incredibly delicious alcoholic Finnish blueberry cider. Yum. I retired to my room to watch the Olympics in Finnish. (It was fascinating to watch it when the focus isn't constantly on American athletes and teams, and the coverage isn't all wildly overproduced and interspersed with heart-tugging stories of personal triumph.)
On Tuesday, I had only two items on the itinerary: eat at Wellamo, a restaurant I had found on line and whose sign was too charming to pass on, and see the concert. I took the tram to the central area of the city and walked over to the neighborhood where Wellamo was supposed to be. The address put it in the middle of the block, but it was nowhere to be found. After asking someone, they directed me to a steep set of stairs at the end of the block. I descended. It was clear from the waiter's reaction that he was not used to American tourists finding the place, and certainly not on their first day open after a month's vacation. Despite the adorableness of their sign and the great reviews, it was just okay, and it turned out to be one of the few disappointments of the trip. I later went to the market building which was brimming with food stalls that had far more interesting options. Oh, welll, next time, and there WILL be a next time. I did a bit more wandering and shopping (I happened upon two yarn shops yards from one another, and more hand dyed yarn was procured), andwas walking toward another shopping area when I stumbled on a large group of people waiting in front of the Hotel Kamp, the poshest hotel in town. Judging from the number of familiar t shirts, I knew that I had come upon the faithful: those hoping for a glimpse of Bruce. When you travel alone, with no real schedule or firm agenda, you can do whatever you please, so I waited, too. I ended up next to a member of the Finnish press, and we chatted a bit. She shared snippets of stories from other times she waited to get celebrity shots, and I identified band members for her as they came out to their cars to head to the venue. After all the other band members' cars left (a production that takes the planning of a military operation, it seems), Bruce eventually came out of the hotel. He graciously signed autographs and shook hands around the entire line, which had grown to several hundred people. Somehow I had managed to stay at the front in a really great location, and was able to get a couple of fabulous snaps. After he got in his car to head out, the photographer showed me some of her best shots, one of which was in the paper the next morning.

The concert was, in all respects, amazing, and lived up to every expectation. There have always been tales of four-hour shows, but they were never actually true. Never, that is, until that night in Helsinki. After doing a 35 minute acoustic set for the general admission crowd (some of which I heard from outside), he and the band did a 4 hour 6 minute show: no breaks, no phoning it in. And, there was a full moon over the stage once the sun finally set. I couldn't have asked for a better night.  

Please note: Blogger is being evil about spacing and photo placement. Sorry for any weirdness that may result. Weirdness of content is solely mine.
(to be continued)