The Baltic Beckons
Your gate closes in 10 minutes
It was a cold morning in Seattle. I was on the edge of another adventure, going further perhaps than I’d yet traveled. I’d spent that morning wondering what food would be available in Estonia. Would people know English? How would it feel being so close to the Russian border? What would happen to the Datawarehouse retirement project in my absence?
The Alaska Airlines flight sat idle at its gate, waiting to be de-iced.
I knew the airlines always built in a buffer, expecting flights to be delayed in some way, but I was unsure how extensive that buffer was. Expedia suggested an hour and a half layover at O’Hare. Surely that would be enough time.
As we remained unmoving, I wondered if that would be the case. The pilot remained upbeat and positive. “Sorry for the delay folks, we’ll be on our way shortly.”
Fifteen minutes became thirty. Thirty became forty-five. I began to obsess. What if missed my flight from Chicago to Stockholm? I could feel my stress levels spiking. Calm down, I told myself. I’m in no control here. If the flight is missed, the airline will have to get me on the next one.
I didn’t feel relaxed. I was too far back in the plane to exit quickly once we arrived at O’Hare.
The plane began to move towards the runway. There was a line of aircraft in front of us waiting to take off. I tapped anxiously on the windowsill. Then we were on our way.
I tried not to look, neurotically, at the time. I knew there wasn’t much. But would it be enough?
We arrived in Chicago and spent the next fifteen minutes taxi-ing to the gate. I turned to the couple next to me and said I had a flight to catch to Sweden and believed I was almost out of time. Would they let me by so I could get to the front of this plane as quickly as possible? They did and I raced ahead, getting as far as I could as others stared daggers at me.
Then the ritual. People stood slowly, stretching, looking for their luggage in the overhead. Some muttered that it wasn’t a race. Maybe it was.
I was off the plane. Where was I? I’d never been to O’Hare before and looked for information about departing flights. None of them mentioned mine. I did a quick search on my phone. My flight was in terminal 5.
I ran towards the exits, unsure of where to go. There was a cop near the doors who jovially told me I needed to catch that shuttle outside to get to the international terminal. I ran to the shuttle and boarded just as the doors closed. I checked the time, anxiously. The Stockholm flight left in 20 minutes.
I had no idea terminal 5 was so far away. The bus progressed along what must have been a 10 minute drive. When we arrived, I ran into the building, jogging up to the SAS counter with 10 minutes to go before the flight departed. After confirming I was checked in, they in turn told me to run for security.
I tried to sprint ahead to security. Two people were walking ahead of me, slowly, talking about their weekend plans. Channeling my inner OJ Simpson, I said: “sorry guys, I need to get by” and proceeded to jump over a small piece of luggage they were wheeling along.
My adrenaline levels were making me jittery. I got to security and in my anxiety, promptly forgot everything I should know. I walked too far forward. TSA told me to move back and stand behind the line. Luckily I was the only person there and the TSA agent was tolerant, if not amused. My situation, and the related anxiety, was clear. I was very late for my flight. As I gathered my belongings one of the TSA guards yelled, asking if there was anyone headed to Stockholm.
I yelled back that I was. An SAS representative appeared and told me to run – the gate was just around the corner. No time to put my shoes or belt back on, or put my camera away. I grabbed everything in a loose bundle and ran to the gate, one hand on my pants, trying to hold them up, as I partially collapsed, partially slid up to the counter.
At that moment I felt like I was back in high school, having done something foolish, funny and embarrassing in front of beautiful girls who would never otherwise talk to me. The women at the SAS counter broke into laughter. One of them said: you have time to put your shoes on, don’t worry. I did so and boarded the aircraft minutes before its scheduled departure.
I was on my way to Sweden.
I feel like I win when I lose
But my luggage was not.
I didn’t know that till later.
In the meantime, when offered what seemed like half a bottle of wine, I gratefully accepted and drifted off, finally watching Endgame and losing myself and the hours in onboard movies.
The SAS Plus section was half empty and I got two seats to myself.
The hours drifted by, with no sense of rush, as we soared over the Atlantic. After the earlier anxiety, I was at peace.
I had a sneaking suspicion, though. If I had to both run and take a shuttle, and even then just barely make my flight, was it likely my luggage would?
We landed in Sweden. I walked over to the luggage carousel and waited. I wasn’t entirely surprised - my luggage wasn’t there.
Hoping my taxi outside was still waiting, I found the SAS counter, thankfully empty. I walked up and tried to get someone’s attention. They pointed to a machine I had earlier missed and a sign hanging overhead saying “take a ticket”. I took one and my number immediately flashed over the counter. I walked back up to the counter and described the problem.
With a smile, the woman behind the counter said there was good and bad news. The bad news was that my luggage was not in Sweden. While I had miraculously made the flight, my luggage had not. The good news was that it was chasing me, not far behind, and had just arrived in Copenhagen. They promised to have the luggage delivered to my hotel in the next day. In the meantime, I was handed a bag with a toothbrush, toothpaste and a hairbrush, left the airport and walked into Sweden for the first time.
The taxi driver, thankfully, was still waiting and drove me to the hotel. The hotel wouldn’t let me check in early since the room wasn’t ready. They suggested returning at noon. Under the shadow of jet lag, I walked around the nearby old town. The air was wintry and biting.
I wasn’t sure what to expect of Stockholm. It was certainly clean and efficient.
Even while standing alongside a car-free street, pedestrians were reluctant to cross without the walk sign illuminated. It was orderly.
To that end, in some way, Stockholm seemed to lack something. People were nice, but not particularly friendly.
It’s interesting to note that some of my very favorite bands are from Sweden. Opeth, Soundtrack of Our Lives, Candlemass, Amon Amarth, In Flames and countless others. Maybe it’s the need to rebel against this efficiency and standardization that drives the music. I can only say that, for as much as I like other parts of Scandinavia, I could not easily say the same for Stockholm.
Sweden was by no means bad, but Estonia saved the trip.
Five Dollar Shake
Vincent: And you know what they call a... a... a Quarter Pounder with Cheese in Paris?
Jules: They don't call it a Quarter Pounder with cheese?
Vincent: No man, they got the metric system. They wouldn't know what a Quarter Pounder is.
Jules: Then what do they call it?
Vincent: They call it a Royale with cheese.
Jules: A Royale with cheese. What do they call a Big Mac?
Vincent: Well, a Big Mac's a Big Mac, but they call it le Big-Mac.
Jules: Le Big-Mac. Ha ha ha ha. What do they call a Whopper?
Vincent: I dunno, I didn't go into Burger King.
I, on the other hand, did. It was my first day in Stockholm and I needed quick calories, something simple and without thought. As some of you will remember from earlier adventures, I had found a Burger King in rural Norway once before and had happily ordered from a computerized kiosk in Norwegian, drowning myself in a double whopper while attempting to clear the unwelcome taste of the pickled cod or fermented shark from the prior day (the exact nature of the fish still unknown).
As I walked into the Burger King in old town Stockholm, I expected the same ease. Even though chains cater to local appetites, some things remain the same. Sure, while burgers in Mendoza Argentina seemed to contain meat from actual cattle, unlike McDonald’s back home, it was still somewhat expected. The Burger King was packed with tourists. I walked up to a kiosk and placed an order. Things were different. Why did all the burgers say “truffle” next to them? What did that mean? I wasn’t sure and waited patiently for my food.
Finding a seat at a communal table, and very hungry, I eagerly took a bite. What was this? Where was the expected ketchup and mayonnaise? Was this a whopper? It tasted unexpectedly cheesey, with an even more unexpected crunch. A crunch? I lifted the bun and peered inside. It didn’t look like as expected. I wiped the top of the burger off and continued to eat, though dissatisfied.
My first stop was to the ABBA museum.
There isn’t much to say, really, except that it’s impossible to not have a goofy grin there, and carry that forward to the street afterwards. While it’s now nearly impossible to hear songs like Waterloo and Dancing Queen again, being overwhelmed for an hour was worth it.
My next stop was to the nearby Vasa museum. The Vasa was a Swedish warship built in the 1620s to great fanfare. It would be a symbol of Sweden’s naval might. After sailing several thousand feet, it promptly tipped over, sinking in the harbor and taking 1-2 dozen lives with it. In the 1950s, the ship was discovered in the harbor and has since been recovered, placed almost in full in the museum.
Finally I dropped into the Viking museum. I’m unsure about the accuracy of the history presented there. At times it seemed to differ from things I’d seen in Norway or the Danish National Museum. On the other hand maybe it was necessary for one museum to focus on the militarized aspect of the culture rather than trying to downplay it. Working at the museum was someone who looked very much like a Viking – perhaps almost 7 feet tall, with a long beard. In a growling Swedish voice he said: “You’re from Seattle. You know the Seahawks and Vikings are playing later. I’d wish you luck, but as you can imagine, I root for the Vikings.”
But wait, it wasn’t all museums, right? That’s true. I took the canal ride around the harbor, seeing the city “national” park, and the high end apartments where Bjorn Borg and the songwriter from Roxette both live.
The boat, rather than having someone actively point out landmarks, provided headsets at each seat. Put that on, choose a relevant language, and a recorded voice remarked on sites we were passing. That house at the edge of the park? That was purchased by someone in ABBA. That building? That’s the national museum. It was, in truth, a bit stilted and I don’t think I was the only one who wanted to take the headset off and just look out the window.
The ride was useful in one way, as on a later day, I walked through the city park, enjoying the quiet and solitude on my way to the technology museum. While the technology museum is clearly geared towards kids, much as the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, it had the best robotics exhibit I'd ever seen.
In search of somewhere to get out of the cold, I ended up at a California-esque bar next to old town called Miss Behave. The burgers were good and appropriately named “California”. The beer was local and was quite good too. I half expected cast members from Pulp Fiction to appear.
Sitting at the bar, I noticed a number of, what appeared to be, milk shakes being made. There was clearly alcohol being added as well. I asked the bartender what they were and he responded: “five dollar shakes”.
And on that note, we’ll wrap up this section with a quote from John Travolta:
“That's a pretty fucking good milkshake. I don't know if it's worth five dollars but it's pretty fucking good.”
Getting there is half the fun
The highlight of the Swedish part of the trip, excluding ABBA, was no doubt the taxi ride back to the airport.
I was picked up by a 70-something taxi driver who proceeded to tell me he had been retired, but missed engaging with people and most of all, meeting people from other parts of the world. He took up taxi driving as a retirement job for the social aspect and much like Seattleites, complains about the weather. “By the time February rolls around, we dream of vacations in the Mediterranean and suicide.”
What he particularly wanted to do was meet Americans. Why? As he put it: the Swedish would be speaking German now if it wasn’t for us. He thanked me for my service. I explained that there hasn’t been a draft since the Vietnam War and that was before my time. He apologized, then said: that’s ok, I thank you anyway.
In some respects, it was like talking to my grandfather. The trip to the airport took thirty minutes and when he dropped me off, he very genuinely said he wished the trip wasn’t over yet, so we could keep talking. I felt similarly. If that thirty minute trip had taken sixty, I’d have been ok with that. He mentioned how he liked the brash vocalness of Americans. I admitted that I consider myself an introvert, but compared to other countries, it’s possible even I’m brash and outspoken. As it was, I couldn’t stop talking for the duration of the trip.
We discussed politics quite a bit. He said he doesn’t like how other countries are comfortable speaking poorly of Trump, especially since he was an elected president and it’s not like many countries around the world – Sweden included – haven’t moved right, themselves, recently. How can they judge before looking in the mirror? Explaining that while he, himself, is not a Trump fan, he didn’t feel qualified to give critical feedback. He said he’d recently driven a couple from Tennessee who were major Trump supporters as was a businessman from Texas.
I mentioned that the U.S. is many countries in one and that while we’re usually going in the same direction, we often disagree how to get there. And sometimes we’re not aligned at all. I described how Eastern Washington dislikes Seattle because of the perceived, and possibly real, elitism, wealth, and the notion of excessive government and socialism. I described Seattle like Stockholm. Of course the steel workers in Pennsylvania or the farmers a couple hours east detest us. By comparison, we have money and we believe that we know what’s best for everyone. Sometimes we do, but that we assume we’re always right is a problem.
He hadn’t visualized the U.S. in those terms before – the idea of a small number of coastal cities with a great deal of power and a large part of the population, and a larger part of the country but with less population feeling taken advantage of. He said he calls his kids and grandkids every July 4th to remind them of Independence Day and think well of Americans. Some people don’t want our help and sometimes we get in trouble for offering. But when there’s trouble, who will countries like Sweden contact? As he mused: they won’t reach out to Russia. What would Russia do? No, they’d contact us.
As I walked towards the terminal he added that I should return to Sweden in the summer for a road-trip and see more interesting parts of the country.
This is an important segue to the Eastern European half of the trip to be told in subsequent chapters. What I learned in Estonia is that the continental members of the EU have lost faith in our administration and are beginning to court Moscow. To a certain extent, that lead to the Russian-Ukrainian negotiations in Paris recently. That’s a shift many Americans don’t see and the timing was unfortunate as it occurred roughly the same week as England’s Brexit vote. It would be difficult for English of any age, no matter how liberal, to see France and Germany cozying up to Putin, and subsequently vote to remain in the EU.
This is Agent Johnson. No, the other one.
John McClane: “Come out to the coast, we’ll get together, have a few laughs.”
Die Hard is without a doubt on of those formative movies in my life and easily for me the greatest Christmas movie ever.
As I waited in the Arlanda airport, to fly from Stockholm to Tallinn, I noticed somebody that looked oddly familiar. There was a very distinct New York accent and a guide, a minder of sorts, was providing information about Sweden.
As I looked again, it dawned on me. Sure enough, it was Agent Johnson.
I had been struggling with Sweden. While I hate to say I dislike any place, I had been counting down, nearly every day, until I could leave - hoping that the Estonia half of the trip would transition into a real adventure. That made this an auspicious beginning.
We boarded the plane. He was in the row in front of me and struggling to find overhead storage for his luggage. There was nothing but a coat in one section. A passenger behind me was politely asked if his coat could be placed on top. The answer, almost shockingly, was no.
I decided to bring solutions. I said if he’d hand me my camera bag, I’d place that beneath my seat and free up space in the overhead for his luggage. Of course, the phrase “camera bag” can’t ever be welcome to any actor, but he handed the bag down and asked “American?” appraisingly. Yep, I was another American on the flight.
As he sat down the guy behind me, who had refused to move his coat, tapped me on the shoulder and asked me: “is he an actor?” I replied: “yeah, Die Hard.”
Agent Johnson clearly wanted to interact with people, but most weren’t playing along. I may be considered, relatively, to be an outspoken American, but no amount of brashness on my part can reach those levels. He looked at the stewardess and said: “this is the land of Vikings, big people, why don’t they build seats for normal sized asses?”
She proceeded to go into the safety procedures, which began with buckling safety belts. She replied: “I can get you an extender if you need one.”
This was clearly the kind of interaction he was looking for, but no one else was playing along. The flight was 45 minutes – barely enough time to get comfortable before landing again. Clearly shifting into what he probably considered “cool uncle” mode, he peered out the window, then looked at me. “What is that down there? Clouds or water?”
I doubt he even cared about the answer, it was just conversation. Even still I confirmed they were clouds, but between gaps in the clouds was the water of the Baltic Sea. “Baltic Sea, eh?” That appeared to be sufficient conversation for this flight.
Arriving in Tallinn felt like both a step forward and backward in time.
In some ways, it’s a city in three parts. There’s the old town with its candy-colored baroque buildings from centuries past, encircled by the remnants of an old wall. Surrounding old town, there’s a modern city propelled by a high tech industry. The modern city, in some ways, would be indistinguishable from cities like Seattle and London. There was barely a hint of surprise while walking by gleaming taquerias or Brewdog pubs.
Further on the outskirts, towards the Baltic Sea, were reminders of the Soviet days – most notably the Patarei prison and the remainders of old administrative buildings.
As Schliemann discovered when digging for lost Troy, Tallinn also had layers.
Landing on a cold afternoon as dusk descended, I was driven to the hotel by a Russian taxi driver. In somewhat broken English, he asked about my plans for the stay. I told him I’d allotted five days in Estonia, which I appreciated was likely too much, though I had a day trip to Helsinki planned that Monday.
He agreed that five days was excessive in Tallinn but was equally critical of Helsinki. He described it, rightly or wrongly, as a grey, overpriced city of ugly buildings, a throwback to the Soviet days.
“It’s not worth going to Helsinki,” he said. “Every tourist I’ve spoken to says it’s a waste of a day trip. Finnish people come here for long weekends because it’s cheaper. They arrive by ferry on Friday evening, then start drinking. The goal is to black out later that night. They wake up the next morning and try a bit of alcohol. If it sits well, they start drinking again, sometimes at breakfast. Maybe they switch from vodka to wine at some point for the diversity. Families pass out, together.”
That wasn’t quite my plan for this trip and the more he spoke, the less interesting a day trip to Finland sounded. If I was going to Finland, it was either to hear music or journey into the cold forests up north. Neither would be possible with such limited time. Instead he suggested renting a car.
“You’ll have no problem renting a cheap car. It’s better than taking flights, buses or trains. Since you’ve got five days, drive to Riga. It’s about five hours away. Stay overnight, then drive back.”
That really did sound like a good plan and if it was summer, not December, that might have been exactly what I’d do. As it was, days were short. The sun, if there was noticeable sun, typically appeared around 10am and began diminishing towards dusk as early as 2:30pm. It was hard to imagine catching a 7am ferry to Helsinki and returning at 10:30pm. It was equally difficult to imagine driving so many hours to neighboring Latvia with so little light.
I would say, though, that if I could have planned the trip over again, I’d almost certainly have bypassed Sweden. Instead, I’d have invested the full two weeks in the Baltic States, renting a car and visiting all three of the capitals – Tallinn, Riga, and Vilnius. In the absence of that time, I was reluctant to spend so much energy traveling.
I’d already been on the road, at that point, for seven days. The preference was to slow down and dig, again like Schliemann, into Estonia.
At the risk of repeating myself, I found the Swedish nice but distant and cold. By comparison, I found the Estonians deeply sarcastic – a trait I highly value – and beyond that layer of sarcasm, genuine friendliness. In some ways, I’d compare Estonians to a less vocal version of New Yorkers. After living for centuries between the uncertain aims of both Germany and Russia, a bit of Estonian wariness was expected.
I walked into the old town hotel – Three Sisters – tired from the road. Approaching the counter, groggy as I often am after traveling, I said I had a reservation. The woman behind the desk looked up and responded: “of course you do, otherwise you wouldn’t be here” and simply held out her hand waiting for my passport.
After days of people being nice, this was refreshing. On the day I left, my ride was due to arrive prior to breakfast being served. Without being prompted, the front desk asked the cook if I could eat early. After the hotel in Sweden didn’t bother to call my room and leave a message when my missing luggage had arrived, this behavior made me exceedingly happy.
Plus Three Sisters put me into a suite. After the bandbox in Stockholm, this was truly a suite. The living room alone might have been bigger than the one in my condo. It was clearly designed by a feminine vision of what a French farm might look like and while it was a bit too feminine for my taste, it was still welcome.
There was an odd door, to the side, leading to somewhere unknown. I wondered if it was a secret passageway descending to a smoky basement where members of the French resistance listened to coded radio messages, waiting for news of D-Day. I almost expected to hear an English voice solemnly drifting up the staircase: “my heart is drowned/in the slow sound/languorous and long”.
Intrigued by what Estonian television might show, I flipped channels. A third were broadcasts from Russia and nearly always showed Putin. Another third were from the EU and frequently showed Trump. The remainder constituted an odd mix. I found a German station that played a variety of Hollywood-esque shows. Not understanding the language wasn’t an impediment. I rapidly found myself becoming a fan of a completely unrealistic cop show called “Cobra”. Think of a German police station populated solely by models as they make the autobahn safe for drivers everywhere, regularly dealing with crime lords, explosions, trips to Istanbul to beat up corrupt Turkish officials, and just generally violate random laws. In a word, it was great.
The intent, of course, was not to watch German pulp tv. As the first morning dawned, murky and cloudy, I ventured into the city.
In these blogs, I repeatedly say I dislike planning. This trip was no different. With the map folded and completely unusable in my pocket, I went off in search of local food. I’m not particularly adventurous in that regard. In fact, it could be said anything more edgy than burgers and macaroni and cheese would be considered over the line.
In the grey light, I walked along aimlessly, finding myself under an old and crumbling portion of the city walls. Thankfully there were no Starbucks in the old town. Near this section of wall, there was a warm and inviting place called Reval Café. I ducked inside, hearing a mix of languages I didn’t recognize and couldn’t speak. This is always the first moment, that moment of paralysis, on the road in a country where English is not the first language. That sense of intimidation and sometimes fear about what to do.
Then I saw the pastries at the counter. My stomach was without doubt and lead the way. I walked up and asked for a croissant. But that wasn’t enough. I was hungry and felt like I hadn’t eaten in a day. There were other, unrecognizable, foods nearby. They all looked good. What could possibly go wrong with a pastry? I pointed. The girl behind the counter said, “you want the (unrecognizable word)?” Sure. I had no idea what it was. My stomach was still calling the shots.
I sat at a table, sipping my hot chocolate, and began with the croissant. That was easy. I knew what it was. Then I moved onto the (unrecognizable word) and took a bite. Cabbage! Ok, that was almost certainly not what I expected. Even more unexpected was that I liked it. There are limits to my open-mindedness. Very narrow limits. I found that in sections where the cabbage was sparse, I was happy to keep eating and enjoyed it. Where there was too much cabbage, though, I had to fight the urge to gag. Smaller bites. The (unrecognizable word) was finished. I was proud. I had eaten a local food and now could move onto what I really wanted – fish and chips in local Irish pubs.
The light outside, while still grey, was brightening. Leaving the warmth of the café and venturing into the mist, I followed the curve of the wall up a hill.
While repeating that I had no plans, the truth is that I wanted one of the famed pictures looking down from the walls.
The path I followed lead up a low hill, approaching the top of the walls. Searching through the mist, I discovered all the doorways were locked and the walls could only be entered via a museum underneath. Surely this was where the elusive photo could be taken. Walking into the museum, I dutifully paid and was told there were two options. The woman at the register pointed in one direction, heading towards the walls and various towers that made up the museum. In the other direction was something called the bastion tunnels.
As a photo from the walls was my priority, I started there. Stepping outside, I emerged onto ramparts leading between towers and quickly realized this was, in fact, not where any pictures of note could be taken – particularly on a day as murky as this. That didn’t diminish the museum, though, and I wandered between the towers, letting a deluge of information wash over me, not really trying to remember specific historical events or characters.
It’s been remarked before that I’m not an emotional person. Or perhaps better said – I can be distant and not sharing of my emotions. Even more concretely said, that could well be because I, myself, don’t understand them or pay much conscious attention, at least until their weight is so heavy, I have to act or be buried. What’s not realized is that, especially on vacation, I am not driven place to place by any specific notion of where I want to go. Instead I follow a vague emotional haze as it leads, sometimes in meandering fashion, from one location to the next based on ideas that can’t be articulated and goals that even I don’t understand.
The haze was casting its glance at the bastion tunnels. I raced back over the ramparts, back into the main museum entrance, and towards the tunnels. The air began to smell humid and lived-in. For a moment my camera’s lens fogged up. I continued to descend.