Farewell, Estonia! (Subtitle: This Post’s For Doug)

I cannot believe that it has already been more than a week since water aerobics (thank god I didn’t read this article before attending). Peter and I are now in Helsinki, Finland, contemplating whether it is really a good idea to follow through with our plan to go to Moscow on Wednesday, given that the city is not just in the midst of its worst ever heat wave, but is also blanketed by what’s being referred to as “choking smog,” thanks to hundreds of wildfires burning near the capital. (According to Russian health authorities, an hour outside is the equivalent of smoking 60 to 70 cigarettes.)

This could be us.

This is a photo from a Moscow webcam this morning. I am not kidding.

It’s giving me flashbacks to our night spent downwind of the Iceland volcano. Except, oh, wait, we escaped the ash cloud by driving for ten minutes. Apparently all of Moscow is covered. What’s funny, though, is that I’ve been emailing some Moscow hotels, trying to place some place that’s air conditioned, and they make no reference to what’s going on. “Hello, Catherine! Yes, we have a room available. You may choose from a deluxe room with king bed or standard room with queen. Thank you for your inquiry!”

Now, I understand you don’t want to scare off your potential customers, but given the current situation, wouldn’t a little acknowledgment be nice? Nothing too dramatic — maybe something like “I am typing this email with a wet rag over my face” or “I must go now for the air is too thick to breathe”? I mean, come on, people. There’s a smog-choked elephant in the room.

Anyway. We’re going to see what to do about that. But first, our Baltic finale. After Riga we took a detour to the Estonian islands of Muhu and Saaremaa. It’s been a couple days now, and my memories of being in spandex shorts are quickly fading, but here is what I can tell you about them:

We spent our first night in Muhu, in a random guesthouse on the side of the road run by an Estonian woman who spoke absolutely no English. With her daughter-in-law translating, we established that Americans do not often come to Muhu (“An American? It is like you are from Mars!” she exclaimed), that she had an abundant supply of cucumbers and fresh peppermint that she was willing to share, and that she had a surprisingly nice badminton and volleyball court in her yard, along with a water feature, that is apparently used by people who rent the guesthouse for family reunions. We really liked this woman, who wore a smock-like dress and was so generous with her vegetables. She apparently liked us, too, and as she showed us around her miniature sports complex, we all engaged in a very peculiar human behavior: continuing to speak our native languages to each other even though we had no idea what the other person was saying. Perhaps this says something about the superficiality of most human conversation, but the fact that we didn’t understand one another didn’t really matter.

Her: Estonian Estonian Estonian Estonian [pointing at a swing set] Estonian Estonian.

Us: What a lovely badminton court that is. Do your grandchildren know how to play?


I don't think she was used to having strangers in bike clothes put their arm around her shoulder.

The previous evening the bike ride from the bus station to her house had been beautiful — except for one part where the GPS led us through what was basically a bramble (Peter was eaten by mosquitoes; I ended up with leaves stuck in my gears and a very confused inchworm on my water bottle).

This is a road?

Having planned a route on mostly paved surfaces, we thought the ride to Kuressaare, the capital of Saaremaa, would be beautiful — if, at 100km, a bit long. Oh, but we were wrong. The road was mostly just through trees, with no view on either side. Far worse, though, was the wind: Saaremaa is hit with powerful winds from the southwest, and we were biking right into them. .

The causeway between Muhu and Saaremaa. The prettiest part -- and also the windiest.

Oh, the wind. It’s funny – when you’re in a car, you don’t think much about air resistance. But trust me: when you’re biking, you think about the wind. And when it’s blowing in your face for 100km, it sucks. Making things worse, part of the road we were supposed to bike on was in the process of being repaved, which meant that for the time being, it was only partially covered in asphalt, leaving behind patches of rocky gravel that got kicked up by passing cars. What’s more, for reasons I haven’t figured out, it smelled like beef jerky. For at least 10km, I felt like I was in a Slim Jim factory.

After a light lunch of boiled frankfurters, sauerkraut and potatoes (for me) and beef stroganoff that Peter referred to as “cow snot” (for him), we were back on the road, into the wind, for a few dozen more kilometers to Europe’s most accessible meteor crater. Left behind a couple thousand years ago, the spot is now marked by a small round pond, a deli and a long hallway of local women selling handicrafts. I bought a doily.

We pulled into the island’s capital, Kuressaare just in time to get caught in a downpour on our way to dinner, where we engaged in one of my least favorite activities in the Baltic States: trying to get the attention of the waiter. I’ve come to the conclusion that there must be some sort of regimented training program here for people in the restaurant business called “Never Make Eye Contact.” It does not matter how long you sit at your table. It does not matter if you turn yourself around in your seat, disengage from conversation, and devote your entire attention to trying to bore holes in the waitress’s back with your eyes. She will not look at you. Nor will she bring you menus. Despite this, when she finally does stop by your table – fifteen, twenty minutes after you have sat down – she will try to take your order, then act irritated when you point out that you have no idea what the restaurant serves (what a horrible feeling it is to see her walk away). But if you get up to fetch your own? Forget about it.

This skill even extends to counter service. Peter and I have both taken turns standing in front of a cash register as the person behind the counter – literally two feet away – makes cappuccinos, rearranges chocolates in the display case, washes dishes, all without ever acknowledging that you are standing there. In the worst instance, I made the mistake of asking a young woman if it was all right for us to sit down before waiting the requisite five minutes until she maybe decided to look up. She became gravely offended – who did I think I was? A paying customer? — turning her back to me, finding solace in the espresso machine, and refusing to turn back around even when specifically ordered by her boss. (We then waited a half hour before someone arrived to take our orders.)

But anyway. Kuresaarre. A nice town, made even nicer when we decided to ditch the bikes for a day and rent a car so that we could see the other side of the island. Go Estonian coast!

Still windy.

Our prepubescent sense of humor are in full force

And then, thighs still aching from our adventure in the wind, we took a bus to the town of Haapsalu, a former spa resort favored by the Russian monarchy that is now best known for its impressive castle.  What I know it for, however, is its spiders. As we walked around on our first evening in town, I made the mistake of looking up at a lightpost. There, stretched between it and a nearby wall, was an intricate web. And on that web clung not one, not two, not three or even four, but upwards of 20 spiders. Big spiders. Meaty spiders. The kind of spider that can make you worried, even if you’re not usually particularly arachnophobic, that one is going to crawl up your nose in your sleep and make a little nest there before biting you with poisonous venom that travels straight to your brain, leaving its countless babies to devour your corpse from within. Or, you know, something like that. (It does occur to me that the main reason I’m not normally scared of spiders is that I’m not usually surrounded by them.) And it was hardly just that light post. Rather, there were spiders everywhere we looked – hanging in door jambs, off bus stops, clinging to walls. We were staying in an ancient guesthouse which we’d previously considered charming and quaint for its rough wooden walls and exposed brick. But those nooks now seemed like nests; I made Peter thoroughly check the area around our tiny bed to make sure there wasn’t anyone who might be tempted to take a nighttime stroll across our sheets. Luckily – and truly bizarrely – there wasn’t. And I will say this: Haapsalu did not have many mosquitoes.

Those black dots are all spiders.

Big ones.

This is before we noticed the spiders.

And so we were off to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, where we spent several days relaxing in the cobblestoned streets of its Old Town and wondering where the hell all the Americans had suddenly come from. (Cruise ships, it turned out.) I also made a point of finding a local gym and signing up for a “Body Combat” class (Peter politely declined), where a young blonde woman led the class – all female – in rounds of punches and kicks narrated mostly in Estonian, but broken up by key phrases that suggested that aerobics might really be the next universal language (“Thai box!” “Tai chi!”). Most of my attention was taken up by trying to kick myself far away from the woman next to me, who had body odor so bad that it eventually infused the room – but I was still surprised when our perky and friendly instructor pretended to hold someone down on the floor and punch them in the face (we followed along to the beat). I have gone to many an aerobic boxing class in my day, but that is a move I have never seen.

Next up was Helsinki, which we got to via a 3.5-hour ferry, with its very own karaoke bar on board. (My favorites were a very gruffly sung “My Way” and “Hello? Is it me you’re looking for, though this kid’s Elvis gave them a run for their money.

Helsinki is a city known, at least by me, for its salmon soup and exorbitant prices on, well, everything. Dear lord, people – it’d have been expensive in dollars, let alone Euros. Inspired by hotel rates, we decided to make our first foray into “Couch Surfing,” an organization in which people volunteer to let you stay a night or two, for free, in their homes. We happened to get lucky – after a meterologist didn’t get back to me, I found a couple right in downtown who enjoyed good food, good company and, most importantly, were willing to let us have the keys to their apartment for two nights. So nice! We spent yesterday taking a walk around the city, and were surprised to meet these guys, a group of young men dressed up as tuba-playing babushkas who we had seen before both in Riga and in Talinn (they must have been doing their Baltic circuit).

And then in the evening, we met our hosts for dinner at their country cottage, which was located pretty much in the middle of the city.

Let me clarify: apparently at some point in Helsinki’s past, maybe the 1920s, the government decided to set aside some land so that poor people could grow vegetables on small plots of land. Tiny, tiny cottages were built, surrounded by vegetable patches and fruit trees, and while the rest of Helsinki was modernized, these enclaves were not. So a twenty minute tram ride from the heart of downtown will now take you to this sunken green area (apparently it used to be a swamp used to bury horses) where narrow gravel paths lead past these tiny red wood homes, each with little outdoor cooking areas and beautiful flowers and vegetables. I have never seen anything like it. I have also never seen a wild hedgehog – but as we walked up the path toward their house, there one was.

Well, hello there.

The house – which is basically one room – was so small that there was no running water inside or, for that matter, toilet (there was an “eco-loo” up the path), which I suppose might get annoying if, like our hosts, you spent the summers there. But it was lovely for a night – and despite the modern buildings around it, it only took a few minutes to completely forget where we were.

I like food.

And now we are on the train to St. Petersburg, technically already in Russia. We just got our first whiff of the so-called “acrid smoke” blanketing much of the country – and, I’ll admit, it wasn’t particularly pleasant. Here’s hoping for rain.

Our first moments in Russia.

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