Baltic Breeze

Laulupidu Singing Festival, Tallinn

Struggling to get traction in the Stockholm apartment market, I decided I needed a mini-getaway. Why not see more of Europe while I’m over here, especially since I’m still unfamiliar with the Baltic region. Spanning 600 miles or so beneath the Nordic fingers rest some of Northern Europe’s most notable cities along the Baltic Sea: Copenhagen, Gdansk, Riga, Tallinn, St. Petersburg, Helsinki, and Stockholm. I made the short bound from Copenhagen to Helsinki and then took a ferry to Tallinn, my primary destination.

I already shared this on Twitter, but I think Tallinn is the new Prague. A decade or so ago Prague became an underground hotspot for travelers based on the following criteria: cheap, fun, and scenically/historically beautiful, mostly in that order. The secret is out on Prague, but not yet on Tallinn. The effects of Soviet (and further back in time/historical) occupation are felt here too, but Tallinn is definitively vibrant as the capital of an up-and-coming Estonian nation. (Fun fact: Tallinn invented free Wi-Fi. Bam.) Integrated into the EU in 2004, Estonia adopted the Euro in January of this year. Fortunately, this has not affected universally low prices; hostels, food, and booze are all at bargain rates here.

Searching for places to sleep on Hostelworld, I immediately came across Tallinn Backpackers Hostel with its 94% positive rating out of hundreds of reviews. That’s a remarkable feat if you’re familiar with the hostel scene in Europe. Their description said something like come here to party, etc, etc. I was already sold on 94%. After my arrival and subsequent check-in, I was given a “welcome shot” of apple vodka. I think it was around 5PM at that time. One of the staff asked me if I would be joining the house dinner at 7:30…why not? Two New Zealanders had arrived about the same time as I did, and we started up a conversation that ended with a trip to the supermarket.

It warmed my heart to find, gasp, real beer sold in the supermarket – for real prices. Am I back in the United States? No, Tallinn just knows what’s up. Other than seeing the town, I had no objectives in Tallinn other than to clear my mind of Sweden for a few days. I didn’t come here to party but I had just made friends with two Kiwis and taken a welcome shot. I felt like I belonged. I was part of something. In Tallinn it took me fifteen minutes to do what it took almost a month to do in Sweden.

The hostel conducts a pub crawl every night, and I imagine that at least half of the night’s residents joined the festivities. We were quite the crowd and had a great time. Our first stop was a karaoke bar. Perfect. The locals were holding it down well when we arrived. Apparently an Aussie band The Happy Endings were also in attendance. Countless renditions of top-of-the-lungs rock ballads passed before I apologetically stepped up to the mic to serenade them with Usher’s U Remind Me. A few girls clapped. An Aussie gave me a lot of crap for the song choice – I won’t repeat his exact words. An Irishman said I was too good for karaoke. It’s nice to be appreciated.

Tallinn got me to pondering the whole question of drinking, why we do it, and what it does for us. It’s no different back home. On the one hand it’s undeniable that when we drink we gain a sense of camaraderie we don’t otherwise have. But I always ask myself, why don’t we otherwise have this? Why do people have to get drunk to truly get acquainted with one another?

Right now I’m writing at an atrocious hostel in Helsinki. It’s located inside the old Olympic Stadium. I know, it’s sound amazing on paper. In reality it’s more like a prison. Ok, I’m being a little harsh. Let’s put it this way, there’s no house dinner and certainly no welcome shot. People are sitting in the common room preoccupied, most on the computer (I’m guilty as well). In Tallinn the hostel was playing drinking games together and having a blast. Here it’s anti-social, borderline lonely. People tend to swim with the current. There’s no reason we couldn’t all be talking instead of typing. With drinks in hand, the volume level in here would quintuple. We would converse. We would interact. We would be together. And yet, are we so afraid of each other that we can’t break bread unless we add alcohol? Maybe holding a few more Laulupidus would help.

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