Saturday, December 29, 2007

holiday cheese! and some herring, too.

It was December 24th, and I wanted to get to Tallinn early, so I caught the early bus from Rīga. I had to wake up the hostel night shift girl to get my ID deposit back. The reception of the Rīga hostel is a bar, and whoever is on the night shift sleeps curled up in the windowseat, like a cat. I noticed they were all sort of petite. The Eurolines bus was the plush model. If it weren't for the layer of dirt blanketing the entire bus, it might have just rolled off the assembly line. And the kicker – one of those instant coffee machines where you press a button get a cappuccino. I was asleep most of the way, but woke up in time to get a scalding hot bevvy.

Not really knowing how Christmas is celebrated in the Baltics, I was minorly worried about all the food shops being closed. So before leaving Rīga I bought some potatoes, onions, and garlic. Not the most tantilizing meal, but all easy to transport in the backpack. Turns out there was no reason to worry. Some businesses were closed, but the majority of shops, restaurants, and cafés of all sorts were open thoughout town, even though I was told by a couple of people that Estonians celebrate Christmas on the 24th. Had I not been told, I wouldn't have known, since the atmosphere was neither overtly religious nor commerical. There was a winter market in the main square selling knitted goods, and lights were strung up throughout town, but overall the mood was modest. From what I could tell, most of the business was being generated by tourists. Food was omnipresent, but I still picked up a few supplies from the supermarket before conducting my requisite tour of the Old Town. Tallinn's Old Town gets it as right as can be done in the modern day. It's full of souvenir shops, as usual, but eschews the razzle-dazzle of neon and flashy lights in favor of more tasteful and appropriate signage. Most of the souvenirs here are of the crafty variety, textiles above all. There are stretches of street that are devoid of anything modern within eyesight. At night you can almost imagine walking down a medieval street a few centuries ago, except for the lack of filth in the gutters and horrible smells beseiging the olfactory senses. Today it's too clean to be truly authentic, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing.

December 26 was the day that things seem to shut down, although there was still plenty open. Having been through most of old town numerous times, I started wandering around the surrounding neighborhoods. There's a market by the train station where you can buy cheap and second hand clothing, old cameras, light switches, and any size box-end wrench your heart desires. I think most of the vendors and shoppers are Russians, but could be wrong. I bought a tin toy train, and got a smile when I thanked the seller in Russian instead of Estonian. Or maybe she was smiling because she got a bunch of kroon out of me. On my way back to old town I found a city wall entrance I had missed before, and right next to it was a boarded up shack. Two of the most wretched looking cats I've ever seen popped out of a hole in the door. One had ruined eyes, and the other had sad eyes, and they were both looking at me with a quiet look that said, "if you have food, we'll eat it." They didn't look desperate; they looked resigned that their efforts would come to nothing, but they were going to try anyway. I felt so bad for them; they were filthy, messed up, miserable, and it was a cold, cold day, cold enough to cause a heavy snow flurry later that night. I wanted to give them baths and take them to the vet. Instead I went to the corner shop and bought packet of herring and a packet of KitEKat cat food, went back to the gate, and dumped the herring in front of the door. Before I even had it open they had reappeared and were rubbing against my ankles. They weren't gobbling down the fish, so I took it as a good sign that they weren't totally starving. I saved the cat food to give them the next day.

I spend another afternoon walking along Tallinn Bay, stopping to watch a mother and toddler feed the seafaring swans. It was kind of cute, and they were having fun; mom would give the kid a piece of bread, and they would hold it out together for the swans to take. There were a whole lot of swans milling around, but they were feeding a smaller flock, maybe six or so, who were behaving themselves. Another mother and toddler arrived with a bag of bread, which piqued the interest of a larger flock of swans, who waddled up from the beach, en feathery white masse, and converged on the newcomers. There were at least thirteen of them (I counted), and while not aggressive, they were making a slow but persistent advance towards the free food, those big, black, webbed, slightly turned-in feet flapping against the pavement. Mom and toddler #2 were steadily backing up and mom was tossing out bread chunks in an attempt to slow the tide, with only limited success. In the face of a flock of hungry fowl, kid #2 at first wasn't perturbed, but eventually started getting a little agitated. And who wouldn't in that situation. I don't know how old he (or she) was, but feet on the ground, he was shorter than the birds. One swift strike is all it would take to pluck out an eyeball. Stategically retreating to the parked stroller, mom tossed out the remainder of the bread and made a hasty escape. The episode was simultaneously slightly ominous and very goofy. I was laughing, and the moms were laughing. The swans even came up to me, even though I had no offerings, and gave me The Eye. I guess it's because of the way their eyes are situated on the sides of their heads, but if they want to really inspect something, they turn their heads a bit and train one bright eye on their target.

I wen to the St. Nicholas Church and Museum to see the approximately ten meter long fragment of Berndt Notke's Danse Macabre. There was also an exhibition of church bells that I initially only took a minor interest in, since it was included in the price of the ticket, but ended up learning some interesting facts about them. For instance, they are said to be able to repel lightning, and some have been inscribed with the words, "I break up the lightning." Manifesting these properties required that the bell be rung at the approach of lighting, and bell-ringers were offered hazard pay to do this. I like that some inscriptions were first person proclamations, because it lends credence to the belief that the bells had souls. Another good one is "I ring properly," referring to chiming the time correctly, although probably also to good voice. Bells were frequently taken as the spoils of war in accordance with the "right of bells," to be recast as artillery. People saved them by burying them underground, sinking them into water or bogs, and keeping their mouths shut while their fingers were chopped off in an attempt to get them to reveal the hiding place. Yick. Unfortunately, the guy who managed to do this also had his throat cut, keeping his secret to the last. Final cool fact – the bell in the belfry of St. Olaf's is so heavy at seven tons that when they rang it, the spire began to sway. It said that it took twelve men to set the clapper in motion, but didn't say how many were needed to stop it once the spire got going.

I ended up being in Tallinn two days longer than I originally planned. I think it's the furthest north I've ever been. I don't mind it when the sun sets early, and I actually really like it when I'm at home. Someday I want to go up north into 24 hour night and stay there for a couple of weeks, just to experience a complete absence of sunlight. I keep writing about the short days because it's a big determining factor in how I spend my time. On the bus ride up, I woke up from a doze, looked out the window, and looked at my watch. If my foggy brain is remembering it correctly, it was between 0800 and 0900 and still pitch black. There was a little bit of blue heaven one day, but for the most part, the sky has been shades of opaque white and grey for the last two weeks. I think the last time I saw the sun was in Poland. Tallinn is pretty small, and even after non-old town perambulations, and dawdling visits to museums, used bookshops, and craft galleries, I had a lot of time left over. I kind of wanted to see The Golden Compass, but evening shows were even more expensive than in the States. I could have gone to a matinée for half-price, but decided sitting in cafés sounded better. Tallinn is full of places to eat, and since I couldn't be bothered to cook for myself, I decided to take a crack at restaurant reviewing.

Kehrwieder Café. Voted Tallinn's top café. Top for cracking your head on the extremely low vaulted ceiling and the tentacly lights sprouting out of it. Also top for waiting 20 minutes in line, watching the counter staff try to find a wine glass to match the one he's already poured, while feeling slightly paranoid about your laptop that you left sitting on a table in the other room, but not wanting to give up your place to go check on it because then you'd be back at the beginning, or rather the end. But other than that, a good selection of pastries, and a chocolate truffle served with each cup of coffee (they have a chocolate shop across the alley). The dark, candlelit interior with heavy wood tables and an assortment of wooden and upholstered chairs is easier to enjoy once you're sitting down, and no longer in danger of concussion. Despite the minor complaints I had about this place, I went back multiple times.

Café Chocolaterie. I stopped in here on Christmas morning because I was hungry. I ordered a hot chocolate, which wasn't what I expected from a chocolate café, but scored high anyway for preparation and presentation. Melted chocolate was run over the inside of a glass, and steamed milk was mixed in with a cinnamon stick. And they have an assortment of pastries. I couldn't decide between sweet or savory, so just got one of each, and enjoyed everything squished into an armchair with a window view into the courtyard. I think every inch of the interior is covered in one kind of fabric or another. Hope none of the candles tip over.

Kuldse Notsu Kõrts (The Golden Piglet). Dishing up Estonian country cuisine. I don't know if the word "piglet" in the name refers to what's available on the menu or a jab at the patrons. If you don't look like one going in, you'll feel like one waddling out. I ended up going here for Christmas dinner. Christmas in my family is all about excessive eating, so I had ancestral duty to accomplish. The interior is a little too bright, and probably 95% of the clientele are tourists, but the menu caught my eye the day before, especially the starter of Võro cheese (I think Võro is a region in southeastern Estonia). The cheese was quite mild, served with herbed toast and a ramekin of berry jam. The main was lemon-crusted chicken with mushroom sauce, potatoes, salad, a bread roll, and an enormous pat of butter. I willed my stomach to expand, and managed to get it all down, except for about a quarter of the bread roll. It was really just empty calories. I felt slightly uncomfortable afterwards, so mission accomplished. Then I had to take a walk.

St. Michael Cheese Restaurant. I would have never forgiven myself had I passed up the opportunity. What the interior designer had in mind for the theme leaves me befuddled. The medieval monastery concept is clear, with the cassocked waiters gliding past the suit of armor, boar's head, and battle axe wall decoration, but I don't know where the jazz fusion covers of pop hits and Crate & Barrel table settings fit in. Utensils come in linen bags tied at the mouth. The leather-bound menu had a little loop and peg closure that took me a few seconds to figure out. It's all accomplished as convincingly as props for the school play in a performing arts school. Even though the wonky furnishings didn't blend well, the food was delicious. I had a vegetable cream soup with a cheese cappuccino, kind of a frothy cheese sitting on the surface. Unexpectedly, it arrived with a bonus mini spinach pasty. Following that was were spinach-cottage cheese raviolis wallowing in a puddle of sitranelle cheese sauce. My stomach flooded with cheese, I was unable to order dessert (cheesecake, of course).

Tristan ja Isolde Café. Only slightly larger than a medieval prison cell, but I got a seat anyway, next to an electrical outlet, so I stayed there for 2.5 hours writing. Counter staff have a solid grasp on the concept of service, much better than the ones across the square at Kehrwieder. Am I sounding like a snotty American? I think so. I don't mean to, it was just painful watching the staff at Kehrwieder prepare each item of each order from scratch. On the one hand, it's excellent individual service. On the other hand, it's done at the expense of everyone else in line. Maybe they can find a happy medium, or at least pre-fold the paper napkins and have more than one pitcher to steam milk. There was at least one girl who was able to crank through orders, so it wasn't all bad. I usually try to not apply the American standard of service to anything else than American service, but comparisons are hard to avoid. At T & I, I got a cheese pastry because I was a little peckish, and it wasn't anything special, but the cappuccino was gooooood. The best I had in town.

Elevant. Mango lassi + veggie pakora + potato/spinach curry with rice, salad, and bread = too much food! I couldn't finish the curry. I should have gotten something with chickpeas, since I had been encoutering potato in numerous other incarnations as of late, but by the time I realized that, it was already in front of me. The very white waitresses wear slinky Indian dresses.

Café Mathilde. There were three old ladies in fur hats at the next table nursing glasses of mulled wine. I don't get mulled wine. If whoever created it wanted to take something gross and make it even more disgusting, they succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. I had a refreshing slice of fruit tart, but the setting was a bit too garden club for me. The old ladies fit in perfectly. Worth a stop if you're absolutely sure you can't make it up the hill to upper old town without a snack.

EAT. Sparse and bright, cheap and scrumptious. A variety of fried dumplings, savory and sweet, and also donuts are in big tureens. You help yourself to as much as you want of whatever flavor, cover them with whatever dressing you like, available in plastic squeezy bottles, and pay by how much your bowl weighs. Try to time your visit to avoid the pre-teen girl gang dance dance revolutioning it at the playstation in the corner. They were entertaining for a while, and then suddenly they weren't.
This blog entry is a little unusual because I'm managing to post it before leaving town. It's slightly weird being here. Ever since the beginning it's always been the last continental European destination that I definitely wanted to get to, and then as my itinerary changed, became the last destination. Four months ago the little city by the Baltic Sea seemed so far away, and now it's almost time to leave. Time and perspective are funny things. Sometimes it feels like I've been traveling for a long time, and other times it feels like I just left home.


heidi said...

we miss you so much and are so jealous of your cheese explorations and of course the cheese restaurant. we did have a lovely ripe st. marcellin over the holidays. tres stinky and good! fortunately my hubby has suspended his cheese boycott for the holidays. good thing since new year's dinner will be fondue. Call us as soon as you get home. We want to have you over for more cheese and travel stories. btw, you can safely skip the golden compass unless you need a bit of hollywood comfort food. it was pretty bad - maybe i just had high expectations.

DMBY said...

We are glad you fed the kitties. And also very jealous of your cheese cafe visit - the Yumols looooove some cheese!
As for the Golden Compass, we agree - you can skip it. It wasn't awful, but they had so much to cram in. If I hadn't read the book, which is 100x better, I would have been very confused.