The hotel in Istanbul gave me an incredible breakfast buffet and shipped me off to the airport. There was a woman bringing a Turkish Tambur along – a common Turkish string instrument – and we chatted about my banjo and their similarities while we went through security.
I generally don’t have anxiety with flights but after the situation on the previous plane I had a hard time keeping it cool. There was a cute girl next to me who kept passing out on my shoulder and watching out for the drool kept me distracted. When she woke up she told me all about Georgia, her home country. She was studying at a university in Tallinn and as she was talking I noticed that she had a strange resemblance to the Barracuda (see respective Cuba stories) and I couldn’t shake that off.
Estonia is the northernmost country in the Baltic States. It got tossed around for most of the past millennium, being conquered by the Germans, Danes, Swedes, and Russians; in fact, between 1940-1945 it was annexed by the Russians, then taken over by the Nazis, and then again occupied by the Russians. Now, however, it’s an independent state and part of the European Union with a strong economy. Three of the five developers of Skype are Estonian and the country has become a European tech capital.
The airport in Estonia was adorably small; there was one tall, blonde security guard and a nice lady at immigration who kept smiling as she stamped my passport. I was supposed to arrive the day before so Katy had been waiting at the hostel in Tallinn for me.
I met Katy when I was studying in Chile back in 2009. I traveled down to Patagonia with a friend and while we were at the hostel I was chatting on the phone with a schoolmate from Valparaiso. He was telling me that he was on the beach with our other friends smoking a joint and when I got off the phone I told my friend that I wish I were there. Katy chimed in that she wished she was there too. She then introduced us to her two British friends and we drank four bottles of pisco between the five of us. It was a hell of a time. Katy couldn’t get over the fact that I had cowboy boots in Patagonia and I was fascinated that she knew more about global politics than anyone I had ever met. So we formed a bond that’s lasted until now. I want you to imagine Katy always wearing a white shirt with a large print of Desmond Tutu on it. That’s what she wears and it’s how I always imagine her.
I made it to the hostel and walked three floors up to find Katy in our dorm room. The hostel was gross. The man at the front desk offered me a welcome shot of something neon green and I politely refused. It was a “party hostel” and it made me feel like everywhere I sat probably had human ejaculate stain on it. I’m 30 now and people in Chinese hostels were usually too shy to even look at me. Also, this is Estonia, people. Ok? Over 60% of this entire country is forrest so please keep it down.
Katy and I spent the night catching up and drinking large beers. With Brexit and Trump we had so much to catch up on so the booze really kept flowing.
The next morning we took a free walking tour but peeled off after an hour to walk by ourselves. We passed a train station and decided to take a train to a random town an hour outside of Tallinn.
“Well, this is quite spontaneous, isn’t it?” Katy said.
When we arrived we walked through a small, wooded neighborhood where there were vicious dogs that would run up to the fence and bark at us. It was so deserted that I doubt anyone would hear us yell. Along one road a man rode up alongside us with a bicycle and had a bottle of clear liquid in his hand. We passed the same man doing the same thing when we walked back and when I asked him a question I got drunk smelling his alcohol sweat.
Tallinn reminds me of what Nottingham looked like back in the times of Robin Hood. Katy says it reminds her of a doll’s house.
The next morning we woke up early and hung out in the common room while waiting for our bus. There was a young Australian guy there and a short-haired Kiwi girl. The Australian was lying on his side while the Kiwi took apart a pen and started tattooing an Alpaca on his ankle. Katy gave me a look that said, “I just can’t with these people.” While he was getting the tattoo he told me all about the places in the hostel that he’s had sex, including the couch I was sitting on. Katy died.
It was off to Riga, the capital of Latvia. We took a bus and watched The Devil Wears Prada.
What would that movie be like without Meryl Streep? Or emily Blunt? I really don’t know and I don’t want to think about it. Who else could play that role? Katharine Hepburn, perhaps.
I pulled out a book afterwards and Katy said, “Oh, that’s it then?”
“What?” I replied.
“You’re going to read a book? I wanted to pick your brain about the American health care system.”
And she did – for the entire bus ride. It’s unfathomable to most Europeans I meet. There were things I didn’t understand and she asked what the hell else was I good for? I turned it around and asked her everything about John Bercow. He’s my obsession.
The buildings in Riga looked like the Soviet-block buildings from every cold war movie I’d seen.
Katy turned to me and said, “Well, you can tell the bloody Russians have been here, can’t you?”
We both liked Riga. It’s a raw city, another place that’s been conquered time and time again and eventually left to rule itself. It’s the biggest city in the Baltic States. Nobody smiles. The hostel was nicer, not covered in human ejaculate. We felt that we could get a good night’s sleep.
There was another man in the hostel, Martin, a Swede, who was about 60 years old. Well, he looked 60 but he might be 45 and just drank his face away. He spent most of the evening hitting on everything that moved. “I would like to have a three-way with you,” he said to the two German girls on the couch.
“Yes. We know,” they replied. “You told us before.”
He told almost everyone at the hostel that he wanted to have sex with them, in his greasy green jacket, with his unwashed and thinning hair and a drunkard’s smile. Somehow, and I don’t know how, he made it to the bar and went on asking me a few times where I was from and telling two Swedish girls next to me that they were beautiful. Katy and I seemed to be the only ones not having it – it’s those years working at a sports bar in Crown Heights. But each time I brought it up they replied that he was harmless, it’s always like this, just the way he is. “Poor Martin,” they said. Even the female bartender came around and asked if Martin was acting up again. I saw him stumble out of the bar and fall into a fetal position on the street before one of the hostel employees that was with us helped him up and walked him back home.
The next morning Martin asked me to bring out the banjo and I played a few songs in the common room. He was swigging a bottle of white wine. After I played Old Smokey he stared at the banjo and looked at me and softly nodded his head and then had another drink. At the end he thanked me for playing.
We walked around Riga all day. I found a cafe that sold pu erh tea for a ridiculous price but I bought it anyway. Then we walked the rest of the day and went to bed early.
There was a man in our room who continuously sprayed himself with cologne. Five sprays on his bare upper body in the morning, and a good couple of sprays on his bag in the locker, and also spraying himself, bare body again, before he went to sleep. I want to reiterate that the man sprayed himself before going to sleep, alone. And he sprayed his bag which was in a locker. And also he snored. Loudly. I woke up early from his snoring and couldn’t get back to sleep so I watched him get up and face the small mirror near the door. He flexed all his muscles as he put on his clothes (this is a grown-ass man in a dorm-room full of people, as a reminder). Then I put on a documentary about Anna Wintour and added her to my answer of the question, “if you could have dinner with any three people in history”. The other two are Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde. Really, who else has the class and wit to compete?
Latvia was cool, the biggest of the Baltics, but it felt heavy from the Soviet occupation. All the Baltics did; it was only Estonia that managed to laughed off the fact that they had been occupied by every European military power for the last millennium. But Estonia has economic momentum, which cures all the cold-war blues.
We went to Sigulda, a small town about an hour outside of Riga. We walked all day to the castle and through the woods.
Then, once again, we drank away the night at a bar.
The flexing man sprayed so much cologne in the hostel that I could barely breathe and I opened the window next to my head. He came back in and shut it and we got in a little argument about his perfuming habits and the cold air coming in. Then he went into bed and snored the night away.
Martin was in the common room the next morning. He had another bottle of white wine. We spoke for a few minutes about music and then he nodded his head and said, “I’ve lived hard, I’ve lived really hard, and I’ve lost a lot of friends. It’s hard when you lose friends. They’re all gone. You know, in the punk-rock scene, theres a lot of drugs and, they’re all gone.”
“Poor Martin,” I thought.
I can’t wrap my head around Lithuania. I don’t really what it is. I wish I had more time.
Katy and I arrived in Vilnius and made it to our airbnb. We got into the building after a long search and the hallway hadn’t been restored since the first world war. It looked like those alleyways you find in rural China. But the place was on the fifth floor so we trudged up and were introduced to Jevgenij. He scattered around bent over vacuuming around our feet. He could talk a mile a minute. Finally, Katy and I had a local to ask about the Soviet occupation.
He cooked us dinner that night – a two-course meal starting with a salad with cured turkey and finishing with a fish, cheese, and potato dish that was delicious.
Mid-way through the meal we got him talking about the Soviet occupation after WWII; he compensated for his small vocabulary by waving his arms wildly and animating his voice.
“Were you, um, when the Soviet Union finished, were you happy?” I love Katy for getting straight to the point.
“Economical,” he paused, then stood up, “I see, it was stability. For example you have job, you can work, or can not work,” he chuckled. “Can drink, smoke, or the other.” At this he cleared his throat, “But we, I can, I don’t visit any countries, for example. I cannot.” He told us the different salaries that someone could make – just over 100 rubles per month if you had a college diploma. For a salesman it was less, only 68. We both gasped, saying that was nothing to live on.
“Yes, yes, but prices was prices,” he replied. “For example meat, beef – one comma five rubles. Coffee, maybe eight, eight comma five. Vodka, three rubles.”
“For a bottle?” I said.
“Ehhhhh half a litre.” I said that on 68 per month that was still unlivable.
Katy asked if he still had to pay rent during this time.
“For apartment? Very little. Stability for guests. Now we have,” at this he held out his hand and made a machine gun noise, “Stability for water, and depend on how many meters you have. Square meters. Telephone was stability – two rubles. Very cheap. Belarus was VERY CHEAP. Now,” he whistled a high note and chopped his hand over his head, “Food is same price like in Lithuania, but we have minimum 380 Euro for month minimum hahahahahahaha, YES and Belarus, they have 100. Now, you can go to whole world now if you have money, it’s open.”
We paused and drank some more beer while he started in on the KGB and made more machine gun sounds. “Today’s situation is catastrophic in Lithuania. CAT-A-STROPHIC! The economic. I said that before it was three millions comma two in Lithuania.” (Talking about the population.) “Now we have two millions. Left! My niece – in England. My sister, she dead – in England. My cousin’s son – in England. My uncle – in England. My son in Holland. They don’t pay money!” he leaned back, brought his lips together and made a sound like a hurricane as he threw his hands above his head and to the ground.
Estonia and Latvia were filled with an older population. And without younger workers pumping money into the economy it would surely suffer.
Jevgenij went off on the current president of Lithuania; he called her a currency prostitute that was attached to Putin.
All three countries have been used like a ping pong ball by the Germans and Russians, but the Baltics have come a long way since their independence movements only two decades ago. Estonia, especially, seems to have tremendous momentum. Katy mentioned that she could see many Europeans move to the Baltics because of it’s low prices and freedoms. After Brexit, when eastern Europeans might not be able to stay in England to work, who knows? It’s the perfect place for a start-up.
I woke up early the next morning and Katy helped me get organized for the long bus ride to Warsaw, Poland. The Baltics were beautiful, but they would have been a drag without her traveling with me. It’s not everyday you can travel with someone who enjoys Sex and the City and international politics as much as you.