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Roadtrip to Tartu

My wake up call this morning wasn’t the sun, thankfully my bunk mates realized that the sunblocking curtains in the room had a real purpose and weren’t just for show. This time it was a mosquito who had invaded the room and bit me four times. At least it was 6:30am and not 4:30. Itchy and tired but wide awake I decided to start getting ready for the day ahead. It was a good thing too because by 8:30am the bathrooms were packed and there was a line of people trying to access the sinks as a small pack of women hogged the area putting on their makeup and blow drying their hair. I wound up waiting outside for Tonis and Meri to arrive, having stopped at the convenience store to pick up a bottle of water for the day. I had also picked a random juice to try that ended up being blueberry with sea buckthorn, a supposedly super healthy super fruit that Tonis rolled his eyes about and argued with his wife about the dubious flavor of the fruit. I didn’t mind it, it was very tart and a little bitter but in general it was fine. Not something I’d pursue further. I also ended up picking up some carrots that I was munching on when the long grey Volvo rolled up to my hostel door. I climbed in the front seat and awkwardly tried to keep up a conversation, enjoy the tranquility of the early ride, and finish loudly munching on the carrot I started at the same time.

Our first stop was a grocery where we got coffees and buns/rolls for breakfast as well as spent an inordinate amount of time for such an early hour in the liquor aisle. My guides were kind enough to point out which were made in Estonia, what they were and what flavor the liquor was (if applicable). It was amazing some of the things that were there like my favorite Vana Tallinn in marzipan flavor or birch flavored vodka. Back in the car I was sipping on my coffee and munching on my butter rose which is the Estonian version of a croissant and having a great time watching the trees and fields roll by while Tonis argued about the best place to find wild blueberries and I was giggling at the scrunched up faces he was making.

Soon enough Tonis thinks he found a spot. At this point we’re somewhere between Tallinn and Tartu and there’s a dirt and gravel road heading off into the woods. The roads shifted and changed as we made our way through the forest from dirt and gravel to just dirt to low vegetation to no tracks at all and wild brush with soft flooded mud. The latter was arguably the most dangerous. We had stopped a few times along the route having found nothing but pretty flowers and random herbs and started taking the path less traveled. Now it may seem poetic and fantastic but the reality was the hard ground underneath the foot tall grasses became soft mud with puddles of water. I watched as Tonis’ posture shift from his normal position of casually driving a car to knuckles gripping the wheel and ten and two and lifting himself as close to the windshield as possible so as to see the ground and make the best possible on the fly decision about where to point the hurtling Volvo. “Momentum is what we need we can’t get stuck here,” he repeated as the car shifted and hurtled its way through the brush like a small ship in a rough sea. When we finally made it out of the muddy puddles a collective sigh of relief could be heard and I finally let go of the breath I didn’t even realize I was holding. When we finally got back to the dirt path Tonis was visibly a very grumpy driver as he whined about not finding the blueberries. He thought aloud that we may have better luck closer to Tartu when I heard Meri shift towards the window in the back seat and say something in Estonian, Tonis presses his nose to the window and said something in agreement and then he said that he thinks they may be just in those trees there. Now I am nearly blind as a bat and nearly as aloof to match but it amazed me the whole time how Meri was a scouting super sleuth spotting the most random plants from a speeding vehicle. The two Estonian mountain goats went leaping off into the forest to investigate and soon enough Tonis came back to tell me that this was it. Small buckets the size of Chinese food takeout soup containers (the large size) appeared and I was making my way through the brush and across a small divot to the wild blueberries. Tonis was straddling the divot and giving me specific instructions on where to step and where not to step to get across. Naturally I stepped in the one spot he told me to avoid and I felt my foot squelch into mud. It wasn’t much damage or wetness to the shoe but I could hear him shake his head and sigh when he reminded me that he said not to step there. Then he pointed to some shin high plants and said that was the blueberries. I have no clue how anyone could spot them from the road but I was thankful they did! The blueberries were so tasty but instead of eating them I found it much more relaxing to just pick them. I went on combing each little bush for the delectable morsels until I felt a mosquito bite me and realized I wasn’t quick enough, nor wearing long enough sleeves, to avoid them or the other army of bugs surrounding me. I persisted in my mission of gathering berries and kept going until I could feel my glasses sliding off my nose. I was terrified I’d drop them in the under growth and lose them and spend the rest of the day blind. That was when I turned it around and made my way back to the car on my own. I successfully baby mountain goated my way through the spongey moss floor and down the steep went edge to the mini ravine, back and up across it again. I took a few minutes to scratch my new mosquito bites and took a short walk down the dirt road to see what was going on around me. There were tall flowers on either side and I started following the butterflies around before waving goodbye to them and the bumble bees going about their work. Soon Tonis and Meri were back with exponentially more blueberries then me and then they put it in the trunk and said we could enjoy them later with yogurt and sugar on top. That lead to a discussion about brown sugar that lead to a playlist of songs about, or mentioning, brown sugar.

Back on the road again, this time a paved one, we had to stop off for petrol. We had gotten dangerously low as we were still Lewis and Clark-ing our way to blueberries and filled up just enough to get to a second gas station road stop. The second stop was really amazing. While it had the standard fuel pump and mini mart it also had a whole cafeteria style restaurant. There was indoor and outdoor seating, a playground for children being built, and a menu that was far from the usual truck stop fare. It was all in Estonian of course so I listened to Tonis’ translation but was too overwhelmed by everything to really discern what sounded good. Thankfully Tonis also has a habit of repeating things that he finds more or less notable and so I was easily able to tell him to pick one for me and then be presented with a binary but delicious choice. He then handed me a tray and when we made our way down the line and got to the drink area poured a thick white liquid into a glass that was speckled with brown bits and put it on my tray with no explanation. Highly unusual I cocked an eyebrow and stared at him, then said do I want to know what this is? His Cheshire grin and response was enough to have me both suspicious and curious. The three of us found a table in the outdoor seating area after the Estonians ordered everything and while Tonis simply said to try the mystery beverage, Meri was nice enough to explain what it was - some kind of sour/yogurt milk with shredded grains mixed in. A tentative sip and I found it tasted pretty much like shredded wheat blended together with a milky yogurt. It was pretty good but also a ton of the dense treat in a glass so Tonis went to get another cup and split it with me. For lunch I ended up with salmon, potatoes, and salad that was far better then it had any business being coming from a roadside rest area. It made me realize amongst many other things that America simply isn’t doing roadtrip support services correctly at all.

After lunch it was back in the car then zipping down the road to Tartu which grew out of the highway so suddenly that I found myself standing inside Martin’s flat before realizing that we hit the end of the road trip. His flat was small but cute and so clean that I was shocked a bunch of university students lived there and that it wasn’t an Airbnb or something. It definitely brought great shame to the relative squalor that I lived in at his age. Despite the stark differences in living arrangements the behavior of his parents in the flat upon arrival had me biting back laughter as I noticed how similar their movements, actions, and conversations were with my own parents when they would come visit. Mom asking for a vase for the flowers she picked along our trip and futzing around in the kitchen asking a bunch of questions while Dad futzed around with the electronics and started moving things that he knew you no longer wanted in the flat and needed him to take home and the younger brother sprawled on the couch like he was about to move in tomorrow. I was soaking it all in and letting the conversations happening in Estonian wash over me when suddenly a glass with yogurt and blueberries and a container of sugar were placed in front of me. I looked up and Tonis was there with instructions on how to enjoy the fruits of mostly his labors (literally). The treat was delicious of course and a few moments later I was scraping the cup clean while watching a video of one of the traditional Estonian dances being performed on the television.

Well fed and with time quickly running low the whole family piled into the car and we made our way to the Estonian National Museum. The architecture of the building was astounding, coming out of the ground at the end of an airfield landing strip with a forced perspective giving it the appearance that it was thrusting out of the earth like some kind of space ship. When I found the award for European museum of the year inside I knew I was in for a treat. In past trips I had stumbled upon other museums that received the same award in years past and even though I wasn’t interested much in the topics they were so well done that I’d find myself enthralled but the subject matter regardless. So needless to say I was pretty damn excited to get in and start seeing some Estonian history. The excitement only grew when Tonis handed me my ticket and explained that there’s an RFID chip inside that will change the text displays on the items to English. Sure enough when I tried it out on the very first thing I saw inside the exhibit the electronic text display flashed and the e-ink changed from Estonian to English. It was so amazing that even for things that I wasn’t interested in learning about I was still waving my ticket in front of the glass just to see the text change. There were a number of interactive exhibits as well and we all spent an inordinate amount of time playing with them. So much so that we had to rush through the other parts of the museum a bit faster so as to make sure we saw everything. Eventually I found it was just Tonis and I walking through after I got separated from the larger group and we made our way to the history of the ancient tribes they eventually became Estonians and other Eastern European groups. That part of the museum disappointingly didn’t include the language changing displays but it did have a bunch of movies and interactive features. Soon I found myself sitting beside Tonis while we waited for the others to catch up and he was explaining to me how the art on the wall was created using a new printing technology. It was fascinating and I found myself grinning knowing that there were probably exceptionally few people who would actually understand and appreciate that level of technical detail, the early years of my career spent learning all about how things are printed.

At the end of the ancient people’s exhibit was the thank you list and I took a look more out of curiosity then anything else. I didn’t think that I would recognize one of the names up there much less find that it was Tõnis’s company of all things. In the final exhibit that we entered about Estonia in the 1990s there was also a large group photo featuring his father and uncle and I realized that Tonis is really really Estonian. My family may have been in NY since the dawn of America but we had nothing like that to point to. It was a bit daunting to see. Probably my favorite part of the 1990s exhibit though was the old computers and computer games. I sat with Kyto and explained how the original version of Doom worked then Tonis and I reminisced about the old version of the mouse with the physical ball that you had to clean to keep it working right. The boys would look at the two of us as we talked about interacting with Netscape navigator and the Apple II computer like we were ancient. It amazed me how quickly technology has changed over the last twenty years along with the social atmosphere of places like Estonia that found themselves going from communist propaganda to now EU propaganda. That in such a short amount of time they went from uniforms featuring the communist symbols to being an independent republic.

Full of Estonian culture and history I joked with Tonis that after this trip I was now ready to sit for a citizenship test. We poked around the gift shop that featured a lot of traditional style items at very modern prices then as the announcements reminded us that the building would only be open for a few minutes more we left and headed to dinner before they could kick us out.

Now through this trip Martin has been a great tour guide. Just like the last time I was here he is quick to share a fun fact or some history about whatever it is that we’re looking at. He also has the uncanny ability to always know a restaurant nearby where we are that’s trendy and delicious. It’s pretty amazing, I know if the roles were reversed my response would be more like Tonis - a hem and a haw followed by a few minutes checking my phone or just walking into the first place I saw to see if it was suitable. I’m really not sure how Martin manages to always have a place on his fingertips but he immediately brought us to a very hip and popular restaurant in town. The food was delicious and of course Tonis made sure that I drank plenty of the local beer. After the first one I shared that I was surprised to be feeling the effects of the alcohol so quickly and then was told that beer here is usually at 5 or 6% alcohol by volume which is nearly double what the average is back home. Things started to make a lot more sense to me after learning that. Still the beers were great and after being fed dark bread with salted butter and plenty of saucy chicken I was ready for a nice nap. We piled back into the car and dropped Martin back at his flat. We hugged goodbye and I told him I’d see him soon, realizing that this was it for me and my Estonian adventure. It hadn’t hit me before that moment but as I got into the car I felt so sad. I felt like I was drowning in the melancholy of the situation and realized for the first time ever that I didn’t want to go to Melbourne. Until that moment Melbourne has been my happy place, the place I go to escape or celebrate, it always felt like I was leaving where I live and returning home. Now I realized that for the first time I didn’t feel that way. As the Estonian countryside passed by my window I felt for the first time torn between two places that I felt so much at home in. I told Tonis that for the first time ever I didn’t want to go to Melbourne, that maybe I had messed up and should’ve just spent the rest of my trip in Estonia. Much like what Bren would have responded he told me that it would all be fine and that I’ll have a great time there as well. I knew he was right but it didn’t make me feel much better. We stopped and I picked up a bunch of Vana Tallinn to bring to my Australian friends as gifts and then at our second stop I found a Vana Tallinn ice cream bar that was delicious and a dubiously cheap energy drink called Hustler to help keep me awake. Tonis played DJ in the car as he drove and soon we were laughing hysterically and singing along to Flight of the Concords.

Before I knew it the streets looked familiar again and we were back at my hostel. Meri gave me the other roll leftover from the morning and some black bread toast package. Tonis insisted that I take my blueberry stash with me and tried to give me his more impressive bucket but I’d have none of it. I hugged Meri and Kyto goodbye then Tonis was last. As we stood in front of each other sharing some parting words I found that I didn’t want to leave at all. I wanted to be making plans for tomorrow or next week. Finally I walked away promising to let him know if I run into trouble at the airport in the morning and to let him know how the new job goes.

Back in the hostel I didn’t even bother trying to head to the bar and have a final night of fun. With only five hours til I needed to get ready for my 28hr flight to the other side of the world and nothing but dread at the thought of it (especially when I realized like an idiot I didn’t call to book a seat assignment) I simply packed up my bag and my six bottles of Vana Tallin and craft gin and started writing about my day.

In the wee hours of morning as the sun rises at an absurd hour I’m ready to see what the next part of my journey holds in store and am already trying to figure out when I can come back here to see my friends.


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