It’s an outrageous +27 outside. I could not wear my winter coat today (my beloved badass shadowboxing coat), and am suffering separation anxiety. I am grumpy. I am worse than Scrooge, because Scrooge hated the cold and icy time of year, and I hate May, the nicest, most joyous and inclusive of all months.
What is up with that? Maybe I have gotten overadapted to Estonian winter. Now that things are changing, arguably for the better, I am afraid to give up the reclusive wintry self that I had acquired with such pains. Peering at people from the depths of the badass hood was beautiful and fulfilling. Was it for naught that I went on walks and stayed quietly in (when I could have gone to GenKlubi and Illusion to form intense if temporary bonds with other inhabitants of the city)?
Who would have thought that come May I will discover that I’d lost all social skills somewhere along the way! And now, to be completely honest, I actually do want to wear a sundress and get frozen yoghurt and listen and talk and wander aimlessly and be obnoxious and happy and all together. But I can’t. May is dancing all around, but I have a February heart.
This, guys, is an example of a failure at work-life balance. Let this sad story encourage you to embrace sunglasses, bike rides, and apple cider evenings at Pirogov Park. Gosh! Studying is so important, as is quietness and hanging out with yourself, but maybe not quite so important as to eclipse Student Days, and Karlova Days, and Undead University days and all others in the endless series of days that summertime Tartu offers.
For all the other February-hearted weirdos standing around awkwardly amidst all the euphoria: Guys, we need an intervention. But at this point, we can safely assume that nobody else is gonna intervene on our behalf, so we better to do it ourselves, NOW. There’s no way but forward, to embracing this startling and potentially scary change of weather and atmosphere. Winter was for hiding. Spring is a time to set out on a quest.
In mythology and literature, a quest, a journey towards a goal, serves as a plot device and (frequently) as a symbol. In literature, the objects of quests require great exertion on the part of the hero, and the overcoming of many obstacles, typically including much travel. (Wikipedia)
We will be fine, I think: the sun is out; adventures happen, whether we notice them or not. Like the other day James and I found ourselves in a mysterious kohvik hidden in the depths of some industrial building in Karlova. And then I went to Russia to see my mom, and we stood together at the splendidly candlelit Orthodox Easter service in Petseri. Things breaking, odd unexpected injuries, kindness of near strangers: everything is part of this one adventure we have.
Ah, be daring already, summon your summer self!
Heh, I do not know. I keep encouraging people to engage with the outside world, but am myself scared of it these days. Hm. But maybe it is good to go. Supilinna Päevad! Inga said she will be selling homemade ice-cream out of her window. Which I mean is wow.
To be honest, I feel unqualified to write about Karlova. It seems like too cool and tight of a community. True Karlovans love their district a lot. They publish newspapers and organize a festival called Karlova Days, which, my friends, is rapidly approaching.
It seems that they publish and organise a bunch of stuff, actually. The creative output per resident is remarkable, as I came to realise this last weekend, lured into the neighbourhood by Laura and Tõnis. Laura is a semiotician (Masters from UT: once a semiotician, always a semiotician). She works in a natural foods store and sings in a band called Puhkus. Tõnis has a literature degree and once upon a time gave out free coffee flyers on Raekoja Plats. This was when he was known as the Golden Man or, alternatively, as Glam Rock Pushkin. But those days are long gone. He’s on the editorial team of a science fiction blog, which I thought was called Hullumaja, but apparently is called Reaktor the Science Fiction Magazine. He also writes for interesting Estonian periodicals like Värske Rõhk.
So Tõnis, Laura and me are sitting in Anna Edasi, a tourist destination you actually should visit. It is nice and homey and has delicious blueberry rye dessert. So delicious, in fact, that it deserves to be featured on this blog.
Anna Edasi is supposed to be easy to find, but to this day I do not know where it is. Usually I just go in the direction of Karlova and find myself there. (Not a good strategy: last time I ended up wandering up and down Võru street for a long time. Don’t do that. But do visit Võru Varblane, a new vintage shop right next to that Asian Restaurant right off Riia).
Back to the story. Tõnis and Laura are my connection to the Estonian-language world of writers and intellectuals. Like most Estonians I met, they are siblings of, neighbours of, former students of, best friends of a number of prominent figures in the literature world, who all seem to be concentrated in Karlova. Sven Vabar, who wrote a book called Mitte-Tartu – Non-Tartu, which makes me super excited coz I have been thinking about that for a while. Berk Vaher who is a writer and does absolutely everything on earth including teaching and DJing and I have no idea how. Mihkel Kunnus, much-feared literary critic and boxer.
“Actually, Mihkel Kunnus is a bit further from Karlova, but lives in the general area,” says Tõnis, commited to factual accuracy. “Mehis Heinsaar and Anti Saar would probably be better examples - although Heinsaar is considered the patron writer of Supilinn, kinda like its Poet Laureate, he has moved to Karlova. Will Karlova have its own Poet Laureate - you’ll never know.
I found out that Mart Velsker (who also isn’t really in Karlova, but in the general area), wrote an award-winning article on it. He writes that the famed pre-war children’s author Oskar Luts lived in Karlova.
Then there were (now deceased) Mati Unt and Vaino Vahing, the first one being an amazing writer in his own sense (debuted 17-years-old with a book that immediately made him the child prodigy of Estonian literature, afterwards becoming a pioneer of modernism, after that a pioneer of postmodernism, but still probably better known as a theatre director). The second one was a psychologist and a weird writer. Most people consider him absolutely brilliant.”
Oh, this world of theirs, so alluring and so intimidating! This language that I understand just enough not to feel indifferent, but not nearly enough to feel like these writers are speaking to me. It’s an honour to come in contact with this world, but still, I am glad that there are Tõnis and Laura who can stand between us, and translate, and protect me from ever, ever being seen.
It’s nice, also, to know that people write. Karlova superstars write, so do Laura and Tõnis. So do I, I suppose, although that seems like a fundamentally different process, one of murkiness and needless agony – as opposed to the clarity and mysterious elusive brilliance of these Estonians.
This is it, the story hastens to its end. The three of us stopped by an antique shop, where Laura found blue Soviet shoes and I bought an Indian-looking bag. After I awkwardly followed them for a couple of minutes, they asked me where I needed to go and gave directions. So we parted, and I rolled down Vaba, and further down Kastani, which looked like a dusty deserted cowboy town in the spring sun, real warmth.
If you go to Karlova, plan for at least three hours of leisurely strolls, coffee and cake, and discoveries of very old books in antique shops. Come to Karlova Days in May. Laura’s band, Puhkus, is performing there on May 18 (and also at Supilinn Days this Saturday, April 27, at 2:15pm).
Goodbye for now. Stay interested in things!
More than just a bland stretch between the celebrated garden town of Tammelinn and the dreaded Soviet homogeneity of five-storied Veeriku, Maarjamõisa is a perfect afternoon destination for those seeking to get away from the hustle and bustle of Kesklinn life. This is what prompted me to compile this Guide to Maarjamõisa, written from the point of total lack of authority and a growing sense of appreciation for this part of town.
Start your trip at Kaubamaja by taking bus number 3, 5 or 7 up Riia street. Look out the window. To your right is the Lutheran church with a sinister-looking copper dome. To your left is the famous bar Soodiak (which looks every bit as shady as my hometown’s Children’s Café Alenushka did back in the mid-nineties). The bus passes under the railroad bridge: congratulations, you have crossed the boundary between the familiar and the unknown!
Get off the bus at Kaare and stop for a snack at a Grill Burger joint. If you are hungry, that is. But you better not be hungry yet, coz the whole adventure lies ahead! Walking down L. Puusepa, you will see many a healthcare establishment: pharmacies, clinics and adjacent gardens.
Continue on; this is my favourite part. L. Puusepa around Tervishoiu: houses of different shapes and subtle colours, on and on as far as the eye can see. This is the subdued, fragile beauty of Maarjamõisa. There is nothing to buy, nothing to eat here. No spectacular landscape to consume. Just walk. And stand. And be with yourself. What luxury!
When you reach the intersection of L. Puusepa and Näituse, you will see the bright yellow signs of Veeriku Selver. Now it may look like an ordinary grocery store, but let not appearances deceive you. It contains many delights: an unwelcoming cafe with coffee and tea for under one euro, a gift shop with strange-looking shoes from all the world’s nations, and the best charity shop I have ever been in (an array of handmade or customised things, old souvenirs, framed cross-stitched patterns: a touch of humanity, which is the real appeal of charity shops).
With your newly purchased amateur paintings and mismatched mugs, follow Näituse back into the centre. Cross the railroad tracks (to your left and your right, the sky). Walk down past the university’s law department, and next thing you know, you’ll be back at Toomemägi, which you can climb and reward yourself with a tea in the Rotund cafe, possibly the only wifi-less place in Estonia.
Everything should be clear now. On a sunny afternoon, don’t be boring and go to Werner. Come to Maarjamõisa, which is getting nicer and nicer with every sunny and cloudy spring day.
Visiting Elise the other day, I picked up a Tartu tourist brochure, which Elise keeps around for foreign artists and volunteers who occasionally come to share her flat. The guide was sweet, very Tartu-like, as in self-consciously bohemian. “Only in Werner”, the booklet declared, “can you see lovely old ladies, looking as swell as they did in the thirties”. Wow. I thought. We are actually objectifying old ladies. How come I didn’t see this before?
You know this vision of Tartu: quaint and comfortable, home to multiple oddities and a number of cheap and unique joints. This is our Tartu, no doubt: the Tartu of rambling students. [Not the Tartu of, say, local high school students, nor the retired people on the bus, nor my fellow inhabitants of Maarjamõisa, as I am now realising.]
We learn about must-see (must-love) places: cafes, graffiti-covered walls, bars, cultural centres. Displaced and in need of belonging, we come to associate ourselves with places very fast: from “oh, Werner, my second home” of the first arrivals to the obligatory internship at the Printing Museum of those who had time to settle.
This Tartu we live in is a bohemian playground. Attend an art show, and you have entered the creative circles. Attend two, you’re in; in a couple of months you can put on your own. Involvement is easy, self-expression in all forms is celebrated. This is the Land of Do-As-You-Please.
Why am I talking about this? In the past however many months, I have been growing weary of this Estonian me, the one that sits in cafes planning fantastical projects and flutters from artist to artist in some cute and edgy basement bar. This inspiring and narcissitic upsurge of creativity had to subside sooner or later, I suppose.
Until the city comes to mean many different things to us, we haven’t really lived there. I’ve seen Tartu’s bohemian face, but of my socialite self I might have had enough – so I want to be transformed by Tartu more than once, in more ways than one. I want the city to speak to me differently.
And I trust it will – if I give it a chance, if I walk the road less travelled, enter the basement bars less harmless. Anyone interested in Soodiak?
We are back in this ghost-like city, joining the shadow silhouettes in the streetlights - this city of which nobody knows whether it really exists, everything here being just dream and fog (this I repeat over and over, one of the few Estonian phrases which I managed to internalize: “nagu uni ja suits”). Found in Viivi Luik and Emil Tõde (both required and unfinished class readings), all this poetry and self-indulgence is the exclusive privilege of those of us who live here.
This March, goodness, the frozen heart of winter, and will it get easier? I think not, because something in me changed rather drastically. I am a silent inhabitant of a tiny studio flat. My walk to the centre is a hike (and used to be a mad dash from dorm door to department). I sit in an armchair which is mine, cover myself with scarves for warmth preservation, burn candles, and read post-colonialist theory because I have to and Yeats because I want to and because I am not ashamed to love him, and anyway nobody would judge me in this city, where having your head in the clouds is a requirement.
And yes, in this place I cannot want company. Certainly not loud company. I do not know what happened to the chatty butterfly of last autumn. These blogposts, too, all these lists… Good god! Whatever happened to that. Anyway, this post, too, is a breaking of silence, but I hope it is not too violent of a sound. I hope, actually, with this post to lay aside the self-conscious concern about my readership (no doubt much less numerous and judgmental than I imagine), and just say this: that there are railroad tracks in this town, and hardly ever a train, that walking downhill is slippery, and that the cold sun shines bright.
Yes, I, like many others, did walk over it, and regretted it as soon as we got to the middle. It was completely terrifying and I wanted to lay down and never move again. I am a wimp.
Have you done it?
Living in Tartu, we partake in a life of luxury that our peers in larger cities only dream of. Rapid pace of life, long distances, impersonal and hurried interactions - Tartu has none of these usual frustrations of adulthood. Unless you are studying Physics in the middle of nowhere near Lõunakeskus, you can get to your department in what, five minutes? Compare to world average of 40 minutes, one way.
In Tartu, food craving emergencies are easily resolved, since Comarket is like two meters away from the dorm. Going out at night is a piece of cake: no need to fret about tube closing down or to spend inordinate amounts of money on cabs. The city centre is your backyard.
We all agree on this. Here is my question then, guys: how on earth did I manage to end up an utterly stressed out mess last semester?
I thought I did everything right. I had a daily planner. I went to the grocery shop regularly. Come on, I even went to the gym with frightening regularity! I grew muscles, man! I gave up coffee! And yet now that I’ve had several weeks to relax and take stock of Autumn 2012, I can see myself for what I have become: a hamster in a running wheel. (Tragically, a hamster with less-than-ideal grades).
As the student body trickles back into Tartu for a new semester, the question of how to live efficiently (and happily!) seems urgent. To put it in pseudo-economic terms, efficiency means managing your time and space in a way that minimizes stress and maximizes pleasure. What could it mean for us?
Here are some thoughts. As always, I want to hear your ideas. (I know I’ve not been perfect at responding in the past, and I’ve been doing a horrible job with the Estonian Music thing. Sorry about that. Blame it on the running wheel.) Anyway, here we go:
1. Choose courses wisely.
This is not as easy as it seems. Last semester I made an idiotic decision to try my hand at sociology, and that was a predictable disaster. Worst of all, I had absolutely no reason to take it and, in fact, had to fight to justify it in the context of my (gloriously non-socialsciencey) program in folkloristics. So anyway, counting my losses and moving on. What are you guys taking this spring? What are the most exciting courses of this semester, I wonder? I bet Philosophy of Sex and New Age Healers would score pretty high, so I’m signing up for both of them.
2. Plan to learn how to cook new things.
This one seems like a boring one, but hey, it’s important. I ate yogurt for at least two meals a day last semester, no joke. And I mean tons of yogurt, like terrifying amounts of yogurt. This has got to stop. So how about Sunday is the designated market day? And getting to cook something new at least once a week would surely be exciting.
3. Pursue a skill or a sport.
Rock climbing, weightlifting, boxing. All non-ladylike activities that I am dreaming of, ever since Dark Knight Rises introduced me to the awesome badass character of Catwoman. The Sports Centre offers all these and more.
4. Pick and choose your fun.
The variety of activities that Tartu offers is too exhilarating. One can go out every single day and never get bored. But as my friend Elise says, one’s personal time is a precious resource, and if one doesn’t actively protect it, it will get filled up pretty fast. That’s what happened to me last autumn. Studying, blogging, random (failed) translating projects, the printing museum, a creative writing group, events of different sorts, conferences and travelling to conferences, friends coming to visit, coffees, lunches, parties… I said yes to everything. It was wonderful and it was awful. And I’ve sort of had enough, and you know why? Because I want to have IDLE TIME sometimes.
This spring, I will exercise my right to say no. And then go home and doodle. Or maybe cut pictures out of magazines, because that’s what I loved to do as a child and because it has no point and no foreseeable external reward.
This is it for now, then: we’re not getting any younger, time to get off the hamster wheel. Or at least learn to run in a more enlightened way, kind of like this:
Good luck to all of us. Here’s to a new semester, and a new spring!
On the door of the Raatuse apartment I left the other night, there is a pink post-it note with a laconic message: “Lock the door before go to bed”. In the spirit of this useful and endearing reminder, and all the “take the keys” and “turn off the lights” ever posted on student dorm doors,
(and in keeping with this blog’s emerging tradition of making lists),
here is a guide I have not planned to write, a Guide to Leaving Tartu.
1. Get stuff done. In the days before departure, life gets hectic and full of errands to run. Run these errands, then, at a reasonable pace.
2. Have interesting Christmas gifts ready. Get your Kalevs and must leibs for people back home. Sure, buy patterned mittens at souvenir shops if you must, but do also consider things like polar bears made of paper (from Noorus Gallery) or real Estonian books (give the gift of expanding erudition with Viivi Luik’s The Beauty of History or Piret Puppart’s Estonian Folk Costume and Fashion).
3. Go sledding on Käsitoome with your flatmates and best pals. Käsitoome, in case you didn’t know, is a ravine or a sort of meteor hole in the ground, where the Night Song Festival takes place in April, during Student Days. In winter it’s a perfect place to slide down, flip over, spring up and run back. Superhero-style. Go at night, when there are no underage sledders. No need to buy proper equipment (although I am told it is available, and reasonably priced, at Lõunakeskus). Go rough, use trash bags.
4. Do not be afraid of the landlord or lady. If you are moving out for good, chances are, they will come check up on you. Personally, I am always terrified of this because of an irrational reverence for landlords and ladies (what’s the proper non-gendered term? Landpeople? Landnobility?) as figures of authority. You’re an adult now. If unbeknownst to yourself you’ve broken important things, you and your deposit can take the hit. What’s the point of worrying? Especially when you’ve got to
5. make sure that you are not doing stupid things right before leaving. Like sending your passport off to the unreliable Indian embassy or lending out your only traveling suitcase.
6. Keep your last evenings open for spontaneously meeting up with people who shared these months with you and with people you only just met. When you are getting ready to leave, expect to feel closer to anyone and everyone you meet. That is another phenomenon of leaving: human interactions get a hundred times more intense.
7. Go to your last lectures, even though it may be tempting to skip. Say bye to your coursemates. Most likely it won’t really matter to anyone if you don’t say bye, but you will feel better for having honoured the fact that you spent a semester in the same sort of strange situation with a bunch of other people, learning about privatization and marriage patterns in transition societies, attempting to theorise ghost lore, and trying to get a grasp on this bizarre and exhausting language, for which you developed a totally unrequited love.
8. Remember the nicest food you’ve had in Tartu. Go and have that food. Rum balls at Werner. Pepper soup at GenKlubi. Kama and kefir brought home from Comarket and eaten at 11pm in your kitchen.
9. If you, being poor, had no other option but Ryanair, then make a conscious decision to pack your entire life into 10 kilos, and stick with it, no complaining. Real heroes travel light.
10. Choose Not To Be Dramatic. If I learned anything from these years of constantly coming and going, it’s that goodbyes are never permanent. When we leave a place for the first time, it feels fateful and maybe even devastating, but soon enough you get into the habit of leaving.
This is what I said to myself and to my roommates, to Ana who came back late to say goodbye and cried in the hallway. But then I walked through the snow with my suitcase and still felt that something important is happening.
This midnight walk to the bus station is made every year by so many people: some leave for good, some are looking forward to the proverbial new horizons, some are accompanied by friends, leaving exchange-year friendships to flourish or wither with distance, some walk alone. But no matter how many people before you have lived through this departure, the significance of it still catches up with you.
What is there to say? Have faith. Be brave. Believe with your whole heart: that which you have loved once stays with you as long as you love it. You are bound for life to the people who shared with you the darkness of winter.
Besides, you would have to try hard to ever really leave: time passes, you end up in all kinds of other places, but everywhere you go, you find Saskia, Myrthel, Tobias, you find Estonian stands at Hamburg Christmas markets,
- so it happens, no matter how incredible or clichéd this seems, that everywhere you go, you find the Tartu you were afraid of losing.