The End of the Beginning

Everyone’s doing those End Of The Year posts, and I really, really want to be different. I completely avoided writing such a post last year, just because I didn’t want to follow the crowd.

But that was then. And every time I look at how my life was at the start of this year compared to how it is now, I feel a bit dazed and confused, to the extent where you’ll have to excuse me for writing the same kind of post as everyone else, here. I need to recap and sum it up for my own sake as much as for the benefit of readers who joined me halfway through this year and have no idea how Things Used To Be.

Remember? Back in January? There I was, in a generally bad mood most of the time, living in an albeit quite nice rented house in a not-so-nice housing estate in Ballymena. The Sister had just moved in with me, giving me someone to complain with on a daily basis after another rubbishy day, at a time when the most exciting thing in our lives was a new musical doorbell.

Then came February, when work was becoming a serious headache and I allowed an online Scrabulous tournament to briefly take over my life. Then something surprising happened: I was nominated and shortlisted in the Best Newcomer category at the Irish Blog Awards, held in Dublin at the start of March. I didn’t win, but I got to meet some great people, and it brought a tiny measure of excitement into my life. As did the actual journey to Dublin, but for different reasons.

Anyway, it was becoming obvious to me that something had to change. I was bored. And so, in April, having experienced everything going wrong in terms of work, relationships, and pretty much everything that was important to me in all areas of my life, I made the decision to get out. That month was a bittersweet mixture of funfilled daytrips and many coffees with friends as I said my goodbyes and put in a spectacular amount of packing-related procrastination.

And so it was that in May, and in a state of nerves, I left my familiar old life behind me and set off on my adventure, having chosen Estonia as my first destination – and what a great time I had there throughout May and June! I had my first sauna, took a daytrip to Finland, went skinny-dipping in the Baltic Sea…

Then, for the month of July, I moved to France, where I lived in the baking heat of Lyon and immersed myself in the wonderful Frenchness of it all. Disaster struck when I was pickpocketed on the subway, leaving me stranded and penniless in an unfamiliar area – but I was soon back on my feet again, thanks to the Western Union and The Parents!

After a dream trip to Paris to attend a book reading by Petite Anglaise and have a lovely meal with Croquecamille and her hubby, I moved on to Belgium for August, and I still cannot believe my luck at the housesitting assignment I landed there. A month in a beautiful house with my own private swimming pool, surrounded by acres of gorgeous countryside and forests… for free?! Well done, me. I also ate waffles in Brussels and watched the sun set over the Waterloo battlefield.

Next stop: The Netherlands. September was a crazy month, perhaps the busiest I’ve ever had, and a huge blur of trains, planes, buses, trams, stations and hostels. I made new friends in Rotterdam, fell in with a bad crowd in Amsterdam, and had great fun at the beach hostel in Noordwijk. By the time I got to Utrecht I was too exhausted to do anything! So off I went to Lake Balaton in Hungary for a blissful couple of days spent swimming and sunbathing, having recovered from the scariest ordeal of my travels thus far, and then had a great time seeing my history lessons come to life in Budapest. Then it all becomes a bit hazy. I was in Vienna at one point, and I vaguely remember some language difficulties in Slovakia before ending up in Sweden, which I loved (apart from the food poisoning).

Much as I enjoyed my crazy summer, it was good to get back to Tallinn and I decided to settle down for a while. October was spent in recovery, and I began learning Estonian, exploring the city, and doing some work to make up for the dent in my finances after all the travelling around. In November, I moved into a new apartment in the city centre, started a new business (of the Silly Hat variety), and realised that it’s going to be a very cold winter. December has been spent learning Estonian Christmas songs, drinking Christmas Tea at the Christmas Market, and generally loving the Christmassyness of Tallinn Old Town.

What a year. Certainly nothing like any year I’ve ever had before! It’s a shame to be finishing it in the somewhat pathetic condition that I’m currently in, sniffling and coughing and groaning, but I am determined to go out and see the New Year celebrations tonight (fireworks from an old castle lookout platform? Yay!) if it kills me. And theres a fair chance it might, to be honest. But it’s been a year of risks and stumbling into the unknown, so it seems fitting to put on my heavy coat and Silly Hat and go out regardless of my imminent lung explosion. See? I’m made of tougher stuff now. I am brave and fearless.

Bring on 2009. Who knows where I’ll be this time next year? I certainly don’t – and that’s the best part of all!

Happy New Year to you, readers.

Ugh.

For Chrismas, I got a cold. A particularly bad head cold, if you must know, complete with buzzing ears and a cough that would convince anyone of a weak and pessimistic nature that they were dying.

“I’m dying!”, I wailed miserably, gulping down the hot port that Riho had brought me. Hot port (with sugar and a slice of lemon) is a Very Good Thing at a time like this.

Great, hacking coughs have filled the apartment for several days now. As soon as I lie down, I start to choke, which makes sleeping problematic. I’ve been attempting to sleep with my head propped up on about fifty pillows, but it makes very little difference other than to add to the levels of untold pain in my neck. My ribs hurt from coughing. I cannot breathe. Woe is me.

Yesterday, I realised that if I didn’t get some kind of medicine I would most likely die in a coughing spasm incident, so off I went to the apteek across the road in search of something similar to the “Veno” medicine I remember from my childhood. You know, the ones that taste like pure chemicals, burning all the way down your throat and catching fire in your chest. I figure they’re burning up all the crap that’s causing you to choke. No pain, no gain.

Unfortunately, none of the packaging on any medicines in the apteek is ever in English. Products have instructions and descriptions in multiple languages in this country – there’s usually a minimum of three languages, but I’ve seen as many as twenty on one item. Not one of them was English. It certainly opens your eyes to how much bigger the world is than just the little part of it that you’ve always kind of assumed was the centre!

Anyway, I picked out a medicine bottle that looked vaguely like the Veno one, and hunted down a sales assistant to ask if she spoke English. She spoke very little English, as it turned out, but I bet you’ve never thought about how easy it is to mime an entire conversation about various types of coughs, have you? It was like an overly-specific variation of Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes. I think she enjoyed the conversation as much as I did, and by the end of it I was quietly confident that the medicine in my hand was indeed for the type of chesty cough with which I am afflicted.

It tastes absolutely revolting. I assume this means it is good for me.

Christmas Snapshot

The townsfolk gathered in the square, wrapped up warmly against the icy breeze.

They squeezed in between the tiny cabins and market stalls, shuffling from foot to foot on the old cobbles as they awaited the appearance of the mayor at the open window of the Town Hall. Christmas carols tinkled on the air, the gentle music mingling with the softly falling snow. Near the front of the crowd, Father Christmas knelt to talk to some shy youngsters, their faces all lit up in wonder as they listened to him.

As the clock chimed the hour, faces tilted expectantly upwards. All eyes were on the mayor as he approached the window and began his Christmas message.

dsc02078

Slowly, and in a loud, clear voice, he read the proclamation of the Christmas Peace to the townsfolk below, just as had been done for hundreds of years in that same place.

Perfectly formed snowflakes fell gently on to the upturned faces of the listening crowd.

And then, as the mayor finished and stepped away from the window, there came the sound of music from the end of the Square. Friends linked arms and danced; couples stood in warm embraces; small children held out gloved hands to catch the snow as it floated lazily towards the ground. And the band sang, acappella. Their voices were the instruments, from percussion to trumpets; their voices rose in perfect harmony, ringing out across the Square.

Christmas in Tallinn: beautiful.

Singing in the Square

Üle laia lageda,
lumivalge, uinund maa
sõidab linna jõulumees
kristalses täheöös.
Kaugelt, kaugelt Põhjamaalt
täna ruttab siia ta,
põhjapõdrad, kaelas kuljused,
on iidse saani ees.

Aisakell, aisakell!
Kella kauge hüüd.
Härmast valge jõulusaan
tuhatnelja tormab nüüd.
Aisakell, aisakell,
kingul, orus, mäel.
Aisakella helinal meil
on jõulud jälle käes.

Täna jõulukuuse all
laste pilgud säravad,
õhtutund on ukse ees, –
kuhu jääb küll jõulumees?
Igas väikses käharpeas
juba salmid ammu reas,
küllap tarvis läheb kohe neid,
kui kuulda kuljuseid.

Christmas in Estonia

This is the first Christmas I’ve ever spent away from Ballymena.

I have to say, after an admittedly poorly-timed grocery shopping trip today, I don’t think things are all that different here. The usually super-efficient buses were all late, with an ominous HILINEB (“delayed”) flashing all over the place on the departure board thing; when ours finally did arrive, the journey took twice as long as normal, owing to the bumper-to-bumper traffic and general horn-blaring chaos.

Once inside the supermarket, we realised that there was not a single trolley left in the place, and had to split up and join all the other loiterers who were hanging around at the edge of the checkouts waiting to grab a trolley the very second that it was abandoned. Incidentally, I’m going to work out how to say “Are you finished with that?” in Estonian for future reference. I lost out three times to people who knew how to say it and were therefore able to swoop in in front of me and grab the trolley that I very obviously had my eye on.

Still, at least we were just doing our normal food shop. I felt quite superior to the poor sods who were flying around with crazed panic in their eyes, trying to see over the mountain of toys and wrapping paper in the trolley. I’ve found it liberating to forego the usual mad presents rush: you know, the desperate, last minute frenzy of someone who is far too disorganised to have everything bought and wrapped in good time. I love giving presents to loved ones – I just absolutely hate deciding what to buy for them. There’s the desire to get something really special and personal, something that I know they’ll love. Then there’s the need to allow for my generally limited budget. And then there’s my wonderful gift of procrastination. It’s all just so stressful.

This year I am too far away from most of the people close to me (not that that actually makes a lot of sense as a sentence, but I’m not entirely sure how to rephrase it, to be honest) to realistically be able to send gifts, and while I shall certainly miss the giving and receiving part of the season, I do not at all miss the traumatic and panicky run-up to Christmas Day. It’s the first time that I’ve ever been able to just wander through the town, taking in the sights and the sounds of Christmas, without having something of a nervous breakdown (of the kind illustrated in this post from last year).

I did think, for a while, that Estonia might not experience the same levels of craziness at this time of year. I seem to have been wrong. And really, not that much appears to be different here in terms of how the holiday season unfolds. Mad shopping, twinkly lights, Santa in a cabin, Christmas markets, mulled wine, advent calendars… Latvia (our next door neighbour) is even said to have invented the Christmas tree, with the first documented use of a decorated tree being in Riga town square in 1510!

Yes, it’s all here, with some subtle differences (and a few slightly larger ones). I’ve heard that it’s traditional to bring “Christmas straw” into the home, although I don’t know why exactly, or if people still do that. They do seem to be quite into the lighting of advent candles, which glow in nearly all the windows. They’re really pretty. Apparently, when they’re lit, children traditionally hang a sock on the window and elves bring them gifts every day. I did not know this until today, otherwise I would have tried it. Alas! It is too late, for tomorrow is Christmas Eve.

Christmas Eve is an important day in Estonia, when, every year in a traditional ceremony dating back over 350 years, the president declares Christmas to be a time of peace. I think this is lovely. I have less positive feelings about the other major custom: the Christmas Eve Sauna. Needless to say, I will not be taking part. Lighting candles and listening to a declaration of the Christmas Peace? Lovely. Sitting naked with complete strangers (also naked), all dripping with sweat? No thank you.

So, this Christmas will be very different for me in many ways, but as long as I can avoid the humiliation of a public sauna it should still be pretty good. No frantic gift-shopping, no stress, no overspending, no debt. I plan to cook a nice dinner, go to the Town Hall Square, and then enjoy Christmassy movies and Baileys with Riho. Sadly, Quality Street and Roses are missing from this happy picture, for there are no such things in Tallinn as far as I can see. However, we found some chocolates that will hopefully do the job, so all is not lost.

Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing… have a good one.

Happy Christmas! And Haid Joule (I think)!

Grave Expression

Riho and I have taken to going out for a walk in a previously unexplored area each Sunday afternoon. We just get on to a bus and see where we end up.

Well, actually, I suspect that there’s a bit more planning than that involved, but I’m not one to pay much attention to the details. And the public transport system here works really well for this method of sightseeing, since you can travel quite an impressive distance on the same single ticket that you use to go just a couple of stops on a tram.

Unfortunately, owing to a combination of factors such as having gone to bed really late for the past couple of nights, and today being the shortest day of the year (in a country where this really means “blink and you’ll miss it”), by the time I woke up today and got around to breakfast, it was already dark. Ahem. It was still afternoon, though, so we went out as usual and somehow ended up on a beach in the middle of nowhere. In the dark. And snow. I don’t think I’ve ever been on a dark, snowy beach before. It was weird.

Last week, however, we managed to get in a few hours of daylight for the Sunday Stroll. We somehow wandered into a large graveyard, which is a surprisingly good venue for an afternoon’s entertainment.

For example, I very much approved of the noticeable difference between the attitude to graves here and the one that’s more common to me. I’m used to seeing huge works of art for headstones – massive marble monstrosities towering over the flower-drenched and white pebble-filled plot, with statues and candles and ornaments galore. It has always confused me that funerals are so expensive that you’re meant to start saving for your own while you’re in your twenties, and that there are adverts on TV encouraging you to start a personal savings plan for your burial expenses so that you don’t saddle your loved ones with a load of financial worry and tombstone-related debt. I mean, what? Why? Why pay a fortune for a box that’s specifically made to decompose, and whose sole reason for existing is to be buried six feet underground forever and ever? Why shell out thousands for an enormous, shiny headstone with cold, impersonal engravings and statues? I completely understand the point of having a grave – a place to associate with the deceased loved one, to visit and ‘feel close’. But I don’t agree with this bizarre notion of having to pay ludicrous amounts of money in order to do this.

dsc02040Here, however, while there seems to be a fairly similar tradition of ‘visiting’ graves, everything is much more plain and simple. And yet it doesn’t seem any less respectful – if anything, it all looks much more tasteful to me. There are no gaudy, expensive, important-looking monuments. Instead, graves are marked with relatively small slabs of stone (or even, in some cases, simple wooden crosses). Maybe there’ll be a small plant or a single flower as a mark of a recent visitor; at some, a lit candle flickers as it burns on the plain soil bed. Often, the graves have little wooden benches where relatives can sit under the shady trees and pay their respects.

One grave even appeared to consist of a pile of Christmassy branches, laced with pretty frost and with a glowing candle placed amongst them.

dsc020451I’m not saying that I think it’s wrong to spend thousands of pounds on a funeral and grave… if that’s how people want to do it, that’s fine. I’m just wondering – is it how people want to do it? Or is it purely out of social pressure? I can’t help thinking that there’s some kind of unspoken belief in our culture that says “If you don’t buy an expensive coffin and an impressive headstone, people will think that you didn’t care about your loved one”.

And that, quite frankly, sucks.

Of course, there’s simple and understated, and there’s the extreme that makes me shiver slightly:

dsc02034I can’t be certain, but it seems realistic to guess that these are all graves, each marked only with a yellow card bearing the date of death. Nothing else. No name, no date of birth, nothing.

Who were these people? Didn’t they have anyone?  And, well, much as I wouldn’t want the impressive marble artwork towering over my grave…

I *do* like sprouts!

I feel the need to point out that I said, on my last post, “it’s not that we actively dislike the components of the traditional Christmas dinner…”.

It’s just that it isn’t a “treat” meal to me. The only part of the dinner that I really could do without is, erm, the turkey. Which is kind of a key part, but any time I’ve tried it I’ve found it to be a bit dry, boring, and generally lacking in taste – even in really nice restaurants. I much prefer chicken.

However, the rest of the meal is great. I’m particularly fond of stuffing, and fluffy roast potatoes, and those little sausages wrapped in bacon. Christmas dinner enthusiasts may be comforted to know that when some other family members call round to The Parents’ house on Christmas night, there’s always a Christmas Tea to be scoffed. It’s a cold buffet, and another of my mother’s noteworthy achievements. Chicken, ham, stuffing slices, pasta salads, stuffed eggs (I adore these), fresh bread, cranberry sauce… it never ceases to amaze me that we can each fill our plates at least twice after having declared a state of emergency just a few hours earlier due to the greedy bingeing mentioned in the previous post.

And then, of course, there are leftovers for days on end, which can be eaten as a cold lunch or served with roast potatoes and sprouts for a Christmassy dinner. So, I do eat “normal” Christmas food, you see. Just not for Christmas Dinner. Perfectly understandable.

I really am craving a big, home-cooked, Norn Irish meal now, you know.

I like to cook, and I do my best with what I’ve got, but my supply of ingredients in Estonia is decidedly limited. This is partly because they like to eat different sorts of foods here, but mostly because I have absolutely no idea how to identify the majority of storecupboard ingredients on the supermarket shelves. It took me several weeks and four incorrect purchases before I managed to work out which member of the vast dairy fridge was ordinary cream. Before that, I accidentally bought yogurt, creme fraiche, some sort of disgusting dessert thing, and a carton of unidentifiable and tasteless white gloop. If any of my growing number of local readers are also vaguely interested in cooking, and would like to spend an entertaining afternoon guiding me around a supermarket and explaining/translating products for me, please do volunteer. I’ll buy you a coffee, or perhaps a bag of sprouts.

In the meantime, bevchen had a post the other week about shopping baskets and what lies therein, and I’ve been meaning to mention some of the interesting supermarket items I’ve discovered in Tallinn. Well, they’re interesting to me, anyway. Some of my regular purchases include:

dsc00229Happy Cows. Not an unexpected move into the farming trade, but a strangely-named Milka chocolate bar. Milk chocolate with splodges of white. Like cows. No, like happy cows. Makes for a Happy Hails, anyway.

Pancakes. The variety of pancakes here is really quite breathtaking, as I’ve pointed out before. The best are to be found in Kompressor – the last one I tried there was minced beef and cheese, although the garlic and blue cheese ones are pretty special, too. And if you don’t want to go out, you’ve got to make sure you also have a good supply of pancakes at home. The ready-made supermarket ones aren’t brilliant, but they satisfy the craving. And then last week I discovered “Big Pancake Flour” – hooray! As a result, the fridge is now full of homemade pancakes. It is a very happy state of affairs.

Garlic. As you know, I always, always buy garlic. Even if I already have some. It is like a compulsion, and often I do not know dsc02003how the garlic got into my basket. Recently, I encountered a display of “Super Garlic”, which may need to be sampled before too much longer…

Ham. Estonia has approximately 1.3 million different kinds of ham. It is virtually impossible to buy the same one twice in a row, unless you’ve had the sense to write down the name of the one you liked. Obviously, I do not. However, it’s nice to have a bit of variety, I suppose, even if I haven’t got the faintest clue what all the variations of the same product actually are. It’s not just ham, it’s pork products in general. If it comes from a pig, the Estonians will offer you an overwhelming selection of nearly-identical-but-slightly-different versions of it. Which brings me to:

Big Sausage. Forgive me, for I do not know the correct name for such a product. It is simply a Big Sausage, to me. These are monstrous creations. Just one Big Sausage takes up quite a large part of an entire shelf in our fridge. Initially, I bought one out of curiosity. I had two main questions: 1) How do you cook a Big Sausage? 2) Are Big Sausages the same as Normal Sausages, only bigger? The answers are “I have no idea” and “No, nicer”, respectively. The ones I’ve tried have had cheese or something throughout them, which goes all gooey and delicious, and bubbles up from under the skin. Of the sausage, I mean, not of the eater. Big Sausages are extremely nice. They are, however, very difficult to cook. I decided (after an unsuccessful attempt involving a small explosion) that a low heat for a long time was the best option, but this left the skin slightly chewy. I am refining my method by purchasing Big Sausage on a regular basis. :)

Siirup. When in France, I complained about the absence of squash drinks, the kind you dilute with water, as these were a staple of mine before I left Ireland. I was directed to “sirop”, which is the same idea, except that it’s a thick, gooey syrup that you have to dilute, rather than the ordinary liquid consistency to which I was accustomed. It’s very sticky, and much too sweet for my tastes. However, armed with the knowledge that “sirop” was along the right lines, I discovered the Estonian equivalent: “siirup”. To my delight, it is much more squashlike. In fact, it is nicer. There are interesting flavours like raspberry with redcurrant, and my favourite is something that I can neither identify nor translate. No matter. It’s nice.

All this food blogging makes me very hungry. And I seem to recall there being a Big Sausage in the fridge…