A Pain In The Mouth

Rats.

I’ve had a niggling toothache for a few weeks now, on and off. Possibly I haven’t helped matters by snacking quite regularly on the supply of Cadbury’s chocolate that Riho brought back from a recent trip to the UK, but it’s not like I always do this. In fact, I hardly ever eat sweet things, as instead of a sweet tooth, I have a mouthful of sensitive ones. Clearly my teeth just hate me. They get even a whiff of a Creme Egg and they see it as their moral duty to punish me.

Anyway, I laid off the chocolate for a day or two, as I have as much desire to go to the dentist as I have to be hung naked from the rafters and have white-hot metal objects pressed against my skin until I black out. (Sorry, I have just finished watching Season Two of 24.) And all was well until last night, when suddenly my teeth, sensing that I was on to them, went in for the kill and began shooting tiny little arrows into my gums. I did not have a pleasant night, and today has not turned out much better.

I do not want to go to the dentist. I’m not scared of dentists, you understand. They are, quite probably, human beings. I’m not afraid of needles, either, as seems to be inexplicably common – I don’t particularly enjoy having any part of my flesh pierced with a sharp metal point, but it doesn’t terrify me. No, I just do not like dentists. They talk to you when they’ve got their hands in your mouth, for a start. It’s most undignified, particularly when they pause for you to reply and you end up going “groooooghuurghhguullllyaaa” and drooling helplessly.

Mine always used to tell me off, too. “Do you drink coffee?” he started asking suspiciously when I was in my teens. “Red wine?” he added a few years later. “Are you a smoker?” he asked in undisguised disgust when I finally returned to him after many years for my last – and worst – dental appointment. I always came out feeling guilty and dirty and small and disgraced. In that particular instance, I also came out staggering drunkenly, with blood caked on my numb lips, clutching a hand to my swollen cheek, and promptly walked into a little old lady, causing her to drop her shopping all over the pavement. Yes, that was the day he put his foot up on the chair, got the nurse to hold my head down, and using both hands and what I can only imagine was a pair of pliers, ripped out my top wisdom teeth and then – against all my fervent and clearly expressed wishes – put cotton wool** in my mouth to stem the bleeding.

You can forgive me for not wanting to see a dentist again for as long as I live.

However, it may very soon be unavoidable, as I am fighting a losing battle against my molars. I have started making nervous and tentative enquiries online as to the standard of dentistry in Estonia. Happily, the healthcare system here seems to be decent – I read an article last month saying that of the 31 nations rated in a new ‘league table’ of European healthcare systems, Estonia was placed 11th, and the UK came 13th. Good news for me, anyway(!). And when they were rated according to value for money, Estonia was top, while the UK came 17th! Sure enough, I have found a dental price list, and it doesn’t seem even vaguely as scary as what I had to pay my dentist in Ballymena, which saw me muttering darkly for many weeks about the pointlessness of paying taxes.

Rather disturbingly, however, they seem to be unnaturally fond of lasers. I have no idea what most of the things on the list are to start with, but when they start introducing lasers to the already unpleasant situation, it becomes all the more alarming. Laser amputation on primary tooth. Yikes. Have started attempting to wobble my teeth to check that they’re not loose or likely to require such a drastic-sounding procedure. Laser sterilisation of one root canal. Laser decontamination of wounds and alveoli. Laser recontouring of gumline, one tooth. Eh? Vestibular frenuloplasty (with laser). It goes on like this for quite some time.

I am going to take a few more painkillers and purchase some mouthwash and dental floss.

**If you don’t know this already, I am terrified of cotton wool. Terrified, I tell you.

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A Life Fraught With Peril

I don’t think people realise how dangerous it can be, living in this part of the world. Do you, readers, recognise and appreciate the danger in which I have placed myself for your entertainment?

So there I am, returning from an invigorating trip to the swimming pool, and as I stuff my Bill Bryson book back into my bag and hop off the bus with an energetic bound I realise that I am incredibly hungry. This is, of course, one of the unfortunate things about getting off the bus within sight of a supermarket; particularly when you know that said supermarket has an extremely well-stocked Warm Snacks counter, with warm bread rolls, pizza slices, and all manner of sweet and savoury pastries.

However, still on an energy kick from my swim, and not wishing to undo all my good work just yet, I ignore Old Me’s request for a cheese and ham piruka and head swiftly to the Healthy Snacks section near the tills. Previously, you see, I have snacked upon a low-fat product called Lights – these are little crouton-like things, only much crunchier, and very tasty. Apart from the name, everything on the packaging is in Russian, but this has not been a problem with earlier purchases, as the pictures made it clear that the flavours were Cheese and Onion, and Sour Cream and Chives. And very nice they were, too.

dsc02176Sadly, there is now only one flavour remaining on the shelves, and it is a flavour I have previously avoided as I can’t work out what the flavour is from the unfamiliar-looking picture on the packet. Disappointed, and unenthusiastic about the idea of purchasing an apple instead, I pick up one of the packs and peer closely at it. I attempt to transliterate the product description, but I am beyond hopeless at Russian, and quickly give up. I study the picture, thoughtfully. The only thing that it reminds me of is pomegranate seeds, and while this does strike me as an unusual flavour for crispy bread snacks, it does not scare me as much as, say, snail flavour, or sauerkraut flavour, or liver flavour might. I am not a fussy eater. There are relatively few things that I will absolutely refuse to eat. I decide to live dangerously, and purchase the unidentifiable Russian snacks.

Hungrily, and perhaps rather unwisely, I scoop out a handful of the little croutons and fill my mouth with them.

“Bleurrrrrrrghhhhh!” I gurgle somewhat unattractively as the taste of Evil Itself invades my mouth and begins to spread towards all my other senses. I cannot spit the foul things out, for I am cutting through the underground bus station, and am surrounded by people. It would not be at all civilised or polite to spray them with chewed-up Russian snacks.

“Groooooooghhhh!” I add as an afterthought, chewing and crunching for all I am worth in an effort to swallow them as quickly as I possibly can and rid my mouth of the worst experience it has ever had, my eyes screwed shut in a desperate attempt to block out the trauma.

Really, it should have been obvious that the little round orange things in the picture were fish eggs of some description. But while fish eggs might be fine as part of a sushi creation (as long as I don’t think about them being fish eggs), they are most certainly not fine as a recreated and incredibly pungent crunchy bread snack flavour.

Just so you know.

Let there be light… please, let there be light.

The Viru Keskuse Bussiterminal is a little bus station underneath my nearest shopping centre.

I was setting the scene to tell you about something odd that I saw there, but actually, I suppose my opening sentence was maybe a little odd in itself. I have gradually stopped questioning the location of places here. Restaurants, for example, can be lost down a maze of lanes, down in a dungeon or cellar, or at the top of a spiral staircase. To get to the supermarket from the old apartment, I had to take the path that ran underneath the nearby hotel. Linnahall, the Soviet sports venue, is accessed from the roof. There is a nightclub inside a hill in the Old Town, and a theatre inside a wall.

dsc00162Linnahall

dsc00174Nightclub

So I suppose it seems perfectly normal that if I want to catch a bus I have to head over to the shopping mall and make my way underground to the bus station. There’s a whole community down there, anyway. Internet café, Kiosk shop, Pharmacy, Coffee shop… plenty to do when you’re waiting for the bus. There’s even a shortcut to the supermarket: and it was taking this shortcut the other day that gave me reason to pause for a moment.

dsc02164It appears, I said thoughtfully to myself, as I so often do when trying to make sense of a new situation, that there are new light fittings in the bus station, and that they have been decorated with hundreds of plastic bottles. And so they had.

There were whole chandeliers constructed out of multiple drinks bottles; many dangled in their original state, while others were decoratively cut, shredded, painted, and drawn on.

dsc02166It was, of course, part of the Valgusfestival, or “Festival of Lights”, which runs every year in the city throughout January. It’s designed to encourage people by creating as much light as possible at a time when there is generally not much in the way of sunlight. They set up light installations and light arrangements, they burn things (like Christmas trees and fire sculptures), they come up with creative ways of banishing the constant darkness, presumably for the sake of their own sanity. In this article, SAD expert Dr. Rosenthal says of the Light Festival: “We stand outside and shake our fists at winter. It’s a way of saying, we’re going to get through this.”. Which seems a tad melodramatic, but, as I sit here by my giant Light Therapy lamp, I completely understand the sentiment.

Oh, and the bus station lights were in fact the Northern Lights, recreated in plastic bottle form by kindergarten pupils. And why not?

Blurry observations

My language deficiencies continue to plague me in my daily life, and once again the swimming pool is the problem area.

I’ve always had enough trouble going to the pool, even before all the nudity issues and language barriers involved at the Tallinn pool. My difficulty was in going alone, entirely due to my exceptionally poor eyesight. Thanks to the marvel of spectacles, this disability does not generally affect me a great deal. I get annoyed when the glasses steam up upon entering a building, of course, or when it’s raining and the lack of little windscreen wipers becomes a pressing concern, but apart from these niggling issues, I’m able to lead a fairly normal life (relatively speaking). Lately I’ve been hearing whispers of the quantum vision system that boasts, practices and techniques to naturally promote vision. I like to day dream a lot, but maybe one day, I’ll have the motivation.

dsc01355This all changes when I go to a swimming pool. Particularly one that I haven’t visited before. I’m fine until the point where I have to take my glasses off and put them in my locker. After that, I’m at the mercy of large, brightly coloured signs and a bit of luck. You know what it’s like when you’re trying to see out of the car windscreen if it’s cold outside, and it’s raining, and the glass is dirty and streaky on the outside and all misted up on the inside? Well, that’s what the world looks like to me when I am sans spectacles. It is one big frustrating blur.

This always made going to a new swimming pool into quite a challenge. Once the glasses came off, I had no real clue where to go. I could only see signs if I was an inch away from them, which can very often be too late, like if the sign happens to be on the far wall of the male showering area. Throw in a wet, slippery floor and lots of brats running around at knee-height, and you’ve got a very dangerous obstacle course.

Then imagine that the pool is in a country where you don’t understand the language, and thus can’t even understand the signs when you do get close enough to see them. My life is far from easy.

The problem has arisen from the fact that my chosen pool is permanently divided into lanes, about half a dozen of them. This is great, of course. Ballymena’s pool used to annoy me dreadfully because it was one big massive free-for-all, with brats dive-bombing on your head and posers standing in your way when you were just trying to swim lengths like any normal person. My local pool in Glasgow was fantastic, with an area for said brats and posers, then two lanes for swimming – one ‘fast’, one ‘slow’ – which even had directional signs at either end, showing that swimmers had to keep to the left.

Now, using the little bit of common sense that I possess, I was able to deduce that the lanes here operate similarly – except that, of course, swimmers must keep to the right instead of the left. I was surprised to find that I had just done this naturally, which is a first, as I tend to annoy everyone in the streets, in shops, and on staircases by instinctively stepping to my left when I meet someone, just as they are moving to their right. I am clearly getting the hang of this wrong side of the road/swimming pool lane thing. Driving will be fun when I’m next back in the UK.

Anyway, so I’m swimming merrily along and I see, upon reaching the deep end, that there are little signs at the end of most lanes, which I have failed to see until now because of the lack of decent eyesight. This naturally throws me into a spin, as I suppose that they denote the rules/purpose of each lane, and I am afraid of getting into trouble for, say, accidentally doing the backstroke in the butterfly stroke lane.

However, and here’s the thing, I’ve now been to the pool several times, and I can’t for the life of me see any differences between the various activities ongoing in the differently marked lanes. I have looked up the words, but the definitions really don’t give me much more insight into the matter. “Suplus”, for example, appears to mean “Bathing” – but the people in this lane are swimming with just as much energy as everyone else. “Terviseujumine” means “Health swim”. Perhaps. What, exactly, is that? And “Haavasujumine” (I think that’s what it said) appears to mean “Wound/injury swim” or maybe “Stitch swim”, neither of which make the matter particularly clear to me.

And so I have just continued to dive into the emptiest lane and swim nervously, all the while keeping a blurry eye on the people around me. I saw one old man in the lane next to me repeatedly treading water the whole way up and down the pool, apart from the three quarters of it where his feet actually touched the bottom, in which case he was pretty much just treading floor. Or “walking”.

Another man was doing the front crawl with only one arm. That is to say, he had two arms, but one of them did not seem to be in use. I watched him for sometime, thinking that perhaps it was a recognised muscle-building technique, but eventually concluded that he had no feeling in his left arm. It just hung limply by his side as he swam, and I was utterly fascinated. He swam in a perfect line, his right arm rhythmically rising up out of the water and plunging back in again as he moved forward. I could not fathom how he was doing it. He didn’t seem to be performing any special balancing movements with his feet or anything.

I waited until he left before attempting it myself. Kicking off from the pool edge as usual, I performed one stroke of the front crawl and then fought the urge to raise my other arm for the next stroke. I attempted to bring my right arm back up, and instead rolled slowly and gracefully over on to my back, before going under rather embarrassingly. I tried again… and again… and again. Each time, my right arm flailed and thrashed in a desperate attempt to start the second stroke, and each time, I inevitably tipped to the side, rolled over, and sank.

I still do not know how he did it, but he has my utmost respect.

Enne ja Nüüd

On Sunday, I went to the Estonian History Museum – partly because I have resolved to go to more museums, and partly because it was far too insanely cold to entertain the notion of going exploring in a new area as we usually do on Sunday afternoons.

It was really great, despite the fact that much of the information (such as labels on display items) was only available in Estonian and Russian. The lady at the front desk gave me a helpful little “history textbook” in English to make up for this, and when I went to give it back on our way out she waved me away and said “is yours, yours!” with a lovely smile. So that was nice, I thought.

dsc021401I really love looking at all the propaganda from Soviet times, and there is certainly lots of this on display in recently-independent Estonia. Adverts, posters, rules, warning signs, “nanny” cautions… it is just so breathtakingly arrogant and patronising that I find it fascinating to view/read. I particularly like this one, entitled “Then and Now”. I can’t help thinking about Animal Farm when I look at these things.

While it’s amusing to see the spin that the propagandists put on certain issues, that amusement is more incredulous than outright, and is brought into sharp perspective when you view the photographs, videos and display items from concentration camps – I found myself near tears as I looked at some drawings done on pieces of bark by a small boy who died at the age of ten in a Siberian concentration camp. As for the grim pictures showing scenes of mass murders… I had to look away.

I have become very fond of Estonia in a short space of time, and I feel almost proud of this tiny country the more I learn of its resilient people’s fight for freedom throughout its troubled 90 years as a Republic. They stood firm with dignity in the midst of occupation after occupation, and instead of rioting and bombing and doing all the things that I automatically associate with ‘freedom fighting’, they used the nation’s traditional love of music to unite the people, and – how fabulous is this – actually sang their way to freedom! The Singing Revolution (1986-1991) was definitely my kind of revolution. More about that at a later date.

For now, I shall leave you with pictures from the rather bizarre (but undeniably cool) statue graveyard round the back of the museum. This was my favourite part! All those statues built and erected by the Soviet gods were joyfully taken down when Estonia gained its freedom… but where to put them? They are huge. These people had really high opinions of themselves.

Anyway, many of the statues have simply been uncerimoniously dumped at the back of the museum for want of a better place to put them. Most of them have toppled over or simply been thrown carelessly to the ground, where they lie, helplessly, gathering rust and insects (and, these days, snow). Only Lenin remains standing, gazing rather forlornly over all his fallen compadres (including Stalin).

It’s all a bit eerie… but neatly symbolic, and a pretty cool thing to have had the chance to see, I reckon!

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Big-headed: a less fortunate Lenin statue and some toppled soldiers

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Surveying the causalties: the remaining upright statue looks on

statuesquePlease, sir: trying to get Lenin’s attention

Too… many… blogs….

I seem to have gone a bit mad with this multiple blog thing.

The others were only meant to be on the side – a way of keeping track of some things I’m doing for my 101 list. However, I got carried away with the post I was writing about Cadbury’s Creme Eggs. It was just supposed to be a couple of lines explaining why they make me happy, since that’s what that blog’s all about. But how can you write about Creme Eggs and keep it down to a couple of lines?

Can’t be done. Anyway, the problem is that I babbled on for so long about the joys of Creme Eggs that I had no time free to write my next “real” blog post, and I haven’t had a chance to do so today. And it’d be a shame to waste such an important post, so I’m going to cheat and redirect you to it instead of writing about anything else here.

Click here and be off with you.

Ava uks

There’s a door in the middle of our street.

It hasn’t always been there. A couple of weeks ago it just kind of appeared on the end of a bus shelter. A large, green, sturdy door with a brass handle, and a plaque showing the heraldic lions of the Estonian coat of arms.

Curiously, and somewhat amused, Riho and I paused on our way home and watched a young woman walking all around said door before attempting to open it. We chuckled in amusement at the stupidity of some people. Imagine: trying to open a fake door in the middle of the street, when there is clearly nothing on the other side (due to the presence of the bus shelter)! Silly woman.

Only a few days ago, as I was walking past it for the umpteenth time, did I suddenly notice the words “AVA UKS” in huge letters next to the door. This means “OPEN DOOR”. D’oh.

dsc02120

Rather excited, and hopeful that I had discovered a weird alternative entrance to the magical land of Narnia, I approached the door. Ignoring the stares of the people waiting for buses, I grasped the handle, and pulled open the door. One old lady even came round from inside the bus shelter to glare at me, perhaps thinking that I was attempting to vandalise the shelter.

I really want to say that there was something incredibly exciting and mysterious behind that door. But I cannot lie, and so my story ends in a rather disappointing anti-climax, for there was simply a screen displaying some sort of advert. It started blaring loud music and yelling at me in Estonian, and I hastily closed the door and ran away.

Sorry about that.