Life in the Big(ger) City: Escape to Tallinn

Tallinn’s Christmas market

There being only three weeks until Christmas, tourists are heading in their droves to Christmas markets all over Europe. For the first time, I regretted not choosing to start my Year Abroad in Germany, land of the Christmas markets. But this regret was short-lived, as a relatively small amount of research revealed that there was a Christmas market located just over the border in Tallinn, Estonia. Tallinn being only six hours away from St. Petersburg (which, when living in Russia, suddenly ceases to be a long bus trip, and becomes “close”), it was too good an opportunity to be passed up, and so last weekend four Durham University students descended on the city.

Tallinn is about as different from St. Petersburg as it is as possible to be – think Durham in comparison to London or Manchester – and it was a welcome break from big city life. Not that I’m complaining about St. Petersburg, it is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited, and certainly the most beautiful that I’ve had the good fortune to live in (sorry Durham, but you just can’t beat the onion domes!), but the big city environment can become a tad wearing. Alright, the shop owner who regaled us with stories of how she had erected a swing in the middle of her shop to keep her entertained when she has no customers could be described as insane, but at least she was friendly. And friendliness from strangers is something that is distinctly lacking in St. Petersburg, whether it’s due to the temperament of the people, the big city environment, or simply the fact that it’s winter and everyone’s miserable!

It was also nice to be somewhere so unashamedly touristy – we couldn’t speak the language, but it didn’t matter because they actually wanted to practise their English. However, our one attempt to speak (or at least translate) Estonian backfired magnificently, and some poor stallholder is currently convinced that the English name for “the country next to Sweden” is Norway. In fact, the name for the country to which she was referring is Denmark (as we learned after recognising the Estonian word on the currency exchange board) – in our defence, both countries are actually located next to Sweden…

Tallinn also provided many other things that I’d missed without knowing that I’d been missing them, such as traditional pubs, spicy food, and the letter “s” (in Cyrillic, the Russian alphabet “с” is used as “s”). But most important was the Christmassy atmosphere – while the snow and the ever-present Christmas trees do their best to bring Christmas to St. Petersburg, nothing quite says Christmas like mulled wine and carols. The lack of this atmosphere in St. Petersburg is, however, unsurprising when you consider that the Russians don’t actually celebrate Christmas until 6th January. The holiday which they’re currently preparing for is New Year, on the same date as our New Year, but a much bigger deal. In fact, they seem to celebrate Christmas and New Year all rolled into one on 1st January, with 24 hours of eating, drinking and the exchanging of gifts. Orthodox Christmas, five days later, is a largely neglected holiday, not even meriting a day off work for many. On the bright side, my host just returned from the budget supermarket with several thousand metres of tinsel, and is currently wobbling precariously on a stool trying to attach it to the walls. Someone ought to tell her that it isn’t self-adhesive…

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