I hover above the port lights under the auspices of Kavinsky’s ‘Nightcall’ from Drive (2011) on my Blackberry, in my existential element with Johnnie Walker in hand, thoughts drifting to dreams of midnight in a perfect world. I jet down on time at 9:50 p.m. and hit the bus 20 minutes later, bypassing a group of audibly confused middle-aged Scottish women who I’m sure live a few streets from me back home. I get off at the Viru Centre, a shopping mall beside Tallink Hotel. My mate Andy isn’t here and my phone has no signal. The district is empty. I dart across a main road bereft of cars, stall in the middle of a leafy roundabout, and begin to locate the hostel using print outs from Google Maps. A five minute search through deserted streets. I hear music and chatter. A yellow three-storey apartment building. I press the buzzer and a receptionist comes down and lets me in. Andy is standing there at reception, drunk, his shoes off. What is going on? I’m asked to do the same. I check in my passport and she shows me to my six bed dorm. I come across ‘Comrade Kimbo’, a Canadian tree surgeon in the bunk below me. This will all end in tears.
I try and source a drink from the hostel. It’s time to go: bar crawl ran by an Aussie chap who looks and sounds like Chopper Read. We’re led up a long, narrow street that reminds me of The Shambles in York, but more replete with watering holes. Our first destination is an Irish-themed bar that has karaoke and frowns upon cash payments above five euros. There’s Liverpudlians with us who Andy thinks are Welsh. I drink six beers in thirty minutes. Estonian women are very friendly, and find tourists a curiosity. They actually talk to me and don’t think I’m insane. Initially sceptical, fearing I’m being lined up for a pickpocketing or the subject of flattery by a prostitute, I begin to chill and accept the fact I’m very interesting to women on holiday.
Comrade Kimbo says ‘Winning’ a lot and tells me he likes Charlie Sheen. Andy and subsequently two others begin chatting up a provocatively-attired blonde at the bar who is so obviously a hooker but they’re too drunk to realise until she starts negotiating price. I pass on the karaoke. We proceed to the second bar, a sleek cocktail lounge, about 25 in number, all seemingly either British, Australian, Canadian, or Finnish. The evening is an absolute write-off from here; it probably has something to do with the ‘Cocaine Shots’ introduced to me by the boys from Liverpool. FYI, there isn’t cocaine in these but they’re lethal. All I remember beyond lighting the glass contents on fire, drinking it, and snorting the remnants zealously through a straw is a fist fight in Taco Bell. I was not involved.
I wake up feeling deathly. Comrade Kimbo starts playing ‘The Court of the Crimson King’ by King Crimson through his phone because it’s his ‘Winning Song’. This happens every morning. I go in search of an ATM with Andy. The distinct lack of them contributes to this otherworldly feel, which is odd as it’s allegedly the technological hub of the Baltic states. The cash transaction appears to be stressful for merchants, though, and MasterCard the imposter. ATMs can be found, but it took me about 15 minutes on every occasion.
This is the first I’ve really seen of Tallinn. It’s chilly but festive. The old town is spectacularly preserved. Every roof is brick and orange brown. We continue to wander. I gaze up at Alexander Nevsky Cathedral which is opulent, and recall the Prokofiev score from the Eisenstein film. We come across the former KGB city headquarters which don’t look at all sinister (this may have been the point). I thank myself that I’ve so far by lucky accident avoided most of the often alluded to Soviet-style housing blocks, and find the medieval old town and Viru Gate just fine. I’m informed there’s a beach somewhere but I have no interest in beaches and figure I’ll let it lie.
Maciej is right in front of me! It’s the engineering guy from my August hostel stay in Gothenburg who I couldn’t contact because the Blackberry Bold 9000 is a phone for fools. He has to leave shortly with friends so we show him where the passenger port is. A fifteen minute walk and there it is, a bright blue expanse of cheap cruise ships to Sweden and Finland. Brits get a bad name for rampaging abroad, uncontrollable alpha males on the sauce, but my scattered memory of last night informs me the Finns coming off the boats can match them shot for shot. He tells me they frequent often, a brief jaunt over the Gulf on the Tallink line for cheap bars and clubs. We say goodbye. It’s been emotional. Some would say this ‘defines life’.
Beers in a bar adjacent to an indoor market that has Soviet memorabilia just shy of Lenin t-shirts. A restaurant called African Kitchen which has great food and an incredibly dark and moody decor. Hostel. I wear a Captain Morgan hat in a drinking game. I post a rambling status update on facebook. An activity entailing the throwing of ping pong balls at bottles begins. Another excursion outdoors. At the first bar a creepy guy with bleeding bullet cartridge wounds in his head keeps following us around. We escape him. There’s more bars. I’m in the queue for the bathroom, not really in full command of my faculties, and get the impression this local couple I’m talking to about Amaretto are trying to rob me so I sprint for the exit.
I’m admiring the buildings in Town Hall Square with a few others; they might be residents at my hostel but I can’t be sure. We go to a strip club. There’s a lesbian with us. She’s enjoying it more than me. I’m ‘Art Vandelay’ and proclaim myself an architect. The facade slips when the one who looks like Ana Ivanovic starts talking the Pritzker Prize and I can only retort with Albert Speer. I arrive home and the sun is coming up. I crawl into my top bunk and notice Comrade Kimbo is still on the prowl. I see that my bedsheets are on the floor but that’s a bridge too far so I elect to pass out under an array of dirty clothes retrieved from my bag.
It’s 11:00 a.m. I’m en route to the Taktikalise Laskmise Keskus shooting range in a taxi driven by a woman who resembles Janine the receptionist from Ghostbusters. I’m with two Aussies and Andy. Outside the incoherent cackle of the cab (the radio fries my head) it’s industrial and less appealing on the eye; warehouses predominate. This must be the ex ‘Soviet Zone’. I shoot a Glock with laser sighting, a .38 Special, and a pump-action shotgun. Targets are eliminated, cartridges scatter. It’s ferocious. I picture myself in an urban war, or as some kind of contemporary macho Hemingway literary type. The instructor stands an inch from me. They’re trained to disarm in a flash. He looks like Wesley Sneijder if he were in the FSB.
We jump on a tram without paying; we’ve just shot guns and are thus dangerous and above such things. A 70cl bottle of Pina Colada is purchased from a local supermarket. My shooting buddy Tommy gives me a throat sweet. My other shooting buddy Michelle warns me that if I say I’m ‘Winning’ one more time she’ll slap me. We’re now walking around the former Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic scratching our heads; it’s altogether more akin to a day trip to Bruges in winter. I’m told that the government relocated a Soviet bronze soldier statue commemorating World War II to a lesser cemetery, causing the mandatory ethnic and political friction, riots this time. The young Estonians I meet all claim to look politically not to Russia but to Western Europe, and have a close affinity with Finland and Sweden, other Nordic basins. There’s no sense of Baltic attachment, either. I find a few Russian speakers among mostly older people in chemists, supermarkets, and in Janine the taxi driver. It’s surely because I’m spending all my time in bars with Britons and Australians.
I cleanse myself of violence with another shower in my dorm and venture back outside. There’s this ridiculous little market 150 feet west on the way towards Old Town Square. It has about seven stalls selling local food, clothes, and tourist gifts. Always empty, the marketeers scowl at me again as I stroll past indifferent to their suffering. It’s the last full day and I’m feeling sad. I also feel guilty about the lack of exercise and constant beer consumption so decide to climb a tree. I look for the football stadium but can’t find it and end up back in that cocktail lounge. I have a White Russian because it’s scrawled on a chalk board and priced at three euros. It’s a large one so I order two before returning to the hostel.
It’s magic hour on my way back and I think I have the feel for what Tallinn is all about. Chock-full of stag parties, revellers, young travellers and inexperienced drinkers, it’s basically one big decadent party. There’s real history here, though, and of the contentious kind, too, and here lies the dialectic: in this (capital) city of political and cultural transition, caught between old and new, East and West, the architectural landscape shrugs and declares neutral permanence, and we seem to be here as a puzzling, irritating, but occasionally entertaining distraction to what must be tiresome generational discourse. We are the circus. I high five (myself) my articulate summary.
At the common room computer I begin to wonder whether all this facebook status updating has been a good idea, and proceed to hide potentially compromising updates from suspected disconcerting gossips back home. I am physically decomposing, haggard, my hair lifeless, eyes shot; the excess water intake and two showers hasn’t helped one bit. There’s no going back. I drink another eight Kopparbergs from the hostel bar because I’ve finished the Pina Colada.
Pub crawl (again). I triumphantly pull out my ‘victory cigar’ and light the wrong end; it still works out because no one else has a cigar and I look money. I try and impress an Argentinian with my knowledge of Eva Perón; it doesn’t work out as I accidentally smash a bottle of beer on the floor and cut my finger. There’s more bars, more clubs, more shots, all gloriously culminating with the reciting of Hakuna Matata in the Taco Bell with eight Disney aficionados. They must really hate us. No, that’s not right. We have enlightened their lives, gave them something to talk about. The Lion King message has to be shared.
The final day. I realise I’ve lost the Blackberry. I crawl downstairs, check my bank balance online, have a farewell beer with Comrade Kimbo in a local bar, and go to the supermarket with Calum, a Scot working in Norway, who it transpires used to live a few streets away from me back home. It is indeed a small world. He makes me a vegetarian wrap. I stumble across a turtle on the floor and it turns out to be an actual turtle. I pose with it in four photographs. Philip, another Scot on a break from work in Norway, reintroduces me to the word ‘deadbeats’; it’s now one of my favourite pejoratives. I lie back on a sofa and ambivalently think about life back in Scotland as the hostel guests watch an episode of South Park. The hour is sadly approaching. We order a taxi, say our goodbyes. Comrade Kimbo adds me on facebook. I depart with Andy for the airport, reeking of booze and with glazed, disheveled eyes. It’s 8:00 p.m. Edinburgh beckons. We take off, those lights beneath us slowly receding away into darkness. I have no accompanying music to make it cinematic because I lost my Blackberry. I think I know where but one mustn’t dwell on these things. I fall asleep in my seat. Farewell, Tallinn. I gave you the best I could. And that’s all I wrote.