The All-Consuming Tourist Gaze

Stunning, small, and ancient enough for tourists to keep their fingers from clicking away non-stop. At least, that was the perspective of Tallinn that preoccupied my mind as I began the short, southern catamaran journey across the Gulf of Finland. And to a large extent, it was true – quite literally, it was the new existing in the old. Exquisitely perched at Estonia’s northern coast, minus the gunk and grime of medieval life, Vanalinn (Tallinn’s old town) retains enough grit to tantalise with its ultramodern, meticulously furnished caf├ęs and restaurants that occupied the ground floors of restored medieval merchant houses.

Aerial View Tallinn

Upon arrival however, I had not realised several things: the degree to which the old town has suffered from the sandwich phenomenon – an overwhelming number of visitors pack this small area of a place around the clock (literally so, considering the summer sky does not fully darken), hailing mainly from Rostock, Stockholm and Helsinki, and the degree to which the residents of Tallinn enjoy a relatively richer status than the rest of the Estonians, as evidenced in the prices of lifestyle goods, and the gleaming convertibles they drive.

Hostels, hotels and guesthouses abound, a testament to the exponential growth of the tourist industry in the last couple of years.

Tallinn Skyline

In the heart of Vanalinn, the doors of the tourist information centre are worn from constant opening and closing, while each tiny nook and cranny offers bewildering permutations and combinations of camera angles.

A few major streets separate the Old Town from Tallinn downtown, and therein is the modern attraction of the Viru Keksus and the Kaubamanja, open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., enthusiastically providing evidence of how deep mall culture has permeated Estonian lifestyle.

Yet an additional couple of days’ stay in Estonia’s capital offered the luxury of new perspectives beyond the travel handbook’s rave about the city’s poise, the widely hawked Juniper kitchen utensils, or the overly trodden cobblestones of the Old Town.

Conveniently had I wandered beyond the familiar circle of the Old Town into the sector that housed the magnificent but military looking National Estonian Library, noticing that the flags flew at half-mast that day. But I was also lost, despite being in the possession of a map, and resolutely walked into the library’s information counter, helped by a benevolent middle-aged woman who immediately pointed me to the street we were on.

Estonian Library 1

“Endla,” she resolutely circled the street’s name in red, “you are here.”

“Right…thank you…and…er…could you perhaps tell me why the flags are flying at half-mast?” I queried tentatively.

“Oh,” she seemed to think for a moment, “It’s a day of mourning.”

“Mourning?” I parroted, in hopefully what was an encouraging tone into getting her to tell more.

“Because…64 years ago,” she solemnly but somewhat vaguely informed me, “many Estonians were sent to Siberia by the Russians.”

“They were sent to Siberia?” I tried to politely clarify, well aware of the backlash this could produce.

“Yes, yes,” she reaffirmed impatiently, a slight waver of distress tingeing her voice.

It was clear that the conversation was over. I took the near-forgotten map that I had thrust at her at the beginning, and strolled out once more into the sunshine.

But this incident was sufficiently catalytic in exhibiting the way in which history and politics simmer unrepentantly beneath its quaint cobblestones, proving to me what I would have missed had I not dug a little deeper. My memory of a previous visit to Linnan Museum that chronicles the Tallinn’s hanseatic history and Estonia’s uneasy relationship with Russia had finally ceased to be a detached and informative history and intellectual tour.

The story as told by other Estonians to me (though the younger ones sheepishly admitted that Grieving Day was nothing more than a public holiday for them) later depicted the picture more clearly: Illegal Soviet occupation of Estonia took place in 1940, initiating a string of political and economic reforms that were not taken well. 14 June commemorates the day in 1941 where Soviet forces organised the first major mass deportation of Estonians in cattle cars to Siberia.

Having been dominated by foreign powers through much of its history, it is no surprise to find a developed sense of anti-conquest among the people. Estonians wear their history proudly, an unmistakable trait if one bothers to look beneath the architectural wonder of the Old Town, particularly because their sense of history is characterised by survival memories from invading Russian forces through the centuries.

I leave Tallinn with a reformed outlook – Estonia welcomes its visitors with open arms, the right arm offering tantalising fodder for the all-consuming tourist gaze, while the left holds out its own national consciousness, a darker, alluring provocation for the gem-digging traveller.