I have always been vaguely oblivious to my family's heritage and ancestry. My dad's father worked on the railroads (?). My dad's mother was a typist, in the days when typing was a rare ability (?). My mum's father was a pastor (?). My mum's mother was a teacher (??)... well, there will no doubt be many corrections to post tomorrow when I get some spare internet bandwidth from all the emails admonishing me for the mistakes. Sorry in advance. Long story short, my dad's side has ancestry, and living relatives, in Estonia. Today, I went to Estonia.
Estonia is not Croatia. For some reason, my brain continues to mix the two up so that my mouth and fingers say Croatia despite meaning Estonia. Tallinn, the capital, is just one and a half hours away by ferry. The ability to just flit over to another country is still novel. I'm sitting in the flat in Helsinki and knowing that I spent eight hours today in another country and still made it back in time for dinner is very surreal. I took an early boat over and was in at 11:30am. Some cruises take it slower and can take almost three and a half hours, but I took the express one and enjoyed a bit of a rolling, bouncy ride over.
I didn't know anything about the country besides my vague ancestral link. I had read a little bit about the place during the ride over (free Wi-Fi), and discovered its history of being constantly ruled by other people. Sweden controlled it in the 1500s, before the Russians took over two hundred years later. It was briefly independent after World War I, then was taken over again by the Soviets, and then Nazi Germany. It only became independent in 1991. 1991! That's, like Berlin Wall recent.
The first thing you notice when walking off the boat is the different styles of architecture from all the occupancies. In every direction you see evidence of the different cultures. The port where the ferry docked was beside an abandoned, cubist, almost Aztec concrete pyramid. It felt like something out of Uncharted, or Mass Effect. You left the boat, climbed straight up the stairs and found yourself on the overgrown mesa with a panorama of the city. It was like embarking on an adventure.
Coming down the other side, you pass an old mill with a tall brick silo. Then you cross a modern freeway, and then end up in the old town. The old town is one of the showpieces of the city, and is made up of buildings from the 15th to 17th century. It's a stunning quarter of the city, with cobbled streets and ancient buildings of wooden and stone construction. Quite popular with the tourists, obviously, but it wasn't too bad on a Tuesday. I wandered the little stores of locally made trinkets and homewares, and settled for a coffee and cheesecake at a cafe at the top of a steep hill.
With that sector done, I decided to wander outside and into the more modern surroundings. The old town, walled and perched at the top of a hill and encircled by a moat at its base, gave way to a ring of parks, and then squat suburbs of homes and shops. I looped past the library, an imposing old structure that looked like a Minitrue base, and then spotted a lake on the map and figured I'd take a look. I started to weave my way down and across, unfortunately hitting a few dead ends with highways and construction work.
I wound back around along a highway that was closed to traffic for roadworks, though not pedestrians. It was, pleasingly, rather like something out of The Walking Dead. I strolled down the centre of the highway with no one around, in silence. I even walked past an old prison, replete with rusted sentry tower, razor wire, and spiked fences. There was movement inside - walkers, I presume. It's always nice to feel like you're living a different life for a while, or playing a game of 'what if?'. Hell, that's basically the allure of travel.
Past the prison lay a park, and I followed a small path through the shrubs and to a beautiful stone gate. I crept through and emerged, to my surprise, in a cemetery. It was perfectly stereotypical, with overgrown creepers, plants sprouting in the beds, pointed metal fences around some graves, and even lit candles in glass lanterns despite no one else being around. Somewhat unnervingly, a new arrival had been wrapped in opaque plastic but was resting on the surface of a lot, unburied. I followed the road out and passed a single woman, standing quietly in front of a grave. Rather special experience.
I emerged onto a road and had to make a call about whether it was worth trying to get to the lake. I had been stymied twice already as the highway looped around its shore, so I made the call that it was probably better to head back towards the port as the afternoon wore on. I emerged to the south east of the old town, and wandered up to through the centre. And again, this was another unique snapshot of the same city: tall, gleaming, modern skyscrapers. It was like someone had cut out a block of Seattle and dropped it in from the sky. A sparkling hotel building abutted an old, crumbling red brick diner. And then, a few streets later, I was back in the old town, and then the docks.
It's a fairly remarkable city, really. It's schizophrenic, a real melange of different peoples' histories and influences. The inhabitants are Scandinavian in culture, with close ties to Finland, but the infrastructure is at times decidedly Soviet. The people were friendly and the environment was beautiful in its own hodgepodge way. Even though I didn't meet any of my relatives while I was over there, in a way it did feel reassuring that I had been to the roots of my family tree. Perhaps next time I can make the effort to spend more time there and meet the people that share such a rare commonality with us - genes.
The funny thing about family is that it's all a construction of the mind. We have biological instincts that push for a close knit web of people. But family doesn't have to be the blood you're born into - good friends will do. There are children born to abusive parents that only do better when they cut those relationships and get them out of their lives. Family is who you make it. And yet there is still something intangibly significant about the actual bloodline. I found myself passing people in the street and wondering if we were related. And what does that mean, to me? I think I'll be musing on it for a while.