"To retreat into oneself and meet nobody for hours on end—that is what one must be able to attain. To be alone, as one was alone as a child, when the grown-ups walked about involved in things which seemed great and important, because big people looked so busy and because one could comprehend nothing of their doings. And when one day one realizes that their affairs are paltry, their professions benumbed and no longer connected with life, why not still like a child look upon them as something strange from without the depths of one's own world, regarding them from the immunity of one's own loneliness, which is itself work, position, and profession? Why desire to exchange a child's wise incomprehension for self-defense and disdain? Incomprehension is loneliness, but self-defence and disdain are participation in that from which one is trying to separate oneself by these means." — Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
Sometimes little boys like to play games. They build themselves little forts out of pillows and blankets and sometimes brick and stone, and they call these games they play king-of-the-hill or capture-the-flag or the-great-war. They don't let girls play, which is just as well because girls don't usually want to play anyway, but sometimes the girls and the other little boys in the playground get pulled in anyway, get some stray sand kicked in their face, maybe their tower of blocks knocked over by a hurtled ball.
Sometimes the little boys need even teams, so they force other little boys to play with them. They kick over those peaceful towers made of little blocks, or the boys who have hit puberty and sprouted a few inches simply tug at those who haven't, and they say "come play" and the littler boys have no choice. Sometimes, the boys bore of evenly-matched teams and just go about bullying, knocking over the towers and tugging at those boys for the sheer diversion of it.
Sometimes the little boys pick up a stick and draw deep lines in the sandbox, and they say "this is my side and this is your side" to the other little boys, and sometimes the other boys play the game and other times they don't, and sometimes when they don't the boys who drew those lines pick up those sticks and hit the others with it, and they say, "I told you not to come on my side of the line!"
Sometimes the little boys forget that not everyone wants to play their games. A little girl might just want to cross the sandbox, and sometimes they'll let her, but sometimes they won't, especially if she's ugly or brown or comes from the wrong side of the tracks, and they'll hit her with sticks and tell her she can only cross if she knows the password or pays them her allowance. And even when the nicer boys let her cross, they let her know that they're just letting her cross, and if she thinks she can sit somewhere in the corner of the sandbox and stay a while, maybe build herself a little sand castle, then even the nicer boys will wobble over and knock down the sand castle and kick sand in her face, and they'll say "get out of our sandbox, this is ours!"
Sometimes little boys like to play games, and sometimes it'd be nice if those little boys remembered that the sandbox is big enough for everybody, and that not everybody wants to play their games. Sometimes some of us just want to build sand castles and make sand angels and watch the clouds go by with our feet in the sand.
I had intended to go to Russia, to spend a few days in Saint Petersburg before returning to the West, but absurd visa requirements and despicable geopolitics had gotten in the way of that plan. I was finished with the Finnish capital, not welcome in the new USSR, so instead I made for the Baltics, rounded out my eastward return with a quick trip to Estonia.
Of all places, of all people, I had chosen Estonia and its capital of Tallinn by recommendation of Svetlana. Svetlana, the bartender from Paris. Svetlana, who had attacked my travel mate's itinerary for reasons unfounded and, frankly, homophobic. Svetlana, who had nothing good to say about anything, but everything good to say about Tallinn, her hometown back in Estonia. Tallinn, with its medieval flair! Tallinn, with its turrets and its castles and its quaint old city center! Tallinn, with its beautiful stone walls! She had shown me photographs, and though I hadn't liked her one bit, I had liked what I saw.
Tallinn was but a two-hour ferry ride from Helsinki, so I hopped onboard and sailed away from Scandinavia where the prices grew cheaper and my interrail pass grew impotent. I entered the Baltics.
She wasn't wrong, Svetlana. I loved Tallinn from the moment I stepped off the dock, from the first glimpse of its pebbled beaches, its waterfront ruins, its cobbled streets and mish-mashed architecture. I walked through the gorgeous old city to a well-reviewed hostel, checked in, took another heavenly shower. As I stepped out, a group of fellow travelers were heading to dinner and asked if I wanted to join. Sure, I said, sacrificing sleep for social time after what had been a very isolating week. Plus, they were headed to an African place down the street that I had heard good things about, so I tagged along and found the African food wholly disappointing but the company redeemingly good. Across from me sat another American, Vanessa, and she was lovely and friendly and we seemed to have a lot in common, so we chatted amongst ourselves and chatted with the whole table and chatted still as we all got up to leave, stop at a grocery to grab some wine, and head to the beach.
We all sat along the beach and watched the orange sun deposit itself into the slot of horizon in the distance. We passed around cups and bottles and I built a little castle of sand and stone on the ground in front of me. I had mentioned to Vanessa that I was a vegan, and Vanessa mentioned that there was a vegan place she'd passed in town. She asked if I wanted to join her for dinner there tomorrow; I happily agreed. We all headed back to the hostel. Some folks were changing and getting ready for a night out; I, for one, had a bed for the first time in a week, and planned to make the most of it. On an actual mattress, I slept.
I got a late start the next morning. I woke feeling more rested than I had in ages. I yawned, stretched, dressed. I headed into the common room and said good morning to a few of the travelers from dinner the night before. They were maybe thinking of going to the beach. I was also maybe thinking of going to the beach. Around noon, we lazily convinced each other to turn out maybe-plans into actual-plans, and the four of us headed off to the bus stop. A bus took us to a sandier beach than the one we'd walked to for the sunset the night before. It was a crowded beach with shallow water—shallow enough to walk out fifty meters and still be only at your waist—and we passed a few hours there before the crowds grew too large and the sun too hot, before the pale skin of our Dutch friend turned from red to purple. We caught a bus back into town and everyone scattered for a little rest; I dropped a few things and grabbed my camera for a walk about town.
The town was extraordinary. I walked around old city walls and gritty castles and great big eastern churches, through skinny alleys and stone gates, along colorful rowhouses and quiet lakes. Everything was cobblestone, everything felt authentic. Sure, there were tourists, but this was Estonia, so everything felt a bit more relaxed than it might in Paris or Berlin or Rome. I loved it there. I snapped great photographs as the setting sun lit my scenes; I lost myself again and again and simply navigated to the nearest church spire or turret to find my bearings. Around eight, my stomach growled; I remembered I hadn't eaten in hours, remembered I was hungry, remembered I had dinner plans with Vanessa.
Vanessa was just getting back from a day trip to a national park when I returned. She showered, changed, and we headed out into the twilit town of Tallinn as she told me about the Estonian parklands. Ten minutes later we arrived at the vegan restaurant, and ten minutes after that our conversation was halted by great heaps of delicious food: beet ravioli, cucumber cream rolls, a whole assortment of imaginative platters. We ate, chewed, swallowed, talked some more. Vanessa was off to Stockholm early the next morning and had a very early flight to catch, so an hour or so later we walked back toward the hostel, popped into the downstairs bar for a few minutes, said our goodbyes. She took off to pack, and I found a few friends from earlier in a corner of the bar and joined them for a beer.
A pair of girls crossed the room as we talked; one of them was wearing a marvelous plaid shirt. I wanted that shirt. I eyed her shirt, she eyed me, smiled. I smiled back. They left through an archway, returned a few moments later, and the Girl with the Gorgeous Plaid Shirt came over and told me I looked really familiar, like someone she knew. I didn't really know what to say to that—what does one ever say to that?—but she seemed friendly, and she was wearing that shirt, so I asked if she wanted a drink. Sure, she said.
We headed up to the bar and introduced ourselves—her name was Marika, and her friend's name was Bibi, and they were both from Estonia. We got a round and chatted about where in Estonia they were from, chatted about the States and about my travels. Marika asked if I wanted to play Jenga. Jenga? I asked. I love Jenga.
The Jenga pieces were stashed in a shopping cart in the back of the bar: a shopping cart because this wasn't Jenga we were playing, but giant Jenga. We stacked the blocks on a small stage and the tower stood up to my torso; we started playing and it grew taller: chest, neck, head. We took turns squatting or kneeling or bending over and prodding at various blocks—no, that one's too tight; no, there's a little friction there—and the tower began to wobble. Marika stooped to grab at a block toward the bottom, and the whole thing crashed down on her spine.
The loser, we decided, would buy the next round, so we headed back to the bar, got a few more drinks, and downed them rather quickly. Marika and Bibi were headed to another bar; you should come, they said. I didn't have anything else to do—and I was hypnotized by that shirt—so I shrugged and dropped my empty cup on the counter and followed them out of the pub. Tallinn had grown dark, the first proper nighttime I'd seen in a week, and we walked through its black alleys. I had no idea where we were going, wondered if it was wise to trust two Estonian girls in a traveler's bar, but they seemed so nice, so I didn't resist as Marika grabbed my hand and guided me toward a steady thump I could make out in the distance.
We arrived, and the bar was crowded, and the line was long, and none of us felt much like waiting in it. They knew of another place, they said. More wandering, more twists and turns through Tallinn as I was towed by my trusty guides. We left the old town, passed the new town, arrived back near the beach, at the steps of an imposing concrete thing. It was a building, sure, but it had stairs up the side of it and narrower levels above, like a step pyramid, and we climbed from one level to the next without a care. The steps ended and there was still higher to go, so we hoisted each other up the walls and crawled onto the black tar of the strange edifice's roof and stood up, on something, somewhere, with a magical panorama of a midnight Tallinn all around us.
Marika put on some music, and we sat quietly on the edge of the concrete ruin with the dim lights of the small city twinkling in the distance, with the stars twinkling above and the reflection of those distant suns and the boats and the buoys twinkling just the same in the great sea before us. We walked squares around the roof and we danced slowly in the moonlight as Bibi skipped little pebbles into the waves below. The night grew old and I grew young.