Sunday, November 8, 2009


After nearly a solid week of low-sleep nights and high-decibel-days due to one of our daughters being sick, the fever broke on Father’s Day morning and we went out to celebrate—at the new Lõunakeskus mall in Tartu. Father’s Day in Estonia is not on the same date as in the States, if you’re wondering.

In terms of mallness, it’s very mally. Which is a compliment, especially for Tartu malls. This is Lõunakeskus 3.0. And like the new Solaris in Tallinn, where P-Funk gave a concert in the cinema (no injuries luckily), I believe that Lõunakeskus 3.1, 3.2 and 3.3 will make their debuts within the next twelve months. Lõunakeskus 1.0 was basically a warehouse with flimsy cubicles set up on the floor, each cubicle being a shop. You could throw garments over the walls into the next shop, and then just walk out with it because the radio frequency for the security devices was different at the neighbors’ doors. Then 2.0 appeared, with an ice rink and casino in the basement. And a lawnmower shop. At a mall.

The new 3.0 is very Western, like Tallinn’s Ülemiste and Viru malls. Overall, I like it. It’s still not a two-floor mall. It is technically, but I think a bookshop as the second-floor doesn’t count. In the 2.0 part of Lõunakeskus, I entered the new 2.1 section, which I will call the Financial and Lingerie Department. There are three banks, two insurance branches, a currency exchange and a lingerie shop crammed into the same area. Let’s go to the mall and buy some insurance!

In 3.0, there are two electronics shops right smack next to each other. The security guards will probably give you a hard time if you buy something in one, and then continue shopping in the other. I’ve never understood why local malls group shops the way they do. In Tasku, for example, there are five shoe shops in a row. Americans are rather advanced in sales techniques. You’re exposed to everything whether you want to be or not. You would never see two competing shops side by side. Imagine navigating a monster Las Vegas casino. Then apply that to the parking lot in 3.0. They’ve made it hard for you to leave because they don’t want you to leave. But that, I believe, is true for all roads and such in Europe. Roundabouts galore. To be fair though, I got lost on two separate occasions in American parking lots last year. Labyrinthine curb arrangements coupled with family cars as big as Transformers made it difficult to understand that the roadway going in the general direction of the main street wouldn’t continue that way, and would instead guide you right back to the grand entrance.

Also in American malls, you would never ever see a grocery store. 3.0 has two! The new one is the long-awaited Rimi. Finally as big as a Tallinn Rimi, I have to say it’s, well, no different than the old Rimi in Tartu, except that it’s bigger—oh so much bigger—and it has what appears to be a deli restaurant in the back corner. The product selection is exactly the same, though. I would, however, like to mention what it does not have. It does not have chickpeas, standard fare in several traditional and popular Estonian recipes. What’s so hard about ordering chickpeas? And Cheerios. And Helen brand oatmeal, the number one oatmeal in the country. Tallinn Rimis and every other grocer in Tartu have all three of these products. The baguette mystery has offered yet another clue into the minds of Those Who Control Retail Sales in Tartu. You still can’t get a regular baguette in Tartu. You can only get one smothered in cheese. The bakers don’t know how to not sprinkle cheese on the dough before shoving it in the oven. But they did learn how to sprinkle it with sesame seeds. There is now a variety of “flavored” baguettes in Tartu, but like potato chips, you can’t just get the plain version. Odd…

And now for what they used to have. Rimi used to have Pagaripoisid products, the best bakery in Estonia. Dole salad in a bag, a healthy dinner for twenty kroons. Root beer. Cheddar cheese. When something is popular, you naturally want to stop selling it. That’s why I still shop at Selver. At least they have Cheddar.

What I really like about 3.0 is how it is organized. Except for a couple dead-end hallways, it’s circular. There are even two connecting entrances to 2.0. One of these has two moving sidewalks instead of escalators. Only one was turned on though. After three days of being open, I think it broke. Kind of like when the new Kaubamaja opened, the escalators all broke the first week. I took the stairs, and got that really cool vertigo feeling that only happens when you know you won’t fall, but you also know you shouldn’t be walking where you are. Shouldn’t be because it seems to violate the laws of physics. I think it would be extra cool too if I were, like, a little bit taller and stuff and then walked up these stairs. My center of gravity would be higher than the handrails. Fortunately, Mrs. Mingus found the hidden, unmarked elevator off to the side. She said she could barely fit in there because of the baby stroller.

So at the top of the stairs is a book shop, some sort of shop that was closed but had a remote-controlled car racetrack visible through the window (how fun would that be?!) and the Nobel Café. I personally would have switched the places of the bookshop and café. The bookshop is surrounded by windows, and the café is shoved into a corner with no natural light. It looks cozy, if not a tad claustrophobic. We sat at one of the two tables that offered a view of the ice rink. Next to the automatic piano.

The piano is entertaining. One kid’s dad told him there was an invisible man playing. The little boy waved his hand over the empty bench just to be sure. The music selection is not entertaining. First it played the happy birthday song. Then a popular children’s lullaby, next an unknown song, followed by the Wedding March and Auld Lang Syne. I so desperately wanted the piano to complete the cycle of life with Amazing Grace, but techno from the ice rink suddenly drowned it out.

I went to order at the café’s bar. The sign showed a twenty-minute wait for the food, which I found a bit long but still acceptable. We were hungry. I ordered coffee, a pastry, and scrambled eggs for the kids. “You know, the wait will be about forty minutes,” Kristiina the waitress said.
“Why?” I replied. “There’s no one else here.”
“That’s just how long it will take.”
“What about bruschetta?”
“The same.” There was a semblance of Monty Python in her tone when she said that.
“Why? Just toast some bread and plop on a spoonful of pesto.”
“I’m sorry,” she frowned. “Forty minutes.”
She clearly didn’t want us to eat anything.
“Nevermind then. Two cranberry juices for my kids, please.”
“We’re out of cranberry juice,” she stated matter-of-factly.
There were only four juices on the menu, and they’d only been open for three days. I could see where this was going, so I gave up and asked what they did have. “Multinectar.”
“Nothing else?”
“Could I have two multinectars, please?”
“Here you go.”
“And two straws, too.” The straws were not on the counter, but far away, by the flavored syrups.
“Two what?”
She seemed confused that I would need straws for young children to drink juice with, but she exhaled loudly and gave me two straws.
“OK, and can I get that free small Father’s Day muffin you offer with an order of coffee?” I’d seen some truly small muffins in a basket, chocolate I suspected.
“Oh right, here it is.” She pulled out a different basket with even smaller muffins. Seriously, this thing was the size of my thumb. I didn’t know there were muffin tins that miniature. It looked like a chanterelle. I tried to take a photo but the children had wolfed it down before I could bring the rest of our order to the table (it’s a semi-self-serve café). I forgot to add milk to Mrs. Mingus’s coffee, so I went back to the counter yet again. Another customer had since taken the little milk jug to her own table, forgetting to return it. I asked Kristiina for milk. She pointed to the table and said, “Just go get it from her.” She was too busy counting muffins for her inventory.

* * *

In the parking lot, I counted eight handicapped spaces in a row. In the farthest row from the door.


Pierce Bacchus said...

I like the way you write pointing out the absurd with tact, sarcasm and humour.

At least the disabled parking places are empty. In Tallinn, they would filled with large SUV's of healthy people.

tart lane said...

I'm disappointed in the bookstore and the café. They both look very nice, but they can't compete with RahvaRaamat and its café in Tasku. Maybe if I were an older lady I would like Nobel more.

Kristopher said...

Rahva Raamat must also be built for old ladies -- at least in the sense that it doesn't have any electrical outlets for laptop users. No better than Coffeeln in Kaubamaja. (What is the natural logarithm of coffee, anyway?)

Great review. I look forward to seeing the Lingerie and Financial Dept. That could be further integrated as the banks go bust.

Brenda said...

I've lived in Tallinn for 17 years, and I remember Kaubamaja 1.0, and everything inbetween that and the Viru Keskus that is now. I'm laughing at this blog so hard I'm crying. I don't know if people who have never been here would find it as hilarious as I do, but I'm sending it to all my family in the States! Thanks!

Ragne said...

Btw, i've heard reports that Rimi in Lõunakeskus also does not have fresh broccoli and cauliflower, i guess somebody in charge for stock really doesn't like weird cabbages.

I feel your pain when it comes to finding just plain baguettes, it's almost impossible. I guess old habits die hard and in Estonia they die really really hard. I have a friend who used to work in a bakery firm, she was a production coordinator, her work was to come up with new products and think out marketing for them. A problem was that whenever a new cake or tart was introduced, the bakers always put butter flowers on them as decoration. Butter flowers is something that was very popular during Soviet regime, nobody in their right mind would like to eat pure butter on their cake nowadays. But all those bakers were in the age of 45-60, so when it came to cake design they used what they knew :). My friend said it was extremely hard to make them understand that there are various new and more healthier decorative elements they could use ..

I've been to Nobel twice. The first time was on the first day they opened - they were out of everything, whatever you asked, they didn't have it. And i must admit the ladies working there are pretty cocky and unpleasant. OK, you are in Estonia, forget about smiling, but some decent politeness would also go a long way. On the second visit i ordered pork fillet with cream sauce. It turned out to be just pork with handful of ruccola next to it, all poured over with cold heavy cream (38% rõõsk koor). Needless to say i was very mystified. And on top of that, the pork was raw from inside, as soon as i cut it, the blood came out and mixed with my heavy cream sauce. Yak. And frankly also dangerous.

I do love the atmosphere though, but i always feel i'm about 30 years too young to sit there. It really would be a perfect place for old ladies gathering and it should locate somewhere in the central area rather than in the shopping center.