Tuesday, June 29, 2010


“Daddy, what’s a guido?” my daughter asked. She had overheard a friend talking about the previous night in a Pärnu nightclub called Sugar. I told her it was a talking mime who doesn’t know he’s a mime. “But if he talks, he’s just a clown.” Good point, Little Mingus. And our experience in Sugar was indeed something to laugh at, especially the part about all the driver hats turned sideways.

A group of us had wandered onto the terrace of the club, lured by the prospects of a free glass of champagne. Seated at the opposite table was Tanja Mihhailova, of recent Playboy exposure. Definitely more interesting to look at than Tanel Padar, whom I seem to see every time I leave Tartu. While ordering sushi at the bar, I was interrupted by a sugar daddy who “desperately needed a pencil and paper.” He then returned to his table where they were having a Sex and the City party. Pärnu’s awesome.

We left for a local bar that I think might be one of the coolest places on Earth. The Veerev Õlu, or Rolling Beer. While paying in cash for a twenty-kroon beer, a man walked up to the fifty-year old bartendress and slapped her on the bum. She laughed heartily and asked if he wanted another drink, waving her arm toward the tap. Her arm was in a cast. I asked what had happened. “I went to a fiftieth wedding anniversary and got in a fight.” A few minutes later I helped her escort a woman in a gigantic electric wheelchair who was too drunk to steer it. Pärnu’s awesome.

And why were we in Pärnu this specific weekend? The International Hanseatic Days, a festival that travels around to a different, former Hanseatic city every summer. Five years ago it was in Tartu. It’s a mix of medieval show-and-tell, folksy concerts, handicrafts and greasy pork on a grill. While I try to go to the local Tartu event every year—I simply love this kind of thing—my description pretty much sums up the whole affair. Pärnu did a good job of hosting it, too, although I had trouble finding my way around. It wasn’t marked very well. But I think that was probably my problem.

Pärnu Beach is nice enough. Clean, large, beautiful parks all around. But swimming there is not the best. The beach is on a very shallow bay. If you want to get into deep water, you have to walk out a very long way, and the waves are miniscule. Still, we go every year. Traditions have to be practiced, after all, even though we might not always understand why. We enjoyed our morning coffee and doughnuts on Nikolai Street, for example. I couldn’t fit all the plates on my tray when I carried it to the table outside, and when I went back in for the last coffee, the cashier snapped at me, “You left your coffee here!” These women are tough.

Another tradition is pizza at a place called Steffani. According to their website, “delicious food smells stimulate your senses, colours rejoices your eyes and everything radiates pleasant feelings.” And it is colorful and it does smell good. These people are smart. The long lines make people hungrier, thirstier. Often, the line extends far out from the gate and up the street. I guess they can’t help it though. The restaurant is not exactly small, and the outdoor terrace is rather large. It’s just that popular. There’s another Steffani closer to the beach, but I prefer the main restaurant, also on Nikolai Street.

Steffani consistently serves the best food in Pärnu. Their pizzas are not amazing, but they can be extremely spicy—a welcome break from frozen fish fillets heated up on a grill in the festival area. However, I feel I’m not doing their food justice. It’s not amazing, as I said, but it is definitely well worth the wait and repeated visits. I’ve been coming here for years, after all. Were Steffani in Tartu as well, I’d probably eat one of their pizzas once a month. A friend raves about their burritos wiht hot beef meat, which I’ve not tried. Must stick to tradition.

I would strongly suggest ordering a pan pizza. The crust is much better. One of our friends ordered a regular crust, and was disappointed. Mine was good. I can’t remember what it was called, as the menus are different, but it had sundriese tomatoes on it. Mrs. Mingus enjoyed her crisby cheese and beacon pizza.

Krista—the waitress—was at our table in a flash. “Would you like something to drink while you look at the menu?” Absolutely polite, even though she was in a hurry. She listened and provided information, as opposed to the more normal “I don’t know” or “We’re out” that you would normally hear if you ask a question.
—Yes, please. What beers do you have?
“Saku, Saku Kuld, Saku Tume,” and she continued to name off the selection, committed to memory. Not very common. But no local Pärnu beers.
—I’ll take a Kuld, please.
“Just a moment!” And she went to get our drinks. Saku Kuld is the only beer from the Saku Brewery that I can drink. The rest of it tastes like lake water. That might have something to do with it being brewed from lake water, but I prefer beers from the Tartu Brewery, which is brewed from river water. Something about stagnant versus flowing water.

The line was starting to grow. We’d come at the right time. Every person standing and waiting for a table to up and leave was facing the dining area, unhappy frowns revealing their hunger. “Stop looking at me and eat, dammit!” they seemed to say. We table folk, however, were all consistently behaving like the sugar daddies and guidos and other such nonsense from the nightclub. “Look at me, I have what you want, and I’m enjoying your envy.” Standing in that line can give you sympathy for the Bolsheviks. Sit as far away as you can, so you can ignore the hungry masses.

After dinner, we made our way back to the festival. There was a hillside with people dancing on it. Listen carefully and you can hear, “Feel the connection, between your hips and your knees”. So I touched my thighs. Investigating the tent city—each tent represented a Hanseatic city—revealed a German porter with a line as long as at Steffani. “Sieben Komma drei”, Christian der Barmann answered, when I asked how strong it was. Twenty-five kroons for a half liter of beer that would last you the rest of the night is not too shabby. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any good German Bratwurst. During Tartu’s International Hanseatic Days, there was a red, double-decker Bratwurst bus. Infinitely more palatable than sardell. Where I’m from, “brats” are the popular equivalent of Estonian shish-ka-bobs.

Another relic of German history was to be seen on an Estonian man’s T-shirt. And this guy had a family, too. Nicht gut. After I photographed him from behind, I stood in front and looked at his shirt from maybe half a meter away. He was watching of course. I looked him in the eyes, shook my head and walked away. Then I felt like an idiot for having given him the attention he so desperately desired. But I did like his sandals and grey socks.

One new thing I discovered in Pärnu was a Pagaripoisid café. Why not in Tartu? It’s the best bakery in Estonia. That’s only good for breakfast though. For lunch at one of the grill tents we ordered a plate of hand. As I was finishing it, a man walked up to me. “I’m missing some fingers,” he explained. And he sure was. Only two on one hand. “Can you give me some money?”
—I’m sorry, I apologized, I never carry cash.
“But you just paid in cash for your food.”
—True, but that was the last of it. I had exact change.
And it was true. I didn’t have any money whatsoever. Then I started licking my fingers clean, one after another. They were greasy. He walked away, and I immediately realized what I had done. Again, I felt like an idiot, this time for having given a man attention he did not desire. I belonged in that nightclub, with the other people who were completely unaware of their environment, unsympathetic to the plights of others. At least I had helped the woman in the wheelchair. That made up for it somewhat.


Esau Hogg said...

Sausages. An observation that extends far beyond Pärnu biergartens. Some things that people say suck about Estonia don't suck very much, some things don't suck at all, but the sausages and pork products suck big time, compared to what they could be. It's a B- when you would expect an A+. Pork cuisine is simply not being elevated to true distinction on either the street food level or by retailers. Hopefully there are restaurants out there in Estonia that are serving homemade sausage and slow-cooked pork bellies.

carissa said...

lol funny video. Yes I remember Steffani's. It was one of my husband's friends favorite places to eat when he is in Parnu. My husband ordered one of their pizzas which was not too bad and unfortunately I ordered some pasta dish that wasnt too great. Something that tasted like it had cream of mushroom soup in it, bland. If i remember correctly their salads looked halfway decent.
By the way what did that shirt say in the front when you looked at him?

Mingus said...

Mr. Hogg, I agree about the pork. Some of the homemade stuff is absolutely amazing though. Could easily compete with a Southern pit BBQ.

Carissa, the front of the shirt just had a version of the Iron Cross. Nothing written.

carissa said...

Mr. Mingus and Mr. Hogg, have you guys ever tried the smoked pork ribs at a place in Tartu called Pub Hansa Tall or something to that effect. (Mingus maybe you did a review on them?) The ribs in my mind are absolutely amazing, especially the garlic sour cream sauce they give you for dipping :O)

Mingus said...

No I've not had smoked pork ribs, but I have had other pork dishes there. Not too bad if I remember. I'll check it out again sometime. Thanks for the tip. :)

Anonymous said...

Lake water isn't as bad as you may think.

Brazil shirt saying hi (I like the writing).