Thursday, August 26, 2010


“Happy Restoration of the Independence of the Republic of Estonia Day!” I told Mrs. Mingus last Friday. Whether you say the full phrase or just refer to it as “Reindependence Day” or “Independence Day Two Point Oh”, it still makes me think of rocks. Big rocks. The ones that were used to block the streets when the tanks came rolling in on that fateful day nineteen years ago.

My binational little mongrels will grow up celebrating three independence days. Ironically, on this day we had a friend visiting from England. He doesn’t have an independence day to celebrate, but I do—from his country. We walked around Kadriorg Park in Tallinn—the presidential palace and gardens—and I recounted the finer points of Estonia’s Singing Revolution to him. Perhaps one day an Estonian and a Russian will walk the streets of Belfast together, learning about the olden days, during the British occupation. I’m assuming the term Whiskey Revolution will exist by then.

“We really should leave,” my friend stated.
—Yeah, I’m hungry, too. I know a breakfast place nearby.
“No, we really should leave Northern Ireland.”
—Oh. You honestly feel that way?
“Of course. There’s no reason for us to be there.”
—Why don’t you just leave then?
“We made a mess there, and I guess a lot of us feel the need to stay and clean it up.”
—I’m very glad the Russians don’t feel responsible for their mess in Estonia.

Sometimes I think that Estonia is very lucky—it gets to be nineteen again. The why is certainly unfortunate, but the experience to learn from one’s own mistakes is not. Let’s hope Estonia’s leaders exhibit this wisdom.

We wandered out of the park area toward Köleri Street and a restaurant called Nop. It was late morning, and we wanted some breakfast. In Tartu, there’s really no place to go for breakfast unless you want a hotel buffet, which can get pricey and still isn’t that great. Filling, yes, but it’s usually just scrambled eggs, fried potatoes and varieties of porridge. And bread and cheese.

In Nop I ordered scrambled eggs and potatoes, and Mrs. Mingus ordered blueberry porridge. “Scrambled eggs” in Estonian is translated as “egg porridge”. The menu described my dish as having bacon as a side, but the fatty ham (not bacon) had been fried and mixed in the eggs. That’s just how it’s served here. It works. A bit greasy for eggs maybe, but it tastes great. I ate all the tomatoes on my plate as well, hoping to balance out the cholesterol I was consuming.

The four-grain porridge with blueberries was a bit disappointing. Very good still, but the berries were dried, not fresh. In summer, and during blueberry season, I think it only natural to assume fresh blueberries would be served. What made the place memorable, however, was the banana bread with cinnamon butter. Simply sumptuous.

Where can you get anything even closely resembling homemade sweet bread in Tartu? Illegaard now offers English doughnuts with whipped cream and jam. Now that is a treat. And now my mind draws a blank for other options. Tallinn is four times the size of Tartu, and so is its variety.

This small restaurant or café or whatever has a cozy patio round the back, where you can sip on iced coffee or iced tea. Instead of "going Tartu" on its trees and cutting them down, Tallinn—and Nop—incorporates trees into its living space. I just loved the bench built round the thick trunk.

Nop also has its own shop, next to the dining area. Fresh bread, a decent selection of cheeses and other—some organic—products are for sale. What this place would remind me of is GenKlubi in Tartu, but only if GenKlubi got their act together and swept the floors from time to time and fixed up anything that could crumble into your drink. Nop has a comfortably worn feeling to it, but it’s clean and the owners keep up with the repairs. And instead of drinking tea in a plastic disposable cup, you can order delicious, freshly squeezed orange juice in a reusable glass glass. It was so foamy it could have been a healthy smoothie.

The Guatemalan coffee was good. They offer coffee from a pot and “machine coffee”. I experienced a definite nineties, grunge-era nostalgia. Formerly pierced yet not-so-formerly tattooed yuppies who drive Land Cruisers with windsurf boards on the roof and dress in tight, pink shirts are frequent patrons.

Krista the waitress was very polite in answering any questions we had. “Excuse me, my wife ordered banana bread. Is that almost ready?” I asked, as we had all finished our meals and wanted to leave.
—Of course! I forgot, I’m very sorry. One moment please.
And one moment later, it was served with a smile.

On the way back to Kadriorg Park we passed two houses. I was surprised to discover that Barbie and Ken were in fact neighbors, not lovers. And they live on Green Ass Street. There was a grotesquely expensive black car with black tinted windows parked in the driveway. I can imagine how he does business. “You a come over to a my housa, we will eat a together and talk, you and me. I live in da pinka housa.”

Horrible joking aside, some of the houses in that neighborhood are truly works of art. Unfortunately, some of these works of art have been left to rot. Just across the street from where the president hosts foreign dignitaries, there are windowless shells of formerly gorgeous homes, doors boarded up, weeds tall enough to harvest with a Soviet sickle. And then immediately next door is another restored beauty. This is Estonia’s First Neighborhood.

If you take a stroll in Kadriorg Park with your children, whatever you do, don’t walk by the playground. You will spend the rest of the day there. The museum is amazing though. Redeeming for parents who are punished by having to chase toddlers through a labyrinth of swings and slides.

The park itself is largely similar to Hyde Park in London. The paths are clean, they go everywhere, and they have the coolest bins for dog matter. The dogs in Tallinn are apparently gargantuan. There’s even a duck house on one of the ponds.

When you get to the presidential palace, it’s interesting to stand near the guards and look at the flags. Estonian Reindependence Day, with the Estonian blue-black-white flying next to the euroring. At least the state seal over the front door was made by a friend of mine, not imported. Walking around the park though you can clearly see the influences from the various ages it’s lived through. The palace itself was built for Catherine the First, of Russia. I assume she chose Estonia for the location because she was supposedly Estonian. From a tiny lakeside village southwest of Tartu called Rõngu.

When the Soviets occupied the country, they laid their signature concrete ruins sporadically throughout the grounds. Later, the Estonians built their signature museums and playgrounds everywhere, pretending not to see the concrete ruins. I personally think President Lennart Meri’s single greatest act of patriotism was the toilet press conference at what is now called Lennart Meri Airport. He should have given a lot more of these press conferences.

These parks of old are all modeled after the French style, because it was chic at the time. The Russians wanted to be French—that’s why the upper class spoke French and not Russian, and Messieurs Tolstoy and Dostoevsky would lead you to believe the serf lords could not even communicate in Russian—and these parks are copied and pasted straight from Versailles. English and French gardens have their welcome places in various countries, but honestly I have to say I prefer the modern Estonian garden.

Big rocks and logs with a mildly wild feel to it. Municipal gardens, I should specify. I am not a big fan of the private backyards with Japanese water fountains and garden gnomes. Gnomes make me want to buy an air gun. Fieldstone walls, the neighborhood hedgehog making its nocturnal rounds, untrimmed lilacs and white roses are what it’s all about. All shrouded in evening mist with a midnight sunset. This summer was the greatest ever.


Pene said...

So the coffee at Nop was good? And the prices - how did they compare?

Mingus said...

I'd say it was good. I don't know if I had coffee or machine coffee though, as Mrs. Mingus ordered it for me while I was out taking photos. A nice mug of in-the-morning coffee. Prices were a tad higher than I'd expect for scrambled eggs though.

John said...

Careful the Garden Gnome Liberation Front or GGLF (aka Le Front pour La Liberation des Nains des Jardin or FLNJ) might take exception to your comments!

carissa said...

Cool post :O) Love the pics. I always enjoy reading about the eating places in estonia, especially the funny commentary ;O) I hope there will be a new post soon!

Anna said...

On Köler Street, you said? Might pop in next time I visit Kadriorg. Thanks for the review.