Thursday, September 15, 2011


Deep at the heart of the “Athens of the Emajõgi”—wait a moment, let me clarify that epithet a bit. Athens is a Greek city that needs no introduction. The Mother River (Emajõgi) is a river that does need an introduction. Tartu, a.k.a. Athens, sits on the larger branch of this river, known as the “Big Mother”.

Deep at the heart of the “Athens of the Emajõgi” sits a small restaurant on Town Hall Square called Lõvisüdame, or “Lionheart”, apparently named for Richard I of England. Richard the Lionheart, the king of England, neither spoke English nor lived in England. Estonia has lots of experience with leaders like these.

Estonia also has lots of experience with other things, like this restaurant, that don’t really belong. I’m not talking about dirty Finnish farners or neighbors from the East. I’m talking about attitudes. A lot of press has recently been given to the whole “love-it-or-leave-it” attitude. If you don’t like Estonia, leave.

And, well, there is a certain logic to it. I personally don’t feel that it’s a healthy way to look at things—either as the expunger or the expunged—but I will say that I think the wrong people are heeding this advice. Young professionals, promising university students, tons of valuable people are just constantly leaving. I’ve known a lot of them. They want a better future, so they go sell books door-to-door in the States, they pour beer in London, they work for the European Union in the Athens on the Mediterranean (this last one makes balls-all sense to me!).

Sit down and have a conversation the next time one of your friends wants to leave. “Money,” they invariably reply. “It’s too expensive here.” Well, that’s true. Beer in Holland these days costs less than twice as much as Estonia, but the salaries are much higher. Property in Estonia is generally on par with most Western markets in terms of price, but not quality.

But once you start this conversation, you have to have a couple drinks. Here’s where it gets interesting. Money quickly ceases to be the reason for leaving. “I don’t know, people are just so negative here. Grey.” I’ve heard this a million times. Or rather, a few hundred thousand. The whole population is only a million now. “People are just nicer abroad.”

It is not my intent to justify or defend this attitude. Just to catalogue it. Yet if I’m not wrong, and all the people who appreciate kindness and courtesy are leaving, who’s left?

The people who are left are the people who tolerate greyness? Mediocrity? I don’t think so, not necessarily. But I do think that the people who are left are specifically those who tolerate places like Lõvisüdame.

Lõvisüdame is the very first place anyone who sets foot on Town Hall Square will see. It’s the world’s first impression of Tartu. Compared to what else is available, the prices aren’t bad, but this review isn’t about price. It’s about tolerance. And taste. Mrs. Mingus and I ordered a couple of daily lunch specials here, and we were finished eating before we knew we’d been served. That’s how memorable it is.

Boiled potatoes with potato seasoning, a carefully and exquisitely chosen salad mix of cabbage, carrot and Luunja cucumber (Luunja is near Athens, just down the Big Mother). I should start calling this salad the CCCP salad (P is for pickle). I wasn’t sure, until I saw the receipt, if I had eaten chicken or pork. Yet as a meal, I can honestly find no fault with it. I would have no problem with my kids eating this in their elementary school cafeteria. This, however, is Tartu’s premier restaurant locale.

But as someone who chooses to stay and fight for a better life in the country they call home—as opposed to just going away—I must ask this question of all who would knowingly eat in Lõvisüdame: Have you no national pride? Don’t you expect better of your fatherland? I mean come on, there are literally dozens of better places for the same price within a two-minute walk. Why is this place even allowed to exist?

I recently ran to a Rimi grocery store in the evening to pick up a couple ingredients (I think I was out of Santa Maria’s kartulimaitseaine and Knorr’s kanapuljon). I couldn’t justify buying a plastic bag for my goods, but I didn’t have any pockets to put them in, either. The free, clear plastic bags had recently been removed from the customer’s reach at the register. Cost-saving measure, I assume.

“Could I have a bag, please?” I asked Krista, the cashier. She was a big mother, too, with a bad attitude.
—I don’t understand.
“A bag. Please.”
—What? I don’t understand you.
“A sack made of plastic, that I can put my stuff in,” I explained.
—We don’t have any, she said, staring at me vacantly.
“What’s that?” I asked, pointing behind the register.
“That clear plastic stack of things.”
—That’s a “plastic bag”.
“Could I have one, please?” I repeated.
—I don’t understand.
“What the hell is that?!” I pointed behind her again, this time into the distance. When she turned, I took a bag.
—Hey, you can’t do that! she protested.
“What? I don’t understand.” And I left. I decided I wasn’t going to tolerate that stuff.


Anonymous said...

I ate at Lõvisüdame a few weeks ago. I chose the värske ja värviküllane salat suitsukanaga (Fresh and colorful salad with smoked chicken) and when I asked if it has pepper or onion in it and asked if they could do it without the pepper, they said it was a pre-made salad. Still ordered it. We had to wait for about 10-15 minutes. the salad should be named Celery-pepper salad with way too salty smoked chicken. It was horrible. and it cost 4,15€. i'm so never going back there.
I don't understand why they have to have such salad names that the customer has to ask what's in it.

I also have to say, that i love "tartu - city of good food" and i hope you health gets better :)


Anonymous said...

Actually I do think there's a lot of mediocrity left in Estonia. All the smart people would probably leave for more opportunities elsewhere. That leaves the mediocre behind, and they can excel with no competition. Big fish in a small pond as they say.

notsu said...

I would have thought that no local people eat in a place like this... at least I, a native, would stay clear of any place on Raekoja plats, except for when I don't have to pay for my meal.