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The bus ride from St. Petersburg to Tallinn was a treat. As I stepped onto the bus, they handed me a bottle of water. Coffee was also available, the seats were nice, there was a power plug at every seat AND there was wifi! I was set for the six hour ride. Although it wasn’t the fastest wifi I’d experienced, it was a novelty and I sent a few emails as we rolled out of St. Petersburg and through the countryside of Northern Europe. At the border, we’re ordered off the bus and told to collect our luggage and wait in line as they checked us out of the country. It’s slow, as there is only one line for those of us on the bus (there are other agents out going through cars that are leaving the country. I am next to last in the line and when they ask for my passport, I had it with all the collected slips of hotels and guesthouses I’d stayed in while in Russia. The man takes the slips and adds them to a pile, stamps my passport and returns it to me. He didn’t even look at my luggage, but while I was in line, another officer had run a dog through the line sniffing at our luggage. The dog was also walked through the bus and the storage compartments. The process was painfully slow and I felt lucky to be at the end of the line as it meant that I didn’t have to wait very long inside the hot bus (they’d turned the bus ‘s engine off as a Russian official opened up the hood and probed around in the engine). After everyone was back on board, the bus drove a hundred meters or more (turned the engine back off) and an Estonia official came on board and collected our passports. A few minutes later, she came back, returning our passports which had all been stamped and we were able to resume our drive through the low country. The land here was flat and there were lots of farms and not much else.
Sitting next to me, in the back of the bus, was the most beautiful Russian woman who didn’t speak any English or acted like she didn’t. When I or someone else spoke to her, she’d smile and shake her head. Around us, in the seats next to her and in the next row up, was a group of co-workers from Spain. They had been working on a project in St. Petersburg and had decided to go overland back to their home. I talked some to the guy who seemed to be in charge (or maybe his was just the loudest) as he seemed to yell in both Spanish and English. They didn’t speak Russia either. This group was having too much fun, picking on each other and telling jokes that they made the trip go quickly.
Getting off at the bus station in Tallinn, I looked around for a trolley. I had booked a room at “16 Euro,” a small hotel/hostel. They had sent me directions on how to get from the bus station to the hotel via the trolley. It required a transfer, but once I got onboard I asked for help and a couple who spoke English asked me where I was going. I gave them my directions (which involved getting off at the main post office and they told me that I didn’t need to change trolleys, that this one also went by the post office and they would let me know where to get off and point me in the right directions). Twenty minutes after arriving in Tallinn, I was dumping my pack in my room. It was still a couple hours before dark, so I went out and explored a bit.
Tallinn is an old walled city and my hostel was only two blocks from the old walls. As it was Sunday night, things were quiet. I walked around a bit, and then realized I was hungry and decided to get something to eat. I’d thought about stopping in the Scottish Bar for dinner, but I didn’t want to try to find my way back to the hostel in the dark. Remembering a place that looked like a restaurant on the back side of the same building as the hostel and figured I’d give it a try. Not being able to read the signs, I walked in and was met by a man at the door. “Are you open for dinner,” I asked. “Yes, 10 euro,” he said. “Ten euro? Is it a buffet?” He shook his head. “What do you get for ten euro?” “Dancing girls.” I had no idea this place was a strip joint. Nothing in their logo indicated such and, of course, there wasn’t anything in English. I told him that I was just interested in food and he pointed to a place in the next block over. Their kitchen was closed but they had sandwiches, so I had a sandwich and a beer for dinner. I later learned that the dormitory portion of the hostel (I was in a private room) was over this strip joint and that on Friday and Saturday nights, those in the dormitory had a hard time sleeping with all the noise. My room on the top floor was quiet and peaceful.
In the basement of the hostel there was a bunya that was open every morning. On Monday, after breakfast, I had a long steam bath interspersed with dips in the cool water whirlpool. It felt bittersweet, enjoying the bunya, but missing Russia and the wonderful bunya at Lake Baikal. Then I took another walk around the city, finding a place to exchange my Russian currency into Euros. I ended up at the Oleviste Kirik (St. Olave’s Church), which has a high bell tower (it requires climbing nearly 300 narrow worn stone steps). I paid the 2 euro price of admission and climbed the tower for a magnificent view of the city. I was told that on clear days, one can see Finland, but the view I got was quiet foggy. Yet, it was beautiful. After coming down, I visited the ancient church, which was beautiful yet also had a hint of the modern as there were screens on the sides of the chancel and speakers on poles scattered throughout the wooden pews.
I wish I had another day to spend in Tallinn. I’d been told that the KGB museum was interesting and then I learned there was a museum dedicated to the “Russian Occupation,” as Estonia had spent years as a part of the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough time. After leaving St. Olave’s, I rushed back to the hotel and picked up my bags and had them call me a cab for the airport.
I arrived at the airport two hours before my flight was scheduled to leave. I had booked the flight on Expedia, which was to take me to Helsinki and then to Edinburgh (and for some reason, known only to those in the airline industry, it was cheaper to fly from Tallinn than Helsinki). Arriving in the terminal, which wasn’t that large, I began to have a sinking feeling when I couldn’t find Golden Air. I couldn’t find my airline. I then went to an information desk and to my horror, learned that the airline stopped flying out of Tallinn two weeks earlier! The woman was helpful and called the airline for me and they arranged me to fly on a different airline (Estonia Air), to Copenhagen and then another flight into Edinburgh. It was going to take me a couple hours more to make the trip, but at least I was able to make Scotland by dark. I tried all kind of ways to reach my friend Ewan who was going to meet me at the airport (and I never knew if he got the message until I arrived. He told me he received my message just as he was getting ready to head to the airport at the original time that I was supposed to arrive). When I cleared customs, there was Ewan and his son waiting. I should note that Expedia had tried numerous times to reach me, both by email and by my cell phone. But they had my work email that I had automatically send a “on sabbatical” reply and the emails archived. As for my cell phone, it was safely stored at home…
I’ve known Ewan since I was ordained as a Presbyterian pastor in Ellicottville, New York, twenty-one years ago. Ewan came to the United States as a seminary student right after I had graduated and was beginning my first call. He had taken a year off of school to do an internship in Buffalo (he knew he was interested in intercity work and wanted to compare the experiences of working in Scotland with America). During his year in Buffalo, with me just an hour down the road, we became friends and have stayed in contact with each other through Christmas Cards and lately Facebook. In the mid-1990s, Ewan called me from Los Angeles. He and his wife had been on a two year “honeymoon” as they worked themselves around the world. They were on their last leg home (and had arranged to drive a car from Los Angeles to New York) and stopped to see us (and meet Donna) in Utah. I hadn’t seen him since then, but I recognized him right away!
I spent the night with Ewan and his family. We talked late and again in the morning as we ate our bowls of oatmeal for breakfast. After breakfast, I went into town with him, as we rode on the top deck of a double-decker bus. Ewan is now a politician and everyone seemed to know him. He’s served on the Edinburgh Council for a number of terms and had recently been defeated in the Scottish parliamentary elections. Ewan’s office, at the Church of Scotland headquarters, is just a couple of blocks from the train station. I walked over and found the right train (but then it was cancelled) and took the next Glascow local train to Hollytown (a small shed by the tracks) where I transferred to the train to Lanark.
It was raining when I arrived in Lanark. I got off the train and found a restroom and by the time I got back I realized that the bus to New Lanark was leaving. All the taxis were full. I asked and found that New Lanark was only a little over a mile away, so I stopped and had lamb stew in a pub for dinner (It was already 1 PM). After eating, I walked down to New Lanark. I wasn’t exactly sure where I would find my wife and daughter. I had tried to call Donna a couple of times, but had never been able to get up with her. I walked into the compound known as “New Lanark” and was directed to the hotel in an adjunct building. As I was walking down the path, I heard Caroline yelling “Dad!” I turned as she ran up behind me and jumped into my arms. It had been ten weeks since I’d last seen her. Even with my packs on, I swung her around as she hugged me tightly. We then walked over to the restaurant where she and Donna were having lunch. I sat down and joined them.
The next two days were a little lazy as we watched the rain. New Lanark was the industrial social experiment by Robert Owen, a British utopian industrialist who felt that businesses should work to improve the lives of their employees. Unlike other textile mills in Britain in the 19th Century, New Lanark supported education and literacy for all employees as well as provided health care and recreation opportunities. When the rains soften to a drizzle, we walked up the River Clyde, to the Falls of the Clyde, a site that has impressed numerous Scottish writers. We also toured the museum at New Lanark and spent time reading and lounging around and washing clothes. Our quarters, in the “waterhouse” had water that had been diverted from the river to power the mill run underneath. It was a nice sleep to the gurgling of the water.
After New Lanark, we headed back to Edinburgh where the Edinburgh Festival was on-going. We retraced my steps on the train (after having traveled with just a backpack and a daypack, it seemed strange to travel with suitcases). Getting into the city, we took a cab over to the Church of Scotland’s headquarters, stashed our stuff in Ewan’s office, and set out to explore the city. Everything is exciting during the festival as hoards descend on the city and it seems that on every street corner there is another performance: musicians and magicians, actors and artists. We stop to observe a few and then find ourselves in the National Gallery where a helpful volunteer gives us a map and clues to paintings that we shouldn’t miss. It’s a nice gallery (after the Hermitage, it feels like it’s the right size to be able to truly appreciate the collection). We have a fine time until we come upon a huge painting of John the Baptist’s head on a platter. There are actually two such paintings which freaked my daughter out.
At five, we’re back at Ewan’s office. We head home with him and enjoyed a wonderful evening meal prepared by Hilary. Caroline quickly makes friends with Ewan and Hilary’s two children (their son is her age and they both got to talk about having parents who often have their pictures in the newspaper). Unfortunately, it couldn’t be a late night as school had just started in Edinburgh and everyone was going to have to get up early the next morning (Hilary is also a teacher). The next morning, we head back into town and stored our stuff again in Ewan’s office and head up to the Edinburgh Castle. It’s a nice day with great views of the city. Afterwards, we tour St. Giles Cathedral, paying homage to the Scottish Reformer and Presbyterian John Knox. Later that afternoon, we retrieve our luggage and catch the train to London. It’s a lovely ride, especially the first hour as the train speed along the coastline. Too soon, we’re out of Scotland and in the heart of England. Things are going too fast…