“Land of the Sleeping Bear”—that is how I’d annotate Estonia on a world map. No, it has absolutely nothing to do with the country’s historical past, nor its geographical location. When most people talk about travel destinations, Estonia isn’t typically the top choice, as my friends ever so nicely pointed out once or maybe twice. When I told them it was an all-expenses-paid trip they settled down, looking the other way. It is a “sleeping bear” of a country in the sense that you see it on the world map but never think much of it (or not, depending on what you look for—here’s a hint: look for the Baltic Sea first). But it’s a country that left a lasting impression on me, and I have a vein-like network in my brain filled with streets of Old Tallinn to thank.
I will remember Viru, Tallinn’s main street, for many things, one of which is the loose cobblestone that I kept persistently tripping over during my one-week stay in the city.
Viru was like the trunk of the tree that was the Old Town of Tallinn, running through the old city wall and into streets that could easily be mistaken for the setting of a medieval fairytale. The only detail that broke through this illusion was the McDonald’s on the left-hand side, just past the city wall. It was on Viru that my artist friend and I ogled a set of umbrellas through a shop window, their handles formed into jewel-clad leopard heads or peacocks with their tails fanned out (each with their own appropriately jaw-dropping price tag, of course). Every other street was connected like extending tree branches, equally winding and confusing. Connected to Viru was Sauna, the narrow street where our group stayed in a cozy, hidden little house. Uus, running to the north from Viru and right under the old wall, was a daily pop-up bazaar of old ladies selling handmade sweaters, socks, and mittens, all crafted from genuine wool (as one of my friends found out after irritating one of the ladies with her doubts). It was also through Viru that I stumbled about at an ungodly hour one night with a couple of friends and two (attractive) older twins we had met at the Depeche Mode Bar, who showed us around town.
I’m not one for the cute, coincidental meetings associated with rom-coms, but whenever I tell this story, I get winks and smiles from my friends. It was on that night, walking with the older of the twins (a guy around ten years my senior), where I had felt in my proper place within the universe. Perhaps it was the fact that we got into a discussion about the downfalls of social media and the merits of various beliefs despite our age difference. That night I wasn’t looked at as some small and ignorant teenager, but rather as an adult with a valid opinion worth listening to. I was myself, comfortable and chatting away with someone I met only a few hours ago in a way I never would have done back home in Canada.
I’ve come to associate many things with that city. Coldplay’s “Sky Full of Stars” became the week’s anthem, and snails and bears battled it out in my mind as the mascots of the city. I will forever remember walking down the street and hearing the gossip roll off the tongues of passing locals in familiar Russian or the foreign-sounding Estonian. I will always recall the sight of several shops in a row selling glassworks or felted toys or another type of beautiful craft that, if not for the price tag and the limited suitcase space, I would have instantly bought and brought back home with me. I fell in love with the city, its people, and it all began after stumbling through the gates onto Viru, eyes wide open, my internal compass malfunctioning as always.
One day I will go back to Tallinn and stand on that street, my feet now familiar with the rough edges of the cobblestones, the street-corner McDonald’s no longer a new sight. I’ll no longer feel lost; rather, I’ll be losing myself in the labyrinth of shops and old streets, knowing that all of them lead to Viru. In my adventures, I have dived into the den of the sleeping bear and made him open his eyes. This bear will wrap you up and pull you in, and once you manage to slither out of his arms, you won’t be the same again.