Monday, October 3, 2011

There from Here

“You can’t get there from here,” I used to hear so much it became a mantra when I would attempt to travel by public transport deep in Estonia’s countryside.

I’d be without a car in some remote southern Estonian village with the desire to get to another remote village. To get there I always had to travel through Tartu, or at least Võru. But that was the charm of the countryside, and it was why I often shunned the bus for hitchhiking.

Today, in the larger context of Europe, remoteness is the charm of Tallinn. Wherever “there” is, with the exception of Helsinki, it’s hard to get there from here without engaging in some minor odyssey.

My recent mission: fly to London, discuss a project over lunch, return home the same day.

I soon found out it was impossible from Tallinn. There was the Helsinki option, but the ticket cost 800 euros, and the departure was so early and return so late that I’d end up spending at least one night in Helsinki. Add taxis to and from Vantaa, and the trip hardly justified the price.

So I flew from Tallinn via Riga on an airBaltic deal which gave me one night in a hotel near Hyde Park. All for a little over 300 euros.

The tradeoff for the price is, of course, the Riga airport, still a booming outpost of Eastern European culture. Despite the fact it’s been physically remodeled, one would not be surprised to find its corridors lined with babushkas in housedresses shouting about the virtues of dried fish.

Many of the airport staff speak English with thick, Boratish accents. Passport control looks you over as if you might be traveling with your anus stuffed full of heroin, and then: “Where’s your boarding pass?”

“I don’t have one,” I answered. “Transit check-in is on the other side of you.” The young man eyed me suspiciously. I honestly wasn’t trying to be a smartass.

“You need get boarding pass at transit check,” he declared, as if it were his original idea.

Then he gave me one more suspicious stare and buzzed me through. On the other side, the terminal’s air was filled with the constant din of wannabe disc jockeys making pre-flight announcements which ensure you can’t hear yourself think, much less your telephone ring. In a search for earplugs I found only Rigas Balsams.

A few hours later at Gatwick I was sent packing from the EU passport line when I showed my Estonian ID card. “But I have permanent residence in the EU,” I protested. “Shouldn’t that be worth a shorter queue? And I’m Canadian. Your Queen is my Queen.”

The lady looked at the card as if I were handing her one of my son’s dirty diapers and banished me to the line with Pakistanis, Afghanis, and Americans. There I got a healthy grilling, though the accent was pleasant and the tone polite.

The guard was clearly not interested in the answers to his questions, only that I, in fact, had answers. “And who would you be visiting here, sir?” “Is that a business partner, sir?” “Where are you staying, sir?” I often wonder that if you told them in a confident tone that you were sleeping on a bench in Hyde Park would they carry on in their cheery fashion. “And which particular bench would that be, sir?”

But what struck me most about London is that in the 24 hours I spent there I did not meet a single native Brit outside of passport control and in taxicabs.

The Gatwick Express conductor was Spanish. The entire hotel staff, even the concierge purported to possess supernatural local knowledge, were Eastern European. It was as if I’d never left the Riga airport.

The girl running the pub was Polish. The restaurant I ate in was Lebanese (its waitress Italian). At the entrance to Kensington Palace I was greeted by a familiar accent. “You American?” I asked the ticket taker. “Canadian,” she replied.

It occurred to me that I would have had more interaction with British people if I’d stayed home and driven around Tallinn with my GPS turned on. (The voice I’ve selected sounds like Miss Moneypenny.)

The point of all this is that more and more I find that when I leave Tallinn Airport I start to immediately miss it. I like its Scandinavian silence, its short lines, and free wireless internet, all which somehow serve to mitigate the strangeness of the pat-down man, who just a little too lovingly runs his fingers around the inside the waistband of your trousers.

All this would seem to add up to opportunity for Estonia, Tallinn Airport, and Estonian Air.

A friend has pointed out that the peace and quiet I so enjoy in Ülemiste bears a remarkable resemblance to a graveyard. Because you can’t get there from here, no one does, and the airport’s charm is based on the fact that so few passengers are served.

That may be, but whatever great success Latvia may boast of in air travel should probably be taken in context: all media accounts point to a Day of Reckoning for the Latvian state and airBaltic, which is said will soon lay off hundreds of workers.

And although it’s a popular pastime to make fun of Estonian Air, I’m optimistic now that issue of ownership has been sorted out. Bringing in the pragmatic, bottom-line-loving Joakim Helenius and his hired gun Tera Taskila seems a clear step on the road to profit. Of course it’s impossible to know just how bent on instant gratification and immediate returns the state will be. Will they leave the new team alone long enough to do the job? Or will they meddle from behind the curtain and force sült on the inflight menu, put yellow-vested reisisaatjad in the cabin, or quadruple daily flights to European armpits like Minsk?

May I suggest a daily London route? It’s not just for me: I read somewhere that Skype buys some 2,500 tickets per year to London. (They must surely tire of flying through Riga.)

Tallinn is a wonderful city to come home to. An affordable taxi awaits you, as does the lovely euro. The border guard is efficient and is familiar with ID cards. There are authentic Estonians in the shops and behind counters.

Why not build on that? What if airport walls were covered with soothing Estonian art? What if orchestras rehearsed there? Or choirs? Or what if Tallinn city government members (in yellow vests) roamed the terminal giving free massages to waiting passengers? What if you could get a free sauna while you wait?

There’s plenty of potential to make Tallinn Airport the most pleasant departure and arrival point in Europe. If only you could get there from here. Some day, though, you will.

And while you're waiting in that airport...