City #18, September 2014. A beautiful city, surrounded by the sea. A compact city that wears its prosperity with pride. This a well-ordered Northern European kind of a place. In spite of the tourists trailing through the historic old town in neat files, it has not become the kind of open air museum that is the fate of so many other UNESCO World heritage sites.

Type of Youropeans? For a start, very different from their Finnish neighbours. Finland was never part of the Soviet Union. No KGB there, no history of repression. Estonians are more than happy to be part of the EU, which they expect to provide protection. They expect even more from NATO, and the speech given by Obama, who was in Tallinn just ten days before I arrived, left a deep impression. ‘An attack against one, is an attack against all of us.’ For Estonians, that is the essence of the NATO alliance.

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City Column

Thirst & Depression


Finland is Scandinavia. Winter starts sometime around October and lasts until May, and the winter is dark and grey. And how do such depressing circumstances make you feel? Thirsty.

Finland is Scandinavia. A shining example of a welfare state. Paid for by taxes, taxes on everything: income, cars, and things, especially on Things That Are Bad For You, including alcohol and cigarettes. An unfortunate combination.

The solution is a return boat ticket to Tallinn, even though tragedy has been known to strike ferry traffic on the Baltic Sea. Exactly twenty years this week, the SS Estonia sank with a loss of almost 1,000 lives. Still, it’s only a two and half hour journey, so can leave in the morning and return the same evening. A ticket costs forty euros, but it pays for itself in booze. Because in Estonia, alcohol is reasonably priced, and on board it’s tax free. The SS Finlandia is one such ship. The cars are on the lower deck, their boots ready to be loaded with liquor. There are two decks of cabins, and on the upper deck the most important feature of all: the liquor store. A very large liquor store. Rows and rows of wine: 9.95 for a Chablis, the cost of a single glass of wine in Finland. The whisky department is impressive, but vodka accounts for the bulk of the range.

Of course shopping makes you thirsty as well so you head off to the bar. There is no shortage of on board entertainment. In the Turkuu Lounge a singer is accompanying himself on the synthesizer; he takes requests and can do anything from Donna Summer to Oasis. In the back lounge a jazz singer is perched on a bar stool, revealing more and more of her chunky thighs as her skirt creeps up. The passengers aren’t bothered: they are guzzling alcohol or gambling on one of the ship’s many slot machines. The only thing missing are the whores, but they may be there, holed up in their cabins. We are approaching Helsinki, that beautiful city. Out on the deck the weather is fine and mild; inside people are sleeping on the floor or slumped over a table next to a glass of flat beer and an empty bag of crisps. The singer who is performing her version of Fly me to the Moon is startled when a tray full of Heineken falls off the trolley, narrowly missing her stool. It is September, and winter is on the way, but these people are ready for it.

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