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Tallinn: Making It New

That evening at Pegasus, the tables are full, the crowd earnest. The reflective windows seem to seal the restaurant off from the rest of the world. I'm having dinner with the statuesque and raven-haired soap opera star Merle Palmiste and her very large new boyfriend. The boyfriend is vague about what he does for a living. (Palmiste's ex-husband, an infamous Russian gangster, escaped his country's police by racing across the Gulf of Finland to Helsinki in a speedboat. He held up a string of jewelry stores before finding shelter in Estonia and marrying the TV star.) The boyfriend mumbles something about gas stations, and I leave it at that. Though both he and Palmiste have achieved a cultish celebrity status here, they're surprisingly kind and generous. The boyfriend offers to take me on a retreat to New Mexico, where we and unnamed others can eat peyote and, well, the rest is unclear. I politely decline. We're joined by clothing designers Katrin Kuldma and Evelin Kattai, along with Imre and the poet Karl Martin Sinijarv, whose verses were among those chosen for the playing cards. Sinijarv tells me that his literary heroes include Charles Bukowski and Lawrence Ferlinghetti and that their books can be found everywhere here. I don't know quite what to say. In America, only aging beatniks still have these two on their minds.

"We're lucky to be born into this situation," Kuldma says. "Here we start at zero. We want to be able to do our own thing." It seems everybody does. She and Kattai founded their own label, Fashion House; their leather coats, evening dresses, and knits sell at Fifth Avenue prices. Kuldma trained at the Rhode Island School of Design. She could have stayed in America, she says, but returned to Tallinn out of a sense of obligation to make her mark here. Over drinks at the private club Noku—where you need a password and key card to enter—Kuldma and Kattai can be among others their age, artists and writers. Any of them, she claims, and almost believes, could leave Tallinn for Paris or New York. "But this society is so young," she says. "We need our stars." Kadri Tali, the conductor, had perhaps put it more honestly: "Estonia is cute as hell, but it's not big enough. To accomplish what you need to, you have to get out. You have to have your failure."

On my last afternoon, I watch four teenage boys set down a boom box on a 600-year-old cobblestoned street in the shadow of the medieval ramparts. They spread out a sheet of cardboard, turn their baseball caps backward, flip on some techno-pop, and begin to break-dance. They do that to-and-fro voguing thing before they hit the street and go horizontal. They spin on their heads and do the turtle. A small crowd gathers and gawks, not knowing what to make of these kids in baggy jeans and stupid-looking hats. The boys put out a can, almost as an afterthought, and slowly people begin to drop in coins. There's polite applause between the dances. Toddlers stare openmouthed, watching carefully as though for instructions. Across the flagstone square, though, is a brand-new McDonald's full of Estonian teenagers who watch through the windows and understand that this imperfect performance is a kind of overture to a serious cultural revolution. These days in Tallinn are the beginning of things.

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