Tallinn

In the summer, you can eat mushrooms as a starter and main course. Black bread is served at every meal. There is shellfish, sea fish, and lake fish of various kinds, dressed in cream or dill. The tap water is so good that Saudi Arabia imports it.

Tallin is Estonia’s largest city and capital; its name might mean “Danish Town,” and its flag once included Denmark’s in miniature. Danes, Swedes, Russians, Germans, Soviets, and Estonians controlled Tallinn in alternating turns.

Tallinn’s Old Town is as you’d expect: souvenir shops hawking amber and linens, tourists bumping into one another’s photos, taxis careening on cobblestoned streets. Skip the themed restaurants, with waitresses dressed like Medieval wenches, but do go to Leib Resto ja Aed for a take on modern Estonian food (8 Euro butterfish carpaccio and the like), and it’s worth visiting Pegasus for the bread alone. Tallinn’s best food is in Old Town, though on its periphery, accessible to tourists and locals alike.

Apartments in Old Town are being refurbished — some for the first time since Estonian independence — and let out on Airbnb. This seemed efficient: let the tourist enjoy the charm, and suffer from the noise, of Old Town.

Beyond Old Town, Tallinn still feels centrally planned: the entertainment district looks like an architect’s rendering, and even the hip part of town is scripted, all shipping container cafes and warehouse-inhabiting creative agencies.

Coffeeshops in shipping containers, ?

Tallinn is a small city, only 5 miles around much of it. I only know two people from Estonia, both of whom I met in the US. I walked into one of them at an Old Town restaurant; I didn’t know he still spent time in Esotnia, and I had not told him I’d be visiting.

Imagine a city, which now resembles a more compact San Jose, that had looked more like a 1980s Pittsburgh. That has been Tallinn’s 25-year transition.

Tiigrihüppe (“tiger leap” in Estonian), in the mid 1990s, put networked computers in every school. Soviet occupation, before then, put a fear of centralized surveillance in Estonians. Combine the two, and we got decentralized internet services like Kazaa and Skype, both architected by Estonians.

Estonia hosts more startups, per capita, than anywhere else — and would like more. Their e-residence program offers “easy business incorporation, banking, and taxes in an EU country” to entrepreneurs. After Brexit, one enterprising bureaucrat set up howtostayin.eu

Estonia is midway through a massive transformation. They joined NATO and the EU, they’re opening their borders as much as possible, given EU membership, and they welcome West-looking entrepreneurs. Estonia’s population is only 1.3 million, but they want to add 10 million e-residents by 2025. Say they succeed, and 5% of those e-residents relocate: that’s nearly 40% population growth.

We do not currently think of Estonia on par with the modern, centrally-willed, small state successes like Rwanda or Singapore, but perhaps we should.

Their laws are some of the most libertarian: 21% flat tax, land value tax (even paid by public institutions!), balanced budget, low public debt, liberalized trade, and a competitive commercial banking sector. What more might a Bloombergian want?

Estonia’s relationship with Russia seems best described as “impertinent nephew/cranky uncle.” The sixtieth anniversary plaques at Tallinn’s bus station are written in Estonian and Russian, but bus scheduling is done in Estonian and English. A plaque downtown thanks Yeltsin for “the peaceful restoration of Estonia’s independence.” In 2007, when Tallinn’s city government proposed moving a monument to Soviet WWII soldiers, Estonian government and bank websites were DDOS’d. An Old Town marzipan shop displays a life size replica of Putin’s head made of almond paste. NATO keeps troops in Estonia’s east, in ethnically Russian towns.

I left Tallinn without a strong sense for what “Estonian” means, absent “European,” which is certainly my mistake. Yet it will only get more difficult to disentangle the two as Estonia wills itself west. Visit now while you can still figure out what “Estonian” means!

August 2016

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