THE EMPTY STREETS OF TALLINN
Friday 26th July 2020
On March 9th 2020 I arrived in Tallinn to meet my Russian wife Anastasiia for a few weeks together, before flying to Norway for a gig in Arendal. After that her Schengen visa would expire. We were still waiting for her DVisa to be approved by the Irish Embassy in Moscow, after that we wouldn’t see each other for months. There were plans to move her to Saint Petersburg but it would be up to a year before she could even visit Ireland and the absence of a visa and the new regulations surrounding it would make this trip exceptionally important. I had Anúna Corporate performances scheduled for the 2nd and 15th of April and flights booked from Tallinn to Norway. Tallinn has been a very special place for us. We celebrated our marriage there in October 2019 with the help of our friends and family, who flew from all over the world. Christmas there was particularly beautiful and the proximity to Russia and the fact that Estonia is in the EU made it a perfect place for us to spend time together. Our last opportunity for what might be a very long time.
The day we arrived news was spreading rapidly that there was a chance that Europe would go into lockdown. I had flights booked to and from Dublin in early April and Anastasiia was going back to Moscow on the 26th. The year-long saga of Irish entry visas was nearly over and this was a welcome respite before the inevitable separation.
We marvelled at the lack of tourists and the calmness of the Estonians over the first couple of days in Tallinn. We ate in empty restaurants and walked in the rain, delighting in the strangeness of this familiar place gradually going to sleep.
Anastasiia in the rain on Kohtuotsa viewing platform March 16th
On March 13th I received my first gig cancellation in Dublin.
An avalanche followed. 2020 and most of 2021 were gone. My business was crippled in a matter of less than a week. The Americans were flying home.
After a few days restaurants and bars began to shut. We only discovered later that they did this voluntarily. They never officially locked down in Estonia. Apparently life went on pretty normally outside the Old Town, though many people did isolate themselves. Suddenly all of the flights were cancelled and Dublin and Moscow shut down. We were stranded.
Before that moment Anastasiia could have left. I could have flown back to Ireland as the vast majority of people did. But there was no way that I was leaving her.
As an EU citizen I was safe but her Schengen visa ran out on April 26th, a long time in the future. Things would be fine. Then they cancelled St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in Dublin on March 17th and we knew that things would not be fine at all.
Rooftop beside Humalakoda March 18th
Coffee on Harju March 20th
Piiskopi maja March 23rd
Olde Hansa March 26th
Viru väravad March 26th
Dunkri April 4th
Lai April 5th
Stenbocki Maja, seat of the Estonian government, Toompea April 21st
Kohtuotsa viewing platform April 8th
The Deer Sculpture April 21st
Tallinn is old. It’s modern history begins in the 1200s but it’s much older than that. Its name derives from the Estonian word for "Danish Town", which is what it became in 1918 when Estonia became independent. But its name for a thousand years has been "Reval". I will write about its relationships over the centuries with Germany, Russia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania and Sweden in another blog. It retains an almost perfectly preserved medieval city, complete with walls and towers. This is mainly due to its status as a trading centre over the centuries. The new city and the remnants of the Soviets surround it but essentially it’s completely intact.
This was the Tallinn we knew. We were married in the Hopneri Maja on the town square and celebrated in Olde Hansa. We had wandered through the streets in hot summer and freezing winter. We spent a week in the Autumn writing songs, sketching and filming and just spending time together. It became our home.
After the virus hit Europe, the city sat in complete silence for two months. The streets were empty. It wasn’t a lockdown. The restaurants and bars simply had no one to serve. We walked through its lanes and across its squares together for weeks. We drew and photographed the buildings and felt the peace and reassuring weight of a thousand years gently fall on us.
Nearly every day we walked up Toompea Hill to the viewing areas and looked out over the city. It was empty and silent. The weather changed dramatically daily. The occasional snowfall in March and April gave way to clearer warmer weather and we saw the light in the city change by the hour. The tourist restaurants and cafés in the Old Town square stayed open defiantly throughout March and one day in early April, the sun came out. We sat at one of the tables and were served by a young Russian in a t-shirt. I was immediately reminded of the hopeless optimism of the Irish when the weather changes.
It was a false dawn. The climate here says spring but means winter. The trees stayed bare and we waited. The streets remained empty and the light bounced off the old windows on to the cobbles as if by intention. Old Thomas looked down from the top of the Tallinna Raekoda, guarding the city as he had for 500 years and the city slept a little longer.
Tallinna raekoda April 8th
Russian Federation Embassy April 11th
Balti Jaama Turg 9pm April 21st
A Tricolour on Kevadpüha May 1st
Voorimehe May 6th
On May 1st the Estonians celebrate Spring Day (Kevadpüha). On March 12th the government had declared that a state of emergency would finish on this date. There were bonfires and fireworks. People celebrated with their friends and family and the country woke up. They began to build the platforms that support the outdoor seating and protect the cobbles of the Old Town.
Like in many tourist-heavy European cities the local people were reluctant. Prices plummeted and they slowly began to reclaim Tallinn. Cafés and bars re-opened and restaurants struggled with the lack of tourists and distancing requirements. By my birthday on the 11th the people had returned. One day it was ours, the next it was gone.
Tallinn will forever be special to us. It became our place when we had nowhere and it became our house when we had none.
When I asked Anastasiia whether she wanted to fly home before the borders closed, she looked at me with those strange green and gold eyes and said:
“I am home”.
"Meie Maja" - Our House
Balti Jaama Turg May 18th
Kopli May 6th
St. Nicholas's Church May 18th
Anastasiia in the Danish King's Garden May 18th