Last November I traveled to Estonia as part of a Baltic tour, which included Finland and Sweden. I didn’t know what to expect but had a faint yearning to visit after seeing them win Eurovision in 2002 (every Estonian I met and mentioned this to screwed up their nose, not wanting to be known for such a spectacle. I assured them that we see the irony in the whole thing too) I was also looking forward to it as I’d be traveling with old friends Mark Manone and Stanley Paulzen. Mark who is usually the bass player in the Lucksmiths has been writing quite a few new songs lately and performing them under the working title of ‘Manone Alone’. Stanley performing as one man band Fred Astereo. Together with Nichlas our friend and Finnish tour manager, and Ben my flatmate and appointed merchandise salesman we had our own street gang.
Our contact Tauno met us at the ferry terminal and instructed us to follow him for 15mins. His accent sounded like he had said ‘please follow me for 15 miles’ but we soon cleared up the misunderstanding and over the next few days realised that to get anywhere in Estonia we had to follow Tauno for 15 mins. We walked across a frosty field past the city wall and up into the old town, tiled with shop fronts selling tourist trinkets and cheap soviet souvenirs.
At exactly 15mins Tauno stopped at a large wooden door. He swiped his card in a futuristic device and the door opened to narrow wooden staircase that lead up into a private cozy restaurant where we weren’t permitted to take photos, as instructed by a curt waitress who frowned as she took our lunch orders. This was the first of many confrontations while ordering food and we soon came to the conclusion that everyone in the hospitality and service industry in Estonia hated us.
You start to build and identikit image of people you’ve never met and been in email contact with. Tauno looked nothing like I expected. Lawyer by day, Smartly dressed and taciturn but humorously dry, he seemed to study us quietly through his glasses probably thinking we were nothing like he expected either. I hoped he liked us, especially as we were being particularly noisy and offensive, exited to be all together again in a strange country. Every now and then it looked as though Tauno would shudder silently and lower his head. At first I thought this was out of disgust until I realised he was actually laughing.
After an amazing meal of Baltic salmon we followed Tauno for 15mins to pick up the guitars we would borrow and then another 15 to his apartment. There we met another man who kept smiling at us.
My name is Armin, He said, I am your driver
He kept smiling the whole 2-hour drive to the University town of Tartu, and our first gig.
The major highway was only two lanes wide. It was eerie and every now and then you’d see a tiny floating reflector disc and as you passed it you’d realize it was attached, hanging by string, to some lone person waiting for a bus or a lift or something else. Miles from a town, alone in the middle of icy nowhere.
I asked our Armin about it and he told me that it was so cars could see them in the dark.
You know, Estonia is one place that has the most car accidents in all Europe
They call this the killing road
Our eyes looked straight ahead and were unblinking in the glow of the oncoming traffic.
Some time into the journey we realized that the smell of the chemical in the windscreen washer fluid in Armans car was like olfactory candy and even when there wasn’t sleet we made him turn on the wipers to get a hit. I was definitely an addict by the end of that trip.
We asked if we could have a break at one of the wooden truck stops that interrupted the long stretches of nothing. Mark and I ran into the gift shop to get warm and a bell summoned a stone-faced lady with heavy bagged eyes. We tried to explain that we didn’t want to buy anything. She stared at us expressionless without saying anything. We felt uncomfortable and left with another bell twinkle. She hated us more than anyone she’d met.
The venue in Tartu was a loft cafe/bar/nightclub in an old building in the centre of town. It was a student hangout and everyone looked sharp and pretty. The first act was a local Estonian folk singer called Kago who sang every few songs acapella, accenting the notes with his fingers like they were long pieces of cheese from a pizza.
Later, when the place had completely filled to overflowing I started to worry that my little acoustic guitar and banjo wouldn’t cut through enough to reach the whole crowd. When Mark Manone started playing his set with Stanley on drums and the dance floor came alive I almost had an anxiety attack. Then Stanley as Fred Astereo kicked ass. My set will die a rapid death. These people don’t want to hear sensitive ballads. It’s Friday night for crying out loud. These kids wanna rock! I begged Stanley to play drums for me too, which would mean he plays in all 3 acts, approximately 3.5 hours straight. He agreed though and we rocked as much as possible given our resources. Mark ended up joining in too on second guitar. By the time we’d finished the set the crowd weren’t ready to leave so my days in one of Gympies lesser know cover bands (Electric Energy) came flooding back to me and before any of us knew it we were playing Buddy Hollys ‘Oh Boy’, the Smiths ‘Ask’ and various other classic gems. It all came to a crashing end when some guy from the audience hurtled across the stage violently knocking my microphone and launching it like a space shuttle. It actually disappeared and we couldn’t find it to play anymore if we’d wanted, seriously.
Sometime during our set the first snows had gently arrived outside and we ran out to greet it like kids. Stanley had never seen snow so he went the craziest. We smashed each other with snowballs for about an hour until Mark Hit Stanley at point balnk range and he nearly started crying.
Our hosts, who we’d just been introduced to, finally dragged us away to the waiting taxi van to take us to their parents apartment where we’d spend the night. Our snowball-lust unsated, the fight continued until our disgust at Stanley for throwing one right into the taxi as someone was paying the driver (This guilt was heightened when our taxi came for us the next day, 9hrs later, with the same driver. He hated us all).
The drive back to Tallinn was this time tinged with fear as a blizzard had hit. We had to drive slow and passed solemn traffic accidents. The lonely floating reflectors now struggling to be seen through sheets of white.
The Tallinn gig was also much the same as the night before. The crowd enthusiastic and jumping madly to the music. Manone played an awesome set and is really starting to become more confident at singing. Fred Astereo was as always entertaining. Although our hosts advised that if he were to ever come back he should bring a band. “You cannot just press play”, they told him. But from where i’m standing it looks like the Estonians want to adopt him. He would be perfect for Eurovision next year.
People had heard we’d done those cover songs last night so we did it again and even managed to bluff our way through ACDC standard ‘Shook Me All Night Long’. I guess it was our duty as Australians.
It was sad to leave. Stanley and Armin had become like a comedy duo, of which most of the material centered around the fact that the Estonian word for ‘fork’ sounded like ‘cockface’.
When Armin laughed it was out loud and he shook his head as if he couldn’t believe he was laughing at Stanley. Seeing Armin and Tauno laugh together was like some weird dance; all shaking shoulders and heads.
I really hope that Tauno, Armin and all the great people we met know how we appreciated visiting their country and grateful for the hospitality we were shown. Everyone we met through the shows were so warm and friendly and made us feel so welcome. We can”t wait for our return to see our Estonian friends again.
At the ferry terminal Stanley asked at the ticket counter if we could have a room with a spa.
The girl looked back at all of us with venom and pointed us toward the departure ramp without speaking.