As I was spending a few days in Tallinn my general preference was to walk whenever possible, all the better to explore the Estonian capital’s enchantingly twisty streets and spires so crudely beautiful they’d pierce the heart of even the most worldly of travelers. My destination today, the Estonian Forensics Institute, lay further than my feet wished to carry me… if only because they needed to haul the rest of me back to Matilda’s so that I could savor a slice of blueberry pie before closing time.
After wiener schnitzel and a bowl of Russian solyanka at Cafe Energia- a diner so immutably Soviet you eat while self-consciously feeling eyes burning into your back- I hopped on bus number 23 to the ETI.
The nice thing about buses in Estonia isn’t just that they arrive exactly when they say they will- take that Italy- but that rather than having to frantically search for a ticket seller before the bus arrives you can just buy your ticket once on board.
I approached the driver who beneath his closely cropped blond hair, winking cleft chin and glasses encroached inside tiny black frames, wore the kind of solemn look indicative of life in a former USSR country.
“What?” He asked before I’d even had a chance to open my mouth.
“Can I have one ticket please?”
“Ticket? What ticket?!”
“What does it mean, Kulmisto?”
“The stop after Energia?”
“I know. What ticket do you want?”
“Is it possible to get a round trip ticket?”
“You are student?”
“Yes.” It wasn’t technically true but as I was still paying for school my conscience didn’t bother me about it.
“Then say “one student ticket.” That’s what you say. No “Kulmisto one stop from Energia,” no “round trip ticket,” just “one student ticket.” Understand?!”
“Then pay 80 cents.”
I gave him a euro and watched him search inside his coin dish for the change.
A screen mounted next to the steering wheel showed two boys jumping up and making faces at us from the back of the bus.
30 minutes later I thanked the driver and stepped off onto a dirt road. He nodded, looking ahead, and pulled away.
An hour later, fingerprinted card in hand, I stood on the opposite corner, counted out approximately 80 cents and clutched it tightly against my ink stained fingertips.
A handful of minutes rolled by until the anointed one struck, bringing the bus to a stop.
The same blond, cleft chin with glasses stared out at me, causing me to ever so slightly hesitate before getting on.
I marched up to his little cage and swiftly handed the 80 cents over.
“Where’s your ticket?” He demanded.
I showed him my previous ticket, now black with fingerprints.
“It’s valid for one hour.”
It had been an hour twenty.
“Never mind.” He printed out a new ticket, handing it back along with the 80 cents.
“It might be advantageous to buy one day or three day ticket, depending on how long you stay in Tallinn.” He flashed me the Estonian equivalent of a smile.
“You can read about it here if you wish.” He gestured to the sign behind his seat listing various ticket plans.
He drove on in silence while I mused over the transformation that had taken place. Perhaps it was simply that he had been impressed by my having counted out the 80 cents beforehand, but in any case it seemed that something of an understanding existed between us now.
Stepping off I thanked him, and nodding once more he turned and waved.
Ok, maybe not a wave, but the Estonian equivalent of one.