Thursday, February 11, 2010

Cooking the Captain

It's Theater Thursday: I happened upon an opportunity (or rather, being a lazy sod recently, had it thrust upon me) to see the opening night of the Tartu New Theater's Cooking Captain Cook at Genklubi.

And d'you know what, I really enjoyed it.

I won't analyze or review the play in detail, because I don't want to prescribe the meaning that you are meant to derive from it. It was not a bold manifesto, a cultural landmark, or a performance that will live on in legend; rather it was an excellent piece of theater, and is tragically rare these days. In fact, I would maintain that at this point in time, in this country, small, enthusiastic, semi-professional troupes such as Tartu New Theatre provide a far superior experience than even the best of the established institutions.

A few months ago I saw the new version of Richard III playing at Sadamateater, produced by Vanemuine and directed by some presumably impressive Englishman, and it was boring as shit. Except for a rather decent performance of the title character, this play, the highlight of Tartu's theatrical season this winter, was utterly devoid of soul or imagination. It might have been because of Shakespeare, of course - the instance of War of the Roses I saw some years back at Leigo was equally bland: it is as if an entrenched authority can only be tackled via three hours of generically postmodernist "look how clever we are" wankery. The last performance I remember myself truly enjoying - so much in fact that I went back and saw it again on its final night - was a drama about quarterlife angst by a Russian-speaking student theater in Tallinn, and if you've been reading this site for a while, you'll have an idea of how I normally feel about angst.

Theater's initial purpose is to tell a story, but now that we have more efficient media for that, its purpose is to make you feel. Art's worth is properly measured by its effect on an unprepared reader, and from what I've seen of Estonia's theatrical establishment - from Vanemuine to Linnateater to whatever is left of the Russian Drama Theater these days - it has devolved into an incestuous circle jerk, and any new blood it chooses to co-opt is inevitably as pretentious and uninspiring as the old guard. Good theater makes you feel, and it makes you enjoy yourself; if you're not a theater critic by trade, if you go in without preconception and come out feeling unsatisfied, at best thinking that it may have gone above your head, but it sure felt clever - then you were ill-served by your entertainers. The fault lies with them, not you.

Cooking Captain Cook is different by way of its simplicity. There is certainly meaning to be had there, and pleasure, but the performance won't make you work for it. On Tartu's premiere bohemian stage, Tartu's aggressively anti-traditional theater has put on something that is, in a very old-fashioned way, just plain good.

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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Moka Bravo

Not that I'd want to impinge on comrade Mingus's territory, but I do make an effort of publicising outstanding businesses when I encounter them in Estonia. At the moment, I'm quite impressed by the Moka cafe.

The location is most known for its thin-crust pizza, and back when I was in university, I'd spend many a free period in the Pronto Pizzeria that was Moka's previous iteration. The cafe was renovated a few years ago, getting a better decor and some vital additions, such as an easily accessible bathroom. They kept their mainstays of pizza and a soup/salad bar, adding a pretty good selection of baked goods.

I'm not sure when exactly they got their current chef, but Mingus had good things to say about Moka back in October. Recently, they also got a new PR person, because Moka now has a pretty aggressive consolidated presence across Twitter, Facebook and Flickr. They continuously post beautiful shots of really well-presented dishes. Normally I'm not necessarily a fan of zealous advertising, but Moka manages to not be annoying or overbearing about it.

I went in the other day, and ordered something off the menu - the seafood bisque. It was outstanding. A delicious, creamy broth served over a half-dozen scallops, backed by a side dish of a fishcake and potato mash, all garnished with sundry seafood and served beautifully. If they're using pedestrian ingredients, they're hiding it well through both preparation and presentation, and seafood is a very difficult thing to get right in Tartu - the very posh and self-important La Dolce Vita served me diced surimi sticks on a frutti di mare pasta not so long ago. Were I to criticise, the biggest downsides of my Moka experience were the single napkin that my knife and fork came wrapped in (I don't have the dexterity to operate scallops without resorting to my fingers), and the fact that the bread served was a store-bought roll with the sort of cheap cheese topping that Mingus hates with a passion. But this really is the biggest gripe I can think of, and I am being terribly petty: they wouldn't have denied me more napkins had I asked, and the roll was at least warmed up. Competitors such as Truffe or Pierre have better bread, but Moka's food was miles ahead of anything I'd had in either recently. Most importantly, the bisque was a laughable 72 kroons! It may be expensive for a soup, but this was a hearty enough dish to satisfy an adult, and at less than five Euro, it is scandalous value.

Moka Bravo indeed. I just hope they can keep it up.

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Monday, October 05, 2009

The Slightly Used Book Shop

I've often said that there are only a few international consumerist icons that I really wish existed in Estonia, and that among them are Subway (the sandwich place), and Waterstone's bookstores. I have a vocational disorder where I cannot read a book in translation if I know the original language - I keep getting distracted by the artifacts, keep going "I see what you did there". The selection of English books in Tartu and Estonia in general, while significantly improved in recent times, is still inadequate for my requirements. Half of my baggage coming back from the States was dead tree.

Yes, there's Amazon, but a)shipping gets expensive, and b)I still enjoy the experience of visiting a brick-and-mortar bookshop and browsing through the tomes. It's probably ironic how, in the age of the Internet, physical books are still so eminently popular. Popular enough, in fact, to fall under the "80% of everything is shit" maxim. For proof, go no further than the guest segments on The Daily Show.

I saw something in NYC that is even better than Waterstone's, or Barnes & Noble, or Borders. The biggest bookstore in Manhattan does a very brisk business in second hand. They actually have a section and staff dedicated to buying back people's books.

This is an idea that, I think, would be extremely beneficial to Tartu. I have actually considered doing it myself, except for the fact that I am far too lazy to handle all the minutiae of starting up and running a small business; I would need to find a really good manager and stay a silent investor type myself. (I do know a person who'd be perfect, but that very character quality means she's already quite busy with various organizational duties.) But I genuinely think that a slightly used book store could be successful in this town. Tartu has an Apollo and a Rahva Raamat, and the university bookshop, but beyond that it's just antique stores with derelict wares. There must be others like me in this town, people with shelves stuffed with books they enjoyed once but probably won't re-read in the future. If, say, the average new English-language paperback costs 150 EEK, my shop could buy them back for 50 and sell for 75. And we don't have to limit ourselves to English books, the point rather is to offer a cheap alternative for modern, mainstream literature, in any (physical) form. How many times do you think we would re-sell the same Harry Potter volume, collecting a profit each time? I gather that US videogame stores have been doing quite well off that model.

And no, I wouldn't be competing with libraries: they have a limited selection, aren't motivated to keep up with demand, and come with a built-in obligation to return the book by a certain deadline. Ownership just feels good.

Until I get off my ass and make this happen, however, here's the next best thing: BookMooch. It's the book version of an idea some friends and I threw around for a while, the International Beer Exchange - the point was to mail a bottle of your local brew to someone far away, and get a credit that you could use to request a different flavour from elsewhere. (I even owned the domain for a while.) My plans for the Slightly Used Book Shop did actually involve providing the service across Estonia, using the SmartPOST network. BookMooch is a more Web2.0 community-ish affair: you list the books you no longer want, and people can show their interest. You send off the book, and get an arbitrary credit that you can use to request another book from someone else. Encouragingly, Estonia is actually already represented quite well, with around 60 books currently available.

Here's my page on that service. Sign up, and tell your friends about the service!

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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

I need more friends. My current set is cool, but not nearly social enough - among other things, most of them tend to be students who either can't afford to go out much, or have class in the morning. The others have small children and can't stay out long. What's a single 25-year-old to do?

So what the hell, let's try to get something tangible out of this whole blogging thing. Google Analytics tells me there have been over 200 visits to from Tartu in the last month. A bunch of those will be people I know already, but some may not be, and more might have the blog feed in RSS.

So if you're in Tartu, and you've been reading the blog and think I'm a half-way interesting person, give me a shout at I'll buy you a beer.


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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Things I've accomplished in three days of vacation

1) Meet a new blogger - specifically Colm and his charming fiancee Eeva. Met up for lunch at the Place, where he regailed Justin and me with tales of Irishness, such as the experience of crossing the UK national border while having red hair, and the ultimate purpose of the Irish army (to guard all the weapons from being stolen by the IRA). While he objected forcefully that no Irish person has ever been known to actually utter the phrase "top o' the mornin' to ya", he does write "ye" in his emails.

2) Got excellent customer service at the New Yorker store I blogged about previously. I bought a jacket from them and the zipper broke. I was actually considering just getting a clothes repair place to put it a new zipper, but that would not have been blogworthy, so I went back to the store to complain. To my complete amazement, not only did they take the garment back (despite it being past the 14-day no-questions-asked return period - of course this was not a question of wrong size or style, but of an actual fault in its manufacture), but they gave me my money back. That's right: no dicking around with months of expert assessments and repairs, no store credit - cold, hard cash. I'm sure Mingus's worldview has just shattered.

3) Saw a couple interesting crawlspaces while prepping my team's nightgame. I might do an article about some of these prime locations after the game.

4) Shaved. I'm told I look completely different without facial hair.

Early tomorrow morning, I'm getting on a coach and buggering off on a two-week Eurotrip. Tartu to Barcelona and back again, with stops in exciting locations along the way. Stay tuned for trippin' bloggery.

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Thursday, September 04, 2008

Creative Traffic

This summer has seen a lot of roadbuilding activity in Tartu, including some of the busiest intersections. The first one to be comprehensively rearranged was the traffic circle at the end of Riia, a thoroughfare used by town traffic, shoppers headed for the nearby mall (there is really a ridiculous amount of them in Tartu), and commuters from the counties to the south. Whereas previously the traffic arrangement on the Riia Ring consisted of gunning it and hoping for the best, the new solution involves abundant directions on which lane goes where. There is a strong priority for people going from downtown to the mall and back, which has made the circle a lot more efficient. A few hundred meters away is the Aardla cicrle, which has heavily rebuilt to allow people to turn right without ever getting in the way of the other cars.

This sort of creative traffic management has now made its way to the other major hubs of Tartu traffic, and when combined with the apparent lack of foresight and coordination (which I'm sure Mingus will be happy to discuss with you at length), it has resulted in some very odd patterns.

The Sõpruse circle is definitely one of Tartu's busiest intersections, since almost every bit of traffic headed to the Annelinn bedroom community has to go through it. Over the summer, bits of it were closed off for major alterations. City planners attempted to surgically separate particular traffic flows and direct them down separate paths, wherever possible - but they didn't have the money for a multi-level cloverleaf like the one that has sprung up in Riga. So now you can turn both onto and off the bridge, making right turns, via dedicated lanes - so dedicated they are actually physically separated from the ones joining the circular traffic. And those, too, are separated from each other just before the circle.

It's confusing at the best of times, but some plausible manouvers have become downright dangerous. If I'm coming off the bridge and want to get to the Eeden mall (yes, there is a mall at every intersection in Tartu), I can either take the back road that leads to Ihaste, the slipway up to the top floor of Eeden's parking lot, the turnoff to the bottom floor, or either of two physically separated lanes that turn right onto Kalda tee - one that bypasses the circle traffic, and one that cuts through it.

On the face of it, this isn't too bad - a lot of people want to turn right off the bridge on weekday nights, and the tailbacks used to be stupendous. But there are at least two manouvers that have been made a lot more dangerous by this new arrangement. First, if I want to exit either the bottom floor of the Eeden parking lot or the Neste gas station, and join the circle, I have to completely across three lanes of cars flying off the bridge at the better part of 70 km/h, and then make a sharp 90 degree turn at the last second - I can't cut the corner because otherwise I will clip the safety island that separates the leftmost lane from the next one. And a lot of people want to do this: the other way of getting out of Eeden involves circling behind the big construction store next to it (yes, Tartu is a hotbed of consumption, deal with it). Or you could take your chances doing a U-turn on Kalda tee - which requires both practice and a car with a pretty tight turning radius.

The other dangerous manouver is if I want to go into either Eeden or the gas station while coming off the circle, from any direction except the bridge. Two lanes come off the circle onto Kalda tee, but there is another lane immediately to the right, the separate one off the bridge. The turn-in for Eeden and Neste is right there. I have to swerve rapidly to the right, cutting across the path of the people happily accelerating through the awesome new separate lane.

There's a similar trick with the entrance to the new Tasku mall's parking lot. It's a slipway just before the other busy car bridge in Tartu, and there is a right turn from Turu street onto the bridge. The streetlight pattern won't let you turn right from Turu at the same time as the main traffic flow from Riia, but you are indeed supposed to merge at the same time as the left-turn crowd from the direction of the new Kaubamaja. How long before two cars decide to occupy the same physical space in front of the Tasku parking slipway?

There is more odd traffic management elsewhere. There are now two lanes to turn left from the Riia bridge onto Turu; very useful at relieving a perpetual tailback, but they did it without widening the road, instead making all the lanes narrower. So now a bus or lorry just barely fits into a lane. I'm sure they will end up clipping other vehicles sooner rather than later. On Narva mnt, turning left from Raatuse, the road markings tell you to make a sharp 90-degree turn in the inner lane, instead of cutting the corner along a completely unused patch of asphalt (which everyone does, anyway).

Did anyone think this through properly?

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Friday, August 29, 2008

Tasku Revisited

Like it or not, the opening of the Tasku mall is the talk of Tartu and will be for a while. Being the compleat yuppie, I am not immune to its lures, and so you may have to endure further reports. In the words of a forum signature I once saw - if God is inside us all, then I sure hope he likes tacos, cause that's what he's getting.

The most significant item in Tasku's assortment is not the cinema, although that is very welcome indeed; it is the New Yorker clothes store. A chain that I have not seen in Estonia before, it occupies one of the largest spaces and differs in important ways from the Seppäläs that it ostensibly competes against.

It seems to be aimed predominantly at teenagers, which I suppose is a wise move, but also carries sizes and styles fit for an older crowd. The key to its appeal - and you will have to infer the extent of this appeal from the fact that I am writing about clothes in the first place - is a combination of very reasonable prices and fashions which are just a little bit more distinctive than what you would find elsewhere. It seems to commoditize an overall boutique aesthetic, but at a basic-casual price point. It's not entirely without competition, I've been shopping at Cartini for years, but it's new, different, and big. I walked into New Yorker after work today, and came out with a winter jacket. It's fake leather, but it's close enough, looks good on me, and cost about a fifth of what the real deal would have been even at a cheap place like Cartini. Since the only truly practical aspect of a leather jacket - the fact that it'll protect your skin if you fall of a Harley - is somewhat lost on me, I am prepared to take a chance and eating the price.

Furthermore, New Yorker brings a few new and very commendable touches to the shopping experience. I was annoyed at first to see a shortage of cashiers, but somehow the two blonde girls at the single checkout desk were managing to keep the Friday-evening crowd moving along at an acceptable clip - which is little short of stupefying for one with experiences of Hullud Päevad combat. Their shopping bags are free, and far more pleasing at a tactile level than the plastic ones at Kaubamaja; they try to avoid the expense by stressing environmental concerns, making the point that their bags are actually valuable and they would be very grateful if you brought it back for recycling the next time you stopped by Tasku. Whether that'll happen often enough is beside the point: I applaud a stimulation of that sort of mentality. And the most pleasant innovation is something no Estonian store has ever been known to do: New Yorker has a no-quips, 14-day return policy. If the garment is as-new, they'll actually give you your money back.

With the opening of this new store, Tasku and Tartu seem to have become the entry point for something which is long-overdue in this land: civilized retail.

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Thursday, August 28, 2008

Tartu in your Tasku

The Tasku shopping center opened at noon today. There's been relatively little fanfare, considering; maybe the developer, already over budget, could not spare the cash for publicity. Maybe he decided - not unreasonably - that people will come and check out the new glass blob right in the middle of town anyway. God knows the construction has been getting in everyone's way long enough.

The verdict from ambling around it with the crowds on my lunch hour: meh. Unlike most malls, designed to let you shop for absolutely anything, Tasku is almost entirely a collection of clothes shops. Officially they call it a fashion and recreation center; there is no general store, no electronics stores (except for the Apple outlet, complete with bowls of fresh apples and trays of apple crumble for the opening day visitors). I vaguely remember something about a Rimi back when they first started construction on the new mall, but it's not there. A smattering of eateries at least makes Tasku useful as a lunch destination.

There are two things in Tasku designed to draw in a crowd at least somewhat different from the teenagers that will gravitate to the mid-market ragshops: the Rahva Raamat bookstore and the Cinamon multi-screen cinema. The cinema is a very welcome addition to Tartu, but there is a potential problem: while Tasku does have a decent-sized parking structure attached to it, you will definitely not be able to park long enough to go in and see a movie without paying for it. That is definitely a competitive advantage that the old two-screen Ekraan theater has over the flashy new Cinamon.

The Rahva Raamat is big and impressive, but in terms relevant to me and the readers of AnTyx, pointless. Their selection of English-language literature is woeful, barely matching that of the Apollo bookstore in Kaubamaja. Maybe they will expand it, but for now it looks like a stunningly bad move. I refuse to believe that in a city like Tartu, between its expats and students, there is no market for English books. (There isn't much native-Estonian literature that I am interested in, and I absolutely cannot read translations, it's a professional hazard.)

Tasku will certainly serve a useful purpose, but it was supposed to be the end-all be-all mall. Which it isn't. It's just another link in the inevitable Kaubahall-to-Zeppelin axis of consumption that is downtown Tartu.

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Friday, June 20, 2008

In Defense of the Snail Tower

Everybody who either lives in Tartu or spends any significant time here has an opinion on Tigutorn, the big new residential tower next to the bus terminal. These opinions are overwhelmingly negative: people find it ugly, pointless and contrived.

I, however, rather like the Snail Tower. I like it because it's distinctive; and in this day and age, that is the best we can expect from modern architecture. I've been thinking about this, and I honestly cannot name a single late 20th/early 21st century building that would be intrinsically beautiful. The Gherkin in London, the Burj al Arab in Dubai, the Taipei 101 - they are all, at best, impressive. I've seen a fair share of modern highrises, and the closest that have come to beauty have been the skyscrapers of San Diego; the last great architect to create properly beautiful buildings was Gaudi. Today's architecture, liberated by high-tensile steel and pre-stressed concrete and allowed to separate structure from form, creates airy and minimalist works of flowing glass and basic shapes. That's interesting, but it's not beautiful.

Look at the new business district of Tallinn: the SEB and Swissotel towers, the City Plaza, even the Radisson - they are merely reflective boxes. They're inoffensive, but they are not special; they could just as easily fit into La Defense or Ramat Gan. The distinctive feature of the Tallinn cityscape is still the Oleviste and Niguliste spires, and maybe the Long Hermann. Every city with an identity worth a damn needs to have an architectural symbol, but most of them have quite a dull skyline. I've seen London from the top of the LDA brick and the South Bank in the sunset; it's distinguished by St. Paul's, which is a generic gray dome that could exist anywhere, and the Gherkin. I've seen Paris from the Sacre Coeur vantage point, and all it has is a single black obelisk in the middle.

The Snail Tower fulfills the fundamental criterion of a successful distinctive building: a five-year-old can draw it, and it will be unmistakable. It is not beautiful; but then neither is the square of the Grand Arche. It is a white cylinder devoid of deep meaning, but that's what makes it a perfect symbol for Tartu: we get to build up the meaning ourselves. The Eiffel Tower has no more intrinsic semantic value than the Snail Tower; it represents the spirit of Paris because it is distinctive and memorable, and associated with the values that people love about the city. In the same way, we can make the Tigutorn a distinctive representation of the City of Good Thoughts. You can't do that with Pläsku.

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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Functionally Immortal

Tartu residents, rejoice: Zavood is not going anywhere.

Tartu is a campus town, so for a community of a hundred thousand it has a massive amount of pubs, most of them congregating within a reasonable stumbling radius of the University main building and the central dorms. A lot of these pubs come and go, but some are permanent fixtures - and the most legendary of Tartu booze houses is Zavood.

Its main virtue is opening hours: Zavood stays open until four AM, long after most of the rest, and even after the clubs have shut for the night. Once the main entertainment is concluded, those with a high alcohol blood content drift towards Zavood, a few rooms in a semi-basement down an alley just outside the Old Town. There are other late-night haunts in the city, but Krooks is a metal pub with its own specific audience, and Half Six is not bohemian enough. Zavood has no pretensions, not even a theme as such: it is the quintessential student pub. Loud, relatively cheap, and very seedy. Also very full. Tartu is not that small, but if you've lived here for a few years, you know that on any given night you can show up at Zavood around 1 am and see someone you know - probably on their fourth pint of cheap lager.

Zavood seems functionally immortal. All Tartu pubs suffered a great blow when the EU smoking ban came into force, but Zavood somehow just made it work: on a really good night the inside is likely to be reduced to a steady stream of customers picking up their glasses, while most of the socializing happens in the alley outside, conveniently equipped with concrete bannisters on which you can leave your drink.

It is this aspect of Zavood that irritates the owners of the building, a student fraternity. The Zavood mob, while mostly friendly, can get unruly; some of the other tennants complained, and the fraternity tried to pull the lease. It looked like the legendary pub would have to close up after August - or at least move.

Now, it seems that Zavood's Italian owner has made his arguments stick in court; the fraternity's decision to kick them out came after the new lease had been sent off for signing, so according to Zavood, the extension till 2011 is binding. There's some legal hustle related to whose signature was on which paper when, but the preliminary ruling seems to have been favourable towards the pub, so it looks like the Tartu fixture will stay.

See you there.


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Wednesday, May 07, 2008


Happy Birthday to me. :)

I'll be at the Maailm pub on Friday night if any Tartu readers want to come along and say hi.

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Saturday, January 26, 2008

Tartu blog scene, redux

The scene is growing. Yesterday me and Giustino went over to check out the Hostel Dirty Sex, run by Joel Dullroy (nee Alas), of the No Estonian Unturned blog. It's a lovely place, with a very nice chillout room equipped with the second most comfortable couch in the world (after my own bright red leather one). Definitely a great place to hang out, smoke a waterpipe with some friends, and explain to a jetlagged Nsync refugee exactly what Wired Magazine did to piss me off.

Meanwhile, it seems that Trek of The Eesti Connection is considering moving out of Tallinn. Go over there and convince him to choose Tartu over Pärnu, and save a man and his family from annual flooding.

As master Dullroy intends to depart in the mid-term future, blogging Estonia will not be left aussie-less: apparently Loius (Zezeran) is moving to Tallinn.

Did I forget anyone?

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