A quarter to four last Friday afternoon, teatime, and blistering Baltic heat. I joke not! Yes, Estonia has been enjoying great summer weather. The perspiring queue for the single shower at Tallinn's main railway station extended along the corridor, populated by sweaty souls who had presumably endured a long ride to Tallinn on a train.
Platform Four: the train to Narva rests in the sunshine. An odd selection of shopping bags, magazines and items of clothing scattered on plastic seats are evidence of people having made a claim on a particular space on the train. One person has left an umbrella, another a melon and a third seat is occupied by a plastic chimpanzee. Their respective owners stand on the platform until it is evident that the train is about to depart.
This late afternoon departure from Tallinn is an Estonian institution. For over forty years, this eastbound stopping train has run. It was always designated 'Hard Class Only' in the Soviet timetables. That has not changed. But its destination has. Until Estonian independence it ran right through to Leningrad. But nowadays the train's journey is truncated, and it runs only as far as the Russian border.
I opt for a seat next to the melon and opposite the chimpanzee. The latter and his four-year-old owner turn out to be amiable travelling companions. The four-hour ride to Narva is an interesting cultural experience, with Estonian voices progressively eclipsed by Russian ones as we trundle east. Estonia's north-eastern corner is almost entirely Russian speaking. Many Narva folk are victims of the Russian century when people were shifted like commodities from one end of the Soviet empire to the other. Come Estonian independence, these Russians found themselves stranded in Estonia. They stayed because they had jobs, many of them in the Krenholm textiles factory. All well and good, except that Krenholm suffered a long and painful demise following Estonian independence, with thousands of workers laid off and the giant industrial complex eventually closing completely last year.
The custodian of the plastic chimpanzee is blonde Liis, heading home to Tapa with her mother after a day trip to the zoo in Tallinn. Spirits wither in the heat, and the hard plastic seats are uncomfortable. But the landscape beyond the windows is a medley of shimmering meadows, shady forests and brightly painted wooden farmsteads with neat picket fences. But Liis' attention is on a young Armenian woman who introduces the Estonian girl to juggling. Siranush is a very accomplished entertainer and all too soon it is time for Liis, her chimpanzee and her mother to alight.
Our train finally reaches Narva. This Russian-speaking town in Estonia is edgy, gritty, very hidden Europe. It provokes one to reflect on issues of language and nationhood. Its border location, just across the river from the Russian city of Ivangorod, adds a little spice to Narva. It is a good spot for watching how the locals juggle complex issues of ethnicity and identity.
Siranush the Juggler evidently loves the place. "I wanted to come to the European Union," she says. "And I chose Narva because I am very comfortable speaking Russian," she adds by way of explanation for what might seem an unlikely choice. "I feel at home there," says Siranush. And so do I.
This article was first published as a hidden europe e-brief.