Desiree Simpson, an international exchange student from Canada, writes about her study abroad year 2014/2015 at the University of Tartu. See also Desiree’s travel blog.
It’s mid-morning, and from the dorm window I watch people walk by, their pace is brisk: taking very short, quick steps. Their shoulder’s are hunched, and their ears are tucked in to the top of their hats and the bottom of their scarves, to keep the cold at bay. A low fog hangs just at the tree tops, burying the peak of the church in the distance. The flat is empty and quiet, save for the light sound of jazz coming from my computer. And, at a short distance the hum of the elevator running, carrying the last of the tardy students on their way to class.
It’s already February. September and October passed at an unfathomably quick pace, fuelled, in part, by mild weather, but mostly by social outings that included a myriad of events, both university and non-university related. November and December passed in similar fashion though the promise of snow had left latent enthusiasm in some, and dread in others. Now, even February is coming to an end. As I stand here, I think back on a few of my most memorable moments in Tartu:
The first thing that struck me the most upon my arrival in Tartu in late August was how quiet it was. Sure, I arrived at the bus station sometime closer to midnight, but even the cabs sat quietly, waiting patiently nearby. The driver too, of the cab that I hopped into, spoke in a modestly low volume.
My first few days in Tartu were spent exploring the immediate surroundings of the Old Town, a tour that began with the bridges: the Angel’s and the Devil’s bridge, the Kaarsild and the Vabadussild bridges over the river Emajõgi. The town square, at the top of which stands the salmon coloured town hall, was void of noise, despite the amount of pop-up patios left over so late in the season. At this time the school semester hadn’t yet started and the sun was still relatively high in the sky in the late afternoon. The leaves of the trees were slowly changing in colour, and crows gawked and cawed at passer’s by in every park.
It was on the sunniest days that many people were out: young and old, including alternative kids and small groups of punks with colourful, spiked hair, ripped jeans, and the sun gleaming off the studs in their jean jackets. It was great to sit quietly on a park bench and pass the afternoons with a book or to have tea with a friend on the patio of one of the many café’s in the town. Even in the café’s I noted the quietness: the voices of the customer’s never raised above the music, and even the music was low.
The fall market in early September was crowded, filled with vendors of all sorts selling things from felted rats who played the felted fiddle to coloured garlic strings, hand knit socks, umbrellas, and clay pots. But even here the exchange of money for goods occurred at low volumes. There seemed to be a silence that permeated everything, from the buildings to the 100,000 or so inhabitants, while the river Emajõgi ran under the bridge Kaarsild quietly. During this time I would further explore the parks and parkettes, in addition to the ruin of the Tartu Cathedral, and acquaint myself with the various monuments around Tartu (of which there are many). October and November were quiet, filled with days of study that included a myriad of presentations and tests, followed by mid-terms.
In December holiday lighting was being placed about the square and the rest of the Old Town. In addition to this a large tree was placed in the middle of the town hall square, followed by a wooden boat that stood unceremoniously off to one side, puffing smoke: a representational figure that allured to the historical past. I was travelling over the December holidays, however I did not leave without first catching a glimpse of the Old Town covered in a fresh blanket of snow that made everything look just as pretty as I’d imagined it would.
In early February, I ventured a little further out into the suburban areas nearer to the train station, and it would be here that the perpetual silence of Tartu would be broken, if only temporarily. The little snow remaining on the ground was that which had been plowed into large piles from the sidewalks. A polar bear sat looking cold and lonesome in the middle of a park, while the sun shone, melting the ice that filled the basin of the pool of the monument of which the polar bear was the central figure. Somewhere behind the houses a dog began to bark, breaking the silence. I continued, walking away from the barking dog and the quiet was restored.
Sometime between my first months in Tartu and December, on a colder night, I made my way with friends to a rock’n’roll bar, a dive bar that was just a short walk from the Old Town. We arrived a few hours too early and so the place was quite empty, however as time passed it began to fill with folk young and old, either clad in black or dressed for a 1950’s B-film shoot. Finally, an Estonian throwback Rock’n’Roll band dressed in similar fashion took to the stage, the female vocalist stirred up the crowd with a few words and began to sing. Her voice was strong and loud, backed by a wild tune that came together on bass, saxophone, and drums. My friends and I danced through the night, and later left with ears ringing. So, while Tartu itself may be quiet overall, the people of Tartu certainly know how to make some noise!
While my adventures here in Tartu have not yet seen themselves through I feel that, as I reflect on my time here, my experiences have been positive. Tartu gives the lasting impression of being a comely, undisturbed town that looks back on it’s past with solid affirmation, but which remains ever in the present. There is no lack in variety of things to do in Tartu, from strolling through the parks, sipping drinks in the café’s, or lounging in the jazz club. I look forward to the remaining months that I will spend here in Tartu, where you can find me somewhere in the Old Town either people watching or sketching.