This day in Tartu, like many others, starts and ends at Ruunipizza. Apart from offering heavenly pancakes with honey and nuts, this is, strangely enough, the only place in the whole city where I can actually get studying done.
Over time I have turned into the person who hovers outside the door ten minutes before the café opens, anxiously looking in. I don’t know what the baristas think about me. I never ventured beyond a few phrases in heavily accented Estonian, and even though every one of them obviously speaks English, it seems awkward switching to English now. Our lives are already too intimately intertwined, since we see each other every day; I am afraid of additional awkwardness, so I never talk. Oh, but awkwardness, as you may imagine, seeps in anyway, leaps up from around the corners often and unexpectedly, and gets me embarrassed, horrified and secretly overjoyed. Because I love awkwardness, actually, so most of the time it’s my own fault anyway. Anyway, back to Ruunipizza, more on awkwardness later.
The dark side of my love for the place is the crankiness and vicious possessiveness of the window seat. I’ve occasionally contemplated staring at people who occupied it to creep them out and make them leave, but never actually tried (Ruunipizza baristas, if you happen to read this: I promise I haven’t!). The window seat is absolutely important, because this is my observation point. And there is, as you know, much to observe on Rüütli street in Tartu.
Awesome character number one (in no particular order): the Balkan Man. He, I am told, is the owner of the Balkan Restaurant across the street (which, incidentally, I have never been to). When the weather is nice, he looks out the window for hours, examining passers-by and either smiling or frowning at them. I have not yet figured out the reasons or consequences of falling into his favour or displeasure. I am pretty sure I am in his favour, mostly because he smiles and waves at me when I sneakily try to take his picture so I can send it to Ana and Anna. I call him Nikita Mikhalkov, because of the uncanny resemblance he bears to the controversial Russian movie director.
Awesome character number two: the Poet. When my friends who study Estonian literature told me about him, I looked up his music online and duly developed an obsession. In addition to being an incredibly inventive artist, he looks a bit like my Dad. Now this is a bit weird, but heck, what’s not weird about this post? He has the kindest smile, so I think he is wonderful. Because of this I am super shy around him. I’ve never tried to strike up a conversation and am keeping up the fangirl behaviour from afar.
Awesome character number three: the Golden Man. Now the guy who handed out fliers for Suudlevad Tudengid, donned in a spectacular golden suit, is not just a character but also a friend. He is possibly the most eccentric person I’ve ever come in contact with, which is saying a lot. Bored at work, he used to stop by my window and entertain himself (and me) with short pantomimes. I occasionally came outside to hear some jokes. I would probably go mad over my academic papers if it weren’t for Golden Man’s jokes.
This is it – a small, grievously incomplete sample of people who light up my day. And I’ve not even mentioned the Scarily Tattooed Person, the Nameless Student With Great Fashion Sense, and of course, the infamous Guy Who Asked For My Number And Then Told Me He Has a Girlfriend. “You are so weird”, my friends tell me. “We are so weird. Yes, we come from different countries and have a lot of fun together as Erasmus poster children should, but beyond this, things often don’t make any sense. How can you ever write about us?” But what else is there to write about?
Beneath and beyond the stock phrases about crazy student days, international exchanges, diversity and multiculturalism, there is the messy, exciting, boring, bizarre reality of our lives. There you go, then: this post turned into an incendiary, reluctantly hipster-like Manifesto for Marginality. Each day in Tartu, thousands of days are being lived. Every lecture, every cup of coffee, every dress-up party and every whatever you do on weekends – is yours, and yours only. You walk the streets of this city and make it your own. On the way home, emerging from the sea of academic articles and bibliographies, I run into Anna. We stop by the wine bar and sit on some porch on Rüütli street, staring unashamedly at people walking by, talking about our lives, loves, future road trips, about this city and why we love it and why we hate it, and how we fell for it and how it has taken us in, and how, for better and for worse, it is inseparable now from who we are. We are also Tartu, and Tartu is also us.
Main photo: Tiit Mõtus. Photos: VisitEstonia
Article published in collaboration with The University of Tartu Blog: http://blog.ut.ee/