Editor's note: Contributing Editor RaeJean Stokes is traveling around the former U.S.S.R. this holiday season and reporting back to us with occasional missives about life on the other side of what was once the Iron Curtain.
After leaving St. Petersburg, my husband and I spent Christmas in Tallinn, Estonia. Although only an overnight bus ride away, it was like a whole different world. Tallinn's old town (where we spent all our time) is like a fairy tale city. It's one of Europe's few remaining medieval walled cities, with cobblestone streets, ancient buildings, and an atmosphere absolutely perfect for the Christmas season. There was even a traditional Christmas market, with stalls selling hot mulled wine and all types of wintry garb. If there were snow it would have been perfect.
Because cheap flights out of Tallinn back to Denver are nonexistent, we opted to take the ferry to Helsinki and fly from there. We only spent one night in the Finish capital ... and it was dark the whole time. We arrived at 4:00 p.m. to find total darkness, and left at 9:00 a.m. just as the sun was starting to rise.
The trip home took us from Helsinki to Denver via Frankfurt. I was shocked by all the new security in place for flights back into the U.S. In Helsinki I didn't have to take off my shoes (which by the way were lace-up furry boots, which take five minutes to get on and off—so it was much appreciated), but in Frankfurt, despite the fact that we landed in the secure section of the airport, I had to endure a full-body pat-down, shoe inspection (complete with the soles of my bare feet), and two passport checks. Then we were handed forms courtesy of the Department of Homeland Security asking for our names and next of kin contact information. How morbid is that? I couldn't help be saddened by it all.
Now I'm back in Denver. Thankfully, our flight got in the day before the blizzard hit or I'd probably be writing from a hotel in Frankfurt right now. It's funny to think that I spent five weeks in a part of the world known for its cold, snowy winters ... and only saw flurries once. Now I'm looking out my window at over a foot of fluffy whiteness, with more on the way. Ahhh ... global warming.
With the unpacking mostly done, and the laundry in progress, I've finally had a little time to reflect on what I experienced these past few weeks. This trip was definitely not about relaxation, but it was about learning. My Russian language skills are much better, as is my appreciation for the nuances between the countries of the former U.S.S.R. I was surprised to find out that St. Petersburg is in fact much more Western than pro-EU Kyiv. Don't tell that to President Putin. It was also a delightful surprise to see how well Tallinn has managed to merge its medieval past with a bright and modern future.
I can't wait to go back.