There is one thing an average Finn and I have in common.
Ask me if I have been to Tallinn, and I’ll shrug in response. Isn’t it obvious? A Latvian, I studied in Finland for two years. Of course I have been to Tallinn, the main transfer point from Riga to Helsinki. In fact, I have probably been there on no less than 30 occasions.
30 visits are no joke. You will probably ask me what there is to do and see in Tallinn. Surely I must know the city like the back of my hand.
I will think a little here – think and admit that I do not actually know much of Tallinn. Yes, there is the famous skyline that floats into view when approaching Tallinn from Helsinki by sea. Then there is the ferry terminal I have used far too many times to pay attention anymore. Oh, and a huge supermarket next to it. That’s about all I’d typically remember – admittedly, not much at all.
What about that average Finn?
Now ask an average Finn the same question. Like me, they will shrug. OF COURSE they have been to Tallinn. Helsinki is less than 100 km away across the Gulf of Finland. Countless passenger ferries zoom back and forth between the two cities. One cannot walk down a backstreet in Helsinki without spotting a city break poster for Tallinn. Every self-respecting Finn seems to have visited Tallinn – and if not, is planning to do so soon.
Official statistics confirm the first impression. According to the port of Tallinn, 5.6 million sea passengers travelled to and from Helsinki in the year ending October 2010. This is more than the population of my entire country (Latvia) crossing the Gulf of Finland twice in a single year. Very impressive indeed.
The statistics from Finland likewise impress: nearly 75 percent of adult population of Southern Finland reportedly visited Tallinn at least once during the two years of research. As suspected, as many as 80 percent intended to visit Estonia in the next two years.
And this is what I believe an average Finn and I have in common: we have both made multiple trips to Tallinn without having in fact seen much of the city. Our knowledge of Tallinn’s ferry terminal may be second to none, but we didn’t really bother venturing too far afield. Why? Because everything we came for was around the port area. There was no burning need to go anywhere else.
Which in turn brings us to an important difference. If for me Tallinn meant little more than an obstacle on the way from Riga to Helsinki, most Finns come to the Estonian capital for another reason: to buy cheaper booze. Apparently as many as 80 percent of Finnish visitors to Tallinn purchase alcohol to bring home.
To be honest, few would need official estimates here; it is enough to watch a queue to the next Helsinki-bound ferry in Tallinn. Most passengers will be carrying at least a crate of beer each; some will complement with another crateful of vodka. The most far-sighted types will be rolling a small trolley loaded with an alcoholic pick’n’mix. All you can carry, kiitos.
Finland and alcohol
Over the two years of studies, I had a chance to get to know Finland at least to some extent. The country is infamous for its binge drinking culture. With France and Italy, Finland ranks among the highest alcohol consuming European nations.
Unlike French and Italians, however, Finns are not so much into sipping wine with their meals in a civilised manner. They may not even consume alcohol every day – but when they do, they take it very seriously indeed, drinking in substantially larger quantities per sitting and preferring harder liquor to wine and beer. Famously high price levels in Finland do not help. Helsinki consistently ranks among the most expensive cities in the EU where alcohol prices compare particularly unfavourably.
Finland has tried to reduce its alcohol prices before. Estonia’s EU membership in 2004 meant the loosening of alcohol quotas previously imposed on Finnish visitors. In fear of losing domestic sales, Finnish authorities initially decreased their alcohol taxes by up to a third, depending on the type of alcohol.
The cut proved to be a double-edged sword however, as Finns simply consumed more alcohol – both domestic and that imported from Estonia. The social cost of increased alcohol consumption was enormous as alcohol-related problems became the most common cause of death among Finnish people of working age in 2005. Alcohol-induced crime in Finland shot to record levels; overnight shelters for drinkers collected off the streets hit their capacity limits. Tax reduction was not the solution.
Caught between budgetary and health concerns, Finnish authorities eventually admitted defeat and re-raised alcohol taxes, albeit not to the pre-2004 levels. Finnish visitors continue flocking to Estonia – which is too dependent on alcohol revenue to fight its own severe drinking problems, let alone those of Finland.
Now ask me again
This post was initially meant to be a lament about having never properly seen the beautiful city of Tallinn. As well as a complaint about my multiple trips with the slowest and the cheapest passenger ferry between Tallinn and Helsinki (read: Eckerö Line). I was going to conclude it all by committing to come to Tallinn properly one day. Come properly by air or land and not even look in the direction of the passenger port. Enough is enough.
But I failed to write such a post. After starting the first draft, I suddenly felt the urge to rectify the situation and come to Tallinn straight away instead. My trademark is booking trips months in advance, but I, too, can be spontaneous sometimes.
Said and done: last weekend, I landed in Riga and was on a bus to Tallinn within a matter of hours. I may not have stayed that long, but the city was really everything I had hoped it to be. As expected, the passenger port was not exactly a must-see.
And just for the record, I didn’t buy any booze.
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Tallinn
Old Town, Tallinn
Oleviste kirik, Tallinn
(View the full Tallinn set on Flickr here)