RIPE for Tallinn

Writing tips

Photo of Tallinn skylineSorry for the lack of diary entries, been in a bit of a creative slump and didn’t have the spark to write much, busy dealing with the rejection letters from agents who you suspect haven’t even read your work – particular Kudos to the agency who shall remain nameless who said that thrillers were not really her genre – in response to my very obviously romantic comedy, and the other one who had their very junior assistant reply on their behalf that stories about serial killers were not really her thing – well I’m with her on that.

Still not one to be beaten, I’m pleased to say I’m ready to crack on with something new. I’ve shut ‘Help’ away in a drawer to cool off for a few months before I come back and have another rewrite. Then it should be what I want it to be. Or not, in which case it will never see the light of day.

Right now I’m bored with it, so my enthusiasm of marketing it to anyone else is zero. My next idea is all fired up, I’ve made tons of character notes, filled a spiral bound notepad with quotes and ideas, I might just be ready to write a few words. Just can’t decide where to start it, right now under a trestle table at a New Year’s Eve party while all around do the conga seems most likely – nothing like a moment of true despair to kick off a Mo Fanning story now is there?

So this month, I was kept busy preparing for, attending and clearing up after a week-long conference in Estonia – a week long event where men with beards, sandals and penchant for free T-shirts gather with other men with beards, sandals and a love of free T-shirts to check their e-mail, surf the web, get inadvisably drunk on free booze and blush when a lady speaks to them. Oh and a few of them actually do something vaguely work-related, but they are very much in the absolute minority and could probably all fit into a small room. This year we went to Estonia – once peaceful and very much at the vanguard of Eastern European expansion into the EU, in the recent weeks the country has been torn by riots after some government official decided to upset Mother Russia by shifting a Soviet war memorial to a military cemetery without asking permission. Anyway, on we go…

Sunday 6 May

I had been dreading the trip to Tallinn. I can’t lie, it was the last place on earth I wanted to be. I’d toyed with contracting something fairly life-threatening to get out of it – nothing like TB or Meningitis you understand – a nasty cough that might turn chesty would do. There seemed to be nothing doing. I was coughing and sneezing like a good ‘un, but everyone put it down to the inordinate pollen problem caused by the freak hot weather in Amsterdam. I believed them eventually.

When first I came to check in online for my flight to Tallinn (hereafter to be known as riot-torn Tallinn, according to popular news parlance), I was struck by just how small the plane on offer appeared, just 17 rows of seats. Anxiously I began to Google ‘Fokker 70’ to set my mind at rest that it had jet engines, affording it a better than 50% chance of making it to my destination. It appeared to have two, so imagine my general state of fear, fret and all round mither when on the way to the airport in a taxi with two colleagues, one remarked that it might be one of those olde worlde propeller planes, the sort you often hear about crashing in remote parts of Eastern Europe – or just outside riot-torn Tallinn as my inner monologue was already suggesting.Photo of an ornate door in Tallinn

Check-in was yet another example of stunning Dutch efficiency and award-winning customer service. After shuffling slowly towards the front of a ‘baggage drop queue’ (we checked in online, it is supposed to be quicker, it isn’t), the check in assistant allowed me to present my passport before informing me that this desk was now closed.

Like any right-thinking person I was miffed and enquired why she hadn’t thought to tell us she planned to close the desk when we joined the queue, those behind me mumbled their general agreement that this was really quite a poor show, “I am sorry I forgot’ she announced with a smile that suggested she wasn’t particularly sorry at all. To me, this came over as possibly one of the weakest and quite frankly most shite excuses I have heard in some time. It ranks alongside the dog eating homework or leaves on the line. ‘Thank you for flying KLM, now Fuck Off’ she appeared to be saying. I took ‘agin’ her.

I counted first to ten, then twenty and by the time I reached thirty six, I had decided to let it go. To be honest I’ve been starting to worry that I’m getting a bit ‘old git-ish’ of late – what with my apparently unreasonable expectations of being treated with slightly more respect than that normally afforded to a bowl of boiled cat vomit, so we joined another slow shuffling queue and eventually reached the desk, checked in and were assigned a gate. ‘It is a bus gate,’ the girl behind the counter said meaningfully and drew circles around the times on our passes. Clearly the bus was leaving on time, with or without me.

We boarded, it was the tiniest plane possible and packed to the gills with remarkably plain-looking folk. The ‘gorgeous gene’ is clearly not a part of the Estonian make-up. I fully expected to be sat next to the obligatory fat bloke with a personal hygiene issue and no boundaries when it comes to making conversation. For once, I lucked out and two normal looking people with normal sized hold luggage and no unusual twitches sat beside me. Then I spotted him, bouncing down the aisle, family in tow, florid of complexion, the plane was visibly bouncing in time with his footsteps. He took the seat right in front of me, allowing him to spend the entire flight reclining his seat, returning it to upright position, reclining his seat, leaning round to talk to wifey (behind me) and generally behaving like he had some sort of embarrassing anal itch that precluded just sitting still. It was lovely. I adore air travel.

We reached Tallinn in plenty of time and joined another queue for passport control. This was quaint, after showing your passport to a rather stern looking woman in the sort of military issue green shirt you can still find in provincial branches of Millets, you have to open a cheap looking wooden door and cross the line and into Estonia, where your bags are awaiting you in a heap.

On to the hotel and it was surprisingly spacious in an Eastern European way. The carpets in the entrance had seen better days and suffered from a few fag burns and bits of gum trodden in, but overall it was efficient, if a little like the sort of thing you used to see Cliff Michelmore or Anne Gregg wondering around on the BBC Holiday show back in the 70s and 80s.

And so to bed, I’ll fill you in on the room tomorrow. Got the nasty chesty cough I hoped for, twenty-four hours too late.

Monday 7 May

The meeting kicked off today and so at 8am, after just three hours of fitful sleep in a room that was just a little bit warm (actually it was horribly hot), I decided to brave breakfast. It was one of those spread out affairs that you can’t help feeling they do to prevent anyone from making the most of it. Usually by the third day I’ve worked out where all the stuff I like is, too late to actually make the most of it. I had a bit of scrambled egg on toast, it was .. well scrambled egg on toast to be honest.

Afterwards I returned to my room and used Skype to chat with Mark for a good thirty minutes, taking full advantage of the video phone facility to give a tour of the room. Again it is all a bit like that 80s sitcom ‘Duty Free’, but given we are in riot-torn Tallinn, it is perfectly adequate.

Lunch was a bit dismal, big glasses of luke-warm tap water and a few off looking chicken or fish dishes, a bit of salad and not much else. Quite the worst tucker I’ve ever known at a RIPE Meeting to be blunt. But what the heck, it filled a hole and now I’m off to snap some lovely pics of the old town and see if I can’t join a looting mob and bag a few things to flog on e-bay when I get back.

Afternoon Delight

Tallinn actually is a really pretty town. I really hesitate to say city, it has the same sort of vibe that my home town Stourbridge still has – though obviously far less run-down charity shops. In parts of the old town, you can see a few signs of the recent unrest with broken and boarded-up windows. Someone, somewhere is a dab hand with gaffa tape. I spent an hour or so walking around the streets and getting some air. It was not a busy day, a few walking tours of white-haired Americans, all looking a bit antsy with one hand on their mace sprays, the other on their cameras. I took a few snaps of the streets…

As I walked around, I learned two new things today about Tallinn. Many of the younger women here like to dress like they work for ‘Eastern European Whores ‘R’ Us’ – very short skirts, skimpy blouses with the sleeves obviously hacked off with their mums’ kitchen scissors and ‘chase me, fuck me’ heels. It’s all a bit last century. Also the pedestrian crossings are very scary. You stand there patiently while a steady beep sounds, warning you not to cross. It sounds like one of those life-support machines you often hear in an episode of ‘Casualty’ or the like. Then when it is time to cross, the beep stops and turns into one continuous tone, a bit like when someone flat-lines. I wanted to hear someone who I vaguely recognise from ‘Eastenders’ shout ‘stand clear’ – they didn’t.

Tonight there is a social event that is a welcome party. I will quote from the flyer, as I don’t think I could improve on it.

“..a unique Estonian party… a showcase of Estonian culture…The reception will commence with the blowing of a shepherd’s horn and a traditional ‘welcoming shot’…This will be followed by a display of traditional Estonian music on unique folk instruments, traditional ‘spectacles’ including pantomime and feats of strength and finally a ‘sabantants’ or ‘tail dance’.”

You can’t imagine the sense of dread this gives me. I am hoping that the ‘tail dance’ is a Baltic version of the Conga, I’ll report back, if I haven’t run for fear of my life and escaped the cultural overdose they plan to cram into a few hours. Whatever happened to a few glasses of wine and some cheese and pineapple on sticks? Still I am intrigued to see someone blow a shepherd’s horn.

Hi Di Hi

I lasted ten minutes at most, just long enough to choke back half a glass of cheap fizzy wine. I had barely sipped my drink when a loud hairy Estonian bloke grabbed the mike and started doing his best Ted Bovis impersonations, imploring us all to come closer and take our seats as it was show time. He did a bit of patter about how Estonian women are fat and how they all like to eat big pieces of meat (the ‘Carry On’ potential was huge throughout) and then announced that the show was to be one that embraced both Estonian culture and audience participation. He began by asking various skinny geeks if they could eat big pieces of meat (it seemed to be a theme). He introduced us to his lovely assistant, who looked like she might be called Olga or Helga or Danuta or something equally Eastern European. Ted insisted that she was ‘little fat woman’, (I think he meant thin, but you never know, her costume was very forgiving, I might get one). I put down my glass, made excuses and while others went to find tables, scarpered.

This was my idea of hell and I really did think that as I was suffering from the sort of sleep deprivation that had me in the mood to bite the heads off small children, it might be best if I left. I grabbed my coat and took a long stroll around the block, eventually settling on a taste of home – Macdonalds – to take back to my room where I could shower, stuff my face and spend the evening not having to talk to another living soul. Coughing alot and know this is changing into a chest infection – deep joy.

I learned something else about Estonia tonight. Their humour just isn’t particularly humourous and their food colouring laws are far more relaxed than in the EU. Here you’ll see the rather bewitching colour of Estonian Fanta. Packed full of the sort of additives that scream ‘Doctor, I fear my son/daughter may be hyperactive’. I wonder what colour I’ll pee tomorrow.

Goodnight, God Bless

If Morning has to break, Could it do so quietly?

I fell asleep a bit after ten and didn’t wake until seven. I feel so much better today, although troubled what feels like a sore throat coming on. I’d suck on a Fisherman’s Friend if I had one to hand, (keeping the ‘Carry On’ theme going from last night), but I only have Strepsils, so that will do. I blame the airco. After working out why my room was like a sauna, I’ve got it cracked. The under floor heating in the bathroom is to blame, by just shutting the door to the en-suite, I can transform my room into something more sub-polar, far nicer to sleep in, but a bit ‘dry’. An opening window would have been nice, but you can’t have it all.

It rained last night … lots – and sitting in the reception area today, I find one other thing happened alot last night – drinking. I’ve seen so many people nursing very sore heads already and heard whispered explanations of getting to bed at four. And this is only Tuesday. We are very much split into two camps today. The damaged souls and the smug bastards (like me) who took to their beds early. I’ve had my regulation plate of scrambled egg and greasy bacon, washed down with sludgy coffee and radio-active orange juice, so I’m ready to face the day. The somewhat loud background music in the meeting area yesterday was 1970s sitcom/lift musak, today we have monks chanting. It’s all good.

After a busy morning and the by no all too tiresome clashes with technology (poor connectivity, badly configured laptops and other reasons to make me hate my mac powerbook), I decided to take a break and go shopping. Susannah cried off feeling a bit sickly tired – possibly the after effects of another shockingly bad lunch (the same as yesterday, they just rotated the sauces – the fish was in tomato, the chicken in a tin of mushroom soup etc). So I made my own sweet way through the shopping mall attached to the hotel and bagged a really nice shirt for just over ten euros. Afterwards I went into the old town. What difference ten hours sleep makes. Yesterday it all seemed quaint but dull and lacking any charm. Today it was beautiful, atmospheric and packed with gorgeous little galleries and shops selling original works. I bought a thick blue glass vase from Luhikese Jala Galerii. It was a small gallery/store packed with original works of Estonian art. Glass, ceramics and textiles. I stumbled upon a stunning photography exhibition at the Russian Gallery of work by Alexander Zabrin. Really moody stuff taken when he spent time with the famous artist Vladimir Yakovlev during his last years spent in a mental asylum, known as the ‘house of grief’. Afterwards, I sat at a small coffee house looking over the square and relaxed for an hour with my book – a bit Englishman abroad, but so what!

So now I’m getting ready for the evening social – hopefully less audience participation, some decent food (its only been two days, but my body is craving a vegetable that hasn’t been cooked until it screams for mercy).

People are People

To my surprise this was a great social! It didn’t bode well though when we were almost arrested under suspicion of starting a riot.

Two hundred or so people gathered in the 1970s inspired lobby of the Sokos Viru for the walk though the old town to the venue. We followed our guide (who looked about 12) through the cobbled streets of Tallinn to a square where we were instructed to mill around aimlessly. The venue was expecting us at seven, it was only quarter to. I glibly remarked that any tourists sitting eating dinner in the many venues around the square would most likely be uneasy to see a crowd gathering, even a fairly mild-mannered crowd. It was then that we spotted around twenty worried looking policemen in flak jackets approaching. Following the recent riots, there is actually a bit of a ban on large groups gathering in the city. Our host, who seemed fairly clued up for someone who should really be at home doing his maths homework, quickly suggested a walking tour of old Tallinn and whisked everyone away. Police looked both relieved and yet oddly disappointed. I think they fancied a bit of geek bashing myself.

Anyhow, we got in eventually and there was no messing around, dinner was very quickly served, a really quite decent buffet that mad a massive change from the slops being offered by our hotel. Everyone dived on it, fearing this might be the only edible food they saw this week. Wine, beer and very orange Fanta flowed. There was unobtrusive music and everyone had a gay old time. No moronic intrusive entertainment. This was how a social event should be run.

Everyone was still very much still in the mood to party as the event ended at nine and the waiters picked up their coats and made a point of leaving, so we went off to a bar. Now I’ve been around the world, ay ay ay, as Lisa Stansfield might say, but I’ve never been to a Depeche Mode tribute bar. It plays only Depeche Mode music, it plays only Depeche Mode videos and is decorated like the toilets in a student union bar. It smelled much like that too. Beers flowed and it all started to get a bit messy. I left with a large group of defectors after a few too many and staggered back to the hotel. I was just little bit merry and recall eating the disgusting ‘local’ chocolate from the mini-bar. For the second night running, nobody has put a boiled sweet on my pillow. This place is going to hell in a hand basket, if you ask me.

And so onto the Google Party. Everyone was massively excited about this event. Google, after all, have money and surely any party with their name tagged on is going to be great.

A last minute change of venue forced upon us by the possibility of a riot in downtown Tallinn (we were bumped to the coast) meant buses. Heady with the anticipation of a great buffet – there were rumours that Google had flown in their own chef from the US of A – and a completely open bar, we began fighting to see who could make the first bus.

We were whisked through several unremarkable suburbs, but that didn’t quell our enthusiasm. We arrived eventually at a building that looked like a British primary school perched atop loose chippings. The sort of thing you’d expect to see in Telford. This surely wasn’t the place where we would be exposed to the very best on offer from the Internet’s premiere search engine. A woman appeared and called us in. This was indeed the place.

We trooped into an atmosphere-lacking glass sided portakabin with ambitions to face a fairly unimpressive buffet laid out on tables and the same cans of local beer and wine as we saw last night. Where was the welcome drink, time to settle in before the food arrived? This really did feel like a major let-down. There was worse to come, the buffet took fish as its central theme, cheap fish. After several near misses with food poisoning in the past, I avoid seafood at these sort of events like the plague, especially if I’m at the back of a queue of people who look like thy don’t wash their hands after going to the toilet and who cough and sneeze their way past the food. So I managed a few lettuce leaves and a bit of coleslaw. Lovely. Google organised a quiz, with big prizes – or so they claimed – coincidentally they forgot to bring them, though there was space on the entry form to fill out all of your details (including your special interests, e-mail address, home address, blood group and stuff like that, the sort of stuff they absolutely needed to send you a lava lamp or whatever branded shite it was they were offering as prizes). Most people saw through this and refused to enter the quiz/scam. the questions were remarkably obscure and horribly smug – what is Google’s AS Number?, network code names from the 80s and geeky in-jokes, questions about landlocked countries in Africa, – stuff like that. Prizes were awarded, nobody bothered to read out the answers. To be blunt, I don’t know if anyone really cared.

And then there was the cabaret! Jaw droppingly bad once again. Scantily clad dancing girls (an a few boys) that hot-hoofered their way through a few songs. This being Estonia, the crowd being Internet Boffins, the place being brightly lit and drenched in late evening sunlight giving it all the atmosphere and charm of a used Skoda, what would be the ideal theme? That’s right, Berlin Cabaret. Possibly some people liked it, maybe I was just in a bit of a grumpy mood, but it really did make my flesh crawl.

Once again, our hosts completely misjudged the audience. The fact the place was mostly made of glass meant it was sweaty and hot – everyone was blinded by the setting sun and had to look only in one direction to avoid the onset of a migraine. Two glasses of red wine later and the booze ran out, a good hour or so before the event was due to end. So when the first coach arrived at nine, there was a mad rush. Many people came back disappointed – the bus was full – sensing we could all turn nasty and start moaning, plans were made to ply us with more wine while the next bus was brought forward. I’ve been to better social events at RIPE Meetings.

Back at the hotel, a crowd of people headed for Bogart’s Karaoke Bar. There was a breakaway gang that wanted more of Depeche Mode. I was torn. Eventually a nice cup of tea won and I made some excuse about putting my coat in my room and legged it.

So far, riot-torn Tallinn is looking a bit like ‘dead as a doornail at night’ Tallinn. Am very hungry.

Forgot to mention, we are dead famous here, there are RIPE flags outside the hotel.

Thursday 10 May

Riot-torn Tallinn enjoyed the quietest May 9 in history I’ve just read. The fact the place was over-run by flak-jacket wearing policemen and mostly sealed off from anyone probably helped. There were no clashes between ethnic Russians and Estonians. I slept well.

I am thrilled that it is almost over. I haven’t really enjoyed this meeting as much as usual – in case you can’t tell – though having a chest infection and sore throat isn’t helping, I just seem to spend the whole tim feeling exhausted. But enough of me.

Breakfast is continuing to unimpress. The scrambled egg is getting more solid, the bacon more burnt and yet managing to stay chewy, the toast machine is slowly giving up. I think i might just go out for coffee and stuff tomorrow. Quite a few people are already skipping lunch and eating at places near the hotel – these are wise people, I plan to become one of them today, since I’ve already seen the lunch menu, it is a repeat of Monday’ culinary trial. Today is a busy day for me, so no more strolls around Tallinn – though I honestly think I’ve seen all there is to see. It is pretty in a postcard sort of way, but after you’ve seen one row of pastel coloured houses and an inspiring erection towering above, you’ve seen them all – sorry I had another ‘Carry On’ moment.

I’m now coughing like someone who smokes twenty Park Drive before breakfast. I’ll not trouble you with the colour, but I’m sure Dulux market it as Mossy Glen or something poetic like that.

After a busy day, I got myself ready for the RIPE DInner. A chance for the beardy sandal-wearers to don a clean freebie T-shirt and drink even more cheap vodka before blushing once again at ladies. As always at these sort of events, there was a split between the few people who made an effort to dress up (mainly women, but a few meeting virgins too) and those who seemed content to stick with whatever they’d had on since the last RIPE Dinner six months earlier. I hope I fell somewhere between this. I’d tried a white shirt and new jumper over it, but in the tropical heat of my room, it made me melt, so I’d switched back to a shirt on its own. I had ironed it, settings me somewhat apart from the raggedy bundles I saw waiting for the organisers to send us on our way in the hotel lobby.

A stroll through the old town, now no longer seeming like riot-torn Tallinn and we arrived at the venue – the Blackheads Guild – it sounded like a skin care institution devised by L’Oreal, it wasn’t. It was, in fact, a really charming venue, deceptively huge. We were greeted by a guitarist and a glass of fizz and made a rush for a table, trying to mingle with others, but as soon as a few of us sat at a table, they scarpered away. We had a lady with us, that might have been the reason. Let the evening begin.

For some reason, we were subjected to a twenty minute lecture by a white-haired old duffer who looked like Ken Russell about the history of the guild and Tallinn and probably estonia. I say probably because he had a heavy accent and the acoustics in the room made it impossible to hear a thing he said. After three minutes, everyone gave up and let him ramble on, while we noisily chattered amongst ourselves, drowning him out. He was not to be stopped though, he had been booked to do twenty minutes, he was going to do twenty minutes. When he ended, everyone cheered loudly, displayed a hitherto evil side to our collective natures. he didn’t seem particularly bothered, I think he was deaf.

Dinner was served and for once, it was really quite acceptable. Not up to the standards of other places, but really not that bad. The waiters kept the wine and vodka coming, so most of us stopped noticing. There was plenty of it, though why do they always use those tiny side plates at these events? Is it to stop you getting enough in one visit? People at my table took this as a challenge – these are the sort of people you don’t want to be behind at an ‘all you can eat’ salad bar.

The entertainment continued with a bit of choreographed sword-fighting and then it was time for renaissance music. A trio of misfits shuffled onto the stage. One bloke in a sack with skinny ankles and a sort of tambourine thing , a young girl who looked a bit like Squiggle off Eastenders in a velvet evening frock with huge leg-of-mutton sleeves playing a white violin affair and some bird who looked like she might be the leader of the pack. A most unfortunate-looking lady with eyes as far apart of Red Rum, one of which looked east, while the other looked west. She did however exude smugness and was carrying a musical instrument that looked like the sort of thing a ten-year old might knock up in woodwork. My colleague described them as an ugly version of the Corrs. They did a twenty-minute set, outstaying their welcome by around nineteen by which time, everyone was straining at the bit for a bit of trashy 70s disco music – Dancing Queen, YMCA, It’s Raining Men, all the classics.

This was when I felt it best to just leave. After chatting with a few folk in the hallways and highways of the Blackheads build, I escaped to the hotel at ten to watch a bit of Eurovision and relax. I was feeling really exhausted and chesty.

Breakfast was very sparsely attended the next morning. I didn’t see a soul that I recognised. I packed and after bumming around for the morning, hopped into a minibus back to the airport, though the door out of Estonia and onto the Fokker 70 back to Amsterdam.

Christ! But I’m tired and like all badly timed chest infections, I’m starting to feel much better now.

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