Borderlands

Hello readers,

The days continue to grow darker, and there are constant reminders that winter is just around the corner.  Soon it will be more difficult to travel due to ice and snow.  Thankfully, I’m taking every opportunity to get as much travel and activity in before November.  I have a mid-semester break from classes this week, which makes my plans all the more feasible.  Tomorrow, I leave for a week-long trip to Latvia and Lithuania, Estonia’s friendly Baltic neighbors to the south.  My adventure will be mostly solo, except for a brief time in Riga when I will be visiting with other Erasmus students.  I’m pretty excited to get started with my trip, and hopefully things will go well.

I spent this past Saturday in the city of Narva.  Initially planning to go alone, I found a friend of mine, Particia, who was crazy enough to want to go with me.  Narva, despite its small size, holds the distinction of being the easternmost city in the European Union.  The city also holds more dubious distinctions, such as having the highest rate of HIV/AIDS in the EU and being the poorest, most economically depressed place in Estonia.  The region was also once important for its mining of oil shale, and mismanagement in the 1980s and 90s resulted in widespread pollution, which has thankfully now been mostly cleaned up.  The history of Narva is fascinating, as it was a prosperous trading post until WWII, when Soviet bombings levelled it to the ground.  The city was rebuilt to Soviet standards and never quite remodelled in the way Tallinn was, meaning that it’s full of decaying concrete husks and most of its ‘Old Town’ no longer exists.  At least there’s still a nice castle.

The castle in Narva
Russia's slightly more impressive castle on the other side of the border

Clearly, Narva isn’t too big of a tourist destination, particularly in autumn, and the guide in the tourist office was overjoyed to see two Engligh-speaking tourists interested in the city.  She explained the history and sites of the area for nearly an hour and loaded us down with pamphlets and maps.  Patricia and I made our own tour of the city, specifically seeking out urban decay and trying to get a feel for the lifestyle of the residents there.  Narva is also about as close to Russia as you can get without a visa: the city is almost entirely Russian-speaking, and the Russian town of Ivangorod is clearly visible across the Narva River.  It’s even possible to walk in the ‘undefined’ area between the EU and Russian border checkpoints.  Narva is a fascinating place, and the city has a definite tragic beauty to it, and an atmosphere heavy with the weight of its dark history.

Me, with Russia in the background
The western side of Narva; a glorious showcase of Soviet-era public housing
A picture of Narva's not-so-beautiful skyline

Life at the dormitory is as Erasmus as ever, with sleep schedules dishevelled and studying time minimal.  It’s been fun at the dormitory, but I think I might try to get a flat next semester, as I can have some more privacy and be a little more independent with my schedule.  I’m also getting tired of having to sign in guests, and not having a spare bed means that I don’t have space for friends to visit.  I can’t complain about the price, but I think I might enjoy things more in a private residence at this point in my exchange.

I’m beginning to take longer breaks between updates, as it’s becoming difficult to keep up with the weekly posts that are expected of me.  I’ll keep trying to get them out as frequently as possible.  Expect some exciting photos and stories from Latvia and Lithuania soon!

Terviseks,

Tim

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