Street scenes, Tallinn

A snowy bush beside the frozen car park suddenly begins to shudder. It’s alive! Then I look and see it’s full of about thirty plumped up sparrows, giving themselves a wash-and-brush-up in the powdery snow, like they do in dust-baths. A minute of communal frisk-and-shivering and all the snow is gone and the sparrows are looking out of the bare bush, brisk and satisfied. OK, brother and sisters, what now?

There is a street of all-night flower shops by the medieval towers of the Viru Gate. After dark, in the bluish snow-light, they glow all the colours that ridiculously luscious roses can be. Somewhere else, this would be luxury — where have all these roses been conjured from, after all? But here it’s ordinary. If you’re visiting a friend, of course you turn up on the doorstep with a bunch of roses, even in the snow. Without them, you would feel somewhat… undressed.

Of course there is a little fringe of sex shops, but without, I think, a great deal of conviction. At some point, Tallinn appeared on the list of stag party destinations, and there are two or three streets with stagy music seeping from the red-lit bars. The occasional bouncer. Pavements wide enough for lads to stagger round on, and probably sleep on the cobbles, imagining a story to tell afterwards of what good fun they had. There might be a few of them under the mounds of snow down Viru Street, like hibernating bears, right now. I wonder if the bouncers check from time to time.

Under an ancient arch, a crooked alley. In it, a crooked booth-sixed shop selling amber, Baltic ambe, nothing but. The fossilised sap of pine trees from another era. Here and there an ant, exactly like today’s ants, perfectly preserved in it. Always two or three people, often couples, standing in the amber glow of those small windows, equally transfixed.

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