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Post Road Magazine #34

Death by Preservation

Andrew Blackman

A man in green tights and a brown tunic offers us a refreshing glass of mead and tries to interest us in some dried elk. A little farther along the street, a serving wench in a tightly laced bodice embarks on a similar speech, all delivered in Chaucerian English peppered with thees and thous. Everywhere we look, signs in elaborate Gothic script promise traditional this and ye olde that. It could almost be medieval England, except for the slow-moving herds of cruise-ship tourists gorging on gelato. 

Welcome to twenty-first-century Tallinn. The remarkably well-preserved fourteenth-century capital of Estonia features intact city walls, a plethora of churches, town squares, merchant houses, and the like. In the few places in which bombs or fires disrupted the tourist dream, careful reconstruction has stitched it back together. You can stroll through the streets and imagine yourself in a town straight out of Game of Thrones, as long as you can ignore the thousands of other people doing the same thing.

Amid the churches and the restaurants and the museums and the gelato joints, there’s just one thing missing: any sense of reality. By that I mean local people living their everyday lives—buying groceries, hurrying to work, taking their kids to school, shopping, running errands, and all the other things that you don’t notice until they’re missing. These mundane activities are not in themselves interesting to observe, but they create a sense of life: vibrant, pulsating, messy life. In their absence, there is an eerie void. The local people in Tallinn have taken refuge out on the periphery of their own town, and it’s there that you can find life continuing along its usual course, like a stream diverted around a huge boulder.

My wife and I have encountered many of these fossilized towns in our travels through Europe. A couple of years ago, we sold most of our stuff, packed the rest into a used Toyota, and embarked on a program of full-time travel, funded by freelance work as we go.

Although we have the luxury of spending longer in each place and having more contact with the local population than most tourists on a package holiday, we are still, like them, somewhat complicit in the construction of false realities à la Tallinn. We say we want to see Europe, but what does that mean? Do we really want to see the shopping malls and dour housing projects? How about the industrial zones and the business parks? Not really. We want the interesting parts. But, sadly, contemporary life—especially in Europe—is rarely interesting, at least on the surface. It’s often ugly and dull. What’s interesting is usually either natural beauty or the old and the quaint—in other words, spaces where contemporary reality is entirely absent. We frame our photographs carefully, including the sunset and the sea but cropping out the concrete apartment block on the shore.

The tourist destinations, too, collude in this fantasy construction. They use it in their marketing, promising the tired and stressed-out workers of the world the fantasy escape they desire, whether that’s a beach paradise, an adrenalin rush, a trip back in time, or anything else from an extensive menu of make-believe.

The irony is that the cultural voids in places like Tallinn are often created in the name of preserving culture. The center of Tallinn was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1997. The aim is worthy: to preserve the world’s cultural heritage for future generations. But human life is stubbornly resistant to being canned, pickled or frozen. It needs to move, and when you try to preserve it, it simply moves on elsewhere. What you’re left with is a medieval theme park.

Tallinn is far from being the only medieval theme park in Europe. Croatia’s port town of Dubrovnik is another, and Italy is full of beautifully preserved hilltop towns like San Gimignano, in which you’re more likely to meet someone from Cleveland than from San Gimignano. You can find these museum towns everywhere, serving up architectural treats and photogenic vistas to foreigners while the local people either hide out on the periphery or simply migrate elsewhere.

There is a value to preservation, of course. I think it’s good to keep examples of past ways of life. I have a history degree, and I am a firm believer in the power of learning from history, if we ever decide to start. And it would certainly be a shame to bulldoze the old city walls of Tallinn and put up a parking lot. My point is simply that the process of preservation often seems to result in the exclusion of local people from their own towns and cities, which in turn renders the places sterile.

And then there’s the uncomfortable question of why certain towns and cities have survived in their historic form for so long. After all, every long-established town in Europe had its cute medieval alleyways and buildings at some point in the past. Why did some get preserved and others not?

Sometimes the answer is connected to fire, war, or natural disasters, but often it’s simply due to uneven development. In the richer cities, before historical preservation became a valuable commodity, those picturesque half-timbered buildings were replaced with more solid (and less fire-prone) constructions of stone and concrete. The winding alleyways that harbored cholera and cutthroats gave way to wide avenues and boulevards. When these improvements didn't happen, it’s often because of poverty or distance from centers of power. Tallinn, for example, languished for years under Russian rule, while those Italian hilltop towns were bypassed by the Industrial Revolution and became outposts of poverty and neglect.

In Matera, in the south of Italy, you can see cave dwellings in which local people lived right up to the 1960s. While it’s a fascinating sight, it also reflects the dire poverty of the region. We who are fortunate enough to come from places where people stopped living in caves centuries ago can use our money to go and marvel at those who still did so within living memory. And how much better would it be if people still did live in those caves? How much more authentic would it be? When we search both for the picturesque and the authentic, what we are often really looking for is other people’s poverty. There’s plenty of that on offer in a country like Morocco, where you can see people riding donkeys and tilling their fields by hand and standing waist-deep in toxic liquids to tan leather. It’s great for your holiday snaps, but probably not so great for the people on the other side of the lens.

Of course, another kind of tourism is possible. Some of our best experiences in our two years on the road have been in places with very few tourist sights. The Serbian capital of Belgrade, for example, was a place we had planned to stay in for three days. When we drove across the Sava River and saw the mass of crumbling concrete rising favela-like on the opposite shore, we began to worry that three days was far too long. In the end, we stayed for a month and plan to go back as often as we can.

Belgrade offers very little in terms of tourist attractions. The city has been destroyed more than twenty times in its history, and the twentieth-century confluence of World War II, Brutalist architecture, and NATO bombing ensured that UNESCO-style preservation is a non-starter. But it has an abundance of that “real life” that was so lacking in the center of Tallinn. Innovative design is on show everywhere, from the quirky café interiors to the clothing boutiques to the bars and nightclubs fashioned out of rafts and boats along the banks of the river. In the hulking old Communist blocks, artist cooperatives and gallery spaces have sprung up like colorful weeds through the cracks in a sidewalk. And, most important of all, people in the city are not jaded by the inundations of mass tourism, and so they are quick to speak to outsiders, to tell stories about their lives, to practice their English, to talk about the state of the world. This is the genuine cultural exchange that I find the most rewarding thing about travel, but it can be difficult to achieve in places where human interactions have been commoditized. In places like Belgrade, possibilities are still open that have closed down elsewhere.

We found a similar thing to be true throughout the Balkans. At a restaurant on the shores of Kotor Bay in Montenegro at sunset, we struck up a conversation with a couple of journalists and ended up talking deep into the cold night as dew formed on the table. In Novi Pazar, a small town in the south of Serbia, we paused at a café, considering whether or not to stop, when two electricians who were taking a break between jobs invited us to join them for a coffee. Their English was no better than our Serbian, but we somehow managed to chat warmly for half an hour or so. While visiting a beautiful canyon in Macedonia, we found ourselves making friends with a group of Turks. In the Romani neighborhood in Skopje, a mother invited us into her home for a coffee and a chat with her and invited us to return that evening for dinner with the family. Of course, the Balkan region doesn’t have a monopoly on human kindness. From Norway to Dominica, we’ve seen examples of human nature that provide an inspiring counterpoint to the shabby resentments peddled by many of today’s politicians.

So perhaps an interesting way to see a country would be to google the “10 Best Places” and then visit the places not mentioned. Skip the capital and visit the less well-known second city. That certainly worked for Estonia, where the second city of Tartu was much more palatable to me than Tallinn. And in Morocco, while places like Marrakech and Fes had the most glamorous sights, the town we most enjoyed spending time in was Oujda, way out in the east near Algeria, a border town on a border that’s been closed for twenty years.

There’s no need to construct elaborate fantasies in places like Oujda and Tartu, because there aren’t many people around to consume them. So what you get instead is normal human life, which to me is infinitely more interesting than people playing dress-up and selling mead. I’ll probably still be visiting the Tallinns of this world, just because I live in hope of being pleasantly surprised, but I’ll be spending more time in the Tartus and Belgrades and Oujdas, where the people are not trying to be anything other than themselves.

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