Occasionally when you enjoy a restaurant meal you remember the server more than the food.
That was the case for us last month in Tallinn, the most well-preserved medieval city in the Nordic region of Europe. With about 427,000 people, Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, is home to about a third of Estonia’s population.
Estonia peacefully gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
On our second of three nights in Tallinn, Terry and I had dinner at Restoran Rataskaevu 16 — its name is its address. Based on online recommendations, such as TripAdvisor, Terry made reservations weeks before our trip. It is a cozy restaurant on two levels. Our table was by a large window overlooking the street and near the entrance. We watched a continuous stream of people walk through the doors, request a table and after a brief conversation, turn away and walk down the street ... or stand on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant consulting their smartphone or guidebook for the next possibility.
We later learned from our server, Jaagup, that some of them were able to get tables at a nearby sister restaurant.
During nearly 2 1/2 hours of dining, we learned a lot more from Jaagup (the Estonian version of Jacob). We ordered several courses — sharing them so that we could try more things. The meal — long and leisurely — was surprisingly low in price. Estonia uses the euro and is less expensive than nearby Finland and Sweden.
There seemed to be plenty of staff and Jaagup had time for conversation during various visits to our table. His English was good and one question led to another and another.
The restaurant is not Jaagup’s main job.
Service to their country is required of young men (for young women it’s optional) but Jaagup, 22, did not want to be in the military. So his “military service” is to cook breakfast and lunch for employees and clients of Tallinn’s only center for autistic adults. He also guides clients in various activities in the kitchen. There are just five clients, total.
Before we left I asked Jaagup for his contact information because I thought I might want to focus on him in a future column and I wanted to be able to ask follow-up questions.
When I reconnected with him this week he was in London for a few days.
Two of the clients at the center help to peel and cut vegetables every morning, and one of the clients has the task of washing the dishes and cleaning the sink and stove, he said.
“I’m also responsible for making a weekly menu,” Jaagup continued when I texted him to reconfirm my memories, “and then every Friday I go to the store to buy the necessary groceries.
“Occasionally, I also guide our clients outside the kitchen or help with other things, such as translating for our manager.
“The place is the only Estonian work and activity center for autistic adults. All of them have mental disorders. When they ‘lose control’ or ‘explode,’ they might damage themselves, others or their surroundings.”
Estonian men from 18-27 are required by law to serve in the military or provide another form of service to their country for eight to 11 months. Jaagup said women have “freedom of choice. By default, they are not expected to serve and will only get invited once they show their interest.”
Later this year, when he has fulfilled his service requirement, Jaagup and his girlfriend will be traveling extensively in southeast Asia. They chose it because “the nature is rumored to be stunning all around southeast Asia and it is more affordable and/or safer than other destinations.” It will be their first time outside of Europe.
“I know so little about the different ways to live on this earth,” Jaagup said. They are looking forward to learning about different cultures and people and trying new food.
Plus they “really want to try to escape the cold and dark winter of Estonia for once.”
Estonians are Finnic people; the Estonian language is closely related to Finnish. The study of languages is very important to Estonians because few people around the world speak Estonian.
Jaagup is unsure about his career choice following the trip to southeast Asia but he might become an English teacher. His high school English teacher was a “fantastic influence ... such an authentic person, who really made everyone feel comfortable and relaxed, yet in an academic environment.”
The meal was delicious. I especially enjoyed the bread, cheeses, mushrooms, fresh berries, creamy soup and fish. As I remember, elk and venison were also on the menu but I did not try them.
Members of our tour group said that every restaurant they tried was really good.
For Terry and me, Tallinn was an overnight cruise from Stockholm, following our week in Sweden with family. Three days later, we took a two-hour ferry from Tallinn to Helsinki, Finland. After two nights in Helsinki we took the train to St. Petersburg, Russia. Terry will have a story and photos about St. Petersburg in next Sunday’s paper.
Our daughter, Dorothy Dankel, who lives in Norway was in Tallinn for work a few years ago. She said people must go there ... as soon as possible ... before more travelers discover it.
I echo her thoughts.
Last week Dorothy also told me that in addition to Estonia other Nordic countries also have alternative service, for example, Norway, Sweden and Finland. It is a way for small countries to fill important military and social service positions, she said.