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A Musical Visit to Tallinn and Helsinki

Old Town Tallinn Estonia | Umami GirlHere’s something I don’t talk about much: I sing. Kind of a lot.

Not just in the car (though, come on, definitely in the car), and usually not just that awkward kind of sidewalk singing where you’re wearing your noise-canceling Beats by Dre headphones and assume you sound awesome. (It’s not your fault — you paid enough to sound awesome.)

Nope, a different kind of awkward singing.

Choral singing.

It’s highly contagious. Our daughters do it too. And now that the elder one is about the age I was when I started, I guess I could say I’ve been singing in choirs for a whole generation. But I would never say something like that, because it’s suddenly become obvious to me that it’s a terrifying thing to say. I did take a long break during young adulthood, when work and life in NYC were all-consuming. For a hot minute I think I was also trying to gauge whether it was this hobby holding me back from A-list It Girl status. Turns out, no. Had the cause and effect reversed on that one. Lesson learned, geekiness embraced, 20s outgrown.

These days the reason I don’t often talk about singing has nothing to do with social climbing and everything to do with the fear of ruining something perfect by acknowledging it. Or by doing an inadequate job of expressing love for it. How do you talk about a hobby that bends time and unites heartbeats? That edges you close to transendence when you do it and grief when you don’t? It’s a little much. Sometimes it’s best to keep it to yourself.


That’s my back there in the front row, black sleeveless shirt, hair looking different than I always think it does. And my back is in Estonia. You can’t say that every day.

Screenshot 2014-07-20 15.06.38Actually, half of the people in the photo can say that every day. They’re members of the awesomely named Mixed Choir of the European Capital of Culture. That’s the Estonian choir we worked with in Tallinn. The rest are London Oriana Choir (directed by the incomparable Dominic Peckham), with whom I had the great privilege to sing while we lived in England. Now that I’m retired and no longer at risk of self-aggrandizement, I’m free to say that this group is full of just berserkly talented people. England’s choral tradition teaches interested kids to sing well, read music and be familiar with a wide array of choral works earlier and more rigorously than most American schools, and you can really tell when singing with adults raised in that culture. Many of them have the kind of musical fluency that suggests they were raised bilingual from an early age. Our experience with British schools bore out that suggestion, and it’s one of the things I miss. 

Though my tenure with the group wasn’t long, I did get to celebrate their 40th anniversary season. I made a cake! Here’s a clip from the gala concert we performed at the stunning St. Paul’s Covent Garden last year, in case you want to geek out with me for a sec. In that concert we premiered a piece by acclaimed composer Toby Young. In addition to being Oriana’s composer in residence and a highly in-demand writer, I learned that Toby is also a longtime fan of Umami Girl. How ridiculously fun is that? I mean…no big deal.

It’s thanks to Oriana’s touring schedule that our family visited Estonia and Finland last spring, and also Northern Ireland in the fall. Though I don’t like to admit it, we probably wouldn’t have made it to any of those places otherwise. We also discovered the pleasure of traveling to collaborate with musicians from other cultures. (It’s like business travel but so, so much better.) The chance to see both Belfast and Tallinn through that lens was a gift. In Belfast especially, because it retains palpable evidence of its difficult political history, being welcomed into a warm and vibrant group of singers really transformed the way we experienced the city.

Tallinn Old Town | Umami GirlThese pictures offer a taste of the beautiful Old Town of Tallinn, a UNESCO World Heritage site whose long and fascinating history I will not butcher here. (Instead, maybe read this summary by people who know what they’re talking about.) One fact I will pass along is that two years ago tomorrow (March 27, 2013), Estonians celebrated the beginning of their longest period of freedom in history — only 7,891 days, or a little more than 21 years, after having been ruled successively by various other countries since the 13th century. It’s astounding how much ancient architecture remains given how often Estonia has been fought over.

Old Town Architecture Tallinn | Umami GirlTallinn Old Town Painter | Umami GirlAlexander Nevsky Cathedral Tallinn | Umami GirlTallinn today is cosmopolitan and comfortable. You could be forgiven for finding it almost familiar — until you come across something like Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, above, a hulking relic of Russian Imperial rule. You’ll find tourists from all over the world, restaurants offering everything from traditional Estonian fare to raw vegan food,  and — something I wouldn’t have expected — lots of hen and stag parties from England. The alcohol is cheap enough that people take the ferry over from Helsinki on the weekends to do a big buy, and Tallinn has become a big party town for that reason. Not to mention, it’s much quicker and less expensive to fly from London to Tallinn than from New York to Vegas. Europeans will always have the upper hand in geographic awesomeness.

Helsinki Tallinn Hydrofoil | Umami GirlHelsinki Waterfront | Umami GirlSpeaking of the ferry, I share a name with the one we took, pictured here docking in Helsinki after an inexpensive hour and 40 minute ride on the Linda Line. To get to Tallinn, we flew in and out of Helsinki because the flights were substantially less expensive for the four of us. Plus, we got to go to Helsinki! Win-win.

I got kind of giddy about being in Finland (perhaps somehow related to my Swedish fetish?) and took some screenshots of maps and our attempts to find salads without meat in them. It was harder than you might think — kinkku lurked in the darnedest places. It took me two or three days to get over the We’re In Finland! factor. Which is exactly how long we were in Finland, so.

Helsinki DiptychIn Helsinki we stayed in our very first airbnb, an adorable studio that is basically a page from the IKEA catalog. It’s hard to believe, less than a year later, that this was our first use of airbnb. We hardly remember what hotels are anymore.

Helsinki airbnb Kitchen | Umami GirlLooking beyond my weird Scandinavian obsessions, we liked Helsinki a whole lot for actual, discernible reasons too. We felt like we understood right away why people are happy living there, though we may have been influenced by the warm sun and long days of late May, which I hear don’t stick around all year. Finland — even southernmost Helsinki — is not messing around where northernness is concerned.

A little like Amsterdam, for lack of a better comparison, Helsinki really understands how to do quirkiness correctly. The city has a good vibe — comfortable and interesting at the same time — that indicates success without anyone having to say it. There’s a lot of beautiful architecture, from the striking Helsinki Cathedral, below, to the residential buildings in the city’s central neighborhoods. History layers nicely with modernity, with trams and cobblestones standing outside fun and funky shops.

Helsinki | Umami GirlWe were lucky enough to have friends welcome us for dinner one night, which is the absolute best kind of restaurant on both the cultural immersion and general wonderfulness fronts. Beyond that, we found a few casual culinary gems in our immediate neighborhood. One favorite is Qulma, Finnish for Corner, a lively lunch cafe with a daily soup and baked potato bar and plenty of charm. (Mariegatan 13, 00170 Helsingfors, Finland, +358 45 3215959) We also loved the gourmet shop Anton & Anton, not pictured because I was too hungry, where we shopped — not quickly enough — for ingredients to cook one night in our apartment. That’s where I got my favorite vegetable bullion. (Museigatan 19, 00100 Helsingfors, Finland, +358 40 1456808)

Qulma Helsinki | Umami GirlHelsinki Shop | Umami GirlPop Up Cafe Helsinki | Umami GirlWell, I enjoyed that little bit of time travel and hope you did, too. That’s a nice perk of having a long backlist of travel posts to work through. See you next week with an Easter recipe and exactly no talk of singing or Scandinavia, promise.

Talk to you soon.

Carolyn xx


Hi there, I'm Carolyn, and I'm delighted you're here. I'm a NYC-area food, travel, yoga, coffee, wine, running, music making and book obsessive with a great family and a love for sharing it all with you. Grab a drink and come on in. Learn more.

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