For as long as it’s been around, Tallinn’s Flower Market (Viru lilleturg) has been a splash of color against a gray limestone wall. Or at least that is how I first remember seeing it on a gray day back in December 1983. As a student at Leningrad State University, I visited Tallinn for three days with the rest of my U.S. study abroad group. Those three days were the highlight of what was otherwise a very gray experience. The reason for this was that the Soviet Union “graywashed” everything it touched – even Tallinn seemed like it was slowly being blurred out. Only the short-lived blossoms at the Flower Market appeared to be temporarily immune from that all-pervasive gray dust ….
Of course, I’ll admit that my first memory of the Flower Market is rather hazy – almost like an old and yellowing photograph that was somewhat out-of-focus to begin with. However, I’d like to think that that’s not because my memory of it is fading but rather because the flower sellers back then used to keep their roses in glass cases and then light a candle inside so that its warm glow would keep the air around the flowers just above freezing. That image of frosted glass, flickering candle light, and a hint of color hidden somewhere inside is something that I’ve never forgotten even after other memories have long since faded.
Perhaps I also remember those flowers and the penetrating gray Soviet dust because when I was living in Kadriorg ten years later, they inspired me to write The Color Thieves (Värvivargad in Arvi Jürviste’s Estonian translation) – the story of a little girl named Lill who lived on an island where an Army of Gray had come to steal away all the colors. While the book went out of print not long after it was first published in 1996, you might still be able to pick up a copy with its illustrations by Reti Saks at a used book store. Like a slowly fading flower, this reversible bilingual story (bound head-to-toe à la tête-bêche) is known to pop-up on forgotten bookshelves from time to time.
In a country obsessed with giving flowers for almost any occasion (once you’ve lived through your first Estonian winter you’ll also develop a deep thirst for color), the Flower Market is far from the only place where you can find fresh flowers. You can also buy them at one of Tallinn’s many flower shops or at any of its other markets. Few places, however, can compete with the main Flower Market as at least one of its stalls will be open 24/7. Local legend has it that its late hours are popular with local men returning home late to their wives and other loved ones for reasons that I’m sure you’ll be able to imagine.
As for me, I prefer buying my flowers at the small alternative no-name flower market which you can find near Jaani Kirik (St. John’s Church) on the sidewalk that runs between Vabaduse väljak (Freedom Square) and Suur-Karja (Big Bear Street). There – at least during the right seasons – you’ll find various Estonian retirees selling local flowers from their suvilad (summer cottages). It’s a good place to know about as Estonians will appreciate getting flowers for any birthday, party, or any other special event for which you might receive an invitation. These days, however, several of my Estonian friends seem to be boycotting cut flowers – although potted plants would then become an appropriate substitute for their more ephemeral cousins.
When the City of Tallinn first started tearing up the Flower Market last year – kicking up all kinds of gray limestone dust in the process, I was afraid that the Flower Market might lose some of its magic. Fortunately, the market seems to be back to its old self these days – even looking rather better after its complete make-over. And while the Flower Market will never be able to compete with the lively overcrowded chaos generated by London’s small but wonderful Columbia Road Flower Market, Tallinn’s version still commands a vital place in city’s visual landscape thanks to its key location on Viru Street leading up to Viru Gates and the entrance to Old Town. The Flower Market – especially on a gray winter day – has become a fundamental part of my mental image of Tallinn. Now if only they would only bring back those flickering candles …
You can find Tallinn’s Flower Market at Viru 26.
Image: A miniature vase from London (potter unknown) with a paper rose.