I’m afraid I may be lost. I begin down a brick street with St. Olaf’s Church on my right. Its towering spire, a rusty green, has become my lodestar. I rotate my map about ten different times before hesitating down Pikk, the main thoroughfare. This street name is typical in Estonia, where the letters so often occur in pairs. Yesterday afternoon, when I checked into the Hotel Braavo, I thought the spelling had been a mistake. By now I’ve largely forgiven myself for these assumptions, which I remind myself are unbecomingly American. I try to take comfort in the language here, whose coupled letters offer a welcome contrast to my experience wandering the streets alone.
The prospect of companionship compels me onward, eager and nervous. After a full day of sightseeing in Tallinn, the Estonian capital, I’m about to meet a local man I’ve been texting on Grindr. Most gay men use the phone app to find convenient flings, but I’ve used it tonight to find a tour guide. In a text message, he tells me to meet him on a stone wall by the edge of the Old Town. “On the wall,” he confirms, not next to it. “I’m reading there.”
I wend my way past medieval tourist shops, where faded signs hung from iron rods promise suveniirid. Tallinn is a modern city, but this neighborhood features stone buildings from a time well before Soviets and Nazis could occupy them. Gated ramparts huddle together in sandy yellows and grays. Steeples and parapets tower above them, which make me feel low to the earth until the path spits me out at a ledge and I behold miles of red roofs below me, the beach crouching beyond them. Tallinn is full of such illusions.
A glance at my watch: ten o’clock. The summer sun has stayed out for me, but I begin to worry that my new friend won’t do the same. For a third time now I find myself at an impressive plaza, where a tall glass column reflects the slanting light onto a cluster of Estonian flags. In the wind, their stripes agitate like turbulent water: blue, black, white. Next to these I find some stairs, which lead me down a leafy path until there is the man, finally, perched atop a low wall with his book, as promised.
He looks up from his book, and we share a moment of recognition. “You’re David?” he asks. There might be an accent, but it’s slight.
I walk over and extend my hand. “Nice to meet you.” Upon closer inspection, he looks rather young. I admire his pale skin—fairly typical, this far north—stretched tight over high cheekbones. A loose gray cardigan completes his look, which meets an international standard of gay sensibility: dark jean shorts, desert boots, a tee shirt in neon yellow with a plunging neckline. The frames on his glasses are thick and dark, much like his hair, which he wears in a pompadour.
He closes his book and jumps down from the wall. I ask what he’s reading.
“Benjamin.” He pronounces the French. “One of my favorites.” His eyes are friendly, a hint of mischief at the seams.
“Now I know why you called yourself a flâneur on your Grindr profile.”
He laughs. Walter Benjamin coined that expression, “flâneur,” which translates to “stroller”: someone who strolls the streets while soaking in the ambiance. A flâneur craves the city landscape, its cafés and variegated crowds, the ideas teeming within them. Often the term specifies a literary type or a man of leisure. I fancy myself part of this latter group, if only for a month on vacation. Estonia is my third stop, after Sweden and Finland. Next I will push down the Baltic coast before tucking across to Amsterdam.
He stuffs his book into a small satchel. “You know, the flâneur is an important figure—just as true today as in the nineteenth century.” He speaks with earnest bookishness, like a university student during office hours. “How can we understand the world if we don’t explore it?”
Understanding the world seems like a noble goal. I hope he doesn’t discover how many hours on this trip I’ve devoted to understanding myself instead. In every city I’ve wandered ruthlessly through the twisting alleys, but to what effect I’m not sure. Realizing that our conversation tonight will be philosophical, I try to rouse my brain. The sun is dropping, a gilded frame for some skyscrapers in the more modern neighborhoods beyond the wall, where we still linger.
“Do you meet many people,” I ask, “who have read Benjamin?”
“No. I guess we have a lot to discuss.” He inches closer to me, never interrupting our eye contact. His right hand gestures down a dirt path: “Shall we?”
As we walk, I let him lead. I’m not surprised to be the first Benjamin reader he’s met—or more accurately, the first he’s met on Grindr, which is not known for its modernist philosophers. “How long have you lived in Tallinn?” I ask.
“A few years.”
“That’s all?” His stride is confident.
“I grew up in a small town outside Tartu. Have you heard of it?” Tartu is the second-largest city in Estonia, I remember, after Tallinn.
“Someone told me it’s in the south.”
He cracks a smile. “You’ve been doing your research. I went to university there.” Now we encounter a narrow staircase, which dumps us back onto the street. “We’d better stay out of the parks, now that it’s getting dark.”
Every city seems to abide by this discouraging rule. Clearly there is danger in the unknown, which now includes this man walking beside me. He goes on to explain that his degree was in law, though now he works for a travel company.
“Maybe you can help me plan my trip,” I joke, though there is some truth to that suggestion. Most of my day has been spent meandering, and I feel no closer to finding whatever it is that’s brought me to Tallinn. My European tour is the soul-searching, job-changing, blow-through-my-savings kind. I explain this to my friend, whose name I’m now too embarrassed to ask.
“That sounds fantastic,” he says. “You’re a flâneur, like me. Half observer, half participator.” I fear my roaming is nowhere near as meaningful as that. His inner journey resembles a treatise on dialectics, whereas mine feels more like a beach read: Eat, Pray, Grindr. Another American plumbing exotic cultures for wisdom. Only three weeks ago, I left my job as a business analyst, a title that afforded me nice clothes and now this vacation before graduate school.
We arrive at some kind of garden. A streetlamp illuminates a bed of sunflowers, which are almost my height. Their brown heads nod a greeting in the wind.
I gawk. “Those might be the largest flowers I’ve ever seen. They’re trees.”
“There’s a summer festival,” the flâneur explains, as if these flowers have grown for the occasion. I wonder, fleetingly, whether Estonians hold more festivals than Americans. Maybe I only notice them when I’m not at home.
I walk through the beds of flowers and frown appreciatively, as if at a gallery. Maybe he will take me for an intellectual. I imagine this man at home, writing in his Moleskine about the intellectual young traveler he met on Grindr, when our feet come across a stone semicircle. Clusters of flowers dot its curved edge, like the numbers on a clock face. Each bunch grows through a brown plastic tube, which lends the impression of a flower tree. Underneath these are signs with dark calligraphy; the flâneur points out that each caption in Estonian is a stage of life, each “tree” its representation.
“What does that one say?” I point to the tallest blooms.
“I would translate it as ‘finding oneself.’”
“And that one?” The last tree on the right is short, and darkest, its deep purple mottled with white.
The allegory weighs on our fun.
“That’s where I read Anna Karenina,” he says, pointing to a wooden park bench. Like a practiced drifter, he’s changed the topic. “I always remember the places where I read. Somewhere different each time. I think I knew from the beginning that Anna’s story would be tragic.”
I read Anna Karenina in high school, but now I can only recall her fate on the train tracks. Often I skip ahead to the ends of stories, and tonight is no exception. My night could finish with a panorama of the Old Town, or an illicit kiss, or a weight around my ankles at the bottom of the bay. I wish the evening were already written.
I decide to tell him that Anna Karenina is one of my favorites.
He gives an arch smile. “You sound a lot like the gay Americans I’ve seen on television.”
My throat tightens.
“I think it’s something about your s’s. Like when you said ‘Favoritesssss.’”
“People tell me that sometimes.” I turn my gaze to the ground, avoiding his.
“Consider it a compliment. Now I know the television shows are authentic.” His smile loses its sarcastic edge, as if something about my authenticity has moved him. After watching television shows and reading books about so many faraway places, maybe he is glad for evidence that they actually exist.
Before I can test my hypothesis, he changes course again: “I have the perfect place to show you.”
“How exciting,” I say, relieved that he’s changed the subject and that our night will now have some kind of objective. I’m grateful he hasn’t guessed my own objective for tonight, my reason for wandering with him all this time. The possibility occurs to me that I might be lonely—not in any desperate sense, but in the quiet way we sometimes look at strangers in coffee shops and escape into their lives. A foggy scene materializes in my mind of the two of us, me and the flâneur, as old friends at a farmer’s market. We finger dill plants, each of us descended from generations of Estonians. The musty smell of dill displaces other memories near the surface: clearing my desk on the last day of work; a whisper from my friend that I should become a writer; tentative steps onto an airplane.
I can’t guess where the flâneur plans to take me now. “Is it a building?” I ask. Our shadows shift as we walk under the streetlamps.
“I’m not sure I’d call it that.”
“Is it far?”
“Not very,” he says. “You’ll enjoy it.” He smiles with just a hint of menace.
Soon enough we reach the Old Town wall, a giant heap of gray bricks. The gate towers wear pointy red hats, as if to blow out birthday candles. When we walk past, the steeples and clock towers recede behind us and give way to modern glass buildings along a highway. My heartbeat edges faster. I’m at a loss for conversation topics, but our silence hasn’t yet graduated to the easy kind between friends.
“What’s your weirdest Grindr story?” I say. I take my inspiration from first dates, where I’ve asked this same question.
“Well, he was a tourist, like you.”
I cross my arms and pretend indignation. “Naturally.”
He ignores me and continues, no longer in a joking mood. “I suppose it was also my fault. I was only nineteen, at university.”
The air at this point becomes salty. With so few streetlights, we rely on the moon and a halo of reflected light from the water, which feels near.
“We sent messages back and forth for a few days,” he says, “and then he called at 1:30, when I was sleeping, to ask if we could meet.”
Now we must be near the coast. In the distance, silver crests dance like fish where the sky meets the harbor. The buildings in front of us are shadows.
“I was excited,” he says, “because I assumed he wanted a late-night tour. Maybe he’d fallen in love with the city.” He hesitates next to me. “I fell in love easily.”
I already know how this story ends. “I’m sorry,” I say. I mean it. “Most people on Grindr don’t look for anything as meaningful as love.”
“We’ve arrived,” he says, before either of us can dwell on his disappointment. In front of us are two identical staircases, each with the flat rails and dull beige concrete of a Mayan temple. If I squint, the twin appendages call to mind the Great Sphinx of Giza, its paws outstretched, although each of these staircases is the size of a large house, and they ascend haltingly—up for a while, then flat, up again, then flat—so the cumulative effect more resembles the side of a ziggurat. I follow him up the left staircase, its worn pavement passing quietly underfoot.
After a couple minutes, we reach the top: an empty concrete runway. It’s wider than a football field and seems to extend indefinitely over the water. Two rows of lampposts move away from us toward a vanishing point in the distance, their dim lights struggling to illuminate so much darkness. In the sheer size of this place I sense something tenuous, at once still and adrift, like the mass of a battleship.
“What do you think?” he says. He waits for my reaction as we make our way forward. I can discern another set of stairs, though in the night they look like sketch marks, faint and solitary lines in a void. They could be three hundred feet away or three thousand. No benches are nearby, but I notice some low ledges, all of the same concrete. The silence conjures an ancient melancholy.
“What is this place, exactly?” I ask.
“Linnahall,” he says. “The Soviets built it for the 1980 Olympics.” He explains that the Games that year were in Moscow, which, being landlocked, scouted a proper venue for the sailing events. Estonia was a natural choice, since the Soviet Union occupied it at the time. He points downward; beneath us is a massive concrete box, a venue that has held thousands of people for ice skating competitions. It’s a feat of brutalist design, though only the outside, the pier where we stand, is open to the public now.
“On my tour today,” I say, “the guide told us that Soviets designed buildings to make us feel small.” In fact, I feel like an ant on a diving board. None of my friends will be here to find me if I disappear in the scale of this thing. “It was part of their power.”
“Even better than this is Stalinist architecture,” he says. “It’s actually my favorite. Very spooky.”
As if to underscore this point, the moon strikes a shadow beneath his cheekbones. He must be joking, but his expression looks sincere. To be safe, I deflect with less macabre humor: “You have a taste for the spooky, it seems.”
“It’s just fun to escape,” he says quietly, “to a different time.”
“Have you ever traveled outside Estonia?” I ask. We ascend another staircase, which leads us to a ledge that overlooks Tallinn Bay. We glance across the wrinkled silk of the waves. In the dark somewhere in front of us is Finland, where I was two days ago.
“Not until university,” he says. “I’m from the countryside, so I never left much.” He crosses his arms and admires our view.
“You must be glad to work for a travel company after all those years at home.”
He murmurs something that sounds like his agreement. For a while, we listen only to the shushing of black saltwater. The phantom shape of a ship glides along the horizon.
“What do people do here nowadays?” I ask. “Are there any boat races?”
“Does anyone come at night?” I wonder if we’re the only ones reckless enough to do so. Echoes carry over to us from somewhere, and I turn my head to see if they’re voices. All I see are the diagonal silhouettes of staircases, their austere geometry.
“Not really,” he says. “I find it peaceful with no one around. Of course,” he grins, “sometimes men come here at night to meet.” This thought secretly exhilarates me: two men concealed like pebbles in the unending concrete, gone from reality. My thoughts attempt to wander away from here—back home to America, or at the very least to my hotel room—but they mire in the expanse around me.
Beside me, he is cleaning his glasses with the bottom hem of his shirt. I notice now that his eyes are large, the shape of walnuts. He blinks languidly, looking at me and then back down to the glasses. As he tugs on his shirt, the neckline inches lower, revealing the cleft of his chest. He could choose to throw me over the railing now, and I would be powerless to change that. Or maybe he hungers for something else; little hairs rise on the nape of my neck. “Let’s go,” he says.
By the time we arrive at my hotel, it’s midnight. Neither one of us has hurried home. The air feels heavy between us as I look him in the eye: “This was a fun night.”
His gaze holds mine. “I agree.”
“Do you know how to get home from here?” It’s an inane question, I know, to expand the moment.
He says he does. The distance between us narrows as I try to reach in for a hug.
I feel his lips on my right cheek. He darts his head back and then goes for the left. “The French way,” he says, before stepping back and waiting for my response.
The French way. He never seems to stop traveling. But then neither do I; tomorrow I’ll take a bus to Riga, the Latvian capital. And once I’m gone, my friend will probably find a new visitor to show around town. Such is the fate of a flâneur; we wander away from what we already know, resist the familiar—even the friends we’ve only known for a couple of hours. If we lose sight of the exotic, all that remains are our own lives: our provincial routines, our fruitless searches for meaning, our desperate imaginings of the places we’ll never get to see.
“Good night,” I finally say to him.
“Good night.” He walks toward a narrow alley and waves his goodbye. Even after he is gone, I stand in the moonlight and wait, as if to greet a new person who will reemerge in his place. Realizing I am still alone, I look down at my hands, their rosy knuckles, their pitted fingernails. Their creases and furrows mark a familiar terrain, one that is always with me and never enough.
David Weinstein holds an MFA from Emerson College and is the business and circulation manager at Ploughshares. His work is published in Slate, The Cincinnati Review, The Rumpus, and other publications. He is working on a memoir.
Photos by the author.