Sketches Abroad. Series I: Out & About

Over the next couple of weeks I will be posting a few series of sketches accomplished over my 9 month trip abroad. For this first post I will introduce some quick sketches completed while ‘out and about’. A majority of these sketches were drawn in Tartu, Estonia, in addition to a few from the airport in Helsinki, Finland.

The first five sketches were completed in Lokaal Pirogov, a bar in Tartu, which has big front windows over-looking the popular Rüütli Street. I would often occupy one of the high stools at the bar height table in one of the windows, splitting my study time with sketching. Across the street was Armastus cafe, which appears in the first sketch, and beside that a few sketches of various persons who would mill about the street, often smoking flavoured cigarettes, and jutting in and out of the liquor store next door to Lokaal Pirogov. That describes the first four. The next four sketches are of various persons who frequented the local, and most popular cafe, Werner’s. Werner’s was a very busy cafe on Ülikooli Street, frequented by affluent Estonians, both national and international students, professors from the University of Tartu, and others, often seeking a good piece of cake with their daily caffeine fix. The final two drawings were sketched in Helsinki airport, and at the moment, I am contemplating a post simply with my airport sketches. The airport is an amazing place to sketch, with all sorts temporarily convening, and possibly my favourite place to sketch the myriad of people out and about.

Tartu. Arrival.

After my short, albeit relaxing stay in Riga, Latvia I made my way via bus to Tartu, Estonia where I would be staying from late August until some time in June, a tentative date even as I write this. Over the four hour bus ride on a two lane highway, I watched the sun slowly set over the Latvian countryside. The sun was nearly set as the bus approached the boarder with Estonia. At the border there would be no check points, no questions, no stamps, no visa requirements, no stop whatsoever. The ease of travel between countries in Europe, though a strange feeling at first, that is coming from North America where a simple border crossing from one country to another can be a cause for hours in delays and a lifetime of hassling, has been the greatest experience. The ease of travel has allowed me to explore neighbouring countries and others within Europe with no cause for concern and little stress.

I arrived at the bus station sometime around 10 or 11pm in the dark of night. I was tired from sitting on a seat which, after some time, went from cushy to hard underneath me. I hopped out of the bus, into the fresh air, collected my suitcase and froze. I had no idea where I was in relation to the dormitory I would be staying in, or to the rest of the world, for that matter. I noticed that there were a few taxi’s ahead and decided to grab a taxi to the dorm, because I wasn’t about to wander lost with a heavy suitcase and a heavier head. Getting into the dorm was no problem, however finding my flat proved to be nothing short of a long ordeal. I arrived on the sixth floor, after taking the weary looking elevator up, however my room number appeared nowhere. Almost all of the doors I looked at had a metal number tag adorning it, yet 6– wasn’t to be found. After running back and forth through the hallway, I made my way back down to the main floor and inquired after the secretary in reception about my room number. She really could have cared less and offered little help, and instead resumed her scroll and stare observation of the computer immediately in front of her. She did offer, however, confirmation that the number to the room had likely been taken off of the door by a student.

I was fortunate that another student was present at the time and offered to help me find my flat. Keys in hand I dragged my things once more to the elevator and we made our way to the sixth. We double checked every number on every door from one end to the other, this time counting. We tried the key in the door on either side of the elevator where the flat should have been located, and after trying four separate doors, one opened. At last! I thanked my new friend as he made his way out of the hallway, in the direction of the elevator. My room was in the middle of the flat; two rooms on either side. I dropped my things and prepared myself for bed. I shook the last of the tea leaves out of my pyjamas’s, tea leaves left over  from the tin that I’d cleaned up after my arrival in Rome. What I hadn’t anticipated, however, was the well-worn, stained mattress upon which I was supposed to sleep. Needless to say I was disappointed that I hadn’t brought or bought sheets for the bed. I laid down a large outer scarf and slept under my jacket. It was clear that someone had already moved into the room, however they weren’t present at the time. I closed my eyes, and exhausted, fell asleep.

In the morning I found that a soft, purple blanket had been lain over my feet, which were left out in the cold when I past out under the cover of my jacket. I found the wash closet and bathroom, and made myself presentable for my afternoon meeting with a friend. When I left the dormitory, after having ordered a blanket and pillow set for the room, I set myself in the direction of the Old Town. The sky was dotted with clouds, but the sun was shining which was welcome after the cold, rainy weather that received me in Riga. I met with my friend at the Kissing Students fountain that stands in the middle of the Town Hall Square; we started off in the direction of Rutli Street, which is a popular street with the students as it’s home to many bars. From there we walked around to an area of old wooden houses, I crossed three bridges, each time first making a wish then crossing with closed eyes, and had a coffee and cake at the most popular cafe in the Old Town. My introduction to the town of Tartu was great, and I couldn’t have asked for a better guide. Unfortunately, I was too busy taking it all in to take many photos, but I’ve added the few that I did manage to take; included is the view from my room, the pedestrian path and bridge to the Old Town, the Town Hall Square and the Kissing Students, an old church, the Freedom Bridge, and two monuments in a nearby park. Of course, I have talked about my first impressions of Tartu, which you can read about here.

University of Tartu Guest Post

I was recently asked to write a guest post for the University of Tartu in Estonia, which I am attending for the duration of one year while on an exchange from my home university, the University of Toronto, Canada. In this post, I highlight some of my most memorable moments while on exchange here in Tartu. You can find it here: UT Blog

P.s. I have another guest post in the works for the UT Blog that I am very excited about and cannot wait to share with you all! More information on that soon.


I left Rome for Riga sometime late in the afternoon; unbeknownst to me I was leaving beautiful weather for a small storm. Landing in Riga seemed hazardous to say the least, because it felt as though the plane was being played by the wind: tugged around, pushed, and bounced on the lap of turbulence. It was raining heavily, and shuttles were waiting on the tarmac. I managed to find a place on the shuttle; the airport was ages away.

I waited for some time to receive my luggage, but when I did I was happy to have a hard shell suitcase after watching the people pick off their soaking cloth luggage from the conveyor. A long time friend, a friend whom I hadn’t seen in some time, was waiting for me just beyond the set of doors from the luggage pick-up area. We would be going to his place, some way from Old Town Riga, reached via bus and trolly. Previous to reaching his building, he’d warned me that it looked much nicer on the inside than out. It did. After the simultaneous pushing of buttons, and much turning of keys in locks, we made into his apartment. It was large, spacious, with a gas stove, and all the necessary amenities. The kitchen over-looked the street and tram stop on the opposite side. In the mornings’ after waking, I’d make tea and watch the tram stop: many of the elderly folk waiting to go in the direction of the Old Town, would wait just 20 minutes, and then simply turn back in the direction they came and try again the next day. I’d watch them go and stand in the window a few moments more, while the tram, of course, would arrive not 5 minutes after they’d walked away.

On my first day in Riga, my friend was glad to show me around. For the most part, however, he was away at work. This was fine, because the weather was cold and rainy, and every day I slept until 10am. This was quite a different experience from Rome. Never the less, I was eager to explore the old town, as it would be my first time in such a place. It felt odd, at first, to be surrounded by low buildings on narrow streets, as I could only draw on my experience from living in Toronto, where streets tend to be much wider and where the buildings reach toward the sky . In some parts of the town it felt as though the buildings were looking down on me as I walked, pressing upon me from all sides, however I was quickly won over by the charm of it all. I craned my neck back up toward them, toward Art Nouveau façades and lonely looking architectural sculptures that looked vacantly elsewhere.

I would spend the entire first day tromping around Old Town Riga, snapping up photos of everything that I could. I was excited to find Wall Street, the Cat House, and the Three Brothers. The entire afternoon threatened rain, with thick clouds overhead, but I was spared and the late afternoon saw sunshine break through thinning clouds.

Toward the end of the afternoon I was parched, so I made my way out of the Old Town, but not before stumbling upon a wonderful, colourful, little knitting shop around which various objects had been knit-bombed. I am not a knitter, but I know a few who are and who would appreciate a couple of photos.  After touching everything in the knit shop, I continued on, back toward my friends places, strolling through the parks all the while.

There I would wait until he finished work and we’d head back into town to grab dinner and a drink. It was here, in Old Town Riga, that I’d order my first litre of beer. After dinner, we would continue to the Rockabilly Bar, a summertime setup out of doors in the main square that I’d passed by a few times. My friend and I ordered drinks, and decided to stay for another as the house band had set up their instruments and were preparing to play.

Unfortunately, on my second day in Riga I spent much of my time in the centre mall, where I had to pick up a jacket and a pair of leather shoes to weather, well, the weather. It rained on and off all day, creating puddles in the streets and on my way back I had to hop from one dry spot to the next. While on my way to the Old Town, however, I did stop off for lunch at the Flying Frog, recommended to me by a friend who’d previously made a trip to Riga, Latvia. If you ever stop in Riga, be sure to try this restaurant, as I was quite impressed and would highly recommend it.

The weather was a little more fair, though still quite chilly on my last day in Riga. My friend had been pressing me to go to the top of the tower of St. Peter’s Church in the Old Town, and was I ever glad that I did. This place is possibly the best to lookout over the Old Town, and from here I could spot many of the buildings I’d walked by, and had looked up at. Later that afternoon I would gather up my things and walk to bus station. My friend joined to see me off; my next stop, Tartu, Estonia.

I. Porto, Portugal. December, 2014.

Sometime early in December I booked my flights with TAP airlines, who were then running direct flights from Tallinn, for a holiday getaway in Porto, Portugal. At this time, I had got to know my roommate S- very well, and was delighted when she told me that I was more than welcome to join her and her family in Porto, Portugal for the holidays. I wouldn’t be going back home to North America for the holidays, and though I missed my family and friends, I welcomed the opportunity to travel someplace new.

Arriving in Lisboa, I made my way from the airport to the connecting metro. The metro is very easy to find, being attached to the airport (unlike, say, Toronto) and even easier to figure out (also unlike Toronto). Finally, it connects to the main train station in Lisboa, from where I hopped on a train for the two hour, 45 minute train ride North to Porto. The train was comfortable, and I watched the countryside pass as it made it’s way up the coast. When I arrived at the train station I was greeted by my roommate S- who had made it to Porto a few days prior, and her father drove us home after chucking my large suitcase into the tiny trunk of the car.

Now, the drive was interesting. First, the Portuguese drive quite quickly and as though they all have the right of way on the road. I could help but think what chaos would occur should our car go careening into another in the middle of a tiny street. Later, after having climbed out of the car and settled in to my friends home, I was assured that her father drove rather slowly. That evening, I would find out that this was true.

In the evening, my friend and I went out to the downtown for coffee and to see the Christmas tree that had been erected in the main square. There were various light and sound installations located all the way up the long square to the Christmas tree at the top, which stood in front of the city hall. The Christmas tree was brilliant, created by strings of light with a star at the top that lit from the center outward.

Both Christmas Eve and Christmas day were largely spent in the home of my Portuguese friend with her close family and extended family members. Her family members came around to prepare a dinner for the evening, sometime around 11am; however, dinner was served some time closer to 11pm. This is not a dinner hour that I am used to! With that said, there were a lot of sweet treats, including home made donuts and cakes, and much wine to consume over the course of the day. After the dinner feast (okay, we ate around 10pm) everyone stayed at the table for a few rounds of bingo (and more drinks!), during which time I really had the opportunity to learn my numbers in Portuguese. I even won a game. I have never felt so welcomed and so warm in the home of a friend as I did that night. We shared great stories and a lot of laughs, something I’ll cherish for a very long time.

Status Quo.

[This is a brief update]

Hello friends, family, and followers! The end of the semester is wrapping up here in Tartu, Estonia and with it many students will be leaving Tartu for their home countries, some for the holidays and others for good. I have been very busy in my studies of semiotics and volunteering at the print museum (both of which I will write about), and so I will be glad to have a break come next week. I will be heading to Portugal for two weeks over the holiday in hopes of warming up and catching some sun, which doesn’t appear here often for weeks at a time. Further, it is dark by 4:30 and not light again until some time around 10am.

Though, I must add that it isn’t all bad. Tartu is well dressed for the holidays: there are lights that cross the town hall square and the town hall itself is layered in lights, in addition to a large boat and pine tree, both decorated in lights. The university has also been covered in lights. So, for the moment Tartu itself is quite bright.

Here are some photos for your viewing pleasure:

I will be staying in Porto for the better part of my time in Portugal, however I do plan to visit Lisbon, the capital, as well as one other smaller city. Upon my return from Portugal, I will continue from Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, to Finland, which is just a boat ride away. Please be patient for my updates, while in the meantime enjoy your holidays! I will be updating with Riga by the end of the day today (Dec 18th, ’14).

P.s. I have recently acquired glasses for the purpose of reading. This is quite new to me, and simultaneously foreign and surreal.

Rome. III – Day II

Sunday the 17th, my last full day in Rome. I managed to sleep until 8am but again had to cancel the wake up call; I prepared myself and made my way to the breakfast room where the morning’s sugary diet awaited. The woman who worked in the breakfast room spoke little to no english, though luckily a cappuccino is a cappuccino.

I started out rather leisurely because I’d walked so much on the previous day that the muscles in my legs were a little tight. I decided to explore the vicinity in which my bed & breakfast was located. Around the corner, I discovered vendors under the archways of various buildings selling flowers, cheap clothing, and knock off goods from purses to electronics. Being daylight, I decided to wander through the local park. Here I discovered a small children’s park with themed rides and a few unkempt old ruins; people milled about including tourists and the homeless who were either drinking or sleeping on what little grass was left to grow.

I turned back around, leaving the park, and made my way down a nice looking street of old condos. It was at this point that I discovered Scala Santa, the church of the Holy Stairs. Tourists and locals alike were sitting on it’s steps outside, and I noticed a large crowd in the lobby every time someone walked into the basilica through the large front door. Though the outside was by no means as extravagant as other basilica’s I’d seen in Rome, I decided to go in to take a peek.

I found myself in a small lobby filled with people staring straight forward, they were observing the people ahead of them on a stairwell who were very gradually, climbing the stairs on their knees. I stopped and joined the gawking crowd. What I learned was that the middle stairwell can only be climbed on one’s knees (more info in the picture provided), while the adjacent stairwells one can climb à pied. Once, a man in robes, who obviously belonged to the church, came around, put a finger to his lips and loudly ‘shushed’ the crowed to ‘keep the silence’ and to direct those standing on the Scala Santa to ‘Get Down! Knees!’ My memory of this is still quite fresh, because though the man made little sound and appeared very modest in his brown robe and sash, his voice was very big as it echoed within the lobby and across the crowd.

I skipped the crowd and made my way to the top via the right stairwell and took a look around the small basilica. It was well decorated, with fresco’s on the walls and ceiling. A window atop the Scala Santa allowed those praying to peak through to a vaulted shrine, gilded in gold. An office, souvenir shop, confessional booth, and private chapel were all located on the second floor.

Outside, and across from Scala Santa, was a very big, extravagant basilica. Inside, the twelve apostles stood at larger than life size within niche’s, the floor was ornately tiled mosaic, and the ceiling was moulded and gilded in gold. Being a Sunday, service began shortly after my entrance and so I wandered around the basilica to catch a glimpse or two of the devout in thrall of the speaker. After eyeing those seated and more still kneeling at confessional booths, and after taking many photos, I wandered out.

After some time I found myself back at the Colosseum. It was just before 1 o’clock in the afternoon, and with a walking tour starting at 1:40 I hopped into the long line of tourists entering the Colosseum. With ten minutes to spare before my turn at the ticket booth, the woman ahead of me decided that she would try to appeal to the cashier to be reimbursed for her stolen tickets.. Pickpocket’ed, regardless of the fact that an overhead P.A. announces in many languages, and at regular intervals, to be aware of pickpockets both inside and outside of the Colosseum. With two minutes to spare, the woman resigned herself and repurchased two tickets. I purchased my tickets, including the walking tour, and headed to the meet-up spot. The walking tour was led by an art historian who studies the period during which the Colosseum was built, as well as those periods on either side; she provided a lot interesting facts which made the tour quite memorable.. Here are a few of those facts: I Why does the Colosseum contain so many holes: Shortly after the fall of the Roman Empire the iron contained within the stones was bored out and recycled. II While public executions were held between events at the Colosseum, contrary to popular belief, no gladiators ever fought to the death. III Arena comes from the Latin harena, meaning sand, which covered the Colosseum stage.

What I also learned from my tour guide was not to throw out my ticket, because it could be used to gain entrance into the Palatine and Forum. So, after thoroughly exploring the Colosseum for 3 hours I made my way a few feet across ancient Rome and entered the Palatine grounds. What can I say about the Palatine? Bring an umbrella and prepare yourself with bottled water or aqua tablets for the supply of fresh water from the public fountains throughout the grounds. I explored thr grounds until closing, 6pm. My knock off Sony batteries died just shortly after entering the Palatine and so I have placed my one and only photo at the head of this post.

I wandered my way to Ponte Garibaldi, back to the riverside happenin’s that I had discovered on the previous night in search of something for dinner. However, I walked so long that my desire waned and I followed the locals out in the direction of my B&B. To make a long story short, I got lost and had to grab a cab to make it back to the B&B before midnight (though there’s 24hr concierge I tried not to stay out later than 11pm). I left the window in my room open to let in the cool night air and fell asleep.

The next morning, I had my last sugary breakfast with cappuccino, left the B&B to explore a few sites before heading back around 2 to gather my things and head to Termini Station for the airport. The ride to the airport was uneventful, and I was thankful to be in transit in any other way than on foot. Upon reaching the airport I was somewhat sad to be leaving Rome, however this soon dissipated in my excitement to be moving on. Next stop: Riga, Latvia.