Wednesday, December 12, 2007

from Tallinn, Estonia: the mix

Well, if you can’t take the girl to the village, bring the village to her, right?

In the afternoon I set out for Estonia’s “Ethnographical” Museum (guidebook’s choice of words, not mine). In a mixed pine and deciduous forest by the sea, just outside of Tallinn. Rural houses, moved there so that you and I can get a sense of what life was like for an Estonian some years ago.

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You know what makes you feel old? When you visit a museum of years gone by and you realize they are showing habits that were part of your childhood. Yes, it’s true: my grandma (with whom I lived in my early years) cooked on a wood-burning stove, drew water from the well outside and used a kerosene lamp for light, and in first grade, I learned to write dipping a pen into an inkwell. Ah well. One forgets that even in the States, ballpoint pens weren’t common in schools until the mid-sixties.

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school kids, learning about their heritage

I had wanted to see the windmills of Estonia in their natural setting (on the island of Saaremaa), but the thought of driving on back roads in the night put me off. And lo, here you have the very same windmills, transported from the island to my own backyard. There, facing the tall bare trees, on the gloomy coast of a dusky, misty Baltic.

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Except for two tiny school groups and a handful of others, the entire vast forested area is remarkably empty. As daylight fades, I follow the muddy road from one farmstead to another and chat to the occasional person who has the task of trying to describe the life of an Estonian family from, say, 100 years back.

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In the States, when you go to places like Old World Wisconsin (another open air museum depicting life in the rural communities of maybe 150 years ago), you sort of know the shpiel: …and so they dipped string in hot wax and made candles and washed clothes on scrubbing boards, etc etc. It’s something that you want to show your kids when they’re growing up. This is your heritage! This is what took place before Madison had State Street and the Bratfest and the Farmers’ Market!

But here, I’m on new turf. It’s a less familiar world of feudal lords and Finnish influence and I listen with interest because, truthfully, there’s not much about Estonia of 100 years back that is known to me.

It’s completely dark when I finally leave. I take a taxi back to town and I stroll again through the Christmas market. This is the place where the older style has to sell itself. Few people go out to the forest to walk through the farms of a hundred years ago. Most every visitor and certainly every Estonian has made it here, to the old town square where artifacts, with roots in the very homes I visited earlier, are now presented to a worldly mix of shoppers. The woolens, the wooden forks and spoons, old patterns on mittens and socks, now sold mostly by old Russian women (the irony!). Here we are, pushing Estonian artifacts to stay afloat. So that your heritage may stay afloat.

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Estonia of the young and restless wants, as Poland wants, to push forward within the European community. Onwards and upwards. To do so, stores must sell and people must buy. Judging from the crowded stores and shopping streets and Happy Xmas signs, it’s doing okay.

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I find Katarina Kaik – a back lane where a generation of young artists works in guild-like settings, producing wonderfully fresh, but by my standards, expensive art work for the public.

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I can’t get much out of the one or two who are still there, selling their clay works late into the evning. The price of this? You’ll find it on the bottom. Thanks. I was looking at the sign that says DON’T TOUCH! That’s for this shelf of unfinished stuff. Okay. So what time do you open tomorrow? From 11 to six. But it depends. Ah. This is the extent of our conversation.

Next door, there is a much touted by my guide book Italian restaurant, Controvento. It’s run by Estonian Italians and the cooks are from Italy, Peru and Ecuador. I need a break from traditional Estonian fare and so I claim a table in the nicely atmospheric dining room.

Ohhhhh! So this is where new Estonia eats! At the farside table, the dour couple of yesterday is replaced by an animated pair – they could not be more engaged with each other, with life!

Next to me, a striking young woman shares a table with a guy who cannot keep his hands off his mobile. Her other companion looks a little bored with life, but they are swirling wine in the glass and looking as if they have learned the routines of fine wine consumption.

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Me, I'm trying to stay with the most Estonian ingredients – salmon carpaccio (it’s Norwegian so that’s close!) and Estonian beef. With a huge wonderfully green and full of veggies salad on the side.

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The cost is nearly the same as yesterday’s Estonian meal. But everything about it is tastier. My palate has migrated away from the traditional foods of my childhood years. Sometimes I think wistfully about herring with onion and sour cream and dumplings that my grandmother rolled out on her huge wooden board. But truthfully, I love the utter simplicity of a good cut of meat or a fresh fish dish, touched only by lemon juice and olive oil.

I get up to leave and I catch a conversation of three English businessmen, assessing the markets here. They have invested in Estonia. But it’s a small country and it can only deliver so much. One of the men is behind some coffee empire and he talks of rumors of the coming of Starbucks. Considering the rich culture of cafĂ© life here, one has to wonder about the audacity of Starbucks, but then, Paris has more than one Starbucks and however much they are scorned by the French in the press, they seem to be staying in business.

Back at the hotel I get on Skype – an Estonian invention. It’s a wired nation alright. Internet and cell phone usage is higher here than in France. People pay for parking using their cell phones. You can even vote online.

Thinking about the day, the post that I have yet to write, the photos that may help push the narrative, I’m feeling the confusion about this place. In much the same way that Poland still sometimes confuses me. In part it has to do with the fast pace of change in both countries. Depending on which decade you were born in, your life’s experiences will be hugely different. And at the same time, in some communities, like for my highlanders in southern Poland and probably in rural areas here, time stands still. For these guys, change means the addition of a phone line and maybe a television. Maybe. And in Estonia, you have an entirely separate introduction of the Russian presence, which confuses the picture even more.

Still, it’s almost time for me to leave Estonia. I’ll do a quick post at the end of Wednesday and catch a very early flight out the next day. It’s good to leave when you’re still scratching your head. You need time to digest the one little piece of the puzzle that's been handed to you. (And the food -- you need time to digest the food as well.)