Tuesday, December 11, 2007

from Tartu, Estonia: winter ramble

Estonia’s “red white and blue” is “blue black and white.” They are powerful words here – symbols of nationhood and patriotism. I’m not sure how the Estonian flag came to have those colors. They look a little severe. Maybe it’s all that was left. Estonia, after all, was sadly late in getting its independence.

Tallinn is the capital, but they say that Tartu is the soul. The cultural center of Estonia. Tartu is in the south and it is a major university town. It’s also very small for a city that claims soul-hood (100,000). But I know all about old university cities that feel a great cultural preeminence (Krakow comes to mind) and so I am sympathetic.

I’m sitting on a bus, heading out to Tartu. Estonia is a rare European bird in that it does not have much of a rail system. It hasn’t much of a highway system either. I assume that an Estonian, placed on a German autobahn, would freak.

But the bus is nice. Of course, I get it all wrong. I can’t read the schedule properly, I sit in the wrong seat (who knew that they would assign) and, embarrassingly, on the ride back, I try to evict a nice old lady from a seat I think really is properly mine (another, wiser Estonian tells me: just sit somewhere else; seating rules must be broken if an older lady digs in her sensible black shoes; I nod and move elsewhere).

I am eager to see the countryside. If Tallinn is the capital and Tartu is the soul, I want also the heart of the country – the towns and villages that make up its core.

But I see no town or village. Two hundred kilometers of road that passes through not a single cluster of houses.

I do note the forests. Beautiful forests of birches and pines…

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…and a rare farmstead. And, almost every farm has evidence of a bird that we, in Poland, and obviously here as well, regard as somewhat of a regional treasure: the stork. The graceful, wonderful, bundle-bearing creature that comes in spring and leaves at the end of summer.

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And suddenly, we are in Tartu. The bus depot is to the side and I follow others toward what I hope will be the center. The streets are wet and muddy. It’s not raining, not at all, but there is undeniable slush everywhere and if you ever doubt that money spent on street cleaning is a good investment, you need only travel to Poland or Estonia in the winter and walk down streets that haven’t had this spray of luxury in a while.

Tartu is very different from Tallinn. I see it right away. Assertive. Bold. If I thought Estonians are reserved, I’ll change my mind here. Toward the center, you’ll find this monument:

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The sculptor depicted himself and his one and a half year old son – to commemorate Children’s Day in the year 2004.

Or, on the main square, you’ll find this, placed here on the eve of the new millennium:

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Note her short skirt, his tight embrace. The Tartu residents mocked it for being too modern for this neo-classical square, but it’s come to appear on nearly every picture symbolizing this city.

About the square. It’s supremely lovely, but you have to also love Christmas (and I do) to appreciate it now. Here, take a look:

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I am, however, hungry for a walk in the country. And I know there’s a path along the river bank that heads way up, away from the town. I find it and set out. I have only a handful of hours before it gets dark. The gray skies do little to take away from the beauty of a cluster of birches, or of the grand sweep of willows. Spend a quiet moment with me on this walk:

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I get lost in thought and photos and I hardly notice the time. I’ve run into a man and his mutt and another guy fishing. No one else. And yet, Estonia feels as safe to me as Poland did in my childhood days. My sister tells me things have changed (in Poland), and yet, I continue to feel safe, in ways that I rarely do when walking alone on deserted city streets or country paths on the other side of the ocean.

I see the lights of Tartu in the distance. I turn around and head back.

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In Tartu, I pause at the legendary Wilde Café. It’s a play on words. It’s Vilde, the Estonian, juxtaposed with Wilde, the Irishman. Here they are, in front of the café, engaged in banter:

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It’s lovely inside. Deeply comfortable chairs, old printing presses, an adjacent bookstore. And warm tea and “grandma’s cake:” apple raspberry, with whipped cream. Okay, so they were generous with the cream:

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Very late in the evening, I am back in Tallinn. I am keeping to the deeply Estonian mood of the day and so I head to Grandma’s Place – a small cellar restaurant that has been serving Estonian food to Estonians and tourists for years.

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It is a warm place and the waitress, who has been part of the establishment for a long time, absolutely blows away the image of the staid Tallinnian. (If I want staid and solid, I'll look to the Estonian couple on the other side of the room. They don't smile. At all. Ever.)

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My waitress is not from Tallinn, but from the south. She is all smiles and she is efficient and warm and I let her pick out the truly Estonian dishes, even as I know what I am in for, because I see most other Estonians in the room eating the same (pork and sauerkraut).

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herring, onions and sour cream

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pork, sauerkraut, potatoes

I am not a fan of pork because it recalls the decades where Polish restaurants (to which we were exiled on our summer trips back home before finally moving back to Warsaw in the sixties) had nothing but pork. Oh sure, there would be other menu items on lists, but if you asked for any of them, you would get the famous “nie ma” (we don’t have any of it). But I eat the pork now, with the familiar beet salad and horseradish and pickled onions (and potatoes, never forget the potatoes) and I even enjoy it in the way that you do when you know you don’t have to have it for another… several years.

I leave in the glow of a warm dinner, finished off by a baked apple and a glass of Estonian apple wine.

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I hardly notice the cold dampness of the empty streets. Comfort foods make you forget the weather. For a while.

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  1. Whew! Birches!!!


  2. You are such an artist...the photo of the couple in the restaurant and the empty street are superb...from another time. Thank you.

  3. Oh let us see a photo of the flag..

  4. I second the applause for the photo of the couple in the restaurant.

  5. Lovely photos. I was once myself a swinger of birches on this side of the ocean.

  6. I love Wikipedia. A whole article about the Estonian flag and colors. The flag got started at the University of Tartu...

  7. Thanks for the lovely (images and words) post. I found it via Ann Althouse's blog. Merry Christmas.

  8. Who else but you finds a way to go for a walk in the country immediately upon arrival in a strange new place ... in the winter, yet! These are wonderful photos and commentary, as always. Loving it all.


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