Estonia Rocks an OldTown Like a Boss
…the world is really so much smaller than we think, and the probability of unlikely coincidences infinitely greater than it appears.”
~Jaan Kross, The Czar’s Madman
Imagine you are Finnish and you are sweating in a sauna with friends discussing the upcoming weekend. You all have been fishing at the lake cottage too many times this year. Where do you go? If the packed giant ferries headed south are any indication, you go to Estonia and revel in the old town of Tallinn, a short 3-hour jaunt across the Baltic Sea.
Estonia shares many cultural similarities with Finland. Their languages are part of the same family, they both enjoy getting naked and sweating with friends in hot boxes, and they share some of the same culinary delights. One particular food I loved is called kama in Estonian and talkkuna in Finish. It is made with finely ground roasted peas, barley, oats and rye. This ground meal is then added to yogurt, buttermilk, milk or dipped into chocolate. The mill mixes with the liquid but remains a little crunchy and the small particles pause for a moment or two on your teeth and gums. One other thing they share is a history of occupation and a deep desire to hold to the freedoms they currently enjoy. Estonia, like Finland, became independent in 1918, but unlike Finland, it was once again subjugated after World War II and didn’t practice independence again until 1991.
Our band of happy travelers didn’t have much expectation for Estonia as we left the overcrowded giant ferry. I knew it was the birthplace of Skype and my sister Kat served her LDS mission in neighboring Latvia and Lithuania. We were not aware that this little country was a vacation paradise and a mecca for the nomenklatura (ruling class) during Soviet times. Apparently, this was a “warm” place to vacation, and it was a frequent place for the rich and powerful to get away.
Most of the tourism is focussed around the 15th-century old town; complete with gothic churches, fortresses, and colorful town centers. Skype is from the new town and the new town is where most people in Tallinn live and work. But it is the old town that draws travelers to “come inside” and to eat, to drink and to relax. The people who live and work in the old town are there to help you with that task. They have an almost Disneyland devotion to entertaining and serving travelers; they work hard to put the “old” in the old town. Touts are costumed in traditional clothes and restaurants serve food from menus centuries old. Kieran, Grandpa and I were repeat customers of a kitchen that served elk soup in big clay bowls. We drew the line at eating in the restaurant that served bear; there is something about eating non-aquatic predators that strikes me as “wrong”.
Our 16th-century-stone-walled apartment in Estonia came with an amusing past. It was renovated this year and given a retro-orange fridge, but for centuries it had been the residence for multiple generations of blacksmiths. Staying in a working class building older than our country always strikes me as “right.”
Because we have perfect timing, we ended up in Tallinn during “Old Town Days. There were movies, activities for kids, concerts and competitions. The main stage was about 50 meters from our apartment and every time we came home or went anywhere we could pause to watch jazz music, see clown comedy routines we couldn’t understand, or watch dance recitals that included flinging infants around.
We spent most of our time in Estonia exploring the old city and visiting her museums. The museums were small but well done. As we explored we went to a natural history museum, a photography museum, and a design museum, but ended up spending a considerable amount of time at two history museums. The first was a tunnel tour at the painful sounding Kiek-in de Kok museum. Our guide walked us through the Swedish tunnels and pointed out the many uses of the tunnels. Over the years, they had been employed as military fortresses, jails, bomb shelters and at times they had been forgotten. Recently they became home for punk rockers during the waning years of the Soviet era and then they were the home for a large number of homeless people after Estonia gained independence. Apparently when people were given the choice of a government funded room and no alcohol, or a dank cave-like tunnel with no water or bathroom but the freedom to drink, they chose the tunnel.
The second museum to catch our full interest was the Museum of Occupation and the Fight for Freedom. This museum begins with the German occupation and goes through the Soviet time up to the recent independence. Although it may be about the past, it felt very much like a warning or a cry for continued support in potential struggles that might be in their future. About a quarter of Estonians are Russian-speaking and they receive their news from Russian sources. Russian news tells them the Crimea has always been part of Russia, the struggle in Eastern Ukraine is caused by the West and that Russian speakers everywhere are oppressed, especially in Estonia. That is the psychological preparation which happened in the Crimea and eastern Ukraine prior to conflict there. To Americans, the Cold War may appear to be thawed, a subtle victory of the past as we spend a few years as the only superpower before China matches or surpasses us. But to the Estonians it is an ever present issue. Russian troops stand at the border and Russian jets fly through their airspace, NATO troops, including Americans, march on the Estonian side of the border. It is worrying enough that many leading thinkers have Estonia as the center of a future war between Russia and the West.
The Occupations Museum has moved statues of Stalin and Lenin to the basement where they watch guard over the toilets. And while they bring up the horrors of the past, they also try to build a picture of a future integrated society with all the different minorities, (Russians, Swedes, Germans, Latvians etc.), participating together. This is mostly illusory; most minorities are small enough to blend and the one minority that matters, with 25% of the population, is the Russian-speakers. They live in their own cities, vote in their own blocks and most of them feel ignored by the Estonian-speakers. They are culturally and physically separated. They are concentrated near the border with Russia. Most were born in Estonia and their parents or grandparents moved here as part of an intense Russification process established throughout the Soviet Union.
The museum was sobering. We are 230 years into our experiment of self-determination, and most people take it for granted, a majority doesn’t vote, we assume our freedom will be perpetual. Being around other people who can’t feel so nonchalant about their freedom motivates us to hold more dear the freedoms and rights we have in our society, and to keep working on how to keep this experiment growing and more inclusive.
After our three days in Estonia, we headed back to Helsinki for one final day with Grandma and Grandpa. We ended up with one of the oddest Airbnb’s we have had. It is the only place we have stayed that decorated with South Pacific penis shields, the apartment had a swing and a silk hammock attached to the ceiling and giant pictures of roosters and peacocks.
For our last day, we decided to wander the Soumenllinna, the fortress in Helsinki harbor. Again, this is another giant Swedish undertaking and the island is surrounded by walls, gun turrets, and towers. It was a beautiful bright spring day, and we wandered for a couple hours watching the birds, playing games with our bouncy balls and talking about all the fun the Finns have. Our idyllic day was shattered when a couple of seagulls decided to snag one of Asher’s and one of Kieran’s bouncy balls and fly away with them. In both cases, McKane and the offended sibling took off on a dead run following the offending seagull. In both cases, the seagull got away and somewhere on Suomenlinna there are a couple nests with very strange eggs in them. All we were left with were interesting stories of how the balls, lovingly delivered from Utah, were targeted and confiscated by Russian common gulls.