Estonia is one of those places that no one ever thinks about. I never did. Not until I arrived there by bus- a mere seven hours after leaving St. Petersburg- one typically rainy summer morning on the Baltic Sea. More than Russia or other vaguely Eastern European countries of which some inkling of a preconceived notion has been built up by merely being alive for some period of time during the end of the cold war, I had no idea what to expect. Mostly because there had been no image put there by the media, history books or sixteen years of schooling my western mind. I came to find out that this is much how Estonians like it: left alone with their freedom (and their marzipan).
Much of Estonia’s existence has not been free. An area roughly the size of New Hampshire and Vermont combined, the phrase “between a rock and a hard place” comes to mind when picturing the tiny country as it sat geographically in the 1930s: Hitler’s Germany to the west and Stalin’s USSR to the east. For hundreds of years before that the Danes and Swedes battled it out for control of the more than 1500 tiny islands in one of the oldest settlements of Europe. Just as mama told me growing up, “Life ain’t fair,” how does one fight dictator driven genocides and years of totalitarian domination?
If you are Estonian, you sing.
Watching the The Singing Revolution (2006) by American husband and wife team James and Maureen Castle Tusty (both of Estonian heritage), is the best way to get a crash course in Estonian history, culture and Laulupidu, the Estonian Song Festival. In 1999 the pair went to the capitol of Tallinn (after less than a decade of independence from Soviet rule) to interview and film an essential historical document about a country few know anything about. Interspersing excerpts of the past and interviews with survivors who successfully sang for their freedom from 1988 to 1991 -when they declared themselves a sovereign nation- the documentary is surprisingly captivating and not at all sentimental. A great insight into the indomitable spirit of a beautiful land and its (women) people.
Sipping a local draught in a courtyard bar in Tallinn, capital of Estonia, in the old town square, it’s easy to lose track of time. One of the smallest capitals in Europe, my guide Olga (one of the many Russian nationals left behind after the USSR left) showed me around town, walking from end to end in about an hour. Plying me with as much information as smiles we toured the main square, in the north-northwest end of the city, along the cobblestones and 600 year-old medieval architecture, all the way to the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral crowning the hilltop of Toompea, where the panorama of the old city stuck up against the cranky Baltic Sea, and from where, I suspect, comes all this spewing rain and wind, is a European highlight. Easily one of the friendliest places in Europe, and despite not being the most accessible , the place is crawling with tourists, mostly Spanish, who prowl the numerous artisan shops, and soak themselves in the local wines and ales at the many sidewalk cafes. Gobbling marzipan (locals claim the invention of “Martin’s Pan” dating back more than 600 years), Olga tells me about the city’s history, remarks on the generally chilly summer, and can’t say enough about all the soundtrack of perpetual live music and song that is the Estonian way of life.
[singlepic id=337 w=200 h= mode=web20 float=left]As the hour gets late and Olga smiles her way off into the cobblestone sunset, I wander around the old town taking photographs and swigging on my flask of Russian Vodka. Caught between my incessant westward forward progress and the flavor of St. Petersburg on my tongue, I take a moment to realize that longitudinally, this is as far north as I have ever been. I am obsessed with how late the sun is up. Watching the last rays of sun shine down on Tallinn at 2am, I am reminded of drunkenly running around Paris a decade ago on the summer solstice with the last shades of sun still painting the sky at 11 p.m. And despite the late hour and the fetching aroma of Olga’ s eau de toilette still on my hands, I am absorbed hearing people singing in the distance, song soaring throughout the venerable alleyways. Paris may be the City of Light, but Tallinn is the City of Song.