Wednesday, April 30, 2008


Tonight is a scary night. The witches (nõiad) are out and about, and the only thing that keeps them away are bonfires. This evening there are thousands of bonfires all over the country, accompanied with good food, good cheer, and good beer.

Tomorrow is May the First, a holiday all over Estonia. There is no reason for this holiday except that the people got used to it during the years of the Soviet Union when it was one of the most important holidays of the year. May the First was the workers’ holiday, a day not unlike our Labor Day, except this day was in the spring instead of in the fall. The First of May in the Soviet Union used to mean big parades, and Moscow used to have the grand military parades with armies of soldiers and thousands of tanks and missiles. But since the demise of the Soviet Union, the First of May has taken on a far less militaristic tone. It is, in fact, the holiday that signals the start of summer, and this is how it is treated.

And yes, it is a night when bonfires keep the witches away. Amazingly enough, this trick has worked well, for there have been no witches in Estonia for a long time.

Sunday, April 27, 2008


I was sitting on the back deck, looking down at the yard, and suddenly thought of Junts. He is buried somewhere down there, under a cherry tree that is long gone, so I could never find his actual grave. But that is not important. I know his remains are there somewhere.

This is the only picture I have of Junts. My mother is in the foreground, and my grandmother is trying to explain something to Junts, or else is nagging him about something. My parents got Junts as a first anniversary present from some of their friends. He was a strong German Shepherd and rumor had it that he had killed sheep, but this might have been my mother’s typical exaggeration. He was certainly incredibly protective of my mother and me. When my mother went walking with me in the pram and someone would come up to us, Junts would run over and place himself between us and the visitor. He never did anything, but just stood there until the visitor, who got the message, left.

Junts was well known in the village of Pirita. After the war, when we were already in the United States, there had been no opportunity for communication and my mother and father did not know the fate of their own parents. During these Stalinist times just getting a letter from America was dangerous and put one under immediate threat from the secret police. We did not want to take this risk, and so my father addressed the first letter with the news that we were in America to "Junts, Pirita, Tallinn, Estonia" and it was deliverd to my grandparents! We then found out that my mother's parents were alive and well and living in the old house (the one pictured above) but that my father's father had drowned in 1947 while illegally fishing at night.

One day when I was about two years old, Junts was in the kitchen when my mother was cooking and he was rewarded with a juicy bone. Apparently my mother did not have an eye on me and I waddled up to Junts and took the bone out of his mouth and started to gnaw on it myself. Suddenly my mother saw what was happening and was certain that Junts would at least growl and take back his bone. Instead, this ferocious dog just lay down on the floor with a sad expression on his face and let me gnaw away.

When we left in 1944 Junts died of a broken heart. He stopped eating and eventually just gave up. He was buried in the back yard under a cherry tree that is no longer there.

Saturday, April 26, 2008


It’s still too early for “anthro-flowers,” those human creations which, after countless generations of breeding, would not be able to survive in the wild. They are prisoners of the human need to recreate the world in the way we want it to be. So we have to wait a few more weeks before we can go to the garden stores and get our annual fix of perennials and annuals. But in the meantime the real flowers have the spring to themselves. They appear as volunteers all over the forest floor and in nooks and corners in our yards, uninvited, but gladly welcomed as harbingers of spring.

Wild birds also remain free of human meddling, although many have become adapted to living with humans. The seagulls during the past few days have been feasting on small fish caught in nets during a study of fish populations in the river.

The European crows – huge birds with real attitudes – are seldom referred to without pejorative adjectives. The “harakas” is the stuff of legend and folklore, and behaves like he knows of his own importance.

The little birds are quite happy to have us live in this house. They know that most of the time they can come to the bird feeder and find a few sunflower seeds. The European chickadees (“rasvatihane”) with quite a bit more yellow on their breasts, are just as funny and entertaining as their cousins across the Atlantic. Their Estonian name translates as “fat tit” as in the American “titmouse”, and our visitor is obviously interested in the suet ball I put out for him.

An interesting characteristic of humans is our need to name things. So the wild flowers are not just pretty wild flowers, but they are “sinilill” (“blue flower”) or “kuld täht” (“gold star”), and certainly the visitor to the bird feeder is not just a bird, but a “rasvatihane”. This need to name wild things is perhaps our desire to own the world. If we name something, we somehow believe that we own it.

I wonder what the “harakas” call us?


Friday, April 25, 2008


When Estonian weather is good, it’s very, very good. A bright, cloudless sky brings out colors, even whites, that decorate buildings. Consider this entry the first of several about color.

Dome Church (Toomkirik, also called Lutheran Cathedral of Blessed Virgin Mary) is my favorite church in Tallinn, because its story and contents tell much of Tallinn’s history from 1240 onwards. I took this photo last Saturday in morning sunlight, and when I got back to the house and looked at it, I realized I was seeing the Estonian flag colors. Now my opinion of Toomkirik is even higher.


Wednesday, April 23, 2008


Where the Pirita River flows into the Baltic Sea begins a lovely sand beach that curves northward into a wide cove. Evergreen trees grow to the edge of the beach and buffer the sunbathers and beachcombers from suburban hustle.

My son Drew learned online that Pirita Beach is one of two beaches in Estonia used for kite-boarding. He and his brother Stephen are enthusiastic kite-boarders. Sure enough, the very first day we were here I saw a boarder’s kite high above the tree line along the shore. The next day we walked down to the beach and found the Hawaiian Express, a sales and rental center for windsurfing and kite-boarding.

Although I haven’t yet found a kite-boarder with my camera, I did take these photos of windsurfers. If you study these photos closely, you should be able to infer wind direction, obstacles, and air and water temperature. Yes, one obstacle could be the man on the jetty—Aarne. You will also be able to see how far Hawaii is from the Pirita Cloister. I hope these bleak photos will be useful to all of you interested in the martyrdom potential of Pirita Beach.


On our first day in Estonia we went into the city to get our Vana Linn (Old Town) fix. Here is the evidence of medieval Tallinn. Twelve years ago, before the big cruise ships had discovered Tallinn, Vana Linn is where I began to experience Estonia. For just a few dollars we could buy lunch, perhaps a few slices of homemade sausage, dark bread, and soup of cabbage and meat broth, potatoes, and Saku beer. The menus were written in Estonian, German, and Russian. Of course the food would be Estonian; we never questioned that. Aarne enjoyed recognizing dishes that his mother had continued to cook in the United States.

Two years ago, while having Nordic salad (smoked salmon on shredded lettuce) at a outdoor café table on the Town Square, we were amazed to see restaurants advertising Mexican, Chinese, Thai, and Irish food; on our walk into the square we had passed a sushi bar. This, we told ourselves, proved Estonia’s new prosperity and also perhaps a return to an international spirit, a looking outward to the rest of the world. After all, the shop signs—iron icons representing a baker, a blacksmith, a coffee cup—remind us of Tallinn’s place in the Hanseatic League. During those times, people speaking different languages walked these streets and depended on the sign code of the League.

So, the other day, when we spotted a shop with window boxes in the forms of elongated pigs, we concluded that this was a restaurant with a lot of pork on the menu. The shutters advertised “Estonian Restaurant.” Now that made me pause. We’ve spotted another restaurant, too, outside of Old Town that advertises “Genuine Estonian Food.” In the early 1990s, such advertising would have seemed irrelevant. Every restaurant then served Estonian food—what else? But apparently, with much more diversity of restaurants, a niche cuisine exists for “the real thing” and is often found literally underground in small cave-like cellars. That Kuldse Notsu Kõrts (The Little Piggy Inn) is part of a high-priced Tallinn hotel, albeit in the cellar, suggests distinctions between “downstairs food” and “upstairs food,” or in this case, old and new food, or country and city food. It’s comforting to know that, if we don’t relish the rustic setting or the Witches Stew, we need only find our way to higher levels of the building.

On the Little Piggy Inn menu, the Head Chef (Peakokk) recommends “Crisp Pork Knuckle with Sauerkraut, Baked Potatoes and Mustard.” Aarne was thrilled to find smoked Baltic herring, and I tried a potato porridge and salad of shredded lettuce and sweet peppers. To read the entire menu, visit

The interior of Little Piggy is charming with colorful hand-woven wool table runners, hanging light fixtures made of wagon wheels and overturned baskets, and best of all, proverbs painted onto the walls. While waiting for our porridge, we pondered a quotation across the room: “A mouse never runs into a sleeping cat’s mouth.” All of this adds up to what a reviewer on called “nouveau rustic.”

The next day in the April 2008 City Paper I found this review of Little Piggy Inn: “Whether or not this is exactly what old Estonian inns looked like may be open to question. But in sheer comfort, good cheer and fine food, one would like to believe they were just like The Little Piggy Inn.”

A few evenings ago, when I described to a young Estonian friend our experiences at Little Piggy, he laughed and replied, “But there IS no Estonian cuisine.”

Among older ex-pats like Aarne, however, I hear a shared telling of a different story. It goes like this: one person says something like “klimbi soup,” and the other ex-pats groan in pleasure, their eyes misting over. “Frikadilli” evokes especially happy reactions, as does “pirukas” and kompott.” [Klimbi is a dumpling soup; frikadilli soup is meatballs in broth; pirukas is pastry filled with carrots or cabbage or meat; kompott is cold fruit soup such as gooseberry, currant, or pear.]

At least in memory, then, Estonian cuisine survives, and Little Piggy is one place to test these memories.


Tuesday, April 22, 2008


Our memories from childhood must be windows to our personalities. What we choose to remember, and then keep current by periodic refreshment of the memories, must say a lot about us.

Take the Pirita bus station. It is one of my vivid memories as a 4-year-old, mainly because of the shape of the building. It has a round front, classic 1930’s architecture, and it is this round front that has stuck in my memory all these years. The building is just a short distance from our house, so as a small child I must have seen it often. It used to be a real bus station, but now it holds a wine seller, a dry cleaner, and a convenience store, and the big green buses stop there on their way to Tallinn. It is an unremarkable building, and the town of Pirita had intended to tear it down until there was a public outcry to save this homely place.

But why do I remember this building? I suspect that even when I was a little kid I enjoyed order, and appreciated straight lines and right angles, the stuff that keeps buildings and bridges from falling down. I was, perhaps, offended by this round shape intruding into my orderly world. I still believe that round buildings are silly. But in the case of the Pirita bus station, it is a kind of gentle, even handsome silly, isn’t it?

Friday, April 18, 2008


The groceries were scanned and the price totaled. I paid using a debit card, and the receipt was placed on the glass tray. (Money and receipts never go hand to hand, but hand to tray to hand.) During the entire process the check-out lady at the food store had never looked at me, much less spoken to me. She now looked away and into the distance. I said, in Estonian, “Hello! How are you doing today?” She appeared surprised, and as she looked at me for the first time, her face softened. “Fine, thank you” she said, and smiled.

I was probably the first, and perhaps the only person who would have spoken to her that day. Friendly, chatty communication with strangers is just not done in Estonia. One only speaks to people one knows.

This is not unusual for Europe, where languages intermingle in impossibly complex patterns and one is never sure what language a stranger might speak. So the best policy, for most Europeans, is not to speak to anyone except friends and family. This is not true all over Europe, with the Danes being the most wonderful exception, but for the most part, spending time in international airports like Heathrow or Orly or Frankfut will let you hear snatches of many languages from small groups of people, but seldom will a stranger say anything to you.

Estonians seem to take this reticence to an extreme level, however, and I began to wonder why this would be, for Estonians are not unfriendly people and the Estonian language is almost universally spoken here. Today one may still find Russian-Estonians who refuse to learn Estonian, but except for the old and uneducated, this number is rapidly dropping. Wherever you go, you can be fairly sure that the stranger you meet will be speaking Estonian (whereas just a few years ago, you could be fairly certain that everyone could speak Russian).

After regaining independence in 1991, the Estonians quickly de-Russified the country, removing Russian street signs, for example, and eliminating the need to learn Russian language in school. The desire to not speak Russian often made life harder, but the memory of its imposition on society was strong. Sometime in 1993 I was in Estonia and staying in a small hotel that had only a few years ago been a private house. One day I was in the lobby when a young couple came in and began the check-in process. This was not an easy task, since neither the youngsters nor the lady behind the check-in desk could speak English very well, and they were doing their best to communicate. After the couple went to their room, the check-in lady came over to me and told me that the youngsters were Latvians. “We would have got along very well in Russian,” she said, “but we just did not want to.”

Perhaps one reason for the reticence in speaking to strangers is that during the 50 years of Soviet occupation Estonians (and of course others in the USSR) had to be very careful about what they said. Even the smallest remark critical of the government could be costly. The father of my neighbor here in Pirita was sent to jail for 5 years for saying something like “Communism is a lousy economic system” and being overheard by a KGB informant. Small children were routinely questioned in school about what their parents might have been talking about at home, so even casual conversation in the home was guarded. And the most dangerous speech was with strangers who might be informants. So there is a history of not talking, and this can only be undone with generational turnover.

But there has to be more to the lack of communication. The signals are clear. For example, if you stop for a pedestrian on a crosswalk in the US (at least in New London NH) you will invariably receive a thank you wave. Not here. And people here will very seldom use blinkers when changing lanes. That small courtesy of driving communication is not commonly practiced. When you hold a door open for someone, there is no acknowledgement of the kind deed. It’s as if the presence of other people is an embarrassment.

I was born here, and yet I am very different from native Estonians when it comes to friendly incidental conversation. What was it about my own upbringing in America that changed me so much, and what kind of person might I have been if I had grown up in this part of the world? Would I have ignored the humanity of the check-out lady, just as other had?

Monday, April 14, 2008


On Friday we got up at 5:30 AM to catch the early morning car ferry from Tallinn to Helsinki. Our destination was IKEA; our list was long, everything from a high chair for little August Endy, who will be here in June, to a desk chair for Aarne. After four days of shopping in Tallinn, we longed for lower prices and familiar items, even if it meant putting chairs together with the notorious IKEA “screwdriver.”

The trip to Helsinki was sleepy, uneventful…business people staring at laptops, younger passengers sleeping in lounges. We had cups of hot tea and tried to memorize our shopping list.

IKEA was IKEA, this time with labels in Finnish. I enjoyed the designs and textiles. After two round trips through the store and then through the warehouse, we loaded the car and headed back to center city Helsinki. Our return reservation was for a 6:30 PM ferry, M.S. Galaxy, and we planned to have dinner on board. Judging from our morning crossing, we imagined that the trip back could be a restful ending to a busy day.

The drive from IKEA back to the pier in Helsinki was crazy. We drove one of many more cars than the lovely little streets of Helsinki can handle. Thanks to a taxi driver’s help, we found the correct terminal and got the car in line. We had been told that we could actually board the ferry at 5:00 PM and enjoy ourselves on the ship before departure at 6:30. But to our surprise, we waited two hours in the car line, from 4:00 to 6:00--plenty of time to study the ship’s exterior features.

The M. S. Galaxy is one of the Tallink Line’s large, slow ferries that take 3 ½ hours to cross the Gulf of Finland. (Just for comparison, consider that newer jet ferries make the trip in eighty minutes, but then they don’t carry vehicles.) After two hours in line, we began to talk affectionately about the Galaxy as “our ship.” It’s painted bright blue with white clouds, suggesting, I suppose, a galaxy. Here and there on the sides of the ship are painted life-size giraffes with necks entwined, suggesting something we are still trying to interpret. See what you think. If you are ever within a mile of Tallinn’s port, you will recognize Galaxy--the blue ferry with giraffes rising into white clouds. This will not be listed in your tour guide.

Well, we were about to learn that on Friday nights the slow ferries out of Helsinki to Tallinn function as both truck transports and party boats. Finns come on board to buy duty-free vodka and gin—cartons of it. They bring empty suitcases to Tallinn to buy more. They dance in the ship’s bar and have a great time. When we went out on deck and looked over the rail, Aarne exclaimed, “This ship is hardly moving.” I think the slow speed was what everyone else was eager to pay for.

On this Friday night, the Galaxy was completely full. First the crew loaded about twenty trucks--18-wheelers. Each truck was belted and hooked to the floor of the hold. Then the tour buses, having already delivered their passengers into the terminal, drove in. Finally we drove our little rented Toyota up the gangplank and through the huge gateway, walked around the trucks, and climbed up three flights of stairs to the middle level deck to search for some dinner. Truckers and bus drivers climbed up to the very top decks, where they had reserved cabins for sleeping. Several couples, laughing and singing, carried suitcases up to cabins, too. Maybe they know something about the giraffes?

On the ship’s map we located six restaurants—offering six classes of dinner service. The lowest class was “cafeteria.” Then came an all-you-can-eat buffet, then a pub and a grille, then a Russian restaurant, and finally the Galaxy Paradise. We got in line for the Grille, a sit-down restaurant with red and white tablecloths that reminded me of New Hampshire. However, when we got to the front of the line, we learned that reservations were necessary. A tour guide, who had been pushing on our backs all through the line, smelled victory; she brushed us aside and waved a piece of paper to prove that her group had reservations. We had to squeeze our way back through the long line; for some reason I tend to slip into French for awkward situations, so it was “excusez moi, s’il vous plait” all the way through the crowd. We checked the map again and headed for the Galaxy Paradise. Thirst and hunger can overwhelm good judgment.

There it was: “Galaxy Paradise” in flowing silvery writing on glass doors. Through the doors we could see heavy white linen on formally set tables. All empty. In Estonian, and assuming that his question was just to be polite, Aarne asked if reservations were required. A woman in a Galaxy uniform ignored his question and announced that this was a “gourmet restaurant” and that we might prefer the Russian restaurant instead! Was it IKEA stardust that made such a first impression on her? Did we look Russian? When we hesitated, she directed us to look at the Paradise menu posted near the entrance. We looked at each other and laughed. We had already studied the menu. But the real question now was could we bear to eat under the supervision of this woman? And it goes without saying that Aarne would starve before eating in a Russian restaurant.

So we next came upon the cafeteria. Here a long line of patient people suggested good food. We found a wonderful table by a window facing the sunset—a feature not available in Paradise. Around the corner was a bar; Aarne brought two Saku beers back to our table, and we finally relaxed. We watched the sunset while we waited for the cafeteria line to clear, and then we bought the “plate of the day”—mashed potatoes with exactly eight meatballs, mixed vegetables, and for dessert, marzipan. An IKEA sort of dinner. At the horizon on the gulf the sun went down behind low clouds that turned lavender and pink and seemed to stretch from Finland to Estonia. Of course we all know that in real galaxies suns don’t set. But then neither do giraffes float.

Gradually the ship’s decks, halls, and restaurants filled with a long promenade. In both directions, passengers strolled from one end of the Galaxy to the other. Sitting at our table, we watched this world go by twice. Single women, in cocktail dresses or jeans, walked in pairs, while eager young men followed. Giraffes?

After the sun had set, we climbed one more deck up to a piano bar. In club chairs beside a big porthole we hummed along to Tea for Two, Maple Leaf Rag, I Get a Kick Out of You, and songs from West Side Story and Phantom of the Opera. Two young Finnish women sitting near us knew all the words and sang along.

All too soon, through the porthole appeared the first Estonian island and then a spit of land. Almost everyone went out on deck, even some of the ship’s crew, to enjoy the Tallinn skyline. On our left, north of Tallinn, the Pirita Cloister shone in its spotlights. If you ever arrive in Tallinn by ship, look for the Cloister rising above the trees. The Vesilind house is a few yards from the Cloister.

Truckers and bus drivers, freshly shaven, came down from their Galaxy cabins and went with us into the gigantic hold. We climbed into the Toyota amid our IKEA treasures and drove down the gangplank and out of the Galaxy to head north along the coastline to Pirita.

Sunday, April 13, 2008


April 8, 2008 Pirita

In New Hampshire, where I lived until seven days ago, we looked them up in our bird books and called them herons--the secretive gray birds that slide among tall grasses in our pond’s shallow edges and look for small perch and bass. It’s easy to believe that forever the herons have hunched over dark water, somehow seeing beyond the surface, even if only to imagine fish. When Aarne and I are lucky enough to notice a heron, we stalk it through our binoculars. Once, last year, while I was kayaking through tall grass, a heron and I surprised each other; he took off just in front of the kayak, leaving me wondering if I’d ever again be so close to elegance.

This morning I sit at a small glass table in the kitchen of my husband’s family house in Estonia. To my back are ruins of the Brigitta Cloister, the entire front and side stone walls rising above any treetops, and the entire silver-gray structure still glowing in spotlights left on all night. Even in the middle of the night, I can walk around the house by this light reflected from cloister walls.

On the opposite side of our house and straight ahead of me now, the yard slopes down to the Pirita River. Even in a cold early April, fishermen come on foot in the dark, at least as early as 5:00 AM—who really knows how early? They line the opposite riverbank, directly across from me. When the morning fog from the Baltic Sea finally slides away, I go to our front window to make sure that the fishermen are there each morning. And I look for them last thing at night. Strangely, this has become my first habit in Estonia, one thing to count on.

Dressed in heavy black winter jackets, high rubber boots, and layers of hats, they appear out of the hillside and walk slowly, heavily through a row of bare black trees to their spots along the riverbank. They arrive without cars or chairs or flashlights, each one carrying two or three long fishing poles, a bucket, and brown paper sacks—exactly enough.

So far I know these men only by shape and by their deliberate postures. They stand for hours, barely moving from one position except to shift their weight from one foot to the other. Sometimes they plant the handles of their fishing poles in the riverbank, stuff their hands into their pockets, and stare at the water. If they didn’t move at all, they would seem to be part of the landscape, so faceless are they to me from my distance across the river.

About 9:30 Bill and Amelia arrive to see how we are doing. Amelia is now fifteen months old, a perfect age for play, so she and I stay in the house while Bill and Aarne walk down to inspect work being done on the boathouse.

Half an hour later, as I hold Amelia on my lap by the front window, something across the river catches my eye. An orange van drives through the trees and close to the riverbank. Six or seven fishermen gather around. As I try to understand this intrusion, suddenly I notice a human body lying just above the water’s edge. What catches my attention is the white plastic sheet covering the head and chest. The trousers and boots suggest a fisherman.

Amelia wants down to explore the house, its kitchen drawers and long window shades. I lift her up; she’s still in the overalls of her snowsuit—warm and cuddly. “Apfel! Yummy!” She's already figured out to use English with me. I know enough to make a little party for us out of a sliced apple. When Amelia is delighted, her eyes sparkle.

Part of me has to look again out the window. Down in the yard, Aarne and Bill and two workmen stand still, also watching. Across the river, more official vehicles of different colors arrive. Men get out, conduct interviews, write notes on pads. The body lies on the riverbank. Nobody gets too close to it, not even the officials. But each fisherman slowly approaches within ten feet or so, hunches over, and then retreats from the officials and from the body—some to their fishing and others to small groups gathered stoically under the trees.

I pick up Amelia and dance with her in the kitchen. She grins. I can’t tell if my English surprises her or not. Her parents Anni and Bill speak both English and Estonian to her, so she is still sorting out the mystery of language. Her word “yummy” seems to work in both languages. I think how lucky she is to be growing up bilingual in a country with so much promise; I try to imagine her future.

What Aarne and Bill learn from the workers is that early yesterday this drowned body was spotted as it floated down toward the sea, past all the fishermen standing where they always stand. What must these fishermen have thought as they watched the poor thing drift past their lines? When the body drifted close enough to the riverbank, just opposite our house, somebody waded in, caught on to it, and pulled it up onto the bank.

Bill takes Amelia home, and Aarne and I go shopping for enough food for supper. When we return, the officials and cars and the body are gone. The fishermen have moved a little farther upstream, and the place across from us is empty.

Now, a day later, at 7:00 AM the cloister bells ring as always. I can picture the few Swedish nuns gliding to their prayers, kneeling, probably bending forward slightly in awe of what they can imagine about life after death or whatever else nuns can see that I can not.

I go to the window and look across the river at the spot where the body lay yesterday. A woman in a bright, shiny pink raincoat walks through the trees to the very spot, as if she knows more than I do. Pink. She bends over the grass, touches a large rock, searches the small area, then stands alone right where the body lay yesterday.

The temperature has fallen overnight to just above freezing. It begins to rain, and wind blows up the river. Crows scream into the trees. The woman, no longer searching the ground, has now stood in her place for more than an hour. She’s pulled the pink raincoat hood over her hair and has stuffed her hands in her pockets. Not even her head moves as she stares straight ahead into the river and perhaps across the river and beyond me to the cloister.

In the afternoon Aarne and I call out to our neighbor who’s working in her garden. Helgi tells us that the victim was a young woman who was seen walking into deep water upstream several weeks ago, apparently a suicide. Many people have been searching for her, and now she is found. Two days ago I did not know to look for her, but now I look for her even when I know she could not be there. As darkness falls, Bill turns on all the spotlights down by the river, just to push away the eerie feeling we all have.

Later in the evening, Estonian relatives arrive to welcome us for our stay here. Little Liisu, about two years old, plays and laughs as we all gather around our big window and stare across the river at the place where the young woman was pulled out. “Did you see anything?” We all retell our stories, putting together pieces of information, sharing sadness, and trying to make sense out of what happened. I imagine the fishermen across the river are doing the same thing. But we have Liisu with us, and her irresistible energy somehow buoys us. And we have purpose: we go out to dinner to celebrate the very energy of being again with Estonian family.


I was just five years old when we left this place. It was 1944 and the Russians were advancing on the eastern front. Estonians who remembered the Red Terror of 1940 when the Russians first invaded Estonia and were almost certain to be killed or deported, left the country for what they hoped were safer havens. They were convinced that they would return as soon as the war was over. The western powers would not let Russia occupy the Baltics, they argued. And even when Estonia was forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union, there was still hope of the “White Ship” coming. But the West was weary of war, and taking on the nuclear USSR was too great a risk. So the occupation lasted, for fifty long years.

What I remember from my childhood are snatches of memory. One of the most vivid is looking out the cellar window one night in 1943 when the Russian planes bombed Tallinn, that stately medieval city with no strategic value, and set most of it ablaze. We were lying on a large pile of potatoes, I recall. On the picture below you see the old house, and the cellar window is to the right, hidden behind the shrubbery.

With independence restored in 1990, the new old Republic of Estonia (they still count their days of independence from 1918, the original revolutionary war when they pushed the Russians out at the end of the First World War) decided to give back land that had been expropriated by the Soviets. My grandfather had been an astute businessman (the gene died with him, unfortunately) and had owned some land in Pirita, just outside of Tallinn, including the old house pictured above. My brother Priit and I (and my mother who was alive at the time) became the new owners. We decided to sell some of the land and with the money build a new house at the same location. By this time the old house had badly deteriorated and could not be saved (I will write more later about the old house). Fortunately, Bill Vesilind, Priit’s son, had decided to live in Estonia for a while, and he became the chief builder. His efforts were rewarded with the construction of the new house in which Libby and I are now living. Here is a picture of the new house, taken by my brother when he was here a few weeks ago.

A prominent feature on both pictures is the west wall of the old Brigitta convent or cloister, constructed originally at the end of the 13th century. More on that later. In the meantime, Libby and I are enjoying the view from our living room, overlooking a peaceful river, grateful to all those who made it possible for me to return to the house at Kloostri (cloister) Street 12.

Saturday, April 12, 2008


There is an interesting Estonian phrase, “Ei sobi mulle”, which has a number of meanings depending on the context. “Ei” means “no”, or a negative, while “mulle” is “to me”. The interesting word is “sobi” which does not seem to have a direct translation. Let me try to explain how this phrase is used.

Suppose you are shopping, and you try on a coat, and find that it is too small. You would say “ei sobi mulle” meaning that it does not fit you. If you try on the coat, and it fit, but you do not like the color, you could also say “ei sobi mulle” and mean that the color just does not go with you. That is, you are not compatible with the color because it makes you look too fat, or too short, or something. The coat could be the right size and the right color, but it might be too expensive, and you would again say “ei sobi mulle” meaning that it does not go with your budget. There are probably several other meanings, but you get the picture.

I was thinking of this phrase when we were furniture shopping. A piece of furniture would have to have numerous attributes, all of which would have to answer to the “sobi” if it is to be bought. It has to be the right type, color, and price, and it has to go with other pieces of furniture or rugs (real and imagined). It has to appeal to the purchaser on some subliminal level, working deep in the subconscious to dredge up childhood memories. Colors and patterns that brought happy moments long ago would come bubbling subconsciously to the surface and cause you to make decisions. Similarly, unhappy memories (for example the dentist office or something you did not like about your childhood home) will cause you to say that something does not “sobi”.

Now if three different people are trying to buy one piece of furniture, there is a good chance that in every case, with every decision, at least one of the persons will conclude that the item simply does not “sobi”. The statistical probability then of actually buying anything diminishes exponentially. Suppose the chance of one person buying one of ten available chairs is 10%, or one in ten. The chance of two people coming to the same conclusion is 0.1 x 0.1 = 0.01, or one in a hundred. When you add the third person, there is a one in a thousand chance (0.1 x 0.1 x 0.1) of consummating the purchase. On average, therefore, this trio of purchasers will have to look at a thousand chairs before buying anything.

I am pleased to report that Bill, Libby, and I have now looked at 853 chairs and 792 couches. We are well on our way, and should conclude our shopping before Christmas.


There are two fundamentally different ways of shopping, practiced by two fundamentally different types of shoppers. They can be categorized in a way that is analogous to the great divide in normative ethics – deontological shoppers and consequentialist shoppers.’

Deontological shoppers concentrate on the process. They believe that it is their duty to practice the art of shopping in a correct way, and they are convinced that if they do, then they are shopping in a manner that they can recommend to others. All shoppers, they believe, should follow these rules, and in so doing, the world will be a better place.

A deontological shopper does not rush. Time and contemplation are important if shopping is to be done correctly. The deonotolgoical shopper first spots the item she would like to purchase, but instead of doing so, she immediately starts looking around to see what else there is that might be cheaper, or better, or more attractive. She circles the desired object, usually in concentric counterclockwise circles, first moving outward, and then moving in steadily diminishing circles until she comes back to it the prey, having convinced herself that there are no better alternatives. At this point the consultation takes place with the shopkeeper or sales clerk. Questions are asked about price and availability and safety, and considerations given as to how the item is to be carried or delivered back to the shopper’s home. If all of these questions are satisfactorily settled, then the sale is made. The deontological shopper leaves the store convinced that the process is the right way to shop. Observing a store full of deontological shoppers would give the impression of Brownian motion, random movement with not discernable direction or purpose.

The consequentialist shopper, on the other hand, is not at all concerned with the process, and does not believe that it is his duty to shop in any prescribed way. The final outcome is what is important, and how one gets there is immaterial. The consequentialist shopper values not only the item purchased, but also seeks to minimize the time and aggravation of the shopping process. It is this balancing of the happiness of the purchase and the unhappiness of the shopping that drives the consequentialist shopper.

The consequentialis shopper enters the store with a predetermined idea of what he wants to buy. Once seeing such an item, he makes a calculation of how valuable the item is to him versus the necessity of continued shopping. If the item fits the needs and the price is right, then the net sum of pleasure is positive and the consequentialist shopper buys the item. He leaves the store confident and pleased that he has increased his own happiness by minimizing the shopping process. A store frequented by consequentialist shoppers would be fairly empty because the shoppers travel in straight lines to the intended purchase, pay, and leave following the same path.

The categorization into deontological shoppers and consequentialist shoppers is important because sometimes these two types of shoppers make the mistake of going together into a store with the objective of buying some item they both believe they want. Typically, the consequentialist shopper will spot the item, ask if it is OK, and fully expects to leave the story in a short order. The deontological shopper will have none of that because the required shopping process has not been followed. She then starts the circling procedure, leaving the consequentialist shopper befuddled, then aggravated, and finally resigned to having the required process play out. The deontological shopper sees the consequentialist shopper being bored and fidgety, and does not understand why he is not grateful to her for approaching the purchase with such care. He, on the other hand, seeks to just get the item which seems to fit the predetermined requirements, and to get out of the store as fast as possible. Interpersonal conflict is sure to follow.

It is interesting that in most cases the consequentialist and deontological shopper, given the opportunity to shop in their own way, would have reached the same conclusion – they would have purchased the same item – but the procedure they used to get there would have varied markedly in its theoretical approach. Most importantly, intelligent people will recognize the timeless conflict between these two modes of shopping and choose their shopping companions accordingly.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Greetings fom Estonia

We have set up this blog to communicate with you (both ways) and we hope you will catch up with us often. Our plan is to post occasional post cards/letters and pictures of our time here, with glimpses of the country and the people, and sometimes of ourselves as we negotiate setting up housekeeping in the Vesilind family house.

Perhaps some background for some of you who might not be familiar with the situation might be in order. After regaining independence in 1991, the goverment of Estonia decided to give back land that had been exproriated by the Soviet state, and my brother and I got back some land that used to belong to our grandfather. We decided to sell some of the land and with this money re-build the family house where both of us had lived when we were toddlers. The building of the house could not have occurred without the presence of Bill Vesilind, Priit's son, who decided to set up residence in Estonia and to oversee the construction. Bill is now married to an Estonian woman, Anni, and they have a lovely daughter, Amelia. The house that Bill built is the house where Libby and I are now living. It belongs to the extended Vesilind family and we hope that it will be used frequently by everyone.