Saturday, May 31, 2008


Every American citizen knows who George Washington was. The father of our country. The capital city was named after him. The Washington Monument. The dollar bill!

But who was Konstantin Päts?

When our family was in the displaced persons camp in Germany it was common to see in private and public places a picture of a dour looking old fat guy with medals on his chest. I remember that my father venerated him, and that his feelings were shared by the other Estonians in the camp. Konstantin Päts was someone very special to them.

Päts (the name means a small loaf of bread, attesting to his humble Estonian background) led an incredibly turbulent and interesting life. He was born in 1874 and grew up in the town of Pärnu, and then finished his law degee at Tartu University. Next he went into the Russian army and fought with the Tsar’s troops. He came back to Estonia and was elected to various positions, including the mayor of Tallinn, an honor he declined because he was not a native Russian, and he thought it better for the city to have a Russian as mayor. Then came the revolt of 1905 during which he and many others battled against the Tsar’s troops. The revolt was put down with incredible cruelty, with over 500 Estonians murdered. Päts was fortunate to escape, but was sentenced to death in absencia. Because the political situation in Russia was fluid, he was able to come back some years later and serve a shorter sentence. But he continued his revolutionary activities, and in 1918 he was one of three men who declared Estonia to be an independent nation. The next invasion of Estonia was by the Germans who wanted to set up a German protectorate for the Kaiser, and once again Päts ended up in jail, this time in a Polish prison. Finally he was able to come back, and after the War of Independence was won in 1920, he was elected the first executive of the fledgeling republic.

The Estonians had no experience in self-governance. They bickered and fought among themselves, searching for something that everyone could agree on. There was no constitution as such, and there wasn’t even an office like president. "Riigivanem" was the closest they came to that, and that simply implied that the holder of this office was the guardian of the country. They were deathly afraid of strong leadership, very much like the American forefathers feared having a king.

In the early 1930s, given the turbulent politics and the effects of the global depression, many people looked to Germany for political guidance. The fascist movement in Estonia became powerful, and these people tried to recruit Päts to be their leader. Päts instead decided to declare a state of emergency and to govern with dictatorial powers. He then dissolved the fascist party and put their leaders in jail. This ploy worked, and the years that followed, the late 1930s, was a period of stability and economic growth. But Päts did not want to be a dictator, and pushed through a new constitution, based on the Belgian model, that severely curtailed his own powers. He wanted the country to go back to being a true democracy. And true to his word, by 1938 the new constitution was in place and the country no longer had a dictator with emergency powers. It did not surprise anyone that Konstantin Päts was democratically elected the first president of Estonia. This has to be one of the few times in the history of the world where a dictator has stepped down and received the eternal gratitude and love of the country.

The boom time was cut short by the invasion of the Russian army first in 1939, and then by the full-scale takeover in 1940, culminating in the Red Terror. Päts was of course arrested and taken to Russia, where he died in a psychiatric hospital (a favorite place for political prisoners).

In 1991, after regaining independence, Estonia negotiated with Russia to bring back the remains of Konstantin Päts so that the country could provide him a proper burial. But the event was more personal than national, and his grave is starkly unimposing. A simple stone.

Outside of Estonia Konstantin Päts is basically unkown. If you Google his name, you get almost nothing in languages other than Estonian. Even in Estonia there are few portaits of him in public places, and I have yet to see one in a private house. There are no cities or states or even streets named after him, and most certainly there is no huge monument attesting to his role as the father of the country. And yet Estonia would not exist if he had not been willing to devote his own life to the young nation and had not taken unimaginable risks in its behalf. He was quite a guy. He had sisu.
-- Aarne


The history is muddled, but we do know that Villem Vesilind came to Pirita with his three sons – Ado, Otto, and Eduard. The three Vesilind boys owned a local store which Ado managed, and they had a farm that produced meat and produce that Eduard took by boat to Tallinn and sold in the city market. He also had an arrangement with many restaurants to supply them with meat and fish. In short, things went well, especially for Eduard, our grandfather, who to us was always known as “Taat”.

Taat owned some land around Pirita and called it collectively “Lauri Talu”, or “Lauri Farm”. (How he could have known that one of his great granddaughters would be named “Laurie” is a mystery.)

One of the plots of land in Lauri Talu was on a river island, immediately behind the old cloister. Here is a 1930s aerial view of Pirita. The cloister is the ruin in the middle of the picture, and the river island is to the right and down from the cloister. You can see how the island is divided up and cultivated. Taat's piece of the island was at the tip of the island at the river bend, immediately to the right of the ruins.

When the land was given back to us in 1993 we decided to protect this little piece of land from development, and thought that the best thing we could do would be to have a long-term lease with the nuns in the new convent that was just under construction. They agreed that it would be a shame to have development on the island, and accepted the deal. By the year 2002, however, the governmental structure of Pirita had matured, and it became clear that the town would never allow this island to be developed, so we decided to deed it to the town.

But the gift had two stipulations. First, that the land would always remain public park land, and second, that the park would be named after our grandfather, Eduard Vesilind. And so it is. The stone marker is there, and the curious public has worn a path from the road to the marker. I picture Taat with a bemused expression on his face if we could have told him that his old hay field was the Eduard Vesilind Park.

-- Aarne

Friday, May 30, 2008


Last year the city of Tallinn celebrated the estimated 600th anniversary of the Brotherhood of St. Maurice, or better known as The Brotherhood of the Blackheads. During Hanseatic time, some wealthy and energetic young merchants and nobles formed a fraternity of sorts, open only to unmarried young and rich Germans. They sometimes compared themselves to the court of King Arthur – a comparison that is even today used by organizations such as “The Roundtable” – a group of young men bent on socializing and networking for common benefit. The Brotherhood of Blackheads chose St. Maurice, a black officer in the Roman legion who was martyred and beatified in the year 287, as their patron saint, and thus gained the name for their organization. The Brotherhood of the Blackheads became quite wealthy and established chapters in many of the old Hanseatic capitals. Amazingly, chapters of the Brotherhood survive today in some German cities.

As the Order of the Blackheads became powerful it began to exert its influence to the detriment of those the brotherhood did not like, or those who they considered inferior, such as the Estonians. Historical records show how these young men treated others with distain, or worse, certain in the knowledge that there was no need to temper their abuses.

In Tallinn the order built a house in the Old Town that can only be described as a fraternity house. The front door is one of the most photographed doors in the world.

If you look carefully at the door, you will see a relief of St.Maurice himself.

The Blackheads house in Tallinn has been beautifully renovated, and includes a small concert hall. A few weeks ago we went there to hear a concert by the professional National Men’s Choir, which was instrumental in keeping alive the singing tradition in Estonia during the dark periods of the Russian occupation. My nephew, Bill Vesilind, sang with this group for some years before he had to quit in order to get a real job. Fatherhood will do that.

The concert was very nice, even though they tried to sing some very difficult pieces that they clearly did not enjoy. The best part of the concert was the encore when they sang a well-known Estonian song. They put their song sheets down, and just belted it out with gusto. That one song was worth the price of admission! It also occurred to me that these guys would not have made very good members of the Brotherhood of Blackheads. Or I hope not, anyway. I would hope that during the past 600 years we would have learned something about how to treat others with respect.

-- Aarne

Wednesday, May 28, 2008


After the Second World War the Russians who had occupied Estonia decided to express their gratitude to the Red Army for driving the Germans out of Estonia by designing and erecting a memorial commemorating the defeat of the Nazis. They commissioned a famous local artist to cast a bronze statue of a young Russian soldier. It is a beautiful statue, and it became a memorial for the thousands of young men who perished in the war and whose bodies were never recovered. The authorities at the time decided to place the statue next to Karli Kirik, or Carl’s Church, in the very center of Tallinn. The location is a short walk from Toompea, the seat of government and Tall Herman, an ancient tower that symbolizes free Estonia. This was the “bronze soldier” that has been so much in the news.

The trouble with this memorial is that it commemorates something that did not occur. In the summer of 1944 the tide of the war was turning and it became quite clear that Germany was losing. The Russians were gaining on the eastern front and the Americans and their allies were moving into France from the D-Day landing. The German generals recognized the perilous situation in Estonia, and decided to avoid entrapment by withdrawing German troops back toward Germany, through the other Baltic countries, and into Poland. During the withdrawal from Estonia the Germans left behind the Estonian units that had been conscripted into the German army – Estonian boys in German uniforms. These boys were joined by an irregular Estonian army formed after the Germans left -- men and boys who remembered the Red Terror of 1941 and who under no circumstances wanted Russians back on Estonian soil. It was these forces that opposed the Red Army as it thundered across the border into Estonia. The fighting in Estonia in 1944 was between Estonians and Russians, not Germans and Russians, and the Russians were in no way “liberating” Estonia from the Germans. They were engaged in a blatant invasion of a sovereign nation. The Russian boys who died in that fight were not liberators, but invaders.

But all this was not understood by the Russians who occupied Estonia in the fall of 1944. They honestly believed that they were the liberators and that they had saved Estonia from the fascists. The Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty was kept secret in the USSR and the people believed that Estonia had invited the Russians into their country in order to set up a soviet republic. The Russian boys who died fighting in Estonia, they believed, were therefore liberators.

After Estonia regained its independence in 1991 there was a strong movement to relocate the statue. To Estonians it represented all the horror and deprivation of 50 years of Soviet rule, and it glorified the very people who had helped to cause this agony. If you want to get a sense of how they felt, imagine if the Germans, after defeating the French in the first years of WW II, had erected a large monument in Paris glorifying Germans soldiers, and had set it next to the Notre Dame cathedral. Once Paris was liberated, how long would it have taken the French to destroy this monument?

The bronze Russian soldier did not share the fate of the statues of Lenin and Stalin right after Estonian re-independence because the Estonians knew what it meant to the Russians. It was their memorial to loved ones lost in war, and in the early days of independence it was not worth the dissention that its relocation would have caused. And so it stood, right next to Karli Kirik, and, ironically enough, right across the square from the newly construction “Museum of the Occupation.”

Finally last spring the major of Tallinn ran for office promising to move the statue, and a year after taking office, he had the bronze soldier relocated to the Russian military cemetery. The timing of the move was terribly insensitive on his part, coming right before the Russian May 8th WW II Victory Day that is one of the most important holidays in Russia. This served to anger the Russians both inside and outside of Estonia, resulting in large-scale rioting by Russian youths in Tallinn. After several nights of broken windows, looting, and many arrests, the riots subsided when the mayor forbade the sale of alcohol in Tallinn. The Russians then attacked Estonia in cyberspace, causing serious disruption of commerce and banking for more than a week and resulting in untold losses to the economy.

Now a year has passed and the bronze soldier is safely in a military cemetery where almost all of the graves are those of Russian soldiers who died during and after the war.

Incidentally, I enquired about an Estonian military cemetery and was told that there is no such thing, and in retrospect, this makes sense. The Russians had no time to honor the dead “fascists” they had defeated, and thus there are no cemeteries for those men who took arms against the Red Army. The Russians were the winners and they honored their own dead.

The new location of the bronze soldier is not easy to find (although the tour buses seem to find it quite easily.) We had to drive through some seedy neighborhoods to get there, but found that the statue itself had been beautifully set into its new stone foundation. The marker says simply “In honor of those who fell during the Second World War.” It is an appropriate place for the statue, honoring the dead who died in a fight the purpose of which they could not have understood.
-- Aarne

Saturday, May 24, 2008


Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote a poem about Cologne, Germany, in which he described the town as being full of “monks and bones, and pavements flanged with murderous stones”. He could just as well have been talking about the Old Town section of Tallinn. Not only are the streets paved with cobble stones, but there must be thousands of nooks and crannies that have stories. The vast majority of these stories are lost, but some come to life when you read the placards attached to the buildings.

I stumbled on to one of these the other day. It was an ordinary enough building, somewhere down on Pikk street, but the placard told me that this building was far from ordinary.

A rough translation of the placard would be: “Here was housed the offices of the soviet occupation repression headquarters. FROM HERE BEGAN, FOR THOUSANDS OF ESTONIANS, A TRAIL OF SORROW AND SUFFERING.”

In 1941, after the occupation of Estonia, the Russians decided to deport 10,000 Estonians to Siberia. A knock on the door in the middle of the night, a harrowing train ride in cattle cars, many days without food or water, and then being dumped into labor camps. Who were these people who had to be deported? The people in this building decided that they were “enemies” to the Estonian Soviet, but actually they were ordinary people who had either achieved something in life or had any grain of leadership potential. Politicians, professors, engineers, school teachers, shop owners – the list went on and on. Enemies all. But the most cruel part of this was that these people had been incriminated by their own neighbors – neighbors who either held a grudge against them, or were jealous of some achievement, or just wanted to ransack the house after the owners had been arrested. And the Soviet functionaries were under orders to fulfill quotas demanded by Stalin. So in this building the Russian bosses and the Estonian stooges decided who was to be deported and who was to stay, and this is the place where the perilous journey for many Estonians began. Of the 10,000 people deported in 1941, only a third made it back alive to Estonia. Most perished in forced labor camps, or just died of hunger.

Imagine having your parents or grandparents disappear in this way, and then walking past the building that housed the offices where their names first were put on the list. Tallinn, in the course of Estonian history, has seen many cruelties inflicted on the Estonian people. Most of these places and incidents have been forgotten in history, but I hope we don’t ever forget what went on in this building.


The old cliché is that you cannot really understand a country until you have lived there. This is true, of course, and understanding the culture, values, and societal underpinnings of a nation is very important. But this statement is also true in a far more trivial sense. Each country has its idiosyncrasies that are second nature to the natives but can cause great confusion to the visitor or immigrant. Here are some of the things you do NOT read about in the travel brochures about Estonia:

  1. When buying with money, one never hands the bills to the cashier, but places the bills on a glass tray set between the cashier and the customer. The cashier in turn puts the change in the same tray from which you then take it. I have more than once extended my empty palm towards the befuddled cashier, only to sheepishly withdraw it.
  2. The rear wheels of the carts in the grocery stores spin. Now you might think this is a minor difference, but these carts behaves irratically. They do not always go in straight lines and can turn every which way, even sideways. Not being aware of this can lead to some embarrassing collisions.
  3. The road signs are all European, and once you break the code, they are pretty easy to understand. But what the tourist books don’t tell you is that in Europe the road signs indicate what you are allowed to do, not what you are NOT allowed to do. For example, a white arrow on a blue background at an intersection tells you that you may proceed straight through the intersection. No left, right, or U-turns allowed. In America, we put up signs that tell the motorist what they cannot do, so there might be a no left turn sign, or a no U-turn sign. In Europe, if the white arrow does not show it, it is not allowed.
  4. Packaging for many items in the grocery store is of little help in identifying the product, especially if it’s not a staple. For example, Libby spent several days looking for baking power and baking soda. They are packaged differently than in the USA, and the writing is only in Estonian (and often Latvian and Lithuanian, as if these were of any use!)
  5. It is very difficult to swear in Estonian. There just are no words that have been reserved as swear words. Most bodily function, body parts, and bodily excretions which serve as ready source of swear words in America are simply not available. So most Estonians have adopted English swear words, and these seem to function just as well when the occasion demands. So don't expect to get any swear words here. You'll just have to bring them with you.
  6. Fried black bread with garlic is heavenly. It is the best thing on the menu. You rub the crisp fried bread with the clove of garlic and enjoy. Why do the guide books not tell you that?
  7. English is spoken widely in Tallinn by the educated and those whose job it is to sell things. But you have to be prepared to encounter people who know absolutely no English. And if you drive out of Tallinn the chances of finding English speaking people will be minimal.
  8. If you take mass transit (which is excellent, by the way) you have to be aware that having a ticket is not enough. You have to validate it using a little punch or electric stamp on the bus. Also, most bus drivers do not want to waste time selling you a ticket. If you don’t have one, they will just tell you to forget it. This is well and good unless you get caught by the transit police. Best to get a ticket at any kiosk.
  9. There are no six-packs of beer. This is very surprising for a country that prides itself on producing good beer and consuming it at an impressive rate. At the grocery store you buy all bottles separately, or in cases of 24. Come to think of it, maybe it’s a 24-bottle six-pack!
  10. It may have been invented in America, but the Estonians have taken the notion of the backyard barbecue to its logical conclusion. It’s called a “grill” in Estonian, and it involves a whole evening of outside eating, drinking, and camaraderie. The favorite meat is something called Šešlock, which is pork marinated in various solvents such as yogurt or wine sauce. To be invited to a “grill” during the long summer evenings is as nice as it gets.
-- Aarne

Sunday, May 11, 2008


Winston Churchill once said that America and England are one people, separated by a common language. The “one people” is true not only because of the language, but perhaps more importantly, because of shared values.

There is also a very special relationship between Estonia and Finland. We are one people, but in this case we are separated by the Gulf of Finland and an almost common language. When the Finno-Ugry tribes (the Ugry refers to the Magyars, or Hungarians) moved north they settled in diverse locations, and today, in addition to Finnish and Estonian, there are at least a dozen other distinct Finno-Ugry languages in the region to the east of Finland. Some of these languages are tiny enclaves, with a distinct language spoken by a single village. These languages, along with Finnish and Estonian, are so strange that they are not even in the Indo-European language group. Other than some modern words, there is no similarity whatever between the Finno-Ugry languages and all the other European languages.

Historically, Finland has also been a battleground for the wars between Sweden and Russia, and has also struggled for survival as a culture and as a nation. The years when Sweden controlled Finland were, as they were in Estonia, the “good times”, and those years under Russian control were the years of deprivation and repression. Finland finally achieved independence in 1917 when a weakened Russia was happy to not have Finland to worry about.

In 1939 the infamous Ribbentrop-Molotov treaty placed both Finland and Estonia in the Russian “sphere of influence”, and the Russians decided to occupy both countries. Unlike the Estonians, the Finns decided to fight. It was a brave effort. At first, during what became known as the Winter War, they threw back the mighty Red Army. Over 3000 Estonian young men went to Finland and volunteered to fight alongside the Finns (just as thousands of Finns had come to Estonia to fight alongside the Estonians during the War of Independence in 1918.) But the effort by the Finns was doomed, and they finally had to sign a peace treaty that gave Russia the province of Karelia, fully 1/10 of the country. The Finns have never forgotten that, and many still look toward the day when Karelia can again be Finnish.

When Estonia regained its independence in 1991, the support from Finland was crucial in the early years. This support was both official, through the government, and unofficial, from people to people. Most importantly, the Finns discovered that alcohol in newly independent Estonia was taxed at a very low rate and thus was incredibly cheap compared to the prices they had to pay in Finland, and they started to come over in droves. The ferries were full, and more were built to accommodate the weekend traffic. It was typical to see a Finn, stone drunk, stagger off the ferry in Helsinki, pushing a dolly with three cases of Saku (a very fine Estonian beer). The Finns came, and they spent, and their coming over provided the much-needed hard currency to bolster the free economy. In fact, during the early 1990s, the money Finns spent in Estonia represented fully 5% of the total Gross National Product of Estonia.

Since those days, the price of alcohol has increased, and the prices of other goods like hotels and restaurants has leveled out to European standards, so there is less reason for Finns to come. And yet they come, thousands at a time traipsing off the ferries, spending a day or two walking around Old Town, basking in the sun at cafes, and spending their money.

The other day I was sitting at an outside café when three Finnish ladies came in and sat down. The young waitress went over and one of the women told her what she wanted, in Finnish. The waitress had no trouble understanding her, first because what she said was close enough to Estonian to be understood (even I could make it out) but also because the waitress, as with most workers in the restaurants and Old Town shops, spoke enough Finnish to get along. It occurred to me that one of the reasons the Finns enjoy coming to Tallinn is that this may be the only city in the world where they can go and still get along in their native tongue.

The ubiquitous presence of the Finns in Estonia has, as you would suspect, provided fodder for ethnic jokes. Estonians joke about the Russians, but often this humor has a hard edge, and they joke about the Latvians, but nobody knows who they are so something is lost in the telling, but it is wonderful to be able to poke fun at our big brother to the north. For example:

The Finns are fortunate. They get to enjoy a joke three times. First when they hear the joke, second when the repeat the joke to someone else, and third when someone explains it to them.

An Estonian lady once told me that during the Soviet time there was a clear distinction made between the Estonians, who craved to maintain their national identity, and those who believed they were Russians (or at the very least, certainly not Estonians.) The Estonians, she said, were “meie inimesed”, or literally, “our people.” Most Estonians believe that the Finns, with all their foibles, are also “our people.” They have just had the misfortune to have been born in Finland.


Saturday, May 10, 2008


We were sitting in a small restaurant beside the castle wall as the late evening sun played on the stones. Libby had a glass of what surely must have been a mediocre house wine and said that she had read where the quality of the wine is often judged to be high when it is consumed in a congenial atmosphere. It’s the ambiance, she suggested, that makes the wine.

After dinner we went to hear the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir present works from both the Medieval past as well as works by the contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, performed in the cathedral within the Haapsalu castle. This castle, on the western coast of Estonia, has been attacked and destroyed and rebuilt and destroyed again and again by the Swedes, the Danes, and the Russians. In 1715 Peter the Great was so afraid that the Estonians and Swedes would rebuild the fort that when he finally captured it, he decimated the fortress and destroyed the town. During the early 18th century only about 100 people lived in Haapsalu, but then the wide beach and the warm waters began to draw the rich and the powerful from St. Petersburg, and Haapsalu became a major tourist resort. Peter Tchaikovsky spent several summers there and even composed a little-known piece about Haapsalu.

Today the remains of the fortress are once again being restored, with the most impressive effort being the reconstruction of the bishoptic cathedral. In the days when the cathedral was first built, nobody could of course have predicted what the acoustics of the place would be like, but in this case, they were lucky. The acoustics are superb. You can hear a pin drop, and more importantly, you can hear the clarity and beauty of a human voice like nowhere else. It is within this place, within this context, that the works of Arvo Pärt must be heard to be appreciated. The quality of last night’s performance left us breathless.

But why Pärt, in this place? Some of you might not be familiar with his music. He has led an interesting life. Born in 1935, he was schooled in Estonia and then received most of his musical training at the Tallinn Conservatory. He started composing at a time when composers in the Soviet Union needed to tow the party line, but from the very start he was out of step with the party. As a part of his search for deeper meaning in life, he converted to the Russian Orthodox faith at a time when belonging to any church was frowned upon, and then began to write religious pieces that received international acclaim, all the while appeasing the political critics by occasionally knocking off a stock piece in praise of communism. Today his works are widely performed, and there is even an Arvo Pärt festival in Oregon every year. Most of his works are choral, usually a capella, although his “Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten” is a brilliant piece of orchestration for strings and bells that was used by Michael Moore in the film Farenheit 9/11 as the background music for the sequence showing the aftermath of the September 11th attack on New York City.

The musical technique Pärt developed, and for which he is most famous, is similar to the pealing of bells. When a bell is rung, the sound of the bell lingers for a time. If then other bells at different tones are rung, the effect is to sound a chord. Ringing bells in sequence tuned at C, E, G, for example, will give you a C major chord, but only as long as you still hear the C while the E and G are being rung. As soon as the C sound disappears, there is an opportunity to ring something else that will sound with the E and G which are still in the air, and so on. The technique requires that a note that has been sung or played continues to be in the consciousness of the listener.

And this is why the cathedral of the Haapsalu castle was the place to hear Pärt. It almost seemed, as Libby pointed out, that the walls themselves were singing. It would be difficult if not impossible to listen to the same music within any other hall and appreciate it as much as we did. It was the ambiance that made all the difference.


Friday, May 9, 2008


Tallinn was one of the northern outposts of the Hanseatic League, an alliance of trading guilds that held a monopoly in the Baltic region during the 13th to the 17th century. Not unlike the modern European Union, cities could join the League and then put their commercial activities under the League control. Tallinn joined the League in 1285 and became a prosperous trade center. Much of the architecture in the Old Town dates from the Hansa years.

One of the problems with Hansa, as with today’s Europe, was that not all of the people spoke the same language. In addition, the vast majority of people could not read or write. Wealthy merchants employed professional “writers” who would not only look after the books but would also correspond with their counterparts in other cities.

Shop owners within a Hansa city had a problem with how to advertise their wares. If people spoke diverse languages and if most of them could not even read, how would the shopkeepers tell them what was for sale? The solution was to establish a series of icons, or clever wrought iron signs, that would have universal meaning. In Tallinn, some of these (or at least their modern replicas) remain. For example, a coffee house might be advertised with a metal pot.

Or an optometrist shop might have a picture of spectacles.

Or the baker might have a kringel dangling from the building.

Sometimes other symbols, like flags, might be used as a part of the sign, such as a metal Danish flag advertising the Danish Cultural Association.

Modern adaptations have included a sign for a puppet theater:

and (this is great!) for lingerie,

or for a stip club.

Sometimes the modern signs are intentionally mysterious, such as the one advertising a shop run by artisans.

The most obnoxious Hansa sign, however, is right inside the Old Town, and most Estonians are not loving it.

-- Aarne

Wednesday, May 7, 2008


So we’re on the big green bus en route to a concert in Tallinn. Now that my badly stubbed toe is better, I’m wearing my dress-up shoes and feeling good! On the bus I always stand near a door, so that I don’t have to work my way through a crowd when it’s time to get off. Like subway doors, these doors in the back of the bus close automatically.

But this time we’re standing near the rear door because we haven’t yet figured out how to get the little ticket-punching gadget to actually punch the required holes in our tickets. Even worse, we begin to giggle about our ineptness. The driver probably has not noticed us, but all the other passengers are watching to see if we’ll figure out the little gadget attached to the handrail. Nobody offers to help. I imagine them all thinking, “If Americans can’t figure out how to ride a bus, what are they doing in Iraq?” By observing other people getting on the bus, I finally figure out that you have to pull the green button toward you; the whole device is simply mechanical, not electronic. (This tip is not found in your guidebooks to Estonia.) Surely the rest of the evening will go well.

The concert is to be at the Tallinn Methodist Church, located along the bus route. But we’re not sure if the bus will stop right at the church. So we decide to get off before the bus might pass the church; we’ll walk the rest of the way. As we expect, the bus stops well before we get to the church. Aarne steps off first, in order to help me down. Just then the bus door closes between us. Smack. We have just a moment to stare at each other through the window before the bus pulls away with me on it. At least my ticket is properly punched.

Immediately I have a flashback to seventh grade angst—everyone is watching me to see what I’ll do next. So I laugh. Of course I’m OK. No, I don’t speak Estonian. No, I don’t know where this bus is stopping next. But I’m exuding OK-ness. I wonder if Aarne is worried.

There goes the church; my bus and I are speeding right past it.

After another half mile, the bus stops. I’m out! I figure I have just enough time to limp back as fast as I can in my dress-up shoes with my toe that’s beginning to ache again.

Finally, as I’m just half a block from the church, I see Aarne walking as fast as he can from the other direction. I limp faster. I wave. It’s suddenly romantic and funny; I’m thinking we should do this more often.

Now here’s the kicker. We get inside this weird looking 1980s interpretation of a modern church. I mean it’s nothing like the Methodist church in Beaver, Pennsylvania, which is the last Methodist church I’ve been in. This church is imaginative in a 1980s kind of way. Instead of a tower or steeple set on top of a boxy sanctuary, this sanctuary IS the inside of a steeple. So, when you face forward, it’s like being inside a bright white teepee with a supersized cross fixed to the very tilted teepee wall. (For those of you who know, love, and own garden gnomes, imagine being inside the hat of a gnome.) Not wanting to sit directly under this heavy-looking cross, we find good seats behind a short, young couple.

We know nothing in advance about this composer, Tõnu Kõrvits, or his piece—Kreegi vihik (2007). The performers, however, are the famous Eesti Filharmoonia Kammerkoor (Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir.) For this concert the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra will play with the 28-member choir. When in Tallinn, the choir performs regularly in this church, because the acoustics enhance the choir’s amazingly clear tone. Throughout this summer, the choir will travel around Estonia and its islands to sing in small, old village chapels—quite a different sort of venue. Choruses and choirs are more than music in Estonia; as shown in the documentary, The Singing Revolution, much energy for Estonian resistance to occupation and for independence came from national song festivals in the 1980s. So tonight we will hear how a young composer builds on this strong choral tradition.

Silence. The choir begins, each note clear like bells ringing, rising into the space of the steeple. The impression is of vertical sound. Then the orchestra enters in a different musical direction—horizontal, right at us. The choir and orchestra meet and separate thematically throughout the entire piece. It’s as if two individual ideas play off each other, moving toward and away from each other. It’s like water moving forward and then coming back upon itself in eddies. It’s the most beautiful, interesting, original music I’ve heard in so long. We are entranced.

The applause is warm, a standing ovation, and suddenly the young man in front of us is beckoned to the front. He is the composer! Good seats indeed.

Afterward I realize that there was no better way for us to arrive at the concert than the way we did…from different directions. And Aarne points out that, in the program notes, the composer calls himself a “modern romantic.”




Monday, May 5, 2008


The objective was to clean up Estonia. The second objective was to get into the Guinness Book of World Records as having had the largest one-day clean up of trash and rubbish ever recorded. Both objectives were achieved.

The program was called “Teeme ära!” or roughly “Let’s do it!”, and it was a pure volunteer effort by a bunch of kids who thought they could organize the entire country to clean up fifty years of trash that had been dumped into the woods and along the roads. At latest count, there were about 50,000 people involved, and they collected over 8000 tonnes of trash. Let those numbers sink in a bit. 8000 tonnes is 8,000,000 kilograms, or 20,000,000 pounds of trash. And the 50,000 people who showed up to spend a pleasant Saturday immersed in other people’s refuse would be the same as 12,000,000 people showing up for a trash collection in the United States. Imagine the entire city of New York, out picking up and bagging rubbish. The effort in Estonia was just astounding.

The project was organized by some geeks who first located the major problem areas on Google maps and then calculated where the trash should be taken, all of this in order to optimize the collection. The maps were put on their web site and we downloaded our assignments before we went on Saturday.

We went with Andres and Triin (above), and their two-year-old Liisu whose heart was in it but who did not contribute very much, and were assigned to clean up the open space on the Pirita River, right across from our house. This was great, because I had wanted to clean this place up anyway, and now I was getting a lot of help. So we filled many plastic bags, put them in the car and took them to the flag station where they were transferred to dump trucks. I thought I was finished, but Andres, in his enthusiasm, volunteered to have us give another team a hand because they were having difficulty finishing cleaning up their assigned location.

This turned out to be private dump, with the age of trash going back at least 20 years. I would have thrown up my hands and called in a front end loader, but the Estonians dove right in, and by 4 o’clock we had the place looking pretty good. There were, I believe, another 20 years of trash under where we stopped, but at least now it looked presentable. We all repaired to the gathering point where we were treated to a bowl of some amazingly good pea soup.

As a reward, we all got buttons, which said “Tegeja” on them, or “Doer”. We went out there and we did it. It was an amazing day that we will not soon forget. The power of volunteers, harnessed and organized to achieve a good end, is impressive indeed.


I have not been blogging lately because I have been busy trying to get the first draft of a book done. It’s on Estonian humor. You might remember a series of jokes about short books, like “What Men Know About Women” and “Italian War Heroes.” There are those who would add to this list, “Estonian Humor”. Many believe that Estonians are just not funny people. They believe that we Estonians are serious, taciturn, and reserved, and these descriptors are for the most part accurate. But underneath this façade you will find Estonians to be warm, generous, and friendly. And funny. But their humor is different and does not appeal to everyone. Often it is uniquely Estonian and does not travel well to other ethnic groups.

The title of this book, “Estonian Jokes”, could have two different meanings. First, an Estonian joke may be a joke told by others about Estonians, and I admit that often the Estonian offers a tempting target for such jokes. The second meaning of “Estonian Jokes” is that this is a collection of jokes told by Estonians. The truth is that in the case of this book, both of these meanings apply. These are jokes told by Estonians about Estonians. Sometimes they are cutting, especially when they skewer some of the more unattractive characteristics of Estonians, but mostly they are self-deprecating and funny to the very people who are being made fun of.

I started this short book about Estonian humor believing that the Estonian character is open to humor and that there exist jokes that can define that character. What I found is that there are essentially three different types of Estonian jokes, mirroring the often tragic national history.

Estonians have lived in present-day Estonia for at least a millennium. Their language is part of the Finno-Ugri family, with Finnish being the closest relative. Since the 1500s the region of Estonia has been conquered and overrun many times by Germans, Danes, Swedes, and Russians. The miracle is that Estonia continues to exist as a unique culture. The uniqueness of the culture is defined in many ways, including an ethnic humor, and it is this character that I have tried to capture in this book.

The first broad epoch in Estonian history I call Old Estonia, and this includes the period of subjugation to German nobility and the Russian Tsar, which ended with the war for independence and eventual establishment of the free republic of Estonia in 1918. This independence lasted only a short 20 years before the Russians once again invaded. I define the second epoch in Estonian history as the Soviet Time, beginning about 1939 with the occupation of Estonia, and ending in 1991 with the (re)declaration of independence. The third epoch in this book is the modern time, or New Estonia.

Here are a few samples of the jokes I have collected, two from each category:

Old Estonia

An old Estonian is driving to his summer home for the season and spies a dead crow on the road.
“This crow might be of some use,” he thinks and puts the dead bird into the trunk of his car.
In the fall the old Estonian is driving back from his summer home and he stops at the very same place, takes the dead crow out of the trunk and lays it on the road.
“Ahh, I didn’t need it after all,” he says to himself.

A poor talumees (farmer) had a single cow to sustain his family. During a severe thunderstorm, lightning struck and killed the cow. The poor man was absolutely distraught. He was on his knees, wailing and moaning in the rain and calling for God's justice.
God felt so sorry for the man that he appeared to him, apologized for the "friendly fire" and asked what He could do to make amends.
The farmer thought about the offer and replied:
"Kill my neighbor’s cow as well!"

Soviet Time

A Soviet bureaucrat complained to his superior, “I hear on the radio that we’re producing a lot of meat, milk, and butter. Yet my refrigerator is always empty. What shall I do?”
His superior answered, “Plug your refrigerator directly into your radio.”

When the general election took place, the workers and employees were led to the polls by Communist activists who handed them envelopes to be deposited in the ballot box. One worker who was more curious than the others opened his envelope and began to examine the ballot slip.
“What are you doing there?” shouted the activist.
“I’d just like to find out who I am voting for,” the worker replied.
“You confounded fool – don’t you know that this is a secret ballot?”

New Estonia

An American, a Russian, and an Estonian are riding in the same compartment in a train. The American takes out a pack of cigarettes, offers one to the others, and then throws the rest of the pack out the window.
“What did you do that for?” exclaim both the Russian and the Estonian.
“Ah, in America we have so many cigarettes…,” replies the American.
After a while the Russian takes out a bottle of vodka, offers it all around, and then throws the rest of the vodka out the window.
“What did you do that for?” ask the American and the Estonian.
“Oh, in Russia, we have so much vodka…,” replies the Russian.
Time goes by, and the Estonian sits in deep thought.
Finally he throws the Russian out the window.

After having dug to a depth of 100 meters last year, Scottish scientists found traces of copper wire dating back 1000 years and came to the conclusion that their ancestors already had a telephone network more than 1000 years ago. Not to be outdone by the Scots, in the weeks that followed, English scientists dug to a depth of 200 meters, and shortly after, headlines in the newspapers read, “English archaeologists have found traces of 2000 year old fibre-optic cable and have concluded that their ancestors already had an advanced high-tech digital communications network a thousand years earlier than the Scots.” One week later, Estonian newspapers reported the following: “After digging as deep as 5000 meters in Narva, Estonian scientists have found absolutely nothing. They, therefore, have concluded that 5,000 years ago, Estonia's inhabitants were already using wireless technology.”

I have used only one criterion for choosing jokes for this book, and that is whether or not I thought they were funny. I admit this unabashedly, without apology. If any other person would have written a book on humor they would no doubt have chosen different jokes, for humor is highly personal. But my hope is that you will share at least some of my admittedly warped sense of humor and conclude that yes, once in a while, Estonians can be funny.