This weekend we drove west to visit part of my wife's family's roots in Varbla vald, a small district north of Pärnu, which is about as spread out as an Estonian village can be and still be called a village.
The reason for the visit was the annual cleaning of the graves. Martin and Anna, my wife's great-grandparents, needed their final resting places cleansed of unwanted weeds and tended to with new flowers and candles lit. Anna died in 1957. Martin passed in 1968. But the graves still look pretty good, and these two people from Varbla were remembered for one day.
The cemetery at Varbla is hilly and littered with trees and bushes. Different fashions of gravemarkers dot the sloping hillside, rotting wooden crucifixes, metallic crosses, and finally stones of all sizes and inscriptions. I once visited a cemetery in Hiiumaa where most of the markers were written in German. But here in Varbla the language of the gravemarkers was Estonian. This was interesting. Even metal crosses from 1873 said "puhka rahus" -- rest in peace.
Anna and Martin have their own stories to tell. Martin was a soldier in the Estonian Liberation War in 1918. During the land reform following independence, he received a parcel of land in Varbla where he built a house and raised his family. However, Martin's service in the Estonian Liberation War earned him a trip to a prison camp in Siberia in 1948, where he stayed until 1956.
Anna learned of her impending deportation -- for being the wife of a Estonian Liberation War veteran -- and hid in the forests with her youngest daughter for enough time that they stopped looking for her. So she did not get sent to Siberia, fortunately. However, when Martin returned in the mid-1950s, he was a changed man, and the two were never able to put their family back together. Anna died in 1957. They are buried in separate plots in the cemetery.
After we visited and cleared the graves we met up with a cousin of my wife's grandmother and visited Martin's house in Varbla for a picnic. The home no longer is in the family. It was returned to the family in the early 90s, but sold for a reasonable price during the height of inflation at that time. However, the homeowners allowed us to look at the house and have a picnic.
It was nice to see my daughter playing so close to a structure that someone further up her family tree had obviously put a lot of sweat into building. I am not sure how Martin would feel, his nerves fried from eight years in Siberia, looking down on us from wherever he is, but perhaps he'd be happy to see us eating võileib and talking about our jobs.
The older Varbla cousin pulled me aside though to let me know that the old people of Estonia have gotten a raw deal in the post-1991 period. To this generation, the 1930s were a sweet time of goodness, followed by 50 years of "palju venelasi", followed by Siim Kallas and his magic disappearing kroons act. But anyway, I had a feeling that when Edgar Savisaar pledged to raise pensions during the last campaign, he was pushing people like this womans' buttons.
That got me thinking of how political populism is actually quite sinister. Because it is wrong to promise people something you can't give them, just so you can have a lot of power and shake a lot of hands. Christ, what's wrong with politicians? Anyway, we ate our lunch and drove south.
While Varbla is spread out and beautiful, Tõstamaa is a real gem of a town. The people have a knack for painting their homes attractive colors, and everything about it -- the trees, the proximity to the beach, the old lady riding the bicycle -- it all feels good. I am not sure if I would recommend going there for the sake of it, but it is worth passing through.
Of all the parts of Estonia, I feel in my heart that the West coast speaks the most about the Estonian soul. The Estonian spirit is connected to the sea. It is from across the sea that many of the ideas that have nurtured Estonia have come, from the relatively liberal administration of the Swedish kings to the first copies of Kalevipoeg, printed in Kuopio, Finland.
When you see the sea from Pärnumaa it is mostly unthreatening. It has the capacity to flood your house, but from a distance it is a healthy color and it's white caps jive like TV static; no surf pounds the beach.
In Pärnu, you are reminded again that Estonia is not just Tallinn and Tartu and some spas in Saaremaa. About 43,000 people live in Pärnu, yet for some reason, Pärnu is a political eunuch. Oh, how I wish that a Pärnu cartel would rise up and conquer this country. But until then it's still got ice cream and great beaches.