We only spent eight hours at our new place in Setomaa yesterday, but my entire body is exhausted. It's not like I took on particularly arduous tasks. It's just the constant movement: chasing children, carrying items, opening dysfunctional barn doors.
My wife's grandmother Laine did not approve of us finding a maamaja -- country house -- in Setomaa. She recommended Tõstamaa, the coastal area of Estonia north of Pärnu where she was raised.
I really like water too, Laine, but Tõstamaa is expensive. One might pay more more a rundown outhouse on the coast of Estonia than for what we dropped on a little house with a barn, sauna, and rundown outhouse in Setomaa.
There's something else you should know. Laine's husband Karl was born in Setomaa, though he is not himself a Seto, whatever that means. Seto people are basically Orthodox Estonians from the border region with Russia that speak a funky dialect that is very close to Võru, the main differentiator probably being faith, as most Võru speakers are Lutherans.
But the reality is that our nextdoor neighbors in Setomaa are like Karl in that they aren't Setos. They don't appear to be Orthodox. And they definitely didn't speak any special Finnic dialect with us. As far as I could tell from the conversation, these people moved to Setomaa for the fresh air and country life. They were sort of like us, we of the Italian family name.
Our friends Helen and Mart who live near Obinitsa aren't Setos per se either, though Mart has deep roots in Petseri, on the other side of the border, which makes him sort of like an exile Seto who has returned, I guess. Mart seems to know so much about Seto culture, that I cannot accurately represent his wealth of knowledge. One day in a parking lot in Värska, I told him it was hästi libe -- "very slippery" -- in Estonian. "Ah, but do you know what the word "slippery" is in Seto?" he asked, as if I might now. "It's %&#%." Or something like that.
All properties in our parish have names. Our farm, built in the 1920s, originally had a Russian name, like "Nikolaikova," that was shortened to a cute Estonian name, like "Niku." The farm was later bisected into two farms, and we were encouraged to choose a new farm name, while the other property owner maintained the old name, "Niku," for their farm.
This is actually a good example of how things can become Russified or Estonianized. If it is Russified, it becomes Orthodox and is written in the Cyrillic alphabet. If it is Estonianized, it is rendered with a few extra vowels, some with diacritical marks, in the Roman alphabet. On the Estonian side of the border, there are villages with adorable names like "Lüübnitsa" and "Võmmorski."
I didn't like the existing name of our farm anyway, so Epp and I went back and forth trying to think of a new name. Epp suggested Leelo Talu, after the famous seto folk song form, but she later decided that it might seem obnoxious for some guy from New York and a lady from Viljandimaa to name their farm after the most sacred word in the seto vocabulary.
We played with other names, trying to remember the few seto words we knew. How about Ubina Talu -- "Apple Farm" -- because ubina is "apple" in seto language? No matter how hard we tried, these seto names didn't work for me. Why? Maybe because it's just a cosmetic way of appreciating the local culture. So we settled on Sassi Talu, after Epp's great-grandfather, who lived in Setomaa. I was told that this worked well because "Sass" is also a Seto name.
Then there is the discussion of what to do with the house. Most Seto interiors are spare and wooden, save for a ornate "Icon Corner" for the Virgin Mary. The Estonians I know seem to exotify the Orthodox Church. They have grown up as dull secular Lutherans, and anything with a splash of color and some incense is instantly more appealing. To me, though, these trappings of Orthodox life remind me of my own Catholic upbringing. Do I really need a mystical Orthodox portrait of the Virgin Mary on my wall? Really? Do I?
Maybe Seto folk patterns and colors would be a better route to show our appreciation for local tradition. As he is familiar with Seto architecture, Mart advises foresty greens or sky blues for the exterior trim on the house, and I am not opposed to green. I think it's a good choice. Still, I feel like a blind man, feeling his way around the southeast Estonian landscape. With some advise, the house might look great. Without it, it might look garish and out of place.
One bonus for me is that there are people in Setomaa who do speak the dialect, and in Tartu there is also a subset of people who belong to a category I call, "I have no idea what the heck this guy is saying," most of them either from Võru or Setomaa. One of them works at the place where I get my car fixed. Whenever he picks up the phone, it sounds something like, "%&%&? #%¤&! #¤#¤?" So, I figure that if I can break the Seto dialect, then I will hold the key to understanding all varieties of the Estonian language in my hand.