esmaspäev, september 29, 2008

hetk viljandis

My wife was born 34 years ago in the city of Viljandi in south Estonia -- at least, that's how her mom and dad remembered it. According to the Estonian state, though, she's a child of Tallinn.

Her parents were both registered as students in Tallinn at that time, and so the infant Epp was "born" in Tallinn. To this day, she perpetuates this myth for the sake of bureaucratic continuity. But we know the truth, and the truth is that she is from Viljandi.

For this reason, and others, Viljandi is part of our lives. We go there often, but until recently I had few opportunities to stretch my legs and see the sights. In the past, a trip to Viljandi typically entailed a visit to a hardware store or stopping to get gas. The castle ruins could always wait, there were things to do, places to be on time.

This time was different. Epp was invited to speak to a gathering of librarians from Viljandi county. Young and old, introvert and extrovert, they filled the conference room of the very modern Viljandi library to talk about books. My duty was to do anything I wanted with our daughter Anna for an hour and a half. The director of the library recommended the children's area of the library, but I had something else in mind. I wanted to see the castle ruins.

It was a gorgeous fall morning in Viljandi as Anna and I made our way towards St. John's Church. The streets were alive with people; Viljandi residents are well dressed yet exude normalcy, unlike the dressed-for-success Tallinners. Their goals are quite sane -- visit the post office, go to the bank, meet a friend for coffee. There are few well-heeled parliamentarians to be found in Viljandi and the local academies specialize in folk music and theater. Not a bad place to be.

The first time I visited Viljandi was in the winter of 2003. It was cold and the sidewalks were thick with black ice. I remember seeing a poster for the film Nimed Marmortahvlil -- Names in Marble -- about the Estonian War of Independence. Some teenage thespian had drawn a heart around one of the soldiers on the poster and written "So beautiful" in Estonian on his face. It seemed so normal. I remember feeling that I was in the heart of Estonia; that the foreign world could never intrude on this place; that everything here was as it was supposed to be.

In recent years my brother-in-law Priit, also born in Viljandi (though I am unsure of his "official" place of birth), found himself back in the city of his birth. Of all the people I know, Priit has held the most cool-sounding jobs. At one point, he worked in a pillow company, packing boxes of pillows.

He later moved on to a matchbox company, putting matches in boxes. I could imagine these jobs getting really boring, but there is something about them that reminds me of Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times. I can imagine poor Priit going to bed after a trip to the pub in Viljandi, haunted by images of pillows.

For some time, Priit lived in one of those rambling wooden apartment houses {see above} that still exist in Viljandi, where the interior looks like something out of a surrealist painting. The staircases were crooked, as were the floors. One had the feeling that should a bird land on the wrong side of the house the whole thing could come crumbling down. But it's still there. That's Estonian craftsmanship for you!

These memories and more flashed before my eyes as I passed the Jaani Kirik, an inviting Lutheran church, towards the first stop on the trail that would take me to the castle ruins -- a monument to General Johan Laidoner. Laidoner was commander-in-chief of the Estonian armed forces during the war of independence and also during the rule of President Konstantin Päts from 1934 to 1940.

The Estonians I know have mixed feelings about Laidoner because of his role in Päts' 1934 coup as well as some of the non-transparent foreign policy decisions that were taken in 1939 and 1940. Following the Soviet takeover, Laidoner was deported to the USSR. He died in a psychiatric hospital in Vladimir oblast in 1953, in the same region where former PACE President Rene van der Linden is rumored to have real estate investments, coincidentally. I wonder how I will ever manage to explain all this to my children. I guess they'll learn about it the same way I did.

Moving ahead, we finally came to the castle ruins.

Three hills feature the ruins of Viljandi Castle which was constructed in the 13th century and destroyed in the 17th century during conflicts between Poland and Sweden. I thought the ruins would be a fun-for-the-whole-family kind of place, where little one-year-old girls could run wild. That is not the case. The stoney paths lead around the crest of three steep hills overlooking Lake Viljandi. The scenery is stunning, especially in autumn, with the shimmering lake and forests of oranges and yellows and greens swaying in the wind below. One does not get views like this in Estonia often.

I passed by polite Viljandi residents who sat on benches chatting and admiring the view. If I lived in Viljandi, I would eat lunch up there every day. The signs that curate the ruins were available in three languages -- Estonian, English, and German. Of all Estonian cities, Viljandi is among the more "German-feeling" and I have encountered several German tourists here in the past, perhaps in town to visit the local kondiitriäri and relive their former glory.

I was almost certain that one of Epp's ancestors had stood on these very castle walls in the past, ready to dump a vat of boiling oil down on an army of fierce intruders. I could sense the sheer horror that the walls of Viljandi fortress must have witnessed. I was very glad that I was visiting the ruins in the present day with my trusty mobile phone at my side to call the librarians of Viljandi county to come to our defense if we needed it.

There are a number of bridges connecting the hills of the castle ruins, and I had to strap Anna into her stroller so that she didn't accidentally careen off one of the larger bridge's sides. In my direction came a horde of school children. Knowing the Estonian language really has its benefits. You can understand all the mean things the kids are saying to one another. The sole female teacher impressively herded the children along, and even had some of them go back onto the bridge so she could take a picture of them with her digital camera.

On the way back to town, I stopped in the Jaani Kirik. I like Lutheran churches. They are plain and peaceful, and I think the church in Viljandi is among the better lit. Inside, I passed a blond woman and child who made eye contact with us to an extent that is unusual in Estonia. I ignored her and took Anna around the church while the woman convinced the caretaker to take a photo of her and her daughter with the altar in the background. For some reason, I thought churches were off limits for photography, but when it comes to photography in Estonia, nothing is off limits.

After they had their portrait taken the stranger approached me and asked how old my daughter was. The mathematical wheels creaked slowly in my brain. What month was it? September. She was born when? In July. 12 months plus two months is what? Ok, 14 months. This inspired some confidence. "14 months," I replied in Estonian. She smiled and told me that her daughter Sofia was 13 months. This was really weird; an Estonian stranger approaching me to talk about her child? It must have been the positive vibrations of Viljandi's Jaani Kirik.

On the way out of the church, I was so overcome by good feelings that I even said a prayer and, after concentrating really hard, I had a warm shiver of positivity, as if the prayer had been heard, the letter had been received, or the blog post published successfully.

Back at the library, the directors presented us with as much as we could eat and drink. Then one presented Anna with a little wooden toy -- a figurine in traditional Viljandi clothing -- a long black coat and hat -- holding a tiny wooden oar. "It's the Viljandi boat man," she said. I held it out in front of Anna: "This," I said, "Is your great-great-great-great-great grandfather." The library director laughed and poured herself another cup of coffee.

6 kommentaari:

Anonüümne ütles ...

Tead, Justin, sa panid mind praegu Viljandi järele igatsema. Olen juba kuu aega Šotimaal olnud, kuigi peaksin praegu hoopis sealses akadeemias õppima... Viljandi on tõesti üks meeletult armas paik ja sa suutsid oma looga selle paiga häid hetki tabada. Aitäh!

Anonüümne ütles ...

I went to the Viljandi folk a couple of years ago and like two dollars procured 7 coffees, 10 pastries and a pack of gum... And mud and drunk people. were there. Not procured by two dollars.

LPR ütles ...

Oh, yes they were. You get what you pay for.

Try MET and you are sure to get a completely different package.

Anonüümne ütles ...
Autor on selle kommentaari eemaldanud.
Anonüümne ütles ...

And we have reached an impasse.....

Unknown ütles ...

I have been to Viljandi for several times, last time this summer during the Viljandi Folk Festival, which we truly enjoyed, by the way :)...

Most remarkable are the picturesque old houses close to the Viljandi lake - situated on the cliffs of the former castle mountain and surrounded by high broad leaved trees - it was like a scene from a fairy-tale. And my child looked at these houses and said - we could move to Viljandi, right?!