teisipäev, september 08, 2009


How to get between points A and B in Estonia? If you are going from Tartu to Tallinn or vice versa, it's easy; just take the Tallinna-Tartu maantee, that heavy-traffic ridden, accident-inviting highway to hell. But if you are traveling from Tartu to, say, Haapsalu, you must be more creative.

As driver and lead navigator for the family, finding a relatively straight route from one of these locations to the other was not easy. Tartu, the home of Estonia's oldest university and city of good thoughts, sits almost 200 kilometers (120 miles) directly southeast from Haapsalu, the whimsical seaside retreat of Ilon Wikland and Peter Tchaikovsky.

But there's no Tartu-Haapsalu road. And I refused to do something so counterintuitive as to make the L-shaped drive west to Pärnu and then north to Haapsalu. No, I was going to drive that damn diagonal straight up to Põhjamaade Veneetsia ("the Nordic Venice" as Haapsalu is called) even if I had to plow through fields or burst through buildings, like Burt Reynolds and Dom DeLuise in Cannonball Run.

The course I plotted went north past Poltsamaa, southwest at Imavere (pop. 501) to Kabala, then north to Türi. Not like one could tell the difference between any of these places; they were covered by the same seas of fields and dense forests. At Türi, we headed northwest to Rapla, then southwest to Märjamaa, before turning northwest to Koluvere (pop. 404), where we encountered the first sign for Haapsalu. From Koluvere, we headed north to Risti, where we made a final turn west and burned the last 33 km to Haapsalu.

Later when we were having dinner with the film producer who my wife was dispatched to interview, she asked which way we came.

"We took an unusual route," Epp told her. "We didn't use any of the main highways."

"Let me guess," said the producer. "You took the Tartu-Imavere-Kabala-Türi-Rapla-Märjamaa-Koluvere-Risti-Haapsalu route."

We looked at each other and realized we weren't the only creative navigators in Estonia. It was comforting to know that other Estonians who tackled the difficult issue of getting from point A to point B in a country routinely describes as "tiny" had settled on a similar course.


I was happy to zigzag across Estonia because, aside from the elusive Narva, Rapla and Märjamaa were two of the few places in Estonia I had yet to visit. Rapla and Märjamaa. What to expect from this duo? More of the same.

After you've visited most of Estonia, you come to understand what an Estonian town or city is made of. Most of them are centered around some body of water -- be it a silty river or manicured lake or a broad harbor. The rest invariably grew up like shantytowns around a castle or a railroad stop. Most city streets in Eesti are woven around one heavenly object: a sober-white Lutheran Church that either dates back to or is built on top of the ruins of a place of worship established shortly after the Teutonic conquest in the 13th century.

Beyond the church are main commercial streets dotted with a variety of dwellings. The oldest date back to the 18th century as most of Estonia was trashed during the Great Northern War between Sweden and Russia, while the youngest are postmodern erector sets of metal and glass that would be at home in any city in northern Europe where they sell stuff you really need, like designer jeans.

Outside the city center, you'll find the brightly-lit evidence of Estonia's love of consumer goods: supermarkets with names like Säästumarket, Konsum, and Selver; home-improvement oases dubbed Bauhof and Ehitus ABC. Beyond them lie the big box apartment blocks of the Soviet era, the valley of the average Estonian. These Khruschevka pueblos may have once beamed with modernity upon move-in day back in '62, but today they look worn, and, when you have that many owners living in the same residence, most of them uppity individualistic Estonians who will go to war over whether to paint the front door red or green, then it takes time to settle on a scheme for renovations.

And that's Estonia. That's Rapla. That's Märjamaa, though I admit I was attracted to Märjamaa's colorful main street with its wooden homes styled in orange and red and blue. It seemed like a special, secret place. A good setting for a great Estonian novel in the vein of Anton Hansen Tammsaare, Oskar Luts, or Andrus Kivirähk.

What can you tell about the Estonian people from a car window? Preciously little, other than they go about their business as if nobody was watching. You forget that most people on Earth remain true to the communities into which they were born. The Raplakad and Märjamaalased are no exceptions. Remember that Maria Tomson, the oldest Estonian on record, spent all of her 112 years between 1853 and 1965 in a small parish in Viljandi county. Century in and century out in, for many Estonians, life is still centered on the Kinder, Kirche, Küche, and Konsum.


Haapsalu, though, is the jewel of them all. It was only my second time there, and already the city moves with me like an old pair of pants. Imagine, ornately decorated, candy-colored homes built around a charming old castle with a face to the islands and the sea. When writers and musicians and handicraft merchants need to get the hell out of the figurative Dodge City, wherever it may be, they pack their bags and head to Haapsalu for a little R&R.

The producers' house shines as much as a home meant to revive the styles of the 1930s can. With its soft wooden floors, rolling couches, and grand maritime views, one hesitates to even disturb a book from one of the sturdy shelves, nevermind throw a wild house party where half of Estonia and a quarter of Finland docks in the front yard, gets smashed, and then violates the place.

All Estonian conversations flow to the question of languages. "Estonian is difficult." "It is." "Do you know any Russian?" "Izvenitsa. Zat knies." Then there's that moment when you tell them you've been studying Swedish. Speakers of all big European languages turn their heads when you confess that your German is nonexistent, but Jonas bakar bröd, Emil spelar musik, och Anna pratar i telefon.

In the '30s, Haapsalu used to be known as the 'capital of the Estonian Swedes.' Most of them have joined the 9 million Swedes in the mother country, and and most of those Swedes prefer not to speak their tongue in the company of foreigners. But I like svensk anyway. In my dreams, I am getting into arguments with Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt on his blog. I'm not there yet, but it could happen. It's true. The 'Languages' section of my CV renders me entirely useless. Except for the English, of course.

The producer, a slender former model in her early 40s, is part Russian, part Estonian. She still has a big toe permanently in Moscow. But she fits in here. It comes naturally. Haapsalu, for all its Scandinavian ambiance, has a distinct tsarist touch. You can walk by the house where Peter "the Great" stayed in 1715. Alexander Gorchakov, state chancellor of Russia from 1867 to 1883, was born here in 1798. It's a shame the Russians' leaders are such shitheads, I think to myself as I make my way up a verdant lane in the old city center. They would really enjoy this place.

Could you imagine? Dmitri Medvedev takes an armored train to the old tsarist-era Haapsalu train station where he is met by Toomas Hendrik Ilves in full mulgi regalia. The duo are transported via horse-draw carriage to a local bakery where they are served delicious moskva sai pastries fresh from the oven. From there, the lynx and the bear don old-fashioned swimming trunks for a photo-op and dip at Aafrika Beach before embarking on a public tour of Gorkachov's birthplace, Peter's cottage, and Tchaikovsky's bench. Medvedev compliments the Estonians on their tidy streets and hospitality, while Ilves emulates Halonen and manages to construct some random historical fact into a symbol of good neighborly relations, spicing it up with a Mihhail Veller quote.

But it doesn't happen. Some of the Russians still haven't figured out that, though Peter slept there, Haapsalu isn't 'ancient Russian land.' Some of the Estonians are still walking around with their fists in their pockets like an oppressed imperial minority, rather than the overwhelming majority and political masters of the land that bears their name. What a shame, I shake my head and pass an orchard. There are apples on the ground and autumn is in the air. A shame.


Where is eternity? Some people seem to have found it. But my spirit is restless. It won't let me be. After just a week and a half in Tartu, I had to get out. The same streets, the same river, the same baskets on sale at Jysk. Do you know what song they were playing there in Eedeni Keskus? "More than a Woman," the Bee Gees' 1978 hit. That song has been following me all through my life. Even when I was a little loaf of bread in nappies, they were playing that song at the supermarket. I can't get away from it. Some things are fixed. It's just the Bee Gees and me, from here until the end of time.

But Tartu. It's endearing, but I'm restless. I've got to keep moving. I feel like that wherever I go. When I lived in Washington, DC, years ago, I might sojourn through Foggy Bottom over the bridge to Arlington and back, greeting the black squirrels and fitness freaks along the way. But the itch, the itch, the itch. It could not be scratched. You can't tell your professors these things.

"How come you didn't complete the assignment?"

"I'm sorry, sir. I had another existential crisis."

Not like the film producers are any less itchy. They split their time between the Hap', Tallinn, and Moscow. They keep things interesting. Interesting. That's how things should be. And then I feel that other little itch: the desire to say inappropriate things. The desire to make things interesting. Maybe because there's nothing else really to say. With priests, there's that overwhelming yearning to crack a George Carlin joke (The invisible man has a special list of ten things he does not want you to do. But He loves you and He needs money.) With film producers, you must overcome the desire to swing your feet up on the table and pitch them your movie, a movie that's going to be big, big, BIG.

"I've got a a great idea for a picture," you say, munching an imaginary cigar. "It takes place in Tallinn at the American embassy. It's like Ferris Bueller's Day Off meets The Hunt for Red October."

But you won't do that. That would be impolite. You wonder if film producers lives really are like that. If they can't go to the local R-Kiosk without the seller trying to pitch them a movie about a woman who works in an R-Kiosk. It will be big, she tells them and hands them a candy bar. HUGE.

But Haapsalu. Haapsalu could be an eternity. I couldn't design a more perfect city: centered on a castle, face to the sea, candy-colored homes. When Estonia's restless writers need to get away, they come here. If take a walk down along the promenade, be careful not disturb a soul. They're wrestling with a plot twist. It's best to let them be.

Still, I'd like to jet the world into Estonia just to show them this place, show them the castle, show them the buildings, show them the sea, envelope them in the spirit of Haapsalu, the Haapsalu vaim. It's one of the best places I've found. I get scared though. I am afraid that if I linger too long, my shoe will begin to itch. It could be more of the same, same castle, same sea, same vaim. It's best not to spoil the mood. And so we pile back in the car, and prepare for the long, zigzagging journey home.

33 kommentaari:

Jens-Olaf ütles ...

I don't know which film producer you've met. But I know it can become "existential" in Estonia to be one.

Lingüista ütles ...

I can't resist the urge to nit-pick... It's "Kinder, Kirche, Küche", not "Kirke"; and "Jonas bakar bröd", not "brod". :-)

Giustino ütles ...

Thanks. I've now updated the piece.

Lingüista ütles ...

You make Haapsalu look like a paradise on Earth--and poor me has never even been to Estonia yet (though there are some chances I may do this next year).

I very much liked the little scene you described metween Medvedev and Ilves -- indeed, I wished there could be some normality in the relations between Russia and its former sphere of influence. Judging by Putin's latest statement, his letter to the Poles, this is not going to happen any time soon. What a pity. Russians seem to behave as if admitting that there are horrible crimes in their history that they should be ashamed of somehow would cancel their right to be a great nation. As if there were no third option: either you have nothing to be ashamed of, or then you can't be a great nation. Now, where would any of the great nations be if this were really so? But no, Putin has to mention bad actions by other nations for every Russian bad action ("yes, the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was bad, but let's not forget Munich; yes, Katyn was a massacre, but the Poles also killed Russian soldiers in 1920; yes, we annexed a piece of Poland, but the Poles also annexed a piece of Czechoslovakia"; etc...). Like a child saying: "but mom, I wasn't the only one! Look, Jimmy did that too, and Johnny...", thereby missing what it means to come to terms with one's crimes and bad actions.

About Halonen, I'm kind of curious: the don't-enrage-the-bear Finlandization policy was OK during Soviet times, but now it seems Finland could be much more critical towards Russia (say, concerning the Winter War, the Karelian question, etc.), but Halonen still takes a conciliatory tone. Is this just the habit of always being conciliatory with the Russians, or is it because Halonen and Medvedev really like each other?

Bea ütles ...

Russians seem to behave as if admitting that there are horrible crimes in their history that they should be ashamed of somehow would cancel their right to be a great nation. As if there were no third option: either you have nothing to be ashamed of, or then you can't be a great nation.
That, and that there are some nations and people around Russia which the Russian nation was taught to call fascists, enemies, badies, whores or just useless insignificant dwarfs for too long. They may admit crimes to others, but not these. They feel they would need to reverse the hero-zero mythology scheme they had applied for so many decades. As long as it does not cost them anything not to change the attitude, they won't change it. "What? To please the dwarfs nobody cares of? No, never."

Bea ütles ...

Remember us getting on a buss Kuressaare - Orissaare which went all around Saaremaa instead of just goin' the straight route. :D

stockholm slender ütles ...

I love Haapsalu - it immediately reminded me of Astrid Lindgren: an idyllic wooden town with little backgardens and narrow, twisting lanes. Only afterwards my wife mentioned Ilon Wikland, and I realized why I was reminded of those magical illustrations of the adventures of the White Roses in my childhood... A lovely town indeed, and not so hugely frequented by drunken compatriots of mine which is always a plus.

Kristopher ütles ...

Is there an Estonian counterpart of Mapquest or Reittiopas?

Lingüista ütles ...

You can always try Google Earth, I suppose.

Kristopher ütles ...

Those sites I mentioned calculate your travel time and the fastest route. Takes the DIY fun out of it, but I was wondering if there was one for Estonia.

MikkS ütles ...

choose EU

Unknown ütles ...

http://kaart.otsing.delfi.ee has a Regio map which also calculates routes.

Unknown ütles ...

The Delfi map also agrees that Justin's path was the most efficient one taking 248 km and 3 h 5 min.

LPR ütles ...

Does Haapsalu have a beachfront, a boardwalk with boat slips or smth like that? Outdoor caffees for peaceful sunset watching?

Justin ütles ...

I enjoy taking the backroads as well. You get to see a lot of the smaller towns, and there's much less traffic. Some very nice scenery.

Rapla and Märjamaa are both quite charming in my opinion. There's even a place to eat in Rapla (Meie Pubi) that isn't half bad. The hamburger kiosk in Rapla (in the shopping center where the Konsum is located) is famous as the two local boys who planned to kidnap Ines Karu (Olympic Casino magnate Armin Karu's daughter) for ransom hatched their evil plan over hamburgers from that kiosk.

I have a TomTom GPS and it's great. It knows all the little roads so you're never in fear of getting truly lost. It's also not shy about directing you to back roads if that's the most direct route.

Haapsalu is a great town -- on some weekends I'll drive there just to have lunch. From Tallinn it's only a 1-hour drive and I usually come back via the "old" Haapsalu road (forget the name, but it goes via Saku and Keila) which is a fun drive.

Sharon ütles ...

Haapsalu was on the route I didn't take when I chose to do a cycling tour earlier this year.

I may try to do that route in a couple of years time, cash and all depending. That route also takes in the islands, which I didn't get to this time.

I hear/read many positive things about that area.

Sharon ütles ...

I think I've said it before, but it bears saying again:

Nobody likes to be the bad guy.

You try finding any group of people who thought, at one time, that they were the great and shining hope of all the world (which is a pretty nice thing to think), and tell them they need to change hats because they were actually the bad guys in this situation or that sequence of events...

Well, I expect they'll probably fight you on that point. Cling to the "shining hope" vision of themselves.

Lingüista ütles ...

Sharon: yes, of course they will. The French did -- they do, in a sense; they're still not used to Engish having replaced French as the world's international language --, the English did after they lost their empire, the Americans will after they lose theirs... It is indeed quite understandable on the human level.

Still, it is true that they have to get over it and go forward. Like individuals who need to confront the lies and denials in their past in order to grow, nations also need to come to terms with their past crimes. Or else they end up developing paranoid world views ('the whole world is against us!') and denying part of their memories (the part that knows that crimes were indeed comitted), which feeds into the inferiority complex ('the others despise me!').

Other nations have come to terms with their past crimes (the Germans, for instance) and have emerged healthier from that. So can the Russians. My hope is that they will, in due time, after the grieving for the old empire and the 'shining armors' that didn't really exist is over.

Myst ütles ...

Other nations have come to terms with their past crimes (the Germans, for instance) and have emerged healthier from that. So can the Russians. My hope is that they will, in due time, after the grieving for the old empire and the 'shining armors' that didn't really exist is over.

The difficulty with this that Russia now has, though, is that the spooks in Kreml do their best to perpetuate those pleasent lies. As an example, I read that kids in Russian schools are once again tought about that most magnificent and glorious leader - the Great Stalin... Not to mention the official rhetoric on historical matters, which goes largely uncontested, because dissenting voices are simply taken off the air. Or worse..

I don't think Russia will "get over it" until after a few decades after they've become a truly open and democratic society. And the current regime makes bloody damned sure that it doesn't become one. And I think it'll take a revolution to get rid of this regime..

So let's see...
- the spooks will probably be in power for about another 50 years before they cock it up entirely..
- then the revolution and few years of turmoil..
- then the few decades to rethink things..

Yes, Russia will come to honest terms with its past no sooner than in 2082. ;-)

Asehpe ütles ...

Myst, I think you're being too pessimistic. I don't deny the possibility--weirder things have happened--but I know personally many Russians (including my own wife) who are sincerely appalled at the current semi-admiration that the Russian government is giving to Stalin.

Also, the current regime is certainly not as bad as the Soviet one (especially in Stalin's times). Despite current attempts to limit people's access to information and to impose a single viewpoint, Russians still have more access to other viewpoints (e.g. via the internet) than during Soviet times -- probably more than at any other moment in their history.

So every time the wheel turns again, we don't get exactly the same situation. Russia may be slowly spriralling to its own resolution at some point in the future. Or so, at least, I hope.

Myst ütles ...

Well, maybe I am too pessimistic. ;-) It's certainly true that it is more difficult now to create and maintain a totalitarian regime than it has ever been - thanks largely to the wonder that is the internet. And Russia doesn't limit access to it like China does. And Russians are free to travel the world, talk to evil furriners, and find out for themselves that we're not all constantly plotting to destroy them. :-)

It's just that the information that is most easily available to people and therefore most potent for shaping "public opinion" - that in newspapers, the radio and especially television - is largely controlled. Dissident voices - "dealt with" very effectively. In such circumstances, I do think the current regime can guarantee election victories for themselves for a very long time - even without needing to forge results.

And the current regime will never try to burst the bubble that is the idea of the glorious Soviet Union. Why would they? It'd just make them less popular.


But hey - I'm all pessimistic again. I'm sure there are other, more positive, scenarios out there. It'll be interesting to observe these developments, for sure. Hey, if Savisaar gets his way, us Estoland people might even be able to observe these developments from the inside. :-P I'll vote for your wife for President then, Sergio. ;-)

Asehpe ütles ...

Myst, pessimism isn't necessarily wrong -- I know weirder things than Russia being authoritarian for decades have already happened. And I know there are many crazy voices being given more attention than they need there (like the latest Nashi protest in Moscow about "Baltic Fascism", complete with concentration camp fotos... I saw it in the last "Aktuaalne Kamera" at the ERR website).

Still, I do know Russians who aren't like that. (There was a girl from Moscow learning Estonian in the same Skype-course I was following, and she was outraged at the amount of anti-Estonian propaganda in the Russian press, for instance. When I asked her if people really believed it, she cyber-shrugged her shoulders and wrote, "some do, some don't".)

I think a lot will depend on what happens after Putin's death. The way he built his oligarchic-authoritarian state, he is a key factor (like Tito in the former Yougoslavia). Who will come after him? Nobody knows, so I don't want to speculate, neither pessimistically nor optimistically.

Is Savisaar really interested in the "back-to-the-USSR" option, Myst? I thought he was just pro-cooperation. (My wife is a wonderful philosopher and writer, but I'm afraid not a very good administrator...)

Myst ütles ...

I think Savisaar is pro-himself-being-in-power, Sergio. :-) I don't think he actually has an agenda. Make friends with the Kremlin - get the Esto-Russian vote. Simple as that.

At least I hope it's as simple as that. Based on his behaviour over the last few years, one could construct a conspiracy theory or five as well..

Talking of when Putin dies/retires, I wonder what will happen when Savisaar is gone from the scene.. He's a brilliant manipulator, for sure. And Keskerakond relies greatly on just him to bring in the votes. Who could replace such a man..?

LPR ütles ...

Who else would be so cynical as him - ordering bags of potatos and firewood to be hauled out to the city square to be distributed ad hoc to the "starving and howling masses" of needy citizens.

And then pose with the stack of potatoes and deadpan that this has nothing to do with the election campaign.

The question with Savisaar is not really that he is so smart, its rahter that people are so stupid.

Maybe it is smart to count on stupidness.

Then I give it to him - he is smart.

Giustino ütles ...

I think the Center Party politicians take Finland as a role model, except not the Finland of 2009, the Finland of, say, 1985. It makes sense, because they have the oldest political leadership in Estonia.

Lingüista ütles ...

I was wondering if the Keskerakond could be compared to Ukraine's Party of Regions, and Savisaar to Yanukovych. But Giustino's comparison to 1985 Finland seems more apt.

I am still, however, curious about present-day Finland. What exactly is it that Halonen is doing that gets Putin to go put a wreath on the tomb of Mannerheim -- the general who fought against and, well, defeated the Red Army in the Winter War -- while claiming that Nazism is being glorified in the Baltic states (and all over Eastern Europe) and that the Poles should go easy on their claims against the former USSR? Is Finland still somewhat Finlandized?

Bea ütles ...

Can't it be the same - emotionally and practically motivated - principle: "we won't respect those who are not clearly stronger or more significant than us economically or militarily; we shall show we are better and stronger than them, so that's only them who shall respect us, not vice versa; if they dare to imagine it shall be vice versa or think that they are on a par with us and can criticize us as we criticize them, they are wrong and shall be shown their place drastically". That's also the best Russian defense from guilt, to offense those they can and expect no harm of assaulting. Modern Russia tries to keep its face in the eyes of inner public (Russians themselves). They try to fool themselves and their younger generation. The Baltics will be the last ones they'll apologize to. And that's only in case both Russia and the Baltics become truly nice and wealthy countries.

Giustino ütles ...

It's a mutual relationship. The Social Democrats keep Finland out of NATO and don't speak up on Georgia and Ukraine ('faraway countries about which we know little'), Russia in turn blesses their republic with assurances of eternal peace. Russia is not unlike the US when it comes to international relations -- it makes friends where it can.

I have always wondered about the level of sleaze in squeaky clean Finland. One of Savisaar's main drawbacks is that he is seen as practicing two-faced sauna diplomacy. But I suspect a lot of the same thing has been going on in Finland as Nord Stream works its way through approval. I mean, officially they talk about the environment. But, unofficially, they are probably talking about not only timber tariffs but a whole assortment of business interests.

stockholm slender ütles ...

I think it is a pretty safe bet that Finland won't alone torpedo a strategic Russian-German policy initiative(though you never know about our legalistically minded civil servants and courts), but it is also a pretty safe bet that Finland aims to get as much benefit as possible from its eventual agreement. Considering our impossibly long Eastern border it gives a certain peace of mind to have it tranquil.

About Finland in 1985, it was a prosperous country, busily integrating economically with the West, and had no Russian speaking population and no Soviet troops. Well, the Estonian thinking goes that "they had all that and still went for Kekkonen-Paasikivi line". Most Finns remembered getting that agreement quite miraculously from victorious Stalin while being left for dead by the West, and thought "because we have Kekkonen-Paasikivi line we have all this". I think the Finnish view is more correct in the final analysis. Realpolitics is not a pretty business. We learned that in the Winter War.

Asehpe ütles ...

So, stockholm slender, you think that a policy of appeasement towards Russia is still a good idea, even now that basically every Eastern European country criticizes Russia?

stockholm slender ütles ...

Well, Russia and Germany are together building a gas pipe in the Baltic - I don't see any inherent reason why Finland should stop this. Last time I looked we were Germany's allies. It has often been in the genuine national interest of Finland to take a flexible attitude to Russia. I would definitely prefer that this gas pipe would not happen but the EU seems not to mind, so there we go.

LPR ütles ...

Mannerheim Line was not that flexible though.

stockholm slender ütles ...

Sure, flexibility implies a wide variety of policy choices. Our famously "russophile" (he absolutely wasn't) post-war president Paasikivi wrote in his diary that if the Soviets wanted more than Finland could reasonably give, he himself would take the rifle and go to the front however hopeless the battle would be ("we are not Czechs"). He was almost 80 when he wrote that and the image of the elderly and non-military Paasikivi in full battle array is quite comical, but also something quite admirable I would say. Well, luckily, for both of them, Stalin was quite reasonable and settled with a compromise.