Kallid sõbrad (Dear friends),
Tervitused Eestist - Greetings from Estonia - land of the fair-skinned, blond-haired, sauna-loving, alcohol-guzzling, meat-jelly-devouring, shy but unbelievably cordial hypochondriacs. I have spent the past few weeks enjoying the holidays here and have had the cultural experience of a lifetime. From reaching the summit of the highest peak in Estonia (a nausea-inducing 318 meters), to exploring inside the closed-for-visitors Tallinn Town Hall, to meeting Chris Cringle himself, I have kept quite busy these past few weeks. Typically, when thinking about how to write these emails, I have to think hard in order to recall the details I think friends and family back home will find interesting or entertaining. But this country is so chock-full of great material, I'm simply brimming with anecdotes to share.
First, let's get the details out of the way. Estonia is a country of about 1.3 million citizens situated in northern Europe, just opposite Finland. The whereabouts are not-quite Scandinavian, not-quite Baltic, not-quite Eastern European, giving the nation a flavor not-quite like anything else. Journeying through a foreign country is inherently unpredictable, and I've been confronted by countless novel and unusual happenings which demand split second decisions. For these, I've learned that it's best not to think about things too much, and rather just respond with the old standby: "Jah aitäh!" (Yes thanks!). Sitting completely naked in a stifling 230-degree fahrenheit wooden closet with my girlfriend's friends and family? Count me in! More blood sausage and pork jelly? Sounds good to me! Skinny dipping in an icy lake before breakfast? Don't mind if I do!
As is commonplace for me by now, I have been keeping a running list of noted differences here. I'll describe a few below:
- In Estonia, there are no mealtimes. Sometimes we had five meals, sometimes two. Eat when you are hungry, simple as that.
- Children are far, far more independent here, and usually begin fending for themselves around the age of seven. From that point onwards, they are left alone at home to care for themselves, prepare food, and watch after things, as well as make their way in the city, navigate the public transportation system, and travel to school and various appointments - all by themselves.
- We have played cards or board games almost every night, and I've quickly discovered I am a terrible, terrible player. After losing my fourth game in a row (and by a large margin), Triinu's mother turned to me and whispered with a wink: "You know, in Estonia we say that the one who is the biggest loser is the most in love." I'll take it.
- The Estonian writing system is entirely phonetic, which makes pronunciation rather straightforward. It also makes for some very amusing orthography for borrowed international words: bacon = peekon, cowboy = kauboi, Mexico = Mehhiko, America = Ameerika, coffee = kohvi, pizza = pitsa, comet = komeet.
- Mary Poppins is apparently bilingual. Upon seeing a fantastic stage production of the show, completely in Estonian, I learned that supercali-fragilistic-expiali-docious is in fact an English word, and translates to Estonian as supernali-vägalustik-ekstraüli-võrdes.
- Since most cell phones do not support diacritics in text messaging (and since they are more expensive), the Estonians get creative, using 6 for õ and 2 for ä. It is not uncommon to read an SMS peppered with numbers in this fashion.
- Just like quark in Germany, A38 in Denmark, and curd in England, traveling abroad has enlightened me yet another delicious dairy variation: kohupiim. Part cottage cheese, part greek yogurt, part cream cheese, all amazing. For breakfast, a sweet or savory pie ingredient, afternoon snack, or dessert, it never fails to please.
- During applause at the end of a performance, audience members synchronize their claps so that after a while, the entire concert hall is clapping in unison. I had seen this before in Germany, and it is just as unsettling here in Estonia.
- There is no drainage system in the streets, so instead of being directed out and away via gutters, water is left standing on the roadways. When it rains hard, it floods. Driving along and watching the rapidly rising water level, I keep half-expecting our car to be passed by a great arc stuffed full of animals.
- There are more berry varieties here than you ever knew existed. I can't count the number of times I've asked about the ingredients in a particularly enticing edible, only to be mystified with responses such as cloudberries, bilberries, lingonberries, juniper berries, cowberries, gooseberries, red and black and white currants, as well as the more familiar blueberries, wild strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, cherries, and cranberries.
- Traffic lights blink green before changing to yellow.
- The Christmas tree was adorned with real candles. What about the fire hazard? Turns out, no big deal. The first two times the tree went ablaze, the ignited branches were simply blown out as nonchalantly and apathetically as an eighty-five-year-old might extinguish the candles atop a birthday cake. Later, when I was lighting the candles myself and smelled smoke, I became wary and started investigating for flames. Triinu's father, obviously amused by my charming naiveté, simply flashed an aloof grin and said "The number for the fire department is 1-1-2" before sauntering downstairs and out of sight.
- My Estonian language skills are really coming along. I can now form such complete thoughts as "long orange tree", "Congratulations, Mommy!", and "Very good and delicious milk, thank you." Yes, fluency seems just days away.
- The fear of sickness from the weather is an ever-present and almighty force. A few seconds of cold wind exposure is cause for serious alarm (even the direct fan of air conditioning during the summer months), and I was discouraged from ever exiting the home with anything less than four layers, thermal underwear, gloves, hat, and scarf. Glancing at my poorly insulated American attire and hastily dressed figure, I could tell most people feared illness was just minutes away. Bear in mind, these are the same fine folks that hail skinny dipping in icy lakes during the winter months for the health benefits.
- When illness does strike, ingenious solutions are at the ready. Most Estonians wouldn't bat an eyelash at the notion of VodkaSocks (dousing a pair of socks in liquor, ringing them out, then wearing them), a VodkaScarf (soaking a scarf/shirt in vodka, then breathing the alcohol fumes wrapped around your neck), eating raw onion/garlic/ginger by the spoonful, or the age old "duck-fat-smeared-on-chest" remedy (no explanation needed).
- The electric teapot is constantly running.
- When it comes to pizza toppings, you are only limited by your imagination. Perusing one pizza menu I came across such ingredients as corn, peaches, shrimp, bleu cheese, crab sticks, nachos, roast beef, pickles, canned tuna, broccoli, mackerel, and celery. Decisions, decisions.
- As with everywhere else in these parts, shoes are left at the door when entering a home. But this is the first time I heard the expression of hospitality and warm-welcoming: "Come on in and don't even bother taking off your shoes!" Of course, this is only meant as a social courtesy - you still better leave your filthy boots outside.
- Bread is a staple of most meals, and can be found in all colors of the rainbow, from stark white to absolute pitch black. Darker shades are favored unequivocally over lighter hues - in fact, the word "bread" implies a dark rye variety, whereas Estonians adopt an entirely different word for the white stuff. Bread is so prevalent, and its taste so cherished, that one dessert Triinu and I shared included "rye bread and coffee flavored ice cream with rye crumbles". Bread-flavored ice cream...only in Estonia.
- Sauna is a staple of Estonian culture, and most nicer homes have them as a primary feature. (As a bonus, saunas can also double as large cooking vessels, perfect for drying fruits, meats, and other foods. I'm not exaggerating when I say it is like a human oven.) We visited one farmhouse from the 18th century that included a sauna, which seemed to suggest to me: "I may not have electricity, an indoor toilet, running water, or enough food to last me through the winter, but hell, at least I've got a sauna." Priorities, folks.
- A well-known proverb here roughly translated: "A problem shared is a problem halved; but shared joy is double the joy."
- Crosswalks are everywhere, even in the middle of major roadways, separated by only a few hundred yards. About fifty percent of cars observe them. Pedestrians, beware.
- Perhaps the most traditional and classic dessert in Estonia is "Mannavaht", basically sweet cranberry grits over which you pour milk and eat with a spoon. This was especially popular in past decades when money and resources were scarce and this specialty could be whipped up for almost no cost at all. When I explained the savory use of grits in the American south, such as 'shrimp and grits', I was met with expressions of bewilderment and sympathy.
I hope the above findings don't portray Estonians as wildly different from Americans, because as with most people I've met around the world, we really share many more similarities than differences. Estonians still drive cars, go to the movies, build snowmen and eat sushi. While my "taco night" was met with surprise, the hearty smiles and second helpings proved their adventurous spirit and values towards family and inclusiveness. Even with the language barrier intact, a smile and a nod will get you far. Manners are important, as is respect for your elders and deep, enduring friendships. And yes, Estonians celebrate Christmas. Or, more accurately, Christmas Eve.
The "big day" in Estonia falls on December 24th, which means that accounting for the time zone difference, children in Estonia get to open presents a full 34 hours earlier than those on America's west coast. Not. Fair. The saying goes that Santa lives in Europe and it takes him a long time to get overseas to America, which is why Americans get their presents on the 25th. Just where exactly in Europe Saint Nick lives, however, is a matter of debate. Finland? Norway? Sweden? (The Estonians tend to favor Finland, as it's just one drunken ferry ride away.) In any case, Santa's European home is a far cry from the North Pole I learned growing up - indeed, a tough pill for me to swallow. Also, kids in Estonia get to actually meet Santa. After our enormous feast of meat, potatoes, pickled pumpkin, persimmons, sauerkraut and condiments galore, a rap on the door ignited a buzzing excitement among the children as their murmurs spread the news: "Santa is here, Santa is here!!" And sure enough, in barged the jolly man in full Santa attire, toting two huge brown bags spilling over with gifts (the chimney bit seems to have been conveniently ignored in the Estonian version of the story). It is easy to consider this a childish frivolity, simply a showy gesture to delight and entertain the young and young at heart. But I found it impossible not to get swept away in the excitement. After all, here is the man of my childhood fantasies in the flesh, brought to life by the magic of Estonian tradition. I think I was giddiest little boy in the room. God bless you, Estonia.
After greetings were exchanged and the initial exhilaration subsided, Santa took a seat at the front of the room to begin gift distribution. This is where the real fun began. Unlike in America, where kids simply wake up to presents on Christmas morning, in Estonia Santa is a bit more high-maintenance, demanding a little show from each recipient before doling out gifts. As names were called by Santa, each person, young and old alike, stood up and did a little something in exchange for their present, such as singing a song, reciting a poem, doing some gymnastics, or playing a musical instrument. The embarrassment and shame of realizing you have no skills to demonstrate quickly dissipates with the realization that everyone is in the exact same position, having to stand in front of a crowd twenty people strong, desperately trying to remember the words to the second verse of "O Come All Ye Faithful". But having to earn your Christmas gifts somehow makes them more meaningful when it finally comes to the unwrapping.
Once all presents were distributed and opened, Santa bade his farewell, leaving us guests surrounded by gifts, food, smiles and love. We spent the rest of the evening there, talking and laughing and reminiscing in a delightful blend of Estonian and English. Bellies full and hearts fulfilled, all sense of commitment or obligation seemed somewhere far, far away. And at some point there, among the wrapping paper and ribbon, dwindling leftovers, flickering candles and glad spirits, I came to the realization that a more perfect Christmas would be impossible. And what a true Christmas gift that was. Suur aitäh to everyone who made this fairy-tale holiday a reality. I will never forget it.
The next few weeks before classes resume will be spent relaxing with Triinu, taking final exams, traveling with my Mom through Great Britain, and working off the consequences of eating Kalev chocolates every day for a month. I hope every one of you had, and continues to have, a wonderful holiday season.
Questions? Comments? Fancy the recipe for meat jelly? You know who to write.