Earlier this week you received three photos of Tallinn’s Open Air Museum. You shouldn’t have. Joy forwarded them from her camera to Word Press’s media library for inclusion in today’s post. Somehow they went directly to all lawsonsontheloose.net subscribers. Isn’t modern technology the best? In those words all travelers know so well, “We apologize for any inconvenience.”
Our timing may have been off but our intentions were noble. We wanted to share our refreshing day in the woods with you. Estonia is mostly rural, replete with forests and scarce population. To spend all one’s time in the city is to miss some of what’s best about this nation. Of course, the Open Air Museum is not really rural, situated on the outskirts of the capital (hence the name Museum, a protected glimpse of the past). Altogether these 178 acres hold 68 farmhouses, 12 farm-yards, church, school, tavern, windmills, storage sheds and more. The regular tourist season is over, so we had to peer through the small windows to see how Estonians lived in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. The Museum even included a farmstead from the 1930s—the decade of my birth. I’ve reached the historical curiosity stage!
We’d been in Tallinn a few days when we spent the day in the Open Air Museum with daughter Candy and son-in-law Michael, who took a vacation week to join us here. (That’s not exactly a true statement. Thanks to the magic of modern technology, both of them spent several hours a day working over the telephone and internet. Still, we got to be with them while they worked and they got to play a little with us.)
It’s kind of crazy to go north in late September. Tallinn and Helsinki are near the same latitude as Anchorage, Alaska. The color of the leaves and the chill in the air announce autumn’s arrival. Our experience here offers additional proof that I missed my calling. I should have been a weather man. I can end a series of sunny days whenever I want. All I have to do is schedule an outdoor excursion a few days from now and voila! on that very day the rains will fall. Thus it happened on our one-day ferry ride to Helsinki.
It rained. And blew. And destroyed two expensive umbrellas—turned them inside out and broke their ribbing. And I had paid a solid euro ($1.18) apiece for them. You’d think for that kind of money they’d have lasted more than just a few minutes before giving in to the forceful gusts.
We can’t complain, though. While we have been indulging ourselves our world back home exploded with grief. First Hurricane Harvey pounded America’s mid-Southern states. We had barely caught our breath when Irma devastated much of Florida and the American Southeast. Then what Maria did to Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands beggars description. As if what the insurance companies like to call “acts of God” were not enough, along came a home-grown terrorist attack in Las Vegas to set a record for domestic slaughter.
What is most disheartening of all regarding Las Vegas’ tragedy is that even this heinous act won’t be enough to convince diehards that America needs protection from our insane addiction to guns for killing one another. My frustration and sense of helplessness in the face of such suffering, so much of it inflicted by humans, grows daily. While we are here comparing the violent histories of Estonia and Finland and Belgium with today’s news, we have to conclude that the human race may be getting bigger but we’re not getting smarter.
That’s the negative. The positive note in the news has been the reporting from all these hard-hit areas that many heroic individuals, first responders who defy the odds to get to the maimed and bereft and the government agencies working around the clock to provide relief. Compassion is not dead. Americans rise to the challenge of disaster relief; now if we can just get with the program of disaster prevention. We can’t prevent hurricanes; if we can’t prevent, we can at least dramatically reduce, homicides. Yes, I know the slogan: “Guns don’t kill; people do.” But they use guns to do so. (I’m from gun-toting country. My people are hunters. But they don’t hunt people! And they don’t stockpile military weapons of mass destruction.)
Now back to the subject at hand.
Like Belgium, Estonia and Finland are relatively new countries. Finland celebrates its 100th anniversary this year and Estonia does the same in 2018. However, most of this past century both have been squeezed by communism and fascism and territory-grabbing by more powerful neighbors. Only after the collapse of the Soviet Union (1989-1991) have they been able to breathe free. Even now they cast a wary eye eastward. Both countries joined the European Union, belong to NATO, and in other ways lean toward the West, but cautiously.
Through our walks and walking tours we soaked up the charm of Tallinn. UNESCO dubbed the Old Town a World Heritage Site in 1997, freezing it in time. We walked the original cobblestone streets (which feel a lot like Bruges’) and gazed at its famous churches and houses and towers and warehouses dating back to the Middle Ages.
We were glad to have the Ohanessians with us. They do a better job negotiating the mysteries of other languages than we do. We’ve been adrift before but we could usually find enough similarities between German, say, or French or Spanish and English that we could guess the meaning with modest success. Estonian, however, is not an Indo-European language. Its cousins are Finnish and Hungarian. Its grammar is complex (14 noun cases says Wikipedia; our guide said 16) and its pronunciations are incomprehensible, at least to this half-deaf speaker of English. Some examples:
Maantee, as in our address (13 Paldiski manatee), is road. Bread=lieb, ticket=pilet, church=kirik, pen=pliiatsi, weather=ilm, butter=või. For example, Google Translate renders the sentence, “Let’s go to town,” as “Läheme linnale.” You see the problem. Fortunately, English is once again the “go to” language, so we were comfortably able to ask for and receive directions. The Estonians have a reputation for being rather stand-offish, but their brusqueness quickly dissolves when helping a stranger. Of course, it helps to look pitiful. I’ve mastered the art.
One of Tallinn’s claims to fame, perhaps the one we heard most about, is that Skype was born here. In fact, Tallinn’s often called Europe’s Silicon Valley, one of the top 10 digital cities in the world. Indeed, it’s one of the few places we’ve been where we haven’t grumbled about our internet connectivity.
Just one meal to report. I can’t improve on Olde Hansa’s web site spiel: “The medieval restaurant Olde Hansa is the home of a rich merchant, whose guests enjoy delicious, authentic Hansa-era meals and drinks, true period music and always friendly service. All of the dishes on the menu, including many wild game delicacies, are cooked using 15th century recipes and methods.” We feasted on bear, elk and wild boar and, once our eyes adjusted to the candlelit semi-darkness, loved the ambience.
Our beautiful walking tour guide, whose name sounded to me like Mabel as pronounced by an Aussie, a Tallinn native, loves her town and infected us with her enthusiasm as she described the town square, the ancient wall and towers, and the charms and history and quirks of Estonians.
A constant challenge here is the question of identity. Who is a genuine Estonian? Since the land has been occupied by Russians, Germans, Frenchmen, Danes and Swedes (have I left any out?), and since the occupiers left a remnant behind when they withdrew, the estimate is that no more than two-thirds of the people are Estonian; the rest have their roots in these earlier occupying countries. Who then can vote? Who really belongs? Once again we also learned the power of language to divide: Estonian speakers and Russian speakers hold each other in mutual distrust. Still, they have been able so far to stick together as one nation.
The highlight of our day in Helsinki was our visit to Temppeliaukio Church (Rock Church), the city’s primary tourist destination, in the heart of the city.
It’s simply stunning, a place of worship that itself is an invitation to worship. The rock was excavated and then walls extended to form a stone circle domed with copper held aloft by reinforced concrete beams. The acoustics, as you can imagine with all hard surfaces, make it an ideal venue for concerts. We just wanted to sit quietly and, as we have done so often in these adventures, give thanks. In spite of all we humans do to destroy it and one another, it’s still a wonderful world we live in.
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