Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Fintics #5: Tartu, Estonia, and some general observations about post-Soviet life

June 3-4, 2008

The next day we took the bus to Tartu, which is home to Estonia's oldest university and also their supreme court - in a sense, it is the country's intellectual and cultural capital.

Tartu has a beautiful town square and downtown, impressive cathedral ruins and castle ruins (partly grown over, partly restored), a lovely botanical garden, and possibly my favourite church of the whole trip (St. John's in Tartu). The baltics have lots of sand but not a lot of stone, so building in brick became popular, leading to a particular style known as brick gothic. Not only are the bricks used decoratively in this church, there are brick or terra cotta figurines throughout. The church was almost completely destroyed, in WWII I assume, but was recently restored. It's astonishing; when you go inside and look on one side of the church, you see the original brick, and the walls are not quite straight; across the nave, you see the other side of the church has been rebuilt pretty much exactly as it must have once been, and you can tell the difference by the verticals being truly vertical.

Again in Tartu, M. and Mom split off from me for some of the explorations; they visited the anatomy museum and the cathedral ruins while I went to the KGB museum. That suited me fine, as body parts in formaldehyde are not my thing.

One of Tartu's twin cities is Tampere, Finland. Tampere operates a sort of cultural mission in Tartu which is part art gallery/space, and part bed-and-breakfast. That was where we stayed. It was a beautiful old wooden building, and its only fault (though you can hardly fault it for this) is that the ceilings were very low and I kept hitting my head. Ouch! Other than that, it was very cozy, and we had high-speed internet as a plus.

The craziest meal we had on this tyrip was in Tartu - incidentally, in the University café, in a beautiful room in a beautiful building - well, it wasn't the meal that was crazy, the food was delicious - it was just the waiter's notion of service that was crazy. The other waitress on staff seemed quite upset with him so perhaps he was... new? or on the way out? At least I hope it isn't normal to wait endlessly to be served, and to be given instead of the bill, the change from another client who'd just paid in cash.

Here I also had "Vama", the traditional Estonian dessert, though it was quite different from the version I'd had in Tallinn - the milk component was a rich custard or maybe even something cream-based rather than clabbered milk.

Mom came out with one of the best sayings of the trip as we were waiting and waiting and waiting for our waiter: "This is what I hate about eating in restaurants, you know," she said; "the company!" We all burst into laughter.

As we were leaving Tartu, I saw one of the sad sights on my trip. We were walking on a pedestrian bridge over the muddy brown river (all the rivers we saw in Finland and Estonia were muddy and brown) and looked down to see an older woman fill three large containers with water and then carry them away. I hope this wasn't for drinking. Even if she was only getting water for her garden, that's awfully hard work. For a water-blessed Canadian like me, it's sad to think about being so poor that you have to ration your water. (We may have been near the edge of the neighbourhood described in Wikipedia as follows: "The historical slum area called Supilinn is located on the bank of river Emajõgi, near the town centre and is regarded as one of the few surviving poor neighbourhoods in Europe from the 19th century. At the moment Supilinn is rapidly being renovated.")

And on the topic, let me share my observations on Estonia and its people. Mom and M. had very different reactions, so maybe mine aren't entirely accurate or fair. My observations may be isolated incidents, but as a tourist just passing through quickly, all you can hope for is to observe slices of life that may illustrate, as for a short story, not thorough analyses as for a novel of Tolstoy or Mann. So first and foremost, Estonians don't smile much. The Finns aren't big smilers either, but they do so a little more, and they don't react the same way; in Estonia (and Latvia too), smiling at a stranger sometimes just inspires fear in them. I described the incident in Tallinn where the baby-pushing woman ran away in fear - okay, it was evening and I was a solitary large male - but there were other similar instances; in Tartu I tried to ask a man for directions near a busy pedestrian bridge, and he just ignored me and walked away. Even when I went to church in Tallinn it was not welcoming; as mentioned previously, the elders at the door just ignored me, and the parishioners didn't seem friendly to each other; and that is a church that describes itself as having a special connection with the down-and-out. Some Estonians were extremely generous and helpful with us, but somehow they seemed to stand out to me as atypical.

There did seem to be a lot of parents with young children, more visible than in my Montreal (a city supposedly undergoing a natality boom) so I suppose that many Estonians are confident about their future.

Estonia is doing many things very well (like its reconstruction, capitalist development, infrastructure renewal) but it's easy to see how empty and materialistic much of it is. There is an ugly side to the cheap vodka and empty pleasures; in Tallinn, I saw two drunken youths rough each other up, one pushing the other into the car-connections of a (fortunately not in motion) tram and continue at it for a few minutes. In the post-Soviet era, Estonia seems to have swung from one extreme to another; perhaps it used to be each for his own within a repressive state, but now it seems to be each for his own with no safety net; my Finnish friends tell me that life is almost impossible if you are an Estonian pensioner unless you have family to support you. The affluent are conspicuous and doing very well but I think life is very hard for many. It's uncomfortable to contrast the crass materialism of the wealthy with the plight of the poor.

It's easy to understand many of these outcomes, given a society that had been brutalised with a psychosis of terror for more than 50 years; I know it's somewhat hypocritical for an affluent Westerner to reproach the eastern bloc for emulating the West a little too much; but all the same, just as there were wonderful and beautiful things in Estonia, there was also much to make me feel sadness, discomfort, and maybe even a kind of regret at times.

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