Toole Castle on the Gulf of Finland [again, courtesy of the panorama setting on my camera]

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Entry VII-b: In Which I Excurse Some More ["Excurse" is the verb form of "excursion." I just invented it. Do you like it?]

I'll stay focused on the excursion for one last entry, then it's time to move on. After all, I've got to tell you about my latest experiences with sauna, salted fish, homemade vodka, and yes, even psychological research (Oh yeah, that's why I'm here).

After the bog, it was off to Lahemaa national park. Lahemaa (meaning "Land of Bays") covers about 725 square kilometers, making it the biggest park in Estonia. It includes in its territory several bogs (which we had already come to know so very well), several small fishing villages, beaches, and many spots for nature walks and hiking. As we drove out of the forest surrounding the bog, sniffles resounding throughout the van, it was clear we wouldn't be making use of Lahemaa's nature trails, at least not right away. Before doing anything else, we would check into our hotel and change into some dry clothes. Otherwise, we risked a mutiny without a doubt. 

Ah scenery

A view from the watchtower
     We stayed the night at Sagadi Manor, an old Baltic German manor estate that was converted into a hotel with a restaurant and a couple of museums. My first impression of the lodging was skewed by my soggy state; all I noticed was the heated tile flooring in the bathroom -- which I reveled in by sprawling on the floor for several minutes. After heating up in my water closet terrarium, it was time to explore the park a bit. We drove north to a small stretch of beaches, scattered with massive boulders left in the wake of an ancient glacier. I had heard that the Baltic Sea was not very salty, so I tested the claim, ladling my hand into the lapping waves at the shore and taking a little sip. It's true, the Baltic tastes very fresh. I would later find out that the Baltic is also notable for its industrial pollution. So far, I haven't died or developed super-powers, but the semester is young -- we'll see what happens. After the beach, we drove to a little fishing village called Käsmu. We crowded into a dimly lit museum (which was also the home of the curator and his family) cluttered with very old, very cool nautical items. In the backyard of the house stood a four-story observation tower. Not so long ago, this tower was constantly manned by a Soviet soldier, eyes to the Baltic Sea, and now it was my turn.

Sagadi Manor: I told you pictures couldn't do it justice
     The next morning, I got up early at Sagadi Manor and took a walk. I knew I was in a pretty part of the world, but I wasn't expecting to be struck so hard by my surroundings. (Pardon me in advance, because I might wax sentimental here.) The beauty made me hungry and wanting for something I couldn't define. It created something like an ache, but it was enjoyable, and palpable enough to make my eyes water. I walked by the old stables of Sagadi Manor where a film of dew covered everything, attesting that this morning was yet untouched. I felt every sensation a little sharper; everything seemed a little more worth attending to. I had felt this before, I knew it, so I filtered through my memories, perhaps to match this with a similar experience I'd had with beauty. This never works, and that morning at Sagadi was no exception. Instead the mental run-through left me with an inventory of every achingly beautiful place I've ever been imprinted in my mind. It was enough to intensify the feeling tenfold. I was reduced to tottering around the Sagadi estate, snapping pictures in an attempt to preserve a piece of the morning. Eventually it was time for breakfast, so I made my way across the courtyard back to the hotel. The quiet of the morning was hard to break, even when I got close enough to the hotel to see the comparative bustle going on indoors. I paused a moment before stepping inside. A flock of geese glided by in a flutter of movement overhead, like fingers barely sweeping the surface of still water. And something about that seemed final -- a good closing to the morning episode. 

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Entry VII-a: Catching Up [a blog miniseries brought to you by procrastination and technical difficulties]

     I realize that I have been putting off writing a blog post for several days. Part of this has to do with the fact that I can't upload pictures with this computer; I have to go to the library or impose upon my host parents' machine. But mostly I'm avoiding another entry because I'm worried I won't be able to write thoroughly enough. I'm paralyzed by bloggable material. A lot of the paralysis is due to last weekend's excursion, wherein we trekked all over the north of Estonia. I don't want to leave out anything important, but the prospect of writing down everything that happened makes me tired. So, I'll do it a piece at a time, and I'll make no lofty promises of full disclosure. If you feel like something is missing from the story, let me know and I can add the desired element, whether it actually happened or not.

     Let's begin at the beginning of last weekend's excursion. We left Tartu at 8:30 Friday morning, carried out of the city in a fourteen-seater Peugeot bus we had chartered until Sunday. Our first stop was Kakerdaja bog, in the north of Estonia. We drove deep into a forest where we met Triin, a slight woman with sheered short hair, a gentle demeanor, and the finest of outdoor apparel. She emerged wordlessly from her little red van and pulled out several big plastic bins. One had a supply of rubber boots, the other was filled with what looked like miniature toboggans--or plastic snowshoes, if you prefer more conventional similes. I skipped the rubber boots and went straight for the bogshoes, thinking with confidence that my trusty Keens would see me through the bog safely. I strapped on a pair of red ones. I was ready to go. Then Triin informed us that we had to walk several hundred meters before actually entering the squishy part of the bog. I unstrapped my red bogshoes.

Preparation for our soggy descent into the bog.

     Long story short, Keens were not enough for the bog. I almost immediately stepped in a soft part and sunk down past my ankle, soaking my jeans and filling my ultra-absorbent shoes. But, the damage was done, so now I could get just as waterlogged as I pleased. With every step, I could feel the ground around me move. When others bogshoed up next to me, I could feel it in the ground, and see the surface of the bog tremble. Between 90 and 99 percent of the bog is made of water, with the peat moss and foliage on top providing only a scant surface for walking. At one point we came upon a black patch of what looked like mud.  Triin poked the rear point of her bogshoe into the muck slowly and deliberately, like someone prodding their french fry into a pile of ketchup long after their hunger has been sated. Looking around to make sure we could see the bubbles burble where she broke the surface, Triin explained that this was a pocket of CH4. The gas causes the moss and water to stagnate and turn black. She told us that the CH4 is flammable, and if you were to strike a match or a click a lighter right next to one of the openings made by an invasive bogshoe, you would see flames. Of course, it was raining at this point and no one had fire, so we couldn't test the claim. 

This tree--one of the biggest ones growing in the bog--is used by birds as a tool for procuring seeds from pinecones. See the cones wedged in the crevice in the bark? It's a hands-free device for seed-eating. Pretty cool. 

Our plywood path home.
      Another long story short, two people fell into the bog. First Maria sunk down in a soft spot and lost one of her shoes. Both shoes were retrieved, but not before she was submerged up to her knees. It required several people to pull her out because the ground was so unstable and the moss layer over the water so thin. Soon after, Dominique followed suit and fell in. Again, removal from the squelch was a lengthy procedure. With more bog-intimacy than we bargained for and a lot of wet socks, we retreated from the bog, seeking a quick return on a narrow boardwalk of two-by-fours. As we tramped back to dry, solid ground, bogshoes unstrapped and held uselessly at our sides, I found myself looking at my feet--my squelchy Keens, called upon to do the duty of rainboots--and I wondered how these boards beneath me were managing not to sink to the depths of water, peat, and the ghosts of Estonians past. I still don't know the answer to that question. But the boards were sturdy indeed, and we made it back safe and sound.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Entry VI: In Which We Go A-Viking

     Come Sunday, it's time for a trip to a Viking village out near Tallinn. I'm told we have a reservation for the Viking longboat, and I'm not really sure what that means. My imagination tells me we'll be supplied with a shield and an oar before hopping into a seaworthy ship with burly, dirty men and puttering around in the Baltic Sea, maybe heading over to Finland for some pillaging or popping down south to burn some Latvian villages. In my heart, though, I know this is not the case. I try to keep my expectation low or non-existent, which is difficult for me because I really like Vikings and I'd like my wildest Viking dreams to come true at this village tourist attraction. As it turns out, I'm coming to learn that I like the idea of Vikings more than I actually understand the real history of Vikings. "Viking" is kind of an amorphous term I guess, and has been hi-jacked by storybook tales and Hollywood. I've checked out a couple of books from the university library in hopes of educating myself and becoming a true Viking enthusiast--a connoisseur even. Anyway, allow me to tell you about this village.

     We meet Riina's brother Jüri and his family at the village. We make our introductions and pile into the Viking boat, donning bright orange lifejackets and potatosacklike canvas tunics (authenticity is key at the Viking village). Our captain's name is Anu. She's a loud-voiced woman with an infectious casual air, and if I understood Estonian, I'm sure I would've appreciated her sense of humor. She directs our rowing, shouting from the helm: "Tüürpoord!" (starboard) "Pakpoord!" (port) and "Kõik koos!" (all together). 

     After an invigorating trip down the river, it's time to throw axes. Well, only one axe--but we throw it many, many times. Here is a nifty video of me ineptly throwing our axe. I hadn't quite gotten the hang of it at this point, but rest assured, I eventually figured it out and made the wooden target feel my Nordic wrath. You can't see it in the clip, but this courtyard was lined with painted plywood cut-outs of fierce Viking warriors who scowled at us fiercely for the duration of our visit.

     Post axe throwing, we gather for a Viking chicken dinner at a Viking gazebo next to a Viking pond. It's getting chilly outside, so there is no leisurely dining in the traditional Viking style. We finish our meal and, eyes to the threatening clouds overhead, say goodbye. Jüri's oldest son Karl plays guitar, and we make plans to get together and play music in the weeks ahead. With that, we pile back in the car and return under overcast skies to Tartu, where homework and a fireplace full of dry wood await.

     Overall, not a bad Sunday! If you're ever in the area, I encourage you to check out the Viking Village. That being said, my host family paid my entrance, so I don't know how much it cost and cannot say in good confidence that it's "worth it." On the other hand, you can't really put a price on public restrooms refurbished to look like Viking lodges (see below), can you? Follow this link to learn more:

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Entry V: Estonia's Greatest Hits [so far]

Some cool things about Estonia (with photo documentation!):

     Love of learning. September 1st is the day students of all ages begin classes in Estonia, and it's a big deal. On my way to school, I got stuck behind multiple gaggles of students on their merry way, many of them bearing bouquets of flowers for their teachers. All of these young scholars were presumably more on-time than I was, as they moved very slowly, much to my frustration. Then, a few blocks from my classroom building, I stumbled upon a parade complete with a marching band and couple of military regiments in full regalia. There was no one lined up to watch, no fanfare surrounding them. It felt almost intrusive to take this photo. They blustered by and I continued on to class.

Lodi, docked at the boat yard on Emajõgi
Aivar and Riina above-deck on lodi
     Boats. One Thursday morning, my host parents scheduled us a boat ride in a 14th century cargo barge, or lodi. This one-masted sailboat used to carry cargo like furs, wax, honey, and wood between Russia and Estonia, traveling on lakes and rivers. This particular boat is a recreation of these long gone barges. It is a short, squat vessel as far as sailboats go, measuring in at 12 meters in length and 7.5 meters in width. Stay tuned for more from the boat department, as I will be visiting a Viking village this weekend and possibly doing a little sea-faring in a Viking ship.

Walking home at about 4 p.m.
     My daily walk home. The trek from my house to the social sciences building on Tiigi street is about thirty minutes or so, and fifteen or twenty of those minutes are spent on this path along the river. In the morning I pass old men donning windbreakers, baiting their fishing poles and opening their tackleboxes for the day. In the afternoon I pass these same men again, still reeling in catches. Some of them now have a beer in one hand, fishing pole in the other, with several empty bottles nestled in the riverbank sand at their feet. The afternoon is also the time for rowing clubs to practice in kayaks and shells, and for high school kids to hang out at small docks along the bank, backpacks strewn on the planks.

Dinner: peas, cucumber salad, potatoes, pickled mushrooms, and pig tongue
     Food. Estonian food is damn delicious, and thankfully, my host family insists on feeding me a lot. This morning I finished my breakfast of pork dumplings, sour cream, and horseradish, cleaned my plate completely, and set my fork and knife neatly side by side on the dish, a customary sign that one is all done.
     "Steven, eat more food," said Riina from the couch. (That's another nice thing about meals here: we eat in comfy chairs and couches. I don't think this is a cultural phenomenon, just a really awesome feature of my host family.) It wasn't a question, it was an order. Well, the dumplings were delicious, and there was plenty left, so I obliged. I am coming to realize, there is always plenty left to eat. I thought maybe Aivar and Riina would stop preparing such huge portions when they realized I didn't have the appetite of several lumberjacks, but the piles of food show no sign of abating, so I'll have to adjust.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Entry IV: In Which I Learn A Valuable Lesson

     They say that study abroad is a time of self-discovery--a time to learn something new about the way you think about the world, and gain insight on long-standing misconceptions. I'm not sure if a single semester in another country is guaranteed to rock one's world to the core, but the self-discovery bit definitely rings true. I learned something about myself last night: I hate clubbing.

     My host brother Ott knows some people who know some people, and he often gets free tickets to the nightclubs in Tartu. His favorite is a place called Club Tallinn, and he invited me to come along with some friends last night. Earlier in the evening, I went out and about downtown with a few of my classmates. We hung out at a little bar called Zavood before merging with an amoeba of European exchange students we bumped into at the Kissing Students Fountain in the town square. We bar-hopped for a bit: first to a hip little place called Noll, then to Underground, a gritty basement bar with Dragonforce blasting through the house speakers and a clientele clothed almost exclusively in studded leather. It was a good night. I felt I was finally getting to know some students outside of the group of Americans with whom I traveled here--not to say I don't like my American classmates, but a big reason I'm in this program in the first place is to meet people who are distinctly not American. Anyway, at midnight Ott called me to say he'd be in front of Club Tallinn at a quarter till one. I felt a little tired, but I didn't want to turn down his generous invitation. Besides, I'd never been "on the list" before, and I wondered how that felt. So I agreed to meet with Ott and his friends at 12:45.

     The club was hemorrhaging into the street, and its contents were desperately trying to get back indoors. At least, that's what it felt like from where we stood on the sidewalk. We were a group of five: Ott, Maili, Maili's brother Rene, Rene's girlfriend whose name I didn't hear but pretended to anyway when we were introduced, and me. House music pulsed weakly through small speakers overhanging the front double doors, offering a diluted preview of what might await everyone teeming up the wide front steps. We could get in no problem, Ott said, but we just had to push through the mass of people and give the bouncer our names. So in we went. The crowd was desperate and aimless at the same time. From a distance, it looked like a riot, with everyone clawing tooth and nail to get through the door. Once I was inside of the clamor it felt much more serene, and easy to shoulder through. A lot of people didn't seem to really know or care where they were heading. They just stood around, bumping into each other and occasionally leaning in the direction of the burly guy dressed in black at the door, with embroidered security badges on his chest and sleeves. The air was thick with the scent of with minty chewing gum, alcohol, unwashed hair, perfume, and what I strongly suspect was Axe body spray.  It was intoxicating, and I almost understood the lazy nature of the throng. Maybe this was the party. Why go inside?

     But free tickets are free tickets, so we continued. I should tell you right now, I won't be able to accurately describe the interior of Club Tallinn. I had never been to a club before last night, and I don't really know the right words to do this place justice. So I'll do what I always do when words fail me: I'll reference "A Night at the Roxbury." 

     Remember that movie? Remember the clubs? Good. That's all you need to know. It was like that, but with a younger crowd. Smoke machines pumped out thick plumes that enveloped the dance floors, and black lights illuminated glow-in-the-dark paint that was so edgily splattered all over every surface of the room. Velvet couches lining the walls offered a resting place for tired, sweaty dancers. That was their purpose in theory at least. In practice, they were the territory of brooding young men who looked sober and grim but also glazedly drunk at the same time. I will never understand how this is accomplished.

Looking back, I think I should have gone to the bar, ordered a beer, put a serious expression on my face, and sat anonymously on a couch to watch girls dance from a distance. This at least would have allowed me to blend in. Instead, I tried to have fun. And nothing could have prepared me for how awkward I felt, and how awkward I appeared to others, throughout this whole experience.

     Not long after I first got out on the dance floor, a girl yelled something in Estonian in my ear. I put on my confused foreigner face and was about to tell her I couldn't speak her language when Ott's girlfriend Maili swooped in and screamed that I was American. The girl smiled in a motherly sort of way and yelled in my ear again, this time in English.
     I tried to look gracious, good-humored, cool, and self-deprecating all at the same time. It's a facial expression somewhat like a frown with smiling eyes. I make this face a lot. I have pictures.

     Oddly enough, this girl's comment made me feel a lot better; it sort of broke the ice. I thought I could maybe, just maybe get over my awkwardness and have a good time. Unfortunately, the music was pretty awful, and I just couldn't get down with it, no matter how hard I tried. But I stuck with it anyway. I didn't want to leave Ott, Maili, and company. They really wanted to show me a good time I think, and to run out would be both insulting to them and embarrassing for me.

Artist's conception of Club Tallinn. Yes, there was a topless DJ.
    But I couldn't take it for much longer. About half an hour after we arrived, Ott danced up to me through the crowd to put a hand on my shoulder to ask at the top of his lungs, "WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!" He looked at me bemusedly, jiggling around to the rhythm of "Waka Waka" and snapping his fingers. He bit his lower lip and scrunched up his face, savoring the melodious strains of Shakira's masterpiece. I had no idea what he meant by this question. What did it look like I was doing? I was dancing in a subtle, classy, and understated way, of course. Also, I was glancing around self-consciously every nine seconds, and periodically checking my feet to see if my white socks/dark shoes combination was as glaringly uncool as it felt.

     I danced for a bit longer. Sometimes in the general vicinity of others, sometimes completely alone. Finally, after another twenty minutes of this, I looked around and realized Ott and Maili weren't close by anymore (I had long since lost track of Ott's other friends). They must have gone to the smaller dance floor at the back of club, or walked off somewhere to be alone. Perfect, I thought. Here was my chance to escape. I danced away from the middle of the dance floor, trying to appear inconspicuous as I drifted away (the effort was unnecessary; no one had noticed me anyway). I got my jacket from the coat check at the front door and hit the street. Stepping into the cold night air outside the club, I felt instantly better. The smell of car exhaust, cigarettes, and the gyros from a nearby late night fast-food joint that capitalizes on drunk hunger pangs was a rich olfactory mosaic that meant my freedom.

    It was two in the morning. I enjoyed my walk along the river back home, and entered a dark and silent house. It was bed time.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Entry III: Meeting the Family [or: how much of this awkwardness can be chalked up to a cultural divide, and how much is simply my social ineptitude?]

7:20 p.m. 
    On the train to Tartu, only a few minutes from our final stop. It's been a lazy ride spent fooling with my point-and-shoot camera settings, reading my novel, practicing some Estonian words, and drifting off to sleep. But now I can't sit still. Nervousness at the thought of meeting my host family has seeped under my skin and won't go away. After holding off the anxiety all day, I can't stop thinking about how things might go. How do I behave when we are first introduced? Do we hug? What will we talk about on the car ride home? I even started rehearsing potential conversations in my head, plotting a course of action for every possible conversational parry and thrust I might face. If they say "Welcome to our home (or in Estonian, tulemast), then I will reply, "Thank's a beautiful house." That's the only appropriate response I can think of. Even if it is not a beautiful house, I know I will use this line. The bits of dialogue I am storing up right now comprise my safety net, they make me feel a little secure.
     My nerves aren't unwarranted. Every other student has been in contact with their family via email, but somehow my introduction email didn't get through to my host mom's address. She didn't receive my message until two days earlier, and I only read her response (a brief message assuring me I was indeed still her host son, and she would pick me up and bring me to shelter this evening) about ten minutes ago. She signed off at the bottom of the message: Riina. Deja vu. I think back to the frisky drunk girl in Tallinn. For a second I'm lost in thought, imagining a household with her as a mother figure. Odd. I'm pulled from this bemused reverie when we clatter to a halt at the Tartu station. We pile off the train and into the crisp dusk air.
     There's a gang of Estonians down the track, a loose assemblage of small families, solitary men and women, and a few couples. Our hosts. We walk towards them, and stop about ten feet away, luggage set down at our sides or in front of us like shields. We all--students and families alike--smile nervously at each other, never settling on a particular person, not sure who belongs to whom. One by one we are introduced to the family mob, and we depart with our matches.  I am last, and the only host left is a round-faced woman with silvery hair. She's beaming kindly, and her eyes crinkle in a way that reminds me of my parents. This is Riina. I walk up to her and extend my hand for a handshake. She puts her arms out and steps up for a hug instead. I think we'll get on fine.

      My premonition from yesterday is right on: things are going smoothly with the host family. A quick introduction: Riina is my host mom. She's a good-natured woman with a soft voice and an easy smile. She works in the Information Technology department at Tartu University. Aivar is my host dad. He's a quiet man, though my impression is colored by the fact that his English isn't very good (so he says; but I think it sounds pretty great considering he didn't begin studying the language until adulthood). Aivar has a wiry, solid frame, craggy features, and a wry sense of humor that breaks through the language barrier in the form of impish grins and the occasional wink. He is a woodworker, a dog-lover, and the best cook in the house. Ott is my host brother. He's 22 years old, and starting his first year at the agricultural university in Tartu where he studies hydro-engineering. Maili is Ott's girlfriend, and she is completing her last year of flight school, where she studies navigation. Ott and Maili just moved into an apartment across town. Riina and Aivar seem to expect them to return soon, seeing as they don't have any money for food. There are two big, friendly dogs in the house named Ups and Nuki, and one elusive cat named Minni. (Or "Minni-Raisk" when she's stealing food. Riina tells me this nickname translates roughly to "Facking Minni.") This is the family.
 Tonight, I take a sauna in the Estonian style with my host parents. The first step is going to the store for beer, because as Aivar informs me, "sauna is not sauna without beer."
    Riina and I drive a few blocks to Konsum, an Estonian chain grocery store. Walking in through the sliding doors, I feel obnoxiously eager to soak up new sights and make observations (e.g. "Oh wow, the grocery carts are a little bit smaller here," or "there sure are a lot of beers sold in plastic bottles"). I'm a little more excited than I should be for a trip to the store, I suppose. It's just that the idea of foreign products and advertising is really cool and unusual to me: what are Estonian staple items? What is Estonian "junk food?" What's difficult or impossible to find in your average store? How do Estonian companies get people to buy their stuff?
     Tonight, our only goal is sauna beer, but once we enter the store Riina wants me to take my pick of drinks and snacks. I'm not very good at receiving this kind of generosity, and besides, the huge variety of choices--all labeled in Estonian--paralyzes me completely. Mostly I follow her around and release non-committal ho-hums at her suggestions, then arbitrarily pick something off the shelf and say aitah ("thank you") as I put it in the cart. Our haul includes little hotdogs, kefir, apples, garlic black-bread croutons, a Latvian fruitjuice that is supposedly quite tasty, and a giant milk chocolate bar called Mesikäpp (meaning "honey paw" or bear; the mascot is a teddy bear). Also included in our cart are the ingredients for the Mexican food I'll cook for family dinner later this week (side note: tortillas at Konsum don't come in little rounds, but in towel-sized sheets folded up in a square). 
      After we check out, I steer our cart to the door. Riina stops me with a hand on the shoulder and directs me to pull the cart our of the flow of traffic. We stand by the storefront window, next to a rack of toilet paper. Riina has the receipt in her hand.
     "I always check," she says with a smile, and begins reading through the receipt from the top down. She holds the long strip of paper with her finger tips at either side and feeds it through her hands like a typewriter's platen. It doesn't take long, but long enough for me to wonder if this is common practice in Estonia or just my host mom's unique behavior.
     "Okay, it's good," she says. As we wheel the cart out to her car, a little black SAAB, she explains that many stores frequently overcharge customers. Konsum and Maximart are two of the worst places for that sort of thing, she says. She doesn't know why this is--doesn't know if it's some devious part of cashier training, or just incompetence or technological error. Whatever the case, she's made the best out of a bad situation: Instead of paying the fee required to withdraw cash with her debit card, she just uses her card to buy groceries where she knows she'll be overcharged, then confronts the cashier and collects the money she is due.
     This host mom of mine is a crafty lady. This craftiness, along with her fondness for chocolate and good taste in beer, make her very well-suited for stocking the pantry.

P.S. Stay tuned! More on the inevitable Estonian weight-gain as it develops.