Once upon a time, a long time ago, there was a young girl sitting at the kitchen table in Toronto refusing to eat verivorst. She consoled herself with the thought that when she grew up she would not have to eat blood sausage, and to make very sure, she vowed not to marry an Estonian. Attracting what we fear most, the young woman – who knew little of anthropology – married an Englishman, only to discover too late that the English are also fond of such victuals.
By the year 1991, at forty-four years of age, she worked at a distress centre as a co-coordinator of volunteers training volunteers, maintaining membership records and officiated as a recruiter for the non-profit organization. A few evenings a week she was an instructor of high-impact aerobics. Two teenage daughters lived with her as well as her younger brother, who lived with Down’s Syndrome. He had been under her care since their parents died six years ago. Divorced, the woman and the father-of-her-children stayed on friendly terms, and they all celebrated special occasions together as a family – a brief history and a modern day version of a happy ending.
In the early summer of 1991 I had been invited by my friend in Tallinn to visit. Immediately, I made plans to fly to Tallinn on August 20th. Of course, as the time approached, the political situation in Estonia rose to volatile proportions, causing me to seriously consider abandoning my plans, inflamed by advice from friends and relatives not to go. What ultimately persuaded me to go ahead with the trip was an inexplicable sense of destiny. The best way that I can explain it is that a strong feeling was urging me to do it - I would liken it to a call.
The Finnair plane was more than half empty as it took off for Helsinki. Russian tanks had been in Tallinn the previous two nights. Thus there was no guarantee anyone would be allowed into the country. However, as it turned out, there was no trouble except for a slight moment of panic, when the woman in front of me challenged the Russian officer’s authority, asserting, “Estonia is a free country.”
Driving away from the airport with my friend I noted that not only were the streets peaceful with an ordinariness to them but the most shocking sight was a tall statuesque woman strutting along in a leather suit like a vision out of the latest Vogue magazine. In Canada my aunt remarked, “the people are so very poor” so I took her cue and didn’t pack anything but basic clothes, not even one dressy blouse! My friend Lya interrupted this thought to tell me that her sister had warned her not to be too disappointed if I didn’t show up at the airport. And, by the way, how did I dare to visit at such a troubled time?
There was a great excitement amongst the people in Tallinn, a pitch of energy that had not been felt for a long time and journalists and photographers were everywhere. August 23 was the 52nd anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and that evening a large group of Estonians were gathering around Pikk Hermann. Many Estonians were in traditional costume as we stood singing, watching the blue-black-and-white flag being hoisted. The air was so heavy with emotion that I could barely stand it. The seriousness of the situation made me feel a little giddy: like the reaction people have to an accident or death, causing them to laugh inappropriately. Although I didn’t laugh out loud I was overwhelmed with a sense of astonishment that of all people taking part in a celebration of protest (which it really was), there I was, shoulder to shoulder with my fellow countrymen, people who had been oppressed for so long and I, who had avoided Estonians most of my life, a non-involved Estonian, unbelievably was here amongst them. It was ironic and maybe even somewhat laughable.
Years later, I was asked whether this experience made a dramatic change in my attitude and whether it drew me back into the cultural fold. Yes and no. I think a visit to the homeland of one’s roots usually has a profound effect. Although I had a new appreciation of Estonia and its inhabitants, my life in Toronto continued on in its Canadian way for another six years.
By the fall of 1997 my eldest daughter had married and my youngest had left to attend university in Kingston, Ontario. In 1996 I met a wonderful man, Raul Vabasalu from White Rock, B.C., and after a two-year courtship we were married in Toronto in 1998 and then I moved out west. In December of that year we attended the Pensioners’ Bazaar where Veera Õunapuu, while clasping Raul’s arm, insisted that we join the Keerutajad folkdancing group. I had never folk danced before, though Raul (once an Arthur Murray’s ballroom instructor) had done so many years previous. So we joined and I found the first two months learning so many dances at once to be extremely demanding.
During my time the Keerutajad have performed at Lääneranniku Päevad in Portland, Vancouver and last year, in Los Angeles, we danced „Tuljak“ with 150 dancers in a double ring. Besides folkdancing the Keerutajad group also sings as a choir. We immensely enjoy singing and swaying to the tunes of our mellifluent folksongs, the music carrying and filling our senses with the smell of hayfields, waltzing in Saaremaa and visions of „metsa veerel väike maja“.
My experiences with the Keerutajad have proved to be life transforming. It is not only an extremely homogenous group, a genuine friendship circle. Each Keerutaja is uniquely gifted in his/her own right and a strong contributor of time and talent to the community at large.
Over the years I have sat on various boards in the community beginning with Eesti Selts, (five years); Estonian Church Foundation, (two years); Lutheran Church, (two years); and Kuldne Klubi Pensioners’ Club board, half a year and counting. For the past nine years Raul and I have sung in the Estonian Orthodox Church’s Choir, relishing the music and Isa Stefan’s heartfelt services.
Recently I launched a website highlighting Estonian events. The goal being to build a resource centre, a repository of photographs, writings and links to harness and share interesting Estonian oriented facts and information. The webpage is an ongoing project, and I would like to encourage others to do something similar, the more websites the merrier, to create a virtual hands-around-the-globe chain. For more information have a look at my site: http://www.estonianevents.com/...
Going back to that earlier question, did the poignant visit to the Estonian homeland make a profound change in my life? Looking back I would say, yes. A seed was cast. My field has been a rich and fertile one. I look forward to more sowing, weeding and harvesting. And the biggest conversion is that not only do I now like verivorst, but also I help make and sell it, perhaps inciting other little girls and boys to sit and plot behind a cold plate of sausage.
A call (3)