Bird Droppings from Estonia: Passing of seasons (3)
Eestlased Eestis 03 Sep 2010 Hilary BirdEWR
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Summer seems to be slipping away all too quickly … the swallows have gone followed by the storks and the first conkers have fallen from my horse chestnut. Early summer was good – my British cousins came to Tallinn on (separate) cruises around the Baltic – Molly and her friend Margaret all the way from Canada and Betty and John from the old childhood stamping ground of Bristol, UK. What a pleasure it was to see old (rather more old than we would care to admit) familiar faces and tell tales of cranky family eccentricities… things that probably drove us up the wall at the time but are now the subject of a good giggle. We are all in our 60s and in various states of decrepitude. Not that we let that get in the way of enjoying ourselves – creaky legs and pacemakers were shamelessly parked on the kid’s motorised train and off we went around the old town, on a mini trip that included some tricky manoeuvres by the driver, dicky tickers or no …

And, for a Caledonian Canadian pal, what better than a beer at the Scots club, complete with faux highland landscape and bust of Robbie Burns? Let it not be said that Tallinn doesn’t have something for everyone! And, as the big liners pulled out from the dock and on to St Petersburg or Stockholm, I waved (a bit tearfully, it must be said) from amongst the giant weeds in the concrete debris of the old Soviet military dock (although I knew I couldn’t be seen) and heard Acker Bilk’s Stranger on the shore somewhere in the back of my head … very appropriately as Acker was born in Somersetshire and worked in Wills ciggy factory in Bristol. Then a young woman came along, stripped off down to the buff to sunbathe and was followed shortly by a fully clothed artist with easel and brushes. I recovered my equilibrium, retired and left them to it …

I went to my Estonian ancestral homelands at Käsmu at Midsummer Eve - Jaanipäev (the feast of John the Baptist). The weather was wonderful and I wanted to explore so I took my own car rather than going to Tallinn and having coz Kalle pick me up. En route, deep in the primeval forests, I branched off the main road (meaning one with tarmac) to Ilumäe (it means ‘beautiful hill’) chapel and cemetery. I have never managed to find the village but the lovely 19th century chapel that emerges in a clearing from the dirt track dappled in sunlight is a haven of peace. See Flags were flying on the memorial by the gate that reads, “A memory to the living to honour those unjustly killed and to those who died in war.”

The gold list on black marble has around two hundred names – a lot for a tiny village - and includes several of my Estonian family – Elmar, Julius, Jakob and Richard Meikar ‘fallen’ in WWI,’ Andrei Maikar , ‘killed 1941-46’ and Ernst Meikar , ‘killed in Estonia 1941-51.’ I paused and then made my way to the back of the cemetery – the untidy bit - where grandpa Johan Meikar is buried along with my aunt Helmi (the oldest of the four sisters - I never met her) and put a candle to burn. I tarried at some more Meikar graves – Heiki who died when he was three, Jacob August (1908-81) and Jakob Meikar (no dates - was he the soldier ?) and wondering whom these people were before leaving to take the high road past the 450-year-old sacred linden tree that leads down to the sea. Since then one of the young Meikars, bless ‘em, has started a family tree on the Internet and I now know that I belong to a family of 1, 292 rellies, 186 blood relatives and 24 known ancestors. Quite a change as so few of my UK relatives are left! I must do something about getting in touch with the Estonians but not yet … this takes some getting used to …

At Käsmu I greeted the cousins and old white cat and white cat’s son, was fed and issued with a chair by the sea and a pair of binoculars to watch a sea bird and her brood of chicks who had settled on large rocks near the shore. This was the most exciting thing that had happened in Käsmu all day. I counted about ten chicks on the overcrowded stone with some more confident offspring, who, presumably, didn’t feel the need to keep so close to mother, asleep on an adjacent rock. Later coz Kalle chugged past in his inflatable boat with a motor and dressed in his official lifejacket– he’s a volunteer merepäästja (a coastal lifeguard) and is very conscientious and proud of his job. He was on his way to supervise some scientific project that is measuring the depth of the bay. What a useful lot we Meikars are!

As evening fell I went to the tiny whiteboard chapel to place candles on my aunts grave , my grandmother’s grave and by the memorial to my mother and was delighted to see that the church door was open. The organ fund seems to be doing well – the venerable old gold and red instrument (built 1863) looked a lot smarter (and hopefully sounds better) than when it wheezed through my aunt’s funeral in late 2004. For some pix of old Käsmu and info go to My great aunt Elisabet is one of the fish gutters.

After my cousins watched the world cup we all debunked to the shore in front of the back garden gate and imbibed a lot of alcohol beside the festive bonfire. At midnight the moon hung low over the bay like a silver coin and a jagged pink-grey cloud trailed slowly over its face … visibility was good in what the Scots call the ‘gloaming’ and the English call ‘twilight’ - the sea birds could be seen standing stock still asleep on the rocks in a tranquil sea, heads tucked under wings. The only sound that could be heard was the crackling of the bonfire as my cousin disposed of the year’s building debris. All very mysterious and magical until, about fifteen minutes later, the Seventh Heaven nightclub across the bay started up and that was an end to midsummer tranquility. I retired to bed and fell asleep an instant.

The next day I woke up feeling better than I should have and headed north along the coastal road. First stop was the manor at Sagedi that houses a woods museum, then on to Vihula manor and how the house has changed! It’s gone from being a run down dump to a super smart hotel – see Then on to a picturesque castle ruin at Toolse, perched on a promontory in the Baltic Sea and built in the late 15th century by the Teutonic Order to protect traffic from pirates. See My last stop was Kunda, home of Portland cement, and still an industrial centre. The remains of the 19th century factory turned out to be, surprisingly, rather interesting but my real destination was Lammasmäe (Sheep Hill) - site of a Mesolithic settlement of hunters and fisher folk who lived here around 10,000 years ago. Its one of the oldest sites of habitation in Europe and the aboriginal Europeans who lived there were the antecedents of nearby modern Kunda. A whole culture, comprising around 1,500 people that lived in what is now Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, north west Russia and southern Finland was named after Kunda. We don’t know much about these people but it’s supposed that they came from the south because flint material found in settlements in what is now Estonia does not occur naturally locally, but comes from Lithuania and Belarus. The Kund-ians ate fish, moose and beavers and kept some of the first known domestic dogs in the world. No sign of cats. But I had left Kunda until last on my explorations and had to abandon my trip to Lammasmäe because evening was falling and it was just that bit too far from the town. I shall return, however, as although there’s nothing left to see these ancient habitations they have (for me) a fascinating aura …

A bout of ill health set in early July with a runny eye but I didn’t take much notice as I was just off to a few days at a spa in Pärnu, on the Baltic coast, and thought that a few days relaxation would cure all. It didn’t but the spa was terrific! The weather was marvellous and the hotel (the ‘Estonia’) just five minutes away from a clean, golden beach - really, you would have thought you were in Greece. The package (cheap at 150 GBP) included massage, hot wax poultices and unlimited use of an amazing complex of water treatments – warm swimming pool, sauna, hamam (Turkish steam bath, including an aromatic chamber - my favourite), three warm water ‘caves’ with cascading water of various force emerging from different heights, a cold salt ‘sauna’ (where one breathed in salty fumes), a small, hot Japanese clear water pool and a fab Jacuzzi !! I felt 20 years younger after my stay and will now make a point of going several times a year. There are spas all over Estonia, not least of all (one assumes) because a tradition of water treatments was instigated during the early modern period by Swedish scholars at the University if Tartu.

Lars Micrander (? –1706),started it all. He was a follower of Urban Hiärne and a Tartu University professor of physiology, physics and chemistry. In 1691 he discovered two mineral springs near Helme in south Estonia containing iron, sulphur and acids and successfully treated patients by drinking and bathing. Prof Micrander is considered the founder of balneology (the science of bathing, especially the therapeutic use of mineral baths) in the Baltic region. So who was Urban Hiärne (1641 - 1724)? Hiärne, a contemporary of Newton, was an important Swedish doctor, writer and naturalist who introduced empirical scientific methods to the north during the time when Sweden was, from 1611 to 1718, one of the great powers of Europe. Hiärne was born and went to school (where he learned logic, rhetoric, poetry, music and Swedish, German, Russian , Latin and Greek) in Nyen, the Swedish outpost in the province of Ingria that Peter the Great later turned into St Petersburg. He came to Tartu, then called Dorpat, one of the three universities of the empire (the other two were at Turku, then called Åbo, and Uppsala) in 1655 to study but left either because he was broke or fled from war, according to which biography you read, and went on to Uppsala to study medicine. Hiärne was back in the eastern provinces in 1666 as physician to the governor of Livland (now Latvia and south Estonia) during which time he was based in Riga but he also travelled and studied in the Netherlands, Britain (he became a member of the Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge in 1670), France, Poland and Denmark. Hiärne was a ‘neptunist’ who considered water to be the basic element in nature and also an adherent of Iatrochemistry - chemistry applied to medicine - that held that health depends on the proper chemical balance of organs and fluids. He founded (in 1678) the first spa in Sweden at Medevi. He became physician to the King in 1684. His main job was medicine for the army but, like all early modern scientists Hiärne, also attempted to create gold and silver from base metals and his laboratory (supervised by the Board of Mines) was, to all intents and purposes, that of a medieval Court Alchemist.

But back to the ‘Estonia.’ The hotel is enormous having been a holiday establishment for miners during the Soviet era when guests came from all over the USSR. It’s still pretty mixed with a large intake of Finns and Swedes bussed in from the near abroad. The only complaint I had was the food: the price included full board but someone had forgotten to tell cook the USSR was no more and the grub was definitely of the pre-Jamie Oliver school dinner sort. There was, fortunately, a very good beer hall, complete with stag heads, dance floor, buxom waitresses and an open air terrace nearby – it’s quite famous , having (before WWII) been the haunt of choice for Estonia’s greatly loved jazz singer and composer, Raymond Valgre. A statue of Ray, with accordion, stands nearby and the memorial ensemble includes some of his catchiest tunes available at the press of a button.

I got into the spa spirit by taking along two books about people staying at spas. Summer in Baden-Baden by Leonid Tsypkin (1926-82), is a novel written in the USSR during 1977- 81 ‘for the drawer’” i.e. the author knows that the book had no chance of being published. It’s a supposed lost diary of Anna Dostoyevsky about the couple’s trip to Germany (when the writer tried to win money by gambling at fashionable spas) and later in St Petersburg. But this beautifully written book is much more than a travelogue or a biography. A supporting cast of 20th century characters evokes a vivid world of Soviet Jewry whose surnames and patronymics (said the New York Times) “have a Hebraic ring - the narrator half expects Gilya to ''jump up and begin talking, or rather, shouting in Yiddish, as her parents used to do in the place near Kiev where she herself was born:'' the same character has a stock of stories about arrest and miraculous release during the Great Terror and the Leningrad blockade, when frozen corpses were dragged through the streets on toboggans. The conundrum of Dostoyevsky’s anti-Semitism is explored - ''this jealous defender of the insulted and the injured who fervently and even frenetically preached the right to exist of every earthly creature and sang a passionate hymn to each little leaf and every blade of grass - that this man should not have come up with even a single word in the defence or justification of a people persecuted over several thousands of years'' – although, of course, there is no rational answer even though the vast majority of Dostoyevsky scholars in Russia are Jewish … The form is intriguing too with page-long sentences interspersed with the author’s photographs of important , if sometimes menial, places, in Dostoyevsky’s life and works – reminiscent of W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, though the two authors could not possibly have known one another. My second equally elegant and enjoyable book was Utz, by Bruce Chatwin , set in Prague and also in the Soviet period, but where the portly eponymous lover of porcelain and operetta starlets is let out to sojourn in Vichy…

Pärnu hosts a summer opera festival and I caught Borodin’s Prince Igor by the National Opera of Belarus that my friend described as a kultuuripomm – a ‘cultural bomb.’ And so it is. Three hours of gorgeous Eurasian music and costume based on the campaign of the Varingian (Viking) Igor Svyatoslavich the Brave (1151-1202), Prince of Novgorod-Seversk against the Polovtsy (also famous in music from Prokoviev’s Polovstian Suite) a Turkic people from central Asia. Prince Igor is really a cracker of an opera, the melody flows unceasingly, Igor is a broad shouldered and unstintingly heroic, his wife is faithful and true, his brother is a rotter, his opponent, the Tartar Khan is cruel but generous, the rude mechanicals are suitably comic and there’s a love story about Igor’s son and the Khan’s daughter. The ending is surprisingly open and Modern (the opera premiered in 1890) consisting of a (gorgeous) heavenly choir singing a mournful song, as well they might because we know that Igor lost the battle and no mercy could be expected from the Polovtsy … The famous Polovstian dances were nothing short of magnificent and I assume that, as the action takes place approximately in the area of modern Belarus, the troupe from Minsk claim it as their own and have taken it to their hearts. The dances are one of my all time favourite theatrical spectacles - it takes some beating for sheer exhilaration and excitement – the tempo changes twice from languid (including Melody of the Maidens made popular as A stranger in paradise from the 1950s musical Kismet) to the impossibly dynamic dance of the pagan archers and ends, as the triumphant Polovtsy return from victory to exult their Kahn, in a frenzy that makes the Ride of the Valkyries look like a vicarage tea party.

St. Pete's, not Florida~
Returning from the spa I went to visit the doctor, then the dentist and shored myself up with anti-biotics (having been diagnosed as having a chronic tooth infection) just in time to receive more visitors, this time an old pal and two teenage girls. After a stay in Tallinn we took the bus to St Petersburg and stayed in the shabby but cheap and cheerful Puppet Hostel in the centre of town. I was a bit of a party pooper for the duration and was left for a day to languish in bed with Stieg Larsson’s The girl who played with fire, the second of his fabulous Millennium trilogy starring Lisbeth Salander (the grown up Pippi Longstocking, according to her creator) and Mikael Blomkvist, Larssen’s alter ego. A great time was had by all despite it being stiflingly hot (the temperature was over 30º for all of July!) and the director of Bird Tours being off-colour. The party ventured out to the usual sites and the new “Museum of erotica,” attached to the (still working) VD clinic, complete with Rasputin’s (reputed) pickled willy. This was followed by late night forays for the girls to the local nightclubs despite dire warning and unnecessary twittering from me. Far from being whisked off to the white slave trade I think the Londoners frightened the local Russian lads to death!

Back in Tartu the Bird Tours party enjoyed a peaceful couple of days at luxurious hotel Haidak out at Ülenurme where the girls were dispatched in taxis to explore the night life while the elders relaxed on the terrace after days spent by idyllic lakes and riverside beaches. Jelly and I returned after the departure of the guests, much to the delight of the local field mice as Jelly turns into killer kitty mode in her country retreat.

Work has been somewhat sporadic owing to iffy health but I have translated a cabaret from Estonian to English (hopefully to be premiered in Riga this month) and done a respectable amount of research, if not much writing, for the never-ending anthology project. In the meanwhile, whilst reclining weedily on the sofa there’s been some good history TV on offer. The pick of the bunch was a programme about the battle for the skies above Britain that started 60 years ago with Winston Churchill’s ominous words “ The Battle of France is over. I expect the Battle of Britain is about to begin." Without in any way detracting from the courage of the young RAF fighters the programme examined the strategies, and planes that helped the British in 1940 and came up with some surprising results. Britain, it seems, had been preparing since 1936 and was not, as the legend goes, caught with its pants down...

Remembe Snoopy and his Spitfire? Curse you Red Baron!!
The original Spitfires are too old (bless ‘em) to be flown at full throttle now so a computer created a virtual 1940 dog fight with a plane called ‘Bozo’ (with the ‘o’ an RAF symbol) in order to work out the pros and cons of the battle. Spitfires could rise higher faster (the higher up the better in a dog fight) than their Messerschmitt rivals but the standard RAF formation was not as effective as the Luftwaffe (who flew like geese in a V). Also Spitfires could not get off the ground quickly- so two out of three to Fatso Göring. But the Messies used up a lot of fuel in attacking and had to be careful to conserve enough to get home. Radar, invented in Britain, was, of course, a huge advantage because the Brits could see when an attack was on its way and get the slow take-off Spits up first to be ready and waiting. So why didn’t Gerry take out the radio towers? Because they didn’t understand the radar system and thought that the core operated underground. B

But it seems that where the Brits really scored was in low technology – the Germans destroyed Polish and French planes because they were standing in a row and a domino effect caused terrible damage. But the clever Brits parked their planes in literal (not virtual) E-bays with two in each dock, thus a domino effect could not take place. Even more impressive is the system of communications that relied on thousands of individual volunteers sitting in fields and on beaches observing the Germans coming: they were armed with binoculars, a theodolite and, as Winston Churchill said, “mark one eyes.” This network reported to about 40 call centres by telephone (then state of the art technology) who mapped out the German formations on a map and relayed numbers, situation, height and enemy and friendly formations – vital information- to the RAF pilots. Another myth that hit the dust was the fact that the RAF was on its last legs when Hitler turned on London. Brit munitions factories were in fact churning out planes enough (250 per month) to last five months whereas, the Luftwaffe system could only have sustained the same level of attack for 2.5 months. Finally, stupidity also helped. One historian remarks on the triumph of Nazi arrogance over competence and it was Fritz’s failure to break Tommy Atkins that sent him off to Russia where Ivan drained the life out of him and GI Joe and his pals delivered the coup de grace. Spiffing stuff!
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