Bird droppings from Estonia: To Hel and back (3)
Archived Articles 22 Dec 2006 Hilary BirdEWR
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I have just returned from a very pleasant flit to Helsinki (Helsingfors). If you go to Helsinki by plane your baggage is labelled 'Hel'; thus I've been to Hel and back. But there's no point in flying from Eesti, especially at this time of the year when the ferry is so cheap (£25 return), because few travellers feel the urge to cross the chilly Baltic as the nights draw in.

I travelled on a catamaran called the Super Sea Cat. I enjoy thinking up alliterations and came up with Terrific Tidal Tiddles as I sat in the cosy café drinking very passable coffee, watching the engines churn up the sea lanes and the towers of Tallinn's old town recede into the distance. The ferry takes nearly four hours to travel the 50-mile stretch but the TTT takes just over an hour before the white Tuomiokirkko - Lutheran cathedral - on the hill that overlooks Helsinki hoves into view and then it's about another half hour before you're on the dock. The journey took me less time (passport control, customs and all) than to get to Tartu. And the port is less than 1 km to the centre — very walkable.

Historically the Finns and Estonians have had close links. It's not just proximity — the languages are similar. The earliest important contacts were cultural. In the early 19c every aspiring nation had to have a national epic and the Estonian Kalevipoeg (Son of Kalev) was modelled on the Finnish Kalevala. In the 1840s the authors of both — the Finn Lönnrot and Estonians Faehlmann and Kreutzwald, (who completed the work after Faehlmann's death) met in Tartu and schemed how to sneak Kalevipoeg past the censor. Tzarist censorship (headed by Baltic Germans) was much more strict in the province of Livland than it was in the semi-autonomous Duchy of Finland, where the Kalevala had been published with relative ease. The Kalewipoeg, eine Estnische Sage, (Kalevipoeg, an Estonian Saga) came out (in parallel Estonian and German) piecemeal in the late 1850s.

It was presented as an interesting product of an obscure minority culture doomed to extinction, and appeared in chunks in the academic journals of the German speaking Estonian Learned Society. The work first appeared, again in German (in Tartu), as a complete book in 1861, and received an enthusiastic welcome in literary circles in Russia, Germany and Budapest. The Estonian original came out in 1862 in Finland.

Finnish political support for Estonia has been important. In the early 20c, after the failure of the 1905 revolution many leading liberals fled to Finland and out into the wide world. Finnish lads came to fight the Soviets in 1918 and 1944. In the 1970s and 1980s the Estonians knew very well that the Socialist paradise was a load of codswallop because they were watching Finnish telly, my relations included. And finally, of course, Finnish investment since the 1990s has been important in bolstering economic recovery after regaining independence from the USSR. Finland has been Estonia's largest trade partner ever since and since 2001, the trade balance with Finland has been in the black. Many Finnish businesses transfer their production to Estonia where wages are cheaper and the work force well-educated.

I've been to Hel several times and I like it. It's wealthy and smart — the
Finns are conspicuously cheerful and it's not hard to see why. Finland has
topped the World Global Competitiveness Index for the last two years. The
recipe for success is a Nordic economic model, shared in various forms by
Finland, Sweden and Norway, combining strong social protection with flexible
labour markets and an emphasis on research. Taxes are high but generally
accepted in return for good public services, including education, child-care
and re-training. This mix has fuelled high productivity rates, making the
Nordic countries among the most competitive in the world.

Helsinki is not quite like the other Scandinavian capitals — it gives off a
particularly rugged feeling. What Helsiniki has that I've never seen anywhere else
are the numerous and unexpected clumps of natural rock that just seem to well up by the side of the road as if shoved up by some sort of volcanic eruption. And
the wonderful grey pavement slabs with red marbling...

Shopping-wise (for the likes of me) Helsinki sports the largest bookstore in
Europe and I came back broke and laden down with goodies. Finally, I had
rather a comical time with being almost universally mistaken for a Finn!
Finnish may be close to Estonian but not close enough for me to understand. Fortunately, most Hel-ers speak excellent English !

And while I've on my soapbox, as a woman, I am utterly grateful for modern times. Visiting Finland's national gallery and seeing (exquisite) 19c pictures of women with sick and dying children, brings home the fact that it is only recently that women were not (1) inevitably married and (2) permanently pregnant because half their brood would die. Both my adopted mum and dad (old enough to be my grandparents) were from large families - six and seven respectively. This is how it is with nature - death is the agent of population control. So, let's hear it for public health and medicine.

But, and there's always a 'but', what price for our modern, safer world? I am very tempted to reply 'rampant materialism'. In Eesti my favourite price of graffiti (yes, it is making it's mark literally, even in Tartu) asks plaintively 'Won't someone give me something else to love besides money?' and one of the campaign slogans of the forthcoming elections is 'Money is not happiness '.
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