In one month's time, Estonia has gone from a dull, gray post-winter abyss to a sunlit patchwork of inviting forests and sunny cities. Once again, I find myself in Tartu's many playgrounds because that's the best place to let wild children out to pasture.
When I am "at the playground" - mänguväljakul - I have the difficult task of making sure both of my daughters don't hurt themselves. One might be hanging upside down from a swing, while the other is preparing to launch herself off the slide. But while I am spotting each, I also notice things around me, I notice how the kids relate to each other, and occasionally arise at some thoughts resembling general observations.
Observation number 1. The Estonian name generation gap is huge. As another American traveler to these parts once remarked, "in Estonia, if you forget the name of any man over the age of 55, there is an 89% chance his name is Rein."
But what about the young men under the age of 5? Not a chance. On the playground, you will find no Tiits, Reins, Marts, or any other moniker of the middle aged. But just yell out the name Martin or Oliver, and the little heads will turn. I don't even want to ask the names of nearby children, because I already know what they are. The well of Tiits in Estonia has run dry.
Observation number 2. The division of Estonians by linguistic group is unconvincing. You read so many articles about "Estonians" and "non-Estonians" or "Russophones" and "Estophones," but when you sit on a playground and watch a group of kids play in Estonian AND Russian, such metrics lose their potency.
I watched at a playground in Supilinn as eight children, none of them older than 10, covered the playground like furious ants, playing bilingual games. For the life of me, I could not distinguish who spoke Estonian or Russian as a native language. The nexus of this group was a lanky girl with long red hair who would switch languages on a dime. They played "rock, paper, scissors" in Russian and "hide and go seek" in Estonian. So much for language-based identity.
Observation number 3. Tartu is a child-friendly city. Within walking distance of our house are several playgrounds, and no matter where we are in the city, it seems that there is one within walking distance. Some of them are really high quality, and laid out in a manner that makes it easy for adults to let their kids play for several hours at a time. This may be Estonia's second-largest city, but the playgrounds resemble anything but a crowded urban environment. Having access to these kinds of resources makes it easier for me to be a parent. Thanks Tartu.
(Itching for Eestimaa, http://palun.blogspot.com/ , May 4, 2009)