Karin Ivand, Toronto
It was a rainy August morning when I packed my car for parts unknown. I had a sleeping bag, air mattress (borrowed), pillows, extra blanket, towels, soap, a flashlight and mosquito repellent. I added all manner of gear to cover a myriad of weather possibilities and activities including hiking boots, walking shoes, waterproof sandals and clothing for rain, sun, heat and cold. I threw in an assortment of provisions such as trail mix, granola bars and a large jug of tap water. A roll of toilet paper in the glove compartment just in case.
Well, I did know a few things. I knew I was going to a week-long summer camp near Huntsville , Ontario called Metsaulikool, or Forest University. It was total cultural immersion in Estonian, my birth language. It involved sleeping in rustic accommodations with women I hadn’t met before, communal bathing in a lakeside sauna, eating outdoors (heartily, I was assured) and an action-packed agenda of lectures, singing, study groups, films, art and overall merriment Estonian-style.
What would I, connoisseur of luxury bed and breakfast travel, make of all these hale and hearty outdoor goings-on? How long can a person survive without her pillow-top mattress, rainhead shower and flush toilet ? As it turned out, a week wasn’t nearly long enough.
Forest University has been going on at the Estonian summer camp property in Muskoka for over 40 years. It is designed to connect people of Estonian descent with their roots and culture. I was the first to arrive, so I set up my sleeping bag in corner of the main building’s loft area that was reserved for the women attendees. What on earth had I signed up for? Where was I supposed to brush my teeth and, more importantly, what if I needed to go to the loo in the middle of the night? The closest bathroom was, well, I actually hadn’t even seen anything remotely resembling a bathroom since I arrived.
Then it started to happen. The most extraordinary women began arriving in our dormitory. Regular attendees, they were delighted to find a newbie in their midst. There was Urve, a charming woman who had been coming to the camp for 26 years. She makes the trip by car from Chicago every summer. There was Linda from Detroit, Elva from Rochester, Liivi from New Zealand, Maimu from South Carolina and Tiia and Virve from my hometown of Toronto.
Dinner was hearty as promised and prepared by Ulle , the impossibly cheerful proprietress who runs the restaurant at Toronto’s Estonian House, and her two daughters. Ulle and her team turned out an astonishing variety of baked goods and delicious meals from the small kitchen that served the 100-plus attendees. You know you are in authentic Estonian culture when the buffet table contains a dish made with cabbage - on this night, cabbage rolls - boiled potatoes, sour cream and a huge bowl of chopped fresh dill.
My head hit the pillow, and I slept like a lamb stuffed with cabbage until morning. After a quick face wash and teeth cleaning at the outdoor tap, the agenda kicked in. We start by choosing our week’s study group, and I signed up for writing with Tiina Kirss, a professor of literature from the University of Tartu in Estonia. Tiina is a gifted teacher who is originally from Buffalo, N.Y. She tells us we will be writing stories in Estonian. We all look at bit panic-stricken. All of us at the camp are bilingual in Estonian and English but we are not accustomed to writing very prolifically in our mother tongue. Tiina fixes her gaze on me and tells me to not say anything is impossible. I astonish myself by writing a story about my first kitchen – an outdoor play space at my grandparents’ cottage that rivals any of the granite -countertops-stainless- steel appliances-spaces I have had since. It has moved me no end to write this simple tale. I didn’t know I had it in me. I am now hooked on the Forest University experience.
Then there is the simple act of getting clean. All I can say is that you have not truly experienced the freedom of summer until you have sat and cooked in a cedar-stoked sauna with a gaggle of women, run naked down the steps to the lake and jumped into the water.
There is no doubt that one of our guest lecturers, a young man named Ando Kiviberg from Estonia, was put on this Earth to bring music to the world. When he wasn’t sleeping, he was either playing any one of a number of musical instruments, singing or talking about music. He is the founder of an indigenous music festival in Viljandi, Estonia that attracts 20,000 people each summer.
Just in case we have excess energy after our study group, morning lecture, discussion panel, afternoon lecture, two massive meals and coffee break, we are invited to partake in folk dancing for an hour each day. Dance instructor Ene Jakobsen, who came from Estonia to lead our rag-tag group of participants, was a miracle worker. Then again, she has a modicum of experience as she is one of the organizers of Tantsupidu (Dance Festival) in Estonia where an astonishing 8,000 folk dancers from throughout the country come together for a massive, choreographed spectacle every four years.
It’s incredible to be launched into such a singular experience, yet feel so much at home. One of the participants said it was like being with your “tribe.” There is no doubt that Forest University taught me a lot about myself in one short week. Am I going back next year? Am I ready to once again ditch my electric toothbrush, digital TV channels and Egyptian cotton sheets? I can hardly wait.
Memories of Forest University, where being close to your roots is the best lesson