Estonian Letter No.1 - To My Grandparents

Trip Start Sep 28, 2010
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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Dear Isa & Vana Ema
(Anton & Linda Luikmil, my Estonian grandparents)

Guess where we are? We're just hanging out in downtown Tallinn, your old town. We are currently in a cafe on Rataskaevu Street, just off Pikk Street, the street where you used to live and where your family ran a grocery store up until the mid-1940’s. It is really quite a prominent and beautiful street in Tallinn, a street that everyone I talk to knows of. It’s still a cobblestone street, which makes it a little hard on our bikes but that does not matter as most on the time we walk and try and imagine what life would have been like here over sixty years ago.


We have been in Estonia for nearly two weeks now and are staying with an Estonian family in a town called Pikva, about 50 minutes out of Tallinn. We arrived here by ferry from Stockholm, and after riding out of the hold with all the big trucks we made our way to Kehra (Pikva’s local station) by train. The train trip was a little longer than expected as we managed to get stuck in the carriage when the doors did not open at our station……something to do with the fact that the stations are being modernized and not all doors open at all platforms, so we ended up going to the end of the line and then waiting for the train to return. The instructions to get to Pikva were a little unconventional, but after we passed the big wooden mushroom and the fallen tree we knew we were on the right track, and we soon found our home for the next couple of weeks.

Our Estonian hosts made us feel welcome straightaway despite the language barrier. Sille, the mother, a few years older than us, speaks great English but nobody else (father, two kids and grandma) does. They all natter away in Estonian, the language sounds very familiar to me but of course I can't understand a word. We are trying to learn as much as we can so I can impress Mum and Leenu when we get home. The names we used to call you now have so much more meaning, Isa and Ema, I hear them repeated many times every day.



There are a few other guys staying with our host family, helping to rebuild the roof over summer. Every evening we have a big family dinner around a large wooden table outside in the garden. We talk about lots of things over dinner and ask lots of questions about life in Estonia. It is easy to fall into the rhythm of the long summer days, but not so easy to imagine the reverse, the dark cold wintertime, which most Estonians tell us feels like it will never end.


The house we are staying at is a large timber house surrounded by a few fields beside a river. The garden is full of vegetable patches and berry bushes. We are both so impressed at how much food is grown and preserved here, and we are starting to learn a bit about growing vegetables as well as making jams and pickles. We share a love of food with our host family and spend a lot of time swapping recipes and cooking for each other. Sille and Mamma go to a huge effort with the meals every day and they have introduced us to lots of traditional Estonian dishes, although we haven’t had any smoked eel yet like you used to make Isa! Pork is the meat of choice and there is rarely a meal without some, I feel that my dad would be drooling here at meal time…..perhaps this is the Estonian influence in his life!

Summer seems to be about maximising the long hot days to prepare for the winter. As well as all the food to be harvested and preserved, there is the wood to be chopped. I have mostly been chopping and stacking wood to build up the supply for the long winter. It is difficult for me to conceive how all this wood could possibly be used, but when we are told that there could be snow for up to 7 or 8 months I start to get some idea of how cold it will be.


Alex has spent a lot of time picking blueberries in the forest. The blueberry bushes cover the forest floor and the fruit is there for the taking. This is astonishing for us as blueberries are usually such an expensive fruit back home. Although given the time required to fill even a small tub, they still feel like a luxury item.


We have fallen in love with the Estonian forest. The pine and birch trees grow so tall and straight, they are so regimented, it is so different to the Australian bush. Sille has taken us on lots of excursions, and together with the kids we have explored the beach, the bog and the forest. Even though it is a small country, there seems to be a lot of space here. The towns and villages are very small and the natural landscape feels mostly uninterrupted.


Every couple of days we make the trip to Tallinn to do a little more exploring. Every time we come we take a stroll down Pikk Street. Being here has made me think of so many questions, and I am itching to know which house you lived in......I wish you were here so you could show me and perhaps tell me another story or two about your life here. Mum tells me that Leenu has a box of family photos at her place and when we come back I'd love to look at them. It would all have a lot more meaning to me now that I have been to some of these places. The old town of Tallinn has apparently changed very little since medieval times, so I feel like my experience of these lovely winding cobblestone streets is very similar to your own.





However I think that you would be fairly surprised by present-day Tallinn. Beyond the walls of the old town there are lots of interesting places to explore. The Russian market is like a remnant of life during Soviet times, as are some of the massive structures on the harbour, the shipbuilding yards and the strange monolithic concrete concert hall, now a decaying roofscape covered in graffiti. The contemporary art galleries have been fun to explore. The new elegant modern art gallery sits in the beautiful gardens of Kadriorg Park, while the more experimental and informal contemporary art gallery occupies the tunnels and bridges of an old factory on the waterfront. Everywhere we go there are "wifi ee" signs. The city is covered with free internet. As much as we love exploring the old town, it feels like a bit of a tourist trap and we are much more interested in getting to know other parts of the city. As usual our favourite thing is to hang out in a cool café and watch the people come and go, and perhaps get a sense of what it’s like to live in this city.



__________________________________________________________

Since we arrived here I have been trying to understand as much about the history of Estonia as possible. Mum (minu Ema) has been able to tell me quite a bit about the past, that you were both city people, that Isa you were a wine merchant, and Vana Ema you ran a grocery store with your sister. I know that you (and 70,000 other Estonians) escaped to the West in 1944 with my aunty as a baby, to flee the new Communist rule. I know that Jaan, your son from your first marriage, moved to the USA. I hate to imagine what it was like for your brothers to be sent off to Siberia, and then to return to a country under Soviet occupation. It is sad to think that I don’t have any family left in Estonia. I know you were lucky to escape, and I know from reading and talking to people that life in Soviet times was very tough. I know the basic facts of your story but I wish I knew more.

You would be happy to know that Estonia is now a free and independent country once more, and perhaps you would also be pleased that your daughter Liisu, my sister Liina and I have all become proud Estonian citizens.

I don’t know exactly why, but I feel very at home here. We have met lots of interesting people, who seem proud and happy in their newly independent country. I wish I could ask you more questions about your life here. Did you ever want to come back here? Were you ever homesick in Australia? Would you like to see Estonia as it is today? I have been thinking of you every day and wanted to write you this letter. I’m not sure that I’d even know how you would respond…..perhaps my Mum will know…..

Your grandson, Jason

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