Merle tried the door of the bar we'd come to on our return to Tallinn. In the middle of the old town, it was a place closed to tourists. The door was clearly locked and there was no intercom. Merle pulled out a card and stuck it in a reader by the door. A click and a hum and we were in. This was a bar for artists, but in her previous job as foreign PR officer for Estonia, Merle had access to all parts of the city to bring journalists and had kept that right. Inside, the bar looked much like any other with stools before the bar, tables around the walls and a few lounges in the back room. With summer in its early days and the working week starting the next morning, there were few revelers, but I the quiet gave the pub a stronger feeling of exclusivity. I ordered a Malaysian dish from a menu covering continental and Asian food and enjoyed the last conversations with my new friends. 'Most people who visit Estonia come back again,' they said knowingly. I wondered. When would I next be in the area and would I make the trip again. Quite possibly.
Analie offered to show me how to use a real Estonian sauna. Merle and the boyfriend she'd come to Saaremaa to visit would take one privately later. I followed Analie into the main farmhouse to an area curtained off from the living room. She stripped off and headed into the shower room. In the name of decency, I'd kept my back turned and waited until I heard the shower stop before I stepped after her. I placed my towel on the window ledge and washed quickly, then grabbed my towel and stepped into the sauna proper. 'Oh good. You brought the towel. You'll probably need to put in on the seat so you don't burn your sensitive ass.' Once I'd recovered from the wave of heat, I saw that she was sitting naked as I'd heard was done in Scandinavia. She'd left her own towel outside. I've never been comfortable with the idea of being naked with anyone that I wasn't sleeping with, but there was little reason to argue. I unwrapped the towel from around my waist, placed it double on the wood and sat down next to her. We started chatting about her husband, who'd played the porn director in Sex and Death, Marie, life in Australia and a number of other topics and before I knew it, nakedness wasn't an issue. The thermometer read 95C, but Analie kept scooping water onto the hot stones. Eventually she decided that she'd had enough for the moment and I was glad that I'd matched her resistance to the heat, but I now realise that she was sitting closer to the heat source and the steam, where it was probably over 100C. I followed a minute
After spending all weekend with a group of Estonian girls, I've decided that Estonian sounds like Dutch, with all the shaped vowels and plenty of k's, but with an Italian rhythm. The girls were quite pleased with this description. Although they spent much of the weekend talking Estonian, they took the time to translate key pieces of conversation or just to talk to me about their lives, their work, their taste in music. We took a drive to Saaremaa, the largest island, where Estonians go to chill out in the summer. It had all the fun that road trips entail, and even if I couldn't understand everything that made them laugh, I enjoyed the antics. Merle put a piece of chocolate on the dashboard while she was driving, then forgot about it when we went to sit on the beach. Not one to waste chocolate, she licked it all up when we got back to the car. A five star hotel that Merle wanted to show us wouldn't let us look around, so she invented a story that I was a journalist doing a story for an Australian magazine. The cover was picked up by Margit, who decided she was doing a story on toilets on Saaremaa. We agreed that strip clubs were pointless because they gave an increase in dramatic tension but never provided the climax and a happy ending. We found secluded beaches to sit on, visited churches and walked around a Danish fortress. Unfortunately I'd forgotten my camera for the last, but the highlight was the guesthouse we stayed in on Saturday night. Built up around an old farmhouse, it had two more buildings for guests and a big barbecue area. We
I went to the cinema last night to see 'Sex and Death', a collection of short films by Estonians. Merle warned me they'd be surreal, but I still wasn't quite prepared. The first started with a young man selling ice creams in a street cart. When he didn't sell enough, his boss said he had other work for him and took him to a dinghy hotel room for a porn shoot. The girl he'd partner with was just as reluctant as him, but she dutifully spread her legs to have her hair trimmed while he took a shower. When the young man couldn't get an erection during the dialogue, the director ordered the camerman to give him a blowjob, but even through his shame, he ejaculated before they could start shooting. The second was of a wife who'd loved her husband until he had an accident and ended up in a wheelchair, at which time she'd started having an affair with a doctor friend and was expecting his baby. The doctor came to visit the couple socially and both the husband and wife, for their own reasons, asked the doctor to leave a needle full of morphine when he left. He did so grudgingly and the wife got drunk so she could commit the act. When the doctor arrived the next morning, he was delighted to find that the husband was still alive, but of course, when he went to share his joy with the wife, he found her dead with a big smile. The third began with soldiers in a trench, bizarrely firing to both sides. One of their number was shot and died with his finger on the trigger. A stray bullet took
The beautiful Russian Orthodox church stands on the highest point of the upper town, but the Estonians don't think it's beautiful. It's a reminder of the occupation, when Russia decided to 'save' them from German occupation, only to create their own. And it's built on the grave site of the father of one of Estonia's national heroes. 'Everyone knows you can't build on a grave site,' Merle told me with a smirk. 'We're all waiting for him to roll over in his grave and bring the whole building crashing down.'
Merle took me for a walk around the old town, telling me legends, but also her personal history with the Singing Revolution. She'd held hands in the line across the Baltic states looking for independence. More frighteningly, her father and brother had stood on the hill in upper town on the night the Russian army responded to a call for help from the Parliament House. Thousands of Estonians had stood in the square between the Russian Orthodox church and the Parliament House, singing national songs and songs of freedom. When the tanks arrived, they found the one road up the hill blocked by large boulders so the soldiers had to leave their tanks and walk. They stood in line with their guns pointed at the locals, waiting for a cause to shoot. The Estonians gave them none, all focussed on their singing. Eventually an Estonian representative was allowed to talk with Gorbachev and negotiated their independence. The Russian army left without a shot being fired.
A couple of nights ago, we went to a concert in the main square of Tallinn. A Slovenian industrial band called Stroj Machine created their own earthquake through the old town. Eleven people hammered away at 44 gallon drums, keyed compressed air through a ring of flutes, blew tubes of metal welded into trumpets and wound air-raid sirens. I'd have bought an album if I had the space and was sure they'd be as interesting on a recording as they were live. We met a few of Merle's friends and went to a bar to talk and listen to a Spanish jazz band. There, we started talking about anthropology. One of the friends, a man from Colombia who's studying anthropology, said that he'd seen little interaction between the Russians and Estonians since he arrived (50% of the population are Estonian and 40% are Russians) and when they did interact, it was generally with animosity. Merle, who's spent years doing PR for the country, disputed this, saying that cultural communities within a mixed society were common everywhere and if they didn't interact, there was no problem.
The Danes were losing the battle for Estonia, their knights being held back by Estonian farmers at the place where the wall now stands. They had to get up the hill and into the flag tower which would signify their victory, but they couldn't break through the defences put up by the locals. They'd all but given up when a flag, red with a white cross, fell from the heavens. Inspired by the sign from their god, they doubled their efforts and broke through to conquer Estonia. The flag remains their national symbol to this day.
'Oh, don't you know about the legend of the maiden?' asked a girl in a cream hooded cloak. Merle shook her head with me. She'd told me that the Old Town was divided into the upper section (Danish landowners) and lower section (Estonian and Danish merchants) who didn't get on. The girl in the cloak sat at the bottom of a wall that separated the two. She continued in a sing-song Scandanavian accent. 'Well, there were bunch of maidens staying in that tower and one of them fell in love with a knight from the upper side, but they had to be secretive about their affair because they came from enemy sides. So one night, the girl took a lantern and walked along the wall to where her lover would be. It was a windy night and her lantern went out and she fell to her death. She's up in the tower still.'
Estonia is far enough north to have a midnight sun and even now, in late May, the city of Tallinn was bathed in light as we landed at 11pm. It's been a mild winter, according to Merle, but summer hasn't brought the expected warmth. A northerly wind today gave the city both blue skies and an icy disposition as I wandered the old town, hearing the stories. Merle says that there are many stories about every building in the old town and I learned a few from her and from the costumed locals scattered around town. More to come on those stories. On the plane, I'd read an article by an English tour operator who was disappointed with Estonia's lack of commitment to their tourism industry. They had a lot to offer, he said, but if shops close two days each week, tourists wouldn't hang around to see it. I haven't been here long enough to see the shops shut, but the commitment is apparent in the costumes people wear in the old town and the smiles they throw to all the tourists make it look like they enjoy the fancy dress. A woman in a red and black cloak mans the entrance to the Town Hall Tower (64m up to a bell tower overlooking the main square). Girls in burgandy robes encourage tourists to come try the monks' cooking. Men in white shirts and braces serve at a traditional restaurant and a girl in a hooded cloak sits at the bottom of the Maiden's Tower, telling of the legend of the maiden. My only disappointment is that, according to another article, the locals have all abandoned the city to the tourists and fled to