29 December 2006

Tartu: The Second City of Estonia

There's lots to see in Tartu, officially, the City of Good Thoughts, including the KGB Cells Museum, where there must have been many good thoughts. Estonia's Second City is arguably built around the University of Tartu, which will celebrate its 375th anniversary in 2007.

I hadn't been to Tartu since 1999 or 2000, when I was still in the Peace Corps. So over the Christmas break, I met up with a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer still living in Tartu for an insider's tour of what has become, I believe, a fairly Westernized yet incredibly walkable city of 100,000 residents.

Here is the main building of the University of Tartu; city hall, constructed in the late 1780s, and, in front of it, the city square; and the steeple of St. John's Church, founded around the 14th century.

26 December 2006

Apostlite Peetruse ja Pauluse Kogudus

At last, inside the Cathedral of the Apostles Peter and Paul, the only Catholic church in Tallinn, it felt like Christmas. From the plywood manger scene outside to the lingering incense clouds inside, here was the joyful Christmas that I had not yet really seen, smelled, or felt.
Bishop Philippe Jourdan, a Frenchman, said Mass in Estonian (his sermon was little long for any language), and we sang the "Gloria," the "Holy, Holy, Holy," and the "Lamb of God" in Latin. The male cantor was excellent, and the accompanying, mostly male choir it sounded like, had a bit of a funky African folk rhythm in them. A woman sang a beautiful song at communion, and I wished that, throughout Estonia, they'd move the damn choirlofts to the front of the church so we could see who was singing. No one applauded at the end of Mass, though. In fact, many people knelt back down to pray.
Interestingly, right before the final blessing, there was some adoration of the Infant Jesus. Folks got in line like they were going to communion again, but they went to kiss the statue of the Baby Jesus, which the bishop held in his hands. It was a little too much like idol worship for me. So I just watched to see where people kissed the statue; the up-turned toe, the knee, the back of the hand, and the forehead were popular spots.

Christmas Day 2006

On Christmas Day, the sun was rising in Tapa as I was walking through town to catch the 8:43 train to Tallinn. Early morning (with a cup of coffee in my hand and, now, without an 8 o'clock class) is still my favorite time of the day.

I had brought Chicago: City on the Make by Nelson Algren with me to read while the train jerked and bounced towards Tallinn. But I ran into one of my students, and we talked until the train slid into the Balti Jaam. Why is it some students carry on a conversation in English in public but freak out when they take a test in the classroom, while other students ace their tests but can't put three sentences together to tell me in English what's going on?

In Tallinn, my camera and I had a little more than an hour in the Old City to record hints of Christmas. Electric candelabrums appear in windows everywhere here on the first Sunday of Advent. They have either five, seven, or nine candles and, very simply, both phsically and metaphorically, they bring light to a time of darkness. While I doubt the candelabrums with seven candles celebrate the seven principles of Kwanzaa, I think all of the candelabrums may be connected to St. Lucia Day, which Scandanavian girls celebrate by wearing candles on their head. Go figure.

The Russian Orthodox Church celebrates Christmas on January 7, two weeks after the Western World. They use the old Julian calendar instead of the 16th century Gregorian calendar. So, in Tapa, the Christmas program at the Russian high school, which I attended, was actually a New Year's celebration.

A variation of the candelabrums in the windows is the citronella-like candles (I mean, they are big like citronella candles but don't smell like them!) in front of shops, bars, and restaurants - really, in front of anywhere you are welcomed to come into. Notice that the sign says "Open", which is not Estonian, Russian, or Finnish.

The House of the Brotherhood of the Blackheads dates back to the 16th century, before there was acne as we know it today. Actually, St. Mauritius, a black Egyptian, was the guild's patron. His black head is the guild's mascot and on its coat of arms. The state banquet Estonian President T.H. Ilves threw for Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh was held here in October.

That's A.H. Tammsaare, who wrote the great Estonian novel Truth and Justice, checking out the Christmas tree in the park named in his honor.

Finally, steadily, as the day progressed, from 10 a.m. when I got off the train to 2:00 when I headed back to the Balti Jaam, more and more people strolled around the Christmas Market.

'Twas the Night before Christmas

Well, 'twas the night before and the night before the night or so. The first half of the 2006-07 school year ended December 22 with an optional service in EELK Tapa Jakobi kogudus, the local Lutheran church. The Estonian language is a little interesting here. Kirik is church; kogudus is congregation, or could be parish. So when, in English, we say St. Jacob's Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church (kirik), Estonians say St. Jacob congregation, or parish, (kogudus). Church (kirik) refers only to the building; Congregation, or parish, refers to the community of parishioners.

I snuck out of the service for an unplanned, unscheduled shopping trip to Tallinn, where, already, there are just as many political advertisements for the March 2007 elections as there are Christmas decorations. I'm proud to say that the Christmas lights along the length of my building make it one of the most festive in Tapa!

Estonians celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve, because I don't think there is any Estonian child who would get up at 5 o'clock in the morning to see what Santa had left for them. There's not an Estonian child who would get up at 5 o'clock period. The kids here like their sleep. I spent Christmas Eve with the same family that I went potato-picking with in the fall. While cold beer, close friends, and a wood-burning sauna always bring a smile to my face, they are no match for the joy of watching a child opening a Christmas present.

16 December 2006

A Very Special Visitor

The U.S. ambassador came to Tapa Gümnaasium December 6. I invited her. Afterwards, I was very proud of the students and extremely impressed by the ambassador.

The ambassador arrived as classes were changing. When the school mascot (Tapsi, there in the picture in the front, on the left) and the school director (in a suit and tie, next to Tapsi) and Tapa's mayor (in a suit and tie, fifth from the left) and I (in a suit and tie, too, in the back on the right) appeared in the school lobby, the hallway and stairwell quickly became clogged with curious students.

The director had to clear a path for the ambassador to walk down as she came in the main door. The second she walked through the door, she took right to the kids. She stopped and turned and looked at all of them lined up and said "good morning." She told one girl she liked the Santa's cap she had on, and talked a few seconds with one boy, and told another girl she had nice ponytails.

So a government official and 45 minutes to talk, together with an auditorium full of teenagers could be a disaster. Not in Tapa. When the ambassador told the 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th grade students that all of her colleagues were killed in the WTC on 9-11 and the only reason she was still alive was because she wasn't there that day, you could have heard a pin drop - the kids were so attentive.

I had a class with 11th graders before the ambassador arrived. So I told them we needed some "plants" to ask questions if she indeed called forquestions. It took us 30 minutes to get decent questions (something other than Do you like Estonia?) and then another 15 minutes to get three volunteers to ask them. So, after her presentation, yes, the ambassador asked for questions. One second went by, two, three, four, and a then hand shot up. It was one of my "plants," who was afraid she was going to stumble on the word "politics." But no problem. She asked the ambassador if it was difficult being a woman and working in politics. The ambassador went over and hugged her and said something to the effect that "we women have to stick together"!

It was all - everyone was - really, really great.

Estonia in Crisis; EU and NATO Can't Help

'Twas the week before Christmas and all through the town, the people were edgy with no snow on the ground.

Estonian Pumpkin Pie from Scratch

That's the pumpkin pie on the table that I made from scratch for my friends at the public library in Tapa. They supplied the pumpkin. I cut the thing open, picked out the seeds, baked half the pumpkin at a time, and scraped off the meat. Click here for the recipe I chose at random from the Internet. I thought that the Estonian pumpkin was going to have too much water in it, and I was afraid that the pie was not going to firm up in the oven. But everything turned out just dandy. I got a nice caramel color on the top of the pie, and the smell of ginger, cinnamon, and cloves filled my apartment.
P.S. I also made the crust from scratch: flour, fat, and a little water.

All Shapes and Sizes

My friends in Estonia come in all shapes and sizes.
Here I am with a few of them: one with a little bit of fur on him and one covered in a little bit of rasberry jam.
A couple of months ago, I was at Palmse Mõis in the Estonia's Lahemaa Rahvuspark (or National Park) - not too far from Tapa. Palmse is a beautiful manor on 11,000 hectares of land, that was built in the 1780s and restored in the 1970s and 1980s. On the second floor, in the study, covering an entire wall, there's an exquisite, 150-year-old, hand-made map of the entire estate.
In the cellar, through a couple of low arches, there's a maze of doors. You open the first door and find yourself in a dark rectangle with four, eight-foot doors on every side of you. Only one door will open and take you to the next rectangle, where you find to find the door that will open and take you to the next cube of doors. It takes about 10, maybe 15 minutes, to get through the entire maze.

02 December 2006

Thanksgiving 2006 (Korteris)

The Sunday after Thanksgiving, I gave thanks to my friends here in Tapa for all of their support with Kristi's sweet potato casserole, Aunt Sue's broccoli salad, Mom's dressing, and Mert's cranberry jello salad. So it was sort of like all of my family and friends were with me.

Thanksgiving 2006 (Koolis)

In December 1620, English pilgrims arrived in Plymouth and had very little food. In the spring of 1621, Wampanoag Indians showed the pilgrims what crops to plant in order to survive the upcoming winter. That fall, the pilgrims and the Indians celebrated an abundant harvest.
On September 1, 2006, Kevin Hogan started teaching English at Tapa Gümnaasium with very little experience. On November 23, he gave thanks to the school's teachers for their ongoing assistance and support in showing him everything from where his next class is to when the next term ends.