25 July 2007

Jäneda: Suck Out the Marrow of Life

I went to the woods [but not dressed in a medieval tunic] because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.... I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life....
, Henry David Thoreau (seconded by Kevin Hogan, only I came to Estonia, which is almost like a big woods, because forests cover over one-half of the country).

In the spring, on behalf of Tapa Gümnaasium's director, I invited students and teachers from our four sister schools - Dobele Vidusskola in Latvia, Toijala Gümnaasium in Finland, and schools in Preetz, Germany and Loten, Norway - to participate in a summer English camp in Tapa. On July 16, two students from Toijala and their teacher and his wife and eight students from Dobele and two of their teachers joined six students from Tapa and me in Tallinn for the first day of a five-day camp.

Day One. We began a tour in English (to practice listening comprehension skills) of Tallinn's Old Town at Fat Margaret, or Paks Margareeta (first picture). We made our way, as all tours of Tallinn eventually make their way, to the town square, or Raekoja plats (second picture), passing the former KGB headquarters and The Three Sisters, Queen Elizabeth II's hotel when she visited Tallinn in October 2006. Since the Latvians had arrived in Tallinn at 4.30 on an overnight bus from Riga, they needed a little rest (third picture) after our lunch at Pizza Grande. Pizza Grande's thick crust pizza comes somewhat - mind you, just somewhat - close to Chicago's deep dish pizza. After a little snooze, we picked up the Finns from the port and took a bus to our "campsite" in Jäneda.

Day Two. For the obligatory icebreakers, we made name tags at breakfast, adding an adjective that described us for each of the letters in our names. For example, to my name Kevin, I added something like geeKy, intElligent, creatiVe, imaginatIve, and hoNest. Later, outside in the sunshine and the swarms of ravenous flies, we did a couple of improv routines that required more listening. Then, without talking, we got ourselves into a line, chronologically, based on the month and day of our birthdays. Finally, we began speaking in English and in public by introducing the person next to us, reading his/her name tag and perhaps some new adjectives: I'd like to introduce Kevin; he is geeKy, intElligent, creatiVe, etc. (fourth picture).

Then, sort of like Henry David Thoreau did in the mid 1800s, we marched into the woods for a 5.5km-long opportunity to reflect on, as Thoreau wrote in Walden, "the essential facts of life" (fifth picture). We ate wild strawberries and blueberries along the way. Oh, it was like the Day-after-Christmas Sale at Target. Where I saw only green leaves, looking like every other green leaf in the forest, the Estonians, Finns, and Latvians spotted edible and ripe berries. Every time we came to patches of berries, the group in front of me would race to the left and right of the path like shoppers after a $25 VCR.

Officially, we stopped four or five times along the way to write down (expressive writing skills) what we were missing now that we were in the woods, what we needed in the woods but had left behind, what was bothering us about the woods, and what was so great about being in the forest (sixth picture). Lunch and a refreshing lake for swimming awaited us at the end of our journey.

Day Three. We used the Palmse estate of the von der Pahlen Family for an orienteering exercise (team work and reading comprehsion skills). Each international team of four or five campers had a set of photographs of certains things on the estate grounds, like a specific gate or gazebo or a monument to land reform, pictures I had taken and had printed about a month earlier. Then they had to roam the grounds and find these things and do what was asked of them on the back of the photograph, instructions I had written, printed, and stuck on the photographs a few days before the camp started.

For example, I took a picture of the monument to land reform, which looks a lot like a tombstone. Although it was on a path on the estate, it was on the other side of the lake and in a wooded area. The instructions on the back of the photograph were: You need one "dead" body. How does everyone else at the "graveside" feel about the person's "death"? And then, of course, they had to take a picture of their scene (seventh picture). There was also a picture of a white bench, but there were many white benches on the estate. So they had to find the one that had the same trees and stone fence in the background as the one in the picture. The instructions were: Jump for joy! Jump, and take a picture with everyone's feet off the ground (eighth picture).

Day Four. Where better to perform scenes from Shakespeare's Hamlet, MacBeth, Twelfth Night, and The Taming of the Shrew (public speaking and reading comprehension skills) than in a real castle, as opposed to bits and pieces of one built out of plywood on a stage. At Rakvere Castle, as we draped the red tunic over our heads (ninth picture), we were transported back to the Middle Ages. We got a tour of the castle, including the piinakamber, or chamber of horrors. For lunch, we ate weiners, fried potatoes, and dark bread on very medieval-like plates and drank an interesting, sort of sour punch, perhaps an alcohol-free ale from medieval-like mugs. And then our four medieval acting troupes rehearsed for about 45 minutes before "doing Shakespeare", including Act I, Scene I from Hamlet (10th picture).

Day Five. Overnight, we jumped from the 13th century to 2008-2009, when some of the campers would be thinking about university. A Harvard University student and summer intern at the U.S. embassy in Tallinn spoke about studying in America - why to do it and how to do it. While high school grades are important to university admission counselors, she said, so are extracurricular activities at school and volunteer and vocational experiences in the community. We checked out of Jäneda at noon. Tapa's students gave the others a brief walking tour of Tapa before we all headed back to Tallinn to see everyone off.