02 July 2007

X Noorte Laulupidu 2007

So at last, a Chicago-style outdoor summer festival: the 10th Annual (X) Youth (Noorte)Song (Laulu-) Fesitval (pidu), held the day after the Youth Dance Festival.

I waited for the 7.54 express train, which I had taken yesterday, for another civilized ride to Tallinn. I knew something was not right when 1) there were just a few people on the platform and 2) the 8.10 train from Tallinn arrived. A 2007 graduate of Tapa Gümnaasium stepped off the train, looked at me, and said flatly "Don't ask." I smiled, for those two words (appropriately chosen and correctly delivered) re-inforced my own assessment that I am indeed teaching students how to communicate as well as how to use articles, linking words, and the past continuous tense.

I understood that "Don't ask" meant this member of the Class of 2007 had had a very good time in Tallinn. You see, the 8.10 train is the first train out of Tallinn. It leaves at 6.40. So it is the train people take home after they have partied all night in Tallinn. Honestly, it's not unlike the early morning weekend trains that leave the Northwestern station for Chicago's western suburbs with young people who have spent all night on Rush Street.

I had The Guardian Weekly with me. So it was no problem waiting at the dilapidated station for the 8.41 train to Tallinn. On Sundays, there is no 7.54 express train to Tallinn. One can only get a fast and comfortable ride to the Estonian capital at 18.39.

I got to Tallinn more than an hour behind my own personal schedule. I had planned to have coffee, read more of The Guardian, and then visit two art museums before entering the song festival grounds at 13.00. On the other side of Old Town, I got even further behind schedule, because all of the dance and song festival participants, along with their local communities' brass bands, were parading through Tallinn's main arteries to the song festival grounds. I stopped and watched anyway - and listened. The people in the parade, from 6 to 26 years of age maybe, dressed in traditional Estonian folk costumes, were singing and waving at everybody, and hollering like they were from Texas, and proudly chanting their town's names: "Pärnu! Pärnu! Pärnu!" And the bands were playing songs like "When the Saints Go Marching In." And the spectators on the sidewalks were shouting greetings and congratulations at the young people, and the kids were smiling and shouting back.

...the sound wasn't sad. Why, this sound sounded merry. It couldn't be so! But it was merry! Very!
Yes, I thought I was in Whoville! I have been in Estonia for 10 months, and I have attended three graduations, celebrated three national holidays, attened a dozen sporting events, and sat through countless school assemblies and never - never - have I heard so much energy, excitement, and enthusiasm.

Nevertheless, I needed a cup of coffee. Unfortunately, the contingent from Tapa had marched past as I had bounced up and down on the train. So I crossed the street, through the giddy dancers and singers, hell-bent on getting to Coffee In. Near the Estonian opera house, a red light slowed my own march. As I approached the corner, I noticed a guy in a white t-shirt staring at me, and as I purposefully walked away from him, his eyes followed me. Then he stretched out his hand and greeted me in English with a thick Russian accent. He was an alumni of the Russian gümnaasium in Tapa who had come to my English conversation club seven or eight years ago. He wanted to be a journalist then. I remember he tried to pin the Kosovo war on the Americans. I contended it was a NATO decision. NATO, the United States - six of one, half dozen of the other - but I never told him that I thought he was right. He is a journalist now and had just interviewed one of the conductors from Tapa's own music school.

With a hot cup of coffee, I followed the jubilant procession as far as the Kadriorg Museum of Art, which had a wonderful exhibition of "Portraits of Russian Emporers." At 12.30, I headed for the nearby song festival grounds. Although I was walking through the densely wooded Kadriorg Park, I just followed the people (especially old women with sweaters draped over their arms), because everyone was going to the same place.

Indeed, it was like a Chicago summer festival: beautiful people sitting on the grass (albeit with no room for picnic baskets and glasses of white wine), more beautiful people shuffling along the asphalt paths (talking on their cell phones), bright yellow umbrellas of ice cream vendors twirling in the light breeze, clouds of grilled sausage smells drifting overhead, and, at the center of attention, a large outdoor amphitheater gradually filling with the same choirs that had just paraded through Tallinn (pictures above).

I thought I was "home," that I really hadn't missed the Taste of Chicago, the Fiesta del Sol, the Chicago Jazz Festival, or the Grant Park Music Festival after all. But then, after receiving applause for doing the "Wave" more times than they really needed to do it, the 18,000 young people on stage began singing, and I felt like a foreigner again.

Unlike Chicago's Jazz Festival, Gospel Festival, Blues Festival, and Grant Park Music Festival, the Song Festival in Tallinn has an uncommon connotation, for this festival is a celebration of Estonian pride, determination, and persevance. Some of the songs, more than I am comfortable hearing at an outdoor summer festival and certainly more than I am accumstomed to hearing in the States, are about the motherland (or isamaa in Estonian, the fatherland).

In his address at the end of the five-hour festival (not counting the four-hour parade) President Ilves proclaimed: Once we sang ourselves into a nation. Once we sang ourselves free. On these days, you singers and dancers have made us greater and more powerful with your songs, into something more vivacious and younger with your dances. Take this feeling with you to your homes and schools. To your towns and villages. To your parishes and counties. Like the song written for the 10th Song Festival says, “Hold the flag high!”.

My point is that with "McGyver" and "The Sopranos" on Estonian television, Shrek III and Pirates of the Caribbean in Tallinn movie theatres, "super" and "Oh my god" in the Estonian vocabulary, and Comet and Columbia products in Estonian stores, there is still indeed something uniquely Estonian, something much more deeper at the core of Estonia than its language or geography. Something that the young singers and dancers have in common with their parents and with their grandparents.
I've got to think what else I want to say....