09 December 2007

Dobele 1. Vidusskola

And that was only Sunday

On Saturday, I went to Tallinn with a busload of my fellow teachers to see Fantoom, the Estonian version of the unknown off-Broadway musical Phantom by Yeston and Kopit. It was at the Linnahall, a humongous boulder on the Bay of Finland that would have fit right into the concrete campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago.

While, yes, Fantoom was a warm ray of sunlight of hummable American showtunes in the otherwise grey and damp winter of prosaic Estonian folk songs (not to mention the drone of Eastern European d&b), it was also a rare opportunity to see and hear in person a handful of Estonian musical superstars.

Chalice (pronounced "Shaa-lease") was the phantom, and surprisingly, he had a strong and crisp Broadway-like voice that stuffed the auditorium with both gruff and soothing sounds. Born in 1983, Chalice is in real life a chubby, white Estonian hip-hop artist. He performed "Minu Inimesed" ("My People") at the youth song festival in Tallinn in July. I saw him hanging out like a regular Joe (like all Estonian superstars hang out) behind the bandshell a few hours before he went on stage. In 2004, Chalice won Male Artist of the Year, New Artist of the Year, and Alternative Artist of the Year from the Estonian Music Association. Umblu is his record label.

Hanna-Liina Võsa was Christine, the phantom's love. One of the songs she sings in the show is "My True Love" ("Mu truu arm"). I actually saw the sort of petite Ms. Võsa in concert in Tapa last December. She was the co-headliner of a Christmas show that was touring the country. You see, Ms. Võsa studied at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. Shortly after graduation, she toured the USA as Sandy in Grease. So performing in Tapa, she made her co-star look like a zombie tenor. She exhibited all of those bad, bad traits that make Estonians gasp and shake their heads: energy, enthusiasm, a smiling face, arms that really bend, an improvised dance or two, a smiling face, and direct eye contact with the audience. Yes, they were both excellent singers in that Christmas show, and I would buy a ticket to see and hear Ms. Võsa again. But for her co-star and other singers like him, I think I would simply download one or two of their songs.

The list of superstars goes on. Mikk Saar was de Chandon, Christine's boyfriend outside the opera house, and Tõnis Mägi was the phantom's ever-loving father. Saar, born in 1980, is a pop music star who has been in Estonian versions of musicals like "Oliver!" and "Chicago". He got a little more recognition among the populist when he appeared on the Estonian version of the tv show "Dancing with the Stars" (Tantsud tähtedega) in 2006. Mägi, born in 1948, is a singer, composer, and actor, who sang at the 1980 Olympic games in Moscow. He sings with the group Muusik Seif (Music Strongbox). Last but not least, Kaire Vilgats, born in 1976, whom I've never heard of, played Carlotta. She was an excellent singer in the hallow Linnahall and a fun (ohmygod, those bad, bad traits again) performer.

Instead of returning to Tapa - I'm not sure if it the bus or the teachers that turn into pumpkins two hours after the end of any performance in Tallinn, thus requiring everyone to return immediately to Tapa without so much as a coffee cup or a shopping bag in their hand - I stayed in Tallinn to catch a couple of PÖFF movies.

During Chicago's annual fall international film festival, one of my former co-workers at the YMCA of Metro Chicago always took a week off, bought a festival pass, and then saw 15 to 20 movies. One or two of the movies on my "wish list" was on hers as well, and we met after work for dinner and a two-hour trip to some foreign country (often with the actual director as our guide). For the last two years here in Estonia, I have promised myself a weekend in Tallinn to see six to eight foreign films during the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival (Tallinna Pimedata Öode Filmifestival, or PÖFF). Last year, I saw a Serbian/Croatian movie with my friend Oleg. This year, I saw two films, one with Sam, my colleague at school and another American, who, like me, is immune from turning into a pumpkin in Tallinn.

After getting a little Christmas shopping done and grabbing a Finnish hamburger, I went to see La France at the Russian Theatre. It was sort of like two for the price of one: I've always wanted to see the grand interior of the Russian Theatre. And during any international film festival, you just have to see at least one French movie. Well, I needed my friend Gina with me to tell me what the hell the film was really about. Not that she speaks French; it's just that she would have figured out the movie more than I had. I did discover that the ceiling of the Russian Theatre is ornate to keep your mind off your butt. The wooden seats were very uncomfortable, given the plush, gilded environment. Our school desks are more comfortable.

After La France, I met up with Sam and his friends. Rather than mixing with the teachers in Tapa, whom he thinks are a little too much like his parents, Sam is slowly integrating into the expat community in Tallinn. So a Canadian he knows, who runs hostels in Tallinn and Tartu, took us, along with a couple of his English guests from the hostel, to the Valli Bar. For not liking old Estonian people, Sam was in the wrong place. I, however, was in heaven! The Valli Bar is nothing but an honest to goodness dive in the middle of chichi-wannabe Old Town. In 2006, the New York Times called the Valli Bar "one of the few blue-collar pubs in Old Town, where locals still outnumber tourists." In 2007, the Baltic Times admitted "there’s nothing fancy or pretentious about the Valli Baar. It’s a dive and proud of it. Little has been done to alter the look of the place since it opened circa 1969." There was no cover charge for the accordion player, who honored us native English speakers by playing John Denver's "Country Roads". Having owned the album 30 years ago, I am not ashamed to admit that I knew more of the words than anyone else.

From the Valli Bar, Sam and I went to see a midnight showing of the New Zealand horror comedy Black Sheep in which there's an oddly pastoral scene of charging sheep scampering over a green hillock, baaah-ing with a disturbing attitude.

I headed back to Tapa Sunday morning on the 6.15 train in order to be at St Jacob's church at 10.00 and officially kick off the Christmas season.

02 December 2007

Eestis Nüüd, 'Tis [Officially] the Season

Sans Thanksgiving on its calendar, Estonia officially "kicks off" its Christmas season on the First Sunday of Advent. While in the US, thousands of local Best Buy managers - wearing wrinkled, cardinal-red Stafford dress shirts - unlock their store doors at 5 a.m. the day after Thanksgiving to kick off the Yuletide season, hundreds of Lutheran church pastors and ministers, wearing long, black robes and white, lace dickies, bless five-story-tall evergreens around dusk in the center of towns across Estonia.

Early this morning in Tapa, it was Bears-Packers weather. It was around -5 degrees Celsius (that's the low 20s). The wind was blowing 3 to 4 meters per second (around 10 mph), putting the dreaded wind chill factor at around 0 degrees Fahrenheit. I came back from Tallinn on the 6.40 stagecoach, and, as I trudged to my apartment at 8.00, I felt as if I were walking down Oak Street in Chicago against those back-bending gusts off Lake Michigan. Safely inside, I warmed up quickly with two heaping spoonfuls of Nescafe Classic in a reindeer mug Gina sent me for Christmas last year. For the last three months, I've been drinking Starbucks coffee, which Sam brought over with him in August. It's probably just a matter of days before I start going through withdrawal with these instant coffees and medium roasts.

On this particular First Sunday of Advent, St. Jacob's Church in Tapa (above) celebrated its 75th anniversary and the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church kicked off its celebration of the Republic of Estonia's 90th birthday. The first time I was in Tapa - back in 1998 when I was a green Peace Corps volunteer - I lived with the pastor of St. Jacob's and his family. So I often attended Sunday services with them - dad at the altar, mom at the organ, big brother in the bell tower, a couple of sisters in the choir loft, and the rest of the three or four children with me in the pew. Lutheran services in Estonia are not all that different from the Catholic Mass. We have an/the Our Father; they have an Our Father (in Estonian, Meie Isa), which they say before Communion. We have a Lord, Have Mercy; they have a Lord, Have Mercy (Isand, halasta!), which they, too, say at the beginning of the service. We believe in "God, the Father almighty, Maker of heaven and earth"; they believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth (...Jumalasse, kõigeväelisse Isasse, taeva ja maa Loojasse). I don't know if I built up any treasures in Catholic heaven by going to these services, but the prayers and songs during the services gave me an excellent outlet for practicing my Estonian aloud.

At this morning's service, Pastor Reet Eru (a woman, by the way, there on the left) presided with Archbishop Emeritus Kuno Pajula. The opening hymn was the Estonian national anthem "My Fatherland" (Mu isamaa), and the first Advent candle was lit beneath the Estonian flag. The closing hymn was called something like "God, Hold and Keep Estonia" (Hoia, Jumal, Eestit). While I was a pinch bit uncomfortable with the cooperation - some might say collusion - between this church and the state, especially on the first Sunday of Advent, Estonia does not have an official religion. According to the constitution, there is no state church. While the Lutheran church has played the leading role in Estonia, each and every citizen is free to engage in acts of worship, in public or in private, as long as this does not impair public order, health or morals. This is a far cry from Soviet times, when KGB-like officials staked out local churches and noted who was going in and out and when teachers reported to state officials which students were absent from school on December 24 and December 25. Today, unfortunately, at least in Tapa, the congregation is so old that they remember those times.

The Republic of Estonia's 90th birthday (or jubilee) is February 24, 2008. Every month from December 2007 to November 2008 is dedicated to someone or something Estonian. For example, December is dedicated to the Estonian people; January to the War of Independence, and February to the President.

But what exactly happened 90 years ago? Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves set the scene in a speech last month: "the first democratically elected body of representatives in [Estonian] history – the Provisional Land Council of the Estonian Province – declared itself the supreme power in Estonia" on November 28, 1917. But then the Bolsheviks forcefully dissolved the council, and leading Estonian politicians went underground. On February 24, 1918, however, following an election which the Bolsheviks organised and then declared null and void because they didn't like the results, the Committee of Elders of the Land Council declared that "Estonia, with her historic and ethnic boundaries, is...an independent democratic republic...." This is the Estonian Declaration of Independence.

St. Jacob's joyous 75th anniversary celebration continued immediately after the service and into the early evening. The Tapa Vald Children's Choir, dressed in the vald's red and black colors (above), sang. At 18.00, after an afternon open house with refreshments and look back on the church's history, in more Cubs-Cards than Bears-Packers weather, the Arsise Youth Bell Ensemble (Arsise Noorte Kellade Ansamble) performed in front of a packed, standing room only church.