31 December 2008

A Look Back at...Me :-)

1. Yellow mums: We teachers of Tapa Gümnaasium were at the country house of Alo and Rita, husband and wife and boys and girls PE teachers. It was Rita's birthday, not too long after school started September 1. That's Tiiu, the German teacher, with her black-and-white pirates bandana on, if you could have gotten close enough to get a good look. She often gets the party started wherever we are, whatever we are celebrating. Just as it is proper - demanded at Tapa Gümnaasium - that a man pours the wine and champagne, so it was etiquette for me to present Rita with the birthday gift from the kooli collective.

2. Plastic pale: Not quite in the country this time, I was in the backyard of Kai's Tapa home. Kai's a music teacher, and it was her birthday this time.

3. Inner-tube: It is never all work and no play at summer English camp, especially when there is a pond right behind the cabin and especially when the rain lets up for an afternoon in July.

4. Airplane: A farewell in June as I embarked on another mission from the Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and of Military History in Brussels.

5. Fireplace: Part of the real Estonian experience is here in the sauna in Tiit's brother's country house, situated on a hill at a bend in the Loobu River.

6. Apartment: Frank, a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer like me, took the picture. Kathy, his wife, both from Washington State, stood by the door. We had all been at the theatre in Tapa one May evening, and we went to Maija's (with the glasses and big smile) apartment afterwards for a bite to eat and, of course, a bit to drink.

7. Standing around: Maija (a Russian teacher) and I stretched our legs somewhere in Bulgaria or Romania during spring break 2008.

8. YMCA group photo: Jenny, a former colleague of mine from the YMCA, sent this updated photo to me in March, showing who is and who is not still in the Financial Development Department back at the YMCA. Three are still there plus one who came back.

9. Beach: Like I said, it is not all work and no play at English camp, especially when (in July 2007) the sun was out! But, next time, tell me that that is no reason for me to take my shirt off. There were children around!

10. Ice sculpture: Estonian Independence Day, February 2007.

11. On the track: Tiit at a competition in Tallinn in the fall of 2006. I met him after shopping in Tallinn, naturally.

12. Two kids: Where did all of the legally responsible adults go? Tiit and his wife Lairi made me feel right at home back in September 2006, shortly after arriving from Ameerika.

24 December 2008

Christmas (in Estonia)

I stopped when I got to Lembitu Street. There was indeed more "Christmas magic" in the air, although, as I stood still, it felt and sounded more like ice than snow. The other magical, nearly miraculous, thing, was that not one dog had barked at me as I walked down Pikk and Õhtu Streets. It was around 12.30 a.m. - truly a silent night. In spite of its intentional and absolute austerity, the Soviet-era high rise across from me glowed from the electric Advent candelabra in a dozen or so windows. (There are seven candles on each candelabrum: four for the four Sundays of Advent plus three for the three Sundays to St. Knut's Day on January 13). I looked up over the otherwise colorless building to see if Santa was overhead. If he didn't have to worry about Russia for another week, would he be coming up from Southeast Asia through Greece and Poland to Estonia? Or would he be working a split-shift and be coming down from an eggnog break at the North Pole through Finland?

Christmas dinner at Tiit's house was exceptional. In "food world" at the Kaubamaja in Tallinn over the weekend I had seen frozen turkeys imported from France and frozen geese imported from Hungary. (That just doesn't seem right, does it?) At Rimi in Rakvere earlier in the day, Tiit and I had seen frozen turkeys. With no time to thaw one out, he bought a duck from the refrigerated section that was ready for the oven with not only a timer but with prune and apricot stuffing as well. In the picture above, in the aluminum pan in the center of the table, you see what was left of the duck.

In the upper right hand corner, in front of the Mandarin oranges, there is a decanter of Mrs. E's (Tiit's mother) homemade Christmas drink. Served in shot glasses, it was as thick as cough syrup. A concoction of a few different types of Estonian berries (along with spirits, of course), the drink had fermented since August. From this "natural" hooch to Bacardi Black and cokes (with ice and lemon, mind you) to champaign to coffee, Tiit keep the drinks flowing all night.

To the right of Mrs. E's Christmas punch is Mrs. E's homemade (and alcohol-free) "cranberry sauce", or what tastes and looks a lot like our cranberry sauce but is made with what Estonia has instead of cranberries. A piece of verivorst (which were sitting in a pan on top of a warm oven) and a spoonful of this cranberry sauce is what Christmas in Estonia is all about! Finally, just below the duck, underneath the knife, are Mrs. E's homemade hapukurk, or pickles. Nothing in a jar comes close to tasting as good and as fresh and as crisp as these do.

An Estonian dinner, let alone holiday dinner, would not be complete without potatoes, and Tiit made some oven-roasted potatoes smeared with garlic and mayonnaise. They, too, were sitting on top of the oven. I would have eaten the rest of them - they were the size of apples and very nicely browned - had I not been in mixed company and thought that the children had to eat, too. The plastic bag (to the left of the pickles) was full of soft gingerbread cookies that Titt's wife baked and baked and baked and baked until she was tasting them in her sleep. We bought the chocolate tort, or cake, at Rimi, along with the duck, and it turned out to be a cake from the Pihlaka Kondiiter (or, bakery) in Rakvere, where I will occasionaly go in the morning for a cup of coffee and two or three sweet rolls!

Add a couple of kids opening up a couple of presents that appeared under the Christmas tree from nowhere, and you have Christmas.

Indeed Santa delivers presents to Estonian children on Christmas Eve, but he does it before they go to sleep! I remember a Christmas Eve 10 years ago with an Estonian family when, outside their house, Santa passed off their presents to an Old Mother Hubbard of sorts, modestly disguised - eerrr, dressed - for the occasion, who was quickly ushered inside to distribute them to all of the anxious kids. Your name on a package is no guarantee that you will get the package. No, in this country you have to sing - or dance or read a poem - for your Christmas presents, whether you are seven or 47.

As we played Lotte dominoes, one of Santa's presents, Aigi, Tiit's daughter, kept telling me she just didn't know where the presents had come from. Egert, Tiit's son, went to bed with a van in one hand and a box of wooden blocks under his arm. And I went home with Scooter's latest CD "Jumping All Over the World." That Santa.

23 December 2008

Christmas Eve (in Estonia)

Even though it is only December 23, it is basically "Christmas Eve" here in Tapa. Most of the shops (two years ago I would have said "stores") closed at 15.00 today (like they do in the States on the 24th) and will be closed tomorrow, Thursday, and even Friday. Ten years ago, grocery stores (ahhh, there it is again) would have been closed for three straight days, too.

The Selver calendar in my kitchen says that December 24 is Jõululaupäev (literally, Christmas Saturday, or Christmas Eve), December 25 is 1. jõulupüha (Christmas Sunday, or the first Christmas Day), and December 26 is 2. jõulupüha (the second Christmas Day). Students and colleagues have explained to me that "Christmas" in Estonia, that is, the day presents are exchanged and verivorst is eaten, is December 24. Then, December 25 is a day of rest, and the 26th (Boxing Day in the UK and Canada) is a day to visit family and friends. At Tapa's St. Jacob's Lutheran Church Püha Jõuluõhtul Jumalateenistus (Holy Christmas Night church services) will be at 17.00 on December 24. Then 1. jõulupüha services December 25 will be at 14.00 (kindly allowing folks to sleep in), where individuals will be baptized and confirmed.

There has been a little "Christmas magic" here in Tapa (in lieu of sunshine, I suppose). During the last couple of days of school last week, I showed "A Charlie Brown Christmas" and Dr. Suess's (not Jim Carey's, as students had hoped) "How the Grinch Stole Christmas." After each screening, I pulled up the blinds to reveal a steady stream of snowflakes quietly covering the grey slush outdoors. Then, Friday night, stepping out of Tapa's cultural center after the Virumaa boys, Virumaa girls, and Virumaa young men's choirs' annual Christmas concert, more snowflakes fluttered down beneath the street lights onto the slippery sidewalk. It snowed today, too, as "shoppers rushed home with their treasures...".

The coffee and walnut pie I baked this morning (pictured above on my kitchen counter) and took to the librarians this afternoon was my last official holiday "obligation", if you know what I mean. Last night was the teachers' Christmas party at the Wild Buffalo Saloon. Given the location, everyone dressed up like cowboys and -girls and did a little line dancing. I wore an $8 Indian "headgear" from a costume shop in Tallinn and drew Christmas trees on my cheeks with green finger paint. You can feed the six or seven buffalo that live on the premises of the restaurant/conference center/tepee park. They walk into a stable built into the restaurant (the place is in the middle of nowhere, so I'm sure they can get around any public health codes). You lift up a long, rectangular window. The buffalo stick their wet noses through it and unroll their skinny, black tongues. Then you drop a roll covered with sunflower seeds.

I made biscotti (for the first time in Estonia) Sunday for the half dozen teachers I usually hang out with. I finished my Christmas shopping Saturday and Sunday in Tallinn. I sent my last package to Illinois Friday afternoon (albeit a present for a nephew whose birthday was in November). I attended Tapa Gümnaasium's Christmas service Friday morning at church. I saw the annual 12th grade Christmas play Thursday night. This is something of a Tapa Gümnaasium tradition: The 12th graders (two years ago I would have said "seniors") write, produce, direct, and star in their own production, which they present to the entire community, including the gümnaasium's graduates who are back in Tapa with their families for the holidays. Earlier in the day, I bought myself lunch at the elementary school's Christmas bake sale and craft fair. I dropped the last of maybe a dozen Christmas cards into the mailbox Thursday morning.

I had the honor of playing Jõuluvana (Santa Claus) for a third grade Christmas party on Monday. We sang "Jingle Bells" together in English, and everyone was a little startled when I added "Ho-ho-ho-ho" after "...laughing all the way." Before that, I attended the teachers' union's annual Christmas dinner, where, like the last two years, I got my first taste of the season of verivorst.