|LETTERS FROM ABROAD
From time to time we expect to publish informal
reports from writers traveling in countries not their native lands. Our intention is to
offer our readers glimpses of territory they might not ordinarily see for themselves,
through the agency of individual eyes and voices. These Letters are meant to be works in
transit, leading us, perhaps, to destinations we had not anticipated.
LETTERS FROM ESTONIA
Oct. 17, 1993, Tartu
La Traviata, Saturday evening, for 16 cents. Tartuis the intellectual
capital of this country and the seat of its major university. Theater troupes, an
orchestra, eight museums, botanical gardens, a big university library. Treffner School is
a science school for the gifted. The students are pretty good at English. Im
teaching them conversation. They are a joy to work with. A nice flat(free), already
stocked; plenty in the shops (pricey), and a good selection of foods (pricey for
Nov. 9, 1993, Tartu
This is an extraordinary place. I have lots of guesses, and intuitions mount daily.
Left on three days notice, after a call from the Soros Foundation in New York; one
of their appointees didnt show up here. It was quite a scramble. I arrived not
having slept for 108 hours, and went straight into teaching. I came without a scrap of
information on the people, the country, their language. Therefore my antennae here are
stretched to the max as I try to read what I see, stripped of language and with no
gestalt, like someone raised without cues in a forest, then dropped into babble. It can be
a peaceful state -- I find myself utterly passive, a blank receiving-set, observing small
human behaviors in order to read the people. An Eastern hardness in there, somewhere. Not
a sentimental people. They dispense with most European small talk and niceties, though are
physically very polite.
Finally found one excellent book in English by chasing down its author in person (no
English books for sale in Estonia yet), an historian. So I have a start. Theyve had
a very rough time of it, indeed, for fifty years. The middle generations find it hard to
smile, now. Not true of the young people -- or the elderly. As one student put it to me
this week, the old people remember freedom.
I am quite on my own. There seems to be no curiosity about this lone foreigner, and
their usual ethic has not lent itself to giving much assistance. Not European, here:
rather, it is something else. Strangely interesting. Rather a sad people, I think. Their
way with each other is not our way with ours: theirs, to me, seems alien, foreign,
puzzling, and unreadable. Tartus culture is Germanic, old-fashioned: a sort of
tattered Wurtzburg. Good Rigoletto the other night!
December 27, 1993, Tartu
This is a prestigious secondary school and the producer of many of Estonias
leaders, so the stakes (i.e., students minds) are high. The preceding style was
Soviet, harsh, and though all the teachers are very good, they teach languages by an old
method. Its why they called in a native speaker: they thought hearing one was the
key to making the students talk. Of course, that wasnt the problem. You have to make
the students want to talk, so much so that they forget theyre trying it in
English. The students are stunned to be allowed to speak their own minds.
I know, of course, that the slightest introduction to such freedom of logical
thought, with full attention to what theyre saying -- to language itself, the
connection of real feeling to real thought: that difficult job -- will not easily be
forgotten once sampled, and will stand them in good stead no matter what happens now in,
and to, Estonia. To simply link up what they meant with what they said -- to mean what
they say -- well, as you can imagine, this is exactly what was not allowed under the
So I am lucky, in a way, to have landed here at this particular school I think, and
will continue with everything I have to do what I can for these ninety 14-to-17-year-olds
under my conversational charge. Since I want to know what they think, the stakes
are rather high; and, no, it is not a normal English class in conversation. This is a
think-tank in broken English, and one never, but never, knows what will happen next.
The university is here, up on the hill. The city is medieval (founded 1047) and leveled
several times; the oldest buildings are handsome, 18th-century; its a good-looking
town, Hanseatic in appearance. The university library has almost nothing in English: the
books are Estonian, German, Russian and Hungarian.
There is no translation into English of the Estonian national epic, assembled by
Kreutzwald last century, Kalevipoeg. At least, none in print. This pamphlet
[Felix J. Oinas, KALEVIPOEGKUTKEIS (in fetters), no bibliographic information]
quotes a little from one section.
With great difficulty I also tracked down some political history books on the Baltics
(difficult, from here, that is, and in English). One, I found by tracking down the author,
himself, here in Tartu, and buying the book from him -- he happened to have one copy in
English. Almost nothing of the literature itself is available in English, the poetry or
the fiction. Jan Krossis the major author, and is in English -- just not in
Estonia. Jaan Kaplinsky a good poet; he lives here in Tartu, though I havent met
him. Also in English: there, the library did have two of his books. Hes excellent.
But there are hundreds of others, none translated. Yet.
So I have really found very little. My area of interest is still taking shape, but
its in the poetry as it abuts against/is part of local archaic religious practice.
Sound. Music? Rhythm. Sacred syllables. Everywhere they are used in conjunction. To what
The unfamiliar feel of Estonia, and Estonians: it is tied to their world view. It is
utterly unromantic, persevering, furtive, mystical, unusual. Their poetry (pre-German) is
incantatory, not tied to meanings, but to pure sound; is shamanistic, and survives in
every household in the countryside, sans the religious connection; but the taste for that
even shows in some country students papers as they open up and write. It is an odd,
fascinating way of organizing a response: circular, accruing along the way, a rhythmic
beat meant to produce a close response. I have a sensitive country girl in one class, and
her paper was utterly different from anyone elses.
Then, I read this, in the book by Endel Wirk, ESTONIAN LITERATURE, Tallinn, 1970, on Regivrss,
the most ancient, incantatory remnants, now sung as songs:
The fact that initial rhyming predominates in the oldest of old poetry should be
correlated with one of the salient features of the Estonian phonetic system: all native
words are stressed on the first syllable. This helps to explain why alliteration is so
widespread in Estonian folk literature... the need for alliteration is so imperative that
at times it may even dictate the choice of words, thus affecting or even deforming the
sequence of ideas ... at times quite nonsensical.
.... The varied moods and images are expressed in a regular trochaic rhythm which may
appear rather monotonous at first sight, but which is actually subtle and flexible
enough... Estonian is characterized by certain distinctive and complicated quantitative
relations of sounds and syllables that are not to be found in the Indo-European
languages....In essence it may be considered to constitute an original poetic medium which
differs sharply from the metrical structure of European classical poetry.... The
subject-matter is often brutal, but the tragic narrative is muted by the hushed tone and
the shocking details are toned down or only indirectly suggested beneath the iridescent
veil of parallel variations. This trait has perhaps something to do with the national
These are the Regivrss, dating back some two thousand years. One hundred
seventy thousand were collected in the last century, and reside in a building up on the
hill where a scholarly committee is still working out the Estonian language and developing
it for present use -- working hard at it. There are some three thousand basic types
of Regivrss that have so far been discerned in this collection.
Thats all I know so far -- a few hints Ive run across. But there is
something else, another line of hints. There has been no time to do much about this second
line, as it is hard to formulate the question in English so that Estonians would
A Canadian teacher with whom I have become friends mentioned that an Estonian woman
doctor had confided something odd to her last year -- that it is widely and quietly held
by Estonians that they were led here originally to stop in this corner of Europe because
they could respond to some kind of spirit-aura or power in the land in this corner; and so
they stayed. That their shamans had taken them from spot to spot, and had found a major
Yesterday, the day after Christmas, I took a long walk with one of the English
teachers. This woman is elegant, about fifty, rather high-strung. To my surprise her
tastes are quite mystical and dualistic. There were bad spots as well as good spots, she
said; everyone knew this. Present-day houses were laid out with no attention to this fact.
(Aavo is her son: the young cultural anthropologist whom I will tell you more about
later). And we had set out at her suggestion to see an art exhibit by an Estonian man
whose paintings, when you looked at them, were believed to affect your health for good or
ill. (The exhibit, when we reached it, had closed.)She told me yesterday, too, that Aavo
has a professor at the university who has written some articles on this arcane
mystico-history of the Estonians, so perhaps in time I will hear more about it.
December 27 (2), Tartu
It occurred to me the other night that the only answer to an alien poetic response is
poetic, from ones own spot in the universe. That answer would be a long letter-poem
written at white-hot speed. It would be an unvarnished, unfinished, sound-reply to a
strange melodic system tied to an even stranger stand in the world. In a curious way,
there is no idea here of the individual, not the way we know it. The Eestis are a cohesive
people by means of their language. Their challenge is not only linguistic(your sounds
against mine: will they measure up?), but about surviving, lasting, in such a world,
throughout history and prehistory. Their stand is: by means of avoidance on the surface,
and fierce adherence amongst ourselves to our music-language, we have always
survived. Here is who we are. Who are you? What is your own base of security-in-sound?
No search for personal power, here; no need to overcome anything: thats the
feeling. And utterly insular. Personally, they seem neither to care nor not care about the
Russians -- nor about me, one stranger. For their lives go on at a more inaccessible level
that any of that; are shared with one another by repeating reassuring sounds, rapidly and
softly. There is no hostility to the stranger. He simply doesnt exist.
And this is always hard for an outsider, of course. When you speak, you feel you are
not heard -- even when the conversation is in English. It seems to have no impact. They
cannot hear it. And, no doubt, this is how they have survived!
The songs throughout time have always been sung by women, says Oinas (at Indiana). The
culture-carriers. In the classes, it is the girls who are conservative, shy, mostly
silent. The boys are more than half-westernized, and want to be Europeans. Not so most of
Feb. 23, 1994, Tartu
What a time theyre having here, with everything! So unused to world mail coming
in and going out on this scale that workers have to be restrained on every item. Even the
envelope-addressing system used by senders had to be done the other way around -- big
diagrams in the main post office: name first, not last. Country last, not first. Whole
thing towards middle-to-right lower quadrant, not upper left. Every item of every daily
endeavor is like this. Little wonder a few foreigners letters sit somewhere for a
while. All seem to make it through, eventually.
Talked AIDS education for a week with my 90 students: nothing was being done;
theyd heard nothing, and HIV is in Tartu. Adult attitude dismissive. So, I did it.
Very interesting, and not as hard as I thought it would be. Nothing available here
anywhere --finally found one small book from Canada in the university library on the hill
(very little available to doctors here at that library under any language), and with that,
I ran 10 sessions on AIDS/HIV, fairly explicit ones but of course had to talk about lots
else, too, to watch out for their feelings. Sent out pleas for information to the obvious
places; WHO in Geneva responded massively and at once. A whole free series of the latest
books on AIDS and AIDS education. Im of course donating these to the library. I
wouldnt like to tackle this subject again, though, unless I had to, as here:
catcalls, no support from the staff. But a dear friend of mine died from this in 1988, so
when I learned the situation here I didnt think at all, just acted, and am providing
growing files of information as it rolls in. Best I can do. The kids of course disgusted
that no one had told them, as they should be told. Wrote to dozens of places outside the
country for help; got fairly well wound up about it. You know how one does.
It is now Estonias Independence Day. Touchingly, they say it is their 76th. They
count it from February 24, 1918.
This is heavy KGB country: half a mile from where I type is/was a big strategic-bomber
airport; Tartu was closed even to Estonians. Foreign lecturers have been allowed to come
to Tartu (as of three years ago), but not allowed to stay overnight. This place was
covert, closed, and also the location of their countrys major university, which
turned out to be a haven of sorts for Jewish professors who could make it out of Soviet
Russia. It was a little safer here. So it was a sad combination-- great scholarship going
on, some of the finest in the whole Soviet empire, in a city oppressed by and thick with
KGB and Soviet military. This was also the center of the resistance, when it came at last.
Led by students at the university and by some of their teachers. All went to Treffner,
where Im teaching: a hotbed of nationalism, always has been. For fifty of its
hundred years, this school could not be called by its real name but was simply listed as
School No. 1. Hugo Treffner was a patriot.
Feb. 24, Tartu
I find being here an odd exercise in seeing how long I can last away from the full
expression of my language. I see that I have always been in countries where English is
plentiful, if local in color, and me not tied down to one spot. So this is new. Being away
from a person or two with whom to speak English is grievously hard. ... The trouble with
being away from your language in this country of foreign sounds is that their needs
demand the finished thought, which then they echo. Is that Finno-Ugric up against the
Indo-European? I, or we, need the incomplete thought, the energy released between people
who build quickly on uncompleted phrases, and in those brief silences between the words.
Those leaps. The understood. The understood as part of a vast common ground, the
contrapuntal playing-ground where all the real exchanges take place outside of language.
But through language moving very freely and very fast. None of this is possible, none of
it available on paper or outside ones language matrix.
Well, on paper, yes, but ... thats only half of what one needs, in the end.
Paper answering paper, book as commentary on book --is that the best we can do? Its
too slow. One is grateful, nonetheless, that books exist where love is lacking: think
what it would be like with no expression of this at all. But my question has been dogging
me for five years: is art enough?
So sometimes I shy away from it and from the spoken language around me, just to see
what will happen, how the mind will manage, what its values might be. What it needs,
wants, is. It has now been twelve years since I left New York and my own community of
friends, an abiding one. Yet what I have seen in those twelve years I could not have found
even in that lively circle. I must continue, then. Much work needs to be done.
March 24, 1994, Tartu
I am exhausted by all the differences here, and by all there is to learn; as well as --
or especially -- by the need to sleep and dream in order to absorb it all, the
dreaming never keeping pace with the discoveries. And with the dreaming comes a feeling of
satiety, that same feeling after a crying jag or from grief --a drowsy feeling of no-fear
because one has bottomed out and finished, finally; so one can again be in-the-world as a
By the way, its an odd problem in this society for people like us (I mean, for
Americans): the slightest mention of the word spirit-- thats as far as
Ive ever gone in school, just that one word -- and extreme discomfort all around
you. Or the word religion, even if youre very careful to use it in a
polymorphous, culture-rich context. Nothing doing. And naturally, use of any other related
word is out of the question. So that around Christmastime, things were extremely
interesting: a Christ-less Christmas. Gifts, but no God. The whole core meaning excavated
out. I found it very lonely.
And of course, the major thing wrong here is exactly to do with the spirit. They seem
to be operating individually with a suppressed life of the spirit, and the results are
barrenly apparent. If you want to do something and wont get caught, do it. Or do it
if you cannot be stopped. The mafia are (some of) the kids heroes, and have even
been given a history dating back to the Middle Ages. I almost threw up. Nothing I could
say would shift their opinion. Their attitude, and perhaps the going attitude: What
crushes you, you might just as well look up to. Or, pretend to.
But this brings us right around to the subject you are dealing with: the archeology of
American consciousness, as you so beautifully put it. This Estonian attitude is not, can
never be, anything like what we have become. I see from being here how radically Romantic
Americans -- all Americans -- are, at heart. What I am noticing is profoundly
post-Romantic, or is a gray, jagged reaction to that bad working form of Romanticism that
was Marxism-in-action. Here, 14-year-olds know enough to sneer openly at the word
hope. Their papers are full of hopelessness. This, at the school which
produces Estonias leaders in every field.
What we would call giving up (I am made a fool of every time I try to
counter their profound, sometimes very innocent, nihilism), is here even among teenagers
merely a sensible option. This lesson I learned from them only yesterday. In the middle of
such lessons, you can see why I must dream to catch up; these are blows to my hope for all
of humankind. I had thought humankind basically good: my students laugh with delight at
such naiveté. And -- I have a feeling -- this is the mind-set (hated word) in all of
Eastern Europe and former Soviet bloc countries, as well as in Russia itself. Americans
are the last idealists, it would seem.
However, they also look at us, to us, with something like longing for our optimism.
They need it. Not our variety -- ours is felt as an insult; its too
unknowing. A muted optimism brushed over here and there, dusted up a little bit with a
decorous silence towards subjects too ugly to talk about just yet, would be more to
everyones taste, here in the lost parts of Europe. They are also envious of our
kindness towards one another and towards everyone; this, apparently, they cant
feel at all, and wish they could. So they are not jealous of our wealth. But of our
And -- we are happy. And no, it isnt fair. So we feel guilty about it and
go traveling to learn how to temper this happiness with another reality. Instead, we end
up even happier than we were to begin with.
So it is easy to patronize Americans, but that is a mistake. It is the one thing we
cant stand, because it assumes superiority, and deep down we believe that freedom is
superior to knowledge(thats whats radical about our Romanticism). You quote
DeVoto who says of emigrants that they displayed the inability to get along with one
another...tending always to reduce society to the family and so on -- this prickly
independence has not shifted one iota among those still drawn to frontiers in
America. And elsewhere. I notice here, for instance, that I am bellicose in comparison
with Estonians, even in comparison with the kids. Even they describe their best national
characteristics as being calm, private, hidden, even-tempered, liking to be alone,
cold, and peaceful. They describe the Russians as being sociable and entirely
credulous: their word! Estonians are oak trees. Russians, birch forests. Americans, maple
trees; the Finns, junipers. That, according to my 17-year-old, 11th-form class.
I begin to understand the damage of Vietnam. Who we are does not fit anywhere in the
world, except at home, where there is, almost, room in which to direct such violence.
Romanticism still leads to violence. Maybe thats what Individualism matures as,
after all. Instead of pointless anarchy and petty cruelties for no reason, you finally get
to be violent, thanks to an ideal, one that is both unassailable and insupportable: instinct.
Our version bears watching. It is not much better than the German variety; weve just
got more space in which to exercise it, and less history to hang it on.
Frontier. Wilderness. The West.
I found myself reading a childs own story of how he came into
consciousness" -- you say -- of a vast, animate land, and of himself as being
unmothered there. Animate land. Unmothered there. Most pioneer
families I know of (my family is one) are shot through and through with an unnamed,
unrecognized, full-blown pantheism. They do not know they believe this; they think
its in the Bible. It is straight from the 18th century Europe they came from;
its all that remained after lost generations in the wilderness, harsher than family
letters and most history have so far reported. My mothers family, for example, kept
Keats but lost the use of fork and spoon. Could quote Wordsworth but in some cases could
barely write, and had very little one-room-schoolhouse schooling. Fathers went away for
years; mothers raised piles of children, farming them out unseen for whole childhoods.
That was the frontier, the actuality. In letters between women of the family, later, it
was coded; by the children -- my mothers generation, -- repressed as memory
entirely, and the locales forbidden, even though all the family tombstones for 150 years
lay there. The founding of the Midwest was rough on civilization as practiced by the women
on the children. And there was a lot of violence, all unreported.
The West: that bar in outback Montana two men of the West took me to, to show me the
real Montana: when they entered with a woman (me), guns were taken out and displayed on
the bar, one by one. A warning. This is the true Old West, said my Texan
friend, chuckling. He nodded to the art work over the bar. An old reversible picture: a
Gibson Girl, and in a blink, a skull instead. That, he said, is how the
West still feels about women. And we were then politely asked to leave. Beauty and
death. Death and beauty. Posited against them, both worshipping them and fearful of both:
the violent man, himself worshipped by the beauty.
April 13, 1994, Tartu
Two items: Firstly, my adventures with my young friend Aavo, a graduating cultural
anthropologist. To describe properly what he revealed to me by way of information and
Estonian delights would take a long article; but for now: (a) in the locked basement of
the National Museum of the Estonian People here in Tartu, by means of artful talking, he
was able to have the chief ethnologist open it up for the two of us last week, and I was
walked through the entire treasure of peasant Estonia, which has never been displayed.
Implements, small to large, very large -- whole tree-trunks hollowed out as grain-holders
and feeders; ice-skates made out of what looked for all the world like human femurs cut
lengthwise, blackened with age; horse-collars; ladies wooden saddles; all manner of
bowls, ladles, beer mugs, butter-churns, pitchforks, shovels, wool-carders, spindles,
spinning-wheels; everything for life made out of wood very lovingly, and everything smooth
from long use. All of it, apparently, collected from the island of Saaremaa. Tree-trunk
wash-barrels... We walked quietly through the lost peasant history of the island, where it
had last obtained. Tens of thousands of articles. No more than a dozen Estonians have ever
seen whats in that basement. They need a museum to put it in, and have never had
one; a new one is already designed, and a place to build it reserved, but there is no
money to do it with. Perhaps twenty years from now, indicated the ethnologist, who did not
speak English. The door was locked again with a giant, hand-forged key in this crumbling
building, used as part of the university for classroom and storage only.
Upstairs, the Kreusenstern collection, also locked up: saw that, too. Not so large as I
had thought, but there were some exquisite items. The exhibition of Aleut, Tlingit, and
Haida artifacts may be mounted mid-May for the first time ever, including these items,
never before on view. The Soviets tried hard to take them, but failed somehow. Mostly
Aleut and what looked like very high-quality Haida materials. Hats and fishing gear from
the Aleuts; beautiful obsidian carved ceremonial pipes and hats from the Haida, and some
masks, totemic objects, sacred things. It made me sad. And one most exquisite Aleut hat
quite covered in carved, three-dimensional ivory figures to do with ocean hunting. In
another building, said Aavo, was the other half of the collection: bark clothing being
restored. Id say there must have been, then, perhaps a hundred items altogether. The
cupboards were also full to the high ceiling with artifacts from other native cultures
around the world, all collected by German explorers in the 18th century and part of the
19th -- Dorpats (Tartus) heyday. Well, the 18th century wasnt: the town
was gutted and only twenty-one people lived here. The revival began in the very late 18th
century and went rapidly throughout the 19th, on many scientific fronts, including
linguistic and ethnological, regarding Estonians.
Over a million songs have been collected and are stored in the Literary Museum (a
working scholarly institution rather than a museum per se), also up on the hill, where
everything else is. Tens of thousands of these are the old shamanistic Regivrss.
These treasures must remain out of my reach; there is no psychic rope left with which to
learn this language, a decision I made for my own good some months ago. It is all I can do
to stay sensitive to the atmosphere and the body language around me; and to read about
them in English in the few books available up at the library. These few means are so
richly suggestive that I found the idea of taking on the language, which would reveal the
full force of who this people were, as too much for me. Just as in South India, it is
quite enough just to be here without knowing too much, for the first long stay. To have
taken on Tamil, and therefore Tamil literature, philosophy, et al., would have
driven you quite mad because it amounted to becoming Tamil. I am not a scholar: I become
what I see and am surrounded by; therefore I automatically, it seems, proceed with caution
and reticence, yet with open eyes, when in a culture very different from my own. I enjoy
being this odd way, but it wants protecting.
The first item had to do with Aavo; the other thing: living shamans, in Estonia. They
Now, Aavo gets involved with shamans, it would seem, wherever he travels. He has spent
considerable time as a freelance ethnographer and just plain adventurer in places it is
not allowed to go to, and among people who were meant by the Soviet authorities to remain
completely sealed off from any visitors. These were the Nenets, both Forest and Tundra
tribes, on the other side of the Urals, and the Yakuts, I believe. He has notebooks,
slides, and movies; went there with two young friends three years ago. That means they
were all 17. A year later, he talked his way across Siberia and via Uelen into Alaska, on
his way to visit Native Canadian tribes, but the Canadians wouldnt let him in as he
had only fifty dollars. He worked with a trapper out of Chicken, Alaska, to earn money to
return to Estonia, but instead, received a scholarship from Harvard, and spent it driving
to Mexico, when hed never driven before; the wreck of a car; many adventures, but
the highlight was living for a time with the Zunis and the Hopis. A teach stop he
learned the language. In doing so, he was each time admitted by way of courtesy, being
a young man, to sweat lodges, male ceremonies, and shamans circles, being sincerely
prone to such interests. All this before the age of eighteen.
So when this young man began to talk about Saaremaa, following a rare question from me
(I dont ask questions; I wait for contexts, and just listen): Last October I
was told something about a man on Saaremaa. Is there such a one? is all I said.
Aavos face lit up; this man was a friend of his, and he told me a considerable
amount about him. He had visited the man, he said, on Midsummers Eve last year.
Well, C., there is far too much to tell; I will have to do it in person, sometime.
Linguistically, according to Aavo, the word noid on its own means a bad witch,
misused as such by German ethnologists in the 19th century; it had no bad connotations
before that for Estonians. But noid preceded by a place-name indicates for
Estonians a living witch doctor -- their own word for it, in English --
and is entirely positive. They are around; a famous female shaman died quite recently, he
said; but the most famous of all lives now on Saaremaa. The Soviets moved him there, and
gave him an herb farm. No one was allowed to go to Saaremaa during the Soviet time,
although it was the largest island, because from there you could row to Sweden and escape.
But they put this noid on an herb farm because plants talk to him, and he to them.
I believe Aavo, who that said his shamanic friend can also translocate. I do know that
this man looks Asiatic and was an orphan, from somewhere in the countryside. Under the
Soviets, no shamans were supposed to exist; however, this man was flown to Moscow many
times to treat every single Soviet president except Gorbachev. They deposited him on
Saaremaa to keep the Estonians from seeing him, themselves.
He likes Aavo because they both like vodka. More and more its becoming clear
that, throughout Soviet Asia and even here, in Estonia, vodka is a screen. If someone is
said to be just an old drunk you can pretty well bet that he is also something
extraordinary, but hidden. This even applies to one or two particularly gifted and learned
university professors. The most beloved people in every sphere are referred to as this:
drunks; disheveled; broken; dissolute; of no value. This protects them from too much
(formerly) Soviet interest. Also, to gain access to them you must drink vodka with them in
great quantities -- a kind of initiation. They invariably show no effects of it, being
extraordinary people or graced in some way; you must get roaring drunk, I suppose so as
not to remember to divulge the secrets told you, or so they cannot be given credence if
you do. So when Aavo reported spending Midsummers Eve with the Saaremaa shaman last
year, it was to drink vast quantities of vodka.
I now discount such provisos to any story; they are certainly true, but they are never
the point; they are a peculiar test of you. And Aavo hinted -- though he is
notorious about lagging on the follow-through with such things -- that maybe I could come
along this midsummer. I wont hold my breath. But there is no question that, should
it happen suddenly, I will indeed drink lots of vodka though I no longer drink any alcohol
at all. I will plunge in, certainly trusting this shaman, and myself, absolutely -- even
joyfully. Not the least bit afraid of anything in my psyche, nor in his. And Aavos
terribly life-positive. To know of even such a one who is living gives me joy, C. They
still live. They live. Even here, after all thats happened.
I have a student who is surely a natural along the same lines. Klli is small,
pale, and very disruptive -- not much interest in learning. (Unusual at a special school
where to have to take an exam to get in. Shes here for some reason to do with her
scores, apparently.) Pale as death itself; I thought, perhaps ill. In the hallways, I have
caught her (she didnt know I was nearby) making howling sounds, or screeches. I
thought them just cutting-up noises, but they certainly were different in intensity from
other students noise. Then, this week I played the first game with my
students (I dont believe in learning this way, but had promised them).
It was the simple, British pastime for families on trips, the game of I
spy. (I spy with my little eye something beginning with --.) To make the
game more interesting, I encouraged them to make it difficult -- I spy could
be something without shape or weight, a quality, a mood, a feeling, an ingredient of
something else, or inside the body. Klli guessed instantly about half the time (the
other half, she did not speak); the others grinned sheepishly, lowering their eyes, not
surprised at all. I did a double-take, and said, Oh! Klli looked at me
with scorn: at last I had understood what she was capable of. She could read others
Now, I had just described this as being the interesting part of the game: when
relaxation was combined with acute attention to mean they were simply using part of the
ninety percent of their brain not normally employed; it wasnt
mind-reading, I said, sounding like the teacher who knew all. She looked at me
with pity, like someone feeding sugar-cubes to a dumb old field-horse. Normally, she
doesnt speak any English, only Estonian, to disrupt the others. Oh, I
said. Klli smirked.
So it goes. This is quite a place; these are quite a people, C. I have grown very fond
of them, though could never stay here. It is a treat and an honor to have had a few
glimpses of what they are about, and if you asked me, Id say that overall one could
guess that Estonians are shot through and through with a very old sort of magic; are a
maddening people, therefore. You will not get in. Nor should you. All outside readings by
Russians and us or anyone else reflects only the mask, a series of masks, thrown up
quickly by Estonians to keep the inner thing protected. My students have written papers
about it, but they are private ones -- I have promised -- done by way of metaphor (rye
bread!). I am very close to my students in a very, very distant way. That is the best that
can be done. I am not a person to them, not quite; but they have relaxed enough to use me
as a vehicle for what they want to think and say; that alone is extraordinary luck for me,
and I think, Okay. Even: Good for them. The usual benefits, in short, of writing. But I
must be very careful to guard this material that has passed through my hands. I am using
it merely to inform my understanding. Rye bread. Sauerkraut. Apples. Blood sausage.
April 13, 1994 (2), Tartu
Everything is pointing me to Saaremaa. My old Encyclopaedia Britannica (1910 edition)
told me that, in pre-Roman times, the considerable amber trade was controlled by
chieftains on Saaremaa. The island is to the north of the amber coast, which now lies
within the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, inside Lithuania.
I am trying to find out about a curiosity, rather, a missing curiosity, now a legend of
sorts. Is the story Lithuanian? No, pan-Baltic, probably. There was a room entirely made
of amber. After World War II it disappeared, and still has not been found. It is called,
simply, the Amber Room. Its name pops up in conversations and in articles with fair
frequency. The image holds richness and power, especially, I think, throughout and
following 50 years of Soviet drab. This mellow, priceless mystery has crept into Baltic
minds and stands for something. I think the legend is growing.
Postscript: In the National Museums locked cabinets, Aavo and the director also
showed me a Setu god. I have yet to hear the story; there wasnt time. Down the
ladder came a box about two feet long. An open box: inside was a blackened, heavy, wooden
figure about 20 inches long. Roughly carved; merely suggestively: a head with marks for
eyes, slight nose; no mouth, as I remember. I think, no neck; the body also rough-hewn as
if skirted; no body parts shown; merely shoulders, then rough hack-marks on the darkened
old wood: and the whole figure appended to a wooden X. Aavo took it out with great care
and respect; and replaced it like a baby. Indeed, though it had the weight and shape of a
baby, life-sized or larger, it was clearly meant to be a standing adult figure. He said
hed tell me the story about this famous statue later; but we havent got around
to it yet.
While showing his slides of his stay with the Tundra Nenets, he told us of his run-in
with their local god. In one slide it looked much the same as the Setu god, though
swaddled in rags. It had to be upright at all times, 24 hours a day, and throughout all
history never allowed to fall over. People -- keepers -- took turns guarding this totem
inside the tipis wherever they went; they were migratory. Aavo came upon it one day by
accident, and after that, they cautiously allowed him to be around their wooden god.
The Setu god: now in a cupboard in Tartu.
©1997, K. Callaway