Somehow we find ourselves seated at Lennart Meri Airport in Tallinn, awaiting a flight to Frankfurt, the first leg of our journey home.

We’ve been rather busy these last three weeks.  First we partied American BBQ style in Tartu with our friends and family, celebrating our year and our imminent nuptials.  Once we’d drunk all the Fest (Estonian sparkling wine) and beer away, we packed up our life in Tartu and drove it to Tallinn.  A day later we left for a week’s tour of Barcelona and the Costa Brava. Upon touchdown, we turned around almost immediately and set off on a road trip to Estonia’s west coast and Hiiumaa, one of its large islands off the western coast, with my dad.  We made it back to Tallinn with time to spare and were so happy to be able to attend the cello concert honoring and celebrating my relative Laine’s 90th Jubilee. Have you ever heard a concert of just cellos?  It’s marvelous.

white nights

The days here in Estonia have grown longer than any we witness in the U.S. — the sun sets after 11pm and rises not too long after that, the night’s darkest moment is only a rather unconvincing duskiness.  In fact, one of the most joyous celebrations in Estonia centers around Jannipäev, which happens on the longest days of the year, one week away.  Sadly it feels as if the beauty of Estonian summers–full of grilling, foraged food, and lots of time outside–are just beginning as we leave.  We’ve found that living with days this long is energizing; you feel a sense of immense possibility.

After all our moving about of late, we’re both understandably a bit overwhelmed.  We’re certainly feeling happy to be heading home, but at the same time sad to be leaving.  As the taxi weaved its way to the airport this afternoon (toting our 250 pounds of luggage), Elin looked out over the Tallinn skyline and began to plot our next trip back.  All in all, we’re both so thankful for this year, this chance to be in Estonia.  It was an important year and we count ourselves lucky for this opportunity to “pause” from our lives in the States and garner some perspective.

We want to thank you all for checking the blog this year.  It was a lot of fun for us to write and share with you our experiences and we hope we were able to provide an insight into our lives all the way over here in Eesti.

Now, onward and upward!

Hiiumaa Elin and Toivo

Blake atop Kopu Lighthouse, Hiiumaa

VW Golf, two days into the trip

Looks like we were brainstorming a VW commercial.  We really should have, come to think of it.  (Sidenote: link to my favorite VW commercial).

Last weekend we hit the islands, renting a car in Tartu and driving to Virtsu (via Viljandi and Parnu) to catch the ferry to Muhu.  We were joined by our friends Karen and Billy who live in Tallinn.  It was a great weekend, full of laughs and good food and saunas.  I’ll showcase some highlights in photographs:

Lost boy

On Thursday morning we visited Kuressaare’s exceptionally well preserved castle.  Inside they’ve established a museum of Estonian history with a particular focus on people from Saaremaa and Muhu.  This little guy, no more than 2 feet tall got cut off from his family and provided a chance to capture the scale of the castle.

Field of yellow

Just as we set out from Kuressaare on the proper road trip portion of our stay we came over a slight crest in the road and this field was on our left.  Blake quickly pulled over and we were all a bit stunned by the colors, the yellow followed by the green and then the blue blue sky.  It looked like Provence.  We thought it was rapeseed, but were later told it’s like a wildflower/weed native to Rakvere (a city in the north of Estonia).

Best Bread

We didn’t just take in the sights, we ate.  In a tiny village called Lümanda there is a farm restaurant called the Lümanda Eating House.  The hostess gave us a tour of the building, explaining that all the food comes from their backyard, “We never go to the store.”  What a life!  There was no menu, owing to it still being early in the tourist season, so what we were served was mashed potatoes, smoked ham in a white sauce, pickles, pickled pumpkin, pressed apple juice and the best part…fresh still steaming bread with homemade butter.  Call the immigration bureau, I’m not leaving.

We wanted to bring him home with us

Our last night was spent at Nami Namaste, a guest house and cooking school complex run by a Finn.  It is well known for its food, and it didn’t disappoint.  We enjoyed dinner, breakfast, and lunch (pizza cooked in an Italian outdoor pizza oven by an actual Italian).  It was an immensely restful place, complete with a hammock and the above pictured dog.  His name is Flüün, or Floon, or Flüüne.  He’s a Swedish speaking Irish terrier, naturally.

More road trip pictures here.

We’ve taken May by storm by traveling as much as we can manage.  We’d toyed with taking the short flight over to Stockholm for a long weekend, but I just couldn’t get excited about the trip.  I know Stockholm is a nice city, but sitting at my computer in cloudy early April, I couldn’t imagine using our travel funds to travel further north!   I secretly calculated what a similar length trip to Provence would set us back, presented it to the board (Blake), and we made our bookings all within about an hour.  I guess Provence takes Stockholm in our book.  I’m okay with that.

Blake has documented the trip culinarily over on The Paupered Chef, here, here and here.

But we didn’t just eat, we soaked in ever stunning landscape the region had to offer.  We really only had two full days to play with and lofty ambitions for what we could see.  But as Blake notes in his write up of the Provencal markets, our 5 point plan quickly fell to the wayside and we did our utmost to wander the hills, stop the car at erratic intervals for photos, and slowly drink as much café and Orangina as we could afford.  Embracing all cliches, Provence is spectacular.  I spent a good deal of the time in the passenger seat daydreaming about the house we would rent here and the copious amount of artichokes I would consume (at least one each day, preferably steamed and served with lemon butter).

One aspect of Provencal life that really struck me were the shutters.  From town to town, I’d order Blake to photograph this window and that door and over and over again I’d say, “How can so many people uniformly have such good taste?”  The colors are all matte, mostly blues and greens and they each accent their 400-some-odd-year-old stone homes perfectly.  Like when we traveled to Italy in October, my fascination with the shutters in Provence probably has something to do with my interest in what goes on behind them.  What would it be like to have grown up here?  Does each bed in Provence come standard with a fluffy white down comforter?  What’s for dinner tonight?

More photos from our trip can be found on our flickr photostream.

Arles Alleyway

Arles White

Saignon

Menerbes shopfront

Menerbes Green

Pantone 3025 C in Menerbes

Red!

Standing in line for Soup

Tartu is awash with festivals and thematic days these days.  I just saw a sign go up today for “Soome Paevad” or “Finnish Days” next weekend.  I can’t help but think it’s just another lure for Finnish tourists, but I’m no cynic.  This photo is of me waiting in line for soup during Supilinna Paevad, or “Soup Town Days”.  No, not the whole of Tartu is known as “Soup Town”.  Rather only one neighborhood in Tartu (complete with street names like Pea, Potato, and Bean) whose residents are well organized enough to put on yearly Supilinna Paevad.  Hey, it’s free soup and I was cold!

cappuchi

With spring has come an increase in our caffeine intake.  So far, our research has told us that the best coffee/latte/cappuccino is to be had at Cafe Pierre.

Elin in Raekoja

Getting ready to partake in aforementioned cappuccino.  It’s a lovely place to sit and work on your suntan, if only on your face.  That said, we’ve seen more than a few sunbathers taking full advantage of the sunshine even though the actual air temperature is often still in the mid 50s (Fahrenheit).

tortillas

We hosted a Mexican feast only a couple weeks ago.  We made homemade tortillas for the tostados.  We feasted on carnitas, tostados, chili, cornbread and enough salsa to fill a bathtub.  The only Mexican beer available is Corona and we introduced our Estonian friends to the concept of a wedge of lime in your Corona.  It was a big hit.

Student boat race

Pure pandemonium.  Last week was Kevadepaevad, or Spring Student Days.  Basically it consisted of a full week of parties and events targeted most at the university students, a last horrah to ring in spring before they get serious about their exams.  One of the most well-attended events was the boat race on the Emajõgi.  Students fashion their own boats and points are given for creativity, but also for those who actually manage to complete the course (which proved hilariously difficult with the strong post-thaw current).  We saw maybe five boats actually complete the course, while the others took pleasure in splashing each other with entire buckets full of water.

Blake

Blake playing it cool at the riverside.  He’d just come out of a four-day flu.  All better.

Seems the little nation of Estonia has finally decided to join the ranks of countries participating in this season known as “spring”.  For weeks, I watched with a grimace as the meteorological map of Europe advertised 15+ Celsius in Barcelona and Paris while Estonia sat contentedly at 1 Celcius (ordinarily followed by futile trips to kayak.com to buy plane tickets to Barcelona and Paris).

Now, though, we throw open the windows to sunshine and seagulls (inexplicably) chirping each morning and even venture outside without coats, having wiped the dust off our sunglasses.  We’ve adopted a daily ritual of drinking cappuccino in one of the town hall square outdoor cafes.  I’ve never appreciated a coming of spring quite this much.

Purple Stripes

Taken last weekend at the Tartu University Botanic Gardens.

For more pictures, click here.

Elin and I are on the lookout for a traditional Estonian dance, which our wedding guests will be subjected to in August (required for Estonian family members, optional for all else).  This led us recently to a competition held at a local high school in Tartu.  We witnessed hundreds of teenagers donning all manner of traditional folk costume dancing in circles, all competing as teams for a spot at the song and dance festival this summer in the capital, Tallinn.  It was interesting to see the contrast between the kids at the mall in skinny jeans and sneakers and the kids at this competition in wool tights and leather moccasins.  Really, they’re the same kids.

It was a pretty impressive to see; here’s a short clip we caught on camera of one of the adult female groups.

If you’re interested, here are some more links to YouTube.

Click here for Tuljak, arguably the most complicated and well liked rahvatants.  At the Dance Festival (which occurs only every five years) this dance always closes the festivities.

Though not the best quality, this video gives you an idea of what a tantsupidu/dance festival looks like with somewhere in the area of 3,000 Estonians dancing at once.  This is from the 2007 Youth Dance Festival in Tallinn.

eggs

Really, though, Ülestõusmispüha is the most formal name for Easter.  (Translated literally as, “Resurrection Holiday”).  The more familiar term is “Lihavõtted”.  When Blake learned this term in his Estonian language class earlier this week, he couldn’t believe that the Estonian word for Easter literally translates as “Meat Taking.”  I guess if you think about it, why not call it as it is?  It is in fact the end of lent.  It’s direct and to the point, but how would it translate to American culture?  “Baked Ham Day”?  “Butcher’s Best Day”?

Estonians begin observing Easter early, on Thursday actually.  The university closes by 1pm and Friday and Saturday are bank holidays. The streets have been quiet as many students have traveled home to their families.  Today, we listened to church bells through our third floor windows and attended a performance of Handel’s “Messiah” in its entirety.  It was truly spectacular.  The choir was entirely Estonian, as was the orchestra, while the soloists hailed from Germany, the UK and Austria.  

In true lenten fashion, last night we dined on a light meal of trout and salad.  We were asked over by some Estonian friends to partake not only in trout, but also in some traditional Estonian egg dyeing.  Dyeing eggs here is unlike the bright pastel Paas brand dyes we have at home.  That said, growing up in California with my grandmother never too far away, we dyed eggs with onion skins, exclusively.  At the time, I remember not being too jazzed with the eggs because as a six year old, all I saw were brown eggs while the kids down the street got hot pink ones.  What gives Vanaema?   

However, last night when Jaan and Leena brought out the supplies I was thrilled to see that the only decorative elements consisted of onion skins, snow drops, spring’s first bits of grass (from the yard), rice, and sprigs of dill.  We were each given a square foot of old fabric, a white egg and free reign to combine at will.  I went for a solid combination of everything on my first go.  Once decorated, you fold the fabric around the egg tight as if you were wrapping a present and wrap it tight with thread.  This way the decorative elements are as close as possible to the egg for the best possible dyeing.  The eggs are boiled in their fabric for approximately 15 minutes (starting from cold water) and then unwrapped and the surprise is revealed.  Unlike egg painting, Estonian egg dyeing is more capricious so no one can be particularly talented or untalented, which lends to the overall merriment of the occasion.  We had a lovely evening and vowed that going forward, this is the only kind of egg dyeing for us.  It’s fun for the whole family!  

Happy Easter from Estonia!

Blake's first egg

proud egg dyers

For more pictures, click here.

While it seems the rest of the world is ushering in spring, we on the 59th parallel are still waking up to freak snow storms!  I’m not complaining, merely observing.  I do have faith that this is all part of Estonia’s path to spring, that it can’t be an easy, gentle transition, but rather one marred with precipitation, big brown puddles, and gray mornings.  That said, the afternoons are mostly sunny, mild, and bring hope for more of the same to come.  

Sunday we woke to golf ball size snow flakes.  What were we to do?  Cornmeal pancakes speckled with lingonberries seemed to be the only answer.  Thankfully Blake’s a bit of a whiz in the pancake department.  He kept saying, “Have you ever seen a crust this good on a first pancake?”  “No dear, I haven’t.”  

Blake's crusty pancake

snowy back yard

Front view

Winter just won’t quit! I do admire its tenacity.

That said, we’re already living with more than 12 hours of daylight, with sunrise around 7:00am and sunset at 7:30pm.  My internal calendar is telling me it’s spring: it’s the end of March, the stores are full of Easter paraphernalia and there are tulips and daffodils for sale on the street, but the temperature still stubbornly lingers around 20 degree Fahrenheit.  It’s easy to forget that Estonia lies on the 59th parallel north, equal with Norway, the northern half of Canada, and Alaska.  Objectively it should still be winter, I understand that, but I’m crossing my fingers that maybe it’s getting on time to retire the rubber boots and the double coat uniform for my chuck taylors and perhaps just one coat?

Here’s a photo we took only a couple weeks ago after the most amazing snow storm:

Cooling soup

Happy Estonian Independence Day!

Today marks the 91st anniversary of Estonia’s declaration of independence, February 24, 1918.  Following the declaration and a long series of arguments, both with Germans and Russians (most of which involved guns), the path to independence culminated with the ratification in Tartu of the Peace Treaty with Russia on February 20, 1920.  But, as the tides of time and war would have it, Estonia faced occupation again in 1940 and not until August 20, 1991 was she free with yet another declaration of independence.

Nonetheless, today Estonia celebrates it’s 91st birthday, occupations be damned.

What does vabariigi aastapäev look like in today’s Estonia?  It’s a lot like the Fourth of July, but without the hot dogs, BBQs, or the widespread fireworks.  Today is a bank holiday, so the entire workforce is home with their families, enjoying a day off.  The roads are basically empty of cars and there is little to no foot traffic.  From my experience being here in 2005 and chatting with Estonians, people mostly spend today at home with their families, following the day’s official program on ETV, the major national television channel.

The day’s festivities began at sunrise (7:17 exactly), with the raising of the Estonian flag on Tallinn’s Toompea as well as in Narva.  Follow this, at 10:55am we watched the traditional military parade.  Essentially, it is an opportunity for the president to inspect and interact with the military.  And by interaction, I mean a rather jolly and charming call and answer, “Hello _____ battalion!”  They answer, “Hello Mr. President.”  “Happy Independence Day!”  And they again answer in frightening military bark, “Thank you!”  This went one for about 20 minutes with each section of the military being similarly greeted.

In terms of official state activities, the rest of the day consists of a church service, a formal gathering addressed by the president in a mirror to the American State of the Union, followed by a concert and a party (all shown on ETV).  A favorite Estonian pastime is to sit in front of the TV and watch as the honored guests enter the party via shaking hands with the president and first lady, a process that lasts at least two hours and is the closest Estonia gets to the red carpet at the Oscars or an embassy ball circa George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion”.

Beyond the television, Tartu is aflutter with Estonian flags.  Until 2006, the government had strict protocols that protected the Estonian flag from excessive use, most likely so that its presence would not be taken for granted.  Then, there were only around 13 days in the year when it is permitted to be displayed.  Now, since the updated ruling, “private persons” are granted “the freedom to use the Estonian flag as the national flag.”  That said, we saw more flags flying today than any other since September, some even lovingly faded, showing their age.  Today’s display shows that Estonians still take the flag very seriously, owing to the fact that for more than 40 years of Soviet occupation, you risked arrest or worse for being known simply to possess an Estonian flag.

Here is a collection of flags we saw flying today.

flags

Elagu Eesti!  Long live Estonia!