Thursday, August 26, 2010


“Happy Restoration of the Independence of the Republic of Estonia Day!” I told Mrs. Mingus last Friday. Whether you say the full phrase or just refer to it as “Reindependence Day” or “Independence Day Two Point Oh”, it still makes me think of rocks. Big rocks. The ones that were used to block the streets when the tanks came rolling in on that fateful day nineteen years ago.

My binational little mongrels will grow up celebrating three independence days. Ironically, on this day we had a friend visiting from England. He doesn’t have an independence day to celebrate, but I do—from his country. We walked around Kadriorg Park in Tallinn—the presidential palace and gardens—and I recounted the finer points of Estonia’s Singing Revolution to him. Perhaps one day an Estonian and a Russian will walk the streets of Belfast together, learning about the olden days, during the British occupation. I’m assuming the term Whiskey Revolution will exist by then.

“We really should leave,” my friend stated.
—Yeah, I’m hungry, too. I know a breakfast place nearby.
“No, we really should leave Northern Ireland.”
—Oh. You honestly feel that way?
“Of course. There’s no reason for us to be there.”
—Why don’t you just leave then?
“We made a mess there, and I guess a lot of us feel the need to stay and clean it up.”
—I’m very glad the Russians don’t feel responsible for their mess in Estonia.

Sometimes I think that Estonia is very lucky—it gets to be nineteen again. The why is certainly unfortunate, but the experience to learn from one’s own mistakes is not. Let’s hope Estonia’s leaders exhibit this wisdom.

We wandered out of the park area toward Köleri Street and a restaurant called Nop. It was late morning, and we wanted some breakfast. In Tartu, there’s really no place to go for breakfast unless you want a hotel buffet, which can get pricey and still isn’t that great. Filling, yes, but it’s usually just scrambled eggs, fried potatoes and varieties of porridge. And bread and cheese.

In Nop I ordered scrambled eggs and potatoes, and Mrs. Mingus ordered blueberry porridge. “Scrambled eggs” in Estonian is translated as “egg porridge”. The menu described my dish as having bacon as a side, but the fatty ham (not bacon) had been fried and mixed in the eggs. That’s just how it’s served here. It works. A bit greasy for eggs maybe, but it tastes great. I ate all the tomatoes on my plate as well, hoping to balance out the cholesterol I was consuming.

The four-grain porridge with blueberries was a bit disappointing. Very good still, but the berries were dried, not fresh. In summer, and during blueberry season, I think it only natural to assume fresh blueberries would be served. What made the place memorable, however, was the banana bread with cinnamon butter. Simply sumptuous.

Where can you get anything even closely resembling homemade sweet bread in Tartu? Illegaard now offers English doughnuts with whipped cream and jam. Now that is a treat. And now my mind draws a blank for other options. Tallinn is four times the size of Tartu, and so is its variety.

This small restaurant or café or whatever has a cozy patio round the back, where you can sip on iced coffee or iced tea. Instead of "going Tartu" on its trees and cutting them down, Tallinn—and Nop—incorporates trees into its living space. I just loved the bench built round the thick trunk.

Nop also has its own shop, next to the dining area. Fresh bread, a decent selection of cheeses and other—some organic—products are for sale. What this place would remind me of is GenKlubi in Tartu, but only if GenKlubi got their act together and swept the floors from time to time and fixed up anything that could crumble into your drink. Nop has a comfortably worn feeling to it, but it’s clean and the owners keep up with the repairs. And instead of drinking tea in a plastic disposable cup, you can order delicious, freshly squeezed orange juice in a reusable glass glass. It was so foamy it could have been a healthy smoothie.

The Guatemalan coffee was good. They offer coffee from a pot and “machine coffee”. I experienced a definite nineties, grunge-era nostalgia. Formerly pierced yet not-so-formerly tattooed yuppies who drive Land Cruisers with windsurf boards on the roof and dress in tight, pink shirts are frequent patrons.

Krista the waitress was very polite in answering any questions we had. “Excuse me, my wife ordered banana bread. Is that almost ready?” I asked, as we had all finished our meals and wanted to leave.
—Of course! I forgot, I’m very sorry. One moment please.
And one moment later, it was served with a smile.

On the way back to Kadriorg Park we passed two houses. I was surprised to discover that Barbie and Ken were in fact neighbors, not lovers. And they live on Green Ass Street. There was a grotesquely expensive black car with black tinted windows parked in the driveway. I can imagine how he does business. “You a come over to a my housa, we will eat a together and talk, you and me. I live in da pinka housa.”

Horrible joking aside, some of the houses in that neighborhood are truly works of art. Unfortunately, some of these works of art have been left to rot. Just across the street from where the president hosts foreign dignitaries, there are windowless shells of formerly gorgeous homes, doors boarded up, weeds tall enough to harvest with a Soviet sickle. And then immediately next door is another restored beauty. This is Estonia’s First Neighborhood.

If you take a stroll in Kadriorg Park with your children, whatever you do, don’t walk by the playground. You will spend the rest of the day there. The museum is amazing though. Redeeming for parents who are punished by having to chase toddlers through a labyrinth of swings and slides.

The park itself is largely similar to Hyde Park in London. The paths are clean, they go everywhere, and they have the coolest bins for dog matter. The dogs in Tallinn are apparently gargantuan. There’s even a duck house on one of the ponds.

When you get to the presidential palace, it’s interesting to stand near the guards and look at the flags. Estonian Reindependence Day, with the Estonian blue-black-white flying next to the euroring. At least the state seal over the front door was made by a friend of mine, not imported. Walking around the park though you can clearly see the influences from the various ages it’s lived through. The palace itself was built for Catherine the First, of Russia. I assume she chose Estonia for the location because she was supposedly Estonian. From a tiny lakeside village southwest of Tartu called Rõngu.

When the Soviets occupied the country, they laid their signature concrete ruins sporadically throughout the grounds. Later, the Estonians built their signature museums and playgrounds everywhere, pretending not to see the concrete ruins. I personally think President Lennart Meri’s single greatest act of patriotism was the toilet press conference at what is now called Lennart Meri Airport. He should have given a lot more of these press conferences.

These parks of old are all modeled after the French style, because it was chic at the time. The Russians wanted to be French—that’s why the upper class spoke French and not Russian, and Messieurs Tolstoy and Dostoevsky would lead you to believe the serf lords could not even communicate in Russian—and these parks are copied and pasted straight from Versailles. English and French gardens have their welcome places in various countries, but honestly I have to say I prefer the modern Estonian garden.

Big rocks and logs with a mildly wild feel to it. Municipal gardens, I should specify. I am not a big fan of the private backyards with Japanese water fountains and garden gnomes. Gnomes make me want to buy an air gun. Fieldstone walls, the neighborhood hedgehog making its nocturnal rounds, untrimmed lilacs and white roses are what it’s all about. All shrouded in evening mist with a midnight sunset. This summer was the greatest ever.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Seto tsäimaja

“Let’s go to Russia today!” I suggested to Mrs. Mingus. The heat was really getting to her down here near Võru. Our car is air-conditioned, so wasting gas seemed like a reasonable thing to do on a day like this. “Russia? But I don’t even have my passport,” she replied. —Me, neither. That’s why it will be fun, I prodded in thirty-six-degree enthusiasm.

The drive to the border south of the village of Värska was only just under an hour, so we decided to make it a mini-American road trip. Anything interesting on the way, we’d check it out. I had no idea Southern Estonia could be so fun.

The first thing we randomly came across was a meteorite crater in a place called Ilumetsa. One thing I’ve noticed about Estonia—space debris loves it. The country is covered in craters. Each one is lovingly maintained by the State Forest Management Centre (or RMK in Estonian). Nice, new boardwalks help you navigate the bog on your way to the final destination: a big hole in the ground.

This point of interest, not really visible on most maps, was dotted with wooden sculptures of devils and other make-believe animals, such as man-sized frogs. It’s fantastic really, even though RMK neglects to provide any information whatsoever in terms of how long the hike from the parking lot is, or where the other craters are. The map in the log house didn’t even show where we were at that moment. It did, however, include several photos from Saaremaa, on the other side of the country. But this crater is just off the road from Põlva to Värska, by the train tracks near a village called Niitsiku.

When we arrived in Värska, I pulled over in a parking lot to check the map. Turn right when you get there, and keep going straight. There’s not a lot to do here in terms of tourist attractions, except for the Seto Museum and, well, a quick drive through Russia. The sign in the parking lot advertised that there was a Swedbank cash machine. Local hangout.

So up the road, past the museum, between the villages of Lutepää and Sesniki, the road crosses the Russian border for a brief instant. Signs tell you not to stop or walk, there are fences visible in some areas, and a nice green stick that says “Estonian Border” on it. I was really hoping for a “Welcome to Russia” sign, but that didn’t happen. If you didn’t know where you were, you would assume it was the Latvian border, which was also nearby. I stopped the car briefly, opened the door and stuck my foot on the gravel road. The pavement starts again on either side of the border. I have now officially been to Russia.

But there’s nowhere really to go once you’re back in Estonia. Not if you’re hungry, that is. We turned around and went back to Värska. I have now officially been to Russia twice. “I wonder if the Seto Tea House is at the museum we saw back near Värska,” Mrs. Mingus wondered aloud.
—What’s that? I asked.
“Just some restaurant. I read about it in a magazine. I read about Seto stuff all the time now.
—Really? I didn’t know you were that interested in it.
“I’m not. But it’s everywhere. Everyone keeps talking about Seto-this and Seto-that. It’s the new fad.”
—What’s so special about them?
“They’re basically part Estonian, part Russian. They have their own dialect, an off-shoot of the Võru language.” Like most Tartu women, Mrs. Mingus studied philology in university.
—So all their words end in the letter õ?
“Maybe. I only speak Võro.”

The Seto tsäimaja, or Tea House, is between Värska and Russia. The first building from the parking lot, it sits in a traditional farm complex, now a museum. Directly behind it is a traditional Seto cell phone tower. The whole museum shows how stuff was done in the olden days. Only I somehow suspect those olden days weren’t so long ago. The smaller the animal, the slower the perception of time. That’s why it’s so hard to kill a fly. We move in slow motion for them. By the end of the swat, a decade of fly time has passed. Jupiter blinked its eye a few million years ago, and the Setos—all five thousand of them—recently got cell-phone coverage. I paid by card.

When we entered, most of the dining room was reserved. There’s a sign that reads, “Groups which inform in advance about their visit will be given priority.” You order at the bar, so we went and browsed the menu. The only main dish available that day sounded good—a pork chop—so we tried to order. A middle-aged waitress kept running in and out of the door, ignoring us.
“Excuse me,” I politely spoke up.
—Grrd, replied Kristõ the waitress.
“We’re ready to order.”
At that moment, two Finnish men decked out in bicycling attire approached the bar. “Beer! Õlu! Olut!”
—How many? Kristõ replied.
“Twenty-three.” Ten minutes after we started waiting to order, a large Finnish tour group had entered and been seated at the reserved tables.
—Just a minute.
“Excuse me, we’d like to order.” I interrupted.
—We give priority to groups which inform in advance about their visit.
“But we were here first.”
“We’ve been waiting here for a long time, long before they arrived.”
—I know, she stated, before going back to the kitchen. I still didn’t know what color Kristõ’s eyes were.

Mrs. Mingus told me to take the kids outside and grab the last free table, and she patiently waited at the bar to order. Fifteen minutes later, she came out with two bottles of Värska water. “I finally ordered,” she said. Värska water is presumably bottled locally, with local water. It tastes like seawater to me, only palatable if extremely cold, which fortunately our bottles were. Our family caught a violently nasty stomach virus a couple weekends ago, and we all drank Värska water to replenish our salts. Electrolytes. It worked. A lot of Estonians swear by this stuff. I now associate it with the intricacies of our toilet.

Exactly two minutes later, the food was served. Traditional Seto food. I immediately noticed the difference between Estonian and Seto meals. In Estonia, the meat is on the right. In Setomaa (-maa means “land”) it’s on the left. As a left-handed individual, this provided me with a certain comfort in dining. This food though—this Seto food—was exactly the same as any other bar food in Estonia. Pan-fried pork, beet salad, boiled potatoes and cabbage salad.

However—and this is a big however—while the chef may have been rather unimaginative in her culinary choices, she really knew how to make this food. The meat was delectably tender, and for the first time in my life, I enjoyed eating beet salad. The porridge was also very tasty. Mulgipuder in Estonian (mashed potatoes with grain). Mrs. Mingus makes the best, but what the Seto Tea House served was noticeably better than any restaurant mulgipuder I’ve had. The main dish was gigantic for sixty-four kroons. The same meal in Võru would not be quite as good, and the price would be twice what we paid here.

It must have been made with local ingredients. A recent study revealed that Estonian salaries are one-fourth that of Brussels, but food in grocery stores is only marginally more expensive in Belgium. We’re all eating our salaries. Dipped in sour cream and sprinkled with dill.

Driving back through Värska on the way to the highway, I started looking for the famed Värska spa. I found the building in this image. My heart grew disheartened. Across the street was an amazing church, in the next image.

We made our way to the Piusa caves, north of Obinitsa. Twelve years in Estonia, and I’d never been here before. Originally a mine for glass sand opened in the Sixties, it’s been closed to the public for a few years due to the danger of caving in. Because that’s what caves do. “The mine is liable to fall down”, reads one sign in English. The nature is stunning. Sand, pines, rolling hills. In this heat, the air was thick with the scent of pines. An old sand quarry now hosted a swimming hole, and there was a new complex under construction at the caves themselves. Very modern. I look forward to visiting again when it’s completed.

The caves themselves were a bit of a disappointment, because you could only enter the first chamber underground. Remember, they’re liable to fall down on you. Thirty-five kroons will grant you entrance. Next year it will be two euros fifty cents, or thirty-nine kroons. What they don’t tell you, however, is that while the temperature was thirty-six outside, and everyone was half-naked and sweaty, the temperature in the mine was eight. Briefly refreshing, then just plain cold. Take a jacket with you.

Next stop: Härma müür (müür means “wall”, or in this case sandstone bluff) in the Piusa River Valley (Piusa ürgorg). Ürgorg is usually “primeval valley” in English. I’m very loosely translating these names so it’s easier to understand if you’re not an Estonian-speaker. I’ve been to Oregon in the States, and thought that nothing in Estonia could compete with it. I was wrong. This bluff was just amazing. There’s a campfire site next to it, free camping.

On the way back to Võru we stopped in a village called Lasva for a picnic. Wonderful wooden sculptures again, some built on the exposed root structures of mammoth pines surrounding…a volleyball court.

One common theme I noticed at each of the places we visited—and indeed any beach, forest or picnic area in Estonia—is the garbage. Bottle caps, cigarette butts, candy wrappers, sunflower seed shells, beer cans, ice cream packaging—you name it, it’s been littered there in the past few days. Every time I go out in a canoe, I can see through the water. I can see tires, furniture, household appliances, abandoned on the lakebed.

Estonia promotes itself internationally as a country that loves the environment. Maybe it should promote itself domestically in the same way. When I was a child in the Boy Scouts, our rule was that we always had to leave the campsite cleaner than when we found it. Even if it’s not your trash, you have to pick it up and carry it down the mountain with you. I think that’s a healthy philosophy to practice.

National clean-up movements like Teeme ära! (Let’s Do It!) might just result in court battles about who has to pay for the garbage trucks, but the idea is right. A lot of Estonians respect and love their land, and want to clean it up and keep it clean. It’s the other lot of Estonians who crap in their own backyards and go jump head-first in shallow water while completely wasted. Whether or not these people are in the majority is irrelevant. It only takes a few to trash the whole place.

So allow me to announce: The Mingus Initiative. Let’s start small, sustainably. Every day, take the initiative and pick up just five pieces of trash, and relocate them to a trashcan. See a bottle cap? Put it in the trash. Find a candy wrapper in the woods? Carry it back to the parking lot and put it in the trash. Spot a reminder that a dog was in the area? Well, maybe leave that alone. Better to clean up after your own dog.

This will take less than a minute of your day, but you’ll feel good about it. I promise. Socialized health care means we take care of each other through taxes. Let’s clean up after ourselves, too. Keep Estonia beautiful. Yes, this might be very American of me, and very naïve, but have you looked around lately?