From where I was sitting, that was all I could read on the monument the other side of the square. 1918-1920? What was significant about those years? 1914-1918, yes, that would make sense. All across Europe we are used to seeing memorials for those killed in World War I. But 1918-1920? I had no idea.
This was my first visit to Tallinn/Estonia and I was sitting in Freedom Square (though I didn’t know that at the time). 1918-1920 was the Estonian War of Independence. An independence that was short-lived, as Estonia was occupied again only 22 years later (by the Soviets, then the Germans and then the Soviets again), only regaining independence in 1991.
Centuries of occupation, now free at last. A history that has shaped the people and the way they see the world.
Music featured very prominently in the opening evening of the conference I attended in Tallinn. How very appropriate for a country that had a Singing Revolution and that boasts one of the largest amateur choral events in the world. And that produced one of my all time favourite pieces of music, “Spiegel im Spiegel” by Arvo Pärt (see – or rather listen – above). I was very glad we got to experience a strong Estonian influence, before entering the more generic culture of a European conference.
I love hearing Russian. It’s a beautiful language and I get excited to still understand a word or a phrase here and there. Here’s one of my favourite words: мороженое. I love the way it sounds and I love the actual “thing” 🙂 So of course I noticed how much Russian was being spoken around me in Tallinn. Estonia has always had a Russian minority but after being incorporated (if that is the right word…) into the Soviet Union, the government initiated a “population transfer” (sounds kind of harmless…) which means that now about a quarter of the population are ethnically Russian. After independence in 1991, about 30% of the population suddenly found themselves without citizenship in any country (though that figure is now down to about 8%). So many big (political) and small (personal) stories here!
There is so much more: the fascinating mix of Scandinavian and Slavic influences – the high tech country (Skype was invented here!) with free wifi everywhere – honey beer (not sure there’s any deeper significance but I liked it :-)) – more glimpses into history: discovering the plaque below and Iceland being thanked for being the first country to recognise Estonian independence in 1991 (again, on both counts I had no idea!).
Fragments of a country, a culture, a people. As with any jigsaw, each piece just raises more questions and promises more fun exploring. Hope I get to go back soon to unearth more fragments and to see more context for the ones I already “have”!
I was walking down a fairly ordinary, quiet, residential street in leafy Schöneberg earlier, when suddenly, for a brief moment, I thought I was in Russia. Someone was playing an unmistakeably Eastern European tune on the accordion.
Why this older man was walking down the street playing his accordion, I’ll never know. But he did make me smile, as I remembered street parties for Victory Day in Russia, with lots of accordion music and dancing in the streets.
I discovered something really cool this week: apparently in Chinese, the word for “close friend” literally means “understanding music”, and the phrase “High Mountain and Running River” means close friendship or wonderful music. Here is the story behind this:
According to legend, in the Spring and Autumn Period there lived a lyrist Yu Boya, who was extremely skilled in music performance. One day his performance in the open air was overheard by a woodchopper Zhong Ziqi, who happened to pass by. Zhong Ziqi immediately understood that Yu Boya was describing lofty mountains and turbulent running water through his performance. Amazed to have found someone with an understanding of his music, Yu Boya developed close friendship with Zhong Ziqi. Later when Zhong Ziqi died, Yu Boya was in deep grief that he broke the strings and the musical instrument. Ever since then he quit performing music.
What a gift it is to have people in your life who just “get” you – often better than you get yourself!