Estonia : Saaremaa Island

This is the second installment in a series on my experience of Estonia on the occasion of its 20th anniversary of re-independence from the Soviet Union. In what became known as the “Singing Revolution,” residents of this Baltic state wielded a long-held cultural practice as a weapon of change, without a drop of blood spilled. Over the four years between 1987 and 1991, hundreds of thousands of Estonians gathered publicly in a series of spontaneous events to sing prohibited patriotic songs, risking their lives to proclaim their desire for independence, culminating in a choral event that close to one-third of the country’s citizens attended.

Expressing their national identity through song has been an Estonian tradition for as long as memory serves-the Estonian Literature Museum contains more than 1.5 million pages of folk songs and there are continual competitions and festivals around the country. The country’s “choir culture” is flourishing, with music continuing to serve as the force that unites Estonians as they enter the third decade of their fledgling democracy.

Estonia is a window into how one small country moved from living in fear under a totalitarian system to an environment of such openness that today it is known as one of the most “wired” nations in the world. In my journey across this small country, I met a cross-section of people whose experiences tell the story of Estonia’s past, present and future — and provide powerful lessons in how the irrepressible human spirit can overcome bondage. While there, I had my own awakening, realizing that repression can also be self-imposed and that freedom sometimes is simply a choice to cast off old chains of ancient history and embrace today.

Only mere moments  after arriving on Saaremaa Island, I was already lost. Still jet lagged and disoriented, I strained to get straight the one-step directions I had been given. Was I supposed to take the first right . . . or the second? My stomach muscles tightened and my heart rate accelerated. For someone who hated getting lost, I was doing a lot of it lately.

It dawned on me to apply a bit of advice I had been given years earlier, a suggestion that always proved to be pretty effective when I remembered it — when I felt agitated, the first thing I needed to do was quiet the disturbance within me. Spotting a gravel lot along the road ahead, I swung off the two-lane byway and pulled in. Getting out of the car and stepping into the warm summer morning, it was hard to imagine a more serene spot to get my bearings.

Saaremaa IslandLeaning back against the hood, I looked out at a panorama of translucent pale blue, finding it hard to tell where the water ended and the sky began. The soothing expanse shimmered in the sun, painted with duel strands of white daubs — the cottony clouds that lazily drifted by were reflected in the Vaike Vain, the channel that separates Muhu from Saaremaa. I had just skimmed along its surface, crossing the two-mile causeway that joins the two neighbors.

From my tranquil perch I contemplated the coastlines of the two islands, thin fingers of emerald green that stretched out toward one another into the glass-like surface of the inlet. The surroundings were completely still and utterly silent. Soaking up the idyllic scene and golden sunshine, my breathing slowed, my pulse rate lowered and my tensed muscles begin to relax.

With the whoosh of a passing car, I realized the languid sea-scape had lulled me into a reverie, a blissful few moments in which my mind had become as empty and uncluttered as the eternal azure expanse in front of me. Saaremaa Island bayRe-focusing, I saw the silhouette of a lone duck glide across the placid water, a gentle wake rippling behind him. As I watched, he began to flap his wings and then stride determinedly across the water’s surface in an awkward gait, gaining momentum and become airborne.

I laughed to myself and thought “Now there’s an idea — just wing it!”

I had a momentary glimpse of clarity about how my fear of making a “mistake” interfered with my enjoyment of life. No one was waiting for me; the day and how I spent it were mine to decide. And, at roughly 40 miles long by 20 miles wide, it would be difficult to get too lost on Saaremaa. I decided that if I were to err, it would be on the side of being inclusive. Back at the wheel, I reversed direction, going back to take the right I had passed.

Bike near cottageWithin just a few kilometers, I entered the tiny village of Orissare, where I was delighted to see a tourist bureau, its pale yellow facade graced with a wooden chair emblazoned with the word Tere, “hello” in Estonian, and a cheerful plant bursting with blooms. Despite my new-found carefree attitude, the possibility of a map and some directions heartened the control freak in me. Soon enough, I was armed with both and an itinerary of attractions to visit en route to Saaremaa’s capital of Kuressaare.

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