Estonia : Muhu Island
Estonia, the Journey to Freedom, is the first 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 Estonia, the Journey to Freedom, I detail my journey across this small country, describing how 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.
Lurching forward to avoid colliding with a tram, I headed northeast on Viru väljak toward Narva manatee, and rounded the rotary, dodging rush hour traffic to exit at Pärnu manatee.
Shoulders tensed, teeth clenched, and fingers white-knuckled around the steering wheel, I tried to regulate my breathing, repeating slowly to myself a mantra of “all is well, all is well.” I reminded myself that I was not alone as I attempted to navigate the city streets of Estonia’s capital and make my way 134 kilometers south to the Virtsu Port.
I turned my gaze to my companion, feeling a warm mushy sensation normally reserved for loved ones. Despite being a technophobe, I took comfort in the GPS device at my side. Looking with affection at my square plastic security blanket, I saw a message flash on its screen “Signal Lost” before it faded to black. Try as I might to resuscitate my electronic escort, less than a kilometer into my journey, I was flying blind.
Fighting a panic attack, I remembered the words of my Estonian tourism contact Kristiina. While no doubt mystified by a travel writer who was afraid of driving, she had kindly told me “It is not a complicated drive, don’t worry — basically you just turn out of the hotel to your left and start driving, the same road will lead you out of the city, no need to turn anywhere, and from there you just follow the signs. Coming from Boston as you are, driving around in Estonia will seem like you are in some small sleepy town in Iowa.”
Kristiina was not kidding, but I needed to test her truthfulness time and again. Ever suspicious of something seemingly easy, I made repeated stops on the suburban outskirts of Tallinn to quiz commuters waiting at bus stops, all of whom only verified the simple reality that I was indeed heading in the right direction on what was essentially the only road going that way. I was soon to recognize that I had embarked on not only a cross-country tour of the small nation of Estonia, but on a quest to the heart of trust issues that encompassed territory far beyond high tech gadgets.
After having quickly left behind the hustle and bustle of Tallinn’s morning traffic, mine was the lone car on the ribbon of road slicing through densely-packed pine trees. Days earlier, as my plane had made its descent to Estonia’s capital, I watched out the window as the aircraft broke through the clouds at sunrise, seeing a carpet of green stretch toward the horizon line, where a speck of orange glinted — the far-away tiled rooftops of one of the world’s best preserved medieval centers. Almost half of the country is covered in forests, and having seen that vast wilderness from the air, I was now driving through it in a misty morning fog.
Happily, the straight-forward route was regularly posted with signage that offered continual comforting confirmation that I was indeed safely moving toward my destination. I began to relax and turned on the CD player, and the rhythms of an African melody flooded the car. The tune began with a lone lilting reed soon joined by a driving bass, soulful saxophone, and snappy percussion. “When the stars no longer shine, when the sun falls from the sky, I will be forever yours, you will be forever mine. There’s a special star that shines each evening in your eyes. Special star, special star, ooooh-ahhhh, oooh-ahhhh, ooooh, awaaa!”
Joyously singing along at the top of my lungs while chair dancing in the driver’s seat, I contentedly sailed along for the better part of the two-hour drive. Only when I saw the signs for the ferry did another flash of fear strike. What other people experience as the flutter of butterflies takes shape in the pit of my stomach as break-dancing, kick-boxing, fire-breathing dragons. This particular leg of my travels had loomed large in my mind for weeks before the trip. I couldn’t quite pinpoint why the idea of driving on to a ship filled me with such anxiety and dread — until a college friend happened to share her own recent experience.
Days before I departed for Estonia, she told me that she and her husband had just taken their car across the Long Island Sound to Block Island, recounting with great hilarity that she managed to lock the keys inside. She related the down-to-the-wire drama involved in getting into the vehicle and starting it before the ship docked, giggling as she recalled the long line of drivers behind her on the vessel who never knew how close they came to a very long wait to de-board.
Only in hearing this tale did I realize the source of my trepidation — a subconscious vision of hordes of fellow ferry passengers angrily blasting their horns and shaking their fists at me for somehow stalling the conclusion of their nautical crossing. With a new found insight into the absurd depths of my fear of making a mistake, I too was able to chuckle — albeit a tad nervously — as I breezed into the parking lot and the spot designated for the first car to board the behemoth ship I watched pull into the port.
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