“Tere!” This friendly greeting is heard in stores, restaurants, and (this is important, so pay attention, fellow residents of certain other Eastern European countries) also on the street, unprompted, at that! People look you in the eye in a friendly way, here.
I got into Tallinn after dark, so I was ready to go explore the next morning. I woke up early and decided that this would be the ideal day to look at two of the three museums I am particularly interested in. The first is the Estonian History Museum, but which bills itself as the Survival Museum, and is in fact a “little-bit-of-everything” museum. The second is the National Maritime Museum, of personal interest to me but, as most people aren’t as into boats as I am, a museum I’ll spare you the details of.
The Guild Hall in which the History Museum is located is physically in one of the old money houses of the Hanseatic League. Trading up and down the Baltic Sea coast extended all the way to Germany’s North Sea. Early Middle Age Estonian history finds a good starting point in this museum, which documents the peaks and troughs of the intermittently-rich city-state of Tallinn.
I actually learned a lot at the Guild Hall-turned history museum; much more than I originally thought I would. That, to me, is the hallmark of a good museum, the ability to sneak-attack you with knowledge. I particularly looked for a good long time at displays which easily put into visual context how much someone of a given period earned as compared to the cost of everyday things of the time-period. Let’s just say I am extremely excited not to have been relegated to the unremarkable height of 13th century stevedore.
The museum also does a good job of covering Estonia’s history up to the 19th Century. Throughout, the theme was one of perseverance. Estonians just survived things (conquest and occupations are what is meant here). The geography of this country begs, heck, demands invasion. There is nothing in the landscape to even momentarily slow an invading force. In the United States, we have what are sometimes unflattering called “flyover States” (as in, you may notice them down there somewhere, far below, as you travel en route to your destination). In that regard, Estonia is geographically a “marchover country”. I don’t mean this uncharitably. It is simply a fact that neighboring empires throughout history have plowed through present-day Eesti on their way to their respective campaign destinations.
This territory, therefore, would be a personal hell in the hands of lesser human beings. Estonians are made of sterner stuff, as I am becoming increasingly convinced. This probably has much to do with their extensive relationship with war. The ancestors of these people actually raided the Vikings for a living. The Vikings. Tell me that doesn’t take guts! It’s in their national foods, like blood sausages they call verivorstid (surprise translation: blood sausage). The nearly-uninterrupted year-round harshness of the Baltic seacoast is no doubt its own toughening agent (Tallinn’s average temperatures remain below freezing five months out of the year).
In the span of a few hours, I went from feeling needlessly sorry for this seemingly ill-fated nation, to feeling sorry for the world that there are not more Estonians around the globe.
I’ll tell you more about this great place next time. But for now, “Head aega!”