This weekend I spent 6.5 hours in Tartu, one of the major cities of Estonia – with a population of about 100,000 (yes, that’s considered major here). It was my sister-in-law’s birthday weekend and I was determined to get there and participate in the familyness of it (that being one of the main reasons we moved here), even if the ride there and back was a combined total of 5 hours.
While there I was shown one of the great wonders of Estonia; something not known to the vast majority of loll ameriklased like myself – the Tartu open air kirbuturg (flea market). Once a week, in the heart of Athens on the Emajõgi (Tartu) there comes together a mass gathering of the hoi polloi for the purpose of offering their wares. It’s like everyone coming together and having a yard sale all at once and in one place – once a week, every week. And unlike in Manhattan, where such gatherings require permits, request participation fees from sellers, and are generally contained within abandoned parking lots downtown; this was spread out, permit-free and defined by a free flowing collage of natives offering everything from used headlights to vintage bags – all spread out haphazardly on the lawns, pedestrian paths and car hoods of a generally agreed upon area.
Before entering the haze of second hand booty, I did find myself experiencing a brief moment of skepticism – after all, in a small country like Estonia (where there isn’t even an H&M or an Ikea) what sort of bounty could one really expect to find in a market like this? That moment passed very quickly, however, as I saw mixed in amongst the used jackets, GAP hoodies and sneakers a myriad of treasures like vintage hand bags (I’ve been well trained in the art of vintage shopping by my wife), shoes, cuff links, pins, handmade socks and woolen gloves. My favorite piece of the day was a small table made from the base of an old Singer sewing machine and a cross-sectioned slice of an old tree – it was both etno and vintage, all at the same time; and just the right size for my computer to perch on.
(As a side note) In case you haven’t guessed it, we are in need of some extra furniture. And while I tried to organize an Ikea run to Finland on Facebook this past week, I think all I succeeded in accomplishing was to act as the galvanizing force in the coordination of an Ikea run to Brooklyn. Not quite so useful in my case.
But enough about that, let’s get back to the kirbuturg – for a moment, in the maze of park blankets, garbage bags and old sheets strewn on the ground as make-shift selling tables, I found what I thought was a shofar (a ram’s-horn trumpet used by Jews in religious ceremonies).
I couldn’t believe my eyes. Here I was, in the heart of the Arctic North, where there exists only one synagogue and where (until recently) I had actually believed there no longer existed any ethically Estonian jews (a misnomer, of which I was happily proved wrong); and I had spotted amidst the thousands and thousands of odds-and-ends an actual shofar.
Well that disbelief lasted for only a moment as I reached down to grab it and soon realized that what I had found was not a shofar at all, but merely a horn. Yes. A horn. Like a viking would drink out of.
Aside from the obvious and immediate realization that the only difference between these two things was a small hole at one end – it struck me how absurd it was for me to have even thought it could be anything else in the first place. I had, for a brief moment, forgotten that I am living among hoards of smiley, pagan vikings. Why wouldn’t they have an old horn hiding out in the storage room, behind the broken ironing board and the jars of pickled mushrooms? Yes, that’s right, Estonians are actually vikings, living under a thin veil of Lutheranism. And in my book, they are the coolest vikings of all – because they’re stubborn.
(Allow me to interject a brief history lesson, courtesy of – and slightly adapted from – one of Mart Laar’s books on the history of Estonia.)
Long long ago, when all the other vikings of the Arctic North had basically settled down and retired their swords and horned helmets, the Estonian vikings of the islands of Hiiumaa and Saarema were still going strong. But with everyone having basically jumped off the plundering bandwagon, these lone vikings felt the familiar itch to engage in some wholesome pillaging, but were at a loss for kindred spirits with which to spar. But rather than be thwarted by the changing zeitgeist, they instead opted to invade Sweden! And once there they laid waste to the now former capital of the now peaceful Scandinavian nation state. Taken aback by an affront of what the Swedes of the time could have only thought of as “Baltic Pirates” they decided to move their capital city further inland, deeper into the nooks and crannies created by the many tiny islands of the region – so as to better fortify their capital.
And so Stockholm today exists because of the Estonians. But that’s enough history for now… The point to remember here is that I stumbled across a horn, not a shofar at the kirbuturg.
But maybe it’s not so odd that I experienced a momentary lapse in recognition of my surroundings. This week was Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish new year. Now I am far from observant – in fact I’m largely clueless about my Jewish roots and for years I have shied away from almost any outlet or experience that would bring me in touch with my heritage. But my (non-Jewish, yet more-Jewish-than-I) wife often insists that we take some time out to honor the traditions of my lineage. And so we did.
Rosh Hashanah involves the welcoming of the new year, according to the Jewish calendar. And like with almost all Jewish holidays, the practical result of its celebration involves copious amounts of sweet and fattening food (which thanks to the delicious, but horribly-dangerous-to-the-waistline dairy products here in Eesti, there is never a shortage of). So out we went to Solaris (a big supermarket down the street from our apartment) to shop for the new year. And shop we did.
Through what felt like great strokes of luck we managed to find sweet wine and challah (the traditional bread eaten on the sabbath). But the Estonian version of this traditional doughy treat was even better, being spiced with cardamom seeds. Once home, and with horribly mangled pronunciations of holiday prayers that were gleaned from the internet, along with our orange candles, sweet wine and bread, we welcomed in the Jewish new year – Estonian style. And it was good.
But sometimes I think Estonian food is too good. Before moving here I was convinced, after looking at all the beautiful, skinny people, that somehow, despite the heavy and hearty foods and the abundance of alcohol and delicious dairy products, there was an underlying secret to the maintenance of the general population’s well proportioned physiques – much like the red wine to which the French owe their surprisingly low cholesterol levels, despite their notoriously fatty diets.
I was wrong.
I have come to realize as the weeks turn into months and the initial hints of rose tinting fade from the glasses through which I view the world here, that Estonians are thin for one of only two reasons: a) they work out like crazy, but still eat junk or b) they eat almost nothing at all. I find that I am capable of engaging in neither of these two options, and so I find myself falling victim to the variety and tastiness of Estonian dairy treats.
Unfortunately it’s not only the dairy industry here that is contributing to my particular vices. It’s the harsh reality of living life as a vegetarian in the midst of a viking culture, where viinerid (sausages), smoked fish and liha-everything (liha is ‘meat’ in Estonian) are so pervasive that I’ve even had to learn to read the labels of the local cheeses, just to make sure they are animal-free.
In New York I ate a wholesome diet where at any given meal the proportion of my sustenance would be about 80% protein/20% carbs. Here, however, I feel that a realistic assessment of my dietary breakdown would be 90% carbs/10% protein at any given meal. I am starting to feel overfed, and under nourished. And with winter coming and daylight an already increasingly limited commodity, I am beginning to have concerns about how I will conquer the Estonian winter.
I have a slightly sinking feeling, and the words from HBO’s Game of Thrones seem to linger in my head as the days grow shorter and the weather cooler – “Winter is coming…”