They Sang Themselves Free
However, today we took a ferry (more like small cruise ship) to the city of Tallin, Estonia where we will be the next few days. In my personal opinion, the beauty of Tallin is unlike anything I’ve seen so far on my trip. I’d like to start out by saying what I knew going into this mini trip-within-a-trip. I knew that Estonia is a very small country, that Tallin is the capital, and that it is home to one of the oldest and most well preserved medieval cities. BUT…that doesn’t begin to do this wonderful country justice. The title of this blog, “They Sang Themselves Free,” comes from what I learned about Estonia’s deep connection to music. They have been occupied throughout their history by many different countries (Germany, Sweden, the Soviet Union, etc) and often were oppressed and forced into silence. Therefore it was their love of song that bonded them as a country and gave them a patriotic outlet. They are said to have “sang themselves to freedom,” because when the Soviet Union took away their right to sing, they did so anyway in a powerful and defiant move of independence. In fact, they are one of the few countries who gained their independence with absolutely zero loss of life. Every 5 years they have a giant music choir event in which over 30,000 Estonian voices sing out to celebrate Summer, and (according to the tour guide) most of them will often admit that they only attend church for the acoustics and beautiful choirs. In regards to the Old Town portion of Tallin, the medieval area, it’s hard to put into words what it felt like to walk the ancient streets knowing that the buildings around me were there well before Columbus, “sailed the ocean blue.” Every church has a tall tale, every well a story, and every street a history lesson. There’s an apartment building with a sealed room where a butler supposedly witnessed the devils wedding, a well where they sacrificed street cats to the resident mermaid, headless monks who killed each other over a shared love interest, a mummified drunk in the basement of a church, the list goes on and on. The Old Town, in sum, is a living, breathing fairytale (complete with castles). I am so excited for the coming days as I learn more about this incredible city!
Estonia, Saaremaa Trip:
Day 2 of Tallin was equally as eventful as the first! After a two hour bus ride and a 30 minute ferry, we arrived to the Island of Saaremaa, Estonia’s largest island. Here we got to do an entire day’s worth of awesome stuff. Our first stop was to a 14th century medieval church. This was nothing over the top fancy or elaborate, but to think that it has been standing for so long, the same building with the same walls, is truly incredible. We learned that it was built, like many other churches from it’s time, to serve a dual purpose as church and fortress. If pagans were to attack the Christians, they had a place of safety and refuge. Surrounding the church were many viking graves, which date back before the church. In fact, the last time vikings were in Estonia was over 1,000 years ago! The second stop was to a small farm with old windmills, where we tried traditional Estonian food. As with most nordic cuisine I’ve tried so far, this consisted of meat, potatoes, and veggies. Nothing over the top, but always very tasty. After getting to explore the windmills, we moved on to Kaali, a crater made from a meteorite. The significance of this crater comes mainly from the folklore that is embedded with it. One story as to how it came to be was that the son of the Sun came to earth to find himself a bride, and upon seeing the Estonian maidens, was so shocked by their beauty that he fell to the ground, thus causing the crater. Another theory is that a brother and sister who lived in a mansion decided to get married, and after many pleadings, convinced a priest to perform the unholy matrimony. However, upon saying their vows they were struck by a meteor. Legend says that if young lovers go to the lake in the crater on Midsummers eve, they can see the two hands of the siblings reaching towards each other from across the crater. If the hands ever touch-the world is said to be at it’s end. Myths and legends aside, the first written mention of the crater was dated to 300 years before Christ was born, where it was described as the place “where the sun goes to sleep.” I know I blabbed on about the crater for a long time, but I can’t get enough of all the cool stories the Estonians have surrounding many of their landmarks. After the meteor we went to a medieval castle. Although the inside of the castle was relatively simple, the castle grounds, with the hills, moat, and tall castle walls, were breathtaking. Again, I couldn’t help but be constantly reminded of the elaborate history each of the stops on our tours had. How many generations of people had lived and died in these places? How many stories unknown and forgotten? I’m constantly surrounded by such rich history and I’ve really enjoyed getting to learn about as much as I can along the way. Our tour ended with more driving around the island to see the pretty farmland, and we ended our day back in the Old Town of Tallin.
For our last free weekend on this side of the world, we decided to take a flight to Stockholm, Sweden: referred to as the capital of Scandinavia! Stockholm is by far the largest city we have visited on this trip, I had almost forgotten what it was like to be in a city where everything wasn’t within a 20 minute walk. The first day we ferried to an island where a traditional Midsummer’s Festival was under way. In some ways, Midsummer’s is like a Summer version of thanksgiving, just a time for families to come together and enjoy a nice meal or picnic. One cool tradition is that the women hand make flower crowns and wear them during the day. Our group didn’t realize that you had to make them yourself beforehand, so I just picked flowers around the island and stuck them in my braids. Later on in the evening to cool down from a long day of walking we went to an Ice Bar. Basically, this is a bar where everything is made of, you guessed it, ice. It was definitely one of the coolest and most beautiful thing’s I have done. The thick ice walls, benches, tables, and cups were so crystal clear and gorgeous that all I can say is that I HIGHLY recommend going to an Ice Bar in your future! Stockholm Day 2 we just walked and bussed around the city, taking in sights like parliament and Central Station. Our bus tickets even got us into one of Sweden’s oldest amusement parks (founded in 1883). We rode a swing ride that took us 400 feet in the air and was one of the most breathtaking views of the city I could ever imagine. Later that evening one of the guys in our group led us to a cliff he found that overlooked most of the city, and we quickly realized that apparently it is quite a popular spot, as soon we were joined by tons of Swedes looking to enjoy the midnight sunset. On our last day in Stockholm we went to the Swedish Royal Palace- and I decided where I would like to live out my days. The beautiful halls inside the palace and the treasury with the royal crown jewels were something straight out of a movie. Overall Stockholm was definitely a place to remember, although I couldn’t help but feel that I missed Helsinki, I guess there’s just something about the Fins that make it feel closer to home.
In one hour our group will be boarding a bus that will take us to the Helsinki airport, and just like that, the study abroad will be over. The last of my days here were spent mainly walking around this beautiful city and getting occasionally mopey about the fact that I won’t be able to step our of my room and see Helsinki around me. As the days have sped by, I started compiling a mental list of some of the things will miss about my stay.
1. The Fins. In both class time and free time I have learned so much about a culture I previously knew close to nothing about. It didn’t matter if we butchered the pronunciation of a Finnish word or accidentally talked too loud in public, we were always treated with respect and kindness. I have enjoyed interacting with the people of Helsinki and I will really really miss them when I’m gone. After all, what will the people in our group do when we come back to America and nobody thinks coming from Texas is the coolest thing ever? (apart from Texans, of course)
2. “Kiitos”. Ashamed though I am to admit it, despite being here for a whole month this is one of the few Finnish words I have managed to pick up. On the plus side, I really think it says something about how sweet the people are that the one word I definitely had to know was, “thank you.”
3. COFFEE! Prior to this trip I would consider myself as being a casual coffee drinker. Not anymore! I’m going to miss having coffee with breakfast, a mid morning coffee break, coffee with lunch, and afternoon coffee break, dinner with coffee, and then maybe coffee anywhere else we can squeeze it in.
4. Daylight. What will I do when I come back to Texas and realize that daylight hours aren’t normally 20 hours? How i will I get everything done?
5. Berries. Seriously folks, there is nothing like strawberries from the Nordic region. The extended daylight while the plants grow means extended sweetness and I am ALL about that.
6. Stockman and Kamppi. Walmart has got NOTHING on these places. Need something? Walk into either and I promise you’ll find it, no problem.
7. The Open Market. Nothing like seagulls swooping down, coffee, and strolls on the seaside open market to help forget that we had class 8 hours a day.
8. Pastries. This one speaks for itself, all I’ll add is, bravo Finland, bravo.
9. The Buildings. I spent the last few days just trying to soak in the memory of being surrounded with so much history and beauty. I’ll really miss that.
10. The Flying Finns. The name of our group message may be ridiculous, but the amount that I’ll miss seeing these guys everyday is even more ridiculous. Luckily I will see these weirdos back in College Station, but it will be weird not being the only Americans in the room anymore.
As the trip wound down many of us in the group asked each other if we could go back in time and pick whether or not to come on this trip, knowing what we know now, would we still come. Not a single person said they’d change their decision. I can not express enough how fortunate I feel to have been able to come on this trip. The memories I have made with the other Aggies, the Fins, the Estonians, and the Swedes will never be forgotten.
Thanks and Kiitos, Finland.