And so it came to pass, that I was given time off from work. Weary of another flight, I pleaded with my mercurial spouse to spend it within the borders of the Republic of Estonia. All I wanted was to get away to the west coast of Eesti, where I could indulge in saunas and swimming pools and maybe get a massage.
While the spa Eden of Saaremaa seemed like the immediate target, like true mainlanders we decided that the ferry ride to Muhu was just asking too much and settled on Pärnu instead. Pärnu, pop. 44,000, is the fifth largest city in Estonia, located on the country’s southwest coast. It’s also the “summer capital” of Estonia, which made our choice of visiting during the first major blizzard of the year somewhat unique.
The road from Karksi to Pärnu was tiring. I was already beat from driving from Tartu to Karksi and the roast pork, sauerkraut, and kohupiimakook didn’t help. There are few signs of humanity in between the two places, other than the occasional rullnok driver speeding past you. You hit the town of Abja-Paluoja then stretch through the woods past the lights of Kilingi-Nõmme. This is my wife’s family’s neck of the woods. Every family story is decorated with strings of vowels that denote a place where one or the other of them have lived or worked or taken a dip in a lake.
According to travel guidebooks, south Estonia is just another band in the layer cake of “the Baltic countries,” but in my mental geography, we were at the bottom of Estonia, and maybe something bigger. With south Estonia also begins the zone of Baltic-Finnic languages that stretches north past the Arctic Circle. Sami, Karelian, Vespian, Finnish — it all started a bit south of Häädemeeste.
We pulled into Pärnu at night in the snow, and headed to Terviseparadiis — “Health paradise” — a modern-looking spa right on the beach. In the cold wind, five flags flapped from atop flag poles in front of the spa — the flag of Terviseparadiis, the EU flag, and the flags of Estonia, Finland, and Sweden. The interior design of Terviseparadiis seemed to adhere to the aesthetics of the nordic tourist: futuristic metallic furniture, wood-laminate hotel-room flooring, and bossa nova elevator music. They didn’t even have an Estonian Bible in our hotel room, though there was a copy of the Uusi Testament in Finnish.
The next day I finally got my long-awaited massaaž, which, as the signs indicated, is also called hieronta in Finnish. In fact, this spa-in-Pärnu experience was taking on visit-to-foreign-country-like undertones. Did you know that the Finnish word for keefir is “piimä”? I learned that at breakfast, where I found comfort in the muesli and toast while Finns and Estonians around me indulged in marinated fish, because that’s what these people eat to start the päev/päivä.
The massage did the trick; it hurt a bit too. Writing for a living kills your back. You pray for the day when you get to lay flat in a room with Eastern meditation music on and a silent masseuse by your side kneading her elbows into your spine. I’m told that Pärnu is famous for its mud baths. Though I’d love to try it, it wasn’t on our agenda for this trip.
After breakfast we moved from our Scandinavian cocoon at Terviseparadiis to the aptly named “Estonia” spa down the street. From the window in our new spa we could look out on the snow-covered roofs of downtown Pärnu. Architecturally, Pärnu is a treat, with the same eye candy as Haapsalu. The streets offer up curiosity after curiosity. There are at least two really nice churches, the Lutheran Eliisabet and the Orthodox Katariina. This being agnostic Estonia, I suspect the churches more fan the passions of touring choirs, than they do the beliefs of local people.
The Estonia spa had an extensive swimming area with a variety of saunas, including a “salt sauna,” where one takes handfuls of salt from a wooden bucket and smears it all over their body to facilitate the discharge of toxins from the skin. While Terviseparadiis catered to the Estonian, Finnish, Swedish, and English tourist, Estonia was clearly for the Finns. The flags of Estonia and Finland were on display in the reception area, as was a poster for a dance where one Juhani Markola was set to perform.
Middle-aged Finnish women tend to look a lot like President Tarja Halonen, which may explain some of her every woman appeal in Estonia’s northern neighbor. Middle-aged Finnish men? Well one old guy kept staring at me in the hotel lobby, perhaps suspecting that I was not of Baltic-Finnic origin. I reached for one of those handy expressions I learned on YouTube. What were those phrases they were always saying to one another? Mitä vittuu sää mulkoilet siinä? Perkele? Ugh. Why was it that the only phrases I knew in Finnish were inappropriate? I decided to leave Old Man Suomi to his Ilta Sanomat instead.
In the changing room for the bathing area though I was greeted by an older gentleman who was the spitting image of the Estonian entertainer Tarmo Leinatamm. He began speaking to me in a language that sounded like someone had loaded Estonian sentences into an open blender. From the various bits and pieces that spurted forth, a mosaic containing meaning could be constructed. He had gone somewhere. A sauna. Something about women.
He then tried communicating with another guy in the room who told him directly ma ei saa aru — I don’t understand. But Finns are a stubborn sort, and they insist in speaking their own language in their little brother country, much like the Russians next door. He just kept at it, and sooner or later the Estonian guy figured out what he was talking about and told him something I didn’t understand and Tarmo Leinatamm’s lookalike disappeared into the showers.
“What language was he speaking?” I asked the Estonian guy for confirmation. “Soome keel,” he shook his head in response. “Yeah, I couldn’t understand him. I though he was speaking some really weird Estonian.” The Estonian guy gave me a look that said, “no shit.” Then the unbelievable happened. Another Estonian guy came in and they had a conversation. Two Estonian guys having a conversation in Pärnu spa. Imagine that.
It then dawned on me that a minority need not actually be resident to influence the psychology of a city. The steady flow of tourists from Finland meant that any given time of the year Finns were a de facto minority in Pärnu. This explained why not only the spas made sure to create a linguistic environment in reaction to this reality, but even some signs in downtown Pärnu were in Finnish. “Tervetuloa Pärnussa,” I thought to myself. See, even I was picking it up.
The main walking streets in downtown Pärnu revolve around an artery called Rüütli. Estonian street names follow a familiar pattern. Every former Hanseatic city in this country — Tallinn, Tartu, Viljandi, and Pärnu — has an ensemble of medieval street monikers: Rüütli [knight], Munga [monk], Lai [wide], and Pikk [long]. Estonia seems unique in that political figures are rarely honored with street names: there are no Päts streets or Tõnisson boulevards. What I like are the names that distinguish a city. In Sillamäe, for example, one could stroll up Gagarini street to where it meets Geoloogia. In Pärnu, you could walk from Malmö street to Nikolai street in a few minutes.
Walking around downtown Pärnu reminded me of two other places I have visited — the French Quarter in New Orleans and Turku in Finland. Like the French Quarter, there was a dizzying array of 18th and 19th century homes painted in candyland colorschemes, many of which were for sale. Unlike the French Quarter, there were no mounted police or dealers purveying ganja. And also, no city-destroying hurricanes, though flooding in January 2005 caused 23 million euros worth of damage here.
Some of Pärnu’s architecture reminded me of Turku, but it was also its placement away from the center of national social life that evoked memories of Turku’s quiet streets and maritime ambience. While Tartu is a powerhouse of elite building in Estonia — the prime minister, minister of justice, minister of culture, minister of education, and minister of defense all call it home — Pärnu seems refreshingly apolitical, as if all the drama of Estonian life was far away. It is very much a west coast city. Still, this is the birthplace of the country. The state was declared from the steps of the Endla Theater on Feb. 23, 1918. The theater, sadly, has not survived.
We left Pärnu in a lull in the second wave of a snow storm that caused up to 35,000 homes in Estonia to lose power. The road back from Pärnu to Kilingi-Nõmme resembled a confectioner’s best work; the naked white birches guarding the sides of the roads; the ground covered in shifting snows driven by strong winds that, interestingly, made the journey possible. The wind cleared the roads of the loose powder, allowing our vehicle to coast along at around 70-80 km for most of the journey.
We passed by many small villages where there were no lights in sight; presumably, they had no power. One had to really respect the value of wood heating in these occasions. No matter what happened, there was always a stack of puu next to the house that could be used for heating and cooking purposes. The roads were clear of most traffic. I was lucky to get stuck behind a few vans that left deep tracks for me to surf all the way up into Viljandi.
Coming into Viljandi was a mess. The reliance on roundabouts killed commercial traffic. These large, 18-wheelers were the main victim of the snow storm. They were unable to make the bends and were here and there abandoned at the side of the road. At no point did I really think that we weren’t going to make it. Fortunately, Estonia is mostly flat. This helped a great deal in allowing us to coast home in the wake of other travelers.
While there was a shortage of road traffic, there was also a preponderance of pedestrians. Viljandi seemed alive with people, even more alive then during the summer months. And this was a Monday night! Even out in rural communities we saw the reflectors of people braving the harsh winds to walk from one point to another. The chaos of an early winter had reinvigorated people. The desire to cuddle up with a fresh batch of piparkoogid and some hot glögg was overwhelming.
We finally pulled into Tartu several hours after we had left Pärnu. On the way in, we passed our friend Pille who was coming back from Veeriku Selver, a supermarket, with her kids on a sleigh. Epp rolled down the window and yelled out “väike Tartu linn!” and when Pille, a woman deep into her 30s, looked back, she wore the same jubilant expression as her three-year-old daughter Roos.