To Tallin and back

Destination Tallin: Irish football fans are now exploring the fastest and cheapest way of getting there.

Destination Tallin: Irish football fans are now exploring the fastest and cheapest way of getting there.

While the way I went, some years ago, was neither the fastest nor the cheapest, it was the most interesting approach to any port city, by sea. It was a spur of the moment decision. Strolling along the quaysides of Helsinki, we (husband and I) saw a direction sign which said “Tallin.” And so we went, by ferry.

The ferry was filled with Finns. (The reason for their apparent mass exodus came later). The Baltic was as smooth as glass, and as we pulled out from the quayside, Finnish seaside settlements, with more trees than buildings, rose over the low horizon.

I knew little of Tallin or of Estonia, other than a vague memory from school history that it was one of the prosperous Baltic cities which formed a political commercial and trading alliance in medieval times, known as the Hanseatic League. And I knew that in modern history, Estonia was cruelly “annexed” by Stalin in 1940, against the wishes of its independent and proud people, and that until 1991, like so much of Europe, it was trapped behind the so-called Iron Curtain, cut off from its natural hinterland.

We were to learn more about that entrapment almost immediately on our arrival on the Tallin quayside, from the taxi driver who took us from the waterside up the steep hill to the centre of the beautiful and ancient and tourist-filled, city. His story, and that of his family, captured the essence of the experience of ordinary people living under a totalitarian regime.

He had a degree in languages - Western European and the Slavic languages, but rather than opting for an academic career, he said he was working hard at “becoming a Capitalist.” He had started his business with one taxi and now he owned three.

Business was in his family’s blood, but it had been stifled under the half century of Communist rule. His grandfather owned a small manufacturing industry when the Russians invaded in 1940. Like all other enterprises, and in conformity with the gospel according to Marx, it was appropriated by the State. Grandfather with contemporaries, filthy Capitalists, according to the same doctrine, were taken to Siberia.

He was lost to the family for almost half a century until there was some easement of the regime, following Stalin’s death. Then one day, an old man, barely recognisable, and in very poor health, returned to his home, to meet his grandchildren for the first time.

Grandfather was only one of hundreds of thousands, fellow citizens of the Baltic States, who were despotically “relocated,” to be replaced by hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens, themselves removed from their homes, to consolidate the conquest. It was the Plantation of Ulster on a grand scale. And all of this happened in a Europe within the lifetime of many of us.

This sort of inherited experience not only leaves a lasting impression on the individual, but often (as we know from Northern Ireland), a residue of problems for future generations. Within a few days, we could already identify racial characteristics: the tall, handsome, blonde Scandinavians and the squat, dark Russians, still not integrated, still speaking their own language, still being educated in their own schools.

Just a few years before our visit, Estonia had become a full member of the European Union. Our taxi driver, while admitting that such membership was probably prudent, regretted it. “We have been members of a Union (the Soviet Union) for far too long,” he said. He wished “we could make it on our own.”

We met him again and used his taxi a few times. This form of travel was the easiest and cheapest way of getting around during a period of a few days. One day, he drove us eastwards into the countryside, to look at the traditional log houses of the farmland. These were beautifully built, comfortable, and spacious. Like our own traditional thatched farmhouses, they were cool in summer and warm in winter, and were constructed in the material easily to hand - logs from the extensive forests.

But much of the farmland was still in a state of suspension, untilled, growing huge swathes of wildflowers. The break-up of the collective farms involved tracing the original owners of the individual farms. In some cases, this was proving difficult, since in the half century of Soviet occupancy, people died, and in many cases great-grandchildren were the only claimants.

On Sunday, we attended Mass in the splendid Orthodox Cathedral in Tallin. Decades of religious repression had not dimmed the faith of people, and the ornate, candle-lit, church, with its several icons, was filled to capacity with a devoted congregation.

Our most interesting experience, and one which gave us a tiny view into the lives of ordinary people, was the day when we went to the market; not the market of expensive craft goods for tourists, but the ordinary market where people bargained for their daily produce. We left the old city, and found a dilapidated, rattling, rusty bus which took us through the sprawling modern city, with its grey high rise, bleak apartment blocks, a Soviet architectural legacy spread throughout eastern Europe.

The stalls were filled with every conceivable specimen of flowers or vegetables that could be grown in garden patches in a Northern climate. Small handcrafts, knitwear, embroidered cloths, home-produced childrens’ clothes, breads, cakes - anything that could be made in homes and kitchens, on a modest scale, was for sale. And the majority of the stall holders were older people. Pensions were small. Rents, light, heating were comparatively expensive, so marketing was a way of augmenting incomes.

But, perhaps, the small containers of wild fruits, priced at a few cents, represented the most touching, and indeed pathetic, way of that augmentation. The few cents would seem a very slender reward indeed for the long hours spent harvesting in the woods. Yet, it was not insignificant in keeping body and soul together.

The ferry back to Helsinki was again filled with Finns, only this time they seemed to be carrying several times their own weight in bales and bags and boxes, filled with alcohol. In encouraging tourism and trade, Estonia was offereing special relaxation in excise duty. On arrival in Finland, the usual Customs notice about “anything to declare” was ignored, as the importers carried their “stuff” to their waiting cars. It seems as if some of the Finns had the same predilection for the booze as we, Irish, have. And the old trading, but still beautiful city of the Hanseatic League.... was catering for all.