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The City of Good Thoughts: Hüvasti, Until Next Time

On the last night of my first trip to fair Estonia, I find myself at a Poetry Slam. After a quick introduction to the night’s hosts, I’m subsequently find myself on the line-up to read. And not just as a guest speaker but as a competitor. And this is a proper thing. The audience votes, scores are aggregated, there are multiple rounds, and the overall winner is entered into the nationals. I had gone along to the slam as a mere back-of-the-room spectator, not mentally prepared to do a reading, let alone a judged reading. But this is Tartu, this is Estonia. As I’ve discovered, the Estonians consider themselves to be gentle, reclusive, even shy folk, who are polite and calm and not particularly brash or showy. But, perhaps paradoxically, this creates an air of openness, a place where a dampening down of the extrovert/introvert dichotomy that we’re often so wedded to in the UK instead creates a more communal attitude where everyone gets a fair bite of the apple.

OK, fine. I’ve tried to be a ‘Yes Man’ for this trip, so I dig out my phone and scour my files for a suitable tale. Like last time, I pick something brief and sweet with a universal theme and not too much England-specific knowledge. This one is about a mysterious bird that no-one has ever seen, living its life in isolated peace on a stretch of unmapped river (I did a video version of the tale earlier this year). It’s a lyrical, mythic tale about the possibility of non-places and disconnection, about the fantasy of an untouched idyll unspoilt by human endeavours. The bird itself is enormous and fanciful, and creeps through the story as a benign but mighty cryptid. There’s a tension in the final rise of the tale where I try to ask whether we would want to find this creature and study it, or if it is best left entirely alone. It is a mythic nothing creature in a non-place, but also a physical beast in an abundant world. It walks the threshold.

On stage, I feel I’ve lost a few listeners as I meander through my three minutes, but at the end the scores received by the judges are warm and generous. Later, when I speak to one of the hosts, he recalls details of the tale with insightful clarity. By this point, I shouldn’t still be surprised that my words and tales translate perfectly well into Estonian ears. There are some in the older generation who struggle with the language barrier, but since the early 90s English has been a staple part of schooling and most tend to be pretty much fluent. I am contemplating installing Duolingo to learn some of the basics of Estonian before my second trip, which is slated for Spring next year. It would be interesting to see how my experience would differ if I could pick up more than just ‘tere’ (Hello), ‘hüvasti’ (goodbye), and ‘OK’.

Since writing the last blogpost, I’ve spent more time on my own. I've explored the city’s offering of museums and art galleries. I spent a long afternoon in the Eesti Rahva Muuseum (Estonian National Museum), an epic ethnographic palace of Estonian history, language, and identity, where a dark room holds an air pump mechanism that screams the phonetic variations of the vowel sounds at you like howls from some Baltic Valhalla. I also had fun at the Tartu Art House, a free gallery of exhibitions by local artists which currently features Erik Alalooga’s 'Liberated Machines', where the pressing of bin pedals unleashes the clatterings and screams of jury-rigged metals, like creatures awakened in the depths of some Baltic Valhalla.

I was also swallowed into the labyrinthine Literary Archive on an exclusive tour by the fabulous Krista, who showed me ancient books and the traces of Soviet occupation, while spinning yarns about the ghost of the purple lady and a drowned castle of sinners. At one point she remarked that Estonia doesn’t have dragons, preferring a multitude of water spirits instead. That felt like a very important distinction indeed, and one to be particularly wary of. I made a careful mental note in case I needed it for a subsequent quest through some kind of Baltic Valhalla.

And so, my first trip to Tartu wound its way to a conclusion. In the morning of my departure, snow had fallen. Just a light dusting, the kind we might get in the UK for a few days in January that will cause us all to collectively lose our minds for a week. For the Estonians this no doubt heralds the proper arrival of winter, and their poetic minds will turn towards contemplations of what on earth lurks around the corner for the year ahead. As Tartu2024 organiser and mastermind Jaak Tomberg remarked to me, there’s no real telling what the world will look like in 18-months’ time. The situation in Ukraine remains at the forefront of minds, even though NATO protection seems to be helping to quell most fears. And yet the Russian presence is keenly felt, and the echoes of the Soviet occupation are everywhere, both obvious and subtle. But the Estonians don’t seem to let this put them off. Quite the contrary. Art, collaboration, and the imagining of utopias and dystopias are thriving, as they are clearly the best tonics for withstanding chaos and uncertainty. This thought is the most thrilling aspect of my whole endeavour.

For now, I’m hugely looking forward to returning to Manchester. I’m a homeboy at heart, not properly settled unless I’m on my furniture, surrounded by loved ones, both human and rabbit. But there’s no doubting that my first trip to Tartu has adjusted something inside me. A dial of some kind which has retuned my antennae back towards a sense of adventure and experimentation that I’ve somewhat dampened down in recent years. I’ve still got no clear idea what will be created for 2024, but the toybox has been opened and the contents are thrilling and surprising. Just what I always wanted.


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