Twelve more days of Estonian magic, May 2023
She's there again to meet me at Tartu Bus Station. Krista, with her shock-blue hair and her shiny cyberpunk jacket, and her unfailing patience and kindness. It's a welcome echo of my first trip back in November, but this time its daylight, significantly warmer, and I'm feeling a lot less bewildered. I know this city now. I know something of the magical aura that slips like smoke from between the slats of the wooden houses. In fact, I'd messaged my blue-haired guide to say I felt pretty confident I'd be able to make my own way to the apartment, especially after a lost suitcase had delayed my arrival by a good couple of hours. But no, it was no problem. She'd meet me, find me a taxi, and get me to 48 Tähtvere with no messing and no drama, and that's exactly what she did.
I would later learn that Tähtvere translates as 'The Street of Stars', but also 'The Street of Letters'. This perfectly-named avenue was to be my home for two weeks as I embarked upon phase two of my writing residency in Tartu. At that moment, I was expecting good and fun things, but I was not expecting twelve of the most thrilling and memorable days of my life.
I knew I would struggle to write this post. It's taken me a couple of post-Tartu weeks to get it straight in my head. I've had to come to terms with the fact that my words here are going to be inadequate at capturing the idyll of those twelve days, and will do a disservice to the quietly majestic city itself. So, to slightly avoid the responsibility, I have instead shaped my thoughts around the host of angelic friends and companions I met and made across that fortnight, and the marvellous vignettes we shared. Krista kept reappearing across that fortnight, like a motif in a rom-com. She is very much the heart and soul of this most brilliant of cities. Aitäh, Krista - see you again at the bus station next year...
This second visit had been timed so that I could attend Prima Vista - Tartu's literature festival and biggest annual celebration. It was a slick affair, with posters all across the town and guests from across Europe and beyond. On my third day, I was to meet the mayor, Urmas Klaas, shake his hand and receive a certificate like a well-behaved schoolboy on the last day of term. The certificate would call me 'honourable' and the mayor would say 'thank you' three times, and I would find the whole experience thrilling. But this was still day two, and I was still settling in, and still without a suitcase, and still wearing the same clothes I'd travelled in. Suffice to say, I wasn't yet feeling at the top of my game. And then I met Svea.
I had actually met her the night before, but only briefly, and I'd made a post-flight fool of myself by suggesting that I recognised her from TikTok of all places. I hadn't. I'd never met her before. But she knew me as she'd been the person behind-the-scenes who had been booking all my travel and paying my residency fees. I would not have blamed her if she'd gone on to avoid me like the plague but instead, on the evening of my second day, she found me lurking at the Embassy of Utopia and came straight over to say terre (hello). And instead of reeling and fleeing when I revealed my unclean suitcase-less state, she hung out with me and provided hilarious English translations of the rather racy Estonian poetry that we just so happened to witness that night. It was on those fabulous foundations that a firm friendship was born. And now I'm desperate to book her as my project manager for Tartu 2024. She's invaluable.
A word on the Embassy of Utopia. This magnificent experiment was a pop-up festival space of ideas, ideologies and good thoughts located on a prominent corner of the town square. Across the week everyone and anyone would be invited to perch on the pink stairs and talk about anything they so desired. I witnessed a speech on urban planning ideas, a hypnotic accordion performance, a Ukrainian delegate discussing the war, and performative incantations of ritualistic poetry. I myself offered a whimsical half-truth ramble about King Charles III and Brexit. Svea was in the audience for that too, which made things a lot less nerve-wracking. She has that kind of power.
Day three saw my first proper contribution to the Prima Vista festival. Thanks to the ongoing virtues of Fauna, I had been pre-booked to speak at an event called 'Including Other Species' on a panel with semiotician Timo Maran, curator Sara Bedard-Goulet, and the artist Uku Sepsivart. I was bewitched by Uku. His art involves non-invasive collaborations with animals that call into question the nature of creation. He takes logs carved by beavers and displays them in art galleries. He installed a lump of fat for songbirds who ate it away to reveal a sculpture. He's made a human figure out of wood and left it in the forest as a bug hotel. It was enigmatic, compelling, gentle, as was he, and it was a pleasure to share that space with him for a couple of hours on a Wednesday afternoon. In comparison my contributions were a lot more bombastic and loud-mouthed as I read from Pigskin and Fauna and prattled on about veganism and dead dogs in films, but hopefully there was enough good stuff in there for an enjoyable event.
I was, of course, still in the same clothes. But all that was set to change. Halfway through the event, Henri Hütt arrived. He is some kind of kindly space alien, always dressed in the shiniest of outfits, and he's my project collaborator. More on him later. For now, all you need to know is that he brings alchemy with him wherever he goes and that day was no different. Not long after his arrival, my suitcase showed up. Not too long after that, I met the mayor and got my certificate. And at that same reception, I met a whole host of other honourable guests. Including Penny.
At 10am on my fourth day in Tartu, I got into a river with Penny. Not just any river; the Emajõgi, the Mother River, which runs through the city; wide, calm, patient, and ever-present. And a bit bloody cold, but we were a pair of foolhardy Brits with a deeply ingrained passion for mild punishments so in we went, much to the bemusement of our Estonian friends. To be fair, it was a scorching day, and would remain brilliantly summery for the rest of the week, and who can resist such waters when the proverbial sun has got his proverbial hat on? Not us. We stayed in for a solid four and half minutes. It would later make national news.
I had known Penny for less than 12 hours and here we were, swimming together. That was some kind of record in my book. We had chatted the night before in our post-mayoral haze and something intangible and mercurial had exchanged between us. An acknowledgement of the blissful dream of Tartu that we had inexplicably found ourselves in. Penny had been writer-in-residence here in the summer of last year, mere months before my November trip, and her name had been on the lips of a few bewitched Estonians. Do you know Penny? Have you met Penny? Tartu is a small city and all the poets know each other. The UK feels enormous in comparison, and so very full, and so very busy.
Later we sailed on the traditionally-crafted Jommu boat on the same river, a special treat laid on by the festival for invited performers. A few more hours passed, and then Penny read her poetry at the Embassy of Utopia, before we all headed out for drinks beneath the stars. It was bliss heaped upon bliss. It was almost sickening. Before we turned in, Penny suggested another 10am swim. Our ritual was born. Emajõgi welcomed us back with open arms and this time her waters were just that tiniest bit warmer.
Penny was not the only former resident who had been invited back. I also had the pleasure of meeting Andy Willoughby, an excitable punk poet from Middlesborough who regaled us with stories of his wild adventures in Finland and the Trans-Siberian express, before battering all our senses with his exuberant performance at the climax event of the festival. But before all that, Penny and I joined his river walk poetry workshop in the baking heat of the afternoon of my fifth day. He led us in some breathing exercises, and then some mediative one-on-one time with the river, before setting a series of brilliantly simple poetry exercises.
I'm not usually much of a poet, preferring the safer clutches of the short story format, but Andy's breezy, open-hearted attitude made it all feel very natural. It was Tartu working its magic again, no doubt, but by then I wasn't trying to analyse the bubble that had formed around me, I was just letting it carry me away. Haiku from that day:
The river as lungs
Breathing slow for the city
Sunburn on my neck
Day six brings the climax of Prima Vista and I was slated for a 20 minute performance at 7pm. A prime slot. It was to be part of the second 'Insomniakaton'; a 24hr non-stop literature and music event conceived and guided by another former poet-in-residence, the magisterial beat poet Ron Whitehead. With his long white beard, the dragon tattoo on his cheek, and his spangled denim jacket Ron should have been an imposing figure looming large over proceedings. Instead, he's a kindly, gentle presence; a nomadic wanderer who has found a strange new spiritual homeland in deepest Estonia. I've since read his excellent collection Nights at the Museum, written in collaboration with his partner Jinn Bug. It's a magnificent poetry sequence that elegantly captures how it feels to be entranced by the alchemy of this city and the country it sits in. It will no doubt prove to be something of a bible for my own literary explorations.
For now, I'd put together a rather madcap 20 minute set about the edgelands of Tartu and Manchester, as inspired by my last visit to these strange streets. I'd knocked together a fairly extensive slideshow of arresting images, which always helps to focus an audience, and thankfully most of my daft little funny bits got chuckles from the audience. It was particularly delightful to look out over the row of faces in front of me and see this new contingent of pals grinning away. There was Penny, and Henri, and Svea, and Andy, and Krista, and there too were Ceili and Piret and Anton and Marja and Jinn and Jaan, and a whole bunch of other folks whose names I hadn't yet learned. I prattled on about Manchester, about some its stranger edges, its attitudes, its quirks. And for a moment, my hometown felt like a foreign land.
With Prima Vista behind us, we were left with a lot of residual giddiness so a small gang of us channelled our overflowing energies into a day trip to an Estonian bog. This was Penny's prime directive. She'd been on a similar trip during her residency and impressed upon the rest of us how vitally important it was to make the same pilgrimage. To be fair, she wasn't wrong. So off we popped in a rented car to Endla Nature Reserve, an hour outside of the city. Myself, Penny, Henri, Svea, and the eco-poet Maarja (whose excellent collection Vivarium is available in translation from Emma Press). We were like some latter day Famous Five.
Soon, I was in Estonian edgelands again. A wild landscape of blotchy colours with wide pools of forbidding darkness. A thin wooden walkway cut across the aquatic hinterland leading to crossroads and watch-towers and ever-present mosquitoes. A cuckoo called at us from the woodlands. Maarja picked edible leaves called 'rabbit's cabbage' and told tales of parasitic flies. We chose a bog pool to swim in and sank our ridiculous selves into the silky waters. Weeds tickled and clawed at us, and getting out was a hilarious challenge like emerging from the primordial soup. Later, Maarja spotted the poisonous adder the rest of us had almost stepped on, and we dwelled awhile with some very loud frogs. At the end we found a less boggy lake for a proper swim before prancing about on a makeshift stage, eating from a pallet of fresh berries, and then blazing back to Tartu in time for the opening of an art exhibition about the way the internet steals our data. Then we ate. Then we split up. Then we reconvened on a beach where Henri led us a series of weirdly wonderful guessing games about stars and secrets.
The sun set very slowly, because it hardly seems to ever set in this land. It was Penny's last night in Tartu. The farewell was emotional. We asked our Estonian friends if life was always this ridiculously idyllic. They assured us it was not. I'm not sure we quite believed them.
My eighth day was largely spent alone. I briefly met up with Henri. We still had another performance to deliver. In a few day's time, we'd been commissioned to grace the pop-up stage of the 'Culture Compass' event at Eesti Rahva Muuseum (Estonia National Museum) and our performance was only half ready. To be frank, I was getting rather anxious about it. I'm more of a rehearser than an improviser, whereas Henri is a lot more relaxed about these things. He offered a lot of assurances that everything was going to be fine and, of course, he was absolutely right. But I needed a day on my own to settle it in my head.
So I sat in my strange little wooden apartment and got some writing done. I paced around, committing the script to memory, and allowed myself to worry about every little thing that could go wrong and what I might do about it in the moment. I ate some decent food and I rested. In the evening I took myself to the local cinema where they were showing an Estonian-English film about a girl who gets lost in a bog, much like the one from the previous day's adventures, where she discovers a bunch of tech-bros creating a dangerously intelligent AI, much like the art exhibition we'd seen. There was something in the alchemy of that delightful coincidence that calmed my nerves right down.
I got to bed early. I slept well. Tartu had my back. Everything was going to be fine.
My performance at Prima Vista had focused on the edgelands because I'd been taken to see some by Jaan Malin during my first visit. You can read more about these adventures here. Happily, Jaan was in the audience for my Prima Vista show and soon Henri and I had made plans for a second excursion to the Tartu edgelands. And so on the ninth day we convened and Jaan asked us where we wanted to go. We didn't have a suitable answer. We just said; anywhere. It only took a moment's pause and he had a whole route mapped out.
We cycled down a road where walking is not allowed. We ditched our bikes on a railway embankment, crossed the tracks, pushed through the weeds to find this place:
Jaan explained that it was built by the Soviets but never used. It has remained in place as an ultimate non-place; a concrete cocoon of emptiness, an unfulfilled promise, an urban carcass. Luminous yellow signs quite obviously said: DON'T YOU DARE COME IN HERE but the friendlier colours of the copious graffiti said otherwise, so in we went. There was no-one inside, although hiding around concrete corners was perfectly possible, so who knows? Elaborate graffiti everywhere, and lots of spent spray cans. A single word on the floor that summed things up perfectly:
The adventures continued via an abandoned house in the woods that once housed politicians and poets before the neighbouring psychiatric hospital scared them away. We also listened to a soundscape installation in a university building, zipped past a field of pylons, and zoomed our bikes around a racetrack. I was soon incredibly knackered, but my head was full once again with the scratchy, itchy, shady corners of this secretive town, and I had plenty of new story fragments bubbling up from my mind soup. Jaan, I realised, has become something of a personal talisman. He's one of those figures who will forever live rent-free in my head, constantly and gently nudging me towards curiosity and inspiration. Someone to be eternally in debt to.
Just when I thought there couldn't be any further adventures, along came day ten. It contained Roy Strider; a Buddhist farmer in combat trousers who owned a yak, a pair of Tibetan mastiffs, a 100 year old smoke sauna, and a canoe. This latter was our main reason for encountering Roy. Henri had concocted the adventure a couple of weeks earlier. His friend, the enigmatic artist Kiwa, hooked us up with Roy and together with Henri's other friend Marten (these elegant Estonians just kept popping up everywhere, as if generated by a super-intelligent AI that was spinning me this ridiculous fantasy), we took to the Ahja river and paddled downstream for flipping ages.
We were the only folk out on that river that glorious day, save for a few ducks. I still had some residual anxieties about the looming performance at ERM (it was now only a day away), but it was impossible to be worried about anything while paddling down the calmest river in the world with two jolly Estonian souls and a bunch of ducks. We paddled to an old water mill, then to an eerily quiet holiday park, all the way to a river boat called Lonny, which was our furthest possible destination. Roy picked us up, clearly quite surprised that this trio of arty lads had made it this far this fast, especially since one of them was a pale English boy with twigs for arms. With the canoe hastily and precariously stowed on top of his truck, he took us back for one last distanced interaction with his mastiffs and his yak, before proudly showing off his smoke sauna, then droving us home to Tartu.
Another day, another dream. How was any of this happening? I paced my room rehearsing the performance that was now mere hours away. But I had no reason to think it was going to go badly. Partly because of the Tartu magic. But mostly because of Henri Hütt.
Behold! Henri! A silver skinned trickster with a beaming grin and tireless eyes. He trips and tricks across boundaries and borders, his mind ever-seeking curiosities and new delights. He'll say; let's play a game, and you'll worry for a moment, but then he puts a bottle cap in your hand and he says; look up at the evening sky and find a spot where there is no star. Close your eyes and wait until you think the star has appeared, and then open your eyes and toss your bottle cap into space. Will a star appear? If it does, name it... or let it name you. And you do all those things and it works; a star appears, and then you can't think of any other name but Henri.
He is shrouded in a luminous aura of confidence and love, only happy if everyone around him is happy too. And we usually are. As we cycled and strolled through our various adventures of the last eleven days he'd spun his charms to quell my worries, and then weaved further magics to get hold of costumes and props seemingly from thin air. Our show at the Culture Compass event had to bounce off the overarching theme of 'How Borderless is Culture?'. Henri immediately summoned up playful concepts about synchronicity, balance, and communal experience which we eventually sculpted into two ten minute performance pieces featuring a toaster, a bright green rope, and a spirit level. Our audiences looked a little startled, but they clapped when they were told to clap (when the toaster popped), and they humoured our antics with our moveable border. I needn't have worried so much. It all went perfectly well. That's what you get for working with a benevolent wizard.
Amongst all of this and everything else, Henri and I had been plotting and scheming about our main collaboration, which will culminate next year. From a vague idea about a site-specific story experience we now have a venue, collaborators, and the backing of the festival curators. I'm not going to say what it is yet, but it's big. And it's quite unlike anything you'll have experienced before.
Watch this space. Toss your bottle cap. Wait for the star to appear.
And so the twelfth day dawned. I eased things down. I packed my suitcase. I took my bike (a pink one named Jenny that I'd borrowed from Henri and grown rather attached to) and went shopping. I spent a couple of hours in the university library reading through the first couple of volumes of the Estonian national epic, Kalevipoeg. It asked: Do you, son, know the secret hidden in the heart of storm clouds? It asked: Why should I, a sad bird, sing? Why warble with my wasted beak? It shouted: Give me a sign, my forests; sound your secret words, o trees! It told of a cranberry coursing downriver, a blueberry along the bog.
The kitchen tap broke in my Airbnb and flooded half of the apartment. But I got it all mopped up and no-one seemed too bothered. I trundled down to meet Henri at the opening of an exhibition by Angela Maasalu, another enigmatic Estonian spirit from Henri's endless collection. The art, like everything in this place, was pretty incredible. Intense oil paintings of metamorphosis hung among a gentle labyrinth of gossamer curtains.
Afterwards, we all retired to Henri's apartment. A huge place with no furniture which almost felt like a show-home to cover up an extraterrestrial truth. We drank gin cocktails on the balcony as the sun set and just as midnight approached so did Jaak. He is one of the grandmasters behind the scenes of the Prima Vista, and is largely responsible for bringing me and Henri together. He appeared below like Romeo and ascended to our love-in for hugs, whiskey, and full-bellied words of encouragement and enthusiasm. He felt like the deus ex machina of my trip, ascending from the underworld to pass on his godly blessings. My final act was a three-way hug with Henri and Jaak, before I strolled back to my damp apartment feeling content that I was very much in safe hands.
To think: all of this will happen again next year. Roll on Tartu 2024.
sound your secret words, o trees!
a cranberry coursing downriver,
a blueberry along the bog.