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The City of Good Thoughts: Small City, Big Spirit



Tartu has opened itself to me. It is a mosaic of proud buildings, old and new, small and large, sturdy and wonky. It is a zonal city where you can be in the ghettoish Supillin (Soup Town) one moment, and the Russian apartment block area of Annelinn the next, but while each area is quite suddenly distinct, passing between them feels like swift and natural rather than disorientating. The glue that fuses them is art; graffiti and subversive stickers, murals and statues, bold architectural statements, and traditions preserved, restored and mimicked.

The main material here is wood. Slender trees haunt all the edges, houses are gorgeously constructed from timber, and the warming smell of woodsmoke fills the streets when the sun begins to dip and night sweeps in. A tour guide pointed out the sheds in all the yards filled with logs for fires. There is central heating, there are plenty of modern buildings, but the gathering and burning of wood for heat feels like a national comfort, a cosy constant through every disruption that has happened here.


Tartu tells itself it is Tartu in many street signs. It is in every business name, in every facility name, and it is constantly on the lips of poets. The 'r' rolls, the 'tu' jumps; it is a pleasing title to speak and hear. There is no shortage of city pride, and the people hear sneer at Tallinn in the way Mancunians sneer at London. Nothing warms me more. The same tour guide tells me the city is small but the spirit of the people is big, and that feels true.


My residency goes well so far. Last night I performed at Hullunud Tartu, aka Crazy Tartu, an annual festival of experimental poetry with bits of theatre and music thrown in for good measure. I was nervous for my performance, the last on the line-up at the tail end of the Saturday. I had spent hours listening to what I assumed was excellent poetry, but all of it was in Estonian. I have never experienced such a prolonged period of being on the outside of understanding, and it took me some time to adjust. I was worried, too, that they would be bored or frustrated by my English-language tales of English mythic things. I put my trust in the magic of the theatre-microphone-audience triad that has served me so well down the years. I took my time, I looked at my audience, I chose strange but amusing stories with ambiguous endings and universal themes. I read this one about a boy and a picture book, and this one about a haunting lake, and this personal favourite drabble of mermaid transformation. I am very pleased to report that it went extremely well indeed. I had a rapt audience. I had warm compliments afterwards. I sold my books. I will cherish the memory of that half hour for a very long time.

I have also met and spent time with my partner-in-collaboration Henri Hytt. We've found a shared enthusiasm for the outer edges of things, for the boundaries between, for the non-places, the liminal, the uncanny, and the strange. He is always smiling, always keen to explore. Curious things catch his eye and he delights in wondering about what they are, how they came to be. Like this door in a supermarket. The word 'Stell' means nothing in Estonian. So what is behind this door? He wanted to know what I thought. Soon the supermarket had become a front for a secret operation, a factory producing plutonium, and the place becomes liminal and uncanny. That's what thrills him. He's not been shy of telling me about various weird and wonderful art performance projects he's either seen, created, or imagined. He has ticked a clock on stage for a minute with a conductor, he has witnessed taxidermied birds returned to the wilds, he wants to bring together owners of doppelganger dogs to see if they match too.


Siil Street (Hedgehog Street)

Today, we were taken on a wandering non-tour of 'non-Tartu' by the originator of Hullunud Tartu, the enigmatic sound poet, Jaan Malin. Jaan took us to the abandoned mental hospital where the first instalment of Crazy Tartu took place 13 years ago, an imposing yellow structure poised for renovation. From there we strolled to a cemetery where we found a hypnotic crucifix, then we drifted past a military base to a row of mysterious lock-ups. We hurried on to spend time beneath a dizzying chimney, then visited a door in an outer wall of a Russian orthodox church which leads to thin air and a fifteen foot drop (although a spiral staircase has now been installed). He told us of a Soviet factory that supposedly made seatbelts but never really made seatbelts. He pointed at an outdoor swimming pool which was never filled and remains unswum. We found Hedgehog Street, a strangely utopian new non-place, where nothing seemed real or alive. Each front yard had a different type of fancy small tree, and there were about five basketball nets standing alone, one set up in such a way that the ball was surely to be lost with every bad throw. At the end of the street sat the eponymous prickly mammal constructed from steampunk metals, a claw for a paw. We found a wall that stopped a fire. We found a mysticism centre. We found dancing ducks.


The abandoned mental hospital

I don't mean to give the impression that Tartu is any weirder than any other city. Rather, it has a spirit big enough to encourage exploration of its psycho-geographic edges and oddities. That's what artful cities of literature will do for visiting residents, especially if one is attuned to the portals of the uncanny like Henri and Jaan are. For my part, I can't stress how refreshing it is to experience a foreign city in this way. Too often recently I have found myself sapped by the tourist drudgery, where amazing places are polished and over-explained, or over-priced, or too full of people, or too littered, or boxed in by dry signage and sanitised history. No doubt Tartu has it's fair share of this too, and I may well explore more of that in the days to come, but first I am glad I have witnessed the shadowed and askance side of this place, because that's where the big spirit seems to lurk and play.


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