an American fish in & out of Estonian waters

What I Did on My Estonian Summer Vacation


Do you remember those essays you once had to write on your first day back at school? Or perhaps that only happened to those of us who went through U.S. school systems …. In any case, I’ve been asked several times over the last week to justify what it is that I’ve been doing in Estonia. And although I’m not exactly on vacation and this “not-exactly-a-vacation” has lasted a bit longer than the summer, that old elementary school assignment format feels about right for the task – especially as you always tended to forget half of the things that you did over the summer only to remember them the moment after you handed your teacher your essay. In any case, here goes – complete with links to some of my other writing efforts beyond flatfish.

So, what brought me back to Estonia? Well, the short answer is the chance to volunteer at Tallinn’s Ukrainian Cultural Center, an amazing NGO often referred to by its Estonian initials of UKK. There, based along the north-western Medieval walls of Tallinn’s lovely Old Town, I worked (and continue to work) as Anatoli Ljutjuk’s helper on several ongoing projects, from the standalone Smithy Workshops to the Mechanical Morality Theater in St. Hildegard’s Courtyard. As the UKK’s resident writer and webmaster, I overhauled, launched, and maintain the newest version (3.0) of the UKK’s website. Plus I’ve written several additional texts about the NGO, a couple of which are scheduled for publication in a new U.S. print magazine known as The Ukrainian: Life & Culture. And yet, even with everything that I’ve already written, I find that there is so much more that still needs to be said to tell the UKK’s story.

Together with the UKK’s creative collective known as Labora, I also worked on our successful Hooandja crowdfunding campaign which then led to our beautiful new edition of the Poetics of Endangered Species: Estonia. I helped on the book as I could, translating poems and serving as the project’s literary editor.  And then, to help provide some context while also telling the full story of how the Poetics came to be, I worked together with the pan-Baltic blog Deep Baltic to produce a piece called Answering the Call of the Bonfire. My next task is to find funding for our wonderful story of The Hutsuls which currently only exists as a beautiful handmade book – although it has been scanned and can be browsed online – because it too deserves its own facsimile publication to gain wider readership. In case it might help provide some context, this impressive poetry collection about the Hutsuls from Ukraine’s Carpathian Mountains is very much in the tradition of Sergei Parajanov’s spectacular film Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1965). And, of course, there are other UKK book projects out there that still need work including Anatoli’s powerful anti-war story The Tale of a Horse about the Horse from the Tale.

To get back into the routine of writing every – or almost every – day, I also launched flatfish this summer as a way to share my continuing fascination with Estonia, Tallinn, and my neighborhood of Kalamaja with others. In the two months that I’ve been working on flatfish, I’ve caught and released over 35 different fish. I will, however, also admit to rummaging through the freezer to use up some of my frozen catch from old fishing expeditions as well as earlier trips to Estonia in order to feed flatfish – even if their pull-by dates may have expired long ago. Ironically, my old poems have turned out to be some of my most successful posts even though I stopped writing poetry at age 21. When one of my reader-friends got me thinking about why it was that I had stopped writing poetry, I decided to see if I might be able to write a new poem. The result of this experiment was not just one new haiku but instead many new haiku in several different cycles, some of which have appeared (and will continue to appear) on flatfish as a kind of weekly weekend extra. And if I’m lucky, other haiku may find life outside of flatfish as it looks like some of them have started swimming around two potential new book projects. We shall see.

Speaking of flatfish, I tend to mention London quite a lot as I like to use it as both a reference point and as a way to help understand Tallinn. I compare-and-contrast London with Tallinn for several reasons even if two cities are now vastly different in terms of their scale and the UK capital is even older. One reason I do this is that so many Estonians as well as non-Estonians have been to London – so the city is a known quantity going all the way back to the days when it was home to a Hansa Embassy. Another reason I use London is that I think they city – especially its current food scene – helps set the right culinary goals for Estonia. Yes, it places the bar rather high, but several of Tallinn’s finest establishments – from Kaja Pizza to La Muu ice cream – are already producing at London levels. My other reasons for using London are personal – mainly because I lived there for over six years at two different periods in my life – just in the same way that I’ve lived in Tallinn at various times in my life – although not quite for as many years put together. And then there is my “genetic” reason. After I sent off my cotton swab to National Geographic, it turned out that the greatest concentration of people with my genetic make-up – a mash-up of Roman, Celtic, and Norse – were concentrated in the United Kingdom.

The other interesting result from my genetic test is that the Viking Y chromosome I inherited from my Swedish great-grandfather is most common in western and southern coastal Finland where a Swedish out migration settled at least eight hundred years ago – rather than in eastern coastal Sweden where he was supposed to be from. These Finnish Swedes also happen to be closely related to the Estonian Swedes who were once known as Coastal Swedes (rannarootlased). I bring all of this up as I’ve used this genetic marker as my guide for my summer travel. And so, I journeyed to Noarootsi – the only parish on mainland Estonia which was inhabited mainly by Coastal Swedes before they all fled from – or were expelled by –  the Soviets during World War II. But most of my wanderings have been focused on the Estonian islands where the majority of Estonia’s Coastal Swedes once lived. I spent a wonderful three days on the island of Vormsi exploring its Swedish roots and also managed to go on day trips to all three of the main islands off Tallinn’s coast (Aegna, Naissaar, and Prangli) – all of which were once home to Coastal Swedes.  Given my genetic fascination with islands, I also spent some time on Estonia’s largest island (Saaremaa, famous for its home-grown Vikings who raided Sweden) and even managed a short visit to Estonia’s tiny and north-eastern-most island (Vaindloo, famous today for tracking the greatest number of Russian violations of Estonian air space).  This summer, I also took some time out to visit central and southern Estonia with my friends. And yet, there is still so much of Estonia that I feel I need to visit (including the coastal Pakri islands and Osmussaar where one legend has it that Óðinn is buried) as well as revisit (including the former Coastal Swedish island “stronghold” of Ruhnu and the uniquely Estonian island of Kihnu).

Beyond Estonia, I also let my genes lead the way as I traveled to Finland – both to Helsinki (Helsingfors) and its island archipelago as well as to the beautiful Coastal Swedish island enclave of Åland (Ahvenanmaa). And how could I forget Sweden? I finally made it to both Birka (the Swedish Vikings’ first island trading post) and to Gotand. While I was in Stockholm, I also took some time to explore its beautiful archipelago. Again, there is so much of Scandinavia still left for me to see – from the Swedish island of Öland not far from my Swedish great-grandfather’s home near Vimmerby all the way to Norway where my great-grandmother came from. Even this small corner of the world feels so vast – plus our limited time on this planet makes us all seem so small.

So, without listing all the books I read or all the Netflix series I watched, I guess you could say that this essai – or attempt – represents a close approximation to “what I did on my Estonian summer vacation.” Sadly, it was not anywhere close to what I had hoped to do – but at least I think I’ve made a good start at pursuing my interest in the intersection of all things Estonian, Scandinavian, Nordic, and, yes, Ukrainian – all of which connect through the nexus of Kyiv and Ancient Rus’ as the original Rus’ were Swedish Vikings. But that’s another story. Anyways, if I were to assign a grade for what I accomplished this summer, perhaps I might be generous and give it all a B+ … the plus for my good intentions … while still allowing lots of room for improvement ….


Image: An endangered Black Stork drawn by Nestor Ljutjuk from the new edition of the Poetics of Endangered Species: Estonia which you can buy from Labora. Below is a .gif of the entire handmade version of the book made by the Labora collective.


Poetics Handmade Edition GIF

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