an American fish in & out of Estonian waters

Key Estonian Words: Helkur


Looking at its shiny surface, the Estonian word helkur seems easy enough to translate. After all, a helkur is a “reflector” – the kind that you might find on a bicycle or on a car. It can also mean a “cat’s-eye” – those reflectors embedded in asphalt to mark the edge of a road or the separation between lanes. But here in Estonia – especially in winter – the helkur takes on a very personal meaning.

In a country where winter nights can last for as long as 18 hours and people prefer to wear dark coats, pedestrians can be hard to see – especially when they’re walking on a poorly lit road beyond the city center. To protect its people, the Estonian Government mandates that everyone must wear a helkur whenever it gets dark. If you don’t, you can be fined up to 40 Euros. An Estonian policewoman is much more likely to pull you over for not wearing a helkur than she is for other routine infractions such as jaywalking. And in the interests of public safety, it all makes sense. A person without a helkur is effectively invisible to cars – that little flash of light might just save your life.

By promoting the helkur, the Estonian Government has inadvertently created a fascinating new fashion industry. At first, the helkur was the equivalent of an American gimme cap – a cheap freebie handed out by local governments for safety reasons or by companies as a way to promote their brand. Charities also got into the act by getting you to donate during the holiday season: you got to feel good about yourself by giving money to an uplifting cause while promoting your own personal safety at the same time. These inexpensive helkurid usually take basic geometric forms: circles, squares, or stars. Your main decision is where to put it – on your coat or hanging from your backpack or handbag. You can even decide how long of a string to use – either keeping the helkur close to the edge of your coat or letting it hang out so that it spins like a top and thereby becomes even more visible. These types of helkurid are usually cheap – so if you lose one, then it’s no big deal as it can be easily replaced.

As something that has to be worn every winter day, an inevitable transformation started taking place several years ago. Driven by kids (who wanted to wear something cooler) and by women (who wanted to wear something more fashionable), the simple geometric helkur started to mutate as Estonian designers – along with those in other Nordic countries where wearing such personal reflectors is mandatory – joined in the game. And so, these new helkurid began to take the shape of favorite animals and other beloved objects like bicycles. Sometimes LED lights were added to help them stand out even more. NGOs –including art museums and galleries – joined in the action by introducing their own exclusive versions of the helkur.

The once simple helkur soon began to look a lot more like a piece of costume jewelry that could be worn not only hanging from the end of your coat but also attached to your sleeve, your hood, your hat, or your purse. And then along came an Estonian company named Helk which turned the helkur into a full-on Nordic fashion statement intended to be worn as a brooch on the outside of your coat. You can even choose several different styles depending on your mood or the look of your different coats. Of course, if everyone were to wear brightly colored winter coats despite their tendency to attract dirt, then the helkur might never have evolved into the work of folk art that it has sometimes become today.

Given Estonia’s love for handicrafts, it wasn’t very long before the helkur evolved in another interesting direction – the handmade version. From craft classes at schools to master craftswomen at work, these days it sometimes seems that everyone has gotten into the business of making helkurid just as unique as every Estonian. And, of course, there is no law that says that you must only wear one helkur at a time – and so you’ll often see people wearing two or even three to maximize their winter-time visibility. In fact, if you walk around Tallinn at night, it has become rather easy to spot who’s an Estonian and who isn’t – even at a distance. While visitors will be hidden in the shadows of the night, Estonians – and their helkurid – will shine like a thousand points of light.


Image: My handmade Estonian helkur created and sewn by a local craftswoman.

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