Hanging out in Haapsalu, Hiiumaa and Saaremaa

Outside my window is a Haapsalu summer day. Photo by Kari Vuori.

When I woke up, the sounds of some distant party were still ringing in my ears. I heard laughter, music, loud toasts, the clinking of glasses, the run of silverwear on plates, but all the time far away, far, far, far away, and yet close, just downstairs, but some place else. Where was it? When was it? Was it just a dream?

I opened my eyes. A full moon. The light shone brightly through the second-floor window of the Haapsalu Children’s Library. My bed lay just below it. Nearby, my wife and children sighed in the darkness, sound asleep. I kept thinking about the music. The music and the fact that I was spending the night in the house where Gortchakov was born.

From 1867 to 1883, he served as state chancellor of the Russian Empire. But in 1798, young Alexander Gorchakov was born in the small seaside town of Haapsalu in a building that now houses a children’s library, along with a room dedicated to Ilon Wikland, the Swedish Estonian illustrator who is something of a patron saint of Haapsalu. The walls to the upstairs office are covered with Nordic Council posters, and Ilon’s corner is filled with her books, some in Estonian, the others in Swedish. The furniture is a sunny blond, the carpets a Baltic blue, and outside the cream-colored building, its roof tiled red, is Ilon’s garden, filled with comically over-sized slides and swings.

Haapsalu is whimsical, rambling and child friendly. In fact, the first three people I met that day were children: two boys and a girl. When they heard me speaking English to my daughter, the little Haapsalu girl whispered to the others: “I think he’s speaking Russian!” “Not Russian!” I informed them. “English!” “English?” Oh, how fun it was to think that to their little Estonian ears, Indo-European Russian and English sound similar. A short while after the little girl fell. “I need a band-aid!” she moped and showed me the tiny scrape on her elbow. When I fixed the band-aid in the right place a few minutes later, she kept on playing as if nothing had happened. For kids, band-aids have special healing powers.

That was Haapsalu during the daytime, when it’s harmless. At night, it’s different, not harmful, but dark, shadowy, hypnotic. You cannot help but stare at the moon and hear music. You look at the castle walls and think of the Valge Daam. You lie awake, your covers to your nose, and stare at the white ceiling. Maybe you just have an overactive imagination, you tell yourself, but then you pause: when was the last time you heard music that? When was it? Your query brings back no valid response. You look up out the window at the angular shadows in the moonlight that fit into Haapsalu’s puzzle-like, ancient downtown. Then you close your eyes and you try to sleep.

Estonia’s western periphery is pocked with secrets. At the windswept, western-most end of Hiiumaa, I spied Urmas Paet, the foreign minister, walking in the rain. As he neared the coast, where rough seas hammered the rocky beaches, I turned my back on him just for a second.

“You should go say, ‘Tere Urmas’ to him,” the wife encouraged. “Do you think it really was him?”

I double checked.

“Of course it was Paet,” she confirmed.

Then I looked back towards the coast and Paet was gone. Vanished. Where to? That small wooden, sea-weathered barn by the trees? What would the Estonian foreign minister be doing in there? Perhaps a secret passageway lies below? A hidden meeting place? Was Ansip in the barn too? Laine Jänes?

“Maybe he just wants to get away,” the wife shrugged. “Foreign ministers need to get away too.”

In Hiiumaa, you encounter Hiiu humor, the “Hiiu” denoting that any given local joke will not be funny. A blacksmith friend here convinced us his wife was Hungarian. We later met this bird from Budapest only to praise her amazing Estonian skills. “She speaks like a native,” said the wife, mouth aghast. The Hungarian meantime seemed confused.

“Wait, you actually believed me?” said the blacksmith. “You really believed my wife was Hungarian? She’s from Tallinn, of course.”

And why wouldn’t we have believed him? It was such a romantic story. It was just “Hiiu humor” after all, a reference to the island’s peculiar sense of humor, which, I’ll add again, is not funny.

The residents of Hiiumaa and the residents of Saaremaa have something of a rivalry. The Hiiumaa islanders are criticized for their oddball brand of humor and general lack of seriousness. The Saaremaa islanders are skewered for being uptight workaholics.

In their hearts, they are both survivalists, self-reliant last action heroes. I am still a Long Island boy, remember. I expect a gas station on every corner, a pizza joint on every street. Not in Hiiumaa. Not in Saaremaa. The Estonians are individualists. They live and die by D.I.Y.

The Hiiumaa blacksmith told me that the electricity has a bad habit of going out on his island. He’s prepared for everything, because every Estonian has to be prepared. He can only rely on himself, on his own wits, because there is no gas station on every corner, no pizza joint on every street. This brings us back to the main question: Why do so many Estonians still prefer wood heating?

Because they fundamentally distrust civilization, I determine as our ferry leaves Sõru harbor for Triigi on the northcoast of Saaremaa. They know that if the electricity goes out, they’ve still got an axe and there are plenty of trees around.

It’s fitting that I have crossed water several times during this full moon, for the moon controls the tides and we are, after all, made mostly of water. The moon tugs at me. It makes me more aware, more reactive. The wind tends to whisper, colors bounce out of the wood, and women’s breasts careen in and out of focus like forbidden planets.

The full moon. I feel vaguely unhuman when its pull is at its strongest, like something is not quite right, something I should hide from the others. And then, as I turn a windy lane in the dark, I find the metaphor I’m grasping for: I feel like Michael J. Fox’s character in Teen Wolf, and lament that I never tried to surf on the top of a moving car.

What happened to my youth, Gorkachov? Where did it go? Thirty is the adolescence of the middle aged. A friend, two years my senior, once was tormented by his wasted youth.

“So much cocaine,” he sobbed. “So many lost opportunities!”

In comparison, one could say I have accomplished a lot in my three decades, but the spectre of a human high water mark still lurks in the distance. Then again, my wife’s publishing career didn’t take off until she reached the Jesusy age of 33. And Gorchakov wasn’t state chancellor until he neared his 70th birthday.

“Age ain’t nuthin’ but a number,” Gorchakov whispers to me through the breeze. Then he commands me to return to his birthplace. “They have laid out some delicious porgandi pirukad for you,” he’s again cheerful. “Free coffee!”

At the library, I spoke with the director about Gorchakov, naturally. She seemed buoyant, satisfied, content, like most people in Haapsalu. “Oh him?” she smiled, “he probably wasn’t even born here.”

“Then why is there a sign on the wall outside?”

“This was his father’s official residence. He was probably born out in the countryside, in Taebla, perhaps.”


So much for sleeping in the house where Gorchakov was born. But the pies were tasty. The coffee was delicious. And the music? What music.

Justin Petrone is an American writer living in Estonia and the author of the best-selling travel novel “My Estonia.” He publishes one of the best-written blogs in the Baltic states, Itching for Eestimaa.


Views expressed in the opinion section are never those of the Baltic Reports company or the website’s editorial team as a whole, but merely those of the individual writer.

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