Last Words, Lost Words

There is too much too say. I don’t want to oversimplify or to make Estonia seem simply charming, plucky, quaint. The danger of my family connection is of falling into a kind of nostalgia in the present tense.

Nowhere, however small, is simple. One third of Estonians are Russians, part of a wave of people brought in by the Soviet Union, with that distinctive blend of internationalist ideals and hard realpolitik, diluting nationality, cementing central power in place. And of course their children and grandchildren. Estonia is working out a way to be a culture that includes all this — not quite without contention, in the area of language policies. If you’d like to think this one through, from a Welsh context, you could start with basic information on:

And this blog makes me think of the (I hope) tasty lumps that are worth fishing for in the tasty peasant-style soups you get in almost any Tallinn café. Fun to find them, and try to put a name to them, but the real flavour in the medium they float in. And that hardly comes in words at all.

Now, back in Wales, I’m also back in Tallinn, on the tram… Round me, there’s a gentle wash and backwash of voices, and I’m floating on it. Instead of straining to pick out a word here and there, or at least to train the sense that tells me whether I’m hearing Estonian, or Estonian-Russian, or a visitor’s language. I’ve been here just long enough that when a British or American voice bobs up on the simmer it sounds strange. How can we (at least in the middle ground of British English) be so wasteful of our vowel sounds, so often letting them flatten into schwa, the neutral sound phonetics writes as ə — and letting adjacent vowels merge and meld, not like the fluid carefully-nuanced vowel strings I’ve heard here?
If I spoke the language, I’d hear so much more. That’s obvious. Less obvious is that maybe I would also hear less. More of the sense, less of the pure sound values, rhythm, timbre, all the physical. not-quite-verbal things that are three quarters of what’s happening when we feel that we communicate.
Two nights back I did a reading in the Writers’ House, the Soviet-era grey Writer’s Union building, with the contemporary music group Resonabilis. (See the link at the side of the page.) Their music keeps sidling off into sound, into breaths and mutters, hums and clicks. It keeps fading either into silence, or into a sound that’s like a silence made audible. Putting music in among the poems seems to tune our ears to word-sound, to its rhythms, tones and interruptions… so that we listen in a different way. More spaciously, in fact.

But now I’m home. I hopped from airport to international airport, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, then Cardiff — not quite in sync with my suitcase, which had dreams of a world tour of its own… but that’s another story. I want to tell my father all about it, but that’s the one thing I can’t do. In his nineties, he is deeply deaf, can hardly read, has lost his spoken language to the aphasia brought on by mini-strokes, is losing the shapes and concepts of language at a deeper level, too.

I’ve brought him a loaf of Estonian black bread.

Outside in the street today, I’m scraping frost from the car window, and the sounds it makes, to my still travel-lagged brain, are Estonian, and sometimes Russian, consonants and vowels, their particular rhythms, the distinctive indescribable attitudes of a language, syllable by syllable. No meaning in the sounds, of course. I don’t have that much language. But I sink nto them happily… and out of this blog. I’ve enjoyed doing it, but suspect myself of putting too much into words too soon, without letting it sink down into deeper place.

Now I sound like an Estonian. But sdon’t worry. It may pass.

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Perils of the Thaw

If you can plunge upwards, that’s what the temperature has done. I step out into Pühavaimu Street this morning to find meltwater spattering from all the eaves. Underfoot, the surface snow has washed off; water spreads across the hard-packed under-ice, and freezes. Gravity has been abolished — or, no, gravity’s alive and well, but friction is having the day off, even for the Tallinn-streetwise, and I’m learning the Estonian for Oops and Ouch and probably other interjections that I can’t identify. No one chats much as they’re walking. Everyone is like a first-time skater, with eyes on their feet.
… That, and occasional canny glances upwards. That warning about falling icicles that I was given days ago. Back then, I though it quaint. I get the point now… or rather the half-tone jagged-edged slab. The steep pitched roofs of the Old Town, with its medieval streets, are loosing their hold on weeks of snow, compacted and refrozen. They’ve been overhanging inch by inch, like guillotine-edged glaciers. Here and there is a metre-deep shattered pile of one, on the narrow pavement. So we have a choice — the pavement, or the glassy undulations of the middle of the street…
Then again I hardly need to tell anyone who saw the Cold War, from this side especially, or indeed the end of any rigid regime, about the unpredictable risks of a thaw.

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Thin Ice

There’s an election coming; there are posters in the street, and… well, they do things differently here. On every poster, if it’s the largest size (and they do come in standard sizes) then a life-sized waist-up portrait of the candidate looks out at you. You see that first — their face. Eye contact. Then, above the face, the name. Somewhere further down or up, there’s the name of a party, in the same size and the same print, and a little slogan, two or three words, smaller still.
Now, isn’t that a different order of priorities?
I know the spectrum of politics in Estonia, post Independence, is, shall we say, subtle, in a sweeping arc all the way from centre-right to rightish-centre (and let’s be honest, these days, how wide is our own?). But the big ideas of politics, of left and right, have got themselves a bad name hereabouts in the last century… and the big ideas of religion in the centuries prior to that. It comes of being a small flat country on the crossroads past which all the armies march.
Still, I stop now and then in passing, by a poster — not too long, because it’s minus 14, with an east wind that sand-blasts your cheeks. Best of all, I like the ones on which the candidate looks just a bit embarrassed, as if he or she knew that they were meeting me, a stranger in the street. Well, they say, here I am, your size and human; could you trust me?

Not entirely a joke yet, the Soviet past… though the national folk humour has always been to undermine whichever foreign power is incumbent, quietly, with a wry joke. We’re talking in the class today about the places where we go to write. Maarja has a KGB writing desk. As soon as the Red Army left, the great grey block of the KGB headquarters in the centre of Tallinn was efficiently stripped and car-boot-saled away. She went home with a desk nicely polished and tenderised by the stamping of a million forms. Writing there, and writing what she chooses, has an extra savour. Now and then, though, she looks back at the page she’s typed and… she could swear some words have disappeared.

The Baltic suddenly comes home to me. I’ve been thinking: does my strange affair with the Severn estuary, our own near-inland-sea, have any echo of the almost-landlocked Baltic? In one way they’re opposites, because the Baltic, famously, as almost no tide. Foreshores and offshore islands come practically flat to the water, and the tidelines scarcely change. But suddenly, this morning, the sense of the sea being just there, on the edge of Tallinn, rippled in to reach me.
It was sunlight did it — the first sun we’ve seen since I’ve been here. Today we were working on the top (sixth) floor of Tallinn University, and suddenly everyone’s eyes went to the window. Suddenly the black and white Lutheran towers of old Tallinn centre were picked out, glittering. In the port, the seven-storey floating apartment blocks of cruise ships, three of them, in their bright distinct different liveries, picked themselves out from among the grey dockside and cranes. And of course, the sea, the trade routes — amber, timber, herring — all the business that made Tallinn one of the busy decent medieval trading commonwealth, the Hanseatic League… that’s why Tallinn is here.
Behind, beneath it all, the Baltic lit up white — ice, and snow on the ice, filling most of the bay half way to the horizon. A fisherman was picking his way out to the edge, till he was almost out of sight. I know the sea freezes, most winters, hard and deep enough that ice roads open between islands, fit for trucks and cars. Still, a little later I looked out and a large ferry had pulled into port, cutting itself a narrow channel with the ice still crimped up at the edges, almost exactly where the fisherman had been.

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Gentle Stoic Streak

My friend and very distant cousin Andres has built a house in the forest, just on the edge of Tallinn. This has been the zone of summerhouses and cemeteries. (There is one at the end of his road. Yes, we have quiet neighbours, Andres says.)
But summerhouses… Little cabins in the woods where you went at weekends, most of the summer, any time you could. Don’t confuse this with second homes and holiday cottages — almost every family had one, and the deal was you lived in a functional flat in a block in the city for the working days, with the bare necessities. The summerhouse was where you kept your heart, a small allotment and a hive of bees. (On my first visit back in 1995, everybody I stayed with presented me, proudly, tenderly, with a jar of their own honey; I was going to need a small container lorry to transport it home, and nearly said No, thanks… until I realised what I was being offered. A part of themselves.)
Now, more plots are cleared for new building, for full-time houses; people have cars and can drive to work. Still, this new house, self-built, has a chalet feel, the smell of new wood. We take a walk in the garden — in this case, along a narrow path cut into waist-high snow. Just outside the front door we stop by a particular snow pile, five feet tall, duvet-textured, fluffy-deep, which Andres looks at with pride. The best snow in the garden, he says. Absolutely clean. He leaves me to ponder that. We go inside.
And there, of course, in the centre of the house — pride of place over kitchen, dining room, work room — is the sauna. In it, three racks of wooden slats you move up, like one of Dante’s souls, through levels of purgatorial heat. Then it’s just five paces’ quick naked dash to the door. Of course, he says, you look out first, make sure there’s no one passing in the street. Then you dive straight in. (I think of my sparrows yesterday, snow-bathing in an urban bush.)
And what if someone comes past then? I ask.
A lesson in the Estonian character, its proprieties, its gentle stoic streak… Of course you do the decent thing, and stay under the snow till they’ve passed.

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Street scenes, Tallinn

A snowy bush beside the frozen car park suddenly begins to shudder. It’s alive! Then I look and see it’s full of about thirty plumped up sparrows, giving themselves a wash-and-brush-up in the powdery snow, like they do in dust-baths. A minute of communal frisk-and-shivering and all the snow is gone and the sparrows are looking out of the bare bush, brisk and satisfied. OK, brother and sisters, what now?

There is a street of all-night flower shops by the medieval towers of the Viru Gate. After dark, in the bluish snow-light, they glow all the colours that ridiculously luscious roses can be. Somewhere else, this would be luxury — where have all these roses been conjured from, after all? But here it’s ordinary. If you’re visiting a friend, of course you turn up on the doorstep with a bunch of roses, even in the snow. Without them, you would feel somewhat… undressed.

Of course there is a little fringe of sex shops, but without, I think, a great deal of conviction. At some point, Tallinn appeared on the list of stag party destinations, and there are two or three streets with stagy music seeping from the red-lit bars. The occasional bouncer. Pavements wide enough for lads to stagger round on, and probably sleep on the cobbles, imagining a story to tell afterwards of what good fun they had. There might be a few of them under the mounds of snow down Viru Street, like hibernating bears, right now. I wonder if the bouncers check from time to time.

Under an ancient arch, a crooked alley. In it, a crooked booth-sixed shop selling amber, Baltic ambe, nothing but. The fossilised sap of pine trees from another era. Here and there an ant, exactly like today’s ants, perfectly preserved in it. Always two or three people, often couples, standing in the amber glow of those small windows, equally transfixed.

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Slippy Words and Waiting Silence

My apologies to all wearers of high heels in snowy climates… Estonian friends tell me that high heels are as good as crampons in getting a grip on the ice, and tell me that I should consider a pair of strappy stilettos for my next visit. This would go rather well with my serious fur hat.

My writing group at Tallinn University convened, and we spent the first session paddling in the shallows of each others’ languages. Can you think of a word, I asked them, which says something possibly untranslatable in any other language, something that catches a glimpse of the unique language-soul of the place? As a sidestep out of standard RP English I offered the Cornish word wisht — ‘you’re looking a bit wisht today,’ my grandmother would say — a word which combines the sense of pale and poorly with something rather supernatural, rather see-through at the edges, like a ghost with a cold.

Several of the Estonians chose words with the allegedly unique vowel sound õ, which I have heard said is much easier to make when feeling slightly sick. A friend, herself a writer and translator, said that it’s difficult to feel positive about going to bed in a language where the word for night is õõ, so we practised saying it in a variety of ways from soothing to downright sexy. With limited success, I must say… but then again, it was nine o’ clock in the morning.

Another Estonian chose the phrase Ma ei viitsi which expresses something of the French Ça ne fait rien with the colloquial English Can’t be arsed, while being more intensely noncommittal than either. I can really warm to a culture that is prepared to compete, rather fiercely, for the title of world leader in indifference. And at the same time Estonian poets get praised for being ‘passionate’ and ‘ardent’. I’ve a feeling I have much to learn.

* * *

If you have sometimes trouble looking up Welsh words in the dictionary, when they slip away and hide in soft mutations, try Estonian — the noun has fourteen possible case endings, which frequently transform the word almost beyond recognition. On the other hand, this means Estonian words don’t depend on their place in the sentence to tell you what their functions are, so you can change the word order to your heart’s content. That’s good for poets, though logical thinkers from other languages might feel as if they’ve entered a kind of swirling mist.

And silence? Much talk about it in the class yesterday, and again among groups of writers in the afternoon and evening. About fourteen hours of non-stop talk about it, in fact. (Paradoxes spring up like weeds all over the place here. Healthy weeds. )

And outside in the streets as I go to walk home, the particular soft-but-pin-drop-sharp silence of new snow falling. All the slush has gone white again. Tiny sounds echoing off the banks of snow, high as my head, on either side of the street, and from the new snow hanging in the trees of Kadriorg Park above my head. A silence I recognise as the one someone in the class referred to earlier as the sound of a deep well where you’ve dropped a stone and you lean over, listening, waiting…

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Above the Gentle Wolf

A TV interview with OP, Estonian National Television’s culture programme, has been rigged up in a makeshift studio above the Hell Hunt bar. (There’s a warning against guessing at a foreign language: ‘Hell Hunt’ in Estonian is ‘gentle wolf’.)  And we talk about language, of course. I am here to teach an international Winter School at the university — to work in English with people of five or six nationalities. Should I be just slightly apologetic, for happening to inhabit what is currently the nearest thing there is to a world language?

No, I decide I won’t be, for two reasons: i) the English language is a fluid, changing and evolving thing, with a habit of absorbing something of whatever history has brought it into contact with (its failure to take anything from Welsh is a notable exception); ii) it also has a habit of slipping out of the grip of whoever wants to use it as an instrument of power, so that a whole world of Indian, Caribbean and African Englishes, not to mention the language of the USA, have taken on their own life, and what’s more, come back to haunt and to enrich it, if we care to listen.

I’m a mongrel too — Cornish-Estonian, with a dash of what my nastier great-aunt would refer to as the tar-brush on the Indian side. And I’m absorbent too, hovering up the sounds of language from wherever something touches me. So English (rather than a smaller, more self-protective language, having to police its frontiers to protect its purity) may be the natural place for me.

As if I had the choice. (Maybe we have. People change languages, sometimes for political reasons. Discuss…)

*     *     *

But the heart of the interview-conversation turns out to be not words; it’s the spaces in between. (The title I’ve chosen for the course is POETRY: A Conversation between Words and Silence.)  We talk about how I heard my father speak Estonian for the first time in my thirties; I had grown up knowing by some instinct there was a space in the house, in our language, where a lot was not being said. ‘I was the son of the Duke of Nowhere’ said a poem in an early book of mine.

That could so easily be a standard grievance-line. But maybe it need not be. (I understand why he chose not to talk about the life, the land and family he’s lost; why pass on an irremediable grief?) What that silence also schooled me in was an awareness of the tingling round the edges of what’s said — the power, in fact, of what’s not bluntly expressed.

I say that in the interview and the interviewer smiles, knowingly. Estonians are famous for their reticence, their self-containment, their preference for keeping a precious feeling in a safe and private place. I talk about learning to vaue the way the partly-said things brings back resonances from the space around itm, and he smiles. Aha, he’s thinking, so you are an Estonian after all…

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Snow, serious snow

When Estonia appears, finally, through thinning cloud beneath us, it’s like a negative of itself… or do I mean an X-ray, with its underlying structure showing through? Then again, there’s nothing new about snow here. As we land, Tallinn airport is white, with planes taxiing gingerly past massive snow-dumps — small mountains of the stuff shovelled aside, gone grey, half thawed, re-frozen and now sprinkle-snowed again. No one seems fazed.

I come wearing boots, several layers of thermal, and a serious hat, because there is a government warning out about the danger of falling icicles from the medieval eaves of the Old Town. Now I feel slightly foolish as young women skitter across the frozen cobblestones in high heels, with no sense of crisis. I smile at myself, and just the force of that does something to my balance, and I slip…

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News from Nowhere?

Estonia is by no means Nowhere. It’s a small country whose dearest wish since regaining its independence from the Soviet Union has been to be… well, an ordinary country, like the rest of us. For me, growing up with a sense of it as mythical, a story that my father (very rarely) told, this was a bit of surprise. But I’ve been there before; I have some friends there, and some family. This is getting (in the good sense) to be ordinary.

No, the Nowhere for me is the blogosphere. It looks like a place with zero gravity, no ground to stand on, where anybody can be whoever they say they are and talk about themselves to their hearts’ content, to a million strangers. Its ways and language might be stranger to me than Estonian. But from tomorrow, when I get there… let’s see.

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