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.