“Beg pardon?” we replied, standing in the open air grassy amphitheater where in 1988, some 60 percent of the population of Estonia had assembled to sing for their independence in the first stages of a non-violent overthrow of 45 years of Soviet rule. We had just remarked to Nele that it gave us a chill, just looking at this wide expanse of grassy park and imagining the strength of those voices, raised as one.
“Chicken skin,” she repeated.
“Oh, goose bumps. We call it goose bumps. Yes, that’s what I am feeling.”
“What evidence do you have that you are not wasting your time?” the student asked.
“I have to ask you to just remember how you felt, and how your heart beat, during the Singing Revolution,” we said. “I recall those same deep feelings — and the heart swell — we experienced in the US as we sang and marched in the civil rights movement. For many of us it was life-changing. So think about what your heart says, and ask yourself if history can be changed.”
Chicken skin. We got it again just writing that passage.
Cement block houses and barns of the collective farms of that era still decay in the countryside and we are told that it is even drearier to the south where the brief dot-com bubble of the Baltic Tiger did not extend. In Tallinn, free broadband is ubiquitous from the moment you taxi down the runway.
Built on the brilliance of Skype and a thousand other points of entrepreneurial light, and suddenly unveiled after a half-century of hooding, the fast-riches façade fell hard in 2008, plunging Estonia into the same icey waters where bobbed the other tigers — Iceland, Greece, Ireland and Spain.
The young leader who emerged was Ingvar Villido (Ishwarananda), a student of Kriya Yoga, who journeyed to India and brought back the lessons learned. He is now a Kriya Yoga master and appropriately Lilleoru is not only a spiritually-based ecovillage, but also (in a separate location on site) a yoga ashram — with guesthouses, common house, and residences for devotees — and a Self-Realization Training Center — with an educational park, yoga studio, extensive gardens and orchards, classes and workshops. The community kitchen is vegetarian and supplied with fresh milk, yogurt, honey and produce from a nearby biodynamic farm. Freshly baked bread always includes a soft white, a harder rye, and a black bread, Leib, that is a cross between Boston Brown and Pumpernickle – sweet but soft. The Estonian version of bon appetit is jätku leiba — “may your bread last.”
Meals vary, but bread, jam, cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers, pickled squash, melon slices and yogurt are always on the table. Kohupiim, which is cottage cheese-like, is used in cakes and pastries, such as Kringel, a sweetbread knotted and sprinkled with nuts and raisins. There is also a popular sweet gruel called Kama that is sort of a cross between muesli and lassi. It is made of sour milk or kefir and mixed with grains.
Agnieszka Komoch, a Polish friend, commented on our Facebook photo album that the whole country seemed surreally clean. This was no accident. In 2008 more than 50,000 Estonians participated in the country’s first national clean-up or “Lets Do It” campaign. Organizers used Google maps and cellphones with GPS to locate junk, and then volunteers turned out to collect every kind of garbage from tractor batteries to plastic bottles and paint tins and ferry the filthy junk, often in their own vehicles, to central collection points.
If the 2008 stutter in the step of the Baltic Tiger can be understood as a warning, there could yet be hope for an escape from the Eurotrash fashion meme as Estonians exit the Second World and skip ahead to the Great Change. My translator, Ave Oit, a founder and guiding light of the Lilleoru ecovillage, has a family business buying organic and fair trade wares and selling them in her BioMarket. If sustainability, organics and local fair trade can become catch phrases here, then Estonia could already be well ahead of the EU.