Thursday 4 August 2016

To Kihnu island

Whenever you mention Kihnu to any Estonians, they will reply with words to the effect that 'this is a very special place'. As has been acknowledged by UNESCO, which has given it exceptional status not because it is a very beautiful island - there are many such others in the Baltic archipelago - but in order to safeguard its cultural heritage. We'll see what that means anon, but suffice it to say that the hard work in this respect has been done by Mare Mätas, our guide for the day, who has run the Kihnu Cultural Space Foundation at UNESCO's instigation since 2004. Here she is at her jolliest with her some of her motley charges on their keenly-anticipated excursion from the Pärnu Music Festival, photo courtesy (as several of the best ones here are, and I'll credit them duly with his initials) of my Dutch colleague Thiemo Wind.

Born on the island, Mare studied law and practised it for 10 years in Tallinn. But like so many other Kihnu men and women, she remained tied to the island and decided to devote her life instead to preserving the unique traditions. This strategic place has seen so many changes of occupancy  - four in 40 years during the 16th century, namely Denmark, Poland, Russia and Poland again, then Sweden, then many hardships in the 20th century where unfavourable weather conditions saved the Kihnu people from deportation to Siberia in 1949 like so many Estonians. Yet the inhabitants have managed to keep a balance between past and present. Folk traditions and handicrafts have inevitably become a tourist attraction, and there were rather more visitors in high season than I suppose I had expected, but the majority are Estonians, and all seemed to observe the rules of responsible tourism.

We took a private boat from a mainland jetty - very choppy with some enormous ups and downs, but bearable out on the sea-sprayed deck where I held on on for dear life and got a commendation of good seamanship from hardy Norwegian Stein Eide (TW). If you can enlarge, you'll see a spider on my left sleeve which wouldn't leave me alone - not that I minded.

The harbour has views across to what looks a bit like a Pacific atoll, but with pine rather than palm trees on it. Further and closer sights in addition to the top image follow.

Mare met us and we all piled into a truck which drove us through pinewoods

and around the fields with grazing cattle in the north of the island (TW)

until we came to a stop at a group of houses with a wooden theatre and extraordinary naive artworks on the fence. Extraordinary to see van Rompuy with the Eurostars around him: has a Brit ever painted him? He's visible here between Mare and our splendid co-ordinator and friend, Estonian cultural representative in London Kersti Kirs, with Kiwi Kyle Macdonald on the left.

Several of Estonia's leading actors were here preparing for an evening extravaganza of drama, singing and dancing. I'm told they all take off to perform open air theatre around the country during the summer months, just as the musicians are all at festivals with their friends. I envied them their quarters here, with fish hanging outside the window.

The women of Kihnu tend to drive motorbikes, sometimes unlicensed: here Mare is doing a demo with Jasper Parrott in the sidecar and Lucy Maxwell-Stewart joining in.

Mare took us into the art studio to show us more naive work, much of it by islanders. This is a valuable document of women sitting in around a coffin before a funeral.

Back in the truck (TW),

we headed to the lighthouse on the southern Pitkänä peninsula. 'It was brought here in 1864 from England,' declares an Estonian entry on line, 'dismounted, and was reassembled on site. It is one of four cast iron lighthouses that remain standing on our shores.'

A friendly Pole who came here on holiday fell in love with the place and now lives here in a stone hut at the foot of the tower to tend the lighthouse. Here he is with Kersti and Jasper at the top of the tower

with its views out to the spit,

westwards to swans bobbing on the sea

and northwards, with swallows soaring and diving and screaming below us.

Appealing lights reflecting coloured glass

and fading paintwork

add to the usual magic of a lighthouse, and at the foot of the staircase the usual merchandise - dried fish and knitwear - was for sale,

Now we drove back for the centrepiece in the museum opposite the church, which was built in 1784 as a Lutheran place of worship but now has a small Orthodox onion dome atop the spire at the command of Nicholas I.

In 1846-7 most Kihnu inhabitants converted to Russian Orthodoxy. Things seemed to have stayed that way. Hence the handsome Estonian Orthodox journals

and the iconostasis. Kyle and I seem to be mirroring each other in our curiosity (TW).

We were summoned to the museum for songs and dances. It's brightly decorated with more naive and children's art

including an upper frieze of seals. Of course I love this rainbow specimen.

Had thought we were going to get a special show of traditional culture, but we packed in happily with Estonian and Swedish fellow-visitors. And the ladies really enjoy what they do, put all their heart and soul into it, which is hardly the same as national dances put on dutifully for endless tour parties. This is the core of Mare's guardianship, and of course she joined in the dancing.

One distinguishing feature of the costume is the banding of the dresses, with brighter or darker colours according to circumstances. Mare's dress had quite a bit of black in it, since she was still officially in mourning for the recent death of her grandmother. But as that lady died at the respectable age of 97, Mare thought she could change it quite soon.

The colourful cotton fabrics for the aprons, which are donned by married ladies (the plain uncovered dress is for virgins), used to come from Russia, but now they've found a good source in America. All this heritage is passed on in the Kihnu school curriculum, which includes learning 60 folksongs by heart. One simple wedding song with an infinite number of verses - of course we didn't grasp the meaning - is supposed to date back 2000 years (though I'm not sure how they know).

This sweet girl was rather shy and serious looking for the most part, but she began to smile when she played a solo waltz on her accordion. Aged 10, she's a junior champion in Estonia and has won all sorts of prizes.

The last number was what sounded like a rather horrid ballad about a rebellious wife being punished. The Estonian audience members in the room all knew the refrain and joined in. Anyway, these songs and dances are part of the wedding ritual which still survives here. I was reminded very much of Stravinsky's Les noces (Svadebka). The songs and rituals are conducted over three days in the bride's home, where there about two to three hundred guests, and the groom's, where there are on average 200. Gifts are distributed from a dowry chest and the bride's girlfriends  help her with the knitting, needlework and making of special belts.

After the presentation, we toured the museum, where several of the elders continued their knitting (second photo TW)

Layout was simple and strong, with a special section devoted to Kihnu-born writer and historian Theodor Saar (1906-84). The cabinets include his notation of folksongs

and of runes, the results of research in which he published in a well-respected book (only available in Estonian, unfortunately).

These brooch designs are very handsome.

In the fabric room, Kersti - who was born on a bigger island, Saaremaa, but had never visited Kihnu before - met up with a friend she hadn't seen since college days, when they studied to become primary school teachers. This lady returned to her native island to do just that, and is very content.

This custom of going out in the big wide world to get an education and maybe practise a career for some years before returning reminds me very much of the Icelanders. Except, of course, that Kihnu is a very small place with, at the moment, about 33 children who go off to Pärnu  to study in the secondary schools at the age of 15 or 16. Division of labour between the sexes is that the men still go to sea from April to October while the women work on the land. The women do more dancing because the men are embarrassed to join in until after dark when they've had a drink or two.

We went on to a simple lunch in pleasant surroundings

and then whiled away a pleasant couple of hours down by the harbour before the time to get the ferry back. Jasper, Stein and I swam in very warm water, others (guess who in this case?) took their rest beneath the handful of nearby shrubs.

Clouds on the horizon suggested a change of weather imminent - and indeed, it rained most of the last full day back in Pärnu. So we were lucky to have had our vision under such perfect conditions. A final glimpse of the island from the ferry which took us back to the mainland, then, with Sir Jasper (left) dozing in the sun.


Willym said...

You do take us to some wonderful and exotic places - and for that I, for one, am grateful.

David said...

And now, of course, you two live on a very lovely island, the existence of which I knew nothing about until I saw it covered on your blogs... You are heading to perhaps the most beautiful big island of them all soon, I believe - God's own country (said with strong Irish accent).

Catriona said...

Meanwhile, I was being rained on and blown about in Orkney. No, I'm not jealous, not really.
Are you coming to Edinburgh?

David said...

I count myself to have got one beautiful day out of four when I went to Orkney. Still want to go back and explore Hoy. Not sure about Edinburgh yet - could do around the Yannick Nezet-Seguin concerts if I get an interview. Meanwhile, Norway and Turkey (again - at an even more perilous time now) beckon.

Susan Scheid said...

Wonder after wonder here, just lovely! You are reminding me of some exciting (to me, anyway) Estonian literature news. Don't know if you have heard of the Estonian writer, Jaan Kross? I learned of him recently from Lembit Beecher, who recommended The Czar's Madman to me, which I am reading now. But the exciting thing is that Lembit's mother, Merike, who is Estonian, though she came to the US as a small child, turns out to have been working on translation of Jaan Kross's masterwork, "Between Three Plagues," and the first volume, The Ropewalkers, has just come out. There's some information here, if of interest.

David said...

Wonderful news indeed. I was talking to a Danish friend of Estonian origins about the paucity of Estonian literature in translation and she recommended Finnish-Estonian author Sofi Oksanen's Purge, which is the only one of its kind I've seen in our travel bookshop Daunt Books. I'll get that, but this sounds like a classic. Three cheers for Merike! Terviseks!

Susan Scheid said...

Anneli recommended Oksanen's Purge. It's been a while since I've read it, so I can't speak to it specifically, but I was very taken with it. (Love Daunt books!)

David said...

Yes - even though it's now owned by the man who owns Waterstone's, it's kept its identity. Reminds me that the internet is no substitute for browsing - if you browse by country, you come across some remarkable authors serendipitously (my Walser and Malaparte crazes came from there).

Susan Scheid said...

Agree 100% on bookstore browsing. It's one of life's great pleasures. Another was browsing in record/CD bins, so hard to get a chance anymore. Grateful, when in NYC for Academy records. I almost always find something interesting that I wasn't looking for!