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3 Estonian Things That All Young (and Young at Heart) People Should Try
(Originally published in Estonian Life newspaper on March 12th, 2021)
Youth is a time of thrills. It's a time of blooming. It's a time of sweetness. No matter how many years one has been on planet Earth, though, we all deserve to stay in touch with our younger selves, and here are a few ways to do that, Estonian-style.
1) Kiiking: When kiiking, sometimes known as extreme swinging, was invented by Ado Kosk in 1993, not only was he channelling a much older Estonian custom of village swings in public areas of communities across Estonia; he was maximizing the dreams of thrill-seeking kids the world over. Who hasn't gone to great lengths to make the seat of a playground swing go all the way up, so your back is parallel to the ground below? Even more reckless (and fun) if you leap off at the top and make a smooth landing in the mulch.
On the classic Estonian swing, you won't get moving by sitting down. Instead, the aim is to stand up, hold onto the wooden side shafts, and push, to gradually build momentum and get higher and higher up. These swings, like the one at Jõekääru Estonian Children's Camp, can hold multiple people. Now that will really get you moving. Another famous Estonian swing is by the castle on the hill in Viljandi. There's a wonderful view of the lake in store for you if you push extra hard.
However, contemporary kiiking swings are different. They're made of metal. The shafts are adjustable (the longest of all is eight metres), with a greater challenge presented to those who extend the distance between the bottom and the “spindle” at the top of the swing. Finally, you'll be strapped in where your feet are because — get ready for it — you can do a lot better than a mere 90 degree angle. With pro-level squatting techniques, you can swing all the way around the middle of the swing, once, maybe even twice!
To find places where you can swing (even as far from Estonia as California and the northern coast of New Zealand) and learn about the latest kiiking competitions, visit the Estonian Kiiking Federation site at .
2) Weaving flower crowns: Flower crowns seem to be just about everywhere these days. Weddings, music festivals, and all kinds of summer celebrations. The act of piecing flowers together as a decoration to wear on your head is ancient, going back at least to the Ancient Greeks, who gave crowns made of bay laurel leaves to soldiers and victorious athletes, and wore them for pagan celebrations. For Estonians, these types of celebrations were likely the first occasions in which people made flower crowns. It's a practice that appears in Latvia and Lithuania, too, where makers try to source as many different types of flowers as possible for each crown.
These days, we see flower crowns at Estonia's song and dance festivals and, of course, Jaanipäev. What's an easy way to make one? First, take some floral wire of a moderate thickness, measure the circumference of your head, then cut two lengths of wire to the size of that circumference so it's not too tight, and not too loose either.
Wrap the wires together, tightly around each other. Take the first flower and place it lengthwise along the edge of the wire, and wrap some floral tape around it. Go around the ring of the crown and layer each new flower over the stem of the last one to make it abundant in its appearance.
3) Eating koogel moogel: Koogel moogel started as a dessert made by Jewish people in eastern Europe — with the potential of it being used to treat a sore throat, too — and has since been whisked into Estonia's culinary traditions. For a nation that places greater emphasis on savoury foods by and large, it makes sense that a dessert that doesn't require much advanced planning is so popular.
It's troublesome when you've cooked up a fancy dinner but totally forget to plan a dessert to finish off the meal. However, if you're staring into your fridge or pantry wondering what to do, some fresh eggs and sugar are all you really need.
Take two eggs and separate the yolks into a bowl. Some people prefer to use the egg whites, while some may use the whole egg. Anything goes. Add a teaspoon of sugar for each of the eggs, and add other flavour components if you wish, like cocoa powder, honey instead of sugar. You could even add milk, or toppings like nuts. Use a whisk to vigorously mix it all together until the consistency is smooth. Though, you can also whisk it less if you prefer a bit of a crunch factor from the sugar.
Like anything youthful, be spontaneous about it, and do it according to what suits your tastes best.
The Swamp Thing Trail brings out the best of cycling in Estonia's wilderness
(Originally published on February 11th, 2022)
For some cyclists, rough terrain is a nuisance. Dirt gets encrusted on the frame, tires, and gears of your bike. On a road bike, gravel is just a reason to be cautious, to avoid leaning, and to slow down. The road is surely more reliable; and the entire orientation of road bikes minimizes drag, creating more power and speed in the riding experience.
But then there are other cyclists who will eschew speed and dive right into dirt and gravel. Muddy puddles are their happy place. They live for the thrill of the hill climb. What is it about biking in the wilderness that is so satisfying for these renegades?
Giorgio Frattale and Francesco D'Alessio, who make up the “all-seasons bikepacking project” known as Montanus, clarified this in a route overview they contributed to the publication .
Frattale and D'Alessio call the route “Swamp Thing Trail”: a 386 kilometre, five day long passage between Pärnu and the Käsmu Peninsula on Estonia's northern coast. In explaining their choice of a name with origins in the DC Universe of comic book characters, they say, “We want to highlight not only the scenario you meet along that route, but mainly the great environmental sensibility and ecological thinking of Estonians (Swamp Thing character fights to protect his swamp home).” In this comparison, they point to post-independence efforts to clean up the remains of Soviet-era industrialization, as well as the balance between development and minimizing disturbances to Estonia's ecosystems.
In many ways, these two cyclists have planned a trip where all-terrain cyclists can witness the purest examples of the vast Estonian wilderness everyone is always hearing about.
The trail is similar to the Oandu-Aegviidu-Ikla hiking route, pushing you out from towns and human settlements into deep forests, meadows, and bogs that support flora and fauna. The focus of the trail is on solitude in these ancient natural environments. Among the top sights along the way are Soomaa National Park, with its famous annual flooding, and the visitor centre that educates sightseers about the wildlife and human reactions to this flooding event. In terms of non-natural sights, there is also an interactive museum at the former farm of Estonia's Age of Awakening leader C.R. Jakobson.
Opportune positions to view the trail's untouched scenery are from long boardwalks that cross bogs—which are safer to cross on foot while pushing your bike—and the observation tower by Paukjärv.
95% of the trail is unpaved and 20% is “singletrack”, with the perfect combination of room for bikes and challenging terrain that make for a thrilling ride.
Frattale and D'Alessio have given the trail a seven out of 10 difficulty rating, which can't be attributed to any excessive climbing (the highest point is 104 metres tall). Rather, what makes it difficult are the populations of mosquitoes encountered when cycling there in the summertime, minimal points to replenish water supplies (apart from purifying river water), and ironically, the high water levels one may encounter. When the two cyclists from Montanus were on the trail, they wore Crocs that let the water in and out as they got around.
And when you've had enough of the rough terrain, there's plenty of accommodation, in the form of huts and campsites with dry firewood, where you can get off your bike and recharge. Or if you've reached the very end of the trail, go for a Baltic Sea swim in Mädalaht Bay.
The Swamp Thing Trail is among over 20 routes that Montanus have documented as a duo in photos, writing, and films; from the Martian landscape of Iceland's interior to the lakes of Patagonia. Each region is tied together by a cohesive peace and quiet.
This is why people get into riding mountain bikes, or bikepacking more specifically. Despite the added challenges of terrain and packing enough supplies to get by for a longer period of time, biking on rough terrain is a means to get away from traffic and crowds. It's exercise for your instincts, where you have to think quickly to avoid hazardous obstacles. And the biggest win isn't how efficiently you move, but the surroundings and terrain in which you move through.
We're Listening with EMW: From the Loom to the Grand Staff
(Originally published on March 11th, 2022)
Despite the patience and knowledge of the late Mihkel Salusoo, I realized pretty quickly, while trying to make a traditional Estonian vöö (belt) at Kotkajärve, that I was a lost cause when it came to weaving on a small loom. If I was going to do anything requiring manual dexterity, playing the guitar while singing would be more likely.
So I was enthralled when I realized that the same types of patterns used to make vööd could also be used to make music. In the Soundweaving project of 2014, Hungarian textile designer Zsanett Szirmay and composer Bálint Tárkány-Kovács demonstrated how traditional folk cross-stitching patterns, seen on embroidered shirts and pillows from Hungary and the Romanian region of Transylvania, can translate into notes on the staff of Western musical notation.
Each point of a weaving draft (the visualization of a pattern) corresponds to a point on the grand staff, either on the bass clef or the treble clef. This is then played on a music box of sorts, cranked by hand, producing both chords and singular notes.
For instance, the horizontal streaks of a pattern from Kolozs County (once part of the Kingdom of Hungary) function like a pianist's steady left-handed pattern on the low end of a piano. Meanwhile, a flower pattern becomes a twinkling melody in the higher registers. Afterwards, the pattern reverses, resulting in steady high notes and a more complicated pattern in the lower registers, on the bass clef. Among the Hungarian and Romanian patterns, wider objects become clustered chords. Thinner objects or long lines become scales and tangential melodies.
After this first iteration of the Soundweaving project, Szirmay teamed up with pianist Daniel Vikukel to interpret the rug embroidery of artisans from Afghanistan. The presence of diamonds and triangles in these patterns creates converging and diverging melodies, like two hands meeting at a middle note and then separating again.
It's established that patterns exist in the natural world. For instance, sound waves produce intricate patterns out of grains of sand when they vibrate a Chladni plate at frequencies above 1000 hertz. What would we hear though, if, like in the Soundweaving project, we processed an Estonian pattern through a music box?
Let's examine a belt pattern from Otepää, as pictured in Eevi Astel's book Eesti vööd. On the outside edges of the belt, white space is interspersed with single red dots, double blue dots, and blue rectangles with red lines cutting through horizontally. The pattern is the same on both sides of the belt. In the middle of the belt are tightly woven red X shapes. At regular intervals every few centimetres is a white space in the shape of an eight-pointed star, a common motif in Estonian folk patterns. Each of the white stars has a red diamond in the middle.
If we programmed white space as silence and then cranked the pattern through the music box, the edges of the belt would sound like equivalent chords played several octaves apart, alternating with dyads (two note chords), and single notes played in unison in opposing low and high registers. Playing the X shapes in the middle of the belt would be so wild that it would require another music box to play them with clarity. Or if people were performing the pattern, another musician would need to be hired, playing almost constantly up and down in the middle registers of their instrument except for a rest of a few beats every couple of measures. And it would repeat many times, until the belt pattern came to an end!
Naturally, the sounds would be somewhat repetitive because patterns themselves repeat. The repetition we notice in folk songs, patterns, and beyond is characteristic of an approach that is based on accessibility. Folk culture is meant to be part of one's existing activities, not requiring as much formal education or lots of spare time and space to do—which is not to diminish its value! Rather, everyone is welcome to participate in folk culture. Traditionally, embroidery would happen while sitting around, talking with one's friends and family. Singing would be done while completing farm labour outside. Working with repetition in these acts means you don't have to refer as much to notes or patterns.
Considering the accessibility and long history of folk textile traditions, it's fascinating to think about how they can now be used like an early form of MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) notes composed on a computer. Likewise, the influence of punch cards used with the Jacquard Loom in the early 1800s can be seen in the IBM cards that were introduced in 1928.
Thinking about art from mathematical and technological standpoints adds another dimension to our understanding of human creativity, as art interacts with more of our senses.