Reflections of an “Esto”: Estonia in 1975 and 2016 (4)

9/3/2016 8:06 PM
Category: Features

Anne Sarapik, the New York City-born daughter of two war-era Estonian refugees and mother of four Estonian-American children born during the final years of Estonia’s occupation by the USSR, visited her family’s homeland this summer after a long absence, discovering a vastly different Estonia than she remembered from her first visit in 1975.

When asked what her favorite part about being back in Estonia was, Anne Sarapik firmly replied, “Lihapirukad! I made sure to eat lihapirukad every day since I could.” Pirukad (singular pirukas) don’t have an exact translation in English, but many cultures have similar food items — the basic concept is a fried or baked pocket of dough with various different fillings, such as meat, cabbage or carrot. In this case, Anne was referring to pirukad with ground beef filling.

“Outside of Estonia, they are only made on special occasions, since making them [at home] is a lot of work,” she explained. “Sometimes on these special occasions, they run out quickly and if you get to the table too late, you end up not getting any.” And so being able to go to just about any supermarket or corner store and pick up freshly-made pirukad any day of the week, any month of the year was a novelty to her.

Anne Liisa Sarapik, born Anne Liisa Meigo, was the child of two Estonian refugees who reached New York via German DP (displaced persons) camps at the beginning of the 1950s. New York City was one of the biggest hubs of expat Estonians outside of the homeland, and so she was raised bilingually and biculturally, attending public city schools five days a week but the New York Estonian School on Saturdays, where she was taught to read and write in her family’s native language as well as thoroughly familiarized with Estonian history, geography, literature, choir and folk music and folk dance. She joined the New York Linnutee troop of the Estonian Girl Guides in USA — an entirely separate organization from the Girl Scouts of America joined by her American peers — and as the city was home at the time to thousands of Estonians of all stripes, backgrounds and occupations, even her ballet teacher was Estonian.

Through this same community, which could really rather be described as a network of communities in cities such as New York, Boston, Lakewood, Baltimore, Washington, DC, and Toronto, she met her Baltimore-native husband Martin Sarapik, likewise the child of two Estonian refugees. They married in 1980, and in 1982 gave birth to the first of four children, the last of whom was born just three and a half months after Estonian independence was reestablished in 1991, and all of whom were raised likewise bilingually and biculturally as members of the Estonian community in Baltimore, where the family eventually settled.

Despite her childhood dedicated to learning about her parents’ native country, Anne still didn’t know what to expect when she first visited the still-occupied Estonia together with her father in summer of 1975, just after turning 19. “I just knew that all our relatives were there — my grandmother, three uncles, all of my cousins…”

Not just free, but free to visit

While her second, whirlwind 10-day visit in May 2005 together with her husband and third, six-week visit in summer of 2016 only required an online flight search and a credit card to book, travel to Soviet Estonia was much more heavily restricted, requiring visas that were difficult for Americans to obtain in the first place. The right connections on the Estonian side, however, led to her and her father being granted visitor’s visas instead of the usual tourist visas, which enabled them to stay much longer than usual — all of July 1975 — and stay at her grandmother’s apartment on Ristiku Street in the Pelgulinna neighborhood of Tallinn instead of the Intourist-owned Viru Hotel, which had been completed just three years prior and was otherwise the required hotel for foreign guests.

While Viru Hotel was known for spying on its guests — the 23rd floor housed a KGB radio center, which has since been turned into a museum, and many of the hotel rooms themselves were bugged — being allowed to stay elsewhere did not mean that they were not being watched. “My grandmother said that the neighbors in the apartment next door suddenly had a relative ‘visiting’ them for the same period of time we were there,” Anne recalled.

The two visitors from America were not just watched at the apartment either, but followed around elsewhere as well. “I figured my father would be followed since he was very active with different Estonian groups in New York, but on the second day in Tallinn when I went out with my half brother, he pointed out a guy who was following us — he even came inside the movie theater and watched a movie with us,” said Anne. “So I was being followed too. When anything between [my father and his] brothers or friends needed to be discussed that we didn’t want to be overheard, we went out among a lot of people.” For example, she and her father would head out into crowds in Tallinn’s busy Town Hall Square to talk, making a point to speak in English besides, which was not commonly spoken in Estonia at the time.

In 2016, in comparison, Anne voluntarily shared her whereabouts and activities on an all but live basis — on social media. She had an audience too: many of her Estonian friends in North America likewise aren’t often able to make the trip to their mutual homeland due to limited vacation days, financial constraints or other obligations and under every new check-in, post or album would express their gratitude that Sarapik was sharing her photos and experiences with them, allowing them to visit Estonia vicariously. Most popular were pictures of simple, familiar sights that many locals may take for granted — the towers of Tallinn’s medieval Old Town, a glimpse of someone walking through a busy street in a colorful wool and linen folk costume and headdress, cornflowers growing on the side of the road, a market stall full of familiar woolen sweaters and hand-knit mittens or a basic meal of roast pork with potatoes and sauerkraut.

Stocked supermarkets and world cuisine

“It’s odd seeing verivorst on the menu in summer,” said Anne, referring to black pudding, also directly translated by many Estonians in the US and Canada, where black pudding is not a staple of common diets, as blood sausage. As the blood- and barley-based sausages are not available in typical supermarkets in North America, with only European, German, Russian and other similar specialty delis producing similar sausages, it is not uncommon to see groups of Estonians organize group blood sausage-making events leading up to Christmas every year, as they remain a staple of Christmas dinner in most Estonian families there.

“It was great seeing all the traditional Estonian foods available at the deli counter, with so many varieties of each!” she continued, mentioning favorites such as potato salad, rosolje, or beet and herring salad, sült, or headcheese, and the pirukad Anne already mentioned as being the favorite part of her trip.

While supermarkets large and small are filled to the brim with potato salad and goods imported from almost every continent today, in 1975, the variety and amount of goods in stores were much more limited. People would have to wait in long lines, not even knowing what, if anything, would still be available by the time they reached the front of it.

“Many of the good canned food, jams, jellies and other things were only available at the valuuta pood,” Anne explained, referring to special stores common in the Soviet Union in which goods could only be bought with valuable foreign currency — which was no problem for visitors whose wallets were filled with American dollars upon arrival anyway. “Because foreign currency was such a high commodity, we did not have to exchange money at any official currency exchanges, but rather did it on the sly with acquaintances.”

Nowadays, she observed, it seemed like all foods were available in Estonia, and not just in supermarkets, but in terms of variety of cuisine in restaurants across the country as well — from traditional Estonian fare, like her favorite basic roast pork and sauerkraut, to more exotic fare from India and other points east.

Roadtripping across Estonia

“In 1975, tourists and visitors were not permitted to travel to the ‘suburbs’ of Tallinn,” recalled Anne. “We were invited to go to a relative’s house in Saue, which was outside the allowed area. In order to go there, it was decided that it would be best to go by train. We were told to dress down as much as possible so that we wouldn’t stick out so much on the train. We also did this on one of the last evenings we were in Estonia, figuring that if we got caught or anything happened, they couldn’t keep us very long as our visas expired in a day or two anyway.”

Anne also remembered how travel elsewhere in Estonia was restricted as well. “Only the bigger cities of Tartu and Pärnu were allowed to be visited on daytrips, and that was only together with a [Soviet state travel agency] Intourist guide and in one of their cars,” she explained. “With the right connections, we were able to finagle having the guide come with us in the one car we had in the family. We were very fortunate in that the guide was very nice and allowed us to make a stop in Türi on the way in order to stop in and see my mother’s sister. Luckily my aunt was home when we stopped by — there were no home phones in those days with which to call ahead. The guide did come in with us, but she seemed to like being able to enjoy the family reunion and did not rush us.”

This summer provided a stark contrast to that experience. Anne rented a car from Tallinn Airport and was able to go anywhere she wanted, including crossing the border into Latvia, and without even being stopped at the border. Her short jaunt into the neighboring country was mostly symbolic in value, however, as time constraints only allowed for a quick meal of kotletes and kartupeļi — recognizable to Estonian-speakers as kotletid and kartulid, or rissoles and potatoes — at a roadside farm in Strenči before turning around to head back to her daughter’s hometown in Tartu.

“I bought a road map in Estonia,” said Anne, remembering that this was another seemingly commonplace item that was nonexistent to civilians in 1975, when she was forced to rely on her memory of maps of Estonia studied years prior in Estonian School. “During the summer I marked off the cities and towns we visited. When I ended up extending my rental for a week, I tried to take the opportunity to visit areas on the map where I didn’t have anything marked off yet. Unfortunately, I still haven’t made it to any of the islands yet.”

Protesting for Estonia

“I went to Estonia with my papa in 1975 to see relatives, but also to see the Estonian Song and Dance Festival that year,” said Anne. “Through connections, we were able to watch the parade from bleachers set up for important people. We were told to just ignore all the Soviet flags and banners and placards with Stalin and Lenin at the time, even though they were required to carry those and other signs as the festival was technically celebrating the NSV. the patriotic feel of the Estonians marching in the parade still shone through quite strongly — this was their chance to show that they were still Estonian!”

As is still the custom at song festivals today, Anne continued, the singers under the Song Festival arch would not get off the stage at the conclusion of the official Song Festival program. While today this is done more out of sheer enjoyment of the event organized once every five years, at the time the singers' refusal to budge was in protest. "They would sing songs that were not permitted," she recalled. "The singers would be summoned over the loudspeakers to get off the stage right away, but no one budged — what was the miilits going to do with so many singers on the stage? One song I remember in particular was 'Minu isa majakene' ['My father's home'], a song I learned as a child, but sung to a different tune from what I knew. The singers kept singing it over and over — in such a large mass of people, they could sing it without anything happening to them. It was their way of protesting against the communists."

While she came two years too late to attend the most recent Song and Dance Festival and a year too early to attend the next Youth Song and Dance Festival, to be held in 2017, Anne was able to celebrate her birthday in Estonia for the first time ever this year — her 60th no less. She and her mother were both born on June 23, which is celebrated as Victory Day in Estonia, marking the date of the Estonian defeat of German forces in the Battle of Võnnu, near Cēsis, Latvia, in 1919, a part of the 1918-1920 War of Independence fought mainly against communist Russia. Victory Day is also tied to the traditional Midsummer holiday the following day; Midsummer celebrations usually centered around large bonfires begin the night of the 23rd and carry into the 24th, just days after the astronomically shortest night of the year.

"When I was a little girl, my mother would always tell me on the night of our birthday that tonight, people all over Estonia were celebrating our birthday with big bonfires," Anne recalled. While being able to join the celebrations in person may have seemed like an impossible dream for either of them at the time, decades into the Soviet occupation, this summer she was finally able to realize her lifelong dream of celebrating it in her homeland — in Estonia — watching Dawn and Dusk paddle off in a lantern-lit paddleboat on the waters of Tallinn Bay, headed toward the sun that hung just out of sight below the northern horizon.

Editor: Aili Vahtla

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