The German and the Siren of Vormsi (20)

Photo: Postimees/Scanpix
9/17/2013 10:45 AM
Category: Opinion

"Arbeit macht frei" was the first thing I noticed in the guestbook. It was part of an elaborate two-page illustration a previous guest had drawn, complete with laborers toiling in an open field under the watchful gaze of a mounted overseer, rifle balanced across the pommel of the saddle.

The overseer in this case was German, a man who had purchased a Vormsi house and its outlying buildings from a Swedish woman who had departed this world, possibly because she was confronted with repairing her fence, the one I’d been invited to rebuild.

“Come out, enjoy the weather and fellowship, work a bit,” the German had written me.

I’d been invited to talgud before. Generally, the atmosphere is collegial with a modest amount of work and excellent food and drink in return for your labor. Much like a Mennonite barn raising, no one gets too dirty, and the spirit of doing something together joyfully overpowers the Estonian love of doing something by oneself.

But interestingly, if you put “talgud” into Google Translate, it is defined it as “carnage.” I think that’s the definition the German had read. “We’ll be working 12 hour days,” he announced immediately upon my arrival.

The German had dragooned his crew from all corners of the earth, and he quickly dubbed us Five Nations Fencebuilding, as if to attempt to build esprit de corps in a colony of slaves. There was me, the Canadian. There was a Finn, an Estonian, the German (if the Kapo could be counted as labor), and a British girl known as the Siren of Vormsi.

The Siren had been living at the German’s place, laboring at home improvement in exchange for living quarters. All members of Five Nations agreed this had been a fine deal for the German, whose home had been significantly improved with a re-built kitchen and freshly painted floor and walls. The Siren, a beautiful girl of rather fragile construction, had somehow even managed to ascend the steep roof and rebuild two meters of the German’s eroded chimney. Where she would have acquired masonry skills was anyone’s guess. We mostly stood in wonder of her ability to fend off advances from the island’s males.

Even our presence did not discourage them, and we bore witness to a half dozen entreaties from accordion-playing men with offerings of dried fish and wilted flowers. One suitor, who arrived in folk costume atop a tired pony, lifted boulders from the ground and heaved them great distances to demonstrate his considerable strength. Another opened beer bottles using his eye sockets (it looked painful) and spit watermelon seeds over 20 meters. It was something from a medieval fair.

But all her island suitors reserved their greatest display of strength for the German: they stalwartly resisted being pressed into service on his fence.

Mornings began at seven with a breakfast of 300 grams of toast, Estonian yellow cheese, and black coffee. Promptly at 7:15 the German led us in calisthenics: jumping jacks, sit-ups, and windmill stretches. We were ordered to count loudly (in German) to pump oxygen in and out of our lungs. At 7:30, we were hard at work on the fence.

Having led a comfortable life, I cannot speculate about whether prisoners of war often took pride in things they constructed. Having half a dozen times watched the 1957 film, "the Bridge on the River Kwai," I know the prisoners led by Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) were able to boost morale through the construction of a proper bridge. Our fence was not so different.

Ours was a proper gärdgård, the wooden round pole fence typical of Sweden. Made of non-decorticated and non-split young spruce, the fence consists of upright poles in pairs held together by osier lashings. Our Colonel Nicholson was Pekka, a gentle-souled Finn who took great pride in teaching construction techniques that might someday be passed on to others. Pekka, however, too much artist and too little of a slave driver to please our German, who everyone had taken to addressing as Herr Kommandant. It was also a hot July day, and the Siren was working in a bikini. Word travels fast on an island, and men were arriving as fast as Herr Kommandant could run them off. By noon we had only progressed a few meters on the fence.

“We’re in a learning mode,” noted the Estonian member of Five Nations. “It will go faster after lunch.” Lunch consisted of beet soup and another 300 grams of bread.

“Is there any beer?” I asked. There was none, replied the German.

But the Siren knew better. The German had several cases stashed in one of his outbuildings, which the Siren had discovered while reorganizing the place. Given a lunchtime meal as skimpy as the Siren’s bikini, within the hour we were thoroughly drunk, and Herr Kommandant, fearing for his fence, had little choice but to allow us a few hours nap in the shade of his great oak. We slept in a great pile like farm dogs, and I awoke once to find a half dozen islanders surrounding us with cameras, recording our filthy foreign faces for Facebook, irrefutable proof of the superior efficiency of Estonian island labor.

By late afternoon we were in fine form, and Five Nations had covered close to 15 meters. As first-timers we were justifiably proud, but we still remained far short of the German’s 150-meter, first-day objective.

“The light of the moon is with us,” announced Herr Kommandant. “We shall work until midnight.”

And so we did, except for Pekka who departed to have dinner with his wife. I do not know whether it was the darkness, cooler weather, or bulky sweater donned by the Siren, but something put a stop to the visitors, and their absence thrust us into a warp drive enabling the completion of nearly 50 meters of fence line. The German was pleased. “Extra rations for you,” he declared, and we were fed a midnight meal of bratwurst.

Estonians have many aphorisms about careful construction – measure nine times, cut once – and given the German’s reaction the next morning I can believe the Estonian culture now has a new one about fences built in darkness. Not only did it meander outside the German’s property line, but at some point the diagonal slats had inexplicably reversed direction.

As we limbered up for calisthenics, the German sat in quiet contemplation. “Maybe if you planted a few strategic spruce trees,” suggested the Siren. But Pekka soon arrived and declared the fence too great an embarrassment. If we wanted his continued participation much of it would have to be torn down.

And so it was. The German maintained a stoic countenance in our presence, though he vented frustration by feeding baby rabbits to his three English Mastiffs.

Dogs fed, the second day proceeded at a refreshingly easy pace and gave all of Five Nations the Mennonite experience we had come seeking. The German still hounded us about the importance of work: “Erst die Arbeit, dann das Vergnügen. Arbeit ist das halbe Leben.

Ich lebe in der anderen Hälfte,” replied the Siren, which stunned us all, because here was a British girl who could not only build chimneys and fences but could speak German as well. But Forrest Gump’s mother used to say that life is like a box of chocolates. Or Das Leben ist voller Überaschungen as the Germans might say.

Vello Vikerkaar is a columnist for ERR News.

The name field cannot be empty
No more than 50 characters
Comment field cannot be empty
No more than 50 characters
Comment field cannot be empty
No more than 1024 characters

Message forwarded to the editor

This Ip-address has limited access

There are no comments yet. Be the first!

Reply to comment

Reply to comment

Laadi juurde ({{take2}})
The name field cannot be empty
No more than 50 characters
Comment field cannot be empty
No more than 1024 characters
Add new comment
  • foto
    Opinion digest: Estonia’s stagnating politics

    Estonia’s largest political parties had been going through the most serious crisis in their existence, and on top of that they had lost their most important function, namely to formulate a vision of the country’s future, daily Postimees wrote in its Friday editorial.

  • foto
    Opinion digest: Putin exploiting power vacuum created by U.S. presidential elections

    According to director of Tallinn’s International Centre for Defence and Security and former ambassador to Russia, Jüri Luik, the increased tensions over the past few weeks between Russia and the West indicate Putin’s wish to exploit the ambiguous mood before the U.S. presidential elections as much as possible.

  • foto
    Opinion digest: Time to return to discussing serious issues

    In a stinging opinion piece in published in the daily Eesti Päevaleht, member of the Riigikogu Eerik-Niiles Kross (Reform) condemned the Estonian media as well as the country’s elites for their obsession with what he sees as pointless topics, while disregarding the last few weeks’ unsettling developments concerning Russia.

  • foto
    Opinion digest: Legally speaking, everything is proper

    After Toomas Hendrik Ilves’ decade in office, and after he promoted Estonia like no other president did before him, his legacy is now tainted by the fact that he seems to have gone for a substantial state grant in 2006 that he never put to use — and of which he will now pay back just a tenth.

  • foto
    Opinion digest: Closer to Warsaw, farther away from Estonia

    In a recent opinion piece in daily Postimees, columnist Ahto Lobjakas wrote that one way to look at Rail Baltic was as a step towards the level other countries had already reached in terms of speed and comfort of their railway connections. The main weakness of this point of view was the fact that in Estonia, it lacked the necessary social context.

  • foto
    Opinion digest: Leadership change in Reform needed for potential coalition with Center Party

    For a potential future coalition with the Center Party, the Reform Party needed to change its leader as well, Social Democratic MP and chairman of the Riigikogu’s Foreign Affairs Committee Sven Mikser wrote in a comment on social media on Friday.

  • foto
    Matthew Crandall: President Ilves’ global impact

    The greatest accomplishment of President Toomas Hendrik Ilves is that he branded Estonia as a modern and innovative 21st century country, and brought it out of post-Soviet obscurity, writes Tallinn University’s Matthew Crandall.

  • foto
    The shackles of history and modern life in the fast lane: Estonia's experience in the migration crisis

    The uncertain public performances of Estonian politicians and poor explanatory work were to blame for a considerable increase in public distrust during the migration crisis, found ERR journalist Greete Palmiste, working in Bremen on an international journalists' exchange, in an opinion piece written for German publication taz.die Tageszeitung.

  • foto
    Opinion digest: Kersti Kaljulaid on the concepts of ethical nationalism and confident Estonians

    On Friday, Aug. 12, Estonian representative to the European Court of Auditors Kersti Kaljulaid delivered a patriotic speech on the Postimees Stage at the 2016 Opinion Festival in Paide in which she expanded on two words and two respective ideas she found important for her country that were represented by the two letter Es in its native-language name Eesti: eetiline (ethical) and enesekindel (confident).

  • foto
    This mess we're in: Picking up the pieces after Saturday's elections

    From Saturday’s election fiasco to Tuesday’s sudden emergence of a likely cross-party candidate: ERR News editor Dario Cavegn makes an attempt at explaining Estonia’s seemingly chaotic quest to find its next president.

  • foto
    Opinion: The decline of Estonian as a language of science starts abroad

    The Estonian language as a language of science is only sustainable in those subject areas that offer undergraduate courses in Estonian, and with which students begin their university education, finds ERR science portal editor Marju Himma.

  • foto
    Opinion digest: Current approach to reform won't help municipalities

    The Center Party’s presidential candidate, Mailis Reps, wrote in an opinion piece published in daily Postimees on Sunday that the Administrative Reform Act was a disappointment to Estonia’s municipalities, and that relations between local and central government were in a crisis.

  • foto
    Opinion: Jüri Nikolajev in response to the Ida-Viru secret memo

    Describing himself as "wearily spiteful" instead of angry, ERR's Narva correspondent Jüri Nikolajev responded to the top secret memo on Ida-Viru County that leaked recently, calling Estonians to figuratively not leave their property laying around if they did not want anyone else to take it for themselves.

  • foto
    Opinion digest: Sulev Vedler on the secret memo on Ida-Viru County

    In 2015, the Government Security Committee received a secret memo containing a dark assessment of the future of Ida-Viru County, Estonia's most northeastern and predominantly Russian-speaking county, which was compiled by Ilmar Raag, who worked as a strategic communicatins advisor at the Stenbock House at the time. Estonian journalist Sulev Vedler responded to the memo by compiling various reactions to issues it addressed.

  • foto
    Opinion: Alo Lõhmus on the definition of Estonian citizen by blood

    Journalist Alo Lõhmus explored the right to Estonian citizenship by "jus sanguinis," Latin for right of blood, as it relates to one's eligibility to run for president — an issue which has had particular attention drawn to it recently after members of a competing political party attempted to cast doubt on the status of presidential candidate Marina Kaljurand's Estonian citizenship.

  • foto
    Opinion digest: Erkki Bahovski on Finland and the alleged Baltic scheming

    Columnist Erkki Bahovski commented on the curious, decidedly defensive turn that seemed to be taken by Finland's Social Democrats following the release of a lengthy report by the Finnish Institute of International Affairs (UPI) which suggested that Russia, in its own self-interest, is attempting to hamper Finland's total integration with the West.

  • foto
    Opinion digest: Siim Kallas thinks real estate tax effective way to finance local government

    The Reform Party’s presidential candidate, Siim Kallas, said in an opinion piece published in daily Postimees that an estate tax, more precisely a tax levied on real estate, could be considered to finance local government.

  • foto
    Opinion digest: Siret Kotka on the support, or lack thereof, for Estonia's farmers

    Vice-Chairman of the Riigikogu’s Rural Affairs Committee MP Siret Kotka (Center) found that while Estonia's farmers have recently suffered one blow after another, the current Estonian government owes them more support than they have been paid, and likewise found that it is precisely domestically grown food that should make up the backbone of Estonian security.

  • foto
    Dario Cavegn: The intellectual crisis and editors’ internal conflict

    Iivi Anna Masso’s piece published on Sept. 6 is unfit for publication. ERR News editor Dario Cavegn explains this verdict, and why it ended up getting published anyway.

  • foto
    Iivi Anna Masso: The migration crisis and liberals' internal conflict

    Columnist Iivi Anna Masso asks why people with a liberal world view couldn't support freedom of movement for work, studies, marriage, and genuine political asylum while at the same time support more effective protection of European cultural values.

  • foto
    Opinion digest: Hanneli Rudi makes case for starting school a year younger

    Prompted by the arrival of September 1, the first day of school for children across Estonia, Hanneli Rudi reflected on how kindergarten is simply a good way for schools to make money in light of the fact that it has been deemed unnecessary for most children's development, and that perhaps the country should instead consider having children start first grade one year younger, at age six.

  • foto
    Opinion digest: Mikk Salu on the open secret of Estonia’s emergency underpreparedness

    Journalist Mikk Salu recently addressed an issue about which it seems like many in the country are whispering but no one will come out and say — that despite appearances to the contrary, Estonia's military, law enforcement agencies, hospitals and other such critical support agencies are woefully understaffed, underequipped and underprepared for the event of a true emergency.

  • foto
    Dario Cavegn: Kaljurand, the reluctant candidate

    Over the past months, there have been several occasions when the Estonian media assumed that Marina Kaljurand, much like everybody else in the country’s government and legislature, was working on some political scheme, aiming to move up in the long term. This is nonsense, writes Dario Cavegn.

  • foto
    Letter from a reader: In favor of paper ballots in e-Estonia

    Reader Virgo Kruve submitted a letter to ERR on Monday evening, following the first round of presidential elections in the Riigikogu, defending the continued use of seemingly relatively antiquated paper ballots in the presidential elections of a country famous precisely for its well-established use of electronic voting in local and parliamentary elections.

  • foto
    Opinion digest: Evelyn Sepp on the election cycle and the importance of the president

    Just days before the Estonia’s 2016 presidential elections, which kicked off with the first round of balloting in the Riigikogu on Monday, former politician and MP Evelyn Sepp reflected on how positively this year’s presidential campaign has been handled and why exactly Estonia needs a president in the first place, expounding upon the respective roles of the Riigikogu, the government and the president for context as well.

  • foto
    Opinion digest: Two takes on Angela Merkel’s political personality

    Just in time for Merkel’s visit on Wednesday and Thursday this week, two takes on her character and political convictions have appeared in the Estonian press. In Päevaleht, director Katrin Laur writes about a politically bland, but nevertheless successful woman, and in Ekspress, journalist Külli-Riin Tigasson lists six ethics rules that Merkel has followed.

  • foto
    Marko Mihkelson: A common Europe’s struggle for existence

    Despite both recent and ongoing events which have served to cast doubt in many Europeans on the future of the EU, Estonian MP Marko Mihkelson found that Europe is nonetheless stronger when it stands together, and that in the face of external threats that it cannot prevent, the union must continue to build stronger ties upon the shared desire for peace and stability which serves as its foundation.

  • foto
    Center Party could raise its profile explaining NATO to local Russians

    While 88% of Estonians support increasing NATO’s military presence, most local Russians are against it. That’s 25% of the country’s population. The Center Party could explain to them what caused the increased allied presence, reduce opposition to Estonia’s defense policy, and gain a lot in the process, Erik Gamzejev writes.

  • foto
    Uber is in Estonia for Taxify

    Uber is in Estonia for two reasons: For PR, and to kill Taxify. But the price war it has kicked off just in time for the weekend rush isn't how they're hoping to get the Estonian start-up. It's part of Uber's typical strategy in every market it enters. It will blow over, eventually resulting in higher prices.

  • foto
    Why is anyone surprised? Look to the unilateral decisions of Obama and Merkel for the passage of Brexit

    University of Tartu guest history lecturer Joseph Enge thinks that the UK's vote to leave the European Union is both reasonable and rational, and that it should not come as a surprise. Even more, the current criticism of the voters shows that they are right to leave.