Star Rating: ***
First published by Lakeshore Press in 2013
Motivation to travel and subsequently write about those experiences comes in many forms. Many are drawn to travel because they have a sense of wanderlust or a desire to break away from the rat-race norm; striving to achieve more than they believe will be attained by sitting at a desk every day. Max Boyle travels to retrace his past. To experience the country that was abandoned in haste by his mother during a time of persecution.
He wants to rediscover his heritage, wants to uncover the character of the Estonian people – the people that he has a connection with. Finding a poem by the late Juhan Liiv, he wants to uncover whether this is a true representation of his mother’s home or whether there is something more meaningful sitting behind the words.
You are so Little, Little
You are so little, too little,
to be seen,
to be known,
to be felt.
You are a little land,
and little your speech:
you have an indrawn heart
they cannot reach!
Estonia, you have no voice.
Others, they call;
you go alone on your way,
not asked at all.
(Juhan Liiv – 1864-1913)
Poetry is an emotive medium for many, and each person will interpret the words in a way that is meaningful only to them. We have all sat in literature lessons arguing what we believe was the intention behind the words of someone like Yeats, Keats or Byron. We have all tried to understand the motifs and the hidden meaning behind the words written on a page. Of course, the only person that can really confirm what was meant is the author themselves, however on many occasions, these questions are only raised posthumously.
So with poem in hand and flight booked, Max heads over to Estonia to ascertain whether the stereotypical idea he has, depicting reticent people is, in fact, true.
“…speaking is silver, silence is gold.” (proverb)
Arriving at a hostel in Tallinn, guidebook in hand, Max gets his first taste of the country in the heat of summer. Having travelled here before, he has experienced the cold, biting wintry days that the country is probably better known for, whereas he has yet to suffer the unbearable, sun-drenched warmer months.
Over the last few years a certain group of travellers have started to frequent this particular city according to Max:
“Only the loutish British stag parties seem to covet the country – or at least the pubs and racier nightclubs of the capital city…”
However, this is not the Estonia he wants to concentrate on:
“…the ‘new’ Estonia, was where I was heading, with the intentions of documenting my travels. The journey ahead of with was not without its concerns… I knew that beyond Tallinn and the few other cities, Estonia would peter out into small towns, villages and hamlets, and flat, sparsely populated countryside…”
It is this isolation that could cement the theory that Estonians were known to have ‘indrawn’ hearts.
With only 1.3 million people, Estonia is a relatively small nation, with tourists making up 20% of the country’s annual income. Outside of Tallinn, this means that it is going to be difficult to find individuals that will be able to converse fluently in English – finding the true nature of this population of people could therefore, turn into an unachievable task.
No matter which country you travel to there will always be differences, divides and challenges that are unique to the area rather than the country. Max’s aim to discover whether the thoughts of the people in Estonia are uniform could lead to his findings being as diverse as its landscape.
Travelling from Tallinn, we follow Max’s anti-clockwise route through Lasnamäe, Paide, Tartu, Viljandi and Pärnu before he heads north towards Russia and Lake Peipsi. Along the way, there will be places that you yourself would choose to visit and some, that are questionable. Sillamäe, for example, is known for having a ‘beautiful deep blue’ lake, which is the result of uranium processing plant set up in 1948 – not sure I would choose to go there; although radiation is now at normal levels. Kuressaare, on the other hand, has a delightful sounding B & B that I would like to try.
This is an exploration of both a relatively unknown country and of its people. Some are receptive to Max’s questions along the way, willing to answer with thought and openness, others prefer to master the stereotype and remain apprehensive and wary of what will happen if they answer in too much depth.
Whether you are intrigued by people or places this is a book that could pique your interest. Describing his surroundings in full to try and help you in envisage these places for yourself means that at times, the narrative feels slightly laborious. At other times, however, Max’s writing is entertaining and thought-provoking.
For anyone who has a desire to understand the changing dynamic of the Estonia before visiting, this is an ideal book for you.