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The Estonian Incident

Andrew Eagle

Vihula Manor in northern Estonia. The windmills at Angla, Saaremaa Island.

It's fair to say I never left Estonia, at least technically. According to whatever records there are I'm still there, continuously since 1997. It's not really a problem as such, and Estonia is certainly a pleasant enough country to be in, except that when it comes right down to it, when it comes to the actual being there, I'm clearly not.

In northern Europe and the smallest of the Baltic States, with a population not much beyond 1.3 million, Estonia is mostly flat, with pine forests, bogs, fields and numerous lakes to satisfy the eye, not to mention the rustic islands along its rocky Baltic Sea coastline. In winter it is considerably cold but in that part of the world one of the joys is the changing seasons: the longer days, the shorter days, the noticeable difference every day. By summer, the country is green, warm and all that is hospitable.

Estonia used to be a part of the Soviet Union until the bloodless Singing Revolution led to independence in 1991. The country joined the European Union in 2004.

There was certainly no plan to remain in Estonia. Rather I was to spend a week's holiday before continuing south for a second week in Latvia; then home to Australia. Circumstances took over: blame it on the friendly relations between Estonia and Latvia, blame it on that Latvian cowboy or the Swedish pensioners' bus; there was little opportunity for a graceful exit.

It was easy to assume Estonia a safe country, since a common means of getting around was to hitch-hike, standing along the road somewhere waving down passing traffic. Even single girls did it so it can't have been entirely dangerous.

In the short week of my Estonian tour, I had managed to get a lift from an assorted array of people: the 'Master-Road-Builder' of the island of Saaremaa; several times with a brother and sister from Finland who happened to be plotting a roughly similar vacation chart to mine (even though their car had a suspension problem which meant if I sat in the back it occasionally scraped along the road); I'd once found myself in a plush Mercedes with a driver who looked too much like a Russian mafia don; and there were those lovely Lithuanian lawyers had asked to see my Australian Driver's Licence as proof that it was really possible someone could be from somewhere so far away! It was a good way to get around.

Estonian forest road. (Photo: Jaanus Jarva)

On the day of the incident I was heading to the Latvian border at Valga, with hopes of reaching the Latvian capital of Riga by the day's end. The Baltic States are small, so even though Riga is in the centre of Latvia, more or less, it's still only a few hours' drive south of the Estonian border.

The car that had stopped was a nondescript Eastern European model; in it were a couple: he was Russian and she Estonian. As neither spoke English all I could communicate was 'Latvia' which meant 'please if you wouldn't mind dropping me somewhere by the border I'd be most appreciative.' They seemed to understand. I was laughing to myself that there were three people in the car with three languages when we stopped to pick up the fourth language: Latvian.

I can't say it's ever been on my life's priority list to meet a Latvian acoustic folk guitarist, but I'm glad I did. Equipped with guitar, a small bag for luggage and a straw hat in the cowboy mould, he was on his way home to Riga from a folk festival in Finland. His hair was straggling; it matched the straw of his hat.

The Latvian cowboy stood on the verge of the road as I had done, and waved down the same car. From that point on there was speech: he could not only speak Estonian, since his wife was Estonian too, but also a little Russian and a little English. I was able to make the couple in the front understand I was from Sydney with the help of his translation.

Better still, he organised for us to be dropped off closer to the border rather than in the town and since from where we did get out there was no border in sight, he was able to ask for directions. Around us was countryside without much sign that a new nation was nearby. I relied on Latvian assistance as my new friend chatted with farmers, took directions from old ladies and confirmed them with kids on bikes. He did all the talking.

After a short while we left the main road, on instruction, and walked down a dirt lane that couldn't have been more than a few hundred metres in length. Although the area was rural there were a few cottages on that road with well-kept gardens. About halfway along I noticed a small barbed-wire fence, no higher than the knee and almost decorative if barbed wire can ever be considered so; and conveniently there was a little purposely-built gap road centre, person-sized, so we were able to continue along the road on the other side. “It's a short-cut,” he'd told me. “That fence wasn't by any chance the border was it?” I asked. “Welcome to Latvia,” he said.

Now what do you do when you've just crossed a border illegally, technically speaking? The problem: I needed my Latvian visa stamped or there would be problems at Riga Airport for the flight home. I explained the matter and my cowboy interpreter said not to worry. We came to another main road and about fifty metres to the left was the Latvian entry post; even if we had approached it from the wrong side.

Now speaking his mother tongue, Latvian, he explained the situation and the border guards were obliging: they stamped me in. It left me technically still in Estonia with no exit stamp, but to exit properly I now would have had to leave Latvia, re-enter Estonia, re-leave and re-enter; which would have meant the cancellation of my Latvian visa since it allowed only a single entry. A more pressing matter was that we were in the countryside without transport.

“Try that bus over there,” the border guard had told the cowboy. There was a lone tourist bus, as it turned out, packed with a Swedish pensioners' group. We found the tour leader, a middle-aged lady, and my Latvian friend proceeded to ask for a ride in Latvian, of which she understood not a single word. I'd been feeling linguistically useless all afternoon so I tapped my friend on the shoulder, “now it's my turn,” I said.

I could have asked in English, but having spent a year in Norway I could speak reasonable Norwegian, which is very similar to Swedish. “Can we possibly get a lift to Riga?” I asked. “Are you Swedish?” she said excitedly. “No, I'm Australian and I'm speaking Norwegian!” Sure enough we had our ride.

And so in a single moment I chose both to stay for eternity in Estonia and leave for Riga immediately, if you get my drift.

On the way to Riga two things happened: the Swedish tour leader explained that her daughter was a week away from departing for Australia for a year. Amazingly, she was to stay in a suburb of Sydney about five minutes drive from my family home. Within the month, in Sydney, there was a phone call. “Excuse me,” I said, “we've never met but I believe I met your mother on the Latvian border.” Now there's a sentence I'll never use again! Within the month my very accommodating mother was fussing over what to make for dinner for our new Swedish guest: “What do the Swedish eat?”

The second thing was that my Latvian guitarist friend mentioned to me that since he and his wife lived in a Soviet-built apartment block, and since those apartments were rather small, he had bought a second one. “Whenever you're in Riga it's yours,” he'd said. So on my first night in Latvia I had my own apartment, and I could well have stayed there subsequently, had I not perchance met my Latvian friends the following day.

I don't suppose the Estonians really mind that their paperwork says I am still in Estonia. On the one hand, all the Estonians I met were nice enough not to fuss over such a detail, and on the other, that border post is no longer even there: as of January 1 2009 crossing points were removed between the two countries in line with the European Union standard.

Photos courtesy: www.visitestonia.com




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