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Friday, September 14, 2012

The Passage of Time

So much to look at in Tallinn. Even the architecture agrees.

I can’t believe it has been over a month since I returned. I had intended to get all my posts about the trip up quickly, but it has been hard to wrap it up. Writing the last posts means that the journey is well and truly over and I want to hold onto it as long as I can. So many expectations were exceeded and so many surprises unfolded, it was almost too fabulous to be real.

Front Side of the Haapsalu Train Station.

My last few days were spent back in Tallinn. I walked from my hotel over to the old Haapsalu train station, which no longer sees trains, but instead serves as the bus depot. (The station played a role in Dr. Zhivago, a film I shamefully have not yet seen.) Bus travel is a very organized, civilized way to move about in Estonia. The buses are clean, timely, and economical. While I was en route, my friend called to make sure I was set getting from the Tallinn bus station to my hotel. I assured him I was fine. The night before I had looked up tram routes and costs on my iPad, so I was pretty comfortable that I would be able to manage the short trip. I had read that trams cost 1 Euro if you pre-purchased a ticket from a newsstand, and 1.6 if you paid on the tram. Once you had a ticket, there was a machine in which you validate your ticket with the time the ticket was used. Good to go, right? When we arrived at the bus station, a depressing Soviet-era building, it was under renovation, so all operations (ticket booths, rest facilities, etc.) were in temporary quarters outside. Rather than try to find a newsstand in the chaos, I just decided to pay the extra money on the tram. I made my way to the correct stop with no problem, and a tram arrived fairly quickly. Then things got sticky. I muscled my large carry on up the steps, and  approached the enclosed area where the driver was located. There was a little metal drawer in which to deposit your money, which I opened, slipped in 2 Euro coin, then closed the drawer. The driver turned around and started to yell in Estonian, and none of the words she used was one of the six in my vocabulary. I said sorry, shook my head, raised my hands in the international indication of “I have no idea what’s going on here,” said sorry again, and smiled. With that, she slammed the drawer holding my coin open. I shook my head again, smiled somewhat more apologetically, and closed the drawer, hoping she’d just take the money and give me my ticket. I didn’t know if she wanted exact change, but I was happy to front the Estonian transit system a few extra cents just to get past the misunderstanding. Again, she yelled and snapped the drawer open. I looked around for someone who might understand, but no one wanted to involve themselves in my little kerfuffle. So, feeling the pressure of others waiting to just get on the dang tram, I took my coin, moved back and…I just sat down. I had the presence of mind to remove the hat I was wearing. (“She’ll never know it’s me without the hat!” I convinced myself, somewhat concerned that the ticket inspectors who do random checks were waiting for me at the next stop.) I kept my head down until my street, and I got off, never having paid. I still don’t know what the issue was, and when I saw my friends that night, they had no idea either. So, Estonia, I still owe you 1.6 Euros. Oh, and I never rode that tram again. The tram became my nemesis. I had to cross the track every day at least twice, and I was certain that the nasty woman driving the #2 was gunning for me.

The universe smiled upon me and granted me a touch of respite because my hotel upgraded me to a business class room (on the side of the hotel that doesn’t face the tram tracks!), and all was well with the world. I stayed at the Domina Il Marine, which was formerly a Soviet era factory. The building was interesting, and the pictures of the long-gone workers in the hall reminded me of the seat and sash factory my grandfather used to work in. (As I type this, I just realized that I must tell my friend what my grandfather did. My friend is VP of international manufacturing for a company that makes safety equipment (safety belts, seats, airbags, etc.) for the travel industry. I never before thought about the connection between my friend's business and my Pop Pop's trade, however separated by distance, years, technology, etc.)

The Gate I Entered Every Day
 The hotel was a five minute walk to the Paks Margareeta (Fat Margaret) gate into the old town, and for the next three days I wandered nearly every street within the walls. I spent a lot of time looking at the ground so that I didn’t fall on the uneven streets. (I did eventually fall, not on old cobblestones, but new ones. Of course. The bruise on my knee has just faded, but the scars an my knees and finger are an impressive plummy shade.)

On Monday night, I had a last dinner with my friends at a lovely restaurant in the old town. It was bittersweet, the culmination of my time with them, knowing my friendship with my old high school friend had grown to a new place, and having begun to form a new friendship with his girlfriend. Saying goodbye was a little hard, but he and I agreed that our average of seeing each other once every ten years going forward was wholly inadequate. We’re going to work on that. A few tears were shed, but they were both for the joy of a great few days together and confirmation of a teen friendship that has grown into a mature, mutually supportive relationship, and for the pangs of saying goodbye.

Olde Haansa
 The next days of wandering on my own were filled with taking photos of doors and windows, moments savored sipping cappuccinos in cafes, and handicraft stores scoured for souvenirs. Glasses of wine were sipped deep within the walls of the city, pastries were savored in patisseries, and elk and wild boar eaten at the Tallinn equivalent of Medieval Times, The Olde Haansa. (I bought into the idea thinking that it was a tourist trap, except that it was really, really tasty, and the honey beer was excellent.) I found a book of knitting stitch patterns in a used bookstore. It is in neither Russian nor Estonia, but Czech, I believe. I found a small, delightful yarn store that had yarns milled in the country. (Another yarn store in a nearby mall yielded lots of non-natural, foreign yarns.) I also found naturally dyed yarns in a handicraft store that became one of my favorite haunts. They had exquisite needle felted sculptures, fine mittens, and books. I think I went back three times. (I promise a post of all crafty swag will follow.)

Kristina Viirpalu Boutique

Intrigued by the knit motif on the front windows, I ended up in the Kristina Viirpalu Boutique. Viirpalu is known for incorporating tradition Haapsalu knitting techniques into contemporary clothing. She pairs the knitwear (diaphanous gowns and the like) with tailored coats and super funky accessories. I nearly had a come-apart caused by some boots that I would have had to wear as earrings to get home as there was no more room in my baggage. In the end, I opted for some super-funky printed socks that are also one of her signatures, and at 24 Euro, were much cheaper than the 750 Euro boots.

The boots (center) that were not to be mine.

Three days spent wandering about were perfect. I had my bearings, I was seeing things in minute detail, and I wasn’t rushed. I could wander and think, have coffee, think more, knit some, rest, go out and wander again. There are places I didn’t get to, and the list grows as my interest in Estonia continues to build. I am really and truly ready to go again at any time for any reason. And this time, tram lady, I am going to have more than six words at my disposal! (I'll also have correct change.)

Sunday, September 02, 2012

A Story With a Lot of Holes

Haapsalu is synonymous with lace knitting, and the delicate, intricate shawls that share their name with the town were in full display on the second day of the White Lady Days Festival. There were vendors and demonstration booths highlighting not just knitting, but bobbin lace, crochet, some forms of weaving, and embroidery. The festivities began with a choreographed tribute to the shawl and to the master knitters of the town who make them. The centerpiece of the event was a knitting competition, where knitters were given a complicated pattern (with plenty of nupps, of course), needles, yarn, blocking sticks, and just two hours to see how far they could get. No, yours truly did not throw her hat into the ring. I was thrilled to see many young knitters taking the challenge and, ultimately, doing quite well.

Nancy Bush was one of the judges for the event, as were many of the master knitters. Siiri Reimann, one of the authors of the stunning Haapsalu Shawl and Haapsalu Scarf books was a significant presence, too. My favorite photographic subject was Linda Elgas, Grande Dame of Haapsalu knitting. This woman's face was amazing, and those hands...hands that have knit thousands and thousands of nupps.

Siiri Reimann (left) and Linda Elgas

It seemed like this event was largely attended by Estonians and maybe some people from Scandinavian countries, and perhaps a few other eastern European countries. Based on listening for English and then accents, I am guessing there were just a handful of Americans there, Nancy Bush, Nancy Marchant (who is an American living in the Netherlands), and I may have comprised the majority. I certainly knew Nancy Bush on sight, and I had heard of Nancy Marchant, so I just marched myself up and introduced myself. While Nancy B. had lots of official tasks, Nancy M. and I were able to sit around and observe the knitting, share yarn business insights, and become acquainted. I really enjoyed her, and hope to catch up again while she is here in Chicago for Vogue Knitting Live. While we didn't get to speak much, I have gotten a very nice email from Nancy Bush, too, and it would be lovely to spend a few moments sharing impressions of the day with her, as well.

Many of the Haapsalu Shawl Masters

Lace Samples Blocked from the Competition. Knitters were given two hours to complete their swatches.

I has several moments of "I cannot believe I am here, in this place, this place I am clearly meant to be." I felt comfortable, at peace, and connected in a way that was visceral. It is the same kind of inner peace I get at a Springsteen show (different circumstances, same internal reactions) or when I am at on of Cat Bordhi's annual retreats in Friday Harbor. I do not pretend expertise in lace knitting that extends farther than, yes, I have knit some, but my fascination with it the meanings behind the patterns, and the ways that these patterns can be extrapolated into current fashion (just wait till I get to Kristina Viirpalu in Tallinn) get me excited.

I picked up several new books, piling on the pounds knowing my carry on situation was getting trickier bu the moment. One book, dedicated to just the motifs of Muhu Island is so inspirational. I could spend years just focusing on it. (In the end, I had 20 or 30 pounds of books alone! Yipes!) I got a bit of yarn, though the yarn used to make the shawls comes from outside Estonia. I also got a few trinkets, juniper wood items, and hand dyed Estonian yarns that are more rustic.

Pottery that I would have loved to bring home, but alas, no room.
Haapsalu really did take a big chunk of my heart those two days, and I would very much like to return someday.