My time in Estonia was the only point in the year in which I was glad that I had packed two jumpers. They had seemed until this point to be an unnecessary burden – adding weight to my bag and reducing the amount of space in which I could squeeze chocolate or souvenirs. But here, I was glad. It was now November – and in all the other places I’d been and was going to go I was hot and living in thin t-shirts. I was glad too, throughout this year, of my lack of interest in fashion: all I had packed clothes-wise was seven thin t-shirts (all of the same shape and size; some patterned and in various colours but otherwise lacking any variety), two pairs of jeans, two thin skirts for the time in Africa, a smart-ish cotton dress for any special occasion that may arise, these two jumpers and some underwear. I was not a typical teenage girl, and had no interest in clothing except for practicality. The two jumpers took up as much space in my bag as all the other clothes put together, so I had resented them somewhat – and in hindsight I realise that it may have been better to just buy jumpers in Estonia and leave them there on leaving, rather than trailing around with them all year. Then again, if I had done so, perhaps there would have been cold days that I would then not be prepared for. There were times when I was glad to have had them just in case, yet did not in the end need to use them. Anyway, now in Estonia I did need them – and badly. The average temperature in Tallinn in November is 1°, which was not at all what my body was expecting after acclimatising somewhat to the temperatures of Central America, Central Europe, East Africa and Asia Minor.
It was not my first time in Estonia, and I was very glad to be back having really loved exploring and learning about the culture in my first visit, in the Christmas holidays of the previous year. That first trip had come about through a guest at the retreat centre where I had worked in the Yorkshire Dales: though English he lived in Tallinn and encouraged me to visit this amazing country that I had actually never heard of until then. After some contemplation at the time I accepted the invitation and brought two friends with me, and for a week we volunteered for a small local organisation that works to bring unity between the churches of Tallinn and encourage people of different backgrounds and denominations to pray together for each other and for the city. We had had a fantastic week and had thoroughly enjoyed the hospitality, food and wonders of the people we met. We were also there for New Year’s Eve at the end of Tallinn’s year as European Capital of Culture, and were present at the midnight firework display on Freedom Square, which was, and is still, the most impressive firework display I have ever seen.
So I was eager to return the following year, having been invited to come back and not ‘work’. I was fortunate enough to stay with a family who had been immensely loving and welcoming on my first visit and had made a lasting impression on me. Their devotion to, and respect for, one another was admirable, and their children were so happily accepting of this foreign stranger (me) who was stealing some of their parents’ time and attention for the duration of the visit.
I was especially keen on their mother, the woman of the house, who had extended a hand of friendship right from the first day of the previous visit and had consistently kept in touch throughout the year in between. Such a gentle and loving spirit, who would always go out of her way to serve and bless others. What amazed me somewhat in this second visit was how closely and eagerly she would watch me in the hope, she said, of learning from me. I was a little bewildered when I first realised this – what could I possibly be, or have, or know, that she might learn from it?
I wasn’t made uncomfortable by my words and actions being noticed in this way; it was expressed so gently and un-intrusively that I was only ever conscious of it when she asked me quietly about little things that I would do or say, both openly and privately, that would in any other context go unnoticed. She expressed such humility and childlike joy that I really wanted to be able to mirror in my own life – a number of qualities, in fact, that I noticed and admired – and yet she was the one closely watching me in order to ‘learn’. How odd, I thought. It made me more self-aware; it challenged me to think before I speak and indeed to question why I do things the way I do things at times; and why I respond to things in the way I do. I believe that through this I learnt a fair bit about myself during my stay that I may never have otherwise realised. It also made me want to begin watching and questioning and learning from other people who inspired me, so as to gain something of whatever quality it was that I admired in them.
Through this process of being asked and challenged to think quite deeply at times, and sometimes asking similar questions in response, I found it easy to lay aside the ‘small talk’ that we Brits so comfortably fall back on, and towards the end of my stay I had begun to visualise more or less every conversation as significant in some way; something to learn from or be challenged or inspired by; something to remember. I began seeing conversation as a tool not just for basic social interaction but for deep connection, real learning and a spade digging into the ground of reality. I began to realise more and more as I lived out this principle each day there that each person contains something amazing; something different; something special – that in the mind and life of each person was a whole world – stories, lessons learnt, experiences – that even daily conversation with strangers and semi-strangers has the potential to be lifechanging. Ha – it helped tremendously that the vast majority of Estonians under 40 years old spoke at least a little English, as my Estonian didn’t venture much beyond basic greetings, numbers and some simple everyday nouns and phrases!
It was interesting how I so quickly went from simply trying to communicate – to hold an understandable conversation (which had been a struggle, in most of the countries that I’d visited so far, with almost anyone outside of my host families) – to actively trying to use every conversation as an opportunity for depth and learning and finding out something amazing. I was thankful to my host for opening my eyes in this way – and this new perspective really did help me to make the most of my time there and elsewhere afterwards. This newfound wonder and appreciation of people as unique and amazing beings from whom a lot can be learnt has shaped my whole worldview and has led me into situations that I could never have dreamed of. I don’t consider myself to be inquisitive in the same way that my host was, but rather that her gentle and regular questioning caused me to think quite deeply about my words and actions and motives, and the attitude of being ready to learn inspired me to think of others around me as people from whom I can learn or by whom I can be inspired and amazed. And I hope people don’t just see me as a nosy so-and-so as a result…
In a previous visit I had had to preach one evening and afterwards people would pray for one another about various different things; whatever was on their minds. It was a pleasant time, and lovely to see people of different backgrounds who had never before met each other chatting and praying together as if they had known each other for years. The denominational differences were not invisible, however. I remember there was one man whom I saw reprimand his wife quite sternly because she refused to stop their young son’s medication after prayer for healing. He told her loudly that she had no faith in God, and that it was her own fault that their son was unwell – because she did not have enough faith to believe that God had healed him. She pleaded with her husband with a rather feeble and hopeless expression in her tone that really melted me. She expressed with desperate tears in her eyes that since it was clear that their son had not yet been healed, it would make sense to keep him on the medication until his body showed evidence of no longer needing it – but her husband continued to speak harshly to her.
On every other occasion when I have preached (not that there have been many!) I have rather resented the assumed power or authority that people attribute to me simply for being the preacher that day. However, on this one occasion I appreciated the position that it gave me, for the sake of this poor accused woman. I approached the couple, nervous though I was to enter into the middle of this conversation that was clearly very tense and full of emotion and pain, especially in the knowledge that as a teenager I know nothing of parenthood or married life or medication or really anything of the sort. I apologised for overhearing, but expressed my view that actually the boy probably should keep on taking his medication unless and until his body shows signs of no longer needing it. I said that God might want to heal their son of his condition at some stage – but that I believe it is not really our place to demand of Him to do so in the timing that we desire, nor to insist that another human being go against the instruction of a doctor when there is no physical sign that it is the right time to do so.
In a way I felt terrible saying such things, knowing that it wasn’t really my place to interfere in their personal struggles, but I just felt so awful for the lady and for her small child (who may have been in mortal danger if his mother were to give in and obey her husband’s instruction) that I felt it was my responsibility to do something when I had the opportunity and the perceived ‘authority’ from having been the preacher that evening. The husband, looking a little taken aback by my words, softened his voice and apologised to his wife, and thanked me. I was quite surprised by this reaction, having seen the stern manner and strong determination with which he was speaking to his wife a minute before – I was expecting to be rebuked for my own ‘lack of faith’ and for interfering in such a private and painful matter!
That conversation took place on my first trip to Estonia. During this visit a year later, I was fortunate enough to meet for coffee with that same couple. My memories from that painful conversation the previous year were as clear in my mind as if they had happened the previous day, and I was a little nervous to see the man again who had looked so angrily at his wife and had scolded her so vehemently, despite how highly he had seemed to think of what I had to say at the time. The coffee with the two of them that following year, however, was peaceful and really very pleasant. They spoke to one another in a very loving, playful and good-natured manner, which should not really have surprised me.
It’s funny how we can assume from witnessing one conversation or situation or snippet of a person’s life or a family’s relationship, that they live the rest of their lives in a similar way. This may, of course, be the case – but in many cases is not. I’m thinking not only of that one instance of the dispute over medication and faith, but also of the way families present themselves when ‘outsiders’ are present. We see this concept displayed all the time in books and films, and it is a fairly well-known part of British life, I think, that what is presented to and seen by the outside world is not necessarily the day-to-day reality. After this second meeting with the couple I wondered at length about these things, and longed for a world in which hiding behind masks would be impossible and the true state of people’s feelings and minds and relationships would be expressed openly; a world in which vulnerability is celebrated and respected.
Whether that first encounter was simply the couple having a one-off rough day, or whether that second meeting a year later was the carefully articulated façade I really don’t know. I don’t know whether anything changed in their relationship in the year between those encounters; and I don’t know whether our first conversation played any catalytic part in their conversations after it took place (which I am inclined to doubt, but have a sliver of hope that it may have played a part in encouraging one step further in their journey of life) – I will never know. But I do hope that the playful good-natured couple that I met that second time had become more able to converse and debate and even dispute with one another a little more healthily over the course of that year than they had been that first time. The anger I saw in his eyes and the fear in hers; the dictator-like tone in his voice and the desperate pleading in hers – these memories made me weep for the couple on a number of occasions after I left Estonia that first time. I would pray over and over again that the desperation and love that they both held for their son but displayed in such vastly different ways could unite rather than divide them, and that they would increasingly learn to live together as a loving family with no place for fear or any unhealthy level of control between them. I do not know to what extent my prayers were answered – but seeing them this second time gave me real hope that perhaps, maybe, there could be a chance that some very good change had taken place in that family.
While in Tallinn on this second trip I spent a considerable amount of time in a fantastic new café a short walk from Freedom Square, called the Living Room. It was very trendy, run by people in their 20s and decorated in a very arty and musical fashion, and was a lovely student hang-out place. I loved the relaxed and informal atmosphere in that place – often the staff would even give a meal or drink to a customer for free just because they felt like it. It was the sort of place where anyone could talk to anyone: there was a sort of social freedom there that isn’t normal. It was the kind of safe space where people would readily express their deep thoughts and feelings and questions – not like the typical student hang-out space which is full of people flirting and showing off, people striving with every joke and comment to be liked. There was a real sense of community and acceptance there; the sort of space that you can feel very much a part of even if you only visit a few times, and you feel honoured to be so. I would really love to know how they made it this way! It was a great space for me to practice my newfound love of conversations that reach real depth and hit real truth by asking simple questions and expecting honest answers.
I was able to spend some time with the couple that owned and ran the café, who had planted and opened it only two months before. They were English and considered themselves missionaries in Tallinn. They had planted and raised a very similar student music café in Russia and it had been so successful that they eventually handed it over to local people to continue and they moved to Tallinn to start this new project. I remember feeling very inspired by their story, and the enthusiasm with which they told it.
Another lovely element of my time in Estonia was the ability to Skype-call with Ben, my then boyfriend (now husband). As I didn’t bring any kind of smartphone or laptop throughout the year, I was quite dependent on other people’s technology to communicate with people back in the UK. While I was in Guatemala the team were able to borrow the Short-Term-Coordinator’s laptop for a short while in the evenings – I got access to it for about 10-15 minutes every two or three days in which time I responded to emails and messages and sent Ben quick updates and stories, and responded to his own updates and little stories. In the Czech Republic there was no such luxury; nor in Uganda or Burundi or Turkey – but in Rwanda I had access for about half an hour every two or three days to my host’s laptop for the same reason. Here in Estonia I was lent an iPad in the late evenings and was able to actually Skype with Ben, which was wonderful.
It was so refreshing to see his face and hear his voice after what seemed like years of only having typed messages. At the time he was in Bolivia, where I would later be joining him – so due to the time difference he had to get up in the small hours of the mornings and borrow his roommate’s laptop in order to talk to me, which he did very willingly (perhaps to the annoyance of his roommate as his alarm clocks might have been too effective to wake only him…).
While in Tallinn I also met various teenagers and spent some time with them – they were very artsy: one a singer-songwriter who often did concerts and events; another an artist who did lots of strange but beautiful abstract pictures; another a sketcher who worked mainly with pen and ink and again produced some impressive pieces. They were lovely relaxed and friendly people and it was nice to spend time with them. They had started small art groups, music groups and local events that seemed to be going well and taking off somewhat, and it was wonderful to hear their stories and hear about things they had done or were doing and what they had learnt in the process.
It was great to see teenagers taking some sort of ownership of the community and organising things, bringing people together, even teaching local people various skills and hobbies – not feeling like they had to be confined to their bedrooms with homework and TV, nor feeling like all they could do in their free time was ‘hang out’ or mooch around the shops. I found it very refreshing. They did not see any need for dependence on adults in this matter – of course they needed permission to use venues and to advertise and the like, but this they sought on their own without in any way depending on parents to help or to do things for them. Wonderful! I had felt quite alone when I did similar things back in England – I felt like this was in no way the ‘normal’ thing for teenagers to do, and that nobody else my own age could relate to it – and of course it wasn’t and isn’t particularly ‘normal’. I was glad that this little group of teenage girls had each other in this regard, and also inspired other people their own age to think and act in a similar way.
On one of my last days in the country I met the minister at ‘Freedom Church’ – the big yellow Lutheran church on Freedom Square, which is on the local postcards and the like; quite an iconic building in a lovely location. I had had some time to wander around town and ended up pushing on the door of the church which turned out to be unlocked, and the minister was in there doing some paperwork. I was able to have a good chat with him about the church and the city, and later found out that he was considered something of a local celebrity, speaking on national radio every morning. Fun!