One of the great pleasures of travel is trying local food and in doing so, stepping into a local culture. For me in the Ukraine, that meant accompanying my beer with spicy pigs’ ears. I can confidently say I will never touch them again and it wasn’t because they tasted bad.
I like all food and when I don’t, it messes with my mind. Take andouillette, the French take great pride in this Troyens speciality made from pigs’ intestines, which is a gustatory form of Russian roulette. When well-seasoned, most mouthfuls are a pleasant, vaguely meaty experience, but then you get the one with the ‘bullet’ and suddenly your mouth feels like a farmyard. It doesn’t take much stretch of the imagination to guess where the flavour actually comes from. The French love of andouillette, or for that matter, geziers and fromage de tête seems to come more from their attachment to their peasant roots than to the taste. Even so, I occasionally give it a go when popping across the English Channel. I like all food so surely, one day I will come round.
However, eating pigs’ ears was crossing a boundary. Whilst chewing one of these softly-cooked moist nibbles, my brain issued a warning. Human.
The taboo which prevents us from eating our own species, despite having a burgeoning population, kicked in. There was no way in hell I was going to eat this. Who would? More to the point, why did the dish come with two forks?
I asked the waitress what she thought of pigs’ ears. She told me she wouldn’t eat them and didn’t know anyone who did. They had only just starting serving it as something to satisfy the ‘macho’ types.
With my next beer, I went for the real taste of Ukraine – sunflower seeds.
The South Ukrainian city of Kherson has two large administrative buildings, one for the city and one for the whole region.
The regional administrative building has an impressive neoclassical limestone facade. The city hall is a much more down-to-earth concrete affair. But there is another difference …
a large banner with the cartoon picture of a young woman with a red splash across her face and the words ‘Excuse me, but who ordered Handzyuk?’.
It’s a reminder that last July one of its employees, Kateryna Handzyuk, an anti-corruption activist, had been doused in a litre of sulphuric acid. She suffered 40% burns and died of her injuries three months later.
The attack came after she had accused two leading figures in the regional administration of being involved in a scam to carry out illegal logging.
At the time of the attack, there was a national and international outcry. Local police made a quick arrest, accusing someone who happened to have been out of town when the incident took place. They also assessed the incident to be ‘hooliganism’ rather than an attempt to silence her.
Friends of Ms Handzyuk started a campaign to have the case properly investigated, along with over forty other attacks on activists which had come to light. The case has now been escalated to Ukraine’s Security Service. However, to maintain the pressure, especially during the current presidential elections, a series of protests are taking place of which the following small, but vocal, protest was one.
On 28th March 2019 fifty or so protesters made their presence felt with firecrackers and flares in front of the regional building as members of the administration simply watched from inside.
In one final act, protesters sprayed the names of who they suspected of ordering her murder on the building’s facade and on the pavement in front.
And then it was over.
No sooner had the protest finished, than the efforts to remove the writing began, but it was a ham-fisted attempt. Rather than properly clean the pavement, they daubed what looked like grey cement over the writing in big squares with a paint roller.
As for the building, one of the men took an angle grinder to the limestone facade and started grinding away the walls leaving circular gouge marks in the stonework.
So now whoever enters the building will walk past the scarred walls and every time they look out of the window, they’ll see the big grey squares with the names of the accused captured within.
Let’s hope the case doesn’t end in such a blatant cover-up.
Those crazy Estonians! What does it say about a culture when the worst thing you can do to someone is to deprive them of their sauna?
As far as I was concerned, I already knew what saunas were all about. A while back, a sauna was part of my weekly penance at the local leisure centre. I would go there to be less unfit by lolloping my way up and down the swimming pool until I got tired, bored or both. As a break, I would pop into the sauna until I also got tired and bored of that. There was no pleasure in it and I just didn’t get the point. I mean, if you really want to crowbar yourself into a crate with a load of other hot and sweaty people, why not catch the 07:58 to London Euston?
When I was in Estonia, I rented a place that happened to have its own private sauna. I could see that when the owner was showing me around, she felt that the most important thing for me to learn was how to get the wood burning stove in the sauna up to the right temperature. After nodding in all the right places, I was entrusted with the keys.
At first I ignored the sauna and plumped for a nice hot bath at the end of the day, but I had a nagging feeling that I was not really entering into the spirit of things.
One evening after a particularly knackering but fun day of tromping through snowy forests and ice skating, I prepped the stove and filled the pail with water.
It took a few minutes for me to ‘get it’ but finally it dawned on me and I understood what saunas were about. The inside of this sauna was very much like the one at the local swimming pool. The difference was in what was outside.
In sensory terms, a sauna is about as far removed as you can get from spending the day in the big expanse of a silent snowy forest or skating across a frozen lake.
Taoists see the world around them through yin and yang. Followers of Socrates and Hegel seek understanding and progress through dialectics. Meanwhile people up here in the north of Europe just need a pail and whisk to make sense of their day.
And what if you can’t? You could always ask the moon for help.
Every Thursday, a group of ladies meet up at the Rannarootsi Museum in the little town of Haapsalu in North-Western Estonia. It’s a chance for these Estonians to knit, sew and weave whilst having a good natter in Swedish.
Why Swedish? Because it’s their language. For a thousand years, Swedish-speaking people have lived in this part of modern day Estonia, although only a couple of hundred are here now.
For many visitors to Haapsalu who stumble across the museum, it is a surprise that this used to be an area mostly populated with Swedish speakers.
And so the Torsdagstanterna (Thursday aunties) make gloves, scarves, hats and rag rugs which are sold in the museum shop – keeping traditional crafts alive and helping the museum coffers. However, there is one thing they have made which is of epic proportions: the Aibotapet (Aiboland Tapistry).
This 20-meter work of art succinctly and humourously depicts the often dark thousand-year history of the Swedish-speaking people of Aiboland – their name for the north-west coastline and islands of modern Estonia. A history that was almost wiped out by a mass exodus towards the end of the Second World War.
For English and French visitors, parallels with the Bayeux Tapestry will spring to mind. Without that, who would remember the Battle of Hastings? After all, few can recall the Battle of the Northallerton.
Curiosity piqued by the tapestry can be sated in the other rooms of the museum which fill in the details. Here you can gain an insight into the daily lives of these coastal people and how they often had to eke out a living (if you like ducks, better skip the bit about winter bird hunting).
Speaking to the museum staff headed by Ülo Kalm, there is a real feeling of drive and energy not only to preserve but to grow.
Summer has meant heading to Ruhnu (Runö in Swedish) with a host of volunteers to renovate a farmstead which had been abandoned during the exodus. They also have ambitious plans to build a new visitor centre.
This sense of growth is bolstered by the popularity of learning Swedish at a nearby college in Noarootsi (Nuckö). Also, some of the people who left in the 1940’s or their descendants have been coming back, even if just for the summer.
But to think of this as a revival would be misleading. The old folk and the old ways are being remembered but there is also a new found interest in creating new bonds between people on either side of the Baltic. The Swedish being learned is Standard Swedish unlike the Aiboland dialects which were not even intelligible to each other, let alone mainland Swedes.
So what will the future bring?
Well next Thursday it will bring a group of ladies to the Museum to knit, sew and weave whilst having a good natter in Swedish.
The little town of Haapsalu in North Western Estonia is home to En Garde, a fencing club that, not to mix in too many sporting metaphors, punches well above its weight. Over its 69 year history, it has produced a string of world champions including most recently, Nikolai Novosjolov , Kaido Kaaberma , Heidi Rohi and Kristina Kuusk.
So what is their secret?
I went to find out.
I was invited to attend the daily training session where the club’s junior members were being put through their paces.
Whilst waiting to speak to head coach Peeter Neelis, another coach (his sister Helen) looked me up and down and decided it was clearly time for me to learn a thing or two. She put an epee in my hand and took me through some basics.
Before being let loose on an opponent, I was shown how to hold the sword – It’s more of a pinch than a swashbuckling grip. Then I was shown how to stand, which felt like doing karate on a surfboard.
Then I was given my first opponent and it was one I was confident of beating…
After eluding the tennis ball’s defences I managed to stab the board behind. It was time for me to take a step up.
This guy was a little trickier and thankfully I was wearing the correct safety gear or he could have had my eye out.
Then it was time for me to face a real opponent, a 12-year-old girl.
We followed the etiquette of saluting each other before donning our helmets and away we went. Sooner than you could say ‘kebab’, she had skewered me and I was a point down. A few swishes later and I was 3-0 down.
Incredibly, I managed to score the next point, although it would be fairer to say that I was given it by my well-mannered opponent who generously lowered her guard and stood still like a scarecrow.
It was an exhausting but fantastic experience.
While I was getting my breath back and the kids were packing up, Peeter spend some time with me to talk about the club. It’s hard to believe he’s in his late sixties as we discuss a range of topics. He was as interested in my opinions on the UK and Europe as expanding on why his club is so successful.
The club had been started by Peeter and Helen’s father, Endel in 1950. Endel’s story is epic and was made into a feature film in 2015 by Klaus Härö .
Despite the difficulties of Soviet life one thing Peeter was clear about was that it was good for nurturing sports. Equipment had been crude and central planning from Moscow was inflexible, but with few other outlets, fencing was something everyone in town tried and some excelled at.
Makes you think doesn’t it? If you ever visit Haapsalu all the old people you encounter can fence!
Peeter talks with modesty about his own part but he and the other coaches (including his sister) have created an environment which produces champions. So what are the ingredients of their success?
1. Practise the art
Fencing, the most refined of the western martial arts, is often described as physical chess. The parallels are clear. Each opponent plans and executes well practised moves usually in response to their opponent’s moves. Like chess, these moves require practising until they become second nature, and at En Garde, sessions run every day. Indeed, while we were talking one of the youngsters was practising the same parry and thrust again and again with one of the instructors.
2. Put in the graft
The sport is physically demanding. During a training session, a top class fencer will burn 2-3,000 calories. Training in other sports is encouraged to build up all round fitness.
3. Success breeds success?
It’s easy to think that over the years success has bred success and continuing to do so, especially as it also brings in crucial funding. However, even from this brief meeting, it’s clear that it’s the drive of the individuals who have pushed this club beyond the bounds of what could be expected from a small town.
So what of the future? After all, there are more opportunities for young people. More things competing for their attention.
Practice had finished, but several of the kids were still there, laughing and chatting while doing cool down exercises and packing away. Its clear that fencing is at the centre, but it isn’t the only reason the kids are here. In an environment like this, it’s easy to see a bright future.
It’s the sound of pancakes being cooked on a Primus stove in an Estonian winter wilderness.
Would it get me out of bed ready for a commute to work? Probably not.
But it would make me want to get up and go back to Pärnu in Estonia.
Argo and his wife Elen run Seikle Vabaks (freedom of adventure), a company organising year round adventures on land and sea. It was the end of January and recent heavy snowfalls had quashed my ideas of outdoor skating. Instead, Argo offered to to take me on a hike through the wetlands near Pärnu.
But before we set off, Arno showed me some of the other things you can do in Pärnu, which despite being known as Estonia’s summer capital is a year-round destination. It’s shallow bay, which warms up nicely for the surfers in the summer, freezes over in winter opening it up to winter sports. Unfortunately, while I was there recent snowfall meant that only the ice fishermen were out – a popular attraction for Latvians from the unfrozen Gulf of Riga. In spring and autumn, Pärnu Bay also becomes something of a Mecca for bird watchers during the great migrations.
While we were there, we witnessed the rare treat of an ice halo, which is rainbow made of fine ice crystals. Who needs Photoshop when nature does it for you.
Our next stop was Pernova – a nature exploration centre, principally for the local children but everyone is welcome to come and learn about what to see and do in the wild. Argo runs the forest school activities there.
After this introduction, it was time to make our call on the wild. We drove to the edge of the Pärnu wetlands at Kilksama. After donning our rucksacks filled with provisions and strapping our snowshoes on top (we would need these later) we set off.
The snow we trudged through told the recent history of the place or at least what had happened since the previous fall of snow.
One person must have been on our path along with a dog which had deviated here and there to sniff and mark. A rabbit had also been hopping passed at some point.
As we continued, these tracks disappeared and we headed across a barren land that had been harvested for peat and which had an almost glacial beauty. When we reached the wetland, we put on our shoe shoes. This was partly for our convenience and safety but also to protect the plants we may inadvertently walk on.
As we progressed through the wetlands, Argo would stop every now and then to prod the ground with a long spike. Although it seemed at random to me, he was actually checking the ice when we were nearing the edge of a bog, or lake, as this is where it is most likely to be weakest to walk on. Argo explained that where trees grew in clumps, that was dry land. The smaller plants we saw were actually trees whose growth had been stunted by wetter ground and the areas where no trees grew at all were the bogs. Now the landscape beneath the snow was starting to make more sense.
We stopped by some woodland and set up the stove by hanging it from a tree. Whilst the Argo started cooking pancakes, my job was to make some kissel from a packet. It’s a sweet fruity gloop that was ideal rib lining on a cold day.
As the sun lowered, it was time to head back but not without taking a moment to reflect on what a beautiful place we had been in.
What a place…
If you would like to get in touch with Argo and Elen you can use VisitEstonia
Whilst icy dips in the Serpentine are national news, here in Haapsalu, on the north western coast of Estonia, there is no need for such a fanfare. This plucky band of ice swimmers just take the plunge when they get a chance. One quiet Wednesday lunchtime, I was invited to accompany them by Kertu who runs the Tiiker B&B in the town centre.
While Kertu got the ice clearing tools out, I couldn’t help but shiver, despite being fully clothed in my winter wear. We set to work breaking up the thin layer of ice that had reformed overnight and scooping the slush out of the bathing hole. In the meantime, two more women joined us who were on their lunch break and had popped over for a dip.
We got into our swimming gear, not forgetting our woolly hats and went to the waters edge. Being very polite, they let me go in first.
After I had handed over my camera and photos of me were being taken, there was only one thing left for me to do. Get in.
The water was unsurprisingly freezing. Kertu had told me to take it easy the first time, which felt like very wise advice as soon as my nether regions touched the water. I stayed in for ages – at least several seconds but as soon as I was out of the water, I instantly regretted not staying in longer.
With my towel round my shoulders, I took in the scene. The brilliant sunshine poking through the clouds, the flawless ice on the frozen bay, the delicate sparkling ice crystals and four mad humans.
After a couple of minutes I felt the glow – the body’s attempt to deal with the aftermath by sending blood back out to the limbs. As well as the physical sensation, there was also something of a psychological ctrl-alt-delete. Now I could see why people perform this act of apparent madness.
We got changed back in the cabin, then mopped and tidied up ready for the evening bathers.
Kertu warned me that in an hour or two, I may start to shiver as my body readjusted. Sure enough, an hour or so later, I did start to shiver. It was time for a nice hot drink.