In Estonia, Andrea Met Gnomes and Heard an Elf Language

A while ago, the following message appeared on the UT Facebook page:

Andrea's messageNot long after that, the book by Andrea Atzori — now a young Sardinian writer, journalist and editor based in Germany, back in 2007/2008 an Erasmus exchange student in Tartu — landed on my desk. This is how this email interview with Andrea came to life.

You seem to be a big music lover who never gets the background music wrong. Please suggest a background music for this interview.

Hello there. This sounds like “Everything you say may be used against you”. 😉
First of all, thank you for this invitation to chat on the UT blog. Do you want a soundtrack? It is hard to say – I might just suggest a song that accompanied me during the time spent living and travelling in Estonia, also if it isn’t an Estonian band. The song is “Buying New Soul” by Porcupine Tree. I would also add something by the Russian folk band Telenn Gwad and, of course, the Estonian Strand Rand. I hope you enjoy it!

Estonia and Estonians

Your first encounter with Estonians was at the airport while waiting for a flight in “a blonde, quiet and organised line of people whose superb language, for the lack of proper means, is classified by the brain as one within the category of ‘elf languages'”. How did Estonians and their language appear to you when you were leaving the country after your exchange semester in Tartu?

Well, the language sounded the same! I think there is really a melodic magic in the phonetics of Estonian and Finno-Ugric languages in general, but I would say in Estonian even more than in Finnish and Hungarian. Of course, this is just a feeling according to each individual’s “sense of melody”, but mine was such. My regret is that at the time I was too busy learning from Estonians how to speak proper English (Ah, Italy), and I couldn’t really put the necessary effort into learning proper Estonian from them. Might this be the reason why I kept on hearing elves?

Also, after visiting a weekend fair in Tartu, you describe the people as dwarves who came down to town from their forest houses to sell stuff to other dwarves. It sounds like a magic land from fairy tales?

It was so – I swear it! Concerning such matters, however, I offer the value of an oath from a person whose profession is writing fantasy novels! Having said that, in the Italian version they were gnomes, not dwarves – it might upset them to be confused. But no worries, I got in touch with enough Estonian reality. Nevertheless, with regard to Estonia, as with any other land I visit, I like to try to see people through different eyes, looking for those invisible traces of more ancient identities, down deep where myths live, when nature was mightier both outside and in the heart. Watching ourselves with the glasses of who we were might help us to see where we are possibly heading… Granted, I’m probably just a romantic fool.

You mention Estonians’ special, inborn talent to walk on ice. Very sweet, however, this ability is probably acquired with practice and is polished each winter. Did you have problems with icy roads here and how did you survive winter and the dark period ?

Eheh, is this question sponsored by Tartu City Council? I had no problems at all. I mean, if it is a cold dark winter, I would be more concerned if streets were not icy. The problem is eventually mine and of my southern style of deambulation, and here I recap the “inborn talent”. I survived winter trying to learn what it had to teach me, but I guess I’m anticipating a subsequent question. 😉

Andrea, you write about the love that each Estonian feels for their country – more than for anything else. At the same time, many Estonians are leaving to live abroad. Do you have an explanation for this paradox?

It is an ageless paradox, but our age faces it with some gravity. I do love my land as well – Sardinia, I always will – but still I left it. Sometimes you’re forced to leave despite love, and sometimes you’re even able to feel your home deeper and view it more clearly when you are far away, rather than when you have your feet on it. You might also discover that despite love for what you left behind, you were born to live somewhere else, or leaving might make you understand exactly the opposite. God knows – it is the task of a life, or several lives. If I can dare, as for any land with unfortunate past vicissitudes and sense of identity (as mine is), leaving Estonia would always hold the symbolic strength of an act of emancipation. Hating what we leave behind, I tell you, is a rare privilege. Mostly we long.

Sometimes, when love for one’s country turns extremist, folks become neo-Nazis. You write about them, too. Were you or your friends threatened or ill-treated in Tartu?

This is actually the real paradox. There is no rational equation linking love, research, and even worship for your identity as a country, and a violent, clouded, pseudo-political movement based on a shadowy past; if not one: ignorance. And ignorance is dangerous. None of my friends were physically mistreated in Tartu by such people, but though not all wounds are physical, they are wounds nonetheless.

Andrea Atzori

Andrea Atzori. Image credit: Daniele Carotenuto.

Raatuse 22 and social life

As you say, the weekend on the 4th international floor at the Raatuse dorm started on Wednesday (some things don’t change). How and when did you manage to study?

Studying? What studying? Jokes aside, it was a bit of self-determination to close the door of your room, threatening your flatmates with the right amount of menace on your face (ehm, my heavy-brutal-death-metal look at the time might have helped). Apart from that, it was enough to seek peace in the Temple of Knowledge, University of Tartu Library, one of the cosiest I’ve ever had the pleasure to study.

You write that beer is similar to water here, and that it’s too cold to stay sober in Estonia. “Staying sober in such an environment would be unthinkable and socially unhealthy”. How big was the role of alcohol in opening up people’s hearts and minds? Have you switched from beer to wine back in Italy now?

Ahah, “Everything you say may be used against you”. Round two! First of all, alcoholism is a social plague, and an underestimated one, at any possible latitude and corner of the earth. Nonetheless, I would be hypocritical in saying that alcohol might not help people socializing. Yes, in Tartu it played a big role, and a nice role too. But there is a difference between “social drinking” and “heavy drinking”, and the line can be drawn only by the conscience of the one who drinks. I’m personally a “contextual drinker”, not meaning I win drinking contests, but that I recognize when drinking is good, and when it is not anymore. Having said that, I’d go for a whisky, please.

You describe a party at the Raatuse dorm as a collective hysteria, state of trance, kind of a ritualistic perception. Could you please elaborate on that?

So it was at the time, and I think in my book I was able to communicate this peculiar feeling in direct drive. We were a mob of people, unknown yet together, bound to a house far away from our own, supporting each other while facing a journey into the unknown of a foreign land. It was shared life drunkenness first of all. People say that every semester is different, according to who’s there. I don’t doubt it. Luck or fate – mine was magic. Sure, this is valid mostly for the first two months; after that, the risk for it is just to become a drunk parody, and this I think is what generates the typical image of Erasmus students abroad. It is neither right nor wrong; again, the difference lies in every one of us.

Final thoughts

You say that “some encounters with your own destiny need an elegant appearance, and it’s unimportant whether you are totally wet and in the rain”. What sort of encounters are these — any examples?

I’m laughing – I was actually talking about metaphors with some of my friends at home here, but isn’t it a nice sentence? 😉 Believe it or not, but in anyone’s life moments arrive where everything looks perfect just the way it is. And sometimes you are aware of this perfection just a frame before it’s shown to you, like a scent in the air. At the time, I felt invulnerable and on the right path. If I’m alive here telling you this, then it means I wasn’t that wrong, or…?

When you write about visiting Helsinki in Finland, there is a very interesting reasoning which probably applies to Estonia as well: Namely, you say that a cold climate teaches us valuable lessons of patience, waiting and bearing – the lessons that are oftentimes ignored in the face of getting everything here and now. Would you say you have learned the skill in Estonia?

I strongly believe in what I said, even if human geographers would accuse me of Environmental Determinism. Also, patience and bearing are the tasks of a human being’s entire life, but I can say yes, that in Estonia, facing the Estonian winter and the study of its troubled past, I started to feel the matter in greater depth.

In the book, you describe tough and sad moments of separation with your friends leaving Tartu. Did you meet them afterwards, do you keep in touch?

Some of those I met were just people passing by, important in their way during those moments and rightly left behind, and others are still some of my best friends. One became my wife. Now perhaps you can better understand some of my previous words.

If you wrote your Tartu story again, would it be the same?

I would not be able to write the same now. If there is a value in what I wrote, this is exactly the magic of the throbbing moment, with breath held and chin up facing the mystery of living. Now is another now, so to say.

Any final thoughts?

Estonia… for the forests, for the bell towers of Tallinn, for the melancholic shores of Lahemaa; for the ghost towns, the sparky liveliness of Rakvere, for the soul of Tartu; for those wild blueberries, the woollen socks, the wooden statues, for the straight flat roads without an end; for that flag blue of hope, black of grief and white of pureness and birch, which standing out in the sky is gorgeous and noble as not many others in this world. Estonia for this and much, much more…

Thanks to the Univeristy of Tartu for this interview, and thanks to all readers of the UT blog. If you are a foreign student, don’t make my mistake: Learn Estonian! And read my book afterwards 😉 If you are Estonian, well, I hope you won’t be disappointed after reading! Best, A.

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