Without a stitch of clothing, I stepped out into the snowy Estonian landscape. Days of sub-zero temperatures had transformed the white coating underfoot into sharp crystals. Scooping a handful, I ground it in a circular motion into my bare chest, then a second handful across my shoulders and a third down my back. By now, the skin began to redden and burn, while my nether regions retreated into the available pelvic cavities. As the last moments of tolerance withered, I turned my gaze upwards to the stars, the only source of light filtering through the thick, inky dark of Scandinavian winter nights. Watching the winking billions, long disappeared from my life back in New York City, I brushed a finger across my nose in grateful acknowledgment of the shared secret about Estonia before stepping back into the steaming sauna.
The most common question during my recent trip to Estonia was "Why did you come in winter?" It's a fair question, considering the near impenetrable darkness that cloaks the country nearly 24 hours a day in January and wind chills that burn the face within minutes of stepping outside. However, even in warm weather, Estonia is not a very popular destination for tourists. The 1.8 million that stayed overnight in 2012 may seem like a good tourism numbers but is relatively tiny compared to the 83 million that arrived in France during the same period. Comparably-sized Denmark saw approximately nine million arrivals, while fellow former Eastern bloc Bulgaria got 6.5 million. Estonia's tourism numbers diminish further when considering about half were from Finland, with a mere 29,000 from my country, USA. Of these, few trickle south from the capital city Tallinn, leaving just me, standing naked in the snow in the village of Kilingi-Nõmme.
This was not my first trip to Kilingi-Nõmme. In fact, the town of about 2,000 people was my home for two years during my service in the Peace Corps in the late '90s. As the first American ever (at least to anyone's knowledge), I became something of a celebrity, signing autographs, accepting flowers, raising vodka glasses, fending off blushing admirers and even serving as judge in a local fashion show. The town also gave me one of the best apartments in town, which meant it had central plumbing. Add in a PlayStation, pirated Swedish television and surprise deliveries of pickled produce and life was remarkably comfortable.
For the casual visitor, however, Estonian culture is a tough nut to crack. Not given easily to displays of emotion, natives can appear uncomfortably curt and quiet (making the more boisterous Russian population often more approachable). It's somewhat telling that Valentine's Day, when introduced to the country, was reduced to Sõbrapäev or "Friends' Day." Nor do many long-term couples with or without children feel any particular impetus to marry. The phenomenon even inspired one joke told by a former Peace Corps colleague that asked, "What's the difference between a passive Estonian and an aggressive one?" Answer: A passive Estonian looks at his feet, an aggressive Estonian looks at your feet."
Much of this may be due to the severe weather, which causes even the sunniest personalities to withdraw to the protection of thick walls and wool. More likely it results from Estonia's tragic Game-of-Thrones history, which subjected the native population to centuries of brutal suppression by just about everyone in the region, including the Vikings, Teutonic Knights, Livonian Brothers of the Sword, Hanseatic League and later the Swedes, Germans and Russians. The powerful church bishoprics, supposed inspirations of Christian love, were no better and often more brutal. Coupled with a 50 years of Soviet communism, it's no wonder the country is ranked as one of the least religious countries in the world. In fact, the "happy" ending of Estonia's de facto national film Viimne Reliikvia (1969) sees a cloister burned to the ground and nuns raped, followed by lots of joyful singing.
The dearth of romantic connotations of Estonia and its culture has made it a hard sell to travel publications. For all the times I've pitched articles about the country, very few responses have been positive (although possibly my fault). Understandably, images of salted herring and vodka on a bog will never be as alluring as coconut shrimp and Mai Tais on a Caribbean beach or foie gras and rosé on the French Riviera, nor create splashy, eye-catching covers. Certainly the average American traveler, who perhaps gets just a few opportunities to travel abroad in a lifetime prefers more famous and familiar destinations like Paris, London and Rome, leaving places like Estonia to a much smaller contingent of backpackers and adventurers.
Thirteen years after Peace Corps, an American flag waved in the hand of my Estonian "mother" Mari as my bus pulled into the station. After heartfelt hugs by her and my "sister" Kadri, they brought me home to the same apartment, where I first laid my head all those years ago. On the stovetop, a lamb stewed in anticipation of my visit. Vodka was poured, toasts given and gifts exchanged. Later, after teaching three classes at Kilingi-Nõmme Gümnaasium, in the same room as the Peace Corps days, the students stood in applause. (A few later whistled as I passed down the corridor.) Before leaving, the school director gave me a handsome table clock embossed with the school logo, while another former colleague elbowed me in the direction of a single female teacher. That evening, my "brother" Priit drove me to the smoke sauna, warmed a day ahead of time -- for me.
Outside, under the winking stars, the beauty of Estonia become plain to see, if you know where to look. You'll find it in pleasures of the cold and dark when they matter the most -- the heat of hot chocolate, the tenderness of the lamb, the steam of the sauna, the softness of a comforter, the pressure of an embrace and the light of the stars. There, the country's heart beats strongest and once captured, is yours forever. The secret to Estonia is Estonians don't make friends, they make family. And it feels all the better in winter.
All photos by Mike Dunphy