THERE IS NO RHYTHM, rhyme or logic to the back and front streets of Old Town Kuressaare. One leads to another which is bisected by a third and bypassed by back alleys. There are cobblestones and parks with blue and yellow spring flowers, cream-colored stone houses, cream-colored wooden houses, cream-colored clocks and cream-colored churches. It’s all cream and custard in Kuressaare, capital of Saaremaa, Estonia’s largest island. It takes hours and hours to get there and even when you reach the island’s shores via the Muhu causeway, you are still not there and so it takes an hour more.
When you come to and the hour arrives in Kuressaare you hear the creamy church bells chime. Ding dong bong. While you wander you know that people are meeting in Tallinn at the Lennart Meri Conference, and that author and TV producer Peter Pomerantsev is there, and that there is strong competition to have one’s photo taken with Peter Pomerantsev, to obtain the coveted “Pomerelfie.”
People have always been worried about Estonian security. They even built a castle in custardy Kuressaare to protect the creamy town from unsavory invaders. What’s the purpose though of such intrusion? A lot of blood spilled over a small land filled with peasants, birch trees, and moose? Saaremaa has no edge. It unwinds you. One imagines that soldiers on the front in Saaremaa might be lulled to sleep by its bird calls and ticks. Many battles have been fought here, they say, but you wouldn’t know it. Just listen to that jazzy version of Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine” playing in the trendy bistro on the square.
Ahhhhh. During my talk at the 10th anniversary of the American Corner at the local library — where guests were treated with glass bottles of Coca Cola and mini hamburger hors d’oeuvres — I spoke not of security nor of Russia, but of islands and the island mentality. That feeling of emptiness that an islander feels when he is far from the heaviness and space of the sea. A phenomenon strange to landlubbers. An islander learns to accommodate the heaviness of the sea, so that one part of him is in balance with the big water nearby. An islander away from the big water is off balance, because one of his anchors has been drawn up. He staggers always to one side, like a landlubber set back on land.
“Do you know what I mean, when I say that you feel weird when you aren’t near the sea?” I asked the Kuressaare audience. Heads nodded in agreement, some of them with sad faces, so tormented by the idea of being set adrift from their watery anchor.