On Land and Grandmas

by Heleene Tambet

Estonian, often ranked as one of the most difficult languages in the world, does not lack for ways to complicate the simple. Words are long, and include unimaginable letter combinations that can then be turned into number of new words. Take a word like maa. It's a basic looking word with only three letters, and yet, it has three meanings.  Maa means land, encapsulating everything from soil to "field." In another context, Maa is planet Earth itself. It also refers to an administrative unit or region. Finally, in the most daily use, maa means countryside. And if someone is about to go to maa, you can be almost certain that in following days this someone is going to: 1) drive a tractor, 2) indulge on grandma’s apple cake and 3) come back with trunk full of earthy potatoes.

Grandfather with his farmhouse from 19th century, a rather common view for Estonians

Grandfather with his farmhouse from 19th century, a rather common view for Estonians

In recent years, Estonia has suddenly developed an international reputation as a hub for startups and technical innovation. Skype and several rapidly growing Silicon Valley start-ups rooting there. And yet, despite the high-speed internet that now covers most of the country, it largely still looks like it used to, with vast, endless forests, and here and there, an opening for a few acres of farmland. Villages are comprised of ten households, each separated by a quarter mile of rye field. It wasn’t that long ago when the majority of the population resided in rural areas, managed a farm or were associated with one. Along with the the Soviet Union occupation came vast industrialization, and by 1990's, 70-percent of the nation was considered urban.

Those statistics, however, have not diminished the connection between the people and the land. At least not yet. Farms, commonly built a century or two ago, are still there, and if you are a real Estonian, you have to have a place in countryside you associate yourself with.

In a country spanning 200 miles from one corner to another, the notion of not having been out of city for a long time is somewhat rare. An essential statement for Estonians is,  "Everybody has a grandma." The next most essential statement is that, "Grandma resides in countryside, keeps a plot of vegetables, and a considerable number of apple trees that must be picked." 

Every grandma might not have a cow anymore (many still do, though) but as long as she can, she wants to stay where she is, take care of some chickens,  ‘put into land’ some potatoes, and wait for summer to come, because that's when the grandchildren arrive.

Until the millennial generation, this was the standard model. Kids finished school in June, and no matter their level of urbanization, summer took them to countryside, to grandma’s place. Those summers most likely contained bare feet and dirt roads, endless strawberry furrows and getting lost in the woods. There might've been daily lake swims and running across fresh pasture dawn to dusk. For Estonian kids it means chopping wood, weeding carrots and picking currants. On occasion, parents came from the city and joined to help to pickle few hundred jars of cucumbers and mushrooms, harvest a barn-full of apples, and eventually, to dig up a field of those aforementioned potatoes.

There are not many days as sacred for the Estonian soul as that of the potato harvest. It looms in mid-September, accompanied by the peak of bright warm fall colors, and the very first frosty mornings. It used to bring together whole villages, one field at a time, until they dug up every potato in the area. They then store them in 100-pound burlap bags and feed on the harvest for the whole of the following winter.

Potato is a basis for everything in grandma’s cooking. Certainly grandma's cooking one expects to be out of city, in a kitchen with half-century old wood burning stove, rag carpet and herbs hanging on the walls. The food is simple. It's a lot of pork, cooked in cast iron pot on charcoal. There are lots of pickled vegetables and preserved fruit. Sauces are abundant on butter and heavy cream - to bring you through a harsh winter, of course. Salads consist of simply potato and herring, and soups of everything that last fall’s harvest brought from the ground, long cooked in pork broth. This cuisine is far from fine dining, with its peasant-like simplicity and Soviet-era frugality. And yet for most of Estonians, it is their grandma who defines a good chef in their mind. 

Those countryside summers were surely happening for the generation preceding iPhones. Things are changing rapidly now. The countryside is losing its summer residents to sedentary, technology-driven activities, and its grandmas to aging. Administrative efforts to close rural post offices, bank branches and village schools do not make it easy to sustain maa as the nation had known it. Many of the ones who stay often do so purely out of stubbornness. Cheap vegetables from Spanish greenhouses and bread from industrial factories is available in the stores all year around. You just need to move to city to get it.

And yet, for some, the connection remains.

For some of those tech people who venture out, if grandma is not waiting, there may be a neighbor from old times to still provide them with fresh honey or firewood. Maybe they have a sauna heated up for a visitor, or birch sap already in glass bottles, collected last spring. The generation who was brought up on their land, who survived the war merely thanks to the land, and who remain more connected to land than just anything else, there is something unique, something special, about this relationship. And even today, in a country that's changing, it's still lucky to have young people who know how to appreciate it.