A Good Day To Get Out Of Town
Sun shining strong and unhampered. With the ferries arriving from Sweden and Finland by the hour rather than by the day, as they did when the country was part of the USSR, the picturesque streets are filling up and all seats are taken at the cafés that surround the wide, traffic-free, and now totally wi-fi Raekoja Plats (Town Hall Square).
A good day to get out of town. We turn north, off the main road to Russia, and wind through gentle coastal scenery to a small village called Viinistu. The sea takes the edge off the heat of the day, and having passed a cluster of weatherboarded houses with flowers spilling over their wooden fences we come across a sight that brings us up with a jolt. In a wide concrete yard, running down to a small harbour, is a collection of suitcases, all apparently identical and all, like the yard itself, made of concrete.
They’re part of an art collection gathered together by Jaan Manitski, a man of exactly my own age, trim, bespectacled and crisply turned out in chinos and an open-necked shirt. For him the concrete suitcases mean a great deal. In 1944 the occupying Germans retreated from Estonia and the Soviet army began to move in.
‘Many, many Estonians left,’ explains Manitski, and he gestures out to sea.
‘From this coastline here many small fishing boats left to Finland or Sweden and most people could only bring with them a suitcase, and when the small boat was crowded they even had to leave that on the shore here.’
Jaan’s family, who had lived in Viinistu for as long as any of them could remember, was among those who went into exile. His travels led him eventually to Sweden, where he prospered, becoming business manger for Sweden’s best-known export, Abba. He was successful and respected but one thing was missing.
‘Even if I lived abroad in different countries for forty, fifty years, I was still in my heart an Estonian.’
In 1989, just before Gorbachev’s reforms sent the old Soviet system into meltdown, he came back to his homeland and to Viinistu. He tried his hand at various things that took his fancy, including growing mushrooms, before being persuaded to take a more serious role, spearheading his newly independent country’s transition to a free-market economy. He was even prevailed upon to take the job of Foreign Minister, an office he vacated after a year, causing extreme bureaucratic consternation by not bothering to claim his last month’s salary. Since then he has concentrated his energy and abilities on his birthplace, buying up a defunct local fish-processing plant and transforming Viinistu into one of the most vital and lively art centres in the Baltics. The fish factory has been sympathetically transformed into galleries, restaurants, a conference centre, an auditorium and a hotel. As we speak, diggers are at work constructing a wall for a new marina.
We walk down to the water, clambering over a rocky beach. Jaan wants to show me what they call here the Baby Stone. It’s a huge, black, seaweed-stained rock which, according to local tradition, is where babies come from, Viinistu’s equivalent of the stork. During the years of Soviet occupation the coastline was off-limits to bathers and fishermen alike, a sealed-off military area with wire fences and searchlights.
Since the Soviets left and access to the rock has been restored, there has, Jaan says, been a baby boom.
He claims personal experience.
‘I went there to check the Stone a number of years ago and we have a small boy of five, and then I went there once again and there’s now one of two years old. So…’ the sixty-two-year-old grins a little sheepishly, ‘it works.’
He talks about the craziness of the old Soviet economy. ‘A big shoe-making factory in Tallinn produced left-foot shoes… the right-foot shoes were made in Irkutsk.’ He has his own ideas as to why Estonia has recovered so well and made such progress, citing a young government, with a Prime Minister in his early thirties, and the fact that it’s much easier to make big changes in a small country.
‘We started from scratch or even minus… but the keystone to start up a new society and a new life in this country was a successful privatisation. And this,’ he gestures around him, ‘is an illustration of that process.’
The noise from the building work at the harbour becomes so loud that he sends someone to ask the workers to stop. I can’t help noticing that the only language they seem to understand is Russian. It’s beginning to look as if hi-tech-loving Estonians don’t do the manual labour any more.
I have an afternoon appointment with the doctor. I’m quite unusually anxious, not because of what they might find out, but of their method of examination, for this particular clinic specialises in something called hirudotherapy. To the uninitiated, leech treatment.
Leeches have had a generally bad press and a quick look at the dictionary doesn’t help.
‘A blood-sucking annelid worm. To cling to like a leech. To drain.’
I’ve been warned about their unwelcome attentions for walkers in the tropics and how they have to be burnt off the skin with cigarette butts. So why am I offering my aged body to them in a remote corner of the Baltics?
Well I guess we all want to feel better, especially after months on the road, and I’m a sucker (excuse the pun) for any form of revitalisation.
‘What do you want me to take off?’
‘Small striptease,’ orders Lyudmilla Agajeva, one of the clinic’s most experienced hirudotherapists, in heavily accented Russian.
Ms Agajeva must be in her fifties, buxom in a generous, motherly way. As far as she is concerned, leeches are it. They are an ancient and proven way of treating impotence, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, hangovers and the problems of overdoing it generally. She smiles reassuringly as I lie on her consulting couch. Hers are the very best leeches. They’ve come all the way from St Petersburg.
She extracts three of them from a bottle and lays them on my right-hand side, just below my ribcage. One keeps slithering off but the other two waste no time digging themselves in with what I’m told are 300 teeth, arranged around a three-jawed mouth.
Ms Agajeva is not happy.
‘One is lazy,’ she says, disapprovingly.
‘Maybe it’s a teetotaller.’
The other two have now punctured the skin and are tucking into my blood. The sensation is not painful, but it is uncomfortable, like a low-level electric shock or a nettle sting.
It will not last long, I’m promised, though I can still feel sharp discomfort after fifteen minutes. This is the leeches putting in anti-coagulant so they can do their work, checking out your blood, removing what’s bad and replacing it with what’s good. Selfless little buggers.
Every time I look down the leeches are getting bigger. They’ve only been at it twenty minutes and already they’ve swollen to twice their size. They lie there, black and glistening, like satisfied slugs. Ms Agajeva nods approvingly. They like me.
Alarmingly, I sense a trickle of moisture spilling down my right flank from the direction of the wounds. I’m assured that this isn’t my blood, it’s the leeches sweating. So not only are these three little workers cleaning out my bloodstream, they’re perspiring with the effort. I begin to feel absurdly grateful to them and when, after fifty minutes, the time comes to pull them off me I feel we’ve bonded, become friends, shared something very intimate. But no time for sentiment. Having done their work they are unceremoniously disposed of in a solution of caustic soda, never to suck again. Leeches used to be reused, but not in these days of HIV-Aids.
Lyudmilla (I feel I can call her that now) dresses my wounds with a thick long pad and lots of plaster. During the ‘procedure’ as she calls it, around 25 millilitres of blood will have been removed, but after the procedure as much as 200 or 300 millilitres could leak out. I’m to take it easy, avoid alcohol and not take the dressing off until tomorrow morning.
Back in Tallinn the rush of relief at having completed the leeching and a light-headedness from the effects demand some kind of recognition, and I end up celebrating with more than a glass of wine or two in the excellent restaurant of the Hotel St Petersburg.