AS I rolled off the ferry in the back of a rented people carrier onto the tiny island of Muhu, I was reminded of Caithness.
Today as the fog rolled around the house and closed down the view and opened the imagination, I recalled Muhu.
"Muhu," our guide Maarika explained, "is the island where time rests." I let the words roll around in my brain as I wonder what exactly that means. It might refer to a more leisurely way of life or a nostalgic look at village values or a part of Estonia where the influences of freedom and the west have not reached. It means, I came to believe in my brief visit, all of those.
Muhu reminded me of Caithness in three ways. First, when Maarika said that all too often people drove through Muhu without stopping on their way to the more famous, larger island of Saarema, I thought of all the times I had heard folks complain about visitors who lingered perhaps for a night here on their way to Orkney.
Secondly, both Muhu and Caithness have a handful of dedicated people committed to preserving and sharing the treasures of Caithness. The last connection was the most compelling personally, though hardly as profound as the others. Fish soup.
As a child of the prairies, fresh fish is a treat still associated first in my mind with exotic holidays. In an Indiana childhood, fish was all too often the deep fried, breaded squares dished out on Fridays at the school cafeteria. I think those squares are the American equivalent of fish fingers, but I am not curious enough to try tasting them.
ON my first trip to the island of Cayman, when I sat down to a fish dinner, my brother leaned over to assure me that "this is not like the fish in the school cafeteria". Nor is Cullen skink anything akin to the tins of Manhattan clam chowder that I sometimes ate when all the other tins were gone. So when I first tasted Cullen skink on my first visit here I logged Caithness into the database of holiday places where fish could be enjoyed.
Muhu joined the ranks of those fond associations with the fish soup whose name I cannot pronounce based on a Russian recipe in a café named aptly, Fish Café, or, in Estonian, Kalakohvik. The welcome was as warm as the food. The cook and the hostess had no English whatsoever, so we were limited in the information we could get about the rather odd décor or ingredients of the soup. I picked up a postcard featuring the soup on its front but the back offers little information – a web site, a geographic location for Muhu Kalakohvik.
Muhu is noted among textile admirers for its embroidery. We saw samples of that in the craft shop and went to the local school to see how it is integrated into the curriculum – much as knitting used to be in this country. We were shown samples of the things the students learn – smaller, simpler pieces for the younger ones; larger pieces for middling children; entire slippers decorated by the older students.
Fortunately we were given a small piece of fabric with the outline marked for us, the kind of work done by 10-year-olds. Some of the six of us were quite adept and finish with lovely souvenirs of our visit. I enjoyed my time, but prove once again that I am not as smart as a 10-year-old. The senior students completed a piece of embroidery that has pride of place in the centre of the school.
MUHU Museum is a treasure trove of old farm implements and vestiges of old traditions. It also holds a stunning collection of knitted gloves and mittens.
A bride was supposed to have completed 100 pairs of gloves before she could start her own household. Some of the gloves were thicker and coarser for working, but the "going out gloves" were knit in elaborate patterns with single-ply wool. The close knit meant that not only would the pattern be shown to good effect but also that the gloves would be less likely to wear through.
The Muhu Museum is also the site of the statue of an author whose life and reputation typifies the delicate balance life in Estonia has always required.
Juhan Smuul was head of the Estonian writers’ guild and also a well-recognised member of the Communist Party. When the republic was reborn in 1991, his statue was toppled along with those of Lenin and other symbols of the deposed regime. It was reclaimed and relocated from ignominy in Tallinn to Muhu.
A gull, symbolizing Smuul’s love of nature, had been cut off the shoulder, and a finger cut from the hand. The finger was replaced by one from a statue of Lenin.
His books are not available in the local bookstore or through Amazon, but he is honoured at home and perhaps, in time, in the village of Koguva, which treasures its charter of freedom from the 16th century, his books will once again be available.
Thanks to Archnet and its partner, Leonarda Da Vinci, I had an opportunity to see first-hand along with my travelling companions how a little island balances remembering and forgetting, holding on and letting go, which is what heritage is all about.