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Eesti Buroo Correspondent Mahaffy

A Letter from Estonia

Karen Mahaffy is a San Antonio artist, an instructor at Palo Alto College, and the recipient (twice, mind you!), of a Fulbright travel grant.

â?¦Y'all ever heard of this place, “Estonia”? I barely had, but that's where Karen is now. Whilst there, Karen is having some amazing thoughts, making some very keen observations, and taking some gorgeous photos, which I have her permission to share.

She's a terrific writer in addition to being an amazing artist. Here are the first two “chapters” in a new era of CurBlog guest-blogdom, the “Eesti Buroo Correspondent Mahaffy.” All photos are by Karen, except where noted.

CurBlog's going to have several posts by Karen, so if you have any questions or remarks about Estonia/Karen/the Fulbright/etc, be sure to comment on this post!

--Sarah Fisch


In late spring of 2007, I sat at my desk daydreaming of escape from my routine; a familiar feeling of wanderlust creeping up. So, mostly as a measure of escape in itself, I began researching ways to make some extended travel an affordable reality. Eventually, I realized that I was eligible once again to apply for a Fulbright program - I had participated in a Fulbright-Hays Group travel to China in 2004 - and immediately and for the next two months poured over the awards list for the Fulbright Scholars Grant 2008-09 academic year. (This list can be searched by area/country or by discipline; some grants are discipline specific and others are open.) While perusing the list for awards in the Arts, I landed on one for lecture/research in Estonia and subsequently applied.

I have had a lot of people ask me why I chose Estonia (of all places)â?¦ my best and shortest answer is, “Why not?” A longer answer is that the more I researched Estonia — including first locating it on the map which I found having to do very intriguing - the more I realized I knew next to nothing about this part of the world in spite of its incredible history and recent emergence onto the global stageâ?¦the more I realized that this where I needed to come.

Some background:

Estonia is a country of about 1.3 million people and is, according to the CIA World Factbook, slightly smaller than New Hampshire and Vermont combined. It is also comparable in size to Denmark but with one quarter the population. It is said that you can drive from one side to the other in 4-5 hours, without rushing mind you, but it is also said that, “it is much larger on the inside”. In its tiny acreage, Estonia offers landscapes as varied as primordial forests, bog lands and coastal bluffs, all of which I hope to see. Coming here from one of the largest states in the US, I am interested how this intimate national scale could inform a sense of personal space or affect one's worldview.

Geographically considered Eastern Europe, the Republic of Estonia (Essti Vabariik), along with its Baltic cousins, Latvia and Lithuania, sits between Europe, Scandinavia and Russia. And although influences from each of these cultures are evident, Estonia holds a distinct cultural identity.

Evidence of human inhabitants in Estonia date back over 10,000 years to early fishing and hunting tribes, which appeared just after the Ice Age. It is thought that the name Estonia (Eesti) was derived from the description of the Aesti people by the Roman historian Tacitus in his text Germania written ca. 98 CE. Estonia has been ruled or occupied by other cultures since the 13th century (including Denmark, Sweden, Teutonic and Nazi Germany and Tsarist and Soviet Russia) until the reestablishment of its independence in August 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet regime. Its initial, but short-lived, independence was declared between the World Wars - following the Estonian War of Independence - on February 24, 1918. This date is still celebrated as the national Independence Day. This period of National Enlightenment and cultural reawakening was soon squelched, with the signing of a non-aggression treaty between Germany and Russia (the Molotov—Ribbentrop Pact of 1938) which saw to redivide the “properties” which lay between the two major powers. The years following resulted in occupations by both powers and the forcible annexation of Estonia into the USSR, which was never legally recognized by the international community.

Despite its tumultuous history, Estonia has reemerged into its independent Republic state intact as a unique and nuanced culture. It has not only maintained and renewed its own customs, styles and mythologies but its own language. Estonian (eesti keel) which is one of the Finno-Urgic languages, is most closely related to Finnish. I have picked up a few polite phrases but do not have much of an opportunity to use them as a large portion of the population of Tallinn (the capital and largest city) also speak English.

Through this travel blog over the next four months, I am hoping to share cultural information as well as an intimate experience of my time in Estonia and surrounding regions. I hope you enjoy.


I have been here in Tallinn, Estonia for one month now and I suppose that it is high time that I begin to convey my experience so far into the best words I can muster. I can sense already that some of what I am about to write in this initial entry is going to read as negative but please bear with meâ?¦it's not.

I would like to start by confirming that the experience of being alone in a foreign place can be just thatâ?¦lonely and foreign. But let me follow immediately by stating that I think it's unfortunate that both these words can conjure a negative reaction. Although, a sense of both isolation and the unfamiliar can be very acute, I would hope for nothing less. An experience consisting only of warm cafes and accommodating people would not be much to write about and would probably just mean that I had not been here long enough for the shine to disappear from that penny (or kroon as the case may be).

Tallinn, the capital city of Estonia, is an amazingly lovely place and its intact sense of history and importance could be lost on no one. I have spent hours wandering quietly, contentedly, along the streets of the Old Town and ventured well past the city walls. (More on walking laterâ?¦) Inside the unavoidable process of witnessing the touristic aspects of the monumental (thank you Boris Groys) in a historic city such as this, I see and continually seek the minor and fleeting aspects of it; the unpreserved and relatively temporary places which are simply the accumulation of necessity. These are by far my favorite brand of place.

I find myself here, for the first time in 15 plus years, without community (and anyone from San Antonio knows what kind of community I am used to). I have very little contact with anyone in my immediate context - aside from the occasional invitation from a colleague or the infrequent administrative email or meeting which are slow in coming and have produced little to date in the way of lectures or meaningful conversation. So, while waiting for the slow churn that is my Estonia, so far, I am left to my own devicesâ?¦ I have chosen to take this purely as an unexpected gift and an opportunity to search for unforeseen reasons for being here.

I have frankly never felt more afloat and without obligation (other than my own internal Midwestern need to be purposeful). And, although this is unsettling for me to experience for a period longer than expected, it has had a beauty and wonder and even a listlessness I can only relate (in my adult life) to childhood - with time to sit and stare at nothing in particular, listen to the church bells chime and even begin to dare to be bored.

(above photo courtesy Michele Monseau)

It has been difficult to communicate these distinct feelings to friends and family with the sense of wonderment which I think they deserve without words of consolation or advice returning to me through whatever cyber connection we are on. (But that's what loved ones do for you, thank goodness!) But, rather than wanting to “solve” the situation, I want to embrace all aspects of the experience before it comes to an abrupt end or slips away into some vague recollection of my first weeks here.

I have now been here long enough that my situation is known, my immediate environment explored, the city mentally mapped and resources discovered to a degree of comfort. I am ,of course, nowhere near finished with any of this but the newness has passed and has become daily life. I find myself now in a transition from tourist to residentâ?¦

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