We were sitting on the rocks by the Baltic Sea, laughing hysterically.
“It was like a scene out of a sitcom!” I gasped between laughing fits, “Who does something like this in real life?”
Victor buried his head in his hands, “I don’t know! I don’t know what I was thinking! I thought it would be over in just a few minutes and I would slip away, I didn’t know that…”
He couldn’t finish the sentence, as we both started convulsing with laughter.
That morning we decided to visit the Estonian Open-Air Museum near Tallinn by the Baltic Sea, a giant park where many old buildings such as farms, churches, taverns, schoolhouses, and mills were relocated and reconstructed, creating a life-sized reconstruction of Estonian rural life in the 18th and 19th centuries. In the very first farmyard, we came across a colorful crowd of adults and children in various traditional dresses, dancing, singing, and playing instrumental music. It was a dance performance by Folklore Society Leigarid but felt like we accidentally walked into a crowded village celebration from a hundred years ago and were able to witness all the village dances, songs, and games.
After enjoying the performance, we kept walking to find that there are a dozen farmyards spread across the park, with houses, sheds, animal barns, food storage cellars, accessorized with live animals, flourishing gardens, and “hostesses”, women dressed up in garb from the historical time they represented. In one yard, we saw the hostess tending to the garden, in the other, chatting to other tourists.
We wandered around, poking inside every house, admiring furniture, linens, kitchen utensils, all the little details that really made it seem like places were still occupied and heavily used. There was one Russian farmyard with exterior and interior of houses so closely resembling my grandparent’s house in the Ukrainian village of Shchors, that I had to sit down on a wooden bench and compose myself. Upon entering the house with creaky wooden board floors, white linens, dark oak furniture, and a giant traditional masonry stove in the middle of the structure, I was instantly transported to my childhood when I spent every summer in a house just like this one.
It was already late afternoon when we entered one of the larger farmyards, a homestead from the island of Saaremaa. We strolled through the large yard and garden and Victor lingered by the flower bed, closely inspecting early summer blooms, while I headed towards the house. The hostess, an older woman in a long grey dress, a white apron, and a lacy bonnet, ran up to Victor and immediately launched into a conversation with him… in Estonian. Now Victor does have that light complexion of a typical Estonian, which may be why she didn’t bother with introductions, but what Victor doesn’t have is any knowledge of the Estonian language. He speaks English, Russian, Belarusian, and Spanish, and has a good handle of Ukrainian and Polish, but Estonian is a Finnic language, quite a bit different from Slavic and European languages.
I watched the hostess cheerfully ramble on and waited for Victor to interrupt and let her know that he doesn’t speak any Estonian. Instead, I saw him hide his initial confusion, and look straight at the hostess… and then, smile and nod. Encouraged, she went on and on, pointing at various items in the yard, while Victor made attentive facial expressions, nodded, and loudly “uh-hummed”.
The secondhand embarrassment of what was happening right in front of my eyes was too much to bear, so I decided to flee inside the house. As I was inspecting living room furniture, the door opened, and Victor hurriedly walked in and stood right next to me. (If you ask him directly, he will tell you that he casually strolled in, completely unconcerned with any of the prior happenings. If you ask me, he rammed the door and ran in, his eyes silently pleading with me to stop the foreign language assault.) The hostess followed him closely behind, still speaking Estonian.
This farce needed to end immediately and clearly, I was the only one willing to do it.
“Excuse me,” I said, “I don’t speak Estonian. English or Russian?”
“Russkij!” She said cheerfully and instantly switched into broken, but understandable Russian.
Victor audibly exhaled in relief. I could barely contain my laughter at the whole ridiculousness of the situation. The hostess went on without noticing anything. She walked us through the entire house, describing the use of every item and tool, and explained the history of the house, the village, and Saaremaa Island. The tour lasted around 45 minutes and was fascinating. We learned how the life of the inhabitants changed not only with each season but with each year, as technological progress reached even the remote rural parts of Estonia.
“I was born in the house just like this one,” said our hostess, “on Saaremaa Island. We no longer have wooden houses like this one. I am very old, 70 this year. All my life I wished I could come to work here, to represent my island and our way of life. But I spend my life being a teacher and now that I am retired, I can finally live my dream.”
It was hard not to get a little emotional listening to her passionate enthusiasm and love for her country.
“And you?” she asked, “Where are you from?”
“Chicago, USA.” I said, “We speak Russian because I was born in Ukraine and Victor in Belarus.”
“And how long have you been in Estonia?”
“Oh, just a few days. It’s our first visit. We love it here!”
“But…” she pointed at Victor, “He speaks Estonian.”
The birds were no longer chirping outside, other tourists weren’t shuffling around the house, and neither Victor nor I were breathing.
“He… doesn’t…” I said after an impossibly long pause.
“He does! We were talking earlier!” she exclaimed, turned to Victor, and started saying something in Estonian that sounded like a question.
There were a lot of things Victor could have done at that moment. He could have explained that this was a misunderstanding, he could have claimed to know a tiny bit of Estonian, but not enough to converse, or he could have simply run away. But what he did, was look this woman straight in the eye… smile… and confidently nod.
She turned back to me, beaming, “He does speak Estonian!”
If I was a spy with cyanide in a fake tooth, this story would have ended with me taking my life right there, just so I didn’t have to live through the embarrassment of the next few minutes.
I pushed down hysterical laughter bubbling up in the back of my throat and gathered my thoughts.
“He speaks Russian and Ukrainian and Belarusian and Polish. He THOUGHT…” I threw Victor an exasperated glance, “that with all that, he could understand a bit of Estonian as well, but was quickly proven wrong.”
I could see Victor furiously nodding at my side.
The hostess seemed perplexed by this insane story but thankfully decided not to pursue it any further.
We thanked her profusely for her time and ran off towards the Baltic Sea shore, holding in laughter until we were clear of her homestead.
“I really thought that she would only talk for a minute or two and I just didn’t want to interrupt her…” Victor explained after we calmed down.
“What would you have done if I wasn’t there to ask her to switch languages?”
Victor shrugged, “I probably would have just figured out Estonian…”