Midsummer in Estonia: of Ferns and Fires

The bonfire gets going at sunset... around 11:00 pm
The bonfire gets going at sunset… around 11:00 pm

A while ago, I decided to go for a week-long vacation to Estonia.  Estonia, as you may know, is a lovely little patch of national sovereignty in the upper-right-hand corner of Europe, a place that has traditionally been referred to as either “Germany” or “Russia,” depending on the prevailing Eastern European political climate.

All of that ended in 1991, though, when the wily Estonians took advantage of Germany’s new-found pacifism and Russia’s new-found impotence to cobble together their very own ship of state and sail merrily into the community of nations.  And, a brand-new nation of 1.4 million souls was born, like Greater Milwaukee with a seat in the UN General Assembly.

My motivation for wanting to visit Estonia were complex — I was intrigued by the cultural richness of a place that has been a crossroads of trade and warfare of northern Europe, and I had heard that there were a lot of gorgeous blonde women there.  Now, living in the Netherlands, I am no stranger to blonde women.  But, because of the surprising nutritive value of a diet rich in herring and aged cheese, the average Dutch woman stands a good six inches taller than me.  It’s hard to overstate the psychological impact of interacting with women who tower over you like your fifth-grade teacher — you walk over to them intending to chat them up, but when you get there, you feel an overwhelming urge to make up a lie about why you haven’t finished your homework.  I was hoping that the infamous herring-and-cheese shortage of the last decades of the Soviet Union had made Estonia’s blondes a more manageable size.

Like any responsible traveler, I made careful preparations.  I bought a new backpack and started reading up on the culture and history of the country.  I learned, much to my delight, that my visit would coincide with the midsummer’s eve festival on 23 June.  According to the Rough Guide to the Baltic States, while this festival now bears the Christian moniker “St. John’s Day,” it is an “unashamedly pagan affair” involving “large quantities of alcohol” and “a bonfire.”  It also apparently involves couples going off into the forest, nominally to search for some magical fern, but actually to engage in activities more directly related to the festival’s origin as a celebration of fertility.  The medieval equivalent of a drive-in movie — what’s not to like?  I hoped the blondes would be interested.

In the event, it turned out that the country is indeed filled with ravishing blonde women whose sole failing is that none of them want to go fern-hunting with me.  Not one to be deterred by rejection, however, I still had a lovely time in what I affectionately think of as the third-largest country in the Baltics.

And being that far north in midsummer is, indeed, an interesting experience.  The sun does set, kind of, but it never really gets dark.  The sky turns  a deep blue for about three hours, and then the sun rises at around 3:30.  By 4:15, it’s as bright as midday and your body is telling you its time to go for coffee — four hours before any cafes are open.

On midsummer’s eve proper, I was in Parnu, the city that used to be the summer playground for St. Petersburg.  You wouldn’t have to have much of a beach to be the summer playground for northern Russia, but Parnu was actually a cute, if quiet, seaside resort with a fairly nice beach.   On midsummer’s eve, they lit their bonfire around 11:00, when the sun finally started to move down towards the horizon, and the drinking seemed to begin in earnest.  The tradition is to stay up until the sun rises again on the other side of the bay, though I must confess that I in fact went searching for the mythical fern of sleep in my hotel room, hoping to take advantage of the few brief hours of darkness…