I leave fair Viljandi behind, and head to the southeast of Estonia, where the roads –I’ve been said– are less boring, have curves and even slopes. And, indeed, it turns so; but because I always take by-roads, now I’ve ended up in a long stretch under construction near the Latvian border, which I hope Rosaura will overtake without any mishaps. I’m afraid I’ve too often temped fate along this long journey, and I’m just too lucky not having yet got a flat tyre; or perhaps tyres are much more hard-wearing than we think.
This region between Viljandi and the southeast border, mainly rural and agricultural, is scarcely populated or developed. Maybe that’s also why it’s so nice: farms and fields alternate with woods and groves in a suggestive mosaic of colours and textures; there are picturesque housings, barns and wharehouses, always wooden and often colourful; some of them look like a Western’s set.
Because of its historical circumstances and proximity to Russia (barely 50 km from here), this region is influenced by the neighbouring country. No longer is this the Nordic and advanced Estonia of near the Baltic, but a more Slavic one, still a hostage–so to say–of the Sovietic era (though I admit I can’t quite tell between Soviet and Slavic, thus probably mixing them up a bit); but Estonians seem to think differently: when I told a guy about my impression that they are in between the Nordic and Baltic cultures, he was categorical replying No, we’re basically Escandinavians. However, of course, emotions have a big say in such opinion; most of all in this side of Europe, where everybody hates Russia and don’t want to hear about them, nor being found any similarities whatsoever.
I’d have liked to stay a last night in Estonia before passing to Latvia, but most places here are just small villages; some don’t have a single shop, not even a proper street, leave aside accommodation; they’re barely a grouping of outspread houses. The last town I passed (forty or fifty kilometres back) was Antsla, and I didn’t see any lodging. I’m quite close to Letonia: at the other end (hopefully) of this road works I’m riding on now; and for sure I’m not going to find anywhere to stay this side of the border.
Saying border is –as you can see in the photo– just a way of talking; an exaggeration; because it’s actually no more than a blue sign at the edge of the road.
Alüksne is the first proper town I come to in Latvia, and here I mean to stay overnight. It is relatively big and presumedly touristic, since there are no less than six hotels or guesthouses. Besides, there are constructions all over: a few streets are being refurbished, paid –as the signs inform– with European funds. Brothers of Alüksne, welcome to capitalism and boundless consumption! Worship Growth! You can finally say goodbye to your mediocre rural lives and be amazed by the brightest side of civilization. Progress is here to transform the town, which will never again be the same, the sleepy old Alüksne: streets will be paved, old village shops will close down choked by franchises and malls, etc. In exchange for giving up your authenticity (and who cares about that, anyway?) you’ll enter the exclusive Europe Club, that gives you asphalt and infrastructure to clear the way to corporations, Commerce with capitals and–sure–also to jolly wastefulness.
But I’m a fortunate traveler: I’ve been lucky to come when Alüksne has still some charm, a strange naïveness, and that characteristic hallmark left by communist times. Along with the dreadful square blocks of flats there are the old stately mansions of stone or wood; along with the run down groceries there rise the graceful Christian churches this and that doctrine; along the dismal dirt streets run by shabby cars of Russian make, here’s a wide, looked-after French style park by the lakeshore, island and all. Everything’s Russian here: the prevailing tongue, the movie listings, the fair’s stands and carousels…
Curious note: Latvian language and its only close relative Lithuanian (both a Baltic subgroup) are the most archaic indoeuropean languages spoken nowadays.
By the way, I find some meaningful similarities between this Estonia I see now and the Poland I saw eight years ago. I wonder if they have common roots, or it’s just the result of having both been under the Soviet yoke for decades. One instance: I am in a restaurant, and neither the wifi nor the toilets work. The waiter, who has seen me try both services unsuccessfully, doesn’t even blink. She can’t care less about the customers’ happiness. People are generally not polite nor friendly in this country; and that’s what reminds me of the Poles back then: they behave as if thinking that, in commerce, customers should thank the owners and employees for giving them a chance to purchase something, instead of the latter thanking the former for spending money in their business; which in turn may be due to the long shortage of goods and stuff during the communist times, which would make providers be seen as benefactors.
But that ugly bad habit is about to change; perhaps the only possitive change –to my taste– brought by the arrival of the new god Growth. Come!–is the message; come to this shiny and luxurious world of consumption and progress, you’ll see how much fun it is! Nothing is told, of course, about stress, anxiety or depression. And a joyful Latvia answers the call with open arms and no objections at all, because that’s what they’ve been looking forward to for decades. And actually–who knows?: since they don’t value what they lose, then maybe they’re not losing anything. If you don’t know it, you can’t miss it.
And this is how, in a way, societies evolve and change along the centuries; this is how our lives pass and human history takes place, crazy, crazy and for the final advantage of nobody. A great Spanish philosopher, Miguel de Unamuno, wrote: since the dawn of humankind, every generation makes some sacrifice for the next one, but in the end of our species, all those sacrifices will have turned to the final benefit of no one at all.