Sex, Drugs, and Public Health

October 13, 2013

Estonia: In the King’s Court

Filed under: Uncategorized — cbmosher @ 4:43 am

 This post to Sex, Drugs and Public Health documents a recent trip to Estonia


In 1290, the Teutonic Knights grabbed a trading port on the Baltic which would someday become the capital of Estonia.  They pushed inland to force their influence (i.e. religion) upon the people of that land who lived in harmony with the forests.

At the same time, Czarist Russia pushed across its border with eastern Livonia – the early name for Estonia – and exerted its influence (i.e. religion) upon the people who lived in harmony with the forests.

Today, we drive deeper yet into rural Estonia.  Gone is digitally driven, high rise Tallinn.  Behind us the resort town of Pärnu and the university city of Tartu.  We go even beyond the small town of Tiina’s birth, picturesque Võvu, situated on a couple of small lakes, surrounded by farms.

We head straight toward the Russian border.  Dense forests, wildflower covered fields, occasional farmhouses.

We have an appointment with a King.

“It says here,” someone reads from a reference book, “that the Seto speak a different variation of Estonian, dress differently, and arrange their homes in clusters, not widely separated as all other Estonians do.  They’ve lived in Setomaa – the land of Setos – for millennia.  Part of Setomaa is in Russia, the rest in Estonia.  This causes problems for them.”

A very familiar problem:  Kurds, Iroquois, the Aché, the Basques.

The road leads us past a church, very old, deteriorating, but still spectacular.  Onion-dome cupolas with Orthodox crosses atop, walls and doors of wood as weathered as the bark of near-by trees that umbrella over the church roof.  Two barefoot children sit quietly on a bench in front of the church waiting for something.

We stop.  Our cameras click.  The children ignore us.


We come to the village of Muraski, a mere five kilometers or so from the Russian border, and drive beyond, into yet more of the patchwork landscape of wildflower fields and dense forests. We turn onto a gravel road and eventually pull into a driveway.  The house is of wood planks. “Simple” would be an understatement.

I was prepared to meet an uneducated grizzled old guy draped in traditional patterned wool receiving us with stoic seriousness from his throne, perhaps wearing leather boots elaborately bedecked with antique Russian coins.

A man comes to greet us, wearing a polo shirt, shorts and flip flops.

“This is the Űlemsootska,” we are introduced by our family guide, Iivi.  “The King of the Seto.”

What do I do?  Bow?  Kiss his ring?  (oops, no rings.)  Address him by his title? Just rely on Iivi’s translations?

“How do you do?” he asks in English, shaking my hand.  “Thank you for visit to my home.”

He leads us into his backyard.  Deep green grass is bordered by his house, a very old log constructed shed whose slowly collapsing roof line undulates like ocean waves, a shed stuffed with carefully stacked birch firewood, the outhouse, a garden plot of large multicolored flowers, a pond, and – of course – the sauna. A bicycle, re-purposed as a flower pot, draws my attention, and a smile. An apple tree sheds fruit with audible “thumps” all during our one hour stay.


He leads us to a mosquito netted gazebo like the kind that you buy at WalMart, and polishes a half dozen wine glasses.  He pours cava.  We all wait.  He says nothing.

“To the King!” I offer.

“The King!” our party echoes.

He smiles.

“I am not King,” he begins, still standing, regally erect.  His face is handsomely muscular.  His white hair is short.  His arm muscles and leg muscles are those of a 30 year old.  In spite of his informal dress, he exudes class.  With a soft yet clear voice, he slowly parts the embroidered curtain of his people.

“I am Regent of zee King,” he trills the “R.”  “Zee king of Seto is, in zee monastery, sleeping.  Űlemsootska means zee one who brings message.  King in monastery sends message to me – I speak for King to my people.”

Just like the Aché head man’s job description, I think, minus the Russian monastery.

“Long ago,” his ‘g’ sounds accentuate, “zee Germans take Estonia.  Zhey make us change to zheir ways, to Lut-eran church.  Here…” he smiles easily and sweeps the green fields, nesting storks, abundant lakes and fertile forests surrounding his home, “Seto people are practicing Orto-dox church.  From Russia.  Ve don’t vant to change.  So ve live separate since zhat time, here in Souse Estonia.  Zis is how it is.

“Is my chob, Regent for Seto King, to tell vorld about us and, in Tallinn, to be certain parliament tink about Seto in zheir laws.”

“How do you become King – I mean, Regent?” I ask.

He smiles broadly and tips his glass toward us, sips, then continues.

“In zee old days, was honor to be King – but also dangerous.  You are King for one year.  Zhen,” he grins toward me, “Vhat happens?”

A pause.  A shrug.

He slowly draws his finger metaphorically across his throat.

“Zey cut off, from zee King, his head.  But ve Seto are only twelve zhousand of us.  So ve are too few.  Ve change and now zee King keeps his head.”

“It’s good to be King,” I quip before I can send a message to my mouth to not open.  “Please, sit.  Is this your throne?” I point to a canvas recliner he’s set up among the plastic yard chairs.

He laughs.  “No.  Not trone.  You may sit.  I have trone, but not here.”

Some of our party sits to sip the wine.  But I decide to remain standing as long as he is.

He sets down his wine glass softly, picks up a small ceramic flask and his eyes sweep us.

“You have, none of you, visa to visit  Setomaa.”

End a word with “maa” which means “land” and you are describing a specific place.  Separate and distinct from the other “maas” in Estonia.

“So I fix for you.  Zhis is hancha – is vodka ve make at home.  Very good.  Very good.  I offer, you trink, zhen you have visa.”


With pride he pours a bit into a very small cup, preparing to give it to someone.

“You must trink, each one, around zee room in ziss direction” – he indicates a clock-wise progression – chust as zee sun, through the sky, moves.”

That puts me first up.  I picture home distilling in Appalachia.  I recall moonshine blindness from contaminated booze.  I call upon faith to be my guide in this.  Faith in people.  Not all people, but, I decide, faith in this man.  It feels like a good decision.

It tastes like clear, clean, fire.  I take it in little sips to avoid choking in front of the King. I finish it, and he pours the next cupful.

The hancha makes its ceremonial round, and only one of our party decides to chug the entire shot.  She pays the price in doubled-over gagging and wheezing.

“Now,” he holds the empty shot cup in one hand and flask of hancha in the other,” King may not take unless one of you – wiz your new visas – you offer it to zee King.  You say ‘No.  You trink first’.”

Oh.  Oh.  I think.  We were supposed to do that initially, from respect, maybe?

He slowly pours hancha into the little ceramic shot cup, fixes my eyes with his, and extends it to me.

“For you,” he says.

I take it.

“Please,” I say, handing it back, “you drink first.”

He smiles broadly.  He drinks.  Finally, he sits.

“Questions for me, you half?”


“Do they pay you to be King?”

He laughs.  “Is expensive to be King.  I must, all zee time be travelling.  To Tallinn.  To graduation of Seto children in Tartu.  Soon – zhis afternoon – I must go Helsinki.  Zhree hundred Euros a year zhey pay me.  Zhat is gone wiz two trips to Tallinn.”

“How do the Seto people choose a King?”

“Ah!” he animates even more on this topic.  He stands up.  “Choosing Seto King is most democratic process in vorld.  Vonce a year, early August, ve have big festival.  If you vant be King, you stand up on top of box.  Other person who vants be King, also stands.  Zhen all the Seto people line up in front of you.  Person viz longest line is King.

Transparent voting I think.  That’ll test friendships.

“Of course, sometimes,” he continues, “zhere are problems.  Sometimes person stands one line while ve count, zhen jumps into other line, for other – how you say? – candidate.”

“We have that in America,” I blurt, thinking of Chicago.

“Why do you want to be King?” someone asks.  “It sounds difficult.”

He sits, and smiles pensively.

“When I am young, I leave Setomaa.  I verk in marine.  Sail the vorld.  But now I am fifty.  Vhen you reach fifty, you need more zhan money.  Zhis place is my grandfather’s place.  I come back.  It feels like home.”

Two more ripe apples drop with a thud.  I look again at the flowers, the green fields, the bike.  Rural peace envelopes us.


“Zee vorld is rounded,” he expands his thoughts.  “If you start from here –” he points his finger to the earth beneath our feet – “you must come back here.”

“If you must get out the word to your people, but there are 12,000 of them all over the world, how do you do that?”

A fly buzzes my ear.  I swat angrily at it.  Flies have been everywhere in rural Estonia and very obnoxious.  I need a fly swatter but no tool so advanced is in sight.

“Ah,” the King slides easily into his answer.  “I use Facebook, of course.”

He stands and reiterates his need to begin his journey to Helsinki.

“You must go to Obinitsa on your way home.  It is capital of Setomaa.  Zhere is restaurant – very good restaurant.  Zhere you get good Seto food.”

And he ducks his handsome white haired head out of the gazebo to go down to his sauna by the pond.  The raw wood shack by the pond.  To clean up for his royal trip.


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