On my last full day in Tallinn, I decided to visit the Estonian Open Air Museum, which is about a half hour bus ride outside the city centre. While I was interested in the collection of old Estonian farm houses that I’d heard were at the museum, a large part of my interest in going there was that it was situated basically in a forest, where it would be both green and hopefully a little cooler than the city.
After careful watching of the signs I managed to get off at the right stop – luckily you can see the museum from the bus stop, as the stop that my map told me to get off had a very different name. I bought my ticket and entered the site.
The museum is huge. Really huge. A whole bunch of traditional Estonian farmhouses and barn houses have been relocated to the museum over the past couple of decades, and it’s a fair hike to get around to see them all. You’ll be walking down one of the dirt roads, and suddenly an old wooden church, or schoolhouse, or fire station will appear. It was definitely cooler than in the city, which was a relief – I’d expected Europe to be far cooler than it actually is, even in summer.
I decided to start straight up the middle and soon came upon a farmhouse-barn complex. Inside the barn they had information about all the animals that were kept by Estonian farmers – the different breeds, their purposes and so on. For example, while Estonian farmers often kept cattle it was primarily for dairy products – they didn’t eat a lot of beef, pork being the staple meat in their diet. This is reflected in the abysmal quality of beef that you get in the Baltic states. One thing I like is that every building has a special cat door, as a cat was one of the most important animals on the farm. The sign they had with information about cats, which were referred to as the Kings of Mouse-hunters, said that ‘A farm without a cat basking in the sun on the granary stairs or mooching milk warm from the cow off the farmer’s wife was not a real farm.’ See, everyone is a sucker for a fat cat – even if these ones were expected to work.
What I found most interesting at the museum was the folk dancing and folk music. What I found more interesting was how I felt about this.
The folk dancing was beautiful – men and women as well as young boys and girls were performing traditional Estonian dances in traditional Estonian costumes.
All these different choreographed partnered dances, all with a story to tell that was expressed through the dance itself. The music, played live by old men with accordions and violins and cellos, was quite enchanting and a lot of fun.
I must have sat there for almost an hour watching and listening, and it made me feel as though there was something missing in Australian culture, in my own culture. Every country I have travelled to has a distinct cultural identity, distinct costumes and traditions handed down through generations. I feel as though I don’t have this, that I’m missing out on some fundamental understanding of who I am and where I’ve come from. That’s not to say that I don’t have family history, but I don’t feel like I have any kind of cultural heritage. Maybe that’s a typically Australian white-anglo-saxon-protestant thing, but I just had this strange feeling that something was missing. It made me feel a little sad, this feeling that maybe I’ve lost something that I never realised I didn’t have. I mean, what is Australian culture? We’re such a multicultural country and I love that, and this of course but it seems like we lack any of our own traditions or folk stories or music – and in an attempt to pretend there is something there, people want to change our national anthem to one about a dude who steals a sheep and then drowns in a billabong…how romantic…How do we define Australian identity? What is quintessentially Australian – and I don’t mean politically weighted terms like ‘mateship’, or patriotic morons running around wearing our national flag as a cape [that’s just embarassing]. Understandably, with such a short history [in terms of modern Australia, our wonderful British colony] it’s hard to build a coherent and artistically expressed national identity. Yet there must have been traditions brought over during the colonial period, by the convicts and free settlers, and later by prospecters during the gold rush and other migrants. As these faded, did nothing replace them? How long did it take for people living in Australia to identify themselves as Australians rather than citizens of their places of origin? What did that mean?
I don’t think I’d ever really thought about it before, but maybe I have a yearning for some kind of tradition, some kind of cultural heritage that is creatively expressed. Maybe if I’d ever had a slight interest in Australian history, I’d be able to answer some of my questions, and I’d be able to figure out if I was, in fact, missing something – although perhaps my disinterest in Australian history has something to do with our lack of culture. Maybe the problem is that Australia is too thoroughly modern to care about something as insignificant as folk dances and music – but wouldn’t it be nice if we had something that we could call our own?
Perhaps that’s the reason that I’m so interested in the cultures and traditions in other countries – because I feel like I lack any of my own. Maybe I’m simply drawn to what I might be missing. But am I really missing anything?
I don’t know that I’d really want to be dressed up in a funny costume dancing at a museum, even if it would keep me fit.