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Eestikeelsed artiklid

EDITORIAL

EPIFANIO RECOMMENDS

CULT MOVIES AND ME
Benedict Chapman

INTERVIEW WITH HELGA NÕU
August Künnapu

THE FAKE HORSE
Helga Nõu

INTERVIEW WITH FREDRIK LAVIK, A SPECIALIST IN EAST AFRICAN MUSIC
Martin Jõela

8 QUESTIONS TO MR JOHN PETER ASKEW
Harry Pye

SPATIAL POETRY IN 2019
Vilem Künnapu

PANHUMANISM MANIFESTO
Alexey Levchuk

PAINTINGS OF ANU MUISTE

TEAM

THE FAKE HORSE

Estonia recently chose wolf as its national animal – I was quite startled. What do we have in common with a wolf? Do we want to kill or just frighten somebody? I would of course have chosen the hedgehog, a peaceful but shrewd animal, who gave good advice to our national hero Kalevipoeg. My father told me about it.

Helga Nõu. The Lost Home

Helga Nõu. The Lost Home.
Oil on canvas, 1989

However, had I chosen an animal in my childhood, it would have been the horse. A horse was a good animal, helped to plough the land and pull a cart. And what’s more... It was a language horse! My mother told me that once upon a time a world language contest was announced: what is the most beautiful language in the world? Each nation selected the prettiest sentence and sent it off to the competition. The Estonian “valge hobu sõitis tasa üle silla” (a white horse went quietly across the bridge) came second, and the Italian got the main award. I was happy with the second place too. The white horse stuck in my mind even when it was not crossing a bridge, but was instead munching sweetly smelling hay. My first drawing that I remember was of a horse and sledge. I liked the Estonian language. I could not have imagined in a million years that a time would come when I was unable to speak Estonian with my descendants, as they do not speak it. They can certainly surf on their fucking smartphones!

August Künnapu. At Raua Street

August Künnapu. At Raua Street (Helga with Her Father).
Acrylic on canvas, 2008

When did it all go wrong? I have to start with the first generation, that of my parents. My father and my mother were one hundred percent Estonian and 80 years ago they bought a flat in Raua Street in Tallinn, in the house where artist August Künnapu now lives. A school is next to it and a sauna across the street. On New Year’s Eve tin was melted and poured into water in a bucket with a sharp hissing sound, to see what future had in store. Then a boat-shaped bit of tin was lifted out of the bucket, which was not a good sign. Steam and fog dissipated, but the evil became more evil, especially in the courtyard of Raua Street school. Finally there was nothing else to do but cross the sea in a boat, taking only a suitcase and the Estonian language with us. We became refugees and exile Estonians. My father knew Russian and my mother spoke German and together they soon had a smattering of Swedish, but cursed the sweet Swedish bread in Estonian. I attended a Swedish school, where I learned my first sentence: “Jag förstår inte” (I don’t understand.)

The second generation is me and my two brothers who held on to our parents when we fled. The journey was wet and awful and we were sick into a chamber pot that we had brought along from home. In the refugee camp we were afraid of catching diphtheria, but we got mumps instead. The dining hall burnt down, but someone managed to save a whole cask of apple jam. We stuck our hands in and ate, wonderful!

I was able to borrow a bicycle to go to school and soon things were going really smoothly. I found out that Swedish horses did not whinny like Estonian horses, “hii-ha-haa”, but instead were making sounds like “gnägg, gnägg”. I was totally confused. I watched the horses in the meadow and finally established that the Swedes were wrong. Their horses were also saying “hii-ha-haa”. After graduating from school I myself began teaching Swedish to the Swedes. I decided to preserve my Estonian at all costs.

Horses started whinnying in the wrong way in our family only when we reached marrying age. The parents wished us to have our own Estonian-language families. At a dance party I managed to secure a young man with the right language. My brothers, on the other hand, stumbled on Finno-Ugric threshold and married Finnish girls. To this day, their children unfortunately think that horses go “gnägg, gnägg”.

At about that time I suffered a bitter disappointment. People cleverer than me explained that the whole tale about the beauty contest of languages was untrue and my white horse was thus a fake horse. Other nations were apparently also bragging about their language, horses or no horses. They all claimed that their language was the most beautiful. I was disappointed and felt that I had been deceived, but at the same time I was wrapped up with my small children.

Helga Nõu. Prince without a Horse

Helga Nõu. Prince without a Horse.
Watercolour on paper, 1957

At about that time I suffered a bitter disappointment. People cleverer than me explained that the whole tale about the beauty contest of languages was untrue and my white horse was thus a fake horse. Other nations were apparently also bragging about their language, horses or no horses. They all claimed that their language was the most beautiful. I was disappointed and felt that I had been deceived, but at the same time I was wrapped up with my small children.

The third generation, our three children, were born in Sweden, but were naturally not spared the Estonian language.

Our elder daughter was afraid to open her mouth at kindergarten, she was aware that she could not speak like other children. The son was greatly amused when he came in from playing in the sand pit. He had spoken Estonian with his playmates and can you imagine – they were so stupid that they could not understand him! Totally ridiculous, ha-ha!

During the Soviet period our daughter visited relatives and her pen friends in Estonia, whereas we, her parents, were public enemies and could not get a visa. I had been telling our children from day one about our beautiful cherished homeland and was now worried what kind of impression our daughter would have of Estonia when she goes to the toilet. We were quite surprised when she, against all expectations, returned happy and content. To our question of how it had been, she replied with enthusiasm:
“It was great!”
“What was great?” I had to ask.
“The Estonian language,” was the answer.
“How come?” I was confused.
“Everybody spoke Estonian!”

Well, indeed, how could I have been so stupid! She was delighted that the language she could only speak at home was in fact used in the whole country.

Then comes the fourth generation, our grandchildren. There are six, and I must hang my head, because none of them speaks Estonian. All of them have one non-Estonian parent and the language at home is Swedish. Alas, nobody lives in the same town as us, so we cannot exert daily influence on them. At some point they did talk to our dog Muri who only reacted to Estonian commands, but even this is now distant past.

Still, there is some hope: the older grandson is studying at an Estonian-language communication course and a daughter’s younger son is Herman – at least his name is the same as a tower on Toompea Hill! He is a football fan and belongs to a team of his age group. They recently played at the Tallinn Cup and crossed the Baltic Sea on a Tallink ship. They were received well in Tallinn and shown around. Herman in his Swedish team played against two Estonian and two Finnish teams, with moderately good results: some victories, some defeats. When I saw him afterwards, I was curious.
“Did you learn some Estonian words?” I asked.
“Aah? Yes... Sod it!” he replied.
“What? That’s not really nice, is it,” I said.
“Didn’t you learn something better?”
“Well, there was something else... with mother...”
“Mother?”
“Yes, job tvoju matj!”*

* A very rude expression in Russian.

HELGA NÕU
is a writer and a painter based in Tallinn and Uppsala.