Baltic Summer


As a fashionable watering-place, the glory of Narova-Joesuu has departed, but the sands are still as yellow and the sea is still as blue as they were in the days before the war, when the gay aristocracy of Russia and wealthy German nobles came to summer on its shores.

We are sitting on the sunny beach by a wide bay of the Baltic Sea. The long curve of wooded shore, edged with golden sand that stretches to the left of us as far as we can see, is Esthonia, the little land that is thrilled with its new freedom and is struggling to build a Uopia under difficulties. And off to the right of us curves a long, low, wooded, golden-edged shore that looks exactly the same as the curve that is Esthonia. But it is Russia. We look at the Esthonian shore with a feeling of familiarity. But with what a feeling of baffled curiosity we look at Russia! It is as if we stood at the gates of something great and mysterious and different, unknown and unknowable, which we may not enter. For in Esthonia we may come and go as we please, if we have paid ten dollars for a visa and given our family histories and a few marks to the police in the town we may wish to visit. But the borders of Russia are well guarded. Few may enter and few come out. Esthonia is filled with Russians wanting to go home. At the Russian consulate in Tallinn there are rows and rows of Russians who have come to ask for visas. Many of them fled from Russia in the days of the Revolution, and now that times are better they want to go home. Some of them wait months for permission from Moscow for them to enter, and many of them are denied.

The nearer we have come to Russia the more we have felt this great sense of mystery about the land across the border. When we sailed from the River Emba into Peipus Lake, which is on the border, people pointed to the far shore and whispered, ‘There is Russia!’ And so they do here.

But not everyone in Narova-Joesuu wants to enter Russia, and the sense of being on the edge of the unknown seems to interfere not at all with the gayety of Esthonia on a holiday. The beach is swarming, for all the summer visitors at Narova-Joesuu spend their days on the sands, coming with linen towels as large as bed-sheets over their arms and undressing quite openly on the beach. They splash in the surf and lie for hours on the clean sand. Near us a half-clad family are taking their ease, the women embroidering, the men dozing; two children with nothing on but straw hats are busily building a castle in the sand. A stout gentleman, quite naked and comfortable, sits not far away, reading a book. Even when they are dressed for the afternoon no one bothers to wear stockings. To have bare ankles under a gown of ruffled voile and to undress on the beach are quite proper; but once, when we wore well-tailored knicker-suits on a long hike — Oh, those two Amcrikanskas!

There are dozens of decadent-looking houses on the wooded roads along the sea beyond the village, most of them garishly embroidered on the outside with gingerbread woodwork and abounding in pergolas and balconies.

Many of them were once the summer homes of now poor Russian and German aristocrats, and we hear of former owners paying meagre board to live in their once beloved homes, now degenerated into decrepit pensions.

No summer boarding-house anywhere in the world has ever been an ideal place to spend a holiday; and since Russian boarding-houses seem particularly swarming and noisy, and their four heavy meals a day even less appetizing to us than boarding-house meals in other parts of the world, we decided, after one night in a particularly dreadful place, to seek some spot where we could view vacation life on the Baltic from a little greater distance.

A mile or two out, on the wooded road that follows the seashore, we found a quaint apartment with windows that look into the woods and a balcony where we have our desks and eat our breakfasts. It is over a little country grocery-store, kept by a flatfaced Esthonian woman who sells us fresh eggs, milk, berries, white bread, and new butter. She thinks we should eat black bread and more cheese, but —well — Amerikanskas! Her husband is a cab-driver and keeps his droshky in the back yard. And there is a maid, Eina, who giggles hysterically every time she comes near us and shakes her head sadly because we drink so much ‘cold cooked water.’ None of the establishment speaks any English; in fact, we have found no one in all the town who does. But with our few words of German and fewer still of Russian we manage to satisfy all our wants and make fast friends of those who can giggle with us over our gestures and mistakes.

Esthonia is a land of three languages, and t he little village is a curious mixture of old Russian and German influences and the ardent nationalism of the Esthonians. The boat schedule is in Esthonian and Russian, the moving-picture posters are in Russian. The police station buzzes with the blue and bright-green uniforms of the new Esthonian politsei, who ask you very solemnly for the first name of your father and ten marks, please, when you register there. The people in the shops, where fresh strawberries and sugary kringles are, speak three languages readily, changing from one to another with an ease acquired from long usage.

The white beach is just through the woods from us. We fry steak over our beach fire in the evening, and walk for long miles along the sand at the water’s edge. And every little way, through the tall trees that line the shore, we sec great empty houses, their windows blind, their paths grass-grown, their hedges uncut. Last night we rested in an old summerhouse at the end of a gravel path all choked with weeds, and watched the sun go down and a black fishing-boat put out to sea.

The shell of the days that, were so full of gayety is broken, but the song of them is still distinct for those who listen.