New Year in a Novel Country (to me)

Over the winter holiday, I was so glad to go home and see my family for about a week. We relished in our usual holiday traditions: making sugar cookies, pies, and cakes; trimming the tree; having a Nerf-war promptly after the Christmas Day gift exchange — you know, the normal family things.

After about a week home, I made a pit stop back in Boston before boarding a plane to Germany – a country I’ve traveled through a handful of times, but had never actually visited. Christian met me at the airport, and for about a week he showed me around the place that he calls home.

We spent a couple of days in Berlin, a city so many friends have said is “really cool” and “great” and “alternative” — and I found that they weren’t wrong. Berlin is one of those cities I find incomprehensibly large — one of those cities where you can board a train at one place, get out 30 minutes later, and still be within the city limits. With a population just shy of 3.5 million, it would fall between Chicago and LA in the US (our third and second largest cities by population, respectively). I was particularly struck by the size when I scaled “the Dome,” a church near the Museum Aisle near the city center, and couldn’t make out an “edge” to Berlin — it was city as far as I could see.

 

The neighborhoods in Berlin had a fairly distinctive vibe to them — sometimes it was a change in the actual architecture of the place, sometimes it was just the types of stores or grocers around. Certainly some places had that “alt-culture” vibe that Berlin is somewhat known for. Just recently it hit the headlines that the Berlin Wall has now been officially “down” longer than it has been “up” — upon actually visiting Berlin proper, there isn’t actually a good way to capture how “the wall” is still there and making an impact, regardless of it’s physical absence. In some areas of the city, relatively fresh architecture and greenways make the path of the wall nearly impossible to visualize, it is so thoroughly erased. In other parts, it is still obvious. But no matter where you are, you are not allowed to forget that it existed — plaques, historical markers and signs, memorials all dot the city and the path of the wall in particular. In this way, the history of the place, and the hope for the future of the place, all mix to create this unique vibrancy — a vibrancy perhaps tinged with…regret? remorse? — that I’ve not experienced in other places so deeply.

On Museum’s Aisle there is a mix of historical, art, and cultural museums (surprising, I’m sure). The one we particularly spent time at is an archaeology museum, the Pergamon museum. Here, a number of original architectural marvels are on display from the regions of the world where some of the most advanced ancient civilizations we know about made their home (the Middle East, Northern Africa make up the majority). While the engineering feat of restoring and stable-y reconstructing these exhibits is not discussed in detail, the actual significance of these works are well established in the free audio tour of the museum. It was an awe-some place to ponder human ingenuity and culture.

We also had the fortune of traveling to another city, Stuttgart,  where a friend from my Olin days is now studying for a Master’s degree. We got to enjoy the day with her, scaling the Stuttgart TV tower (allegedly the TV tower that has inspired all TV towers), generally exploring some of the pedestrian malls, and getting some food in. Unlike Berlin which is relatively flat, Stuttgart is built into the hills of southern Germany, making for a particularly interesting aesthetic — the lower city is the most dense, with a highly urban concrete jungle-esque feel, whereas into the hills it almost feels suburban.

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The top of the TV tower, pictured from the top of the TV tower (basically exactly where the elevator drops you off…quite the direct route).

While I had traveled just after Christmas Market season, Stuttgart had some holiday cheer left, which was welcome at the end of the day. given how far away my friend had traveled from the US, I was really pleased that I had the opportunity to visit her. I know how moving away from home can be an exciting and rewarding time, but the logistical challenge of seeing friends and family, inaccessibility to some culturally special items (peanut butter among other foods, etc), and sometimes this nebulous feeling of questioning “belonging” in the new place can be tough. Especially around the holiday season which would be a natural time to reflect on these things, I was glad to chat about her experience so far and empathize with some of the challenges.

The majority of the trip however was spent in the more rural countryside in central Germany where Christian and his parents are from, and for the most part I spent time relaxing — a vacation in which I actually got to relax a little! I don’t speak Germany, and barely understand a handful of basic words, so I have to take time to applaud Christian’s excellent translating between me and his family (particularly his parents and older family members). I was so embarrassed not to be able to speak anything to them directly, but as it turns out they felt equally embarrassed in some ways, especially as English seems to be viewed as almost a “necessity” for success in modern life. Despite the inability to speak to one another, we were still able to successfully communicate with gesture and smiles — smile diplomacy is something that, I can attest, goes surprisingly far. I enjoyed the time learning to play new games, getting a sense of the typical lifestyle, and experiencing customs common at holidays.

I am extremely grateful for the ability to travel, and the opportunities that led me to meeting folks who live around the world and are willing to share their lives with me. I was recently asked how I manage to “grow and maintain my network” — and at the time I failed to have a sensible or practical answer. With a little more thought, I think that for me it comes down to genuinely and sincerely caring, as well as being curious. To meet people means to have some shared basis for communicating – maybe you are colleagues at work (as Christian and I once were), or classmates (as my friend in Stuttgart was), or frequent similar clubs or events. And to make that initial connection does take a certain amount of curiosity about who that person is, what they might be able to teach you/what you can learn from them, and what you can share. To maintain that connection is to stay curious, but also to care. I don’t really think about my friends in the sense of my “network,” though of course they logically are nodes in that structure; rather I often think of them less in the collective and more as individuals. And I’ve been lucky to have put aside shyness to meet and care about some pretty amazing ones.

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Sharing Boston

In late September Christian came to visit me, and I got to share a little slice of “my America” with him. Being a fairly new resident of greater-Boston myself, I think we did a fair amount of co-learning by walking the Freedom Trail, exploring the suburbs, and pacing the grounds of MIT, Harvard, Tufts, and other long-standing academic institutions.

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At the MIT boathouse on the Cambridge side of the Charles. Boston skyline featured. 

Something that I awed at in Europe (and then, promptly forgot) was the length of human memory and history in that part of the world. Walking between some of the first  buildings in Boston with years in the late 1700s and 1800s scrawled on them, Christian couldn’t help but remind me how relatively youthful our country is. While most of the history that is discussed on the Freedom Trail was a refresher for me, Christian helped set some of the stage for thinking about the context of Boston’s history in the scheme of the world.

In early December, I had the chance to walk the Freedom Trail again when Chris came to visit me from MD. He was enrolled at the time in a history of architecture course and I couldn’t help but feel that I was the one being taken on a tour of my own city as I learned a great deal about the significance or interesting bits of buildings’ design.

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Trinity Church in Boston is particularly notable for its architectural design. While we were too skeptical to pay the entrance fee, it is on the list of places to return to on the next visit!

December is a fairly high-stress academic time, but it is also when Boston starts to deck out the city in lights, wreaths, and general holiday cheer. I was glad for the timing of Chris’ visit, because we got to see the start of the season and I got a chance to refresh my head before the final slog.

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Seen in the North End.

As I wrote in Tallinn about sharing the city with Bill and Chris, sharing Boston now with Christian and Chris (a serial visitor it seems) was something a bit more special than just walking along on my own. We asked more questions — Why was that clock tower designed like that? How many times were these old churches renovated? How different did this look during events like the Boston Tea Party? — and noticed the smaller things. I look forward to sharing the city more with friends who are residents, and friends who come to visit, in the months and years to come.

 

Still Adjusting

Between August and today I’ve still been…adjusting. I think that the whirlwind that was moving back to the US and immediately starting work was fairly overwhelming as I wrote before — but in a way that didn’t really catch up with me until just after I wrote my last post. Right before moving to Somerville (one of the suburbs that a casual person may include when referring to the geographic idea of  “Boston”) and starting classes at MIT it was like a wall of apathy hit me. Riding it out in September and October while also trying to meet new people, invest time in research, and learn as much as possible from my classes was…stressful. More stressful than I would like to admit. Around November I felt as though I finally kicked the apathy, but what settled in its place was a little bit like a feeling of loss — “what am I even doing here?” was something I asked probably way too much,

Folks, MIT is rough. It isn’t just that the classes are difficult (they are), and the expectations are high (exceedingly), it is that the community can be difficult to connect to. Unlike Olin, where the idea that everyone needs to at least be friendly in order to survive, at MIT there are so many people and so little time, that it is easy to never get past small talk or occasional commiseration about being a little bit burnt out. Don’t get me wrong; everyone I’ve interacted has been lovely, but at least among grad students, folks more or less have their group of friends outside of work, and that’s it. It is HARD to forge new friendships or break into social cliques (especially if, like me, someone is a bit hesitant to “bother” others). For both people, it is an astounding amount of energy to assess whether there is commonality, personality fit, and time to spend. It was the difficulty in forging meaningful connections that most made me question whether or not I belonged in the community — perhaps Olin spoiled me a bit.

With a little more time, a lot of effort, and a new resolve to step out of my comfort zone, I think that I’m finally gaining some ground in terms of finding community at MIT. I started working in a lab with a number of grad students and post-docs working on technical problems that align with my own interests. I’ve been regularly going out social dancing on-campus. I’ve enjoyed joining study groups. I’m going to try carving more time to spend with my cohort of Joint Program students and their fairly regular get-togethers. It’s getting better.

I’m pleased with my overall academic performance in the last semester, but more proud of the actual knowledge I was able to accumulate and start applying to my research. While the classes themselves were a little frustrating (read: often frustrating), there is no doubt that I learned, and that’s pretty exciting.

At the moment I’m formulating a more detailed research plan. The idea is that robotic platforms could serve to map chemical signatures (particularly plumes) in the marine environment. This is interesting for scientists, because chemical signatures can often imply something about the ecosystem in which it is found (think algae blooms which thrive off high nitrate, or some types of shellfish which crave calcium). My adviser is particularly keen on understanding how methane is entering, spreading, and impacting various ocean environments. We’ve been looking at wastewater effluent in/around Cape Cod, but natural methane seeps can be found in the Arctic as glacial melt releases stores of the gas, or at hydrothermal vents. Methane is distinctively linked with ocean acidification, which is a process we know is accelerating globally and has repercussions we don’t yet understand. On my part, I’m both excited by the science, and the actual development of “intelligent” mapping robots for the oceans.

I’m feeling more hopeful for the coming semester and my general success at not only being an effective grad student, but a happy human. I am so thankful for the Olin community I have in the greater Boston area, and those that are close friends from afar who supported me through the most apathetic and questioning times. I recognize that I’m incredibly lucky to have moved to a place where I already know so many people; thanks team.

Adjusting

I’ve been radio silent for the summer because as I wrote in my last post, being back has been somewhat overwhelming. Initially, it was adjusting to being back in the US. Then it was traveling all over the place – I’ll be writing about my jaunts to San Francisco and St. Louis which swiftly followed my New York excursion. And lately it has been work. Of course, as I’m finally getting into the swing of things, the summer will soon be swiftly transitioning from research on Cape Cod to classes (and research) in Cambridge. I’ll be moving to Somerville (write me if you’d like my address!), navigating the whole “being a student” thing again, adjusting to city life, and trying to aim for a healthier work-life balance than I had in undergrad (meaning kicking some bad habits of over-volunteering, working at all hours of the night, etc). I’m on my way and excited, but certainly, there will be a lot of growing pains.

I want to take a second to discuss another overwhelming thing: exposure to media in a way that is way more direct and personal than when I was abroad. This Google thing – I’ve got a lot of feelings about it. Most of them involve feeling exhausted at dealing with this rhetoric, which I’ve heard again and again and again. Here is something I’ve found that resonates well with my perspective. Basically, while I respect his argument, and even agree with a few of his points that conservatives should not feel attacked in the workplace, and men should be allowed to break their gendered stereotypes too, I fundamentally disagree with the conclusions he draws based upon his evidence. If you’d like to talk to me more about that, hit me up. I would love to chat about it. And today, as I sat writing this post, the news coming from Charlottesville just sent me reeling. I was receiving the news real-time – when I was away, it would always be with an offset, a feeling of separation, a buffer. Now, I don’t need to explain anything to anyone or face questions about the news like I did there, but it feels more personal and isolating. And the events described in this news are abhorrent. The actual, physical violence is truly domestic terrorism. And it frustrates me that we (we being highest level leadership and some media) won’t recognize white supremacy for the vile and misguided hatred that it is. It has been emotionally draining to have so much news all the time to consume. It is little wonder that global events (like the elections in Germany, continued migrant landings in the Mediterranean, etc) fly under the radar – the amount of purely domestic news can take hours of time just to read – and many more to try to comprehend.

If you’re interested in what you can do about these most recent events, check out, support, or learn more about:

  • Women in Tech
  • Vigils for Charlottesville
  • Write to your representatives to take a public stance on the events in Charlottesville (if they haven’t already)
  • Learn about local civil liberties groups or committees
  • Talk to your company’s diversity manager, or learn about the diversity policies
  • Offer support to those who may be directly affected by recent events
  • Volunteer, or support volunteers in organizations which provide STEM outreach to underrepresented populations

But I’m not constantly reading the news. And I try to balance and vent my frustration in healthy ways. And I’ve had a fair amount going on this summer to distract from some of the most overwhelming things. I had the fortune to travel all over the country, visiting a new city and a previously enjoyed city. Right after my trip to New York, I flew myself and Ali (my lovely sibling) to San Francisco for Pride. Having never been to San Francisco or a Pride event before, we were both pretty pumped. While the weekend was short (36 hours on the ground), I think that we both left feeling energized by the natural beauty and dynamism of the city, as well as the festivities. There was just so much self-love, tolerance, and legitimization as part of the Pride celebration, and it was electric. And it made me proud to be a citizen of this country, and a member of humanity again.

We also enjoyed the opportunity to walk around and explore Buena Vista park (spoilers: it does in fact have a great view), and Golden Gate Park. We lucked out with nearly perfect weather. We agreed that we have to go back to experience the city with a bit more time on our hands.

Cut to a few weeks later, and I was in St. Louis. If you’ve talked to me for more than 5 minutes about my life in the last 2 years, you’ve definitely heard me talk about my time in the greater St. Louis area when I worked at Ivani. I am just completely enamored with that company, and that city. Visiting former colleagues/friends and revisiting old haunts like Forest Park was a treat, and spurred a lot of reflection about my current trajectory as an academic, rather than an industry engineer.

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The art museum in Forest Park, right after the fourth of July weekend. Almost everything in Forest Park is free – this museum and the Science Center are particularly notable!

And between trips, and after, I’ve been occupied with my work at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) as part of kicking off my doctoral degree studies as a (an? acronyms are difficult at times) MIT-WHOI Joint Program (JP) student. Right now I’m working on developing autonomy routines to allow for ocean robots (like unmanned boats) to map out chemical plumes. Essentially: I get data from various lasers on a robot to make maps of what those lasers see. My adviser is particularly interested in methane, so that’s been an interesting focus at the moment. In July we collected some data from a river site on Cape Cod in which cleaned wastewater is pumped. Once we understand how to detect the difference between “normal” river water and “the plume” of treated water, we should be able to encode a robot’s behaviors to capture more relevant information for a scientist studying the interaction.

Wastewater treatment sites may not be as glamorous as submerged archaeological sites, but it’s a start. One of the most exciting things about this research, in my opinion, is the extensibility of the robot platform to measure and map a variety of scientifically interesting phenomenon: like chemical plumes from hydrothermal vents, or methane seeps in lakes or in fjords or from calving glaciers. Or perhaps we could map oil slicks. Or micro-algae blooms. The impact here is that the typical methods for surveying data like this take a lot of time, and yield very sparse data. Imagine the river. A scientist crew will go out in kayaks or a little boat, go to a handful of pre-determined point on the river, and take multiple bottle samples, which need to be processed in a lab later. A vehicle can take near continuous measurements – hundreds to thousands of measurements – in the same time, with near real time information available for analysis. More data, in this case, can lead to better modeling of phenomenon with real-impact: in wastewater treatment for example, one could imagine policy changes about effluent pumping based upon some results. Or for scientists studying ocean acidification at natural venting or seep sites, results which can better inform climate change models. And so on.

A perk of my time at WHOI is that I get to work in Woods Hole. Which is just so lovely. And I get to live on Cape Cod, which has this laid back atmosphere and a number of really lovely natural landscapes to enjoy (when not chasing down chemicals with robots).

Despite the challenges of adjusting to home, I enjoyed a relatively quiet summer of resetting and reflecting with a healthy dose of adventure. And now I’m ready to tackle what’s next. Bring it on!

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Here is me, clearly looking at the bright future I have ahead of me. Not just at some cloud. Or the sun. Or something.

 

Home

I’m back in the States now – Tuesday the 6th of June I arrived home from my months in Estonia, on the 10th I moved to a temporary place in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and started working at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) on the 12th. And this last weekend I was in New York City for a concert.

The move back has been a little overwhelming to say the least. The most immediate things I notice: it gets dark so early (well…the sun was setting around 10:30PM in Tallinn, so around 8:30PM feels unimaginably strange), the cars are so much bigger, the roads are so much more crowded, there is so much English writing and talking everywhere, American Flags (and their poles) feel almost as numerous as trees, the spoons are smaller, vanilla extract exists in bulk quantities, and gas is so much cheaper.

But now that I’ve had a chance to actually catch my breath a little, it is the little stuff I’m beginning to miss:

Every Monday that I was in Estonia, I would bring cookies to share with my colleagues. I’ve yet to have the time to bake anything (but that will hopefully be resolved soon).

I miss the semi-serious conversations about gender in engineering (like during International Woman’s Day when I just happened to be the only woman in the lab), about equality, about politics, about just about everything.

I also miss just having many familiar faces in the lab and the senses of humor each of them brought.

But I don’t want to dwell on these things – rather, just be grateful that they happened. My time in Estonia was a number of firsts: my first apartment that was actually mine, my first real research work as a vocation, my first time living in a foreign country, my first time applying for a residency permit, my first time since being of driving age without dependence on my own car, my first independent train and bus trip, my first time working with underwater robots, my first travel-for-work trips, my first international collaborations…the list goes on. There were so many small, special things that I loved about living in Estonia, and living independently, that it would really be impossible to capture what it means to me.

I’ve definitely come home a changed person, and I’d like to think a better, more confident, person than when I left. I have high hopes that the next adventure will yield more firsts, more character growth, and more opportunity to build friendships with those around me. And also, hopefully, more cookies.

Field Trials

The last two weeks of my time in Estonia were a whirlwind of work.

My project, allowing the bio-inspired U-CAT to autonomously enter, explore, and exit an enclosed submerged space, was able to be fully tested at Rummu Quarry.

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The building we were exploring is the one that is fully submerged in the right foreground.

Rummu was the first place I visited outside of the lab, so there is something a little poetic about returning for my final field testing.

We’re still processing the results, but so far so good. I have such gratitude for the lab for spending those two weeks with me – either on the boat debugging, driving, or documenting, or in the water diving to support and observe the robot behavior.

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Go U-CAT, Go!

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Oh, hello there!

Once the results are in, I’ll let you know. For now…I’ll still be working on simulations, data processing, and getting everything wrapped up neatly state-side.

Among Nature

In a sort of “last hurrah” before the beginning of field trials for my work and my imminent departure, Christian and I took a trip to Lahemaa National Park, which is located along the Northern Shore a bit East of Tallinn. The park boasts a number of landscapes to explore including: bogs, coastal vistas, primeval forests, and huge glacial boulder debris fields. We were lucky enough to experience most of these through several hikes.

One of the most popular trials here is a short trials through the Viru Bog. Featuring boardwalk paths through the multi-faceted bog landscape which includes acidic reflecting pools, short brush, unique flora tundra, and old peat fields, the trial is simply a peaceful reflection of what “natural beauty” can mean outside of stereotypical (yet gorgeous) sunsets, mountain passes, or flowering valleys. The subtlety of the wonders in the bog make one mindful of their surroundings so as to not miss a particularly small carnivorous plant or blooming miniature bog birch.

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View from the observation tower along the trail.

Estonia is actually a leading peat exporter in the world. Awe your friends with that trivia fact!

The coastal paths around the peninsulas offered a different sort of reflection – that feeling of something both familiar yet distinctly refreshing anytime one is blown about by a sea breeze. Along the peninsula we chose to explore, seabirds make their nests and the grounds are an important area for several endangered/impacted species. Birds of all feathers could be heard throughout the walk – from the monotonous cuckoo bird (they really do sound like the clocks! or I guess the other way…), to nightingales, to blackbirds, to crows…It was nearly a cacophony.

Something to be wary of: ants. So. Many. Ants. We’re talking anthills the size of tree-stumps (ok, for better reference, as much as a meter in diameter and 0.25+ meters high) writhing with ants. Intrepid ants which can be found quite far from their home. And don’t mind crawling up shoes…or pants…or shirts. Ah.

Of course, we also took in a sunset at one of the peninsulas.

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No photo can really capture the true beauty of a sunset, but perhaps it can evoke one little bit of the moment. Also, for reference, this was about 10PM.

One of the last trials we visited was an “unmaintained” primeval spruce forest (at least 120-150 years old). Unlike forests which are roughly maintained, other than the boardwalk path plopped into the middle of it, the trees were left hanging over the paths, toppled, brush uncleared, decay left for all to see. The difference between this and a maintained, or even just young, forest is actually startling to behold. The diversity of the plant life seemed much higher, and the evidence of animals (wild boar, moose, lynx) much more clear.

The trip was a refreshing and relaxing weekend to catch up on some sanity before diving (ha! marine jokes) into a two week long testing period for my months long project before departure. It was a much needed moment, spent with a great travel partner. Many thanks to Christian, who was such a pleasant adventuring pal and excellent friend for all of the trips. There is nothing like sharing a breath of fresh air with good company.

The Prestons Take on Pärnu

In April I was lucky enough to be visited by my lovely parents who took a world-wind trip through Iceland, Tallinn, and Scotland. So cute!

Over the course of a few days we reveled in Tallinn (eating our way through some of my favorite places and a few new ones), then took a bus trip to the “summer capital” of Estonia – Pärnu.

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Thanks Sunshine Estates for the image!

The city is the fourth-largest in Estonia, with a staggering population just shy of 40,000 (to put that in perspective, the University of Maryland, College Park has a total enrollment nearly equivalent to this entire city).  Back in the time of the Hanseatic League (14th-17th century), the area now known as Pärnu was an important ice-free harbor to this general geographical area. During the World Wars, Pärnu was occupied like many a city in Estonia, but now is known for its restorative mud baths, beaches, and resorts.

We visited during the “off-season” – and it was pretty evident. Nearly with the city to ourselves as we strolled around, enjoyed the quaint “Old Town,” took a leisurely stroll through a wooded park, and explored the wide, sandy beach.

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Traveling in style. Taking buses or trains across the country is extremely easy and cost effective. The bus ride to Pärnu was about 2 hours.

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This is probably the peak crowd we saw that day.

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The beach. It is easy to image why this becomes the summer capital.

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The historic “Town Hall” building.

One of the things I most love about Estonia is the quirks one finds. They are sometimes small things – like an elephant slide at the beach…

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Wait a second…

…or perhaps some strange mural depicting a little local folklore or making a political statement (maybe both)…

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Seen on the side of an abandoned facility.

…or even just some art to “spice up” a leisurely walk in the park.

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Casual.

Given Estonia’s relative youth, the support for the arts in general is evident – and I would say that an art identity is definitely emergent in the avant-garde animation and interpretation of society, community, and nature. A few months ago I saw November, an Estonian film based on a story line in an Estonian novel based loosely upon Estonian folklore. The cinematography, story, presentation, and societal critiques evident in the film, and in much of the general art I’ve seen, distinctly reflects a culture that has come through some of the worst of times (occupation, corruption, indentured servitude, oppression) and is trying to run towards a brighter future. It’s worth taking a look.

The day in the city was relaxing, and I think that my parents had fun.

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Mom poking fun at my constant documentation of their Estonian experiences.

As with all of my visits, I had the opportunity to reflect on what makes Estonia, and in more of my experience Tallinn, so special to me. In many ways, it is indescribable, but in little moments I think I can capture the magic of the place: strolls through cobbled streets and old walls, overlooks of the Baltic Sea, the surprising diversity of nature and geology, the calm, the quirk, the clarity.

 

Easter in Saaremaa and Muhu

In mid-April I got off the mainland for a long weekend on the islands. Alas, it was less tropical than it sounds – but certainly just as fun!

Muhu and Saaremaa are located off the western shore of Estonia. Saaremaa is easily the “holiday” island of the country – it seems like every other person I met had a holiday or summer home there, or at least knew someone who did. A visit easily revealed why: the island has just enough space so that neighbors don’t crowd, enough coastline to go around, and a diversity of geology and ecology that captures the imagination. Muhu, a smaller island that is connected to Saaremaa features all of these attributes, but isn’t burdened by the same transient population.

To get to Muhu, a ferry is necessary. In my own memory, this is the first ferry I actually drove onto, rather than simply boarding as a walk-on passenger. The ferry ride is a mere hour – and then we were in business for the holiday.

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View from trusty ship Piret.

We stayed in Kuressaare, the largest (by population) town on the island, in the Southwest of Saaremaa. The weekend was then filled with hiking and exploring semi-abandoned forts, castles, churches, and cemeteries.

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Our valiant rental, on the strip of land between Muhu and Saaremaa.

Few images in Estonia may be more iconic than windmills on the islands. Used primarily as a means for grinding one of the four main grains grown in Estonia (rye, barley, oat, wheat), several types, including a “Dutch” windmill, were quite popular. In this type of windmill, only the top cap of the mill, on which the blades are fixed, rotates. In the other extremely popular type, the whole mill is situated on a foundation and the pivot point is located between the mill and the foundation (thus the whole mill actually turns into the wind).

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Windmills of Saaremaa – the third from the right is a Dutch mill.

Traveling around the island, you can spy abandoned mills among the trees or along the coasts or just casually in someone’s yard. Similarly, one can spy a number of relics from the days in which Saaremaa was the location of major conflicts – remnants of the World Wars still look fresh, and prior to our visit buried artillery had been excavated.

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Anti-tank line (the pyramids).

Prior to the World Wars, Saaremaa was the site of centuries of tense battle between the peoples of ancient Estonia, conquerors from Sweden, Germany, etc. The forts that dot the land pay tribute to this long history.

Due to the frequently changing “ownership” of the island, the culture of the place actually feels a bit different from the mainland. One big difference that is easily visible is the number of worship places. More than on the mainland, churches/places of worship became central places for community gathering, resource sharing, education – the list goes on. A surprising number of these churches today are still “active” in the sense that restoration is active, and community events are evidently still held on the grounds.

The nature on the islands really shines. I was surprised by the diversity – from dense forest, to open fields, to sandy beaches, to limestone cliffs…it was exciting hiking along the shorelines.

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Yes, that lighthouse is tilting and in the middle of the water. This sandy peninsula of Saaremaa is dynamically changing – a mere 40 years ago that lighthouse marked the very tip of this peninsula. The sand underneath of the lighthouse is shifting so much that the tilt of the structure changes on the order of hours – not days. The youth of the peninsula is evident in the sparse vegetation long the coast.

One extremely striking place is a meteorite field on the island. The field is “fresh” enough that the actual strike has been recorded in the lore of the place. The crater lake we visited was revered, and at one point, a huge wall was built around the site by the local peoples in order to protect the sanctity of the place. There is something special about the air of the place. What are we but some lucky mix of space dust after all?

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The weather played with us during the trip – from a day where it was nearly warm enough to not wear a jacket, to a day in which a blizzard caught us by surprise then melted into a perfect spring day, it was a fairly exciting time. The pictures below were taken on the same day.

In Kuressaare proper, there is of course a castle. Why wouldn’t there be? Prior to being made into a fortress, it served as a convent/abbey/place of worship. Its previous life is obvious looking at the structure of the building: the sharp corners of the building, and lack of peep-windows (for both watching and weaponry) give away the fact that defense was not really in the original plans. During fortress-era renovation, extensive work was done to create bastions around the property, effectively creating a moat (which felt very fairy-tale — no crocodiles or piranhas however).

On Easter proper we tried dying eggs the “traditional Estonian way” which involved using onion skin to dye an egg by attaching the skin (either with twine, rope, rubberbands, etc) then boiling the onion-egg package for about 10 minutes. The result brown, green, and red imprint on the egg leaves a rather unique marbled effect.

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Our egg dying attempts.

I was glad to get the change to get to the islands before the end of my visit, and I was super appreciative to go with a wonderful friend. Shout out to this guy for not getting *that* annoyed at my constant picture taking!

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Look at how amusing my clear inability at taking selfies must be!

Cleaning the Shore; Music in the Air

Over the course of the last months I’ve been diligently working to get my work completed enough for testing at the end of my stint with the Centre for Biorobotics. This has left only a touch of time between a flurry of visitors to continue on some of my more independent adventuring.

Two such small events were volunteering with my colleagues on a shoreline clean-up day, and going to a night of music as part of Tallinn Music Week.

How Can Humans Make Such a Mess…

As one can imagine, during the occupation of Estonia the shore was essentially “off-limits” to non-military personnel. In those years, a number of now derelict temporary buildings were erected, trash accumulated in lieu of more formal means of disposal, and more dangerous (read: shells, bombs, explosives, chemicals) were merely buried and forgotten. Now that water recreation, sport, and shore activities have started regaining popularity, it is essential that these spaces are cleaned from prior mistreatment – but also kept clean from litter that humans just can’t seem to help but leave behind.

We went to Suurupi Beach, which is along the Northwest coast of the country, to conduct our scouring of the lightly forested area and granite beaches. It’s pretty amazing how many bottles, shoes, cottage cheese containers (don’t ask us), and the like gather.

PSA folks: please clean-up after yourself after a nice day outside. I shouldn’t need to explain that plastic’s lifespan on a biodegradation timescale is astronomical, that animals end up mistaking plastic things for their food all the time, and that it’s simply gross to leave your waste around (when was the last time you enjoyed the sight of a garbage dump after all?).

We ended up filling a trailer with found waste (check it out on the lab’s facebook page) – most of it recyclable plastic, glass, and metal – and still left feeling that only a small impact had been made. These shore cleaning days are certainly necessary – but we shouldn’t need a special day of the week/month/year to take a little time to fix our collective mess. It was interesting to discuss these points with my colleagues as we cleaned, and then later walked along the shore at Suurupi.

…And Also Make Such Beauty?

On the polar opposite of adventures, I went out with a friend to a night in Telleskivi (you might remember this is where I went to see the orchestra play and was wowed by the street art/hipsterness of it) as part of the Tallinn Music Week Festival. We attended the “Viljandi Folk Festival” night, and enjoyed folk, indie, rock, contemporary, avant garde, and traditional music from a variety of Estonian, Polish, Russian, and Cape Verdean artists. You can check out the line-up here (and definitely take a listen!).

In what feels like an impossibly distant “past life” I enjoyed playing the piano with regularity – it seems like every time I go to a musical event now I pine for the keys…

I was floored by the variety – from single artists using loop pedals and digital effects to layer their sound into full choruses or orchestras, to straight-from-a-history-book group playing, to modern twists on classic national/ethnic tunes. Music interpretation and composition truly illustrates the complexity and vastness of human creativity. It really does feel unlimited.

 

It is difficult then to understand how humans can be capable of two such different actions: careless disregard for natural beauty, and careful interpretation of sound/narrative into beauty. Can these things be held in the same mind? How? What influences this discord, this dissonance? Can we ever know?