I had been in Estonia about a week and a half when Anna Ivanovna, a teacher at the school where I was participating in a student exchange, invited me to a tea party -- a Russian tea party. She was entertaining some teachers from the Crimea and wanted students from my Washington high school to join her, as well as the Estonian students she taught.
The party proved to be an elaborate affair, with games, music and animated conversation. But the Estonian teenagers looked glum and generally ignored the goings-on. Their discomfort became acute when our hostess called them forward for a sort of "Simon Says" game called "My auntie does this and so must I." As Anna Ivanovna went through a hilarious series of gyrations, her foreign visitors dissolved in laughter. But the Estonian students -- who I knew loved to throw themselves into folk dancing -- were so sullen in imitating their teacher's actions that she finally ended the verses to put them out of their misery.
"Here we sit at a Russian tea party," muttered my Estonian companion, "while they may be invading Lithuania at this very moment."
I didn't have to be among Estonians long to understand their impatience for independence. But the question that still perplexes me, after nearly a month among the kindest hosts any American could hope to encounter, is, if it comes, how they are ever going to make things work out afterward.
Martin Luther King Jr. wrote a paper, "Why We Can't Wait." The title fits in that Baltic setting also: it expresses not only the palpable urgency one feels in Estonia but also the divisions between separate societies living in the same country.
Our group stayed in the old university city of Tartu, population 100,000. Although about a fifth of the people in the city are Russian, in the country as a whole Russians are something on the order of 30 percent. It soon became apparent that schools in Tartu are of either one nationality or the other. It's what we might call de facto segregation -- made possible by a considerable degree of freedom of school choice.
Although Russian is a mandatory second language, I rarely heard it spoken at our school. The only student I met who seemed to enjoy speaking it was a boy whose mother was Russian and whose father was Estonian. The parents were divorced. "Such things do not usually work out," I was told by an Estonian. "Almost impossible."
The true second language at the school -- and this in a town off-limits to nearly all foreigners for a half-century -- is English.
A strong sense of grievance colored the conversations I had with Estonians. Almost everyone I talked to had lost a member of his or her family (more often her; this is a society short of men). I heard repeated angry complaints about the pollution of lakes, rivers and the land under Soviet rule. Estonians are bitter about being chained to what they see as an economic corpse while just across the sea, Finland -- with which they feel a close affinity -- prospers.
The most anger was reserved for the military draft. Mothers expressed the widespread fear of harassment and beatings or worse -- boys from the Baltics are often derided as "fascists."
One night, I remarked to my cabdriver that it was sad there was no grass or playground near the building. Apparently mistaking what I'd said as a criticism of Estonians, he replied, "You think we live badly? Let me show you Shanghai."
"Shanghai," a Russian sector of the city, was like nothing I'd seen in three weeks spent mostly among Estonians: ancient houses with sagging doors and windows, reeking outhouses and drainage ditches full of oil and debris, yards littered with old furniture and engines. Walking home through the rutted streets were soldiers in uniform, including some officers as well as workers and an occasional well-dressed woman.
The driver had made his point. "Shanghai" was as much another country as the one just over the border, the one we visited on a sightseeing trip to a Russian monastery a few days later. Our bus crossed from a land of tidy, widely separated farmhouses -- Estonia -- to one of unpaved roads lined by disorderly, crowded villages -- Russia. Among Estonians there was some tittering at the sight of yards cluttered with dogs, kids and trash and of women in heavy black boots and babushkas.
"They are laughing out of nervousness or perhaps pity," said an Estonian colleague on the bus. I knew this woman had lost her father to the gulag, had been stigmatized as "bourgeois" for much of her life because of her origins. She went on: "Russians are good people. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. They are good-hearted and open and will do anything to help you."
She, like most of her generation, puts hope in Estonia's young people and what they can learn from the outside world finally opening up to them. I thought then and still do that just as important may be what they can learn from people like her.
The writer teaches at Georgetown Day High School.