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Estonia: A Spring Break Spent Singing


Marceline Dyer, senior communication arts major from Andrews, Ind., reflects on the weeklong University Singers tour to Tallinn, Estonia. The 52-voice choir performed in churches across the small Baltic country. Click here to view Marceline's journal.

Adam VonAlmen, senior music performance major from Lima, Ohio, also chronicles this same trip. Click here to view Adam's journal.

Journey Bound

Friday and Saturday, February 22 and 23

Frankfurt, Germany

Our trip to Estonia was slated to begin with a performance in Toledo, but the bad weather left an open path between the airport and us. We flew from Detroit to Frankfurt, Germany. Now we're waiting for our flight to Helsinki, Finland, after which we still have several hours of travel - including a two-hour ferry across the Baltic Sea to Tallinn. With the six-hour time difference, everyone is quite tired, but we're still going strong. There are plenty of amusements in the airport, including workers riding bicycles and driving trucks inside the terminal.

Sunday, February 24

Independence Day
Tallinn, Estonia

Our first day was Independence Day in Estonia, which made for an extra-special welcome. We traveled to the little town of Rapla, the home village of professor Nils Riess. Here we sang at a beautiful (but chilly) church called the Marrja-Magdaleena Church. Afterwards, we watched traditional Estonian folkdances and listened to choirs at the town festival. It was amazing to see how important music is to Estonian culture.

For dinner, we ate a traditional Estonian meal, including Estonian ice cream, both of which were delicious. As much fun as we had during the day, nothing compared to the evening when Sarah Cushman, who studied in Estonia during fall quarter, took us to Old Town. Old Town is exactly what it sounds like - the oldest section of the city. The streets are cobblestones and sometimes get very narrow. We reached an area that was like an observation deck and were looking over the old section of Tallinn to the new areas when fireworks started! We had the perfect view of them over Old Town. It was such an awesome experience to be in Estonia for Independence Day and to watch the fireworks from an historic place.

Monday, February 25

Bit of History

We had a guided tour of Old Town this morning. Our tour guide was excellent and very funny - she tried to teach us some Estonian phrases and was astonished by how well we mimicked her. It was really helpful to get some the history in my head; knowing that history makes it easier for me to understand a little bit of the mentality of this country. Estonia has been invaded 13 times and occupied for a large portion of its history. The non-violent "Singing Revolution" helped Estonians earn independence from the Soviet Union.

Later that evening, we walked back to Old Town and sang at the Püha Vaimu church. It was built in the 13th century, but it was actually a bit warmer than the church in Rapla. After the concert, we had our first free night in Tallinn! A group of us went to an American restaurant called Texas where we were able to make free calls to our families in the United States. Later, we went to a jazz club to reunite with an Estonian woman who had worked on "Beauty and the Beast" at Northern last summer.

Tuesday, February 26

Hidden Treasures

Today we traveled to Parnu, the "summer capitol" of Estonia. We only had an hour for dinner, which would have been plenty of time in America, but dining is more relaxed in Estonia. A few of us found a tiny café tucked away in a nook. The food was tasty, but the experience was even better. While no one working there spoke English, our waitress understood everything we said. Working past the language barrier was interesting, and the only funny miscommunication was when someone ordered a cheese sandwich that was not a sandwich at all, but pieces of cheese cut into the shape of french fries!

We got back to the church in time to warm up and go to the sanctuary for the service. Afterwards, the few Estonians in the church left! Luckily a few people came back to watch. It was disappointing to not have had a bigger audience because the acoustics in that church were phenomenal, and the choir sounded great in there.

Wednesday, February 27

A Step in Time

This morning we had a tour of the Occupation Museum. Our guide's name was Antz, and when he introduced himself, he made a joke about not being a German "Hans," and not being an insect either. He explained the colors in the Estonian flag as blue for the sky and water, black for the soil and their dark past, and white for purity. He talked about the different occupations, but focused on the two most recent - Nazis during World War II and the Soviets before and after the war.

After lunch we were able to tour Parliament, and we got to sit in on a session in progress. Professor Riess obtained permission for us toclimb up a medieval spiral tower. The stairs were very tightly wound, but we didn't stop until we reached the room in the top of the tower. Then we were able to go up on the roof for an even clearer view of Tallinn.

The entire choir went to see "Rigoletto" at the Estonian National Opera tonight. Our seats were too far back to see the subtitles, so it was sometimes difficult to follow. I bought a program, though, and read the synopsis before the show began. It was fun to get dressed up, but the rain and the cold made for a long walk back to the hotel.

Thursday, February 28

Ohioans in Estonia

While we originally had the morning free, Professor Riess secured a private viewing of the "The Singing Revolution," a documentary made by Americans that has not yet opened in the United States. It was an excellent film, and probably one of my favorite cultural things we've done here.

We had to hurry back to the hotel afterwards to leave for Tartu. Even though Tartu is the second-largest Estonian city, this university town boasts only 100,000 residents. Our concert was at the Salemi Church, and our hosts were from Ohio! Mr. and Mrs. Linded moved to Tartu over 10 years ago, and Mr. Linded is the pastor of the church. The church was beautiful and heated. Mrs. Linded prepared brownies, tea and coffee for everyone.

Friday, February 29

Falling Snow

Today we went to the art museum, and while we were waiting to enter, fat flakes of snow were falling. We saw a pond that was halfway frozen with ducks skating across the watery surface, which was reminiscent of the lake behind ONU's Freed Center and the ducks that stay during the winter.

At the museum was an elevator that held 120 people! Our group crammed in for a picture, of course. For lunch we sample d Estonian Mexican food - very spicy. After a nice afternoon break, a friend and I wandered Old Town looking for a new place to eat. We settled on a modern jazz restaurant called Déjà Vu. Most of us had started to feel travel weary, so we called it an early evening.

Saturday and Sunday, March 1 and 2

Going Home
Helsinki, Finland

We departed Estonia for Finland, the first stop in our long journey home. Professor Riess recommended a local restaurant, where I tried reindeer - it was delicious. Our flight from Helsinki was delayed enough that our layover in Frankfurt was eliminated. Even though our next flight was delayed, the choir still had to dash from one end of the terminal to another, through customs, and straight onto the plane. During the flight I reset my watch in an attempt to get readjusted to Ohio time. The long trans-Atlantic flight gave us time to catch our breath after a week of whirlwind performances and cultural experiences that none of us will ever forget.

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Saturday, February 23


Today we finally arrived in Estonia! To say the least, everyone is a bit beat due to the grueling travel arrangements: first, the grueling flights to Frankfurt, Germany, then to Helsinki, Finland, and then the ferry ride across the Baltic Sea into Tallinn, Estonia. Collectively, we were all awake for approximately 24 hours with only a nap here and there. So, for our first exhilarating free night in the capital of Estonia, we were sleeping!

True NorthSunday, February 24

Indepedence Day

Today we departed for Rapla, which is best known for its beautiful countryside. The landscape that we came across was absolutely breathtaking. Rapla possesses some of the most beautiful structures (houses and churches) that the country has to offer. The church we sang at today was gorgeous and, even though we were all reveling in the grandeur of the sanctuary and in love with the marvelous acoustics for choral singing, we all found out very quickly that Estonian churches are not heated very well. But our presentation of music was well received and the congregation appeared to genuinely like our approach to singing.

Shortly after, we attended a short choral festival, where several groups performed patriotic Estonian songs because today was Estonia's Independence Day. After this, Nils Riess, our very own personal American-Estonian, bought everyone dinner at a nice restaurant in the middle of the countryside. The food was delicious, but the evening was not over. A few of us went with Sarah Cushman, who previously studied in Estonia, for a mini-tour of the city. It was well worth our time, for we arrived at the top of a hill just when fireworks were being shot into the sky for Independence Day.

Monday, February 25

Old Town

Luckily, the weather today was absolutely gorgeous for our walking tour of "Old Town," which is essentially the tourist part of Tallin (the Estonian capital). The cobblestone roads and stone pillars everywhere did, in fact, make everything seem very old and antique-ish. There were four beautiful churches (including a gorgeous Russian Orthodox Church), and any visitor could easily see why Estonia is one of the Baltic's best-kept secrets.

After a day of sightseeing, we performed at the Püha Vaimu Church, which is one of the churches in Old Town. Luckily, this church was warmer so we could sing with support and focus on the music. The audience tonight seemed to be just as responsive as the last and really appreciated our talents. We also had tonight free so many of us went out to experience the Estonian nightlife.

Tuesday, February 26


Today, we boarded the bus again to perform at another church in Parnu. This bus ride was three hours long, and once we arrived, University Singers had yet another interesting experience. We practiced at the Elisabet Church (which was also beautiful) before our concert and found out that our concert started after a full Catholic mass at the church.

The service ended around 7:30, and our concert was supposed to begin around 8. But after mass, everyone left! We waited until 8:00 to see if anyone would show up, and amazingly enough, a handful of people found their way into the sanctuary. So, we performed a 20-minute concert for these people (who were very grateful). Most of the choir seemed disappointed, so Dennis decided to make it up to us by stopping at a Hesburger! Hesburger is an Estonian national fast food chain, much like McDonald's.

Wednesday, February 27

History Lessons

Today we learned a lot about Estonia's history. The day began with a trip to the Occupation Museum, which was entirely dedicated to the telling of how Estonia came to be and how the country survived through the Russian and Nazi Occupation. One of the most interesting facts I learned was what the colors in the national flag stood for. The national flag has three horizontal lines of blue, white and black. The blue stands for the sky and water, which demonstrates their great geographical location right by the Baltic Sea. The white stands for hope and the future. The black stands for the soil and remnants of the dark past that will never be forgotten. Very cool I think!

The next stop was Parliament. Our tour guide gave us a little more history of Estonia, focusing more on the political side. We were able to sit in on a meeting where an environmental issue was discussed. After the tour, some of us climbed our way to the top of Herman Tower, which was on the premises. It was well worth it, for once we found our way to the top, we saw the best view of Tallin.

We returned to the hotel to change for a night at the opera. Nils Riess arranged for the choir to see the Verdi tragedy "Rigoletto," which was sung in Italian. The opera house was beautiful, and because we were all singers, we could all appreciate the talent being displayed.

Thursday, February 28

Today, Nils Riess started our day with yet another amazing experience. Nils arranged a private screening of a movie called "The Singing Revolution." This was probably the most informational way to tell Americans about Estonia's independence, because it was mostly a film in English. The Singing Revolution is a commonly used name for the events between 1987 and 1990 that led to the restoration of the independence of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The movie illustrated the importance of song in Estonia and how singing can bring people together.

After this, we departed for Tartu, the city that would host our last concert. Tartu has the largest university in Estonia residing there. So, we felt a little more at home upon arrival, also because the minister of the church we were singing at was originally from Ohio! It was amazing to hear him flip between Estonian and English. And the church was heated! We had a decent-sized audience, and the concert went extremely well. This gig could not have been any better!

Friday, February 29

Museums and Home Cooking

Today, it started out snowing, but became a wonderful day. In fact, we have yet to experience any really cold Baltic weather. The day began with a trip to the National Gallery, which was an art museum. It was interesting to see how the art reflected the occupation of the year the painting/sculpture was made. Obviously, art reflects the emotions of the time, so it was interesting to observe so many different points of view.

After this, I left with Sarah Cushman (who previously studied in Estonia) and another girl to roam Tallin. We decided to leave the tourist part of the capital and see where Sarah spent most of her time when she stayed here. We met with Sarah's host mom, which was quite the experience. The host mom found out we were coming to meet her approximately 15 minutes before we arrived. When we showed up at her house, she had prepared pancakes, jelly, honey, tea, and a date dessert in that short amount of time. We thought we were going to explode by the time we left, for if you don't eat in Estonia, then the cook takes offense, even if you are full.

Saturday, March 1

Coming Home
Helsinki, Finland

Today we boarded the ferry to cross back over in Helsinki, Finland. We were not in Helsinki for long, but for the short time we are here, it is amazing seeing the difference between here and Estonia. An American would relate Helsinki to that of a city like New York. All of the streets are very busy, and the city itself is much more modern. We only had a couple hours to roam about, so unfortunately, we did not get to see as much of Helsinki as I would have liked.

This here will end my journal, for all that remains is the long flight home back to Detroit. I cannot express how surprisingly happy I am that I got to spend my last spring break in cold Estonia! I was around my favorite people constantly and I got to sing my heart out in a country that loves to sing! I truly believe I would have never have even thought to visit Estonia had it not been for Nils Riess and this choir. I am eternally grateful and I can only hope to someday return to this fascinating place!

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