Apologies for the break in blogging, but I’m just back from a trip to Saaremaa, the Estonian island that everyone says is extremely nice and which I was surprised to discover is actually extremely nice.
To be more accurate, I was on both Saaremaa and the smaller island of Muhu, which many folks rush through on their charge from the ferry terminal from the mainland to the capital of Saaremaa, Kuressaare.
The Muhu islanders are rather independently-minded and are developing a clever niche for themselves as a sort of creative colony, a subject about which I will write in succeeding posts, but for now I’ll just concentrate on one aspect of my Saaremaa ramble – the fact that I was accompanied for most of the time by Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves.
Understand that the bow-tied bigwig the Russians like to call ‘the Penguin’ wasn’t physically with me as I took in the Ozymandian cracked splendour of Poide church or the junipered solitude of the Sorve peninsula, but at times it felt like he was.
Wandering around the grounds of Kuressaare castle I came across a tree planted by Ilves on one of his visits and I subsequently literally stumbled on another piece of his dendrological spadework at another location.
During a visit to a farm that produces handmade soap in the middle of Saaremaa, I saw a picture of Ilves on a table. It turned out that he’d visited the place not once, but twice – the first time in an official capacity and the second for the express purpose of buying some soap for the presidential washbowl.
On Muhu island, President and the fragrant Mrs Evelin Ilves were on display again, this time in the excellent Kunstitall or art gallery in the village of Koguva. The photo recorded another visit to cut a ribbon and declare something open.
And these weren’t the only evidence that Ilves seems to have visited pretty much every house in Estonia at some point to have his photograph taken shaking hands with the owner. Estonia may be small, but such omnipresence still takes some doing and is the sort of thing that a disinterested president could probably dodge for much of the time.
Conversations even turned to the doings of the president. Purely by chance I found myself talking to the personnel manager of an Estonian ice cream company at one point. Before long we were discussing Ilves’ recent remark that he preferred Latvian ice-cream to the Estonian varieties.
Though the comment produced a minor and rather good-natured scandal, I was told that after the Estonian ice cream manufacturer sent him two tubs of their best vanilla in protest he at least had the decency to write back personally and immediately to say thank you.
It must rank as some sort of measure of the high regard in which Ilves is held by many Estonians that they bother to display their pictures of him at all. These are no iron-jawed official portraits that must be hung in all public buildings. These are grainy, badly-lit snapshots taken on the fly.
They are reminiscent of pictures from the family photo album of the day Uncle Albert got a bit tipsy or cousin Doris fell in the pond – shots that serve as aides memoires for a jolly event rather than an important engagement.
Which is just as well – you’d look a bit of a plonker adopting a tone of high political seriousness while choosing which fragrance of soap you’d prefer to wash your lugs with.