Midsummer: the longest day and my half birthday.

On leaving Tallinn, Rein had told me about a unique festival that is held on 22nd June each year near his grandmother’s old house in Suure Jaani. To be more precise, in the middle of a swamp named Hüpassaare. It is the climax of a music festival, marks the longest day of the year and celebrates the invigorating long daylight hours. It was enough reason for me to quit the farm and journey to the sticks, well a different part of the sticks.

I bid my Saaremaa family a sad farewell, leaving with an armful of bread, flour and pictures from the children. Five hours later I was welcomed into the bosom of my next adoptive family in Taaksi. I was there long enough for two ciders and to watch the football match with the gents before it was time to head to the swamp for the concert.

Rein’s sister, Kati, drove like a bat out of hell to catch the shuttle bus from Suure Jaani to the concert. I could only deduce that we were running a little late. The pleasure, their mother told me, lies in the walk as much as the concert. You have to stroll some kilometre or more through forest and across boardwalks over the lowlands to the actual venue, which is slightly raised above the real bog and has echoless studio acoustics thanks to the ecology. A few years ago they even helicoptered a grand piano in for the event.

Swamp at sunset, approximately 2am


We took our time and stopped to look at the plants and information boards in the gloaming. The conditions here are so harsh and the peat so lacking in nutrients that the scattered pine trees that appear to be only saplings are in fact often older than your parents, no matter how old your parents are. There are a few bog pools as well, with water so brown that it could be cola. It’s also perfectly sterile so we collected a bottle to wash down the vodka.

Bog water

At 3am, once the collected crowd of about 300 people was assembled, the music began. Choral music, strings, and a bit of sax thrown in for good measure.

Some people come with a tarpaulin, lay it down and go to sleep. Seems like a frightful waste of money to me but it’s apparently nice just to let the music drift over you. I can recommend plowing through the brush to a distance of a few hundred metres from the audience to enjoy the strains of music drifting out over the eerie countryside.

The sun goes down at about 2.30am and by 4am, up it pops again! Curiously in the same place that it sets. It is accompanied in its resurgence by a carefully-selected, appropriate tune, this year a bit of Grieg. Then the crowds drift back to the vehicles, swatting casually at mosquitoes as they go, to slump into their beds in the wee small hours. Perfect.

Sun coming up over the small crowd

Kati admiring the morning sky

Ping! Estonian lady indulging the Estonian fad for swimming in icy pools of water wherever possible.

The beautiful country house stands next to a small lake in the village with ample land for growing vegetables and the mandatory sauna at the end of the garden. It used to belong to Rein’s grandmother but since she passed away it has become a family resource for everyone to use. It’s gloriously old-fashioned with a wood-fired oven in the kitchen and filled with bric-a-brac collected over a lifetime by the family matriarch. During the clear-up, pictures were unearthed that the 30-year olds had drawn in their childhood. Records were discovered and played from the 70s. There are several cupboards filled with warm, old clothes and it is something of a tradition to rummage around in the cupboard for something to wear, a tradition in which I needed no encouragement to partake.

Kitchen hearth

It was filled with aunts, uncles, cousins, partners and hangers on (me) for the summer party. They are a close family and even as I was there were discussing a grand outing en masse to Lithuania. Of course, everyone is also required to muck in in the maintenance and general housework. Curiously everyone seems to know their role without being told. The boys went off to chop wood, paint the dunny, plough a field and clean up the woodstacks for winter. The ladies weeded the garden, sorted the old clothes, spring cleaned and prepared endless volumes of food.

Me and Judith (sweetly pronounced Youdeet), Rein’s girlfriend, were not in the telepathy loop and so were at a loss for what to do once we’d cleared as many plates as we could find  and done the washing up. So off we traipsed up the hill, where we’d heard rumours of wild strawberries. Having finally hunted them down we went into a strawberry frenzy and could barely drag ourselves away from picking more and more, threading them on to blades of grass to deliver back to the house. But stop we must for we had been tasked with collecting birch, juniper and oak branches from which to make the vicht (bundle of branches) for whipping in the sauna. Triumphant, we returned, delivering sweet wild berries to rapturous applause.

The sweetest strawberries you ever did taste.

Sauna branches

Pleased with ourselves, we went on a booze run and settled down to drink beer. At about 11pm, after a BBQ feast and our first sauna and skinny-dip plunge into the lake (I know! Never thought I’d see the day.) of the night, the bonfire was lit. Ta daa! Much running around with children held on shoulders ensued before we went on a glow-worm hunt.


It is said that if you find a glow worm on midsummer’s night, you will have luck for several years. This was serious. After some hunting around the neighbourhood, we found eight and that will do for me. Apparently when Rein’s Mum was young you could find enough to make glowing garlands for your hair but they seem to be fewer and further between now. The ladies glow to attract the flying boys and so when you pick them up and hold them in your hand, they shrivel somewhat, cowed by the overwhelming worm oestrogen-fest.

After showing them to the girls as they toasted marshmallows, I returned them to the shrubs to glow once more. Normally sauna time is divided according to the sexes but as the night wears on, the boundaries seem to become blurred, especially as it is customary to sit in the ante-room and drink steadily.

In the light of the Sunday morning, people got up to potter about in their remaining tasks but steadily began to drift away. And me too, bidding a fond farewell to my second adoptive Estonian family. I got on a bus and headed South with only the notion of getting to Berlin to  meet Papa in place of a plan.

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