Estonia’s minority cultures thrive at its margins—in the city apartments of Narva overlooking the road to Saint Petersburg, along the shores of Lake Peipus, amid the forests of Setomaa in the southeast that skirt the borders of Russia and Latvia, or on the island of Kihnu in the Baltic Sea. Estonians are fascinated by these “small cultures,” and often take off for the shores of Lake Peipus to buy braided onions, or head farther south to enjoy the traditional leelo songs of the Setos.
When driving through the villages along the shore of Lake Peipus, it’s clear that you have entered into a separate world. The dusty gravel roads, colorful houses tightly bundled together, the women at the side of the road selling this year’s onions, and then the lake, just visible with its tiny old fishing boats.
South of the Old Believers’ villages you cross the Võõpsu River and arrive in sandy pine forests filled with berries and mushrooms, which the locals gather and sell. There are several museums along the road and even a spa on the shore of Lake Peipus where mud baths and mineral water treatments attract people from near and far. Almost every village has a small wooden chapel or church, and on feast days, Seto families can be seen eating and drinking in cemeteries in memory of the dead. It’s not rare to catch a glimpse of women and men proudly wearing their folk costumes—something that has truly changed since the Soviet period when it was considered shameful to be Seto.
Leelo can be heard on feast days, but also at song festivals where singers improvise a song on stage and compete for the title sõnolinõ—skilled song creator. The roots of these competitions date back to the early 20th century when several singers were considered to be Song Mothers. A newer tradition is Kingdom Day held in August, where dancers, artisans, beer, and food makers compete, and a new Seto king or queen is elected until the next Kingdom Day.
Although the days of of extended families wandering around the countryside with horse wagons, camping by lake- or riversides with self-made tents, cooking food on open fires and working at fairs are now a memory, Romani people still treasure their past and value their traditions. Once mostly (horse) traders and fortunetellers, Estonian Romani these days work in different fields and many younger people look for ways to earn a living outside the country.
After an hour’s boat ride from the mainland, the ship arrives at Kihnu Harbor. Motorcycles with sidecars can be seen the port, but there are not very many cars on the island. The island is so small that it’s easy to explore it on foot or go for a bike ride from one end to the other. The island has a church, a lighthouse, a recreation center, and a village store. Local girls and women can be seen walking on the village roads wearing lovely striped skirts. The loveliest ones, the likes of which cannot be found anywhere else, are seen at the village parties.
In the tangle of high-rise panel houses, elderly women wearing fur coats and delicate rouge on their cheeks sit on wooden benches to rest feet that are weary from shopping. Their chatting is interrupted when beautiful girls and young men in sports uniforms spill out of a car and commence eating sunflower seeds as they enjoy music in their native language. The gathering of young people is observed by a group of old men, who are discussing the best mushrooming and fishing places.