Oct 302012

On October 25th began our first snowfall around 3 PM in the afternoon.  Through my office window, I could see the sky become a steely gray.  First there was a mix of rain and snow and then it all changed to snow.  We had tickets for the theater that evening.  I decided to leave a little bit earlier to give us time to eat and walk to Vanemuise, Tartu’s largest theater.  I am so glad that we live but 10 minutes by foot from Center City. Theaters are conveniently close and well within walking distance.

All the Estonian plays that we have seen so far have been very well done.  Early in the season we decided to purchase tickets to go to various plays and concerts almost every other week during our stay here. The acting has been good, the sets and productions very professional.  The first play that we saw back in September was a tragicomedy titled Panic (Paanika, ehk Mehed närvivapustuse äärel) by a Finnish playwright Mika Myllyaho.  The play consisted of only three male parts and revolved around the lives of a graphic designer, an engineer and a TV personality.  Each of the men was going through a midlife crisis.  Their lives were intertwined, however, with each other in fun ways– but thank goodness, not in a homosexual way.  The latter theme I find is just being overdone in the US.  This play was at the “Sadam Teater” (Harbor Theater) right next to Emajõgi.  This theater reminds me very much of our small American Theater in St. Petersburg, Florida.

The second play was a drama “Puhastus” (The Purge) and is based on a factual story taking place between 1936-1992 and surrounding the author’s (Sofi

Oksanen’s) mother’s side of the family who was Estonian and lived in Estonia near Haapsalu. The book is available from Amazon books.  The play is about two sisters who are caught up in Stalin’s horrific acts toward innocent people and their deportation in cattle cars to Siberia. Over a tenth of Estonian’s population was affected:  If people were not outright executed, families were separated, and the men, women and children were sent to Siberia.  Many died in Siberia.  Survivors eventually – after ten to twenty years in exile- were able to return to Estonia.  Some were sent back again.  In the play via multiple flashbacks, it becomes apparent that one sister was sent to Siberia, is still alive, but has not yet returned.  The play, however, focuses on the other sister who survives in Estonia, but in a way, did so by selling her soul. The play begins with her Siberian sister’s grandchild entering her now rather lonely life in 1992, right after Estonia’s newly regained independence.  The book has been translated into more than 9 languages and the play has similarly been on the stage of as many countries in Europe. As I understand it will be also at the Mama Theater in New York City. This play was at the Väike Maja of Vanemuise (a small theater up the hill from Vanemuise). Click on single pictures for captions.

The play we saw on the evening of our first snowfall was “Mary Poppins”.  The play and songs were all translated into Estonian and was very entertaining!

This production was in the Great Hall of Vanemuise. The original theater built in 1906 (see model below of the original theater)  was completely destroyed during the Soviet occupation  .

The present day Vanemuise Theater occupies the same site as the original.   Mary Poppins was quite an international production with the Director from Sweden, Music Director and Stage Designer from Estonia, costume designer from Scotland; lighting was done by a Swede, and the choreographer was from the United States….Reading about the play, it appears there is a special arrangement with a Music Theater International group in New York City to present the play and to even obtain performance materials, set design, costumes, props, etc from this same group.  It seems a good way to be able to put on plays of this caliber and to do it in a cost-effective way.

Present Vanemuine Theater, as viewed from one of the restaurants at the shopping mall.



When we left the theater to walk back home, it was still snowing.  It continued into the night and not until next morning did it began to clear. We got some nice pictures.  It has been now hovering around freezing temperatures during the day and below freezing at night.


In regards to concerts, one pleasurable one was a group called “Kum-Ba-Yah”.  They sang at the historic St. John’s Church (Jaani Kirik).  I was intrigued, because this group was from Germany, but they were to sing our US Negro spirituals and gospel songs.  A German group singing our Negro spirituals??  Interesting!!  So I went and have to say I enjoyed it!  I like our US Negro spirituals, but this was somewhat different- a German rendition of them.  I have heard Negro spirituals sang in Charleston, South Carolina which was close to what I would think would reflect quite closely the spirituals of the American South before the Civil War.  Kum-Ba-Yah’s version was not quite the same –but not bad. The conductor of the group really got the audience involved with clapping to the rhythms of the songs. He was quite an exuberant conductor! They also sang African folk songs, gospels, and spiritually up-lifting songs as “Climb Every Mountain”.  After the concert, the singers mingled with the audience. Two people came over to talk with me. Unfortunately, they did not speak English (although they could sing it) and started to talk German.  I had to pull myself together to try out my German that I had learned in high school and college. Five years of German in all, but when one does not practice speaking, it becomes very rusty.  Surprisingly, I was able to manage to a point that they understood me and I them as well.  Jüri did not come with me this evening, as he was having some hip problems that I think developed from his taking part in a 10 km walking race the week before.  He walks a lot, but 10 km and at a faster clip??  I was still in the US at the time of the race and was not able to “dampen his enthusiasm” for taking part in it.  He came in first for his age group, but as he smilingly said, he was also the only one in that group…. Matter of fact, there was no one in the above 50 age groups!  Apparently, the seniors in Estonia conserve their energy for the cold winter months.

Oct 172012

Autumn is here.  Tree leaves have changed to many different shades of yellow. A thick carpeting of leaves now covers our favorite trails.  Skies are mainly gray with almost daily rain. This morning we again awoke to steady rain.  Quite a few have told me that autumn makes them depressed with its overall grayness and dampness.  I agree about the dampness, but cannot say that I feel any depression.  On the contrary, I have always enjoyed the change of seasons and it is something that I miss in Florida.  In Florida certainly we have cool temperatures arrive around Christmas. Pine needles fall and live oaks lose their leaves.  It is not, however, with the glorious color changes that one sees in the northern climates.  So I am enjoying this.  I try to go for daily walks after lunch and after work.  There are several paths that one can follow under high trees with leaves swirling in the wind as new clouds approach providing another downpour.  I have noticed that  in the parks and along walkways two straight lines of trees have been planted to frame the paths.  This appears to be an European landscaping custom.  Certainly it makes for an enjoyable outing for the runners, walkers, and joggers.  These trails are also lit at night.  These paths are seemingly quite old, as the trees are very tall.  It makes for a picturesque walk, especially in the fall. I look forward to seeing it with snow.

I’ve added several slideshows to this post.  They may take awhile to upload.  Please send me comments, if you do not see the images appear and which browser you are using.  I will try to remedy the problem.


The other thing that I have noticed is that people  here like to take the shortest route between two points.  So if there is no sidewalk present to make the trip shorter, there is a well trodden path through the grass to a neighboring building, sidewalk, or bus-stop.  With the rain, these paths become rather muddy and one notices them becoming wider and wider, as people try to keep to the grassy area.  People are no different here than other places where I have been, as I remember the same thing happening on our U.S. university campuses, as students cut corners across grassy areas.  Eventually the administration gives in and paves the paths.  I wish somebody would pave the path that leads to the bus-stop from the hospital!  There is no way, I am going to take the long route when I might miss the next bus…..

We flew back to the United States for close to two weeks at the end of September-early October.  We left a day earlier to go to Tallinn, as we had a morning flight out of the Tallinn Airport.  There is a new airport in Tartu, but it has very few flights, so pretty much one needs to fly out of Tallinn which is 2.5 hrs away.  I never tire of visiting the Old City part of Tallinn and will be going again this Saturday.  I have added some new pictures that we took during our visit at the end of September.

Before I forget, I thought I would share this youtube video with you to provide you a short history lesson on Tallinn and the various conquests that have taken place across the ages.  I think it is nicely done showing how that medieval city was built.  Hope you enjoy it as well. While in Tallinn we stopped at a restaurant Sfäär on Mere Puiestee that features what is called Nordic Cuisine.  I would highly recommend it. These Nordic restaurants feature dishes typical of Scandinavia using local fresh produce, but with interesting new types of combinations.  For example, Juri had reindeer with lingonberries and potatoes that were done differently; I had wild boar with apples and a nice beet, parsnip, and lettuce salad.  The restaurant also had a nice selection of wines.

Next day we flew to Washington, DC and stayed with our younger daughter who works at NIH.  We attended a Gala dinner dance in Washington, DC as part of a fund-raiser for Estonioan-American youth organizations.  After the Gala, Juri flew back to Tartu, while I flew onto Florida to give a talk that I had promised to give at a Pediatric Cardiology Conference a year ago, before I knew about the Fulbright.  I was able to catch up with my own research at USF with my lab members and to check up on our home.  There was a lot of weeding to do and taking care of landscaping at home – more than I would have imagined. I made new arrangements for better lawn service.  I am glad I made that trip.  A downside was catching a horrible cold on one of the flights – most likely the overseas one and then waiting 2 hours to go through US customs. I am only now beginning to get over it. This is a down-side of flying, especially in the fall months.

I thought I would give you a tour of my Fulbright lab.  The front entrance  of the hospital where the lab is located was under construction when I arrived in August and was recently opened up. This hospital is part of the University system and mainly houses the Psychiatry clinics and hospital wing and also Dermatology.  Why the Hematology-Oncology labs are here is just a matter of where there was space at that time.  Apparently a new building is being built and our labs will be moving there. I was given a three-year appointment at the University, so if the research goes well, I may come back for shorter time periods.  As one comes into the hospital there is a nice atrium with a small coffee and lunch shop. The atrium has quite a few palm trees making me feel right at home.  It will be especially nice during the cold and dark winter months. Our lab and offices are up the winding stairs on the second floor.  I have a nice, bright, large office with a nice view.  The lab is down the hall.  The lab is a nice size and looks the same as labs do all over the world.  Lab benches, basic cell and molecular lab equipment, and chemicals on shelves and benches. Dr. Everaus’s lab is quite well-equipped.  She has benefited from some nice Eurozone grants for her research. Hele Everaus is quite well known in Estonia. Whenever I mention that I am collaborating with Dr. Everaus at the University, I am told that ,oh, she is famous!   Not only is she a good doctor and heads the Bone Marrow Transplantation Clinic, but she also gives lectures pertaining to different health topics on the  television and radio. Many people see and listen to those broadcasts.  The lab people are shown in a photo we took at our last lab meeting. We now have patients’ permissions to use their cells and have started our experiments. Very preliminary results show promise!

Oct 012012

I have been busy with my grant writing and research plans here at Tartu.  As a result, I have gotten a little behind with my blog reports.

Our lives have settled now into a routine.  We get up around 6:30 AM-7:00 and have breakfast.  Jüri has found the farmer’s market (turg) especially to his liking and is whipping up wonderful breakfasts.  Having worked with really early stages of chick embryos, I know what fresh eggs look like.  Tartu’s farmer’s market has the freshest, most remarkable  eggs I have ever seen.  The egg yolk is almost orange in color and when you break it open in the pan, the heavy white albumin forms a mound around the yolk.  Fantastic!  He fries local smoked bacon with it, that doesn’t seem to have too much fat and adds freshly picked mushrooms (more about this later).  Estonia has what is termed in direct translation ‘sour milk’ (hapupiim).  It is somewhat like buttermilk in the US, but has a different taste to it.  I like it better than buttermilk.  One mixes a cup of hapupiim with a tablespoonful of ‘kama’, a mixture of ground, dried grain types of all kinds, as well as ground dried peas.  Although it may not sound like it, it makes, however, a very tasteful drink.  I like it slightly sweetened, preferably with local honey.  After a cup of kama, we have coffee with a fresh pastry.  One thing I have noticed about Estonian pastries and desserts, they have a lot less sugar than we usually see in our pastries and cakes in the U.S.  So, we have a rather good breakfast. As one can imagine, I should not have too much for lunch, and usually don’t. I allow myself these good breakfasts every other day. On the alternate days I have just some type of granola with fruit. I rationalize the large breakfasts with my being much more physically active here than back home in Florida.  Here we do not have a car and as a result we do a lot of walking. On the way home, I get off the bus earlier than needed so that I can take a 30 minute walk back to the apartment through the old historic part of the city and through the center city square.

I usually catch the 8:27 AM bus to get to my office by 9:00 AM. I bought a monthly bus ticket that allows me to jump on any bus any time of the day.  So, if I miss one bus, I can walk to a main transfer point about 15 minutes away and take another bus that will take me close to my destination.  This works out well.  If one buys just one ticket that can be only used within the hour, it can create problems.  City bus overseers can board any bus at anytime and if you should be riding without a correct ticket, you are escorted off the bus and fined 40 euros.

My office is quite large with large windows looking out over fields and a forest further off in the distance.  To the left is a view onto a large mall that is about a 20 minute walk away. On that side I have a view of a large smiley face that has been placed at the entrance to the mall.  That smiley face is a nice way to start out the day! For taking a bus home, I go to the mall, because most buses go there, as their last stop.

In the lab are 4 nice young people:  Triin who recently finished her Master’s and now is working on a genotyping project, including SNP analysis, related to a certain group of cancer patients.  She plans on starting her Ph.D soon.  I will be working with Triin specifically on our stem cell project.  Triin is an attractive, very smart, young woman with a lot of interests.  One is music and she sings in Tartu’s Women’s Choir.  We went to one of her concerts one Friday evening at a local Lutheran church, Maarja Kirik.  The congregation presently is quite small and is headed by a young minister. This church has quite a history.  During the Soviet takeover of Estonia in 1944, that part of Tartu was bombed and most of the wooden buildings burned to the ground.  Only the walls of the church remained. Rather than rebuild it as a church, during the Soviet period the building was restored to be a gym where a local basketball team played for years.  The small congregation is now in the process of restoring the building back to the original church layout and they are trying to rebuild the congregation.  There will be years of work ahead of them. The pews are in place and the present alter is literally a large mural photo of the original altar.  I have never heard so many songs dedicated to Ave Maria, as I heard that evening.  With the old gymnasium/church setting, subdued lights, and religious music being sang, it was somewhat melancholy and served to again remind one of the hardships endured by this small country and its people..

Many Estonians are involved with music at some level. Most of us in the US who follow classical music, most likely have heard the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s music which is often played  at concerts or on the classical music stations.  Two Estonian conductors Neeme Järvi and Eri Klaas are world renown.  We have heard the young Estonian female conductor Anu Tali with the Sarasota Symphony Orchestra in Florida. Her concerts tend to be sold out when she conducts there. I read that she will be conducting in Sarasota again in January 2013. Every city in Estonia tends to have several choirs and and there are numerous concerts going on all the time, that it is hard to pick and choose.  An ensemble that I hope to hear in December is Hortus Musicus. This is a group that has been singing and playing for 40 years.  They chiefly sing Renaissance music, wear period costumes, and play period instruments, as they move and jump around on stage and sing.  They are very popular all over Europe. Music was the underpinning for Estonian’s push to independence at the end of 1980’s and 1990, as witnessed by James Tusty’s movie Singing Revolution that played at theaters around the U.S. and now will be aired by PBS.

Alar, another person in the lab, is a Senior Research Specialist who is also a father of four children.  The last child was born this summer, before I came.  Then there is Anna, who seems to be a person who likes sports and Kristi, a lab technician with a young child who just started school. They all seem to be bright, energetic young people, in general on the quiet side and very respectful in their attitude. I have been working on my grant pretty much nonstop.  It was submitted September,25th, so I feel I have not had the time to get to  know everybody very well yet, except for Triin.

You may be wondering what Juri has been doing with his time, while I am at the lab.  He is busy as ever and says that there is no way that he could be bored.  He visits the different bookstores in Tartu and is reading a lot about Estonia’s history and especially what happened in Estonia before and during the Soviet occupation.   It indeed is a sad and horrible time in Estonia’s long history.  I worry about how we will be able to take back all the books that are appearing in small stacks in the apartment.…. He may take a bus out into the countryside and takes short hikes along various trails. In the early fall, he went on a trip organized by one of the museum’s of Tartu University to go mushroom picking.  You’re probably thinking –  ‘Mushroom picking’??  At the end of summer and into the fall, mushroom picking appears to be a national pastime in Eastern Europe and certainly in Estonia.  The Museum wanted to have a special exhibit of all the different types of mushrooms that grow in Estonia and organized the trip to collect them.  Jüri signed up to learn about the local fungi, and especially the poisonous ones.  The white Ammonita is one of the most poisonous.  Jüri had the dubious honor of finding the first one for the exhibit. I felt safe eating the mushrooms,that he brought home , however, because they had been checked over by the experts in the field. Indeed, needless to say, we had an exceptionally fine mushroom dinner that evening!

On one Saturday, a couple that we knew previously and who had visited us in Florida, invited us to go on a hike with them to see a bog and mire in the Southern part of Estonia – about 2 hours away, not far from Võru.  They picked us up and as we left Tartu, it was pouring rain.  As we made our way toward the southern part of the country, it began to clear and by the time, we reached the bog, it was only cloudy.  I read somewhere that bogs and mires cover almost a third of Estonia. Where we went is a National Park area (Meenitunno Kaitseala) with a trail made of planks that takes you across the mire to a small picturesque lake.  From there we continued on to the other side where a pine forest takes over, as the land starts to climb away from the mire.  On that side, there were a lot of mushrooms and Jüri and my friend’s wife started picking.  I’m not too keen on picking, since I know nothing about mushrooms, nor which would be the poisonous ones; Rein does not care for them, so the two of us walked on ahead. We decided to follow a trail through the woods back to the car, instead of going back on the mire.  Unfortunately it began raining and the hour was getting late.  I was somewhat concerned that we would not make it out of the forest before we were overtaken by darkness.  None of us had a flashlight.  That is rule number one, when one goes hiking…. We pass a large anthill as we make our way through the woods.  We just made it back to the car, but at times it was hard to see the trail, because the pines were quite tall and blocked out what little light there still was. We drove back to their home and had a tasty late dinner that Viivi had prepared that morning, knowing we could be late getting back.  Conversation flowed and when I checked my watch, it was already past 2 AM!  We called a taxi and got back to our apartment within 20 minutes.  All in all another nice day spent with friends.

See photos here: