where people go to get away from the news

A woman cowers behind the base of a flagpole at the University of Texas at Austin on Aug. 1, 1966
A woman cowers behind the base of a flagpole at the University of Texas at Austin on Aug. 1, 1966

The word “linn” in Estonian is translated as “city” in English, but it would be an exaggeration to call “Viljandi Linn” a city. It is more of a town, and not much of one at that, with somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 inhabitants, depending on who is counting.

Situated in south Estonia, about two hours from Tallinn and an hour from Pärnu and Tartu, the fourth and second largest “cities” in this sparsely populated country, its main attractions are a well-preserved Old Town with colorful leaning wooden houses, a gorgeous lake view, mysterious castle ruins, and a cultural academy that attracts much of the country’s major musical and theatrical talent.

Every summer at the end of July, people from all across Estonia and many other places come to Viljandi to enjoy its annual folk music festival. It’s usually a peaceful event, and brings to mind Woodstock, with its carnival-like atmosphere and assortment of crazy characters and absurd and spontaneous happenings.

Every country has a bohemian hub like Viljandi, I guess. It’s where people who want to seek refuge from mainstream life disappear to. Women wear old-fashioned, homemade clothing, bake their own bread (when they feel like it), sit around fires in winter with their feet up against the soothing texture of wooden floors and spread village gossip while the men drink coffee or beer and make idle jokes about everything. The children play, too, with dolls or toy cars, and sometimes they strum their zithers and sing songs.

It’s about as ideal and enjoyable as life can get, but it’s only one part of Viljandi life.

Along with the cultural shakers, there is a rougher, left-behind, working-class edge to Viljandi.  Just around the neighborhood where we used to live, one could hear the coarse voices of village drunks arguing behind houses and encounter bratty street kids smoking cigarettes and yelling obscenities at passersby. In my own time there, I watched a young couple graduate from high school in love, bring a baby into the world out of wedlock, and then separate. I have not seen the young woman in some time, but the last time I saw the young man, he was standing outside a liquor store drinking. So there is a ghetto-like undercurrent to Viljandi that few comment on or address, a specter of hopelessness that tiptoes right behind the folksy frivolity.

There is also atomization, an increase in the space between people, a devolution to perpetual disengagement, and this is a phenomenon that has occurred throughout Estonia, as it has around the world. Children who spend their free hours staring at screens while their parents stare at other screens chatting with other adults who stare at screens. My God. Nobody talks, nobody opens up, nobody shares what is in their hearts. Why share something personal with another person when you can satisfy your needs the way you want to with a tap of the fingers? Many nights in Viljandi I would work late at the office and walk home alongside the buildings and look up through the windows to see zombie-like young people seated in the intoxicating glow of a device.

I cannot tell you much about the school shooting that occurred this week in Viljandi beyond what you have already read in the news. I can tell you that my first instinct has been to not think about it or what it means, and to continue on with my life. We no longer live in Viljandi, which makes it a “there” even though it’s right “here,” just an hour west of where I type this in Tartu. But many of my friends are “there” and I know that they are in shock, as am I, and are probably ignoring it as well because it is so hard to process how a 15-year-old boy could walk into a school and murder a teacher.

We are shocked because we believe that it should not have happened in Viljandi, which is where people go to get away from the news, and also because we believe that it should not have happened in Estonia, which is not Finland or Norway or the US, but small and quaint, a kind of Viljandi of the world. We are also shocked because we just cannot fathom that kind of act of violence, even though it has happened again and again and again in our societies. While the Columbine shootings in 1999 seemed to announce a new era of violence in schools, these kinds of things have occurred before many times, such as at the University of Texas at Austin in 1966, when a 25-year-old man climbed to the top of a tower and shot and killed 16 people and wounded 32 before being killed himself.

The writer Hunter S. Thompson famously labeled the unrest of the 1960s as the manifestation of a second, downward half of the 20th Century. It seems today though that the trend for the 21st Century is not up again but rather the same direction. And so people moan to each other about a world circling the drain, of which the Viljandi shooting is just another dip lower toward some eventual bottom. Because if there is social movement it must be toward a bottom. Unless, of course, there is no bottom at all.