southland and northland

A scene from Pippi on the South Seas (1948) by Astrid Lindgren, with illustrations by Ingrid Vang Nyman.

THE ISLAND OF LANZAROTE is among the more serene of the Canary Islands. Its rolling hills and valleys are treeless and often barren, and many of them are covered with black petrified lava fields. For this, one could call it the Spanish moon. The resorts — while they exist — approach nothing of the scale, mayhem, and decadence of those found in Tenerife and Gran Canaria, other islands to which many Estonians escape to bronze themselves and soak their snow-white toes in the Atlantic these months, and maybe have a fling with a Spaniard, or at least a Brit on holiday.

Just to observe the Estonians’ behavior in Lanzarote is a treat for me. The way they pass around the current temperature reading in Arrecife like a hookah on the airplane (“I heard it’s 30 degrees.” “Really?” “Yes, really. Thirty degrees!” “Uskumatu!”) As if this was some minor miracle of nature. Then the grumbling on the way back to Estonia. (“The news this morning said it’s 3 degrees.” “Oi, issand.”) As if they had forgotten on Lanzarote that it never really stops snowing in Estonia.  

I think the funniest aspect of the Estonian vacation mentality was raised by my daughter Anna on the flight back though.

“Why did you go to Lanzarote?” said an older fellow, making chitchat with her.

“Well, it’s supposedly just 100 kilometers from Africa,” she said. “It’s almost Lõunamaa.”

“It’s not almost Lõunamaa,” the man cut her off. “It is Lõunamaa.”

“Really? I thought that Africa was Lõunamaa. Hmm.”

Someone (her mother) must have told her that Africa was “Lõunamaa” when she was very small and now the idea was stuck in her head. But, as I had to explain to her, for most Estonians the term “Lõunamaa” (“Southland”) is not one place. It is any place there happen to be palm trees, beaches, and smiling, dark-skinned locals, waiting to serve up a tropical drink. “Lõunamaa” isn’t just Africa, or the Canary Islands, or India, or Brazil, or Australia. They are all part of one giant imaginary landmass.

My own idea of how the Estonians’ see “Lõunamaa” is probably influenced by Ingrid Vang Nyman’s illustrations in Pippi in the South Seas, where three children called Pippi, Tommi, and Annika, find themselves in a “Lõunamaa” paradise, go native, wear grass skirts, eat bananas, turn a pinkish color, and are treated like royalty. Of course, nobody mentions the rebel militias on the island, the lack of sanitation, or cruel poverty. Because that’s not what “Lõunamaa” is about. “Lõunamaa” is an imaginary place, that many real places, like the Canary Islands, only resemble.

The opposite of “Lõunamaa” of course is “Põhjamaa” (“Northland”). For the Estonians also intuit “Põhjamaa” in a similar way, and I have come to see it that way too in my years here. Because when your plane at last lands back in Tallinn after this jaunt abroad to “Lõunamaa,” you notice the neat and even squares of electric lights below. You arrive into city at midnight that is like the moon in some ways too. But while Lanzarote’s nature resembles the moon, it is Tallinn’s temperature and vacant streets that are moon like. Supposedly Tallinners pride themselves on their city being the most happening place in this country, but at midnight, there is nobody out in the streets, a handful of cars, and the only cheerful sight in Tallinn, or anywhere, is the glowing light coming from the Statoil gas station.

A graveyard quiet comes over you and you readjust your inner temperature to match the outside one. You suddenly don’t feel much like eating bananas. You feel like saying nothing at all. You just want to have some tea and curl up in bed or something. You watch the thick pine forests through the car windows on the drive home. You find a neatly cared for wooden house, set back among the trees, warmed by wood-heated furnaces. This place is called Estonia, but it could be Finland (with that Rimi Hypermarket), or Norway (with that Statoil sign). The Estonians call this place “Põhjamaa,” and while it pains them to step out into 3 degrees Celsius and a light drizzle, they are also comforted by it in a way. It wakes them up, like a refreshing splash of cold water to the face.

After all of those adventures with the Lõunamaa natives, it is at last time for them to come home.