Milena Spigaglia

Milena Spigaglia is an Italian freelance writer and translator. She graduated from the University of Rome with a master’s degree in political science. Her main interests are politics and sociology. She loves animals and hates selfies. Based in Tallinn, she’s currently engaged in a deep recon of the Baltic area.

A national identity performed: the Estonian Song Celebration

The moment a Song Celebration conductor kisses their baton means a tribute to the soul of a nation; the Tallinn-based Italian expat, Milena Spigaglia shares her impressions of the Estonian Song Celebration 2019. I am currently reading a book about the nation state. The book was published last year in …

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Review: “Võta või jäta” – if being a good father means being a good citizen

Can the film submitted by Estonia to the Oscar competition suggest that fatherhood and citizenship share the same spiritual foundation?

Estonia has submitted Liina Triškina-Vanhatalo’s drama, “Take It or Leave It” (“Võta või jäta”), as the country’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film award. What makes it the right choice to represent Estonia at the next Oscars?

I do believe the film, whose main character is performed by the excellent Reimo Sagor, is a very Estonian movie and that it can beget some reflections about a social and political perspective on modern Estonia.

An Estonian drama

Erik (Reimo Sagor) had no plans but to go on with his job as a construction worker in Finland and getting money to enjoy a couple of beers and some decent one-night stands. One morning, he receives an unexpected call – he has a daughter. As the mother, his ex-girlfriend Moonika, refuses to look after the new-born, he must decide whether he agrees to put the baby up for adoption or to accept legal custody of the child and try to raise her as a single parent. Take it or leave it.

The film deals with many social issues. There is labour migration, which often means the frustration of having a poorly paid job. When the worker is married, then along comes a feeling of solitude for the one who leaves and for the one who stays as well. This can bring about drinking, unfaithfulness and other disruptive behaviours, until the family breaks apart.

The drama is also very Estonian in its representation. The depiction is essential, the dialogues are laconic, the music emphasises the gaze – those Estonian eyes that over the centuries have learned how rage can be dominated by dignity, and how lying can be as harmful as being lied to.

There is something that touches me in the typical Estonian expression, even though I haven’t fully understood the reason yet. That sort of poker face hosts the echo of the Livonian War and the Soviet deportations; the passion for music together with the appreciation of silence; and the humble, thorny solidity of the juniper wood.

There’s something more to this film, though.

When paternity turns into fatherhood

“Ta on täitsa minu nägu” (“She has got my face”). She has my features. This is how Erik explains why Mai cannot be but his daughter. He is full of ill-conceived pride for a likeness that is the primary ground on which he begins to build a relationship with his child.

But the face is not enough. “Take It or Leave It” is the story of a paternity that turns into fatherhood.

Throughout his troubled, painful path, Erik experiences an evolution that leads him to completely overcome the biological data and to make a surprising, overturning decision for himself and his daughter – thus landing so distant from any consideration based on blood.

Along the way, he and his daughter get to know each other. They give each other something that they couldn’t have taken for granted. Erik gives Mai a home; Mai gives Erik a purpose in life. And this changes things irreversibly.

What makes a father? To me, it is the same thing that makes a man: the assumption of responsibility.

Following a night spent at the mercy of a flirty and a quite alcoholic hoot, Erik realises that Mai comes first. Scared of losing her, Erik leaves his selfishness behind and musters all his energy to provide Mai with a safe and respectable environment. He chooses to devote his life to taking care of his daughter.

This is actually what virility means: it is overcoming instincts and presumed needs in order to put one’s moral strength at the service of a higher goal. It means steadiness in one’s resolution and control of natural aptitudes.

So, Erik undergoes not just a psychological change, but a spiritual one as well. By the way, the origin of the name Erik, which derives from Old Norse, tells us about a mix of significances like “one, alone”, but also “ruler, powerful”, and even honour and home. Definitely a virile name.

If we incidentally remind ourselves that in the ancient Roman culture, a woman could also be considered virile (the word “vira”, woman, shares the same root as “vir”, man) as long as she showed the same qualities of courage, reliability and stamina in her conduct, then I think we could take it a step further by saying that the assumption of responsibility is not only the bedrock of fatherhood but also of citizenship.

Father of the nation

Citizenship is also, in fact, not only a matter of blood. It is not about the right surname – even if, of course, a name can be a model and an inspiration, and that’s where the value of history lies. Citizenship is, most of all, a choice that needs to be honoured and renewed every single day. It is a form of devotion. It is the sacrifice of one’s ego, in order to make the nation safe and dignified. It is the effort at its preservation and its constant improvement. In this regard, in my opinion, we can talk about virile citizens – both men and women.

This film can be a suggestion of a conscious citizenship. Erik is an Estonia that grows and evolves. It can stumble but it is determined to stand on its own two feet and keep going.  An Estonia that takes responsibility and even the risk of opening its doors, while at the same time protecting its right to defend itself and its achievements from treason and sabotage.

I think being a citizen in this country must be a responsible choice – a choice that creates consequences for which a person is willing to assume responsibility – because by their deeds, citizens make a country look like the place they want for themselves and for their children, while at the same time they make themselves look like the country they have chosen.

Hence, they can say, “This is my country”, because “ta on täitsa minu nägu”.

I

Cover: A screenshot from “Võta või Jäta” (Allfilm).

Review: “Juured”, an Estonian documentary about women who are not ashamed of their wounds

Six Estonian female film directors share their intimate experiences and show us that facing pain is an act of freedom.

Is it a coincidence that the words “juuksed” (hair) and “juured” (roots) are so assonant in Estonian? Perhaps they share more than a vague sound. Almost all cultures consider hair as a symbol of an individual’s identity and energy that constantly regenerate itself. When a woman cuts her hair, she probably wants to leave a part of her past behind – because sometimes we need to sever our roots in order to fortify ourselves and start from anew.

This is what, in my opinion, Nora Särak, Aljona Suržikova, Kersti Uibo, Moonika Siimets, Anna Hints and Heilika Pikkov suggest us in the documentary, “Juured” (“Roots”). Each one of the authors – six Estonian directors of different age and experience – tells us her own personal story interwoven with pain, doubts and hopes. Each one of them faces her struggle to learn to let go. Cutting away part of their roots is the only way to get free, not from a man, nor from a place or a rule, but from the cage of their own torment.

Acceptance is the key

Sometimes we need to let go early plans and previous, comfortable certainties to know who we are, just like Nora does. She is daring and full of the burning desire to stay as close to his beloved – so much so that “sticking heads out of the car window is the most possible distance” between them.

Aljona is the strength of motherhood. Her generosity as a woman is overtaken only by her magnanimity as a director. She films the loss of her baby – can someone ask more of an artist? Aljona lets go of his son, and along with him a grief that could not have been described but exposing it.

Kersti is the wisdom of ageing, which is still capable to save a childlike gaze, where boundaries, comparisons and frustrations have no room. Only an amazed, silent stare is possible in front of the awareness that one of the existence’s rules prescribes that something has to die so that something else can be born.

Moonika introduces us to Tiina and Ülo, and shows that sometimes collecting things can mean the attempt to hide our lack of self-confidence. Once we let go of our regrets, we will let go of things along with them.

It can also happen that we need to let go the burden of our anger and grudge. Anna is the understanding that true forgiveness doesn’t wait for conditions to be fulfilled. She also realises that respect and gratitude do not mean love – learning to love is more difficult than learning to fly, as Nora argues.

Heilika’s story is the testament to a different age, and also a reminder that sometimes, in spite of our pains and troubles, it is worth to keep our roots alive.

The pain of creation means freedom

Nora, Aljona, Kersti, Moonika, Anna, Heilika: each one of these women is Estonian. Like everything in Estonia, it is not the width that matters, but the depth. The tales of their roots are short but intense.

Each one of these women is an artist. They leverage their sorrow to convey the meaning of their human path. As Emil Cioran says about books – and I think we can adopt this reflection to art as a whole – what makes them interesting is the amount of the suffering they hold. We are not captivated by ideas, rather by the author’s anguish, their screams, their silence, their sentences loaded with their unsolved questions. What is not born from pain is fake. Art needs to search among wounds, it is wound itself. And sometimes it is a danger because it questions the roots we rely on.

Each one of them finds a way to cope with suffering. Filming a documentary expresses their profound necessity of honesty. Here actually the medium is the message. They decide to reject lies and easy solace to embrace a truth that can be merciless, but, above all, liberating.

In none of these stories there is a “lender of last resort”: the presence of a man turns out to be secondary. Even God is not mentioned. These women define their identities by themselves, their choices and their power. All of them have in common the resolution to abandon shame and to embrace the courage to expose their wounds. In this respect, they are modern women making the decision that life is always worth living, no matter how hard it punches.

I

Cover: A still from the “Juured”.

“Seltsimees Laps” – not only a movie about Stalinist tyranny, but also on Estonian modesty

The Tallinn-based Italian expat, Milena Spigaglia, shares her thoughts on the new Estonian movie about the Stalinist tyranny, “Seltsimees Laps” (“The Little Comrade”).

When I was a child, I asked my mother – who passed away a few years ago and simply loved to take care of her garden – if plants understood that we trimmed them not to hurt them, but for their own good. She told me they probably did.

This is the immediate memory that the beginning of the Estonian movie, “Seltsimees Laps”, based on the autobiographical novel written by Leelo Tungal, brought back to me. In the movie, a six-year-old child asks her mother if trees can understand what we say, if they can listen to us when we are in trouble. She replies, they probably can.

A complex tale

“Seltsimees Laps” (“The Little Comrade”, directed by Moonika Siimets) is not just a film about the painful Soviet occupation and the cruel deportations ordered by Joseph Stalin that brutally broke many lives apart – even if the plot explains us their reality from the point of view of a thoughtful, intuitive little girl who must suddenly cope with the forced absence of her mother. She will try to do her best to be a good girl to make her mother come back soon – with changing fortunes, so giving life from time to time to touching or funny situations.

It is also a tale about preciousness of family, a haven where people help each other without judging. It is a story about loyalty to principles and feelings. “I will wait you until the end, even longer if needed,” says one of the songs that the Tungal family sings during the patriarch’s birthday. Waiting means devotion, but also the inevitable change, not only for those who are waiting, but even more so for those who are awaited. Nevertheless, Leelo Tungal’s experience points out that recognising each other again is possible and waiting acquires a sense in itself – freed from the events’ contingency, because it turns into a path of personal growth and awareness.

It is a story about the forests and the bogs that offer hiding places to resistance heroes, and protection to a child’s hopes and secrets. Estonia means the healing power of nature.

And for sure, this is a film about the profound intelligence that lies in the sense of humour, even when it is unintentional: it happens that the grown-ups Tungal must cope with show the same naivety and awkwardness of the little girl who has to work hard to decipher their thoughts.

A film about modesty

But first and foremost, “The Little Comrade” is, in my opinion, a film about the value of what the Latins called pudor. To the English word modesty, I prefer the Estonian one, tagasihoidlikkus. To me it means so much more than decency or reserve. It is the jealous, silent, determined preservation of one’s own inner world. It is something deeper than hiding feelings – it is about a person’s will to defend their individuality and, on a national basis, to retain an identity.

The word itself expresses an intimate intent of holding back (tagasi hoidma). It means to keep emotions under control, to keep them hidden, not for fear or shame, but because of the perception of their true value. The stronger the feeling, the more intense is the desire to keep it quiet – a big sorrow leaves us without words.

But in my opinion, it also means to hold back memories and customs, to save them just as they were in the past (tagasi), to keep them stored (hoidma) so that they can help us standing up against difficulties and let us believe in better times to come. The Estonian tagasihoidlikkus is the extreme defence against the invasion, because no occupation can destroy propriety intended as the firm possession of oneself. In this sense it has nothing to do with “modesty”: it is an expression of pride.

At the end of the film, Tungal and her father go to the train station to welcome the mother back from a Siberian prison camp. The mother and the little girl are barely able to look into each other’s eyes. No kisses, no hugs. Just a mute, dazed, grateful silence – and a bunch of flowers. And indeed, is it possible to give back what they took away? Can screams and jumps for joy erase the pain? A glimpse in their eyes say it all – we are still here, the past has been staunchly guarded, protected and preserved.

History explained

After watching this beautiful film, I understand better the era of the Soviet occupation and what it really represents for Estonian families. I understand better the memorial events that are held at Tallinn’s Freedom Square. And perhaps, I understand better the Estonian character. Now I know that behind discretion there is a painful history. Behind the apparent aloofness, there is a resolution: do not surrender to self-pity. Behind the dark humour, there is the effort to play down troubles.

And behind every smile there is a true understanding, that does not need many words. After all, to have a good talk you can always rely on trees. Do they listen to us? They probably do.

I

Cover: A screenshot from “Seltsimees Laps”.

The Estonian centennial parade: Thoughts by an Italian

Based on her experience at the Estonian centennial parade, the Tallinn-based Italian expat, Milena Spigaglia, cites Estonia’s perceived lack of distance between its leaders and the people as a positive example, especially compared with the more elitist approach of Italian leaders.

There I was, on Saturday morning, celebrating the Estonian independent statehood. There was a proud Italian attending the centennial parade at Tallinn’s Freedom Square and enjoying it from a very good perspective, just behind the dignitaries’ stand, which really few people hazarded to reach – the others being shrewd enough to realise it was totally exposed to wind and snow.

It so happens that the proud but frozen one came into view in some of the pictures taken by the Estonian media.

Having dismissed the freezing and kept my vanity, I forwarded to my Italian contacts the glorious image of me just a few metres from the Estonian president, Kersti Kaljulaid, and general Riho Terras (the commander of the country’s defence forces – editor) accompanied by the pleased, explanatory caption.

The feedback disappointed me, though. I was ready to answer questions about who or where or why. “Why a simple coat instead of an anorak?” would have been a reasonable question, for example, to which I would have replied that mine had been a not-so-smart attempt to replicate the Estonian tricolour flag: a white hat, a black sweater and a blue coat – and now, yes, you can laugh at me. But unexpectedly, almost all of the questions sounded like – how did you get there? Or – why were you so close to the stage? Or even worse – whom did you know who allowed you to pass by?

My initial enthusiasm rapidly dropped as they reminded me of some reasons why I felt like moving away from Italy.

In Italy, the political power is dramatically pompous

These are just the kinds of questions that betray the mentality that my country is unfortunately soaked in. These questions actually reveal the relationship between the community and its representatives. It is sad to admit that in Italy, the political power is usually exercised in an in-your-face way, and it is so dramatically pompous. It doesn’t allow the ordinary citizen to get close, the latter being not considered as a subject entitled to transparent rights, but as someone external and outside the political ring, thus destined to be treated like a pill or a vague threat. Who succeeds in getting close to it (a physical proximity suggesting an influential stance), they necessarily have “squeezed in”, maybe using a trick, a sort of unorthodox alternative. This does not affect just an occasional event, but every level of the political realm.

In Italy, it is hardly conceivable that a community can be ruled by an idea of substantial equal dignity between the representative and the represented, where the former cannot imagine to exercise an exhibited, immodest and baseless prepotency in front of the citizenry without paying consequences in terms of respect and credibility; or that police patrols and rally marshals are really there to provide safety and not to guarantee some privileged positions; and that ultimately the so-called elite and the rest of the community share the same social spaces.

Of course, I do not think Estonians have found the Holy Grail of social and political perfect agreement. Estonians have to cope with their problems and conflicts. And, I would add, Estonia as a country and as a government has its own vulgate, its narrative aimed at improving social cohesion and stability. That is perfectly understandable and right. The difference in respect of Italy is that, again, this social and political discourse is a common space to all the components of the collectivity because it is written and embraced within an osmotic process between the public and the private sphere, and not just dictated by the elite and performed by the rest of the civil society by mere convenience or simple routine.

Exacting discontent

Also, Estonians complain a lot about things that do not work but, as president Kaljulaid said in her speech during the centennial celebration at the Estonian National Museum, most of the times, it is about an “exacting discontent”, which means that being critical can result in a good attitude if it brings the awareness that tomorrow, things can improve through effort and commitment. In Italy, the risk is that too often complains turn into an onanistic whining that ends up serving justification to the status quo.

Keeping in mind that at the end of the week my country will go to the ballot boxes (the 2018 Italian general election is due to be held on 4 March 2018 – editor), I would like to tell my fellow citizens that it can be a relief to be part, just a little bit, of a society whose president is a woman really capable to inspire other women by virtue of her personal achievements, and not because she just managed to “squeeze in” or because she gave it away to the rich and mighty in charge (any reference to some Italian political candidates shortlisting is absolutely pursued).

It can be a joy to be part, just a little bit, of a nation where joining a military parade is not a fascist‘s conduct – it is a patriot’s expression of devotion. It can be touching to be part, just a little bit, of people waking up at dawn on a Saturday morning to salute the flag hoisting when outside the temperature is something like minus twenty degrees. And it can be fun to be part, just a little bit, of a state that seats all the European leaders on little wooden chairs to teach them the digital lesson (as happened during the Tallinn Digital Summit in 2017).

God save the frank Estonian simplicity. It deserve its place in the data embassy as well.

I

The opinions in this article are those of the author. Cover: Tallinn Freedom Square preparing to host the centennial military parade on 24 February 2018 (the images courtesy of Estonian Defence Forces and ERR).

Estonians, embrace being Estonians – Milena Spigaglia

Tallinn-based Italian writer Milena Spigaglia has written an open letter to Estonians in response to argument about poor customer service in the country.    

Weeks ago I read an article written by Justin Zehmke, a South African professional who came and settled in Estonia to work and live with his family. In his piece, Zehmke told readers how annoying it was buying a bed in Estonia, due to a basic lack of enthusiasm and collaboration showed by the salesperson he coped with. According to him, Estonians ignore the very meaning of customer service.

Do we have to blame this on the heritage of the communist mentality – poor stocks, cronyism, party whistleblowers, no motivations? Perhaps the national temper, that conundrum-attic – if I dare the neologism – yet intriguing “what-are-you-smiling-for” attitude that keen foreigners need a bit to get accustomed to? Or is it all about a whimsical desire to keep this surly, listless customer service as a sort of national anthem and a good matter for complaining in the evenings at the dinner table, just before the dessert but surely after having roundly lambasted Edgar Savisaar (the former mayor of Tallinn and opposition leader – editor)?

Maybe we’ll never know. Meanwhile, I can guess the spirit of Zehmke remarks which, if I do not get it wrong, should sound kind of – Estonians, let’s get the right mood. Let’s get customer focused, consumer friendly. Let’s get globalised. Change – yes, you can.

No. You don’t have to.

My fervent call to you, Estonians, is – please just remain the way you are, because it is the way you are that makes you Estonians. A bit tautological, I know, so let me explain better.

Something sounds familiar

I am an Italian. Italians suffer from an inferiority complex when it comes to other nations. Italians can be so xenophiliac they sometimes sabotage themselves. They – we – always seem to chase a good behaviour license. They – we – always seem in a need of pleasing someone else.

Especially for someone involved in political studies, it has always been so recurring to come across grim analysis pointing at how more meticulous than us German people are (even though in secret we think they’re so boringly predictable, and we are deeply proud of our ability to improvise while toughing it out, we call it “creativity”).

Or how enterprising the British are, and how tremendously civic-minded they are, always queuing at the bus stop and walking down the tube stairs from the right side (but God, they are so hideously dressed – with the exception of Duchess of Cambridge, of course – and they haven’t understood how to make a perfect cappuccino yet, in spite of all the cafés we magnanimously managed to start over there).

Or how open-minded and intrinsically free the Americans are – we love their mental flexibility (we like much less their exit flexibility in the labour market though, and their health-care flexibility in choosing who deserves a hospital bed after an accurate financial background check, and sometimes their flexibility in interpreting international law, I guess they call it “creativity” as well).

I also need to add that I am a true witness that complaining can be a national hobby. In Italy, it is a kind of relaxing practice, better than yoga (a form of meditation actually). It makes you feel safe the moment you realise that “everything changes in order that nothing really changes” (free quotation from Il Gattopardo by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa). To put it in philosophical terms, through complaint we get a recognition of the world as we know it.

Well of course Italians – we – are those of the so-called made in Italy, excellent food and gorgeous handcrafted works, plus unequalled cultural patrimony, of which surely we don’t take advantage as we should, especially if you consider France’s ability to sell Champs-Élysées and their grandeur or London’s marketing of Churchill’s War Rooms and his English bulldog spirit. Do you see? Only a few lines and I am already complaining about my country and its way to manage its artistic resources. Once you begin, it ends up turning into a native deformation. Never let your guard down.

It’s not just customer service at stake

Of course, as human beings, we are committed to constant improvement. As nations, we must offer our best effort in order to make the world a better place. But what is the best?

My point is that nowadays it seems that being different – cultivating and saving one’s own peculiarity, even oddity – is considered a fault. To apply to the “cool club”, you must follow the “3-S” enforcement proceedings: strip off, smile and sell yourself. It is an imperative. The other one is: find a stereotype and, again, sell yourself. What is a stereotype? It is a kind of soft label, something which is useful enough to make you recognisable in the market, but which you can wash and fade a little when needed.

As an Italian who came to Estonia without having planned it, without even knowing exactly what to expect from this land quite far from mine, quite different from mine, I would like to say you do not need to look like someone else (Finnish included). You have your history and battles and sacrifices and tenaciousness, but also your grace, your modesty, your sobriety, your concreteness (which is not mere pragmatism, it does not imply shortcuts whatsoever) and they all speak loudly for you as a country.

“You have your history and battles and sacrifices and tenaciousness, but also your grace, your modesty, your sobriety, your concreteness and they all speak loudly for you as a country.”

You do not even need to find a collocation. Northeast? Northern Europe? Scandinavia? The Baltics? No-more-Soviet-just-a-couple-of-inches-to-the-west? Who wants to come over and meet Estonia, they will find it. And they will find plenty of things to know, to love, to smile at, to get bothered by as well, or to assimilate only step by step. It is how things work normally.

It is not just about customer service. It is about being the way history has crafted us. By the way, I confess that sales associates’ buzzing around me as soon as I enter a store makes me feel really uncomfortable. They make me feel a thief.

As far as I come from a country where selling is just an all-winks-and-mimes activity, I simply adore the total lack of flattery in the world of Estonian sales. Yes, sometimes clerks and cashiers seem not to notice me. But I know they will not try to sell me something I do not want to buy. They will not cheat me. They will not try to decipher if I’ve got a once-in-a-life-time job in a very smart startup and I am ready to go wild with shopping or if I am waiting the end of the month to get my paycheck – it doesn’t matter, they are going to treat me exactly the same way. No bootlickers, just a practical approach.

As you can see, it is all about perception.

Enjoy being Estonian

As for me, in a couple of months I collected some memories I am sure I could experience only in Estonia: trying a HIV rapid test at a shopping mall; eating juniper bread, which curiously gets better the day after you bought it; reading the president’s speech on the New Year’s Eve that talks about the hours worked by volunteers and songs learned for the next Song Festival and which is one and a half page long, whereas every Italian president systematically feels compelled to bore his fellow citizens for an hour at least, simulcast of course.

Or finding a chocolate bar into a sock I had put out of my door just as a Christmas decoration, without ever knowing the identity of my personal Santa Claus; being almost rebuked by a supermarket cashier for being so bold to put money in her hand, ignoring the designated area next to the point of sale; having my dinette’s lamps repaired by an electrician/carpenter who came to my home and started to take pictures of the landscape from my flat windows just before getting on with his job because he had his “personal album to complete”; finding out via electronic notice that I was given a new Estonian last name – which happens to sound Spijajia – by a really creative UPS courier. Just to mention a few.

What I basically mean and what I wish to people living in this beautiful country is – struggle for your identity. And simply enjoy your being Estonian.

I

The opinions in this article are those of the author. Cover image by Johannes Arro (the image is illustrative.)

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