We are now traveling with the choir on a large tour bus complete with a gentle but firm guide, Lena, who is Latvian. No nonsense tolerated by this lady. After getting on the bus, the drill is for each person to announce his or her “number” in numerical order—some 42 call-outs in all. My number,“26,” will be etched in my memory for years. Even though most people are from Westminster Presbyterian Church and many were already close friends, the group seemed to start to come together after the first concert and the Sunday service. The mood on the bus was upbeat, positive and enthusiastic; and perhaps most important, there have been no complainers– no surprise since most are Presbyterians.
I have got to admit that there are certain advantages to group travel. Almost all decisions are taken care of, and all you really have to do is to get on and off the bus, follow the guide, obey the rules, remember your number during the call-out exercise, and stagger up to your hotel room at the end of a tiring day. You stay in nice hotels, see interesting sights, eat pretty good food, drink excellent local, draft lager, and try to stay awake when your guide tells you about what you are seeing. You do not have to worry about being imprisoned in a dungeon or having your car towed or not being able to get into an obscure AirBnb in a dangerous neighborhood.
On the other hand, a lot is lost—the thrill of actually finding your destination on your own, moving at your own pace, overcoming hardship and confusion, and discovering a new place without the aid of someone whom you can’t hear or understand very well in the first place.
And there are risks with group travel. You could end up sitting next to a born-again, Evangelical Christian, who has identified you as low hanging fruit for another notch on his conversion score card. I don’t know what it is about me that suggests I might be putty in their hands, but it does seem to happen to me more than to others. I guess they can look at me and see that I need help. In any event that was my fate on this tour, and I have to say that the missionary, who was about my age, had a lot going for him. The issue was you got to hear his (rather inspiring) life story at each meal and then had to bite your tongue when he praised Jerry Falwell, described Liberty University as “the best college in America,” and complained about all the atheists teaching in “so called, good colleges.” I did pretty well, just listening and keeping my mouth shut. He mercifully did not say one word about Trump, which would have been the proverbial straw for me. As the tour progressed into the third day, he pulled me off to the side and looked me straight in the eye as he became deadly serious.
“You know,” he said earnestly. “There are two options and only two options. You are getting older and do not have a lot of time left. You can accept Jesus Christ as your savior and be born again and spend eternity with Jesus or you can burn in hell. That’s it. And if you are born again, you must accept every single word in the bible as the word of God, every word. It is your choice.”
This guy was a born again Presbyterian? My goodness! I did not know there was such a thing.
All I could think about was that if the salvation option also included spending eternity with the likes of Jerry Falwell, it was a tough decision. I managed to quickly change the subject to the weather, and that ended all the talk about religion.
Our first stop in Estonia was in Parnu, a small, resort town of several thousand people located on the coast of the Baltic Sea. The town had its old town with the usual charm and medieval character along with a lot of spas and resort hotels. Our hotel was located along the shore and was about a 20-minute walk to the town center where the choir performed its second concert in another old Lutheran church. Like the first concert, the audience filled the large nave and seemed to me to be very engaged in listening to the music, which was mostly modern, American, choral music including several spirituals. The choir director, Ben Hutchens, is a rare mix (for a choir director, according to Embry, who has lots of experience with choir directors ) of friendliness, charm, patience, and extraordinary musical talent. He is also an early 40-something, fellow Tar Heel graduate.
The most amazing thing about the Parnu experience was that when we visited the beach area on our morning tour, it was comfortably accommodating several hundred sunbathers in weather that had barely topped 60 degrees for the past two days. Even more amazing, a number of families with kids were splashing around in the water. The sun was out, however, and that seemed to be enough to entice them. These Baltic folks are tough! Only six hours of sunlight in the depths of winter, snow all winter-long, no spring arrival until June. But the summers are nice and comfortable with 18 hours of light, and we have experienced (along with some cool, rainy days) several near perfect days with mid 70s temperatures, low humidity, gentle breezes and sunny skies. That’s the trade off. I do not think many Estonians would trade what they have for our 90 degree, high humidity days during Washington summers.
The next day we piled on the bus again, shouted out our numbers in turn, and drove through beautiful countryside for five hours to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia and its largest city with a population of around 400,000—tiny and compact with a very large and robust old town. Because of its large port, which can accommodates five or six, huge cruise ships a day, the tourist population is very large and diverse and includes Asians and other people of color not usually seen in the other Baltic countries.
Estonia is the smallest of the three countries with a population of around 1.3 million and has a totally different language, which is very close to the Finnish language. Like Latvia, it did not become a nation state until 1918. Some guidebooks describe Estonia as the most progressive Baltic country, with a woman prime minister, universal, affordable health care, a strong social safety net, and “E-voting,” whatever that is. It escaped the worst of the Nazi atrocities during the war only because the Jewish population was quite small, under 10,000, and most fled the country once it became apparent what was going on in Lithuania. That did not keep the Germans from establishing concentration camps in Estonia toward the end of the war where Jews from other countries were sent to die.
The post war occupation by the Soviets was similar to the that of the two other Baltic countries with thousands of civic leaders, liberal politicians, intellectuals, teachers and clergy exiled to Siberia, religion outlawed, churches closed or converted to museums or warehouses, and requirements that everyone learn to speak Russian.
The last two days of the tour were spent in Tallinn with the final concert in a huge Lutheran Church on one of the main, old town plazas. I have been very impressed with how hard the singers have worked with almost every afternoon devoted to rehearsals, some followed by an evening concert. The choristers seemed to feel very good about the final concert, relieved that the hard work was over and that the concerts had been such a success. Of the 42 call-outs on the bus, all but a handful were singers. Five or six of us were spouses (mainly men) along for the ride.
The final day was a much needed, free day for people to see more of the city or just get some rest. For a farewell diner, the tour organizers had booked an entire restaurant in the old town section. The food was the best of the tour. There were several short speeches (including remarks by Embry), toasts, and hugs all around when we returned to our hotel just before ten. The next morning at breakfast most of the others had already departed for home. Not us, we were ready for our final leg: on our own in Finland. Reflections on the Baltic experience will follow.