Meeting the Beatles of the Seto Lands

Estonia - The members of this Setu choir have performed for the Pope in Rome. They have been singing together for 48 years.
The members of this Setu choir have performed for the Pope in Rome. They have been singing together for 48 years.

I’ve managed to make it back safe and sound from Estonia and Lithuania and am comfortably ensconced at my daughter Sarah’s house in Connecticut. Didn’t lose my passport, managed to keep my batteries charged, and made a few brief reports, but I could only scratch the surface. I have more than a thousand photos and enough material for a dozen stories. I don’t even know where to start.

But what comes immediately to mind is a moment in the Seto Lands of Estonia, where we met the people of a tiny minority called the Setu, whose name in Estonia means “not this and not that” because they speak the Estonian language and practice a version of the Russian Orthodox religion.

We met the members of a Setu choir who have been singing together for 48 years. They have performed in New York, Moscow, Paris, and many other places, and even sang for the Pope in Rome. It was like visiting Liverpool and being greeted by the Beatles.

But a press trip is not a vacation. Dining at gourmet restaurants and staying at five-star hotels may not sound like work, but it is, and if you do it right it’s hard work. Sometimes, visiting all these wonderful places and learning about their customs and their history, your mental memory card just gets full and you can’t seem to take in any more.

And I’m usually not the most popular guy on the trip because I’m something of a hermit at home and when I go to exciting places like Estonia I get worked up and ask a lot of questions about obscure points of history and culture. When we were served a delicious soup the Setus call ‘mouth glue’ — a bit like gazspacho with milk — my colleagues all urged me to have an extra helping.

So when we arrived, late in the evening, at the hunting lodge where we were staying, I felt as if my brain had short-circuited, and I looked longingly at my bed and was sore tempted to curl up with my book about the Thirty Years War.

But then I made a decision to turn the moment around, and with the help of five shots of hansa (Setu moonshine) I feasted and danced and sang with the Setu into the wee hours of the morning. Then I sweated out the hansa in a 200-degree sauna — much hotter than the ones we have in the States — and plunged happily into the icy waters of the pond. It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences that you never forget. Thank you GoNOMAD!

Feasting with the Setu in Estonia