Rippling lights

“Oh, but it’s so cold there!” It’s a phrase that I hear a lot lately. It’s people’s common reaction when I tell them that I recently moved to Estonia.  “Ah, but you are from Switzerland, so you must love winter and snow.”  If only!  I have never been a particular fan of the cold season and certainly don’t feel any itch to hit the slops at the first sight of snow.  I moved here for the long summer days and the untouched beaches.  And the further north you get, the higher the chance of seeing northern lights.

I got so excited when one of my fellow expats announced a fair likelihood of seeing virmalised in Estonia a few days ago.  Drop everything and get to the beach, was my first thought. No way I was going to miss that chance!  So I grabbed a couple of drinks and headed for the little peninsula near my home to watch the spectacle.  What a fascinating natural phenomenon to witness!  For a visual person like myself, northern lights are prime eye candy.  I could have sat on the swing, staring into the sky for hours, with the meditative sound of the waves in the background.

While a felt deep appreciation for the dancing colours up above, I wondered how the forces of nature bring them about.  Something about how the sunlight breaks particles in the atmosphere into spectral colours…  Auroras (borealis as well as australis) are optical emissions of electrically charged particles (primarily electrons) in the magnetosphere when they hit and thereby ionise oxygen and nitrogen atoms in the atmosphere.  A so-called solar wind constantly streaming from the sun in all directions feeds the Earth’s magnetosphere with charged particles.  Due to its intensity, the recent wind is more like a storm (a bit like a meteor shower). In the magnetosphere, the particles are temporarily trapped by the geomagnetic field (hence the visibility of auroras in the polar regions) and brought to “shimmer” and “ripple”.

And can you imagine, auroras also occur on other planets – if they have (had) a magnetic field and an atmosphere, like our planet does.  On Mars, for example, auroras apparently are red and green (read on).

Standing there, gazing upwards – in awe – a feeling of being connected to something vast and greater overcomes me.  Deep ease and gratitude spread within.  It’s this feeling of spiritual connectedness that happiness researchers are so curious about.  It certainly works on me!  We should all stare at and savour natural beauty more often.

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1944

1944 is the title of a new Estonian movie.  A war movie, which broke several records at the box offices during the first week of screening.  It tells of the events of World War II in Estonia.  “Why 1944?” I asked myself. I wondered every time I looked at one of the movie posters all over Tallinn.  This genre is not exactly my cup of tea and I could already see myself sitting in the theatre, holding my ears shut and eyes closed tightly.  But since I’m not a history buff either, it promised to hold educational value.

The plot as such was rather thin, but one realisation stuck with me.  For days. (And it is part of the reason why I’m starting this blog.)  Estonians were forced to kill each other during this war.  Killing in defence of oneself against foreign intruders already seems impossible.  But taking the life of a fellow countryman?  In a war that Estonia did not want to fight to begin with.  The Estonian government had declared its impartiality at the beginning of the war in 1939.  Utter incomprehension.

So why 1944? In 1944, the German armed forces came head to head with the Red Army on Estonian soil.  Estonia, having been occupied by both sides since the outbreak of World War II – first by the Soviets, and then, after the breach of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, by the Germans – got torn into different camps.  Both occupying powers heavily mobilised Estonian men and when they faced each other in battle, there were Estonians fighting on either side of the Tannenberg line (a site in north-eastern Estonia, where much of the heavy fighting took place).

And because the de facto rulers changed over such a short period of time, even family members ended up fighting on opposite sides.  Or between official battle lines as members of the partisan groups.  A young man gets drafted to the Red Army, and a few years later, with Nazi Germany now in power, his younger brother gets enscripted into the German armed forces.  A father joins a partisan group, while a year or two later his son who has come of age since, gets conscripted to the Red Army.

Estonia partook of the war in the hopes of restoring its independence once the war ended.  On 18 September 1944, as German forces evacuated Tallinn, a new Estonian government was appointed.  It lasted all of eight days.  Until Soviet authorities took over.  Ultimately, one occupying power violently replaced another, leaving the Estonian people subjugated to repression until re-independence in 1991.  Official numbers estimate that during these occupations (1940-1991), Estonia lost almost 20 percent of its population.  About half of them were killed, while the other half was forced to leave (deportations, refugees).

How does a society deal with such historical heritage?  Estonia has long turned to the arts in such matters.  Walking out of the movie theatre, I sense that much of this country’s past I have yet to understand better.  Here is one part of this puzzle.  And once again, I’m deeply impressed with how far this country and its people have come over the past 20 years!