Saturday, November 03, 2012

Pumpkin Diplomacy

Who doesn't love Halloween, right?

Basically, aside from of a few of a particular religious persuasion, the only people who don't like Halloween are the ones who have never experienced Halloween.

Public Diplomacy can fix that!

This week, the Embassy, together with the government of the city of Narva, hosted America Days in Estonia's third largest city. As I think I have mentioned before, Narva is in northeast Estonia, right on the Russian border. You could probably throw a stone across the Narva River and hit the castle in Ivangorod that flies the Russian flag.

The population there is approximately 97% Russian speaking (not all Russian speakers in Estonia are ethnically Russian...there are also Ukrainians, Belorussians, etc). We like to do outreach there, but because of the distance (about 3 hours), we don't get there as often as I'd like. But I think I told you before about our Soap Box Derby that we have there each year which is wildly successful and attracts people from across Estonia.

America Days is something we have done in several other places across Estonia. We have had them in Tartu, last year in Parnu, and just a few weeks ago, in Tallinn at Tallinn University of Technology, where we opened a new American Space (a smaller version of an American Corner). And the mayor of Narva wanted us to do something similar there. This week was the culmination of that.

We had three solid days of events that involved some thirty of us from the embassy, Americans and Estonians alike. We spoke to classes about American autumn traditions (including of course the elections!), held contests and treasure hunts, basketball games, and a jazz concert. We even had the Ambassador make his first trip outside of Tallinn for the occasion!

And of course, we carved pumpkins.

One of the things that I love about pumpkin carving is that it is truly an example of the melding of European and American traditions. Because while carving pumpkins originated in Europe as part of the pagan celebration of Samhain, they used gourds here that are really thick and hard to carve. But in America, we use the pumpkin that was domesticated by American Indians and is thinner and much easier to carve.

Bringing Europe and America together in a pumpkin! What's not to love!

So I had folks from the embassy all over Narva teaching pumpkin carving. Unfortunately, we had to use the thick green gourds they have here, but they still got the idea. And we had a blast! I personally taught two classes, one at a school and one at the mall.

The one at the mall was especially cool. There was a 10-year old little girl who came and watched. She was a Russian speaker but her English was excellent! I let her help me with my pumpkin, the one big orange American style one we of my staff, who had organized the entire event (and who is really impressive!) had located one for me. I had printed off a bunch of patterns the kids good look at to know what pumpkins should look like, and she spotted one of an owl and asked me to please carve that. And since she did it so sweetly and with such good English, how could I refuse!

The whole event was a lot of fun, and I think a great success. We got lots of media coverage, got lots of Americans to Narva for the first time, and I even got to use my Estonian professionally a good bit (lots of the officials who are native Russian speakers speak Estonian fluently but not English). The concert, which honored murdered journalist Daniel Pearl and was organized by Fulbrighter Dr. Anthony Braker and using students from the Estonian Music Academy who are incredibly gifted, was amazing. Let me just tell you, those musicians were having a blast, and I have never seen a voice harmonize with an alto sax like that! And the room was PACKED! Of course, the people of Estonian are known for their love of music.

I am exhausted after the event, but of course there is no time for rest. Tuesday is the presidential election...


Michelle said...

It's that time of year- Halloween, Foreign-Service style! :)

I love reading stories and seeing pictures of how we all bring these uniquely American holidays to life in lands all over the globe. Thanks for sharing Estonia-style.

Daniela Swider said...

How cool! I can see Halloween as one of those US holidays that could really get people excited...