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New Europe

Day Eighty-four: Tallinn

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What children do when their parents are out fire-walking. Outside the pyramid house near Tallinn.
Michael Palin - New EuropeIt's early evening when we turn off the road about 20 miles west of the city and follow a track that leads to a modern house built like a pyramid. We park on a grassy strip alongside a line of Volvos and Saabs, whose occupants are busy moving logs and laying them on a stack in front of the house. The smiles of greeting are polite but cool, except for a slim young man with a shaved head and intense gaze who smiles broadly and clasps me to him. This is Margus Aru, whose house this is and who is supervising the building of the fire. It all looks very much like any suburban summer barbecue. The difference is that what's going on this barbecue are the guests.

Margus tries to be reassuring, as if this were no more stressful than a visit to Ikea.

'We start. We come together. We feel good things together and do fire-walking.'
I ask him if this is a particularly Estonian thing.

'Not so much, but Indian people I have heard, and South American and... ' he shrugs as if this line of questioning is missing the point, 'Vikings.'

The point of the exercise is, he says, to conquer fear. I suggest that fear can be a very useful way of preventing you doing something very silly.

Margus smiles, pleasantly, but dismissively. His little son walked on hot coals at the age of four. When he asked him if he'd found it very hot he merely answered 'Was it supposed to be?'

The build-up to the walking is long and slow. Occasionally two or three young musicians, who look more than naturally relaxed, will start some desultory drumming, whilst Margus whirls a piece of plastic piping around his head producing a high-pitched moaning sound.

No-one really knows quite what to do or how seriously to approach the whole thing. The only ones who seem to be really enjoying themselves are Margus' six-year-old son Christian and his friends, who charge around shrieking, screaming, chasing and generally scuppering any attempt at contemplation. Meanwhile the long pyre of wood blazes merrily away. Margus says that not much will happen until the sun goes down, which, as we're now at Scandinavian latitudes, will not be before eleven.

There is a very practical reason to wait for sunset, he says. It's important to be able to see that all the flames have gone, otherwise the fire walk could be very dangerous. As if strolling over a strip of burning embers half the length of a cricket pitch might not be dangerous.
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  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Eighty-four: Tallinn
  • Country/sea: Estonia
  • Place: Tallinn
  • Book page no: 200

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