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Interviews of Mrs. Helle Meri to Eesti Naine February 1998

Helle Meri (47), the president's wife, has two places in the Kadriorg Palace where she can be on her own. These are her edge of the bed in the bedroom and the kitchen. The state begins from behind the kitchen door. There, in the reception hall, she stands next to her husband. If required.

''There are no ordinary days here, all of them are extraordinary,'' says Helle Meri, who never knows in the morning what the day has in store for her.

Well, idling about in a nightie with rollers in her hair is not part of her morning style at home, but those who have managed to enter the palace are rather free to move around. This is why she always has to be on top form. Using the means known to her, as they were taught in the greenhouse of actors, the Panso school, from which Helle Pihlak graduated in 1972. She does not specify, but you can guess that this also includes cleaning the official flat and keeping it in order. Because she suddenly moves one side of the Biedermeier sofa and says that a screw must be tightened. A similar interruption occurred last year in the president's reception on Independence Day, when the red carpet got crumpled. Only the hostess of the party had the right to notice this and order it to be pulled straight again. ''It is not a good combination when you live and work in the same rooms,'' admits Helle Meri, who feels especially sorry for her daughter. Often Tuule can not invite any friends over. Like her mother, the child can also not move around freely outside the palace. Fortunately she has her own room. The second room the family has.

At the moment, Helle Meri has some slim hope for her own home, but she can not name the day or the year when the house in Viimsi will be completed. ''There are so many other things to do that there is no time to deal with this,'' she admits with a sigh and tells herself not to feel sorry for herself. Because this a nasty feeling.

She lives one day at a time.

If she could decide for herself, she would like to live in the middle of a large forest. She never gets lost in the forest or the bogs, but it may happen in the Kadriorg Palace.

She is free when she is in the middle of nature. This feeling comes from her childhood home which she has not visited for ten years, because strangers live there now. Helle does not even know what exactly is going on there. But recently she has often been thinking about her father: what a good sense of humour he had and how he knew how to care for people.

A beach should also be close to the home. Helle says that the way the sun falls into the sea in the evening is one of the phenomena of West Estonia. She fell in love with the sea a long time ago, before she met her husband whose name translates as ''sea'' in English.

The relationship with Lennart just came - with a big bang, when Helle was still married to composer Eino Tamberg. Eino and Lennart were friends, and they still are.

Got what she wanted

When you ask Helle Meri who she wanted to become when she was a child, she replies: ''A human being''.

This Rapla girl drove to work in Tallinn for a whole year after graduating from secondary school. Went to the theatre as often as possible. Then spent 20 years on the stage of the Estonian Drama Theatre, but never as a madam or a queen. What she likes most are works of Estonian playwrights: Anna and Eevi from K├Árboja, ''Steam Boiler'', ''The Czar's Madman'', ''In the Whirlwind'', ''Colour of the Clouds''. These were the roles that suited her. Even now she would much rather live in the countryside, but this is absolutely impossible. Because her child goes to school and her husband has a job.

Helle Meri says that she has become what she wanted to become. Is she a good actress? If you think acting means pretending, then certainly not. The sensitive nerves of actors catch people from the air. Her obligations to the state together with the active social life mean that she meets all kinds of people. Sometimes it is hard to understand why some of them do not want to be natural, even though it is immediately obvious, who is who. Everything begins with the education of your soul.

Helle Meri is walking the road of the president's the wife for the sixth year. At first there was no one who could have told her how to behave. She could be called a pioneer in this sense, even though no assistants have still be prescribed for the president's wife. This the way things are in a poor state. What is protocol? Guests behave the way the host expects them to. The host behaves so that the guests would be comfortable. That's all there is to it.

People in our country always want to do everything very exquisitely or be someone else: cuisine from France, manners from England. Would we take clothes from Africa? Everything starts from the history, traditions, education of your own nation. Mrs. President never takes a step before she is absolutely sure about herself. Or in other words: if you do not know for sure, then do not make this move. Or make it later. Any examples? Some religions consider it improper for men to shake a woman's hand. Then there is no need to rush towards them with your hand stretched out.

Oh, she has seen all kinds of things during this time. She will not comment.

Is she happy with her role? ''No, I am not happy, but I have been cast in it,'' replies Helle Meri, who thinks that everybody should do what they are obliged to do. If she had a different job, she would be paid for it. In any case she would choose a profession in which one can talk about tangible results. ''What is the result of an actor's work?'' she asks and answers herself: ''The glow of a few hours. And happiness for a few days if people glow with you.''

Professional Wife

The profession of Helle Meri is to be the wife. Mrs. President, even though she does not think too highly of this title.

She wakes up at 6.45 in the morning to prepare the breakfast and send her daughter to school. They eat ordinary food: oat porridge or omelette with grated cheese. Helle Meri has said before that the president likes pea soup.

Many years ago, when Lennart Meri travelled around Estonia for the first time as the president, Helle Meri worried like the mother of a large family about whether everybody had had anything to eat. One Midsummer Day she surprised the drivers and the rest of the entourage with a picnic basket. The first to disappear were the pies she had made herself. ''They were simply delicious,'' recalls one of the participants. Before that, when there was no official kitchen in Kadriorg, it often happened that some of the people who worked in palace found a package of sandwiches on their table in the middle of a strenuous day. It sort of appeared without anyone noticing.

She cooks and bakes for her family herself. There are three of them on ordinary days, but 17 people gather around the table on holidays: Lennart's sons from his first marriage with their wives and children and the president's brother with his family.

Helle Meri goes to the market several times a week and buys potatoes, cabbages, turnips, meat and greens for soup. No, people do not come to talk to her. Sometimes they put their heads together and whisper. ''There really has been no open, from person to person communication,'' says Helle Meri, who prefers those sellers who sell the stuff they have grown in their own fields.

It was better in the beginning, because people did not recognise her. ''Soon it will be almost impossible to move around,'' worries the woman who is bothered by the curious faces of people. She is also bothered about not being able to move around on her own, without somebody accompanying her. Before she moved to the presidential palace she could at least take the car and drive to the forest, now this fun is denied to her as well. They say that Estonian traffic is too dangerous. By the way, Helle Meri is an excellent driver.

Regardless of these restrictions, last autumn the president's family ate mushrooms pickled in their own home.

''My duty is to do the laundry and iron the president's suit. Task given by the state,'' she says. So that everything would be the way it should be.

Consoled by Humour

She does not have much choice in how to spend her days, everything depends on the daily, weekly and monthly schedules of the president. When necessary, she stands next to Lennart Meri, when not, she stays in the background. She does not complain when she learns at 2 PM that there is a festive reception in the evening. This is not the worst case at all. If she is not able to iron her favourite suit by that time, she will wear something else. This even leaves her time to refresh her hairdo.

''I have to take the guests of the president into consideration, prefer people we both know,'' replies Helle Meri to the question how often is she able to invite her friends to her home. There is never any time for woman-to-woman chatting and pouring out her heart. She is not even the type. Sometimes it has been embarrassing when a meeting with an old friend has had to be turned down: state level meetings always come first. ''You can not lose your sense of humour. Joking about yourself is the best medicine,'' she comforts herself.

Helle Meri has remained faithful to the principle that life on stage and personal life are two different things. She is rather tongue-tied than talkative. In this regard she and her husband seem to be a good match - as opposites.

There have been some exceptions, though. Somewhere in a tiny village where there are no photographers, Helle walks to the old man who is waiting next to a milk collection point and wants to know how he is doing. Or she holds the hand of an old lady and the air is filled with laughter for a long time. She has been everywhere in Estonia.

Her soul seems to be living somewhere there: where a comforting line of smoke reaches for the sky when the weather is cold. The homes of Estonian people have always been away from the others, hidden from the eyes of strangers.

Mother and benefactress.

Mother Helle admits that she is scared to touch just any key on the computer because she is afraid she might cause irreparable damage. When father Lennart (68) has computer problems, he calls his daughter Tuule (12) to rescue, as she always finds everything they need in the Internet. Tuule has always found a way to communicate with her father. When she was really small and her father was still a writer, the little girl drew pictures that she could slip under his door. Now her natural instinct tells her how to ask questions in the right place and at the right time and she never rushes into the president's office when he is working, even though the door is ajar. It may sound incredible, but her questions have always been answered. Even if the answers have been given in the middle of another conversation. There is one thing that Lennart Meri can never be reproached for: he is always sincere and compassionate with children, whether they're his own or somebody else's.

Tuule reads a lot, also in English and Finnish, and she has not disclosed yet who she wants to be when she grows up. She has had some wishes, but like every child's, they have not been very serious yet.

''I do not know whether it is the upbringing or the genes, but I admire the patience this child has. To endure three hours of a festive dinner with your back straight, even I find it hard,'' says a person who works in Kadriorg.

Mother Helle says that so far her daughter has not complained about her somewhat restricted life. And adds after a moment: ''I bet it will come.''

When the wives of heads of state elsewhere, particularly in the Nordic countries, devote themselves to charity, then Helle Meri is only patron of the SOS Children's Village. She has been invited to many places. ''When these are organisations that deal with money, then I can not go there if only for the reason that I have no overview of how this money is distributed. When the money for school lunches can not be distributed even in Tallinn. And for the first time in my life I depend on someone financially, I do not have my own money that I could give.'' And on the other hand, she would not have time for more. Because the crowned heads devoted to charity are only the tip of the iceberg. Behind their backs stand private secretaries, offices and officials who do the actual work. Helle has to cope on her own.

Besides, she would not be able to stand the inevitable media attention.

Symbol of Estonian Woman

On state visits, Helle Meri represents all Estonian women in a way. She refuses to say how many hats she has - state secret. There are not many of them, but it would still be embarrassing if she secretly pulled a knit scarf from a plastic bag and tied it around her head.

''Going out is so much harder than being the hostess,'' says Helle, because long flights are already tiring. You have to step out of the plane looking fresh and beaming. Even when there is not enough time to sleep and your feet are burning from hours of standing up, you still have to smile. Getting to know a new country on your own is unthinkable: the schedule is in place to the minute. There are always the five minutes that you can spend in a souvenir shop. But no more than five and your hosts are there with you.

''The main thing is to be in a good mood, always. When you walk around with the corners of your mouth turned downwards, it would put a strain on everybody,'' says Helle Meri, who can never afford to be in a bad mood. Because almost all the time, she is the target of the eyes of strangers.

Definitely for another four years.

February 24 is the most strenuous day for the presidential couple. Helle puts it otherwise: ''This is the most important day for our family.''

Helle herself, born two weeks before the second deportation in 1949, put the mosaic of the existence of the Republic of Estonia together on the basis of the stories she heard from older people. They listened to Finnish radio at home.

''Estonians should have the courage to be proud of their state. I love the way the Finnish people celebrate their Independence Day: they know how to be proud. We are a little too shy. As if we were afraid that our love for our homeland would not be returned. I hope that we will soon develop the traditions how every family could celebrate this day in their homes like true Estonians and the way it deserves to be celebrated. At least once a year all Estonia should feel like one big family.''

Text: Katrin Streimann


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