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Interview of Mrs. Helle Meri to Maaleht

Christmas in Kadriorg

''My first and only duty is to do everything so that my husband could do his job,'' says Mrs. Helle Meri. ''Wash the shirts, attach the right badge on the lapel of his jacket, pack and unpack his luggage. I think it is different elsewhere, but Estonia is even poorer than Latvia and Lithuania. I always do all these chores on my own.''
The only place in Kadriorg where the First Lady of Estonia Helle Meri can be on her own is the kitchen. This is the place where blood sausages and Christmas bread are made for the Christmas dinner.

Have the elves already come to the Kadriorg Palace?

Since Christmas 1993 which we have celebrated in Kadriorg, elves in red coats but blue eyes have visited us. They do not show themselves to everybody.

What was Christmas like when you were a child?

Our Christmas tree was always so tall it reached the ceiling. I remember candlesticks, which have worn out or been lost by now, where there was a candle on one end and something cone-shaped on the other end.
Christmas was always the most exciting time of year for children. Santa came to see us and for some reason he looked like the grandpa next door. I do not remember Christmas without Santa. And children had always learned their songs by heart.

Has your Christmas feeling changed now that you are the president's wife?

The Christmas feeling is the same, whether it is celebrated in a poor or a better off home. This feeling may appear in many different ways. Some wait for the elves or Santa, some for God himself. The thing with feelings is that no genius has yet been awarded the Nobel prize for explaining them yet, as Mats Traat says.

You grew up in Rapla. Which village or small town would you like to point out?

I have been to Viljandi, Tartu and Palamuse, Hiiumaa, Vormsi, Ruhnu and Kihnu with the president this year. When I drove from Tallinn to Viljandi and Tartu during Victory Day I noticed that never before had there been so few flags out on Victory Day and Midsummer Day. I wonder whether parish administrations have bothered to help people and find flag poles together. It must be difficult for old people who live alone. But if we did something together, maybe everybody would have flags and they would be put out on holidays.
Actually I have travelled all over Estonia, but it would not be fair to the others if I pointed one place out. Lennart thinks Saaremaa, Hiiumaa and Kihnu are most like Estonia. This is what they were in Russian times and this what they still are.

What are the duties of the head of state in other countries and what are they in Estonia?

It would be embarrassing to ask what it is like elsewhere. I know that it is different. My first and only duty is to do everything so that my husband could do his job. Wash the shirts, attach the right badge on the lapel of his jacket, pack and unpack his luggage. I think it is different elsewhere, but Estonia is even poorer than Latvia and Lithuania. I always do all these chores on my own. In spring the president published his income declaration in ''Eesti Päevaleht'' and said that his wife Helle is not paid for her work. It could be say that I am on a goodwill mission in Estonia. I have not changed my profession. I still pay my membership fee to the Association of Actors. For an unemployed drama actress, this is fifteen Kroons per month.

With whom of the wives of the heads of state who have visited Estonia, including the queens who have visited Estonia, do you have the best relationship?

It has been pleasant and easy for me to talk with all of them.

Important guests are usually taken for a walk through the Town Hall Square to Katariina Gild. Which other places besides these two would you go to or take your guests?

Most of this depends on the fact that state visits to Estonia are shorter than elsewhere due to difficulties in accommodation. This also leaves less time. In addition to the Old Town it would be good to go to Rocca al Mare, the Dome Hill is usually included anyway. The Song Festival Grounds should be shown to the guests when they are in Tallinn and they should be given the change to try their voice and, unless it is the song festival time, they should listen to the sound of it on tape. But a state visit should not be a visit to the capital. I would take the guests to Tartu, Haanjamaa, the islands of course, to Lake Peipus. When our Viimsi home will be finished, I would like to take the guests there. And when the sheep have already started running around there, I would let them pat the sheep. First and foremost, take them out of Tallinn. I think that as time goes on, the face of Tallinn looks less and less like the face of Estonia. It was very nice to visit Pärnu with the King and Queen of Norway, the streets were full of people, everybody shook hands with everybody. There should be better access to the sea in Tallinn. The beach in Kopli and Paljassaare is beautiful, it should only be maintained properly.

What presents do you give to important visitors of Estonia and where could we see the presents that the president and you have received?

The presents given to the President of the Republic of Estonia in Estonia or on visits to other states have been recorded in Kadriorg and most of them are displayed for those who visit the palace. I have received jewellery which I sometimes wear. I used the silk fabric we were given in China for clothes I wear on important occasions.
The presents we take to the others from Estonia are our textile or leather. The Republic of Estonia gave the glass sculpture of Rait Prääts, named ''Dialogue'', to the Republic of Latvia for her 80th anniversary, the President of Slovenia and his wife received a carpet made by Elna Kaasik and a silk scarf by Liivia Leškin. These are the two most recent presents.

Why does life in rural areas seem so hard nowadays?

Its roots are in the past, mostly in the complex privatisation and stealing of the nearest past. I have never lived in a rural area, but when my father started his working life, he was the stoker on a grain cleaner and later a machinist. He managed to save enough money before the occupation so that he could have bought his own boiler. He never got around to it, though. Maybe it was best, because this saved him from deportation. I just read a book about the people who were deported from Sakalamaa. There are eight centimetres of these booklets, each dealing with one parish, and my father came from Sakalamaa as well.
I was born in 1949 and my relatives on my mother's and father's side as well as all other Estonians were born and lived in the Republic of Estonia. Even if most of this time has been filled by Russian, German and the second Russian occupation. We have this one and only Republic of Estonia which was born on February 24, 1918.
If people could remember that, if they could remember the time farms were taken away, the deportations, how those who deported the people took their properties, how those who were deported secretly returned from Siberia, all this fear and hope, which followed people day by day until they also adapted to the spiritual poverty which could be seen in the fact that four bottles of pure vodka was sold per every resident in a week - including infants and the elderly - this is what broke us finally. This broke the will and the spirit. And this is why we have to go to the rural people today and show them all the opportunities that are ahead of them. If rural people had a clear view of both the future and the past, they would not talk about the difficulties of our time so much, but the opportunities that are available today. The money has not disappeared from the state, it just changed owners. Everything has concentrated into Tallinn. Maybe tax rates should be higher in Tallinn and respectively lower elsewhere.

Does farm life have a future?

You could also ask if town life had a future. Farms will not disappear anywhere. But not all farmers are also masters. Read about farm life in 1922 in ''Master of Kõrboja'' by Anton Hansen Tammsaare.
I think that many things depend on common activities, the initiative of farm owners. But this should not be like in ''In the Whirlwind'' by August Kitzberg, written in 1906, where everybody looked after his own interests when the dairy co-operative was established. Farmers in present-day Estonia could put their money together and create their own farm market, even if they have to conquer hardships on the way. If they will not get land for this from Tallinn, then some legal successor could find this land and I am sure that people would go to this market and prefer the Estonian goods.
It makes me sad when people pour milk on the road. This is not the way Estonians have behaved, they used to kiss the piece of bread that fell on the floor! Are there really no people in need here to whom this milk could have been given instead, like schoolchildren? People would surely have felt more sympathy for the farmers.

What do you buy from the market?

I look for trust in the market. When you buy pork, you have to recognise the right piece, the one that has not grown squashy on maize. I do not go to the same sellers all the time, but I know some of them both from the Central and Nõmme Markets. This is the right time to buy the Christmas roast before the prices go up. I have already ordered the blood and guts for the blood sausage from a market seller I know.
I would also buy flour from the market, but it is sad when the label on the window says that Estonian flour is sold, but the sack in the corner bears the label Hlebokombinat Rostov na Donu (Rostov-on-Don Bread Factory). When some of them lie, you can not trust the others either. There is the same problem with eggs. Latvian hens lay Estonian eggs.
I go to the market once or twice a week. There was a time the Central Market disturbed me so much that I did not go there for two or three months. It reminded me of the market in Istanbul, there were no Estonian goods. And it has been like this for years already. You do not see Estonian buyers or Estonian sellers in our markets anymore. Who knows where I could buy Estonian rye and wheat flour that contains no preservatives?

What does the obligation of being the patron of charity events mean for the wife of the president?

This makes me responsible for the work of the patron not being just formal, just in the words ''patron Helle Meri''. This means dealing constantly with the problem for the solution of which charity is used. And of course, it presumes the existence of at least some means that could be used to help those in need.

Many overnight shelters have been opened for the homeless, but nobody cares about them during the day. How could the state help to improve the situation alongside with charity?

Charity is the duty of citizens, not the state. It should be calculated how much money has been spent so far and what the benefits have been. There are not too many helpers who have shared their support, but there are some. This is why we have to see the things from above so that the help would reach those who really need it and would be practical.

A lot of money is raised in support of the SOS Children's Village, there seem to be enough donators?

It is great that there are donators, all the money goes to the Estonian Children's Village. The donators and I as the patron of the Children's Village want to see how this money has been spent. The use of money must be transparent. Right now a second village is planned to be established in Pärnu. A new village is necessary, but in Pärnu they have to think how to create the love for earth in children who live by the sea. I really want the children of the SOS Children's Village to learn to love the land and the forests and stick their fingers in the soil.

You have talked about the need to provide all schoolchildren with hot meals. Who could help?

Maaleht should ask this from the people who poured milk on the road.

It is not the children's fault when their parents have no money. Hot soup and a piece of bread should be a part of every schoolchild's day so that they would have the strength to study. Otherwise the army will be the first place where boys can study and eat properly.

The president has said that he will go on holiday after he resigns from his office in year 2001. When did you go on holiday and how did you spend it?

I take my holidays together with the president.

Do you watch TV series?

No, I do not watch them. If I had the time, I would watch and I would recommend everybody else to watch the British series ''Yes, Mr. Minister'' and ''Yes, Mr. Prime Minister''. You could have a laugh and think about things at home.

What is your favourite colour?

My eyes are blue and my husband is Meri (Sea), maybe this why I often wear blue.

What is the last book you read?

I just read a chapter in a turn of the century cookbook which was about Christmas bread. I have already made the candied fruit and I checked what else I need to make genuine Estonian Christmas bread.

I follow Tuule's eighth grade physics and maths books, but they are already too difficult for me. I read about the countries we visit or from where guests are about to arrive. Talking about fiction, I would like to mention the most recent novel of Jaan Kross, which I recommend to everybody.

Do you and your family prefer Estonian food?

Why else would I go to the market? Estonian bread and Estonian butter are always offered at out official dinners as well.

Have you ever been in financial difficulties in caring for your family?

Complaining will not bring you any money. We have saved money for building our own house - slowly, though. The expenses of our family are inevitably larger than in any other three-member family where only one person is earning money.

Do you believe in horoscopes? What is your star sign?

I do not believe in them at all. When my eye catches a horoscope in a newspaper, it feels like we are on our way back to the Middle Ages.

What has been you most beautiful birthday present?

During our visit to Israel we were in Jerusalem on my birthday. What else could one want? President Weizman gave me a birthday cake and they sung me a birthday song in Estonian at the reception.

Would you dare to walk in Kadriorg Park without bodyguards?

I do not allow anybody to go there in the dark, especially women who are on their own. Kadriorg Park is not safe, even at Christmas Eve. It sad to finish this on such a note.

Silja Lättemäe


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