JOIN US IN AN INTERVIEW WITH SILVIA SOIDE FROM KIHNU ISLANDS, ESTONIA!
Silvia Soide is a Canadian-Estonian from Vancouver who suddenly decided one day to take a crazy leap into the unknown and move to Estonia to discover her roots. She is an avid admirer of photography and since 2008 has been a very proud resident of Kihnu, Estonia. She finished photography courses at the Tartu Art College and have won awards from various competitions. Her proudest achievement was winning first place in the photo contest “Pictures of homeland”, held by the Estonian National Museum for which she was awarded by the former president of Estonia, Toomas Hendrik Ilves.
Estonia has over 2000 islands, mostly uninhabited. The most popular Estonian islands are Saaremaa, Hiiumaa, Kihnu, Ruhnu and Vormsi. Kihnu, the largest island in the Gulf of Riga and the seventh largest island of Estonia is in fact quite remote and small. Living largely of tourism, Kihnu belongs to the Pärnu County of Estonia and is considered as an ancient island of seafarers and fishermen.
The island is 7 km in length and 3.3 km in width and is home to around 700 inhabitants. Deep rooted traditions and indigenous culture are a great part of the Kihnu women who can be seen running around the island in Kihnu folk costume skirts. They are worn by Kihnu women on a daily basis.
There are four villages in Kihnu – Lemsi Village (East), Linaküla Village (West), Rootsiküla Village (South), and Sääre Village (North). Kihnu cultural space has been recognised as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.
(Nitasha) : What brings you to Kihnu Island?
(Silvia) : Although I was born and raised in Canada, my heritage is Estonian and my grandmother was from Kihnu island. She, like many other Estonians had to leave her family behind and escape during the war. Eventually her journey brought her to Vancouver where she stayed and continued to teach her daughters and her grandchildren all about the small island that she called home.
When I was a kid, my family and I came to Kihnu for summer vacations a couple times in the 90’s. Although I was pretty young at the time, I fondly remember the magical feeling I had while visiting relatives.
Many years later in 2008 when I was 21, I had moved to Estonia and was taking language courses at Tartu University. During one of my weekend visits to the island, I met a local Kihnu boy and to make a long story short, I moved to Kihnu for love. Although him and I are no longer together, I still live on the island today and work as a photographer and folk dance teacher.
(Nitasha) : That’s quite an interesting story .. !! I am curious, how is everyday life for a Kihnu woman?
(Silvia) : Being a foreigner, it was quite a challenge for me in the beginning to get used to Kihnu culture. Depending on the season women have different priorities, but one priority that never changes over time is holding true to their traditions.
Kihnu women are very hard workers and dedicated to their families, homes and culture. Their everyday lives are filled with typical tasks of cleaning, cooking, taking care of the children, working on the field and so on.
The rest of their time is dedicated to preserving their culture as much as they can. Whether this is making traditional handicrafts (knitting, weaving, embroidery etc.), practicing traditional dances and songs, taking part in holiday traditions, and anything else that comes up along the way. Many islanders also try to keep their culture alive at home by speaking the Kihnu dialect with their children.
(Nitasha) : Kihnu is known as Estonia’s isle of women. For a change, please tell us a little about Kihnu men and their role. Do they still spend weeks at sea?
(Silvia) : Although the island is considered the isle of women or “no mans land” I find that these titles have been exaggerated by media, even to the point of calling Kihnu the last matriarch in Europe. Kihnu women are definitely in the spotlight as the main holders and carriers of Kihnu culture, and believe me they do a damned good job at it! But to say that the island is a matriarch is debatable.
It’s common that women are more interested in singing and dancing, or doing handicrafts but the men here are just as important carriers of Kihnu culture as women are. Kihnu men feel a responsibility to take care of their home and their families, and while they may not be spending weeks sailing the seas as before, many men work extremely hard to provide for their family.
Nowadays, some men find work on transport ships or cruise ships, some go abroad to work in Finland or Norway or other Scandinavian countries, or some find as many opportunities for work on the island as they can. While the routine of them being gone at work for weeks at a time is still quite present, the work they are doing is more varied nowadays. Traditions do not die though and Kihnu men have always been men of the sea. Regardless of how long they are away at work, whenever they do return to the island they are sure to go fishing as much as they can.
(Nitasha) : When is the best time to visit Kihnu Island so one can experience their local festivals and culture at its best?
(Silvia) : If you’re looking to experience a rich, vibrant show of Kihnu culture then I definitely suggest visiting during the summer. Kihnu has a wide variety of different festivals and events during this time. Most businesses and entrepreneurs operate during the tourist season so you’re likely to have more experiences to choose from. That’s not to say though that the island doesn’t have anything to offer in the colder months as well.
Winter is absolutely beautiful here on the island when the forests are covered in snow and frost. The downside to visiting outside of the summer season is that restaurants and most tourist shops are closed. The local corner stores will still be open but selection is whatever they have available. Also, unless you are staying somewhere that has a kitchen, then it is difficult to prepare food yourself. Thankfully however, most accommodations offer food in their stay.
If you’re coming to the island during the winter, always make sure to ask as much information as possible beforehand so that you’re not surprised when you arrive.
(Nitasha) : How to reach Kihnu considering most tourists land in Tallinn? How to get around the island?
(Silvia) : The only way to reach Kihnu is by ferry or boat leaving from Munalaid harbour (about 40km outside of Pärnu). Throughout the year, the ferry makes many trips each day so it’s even possible to go in the morning and come back in the evening. Lemsi Village, located in the eastern part of the island, connects the mainland and the island.
If you’re on foot, a bus to Munalaid leaves from the Pärnu bus station a few times a day.
In winter, when the Baltic sea is frozen, travel between the two would have to be done by plane or, if the temperature allows it, it is possible to drive across the frozen water.
More information, ferry and bus schedules can be found here.
(Nitasha) : Some tourists visit Kihnu Island as a daytrip, how many days would you say are enough to experience the Kihnu culture? Any recommendation on where to stay?
(Silvia) : Oh boy, that’s a hard question. It all depends on what you’re looking for. If visiting the island during the summer then a couple days is definitely suffice to experience both the nature and culture of the island. Summer is the tourist season and so naturally there are many more opportunities to see and take place in various cultural events.
During the winter however, life slows down and Kihnu islanders spend more time in their homes. While a day or two is enough to drive around the island and see the nature, it’s less likely that you’ll run into many islanders or that an event will be taking place. Lots of tourists come hoping to see the vibrant, striped skirts or to see the women dancing and singing, which is trickier in the winter. This is where I would suggest a visit to the Kihnu museum!
All in all, no matter how long you come for you’ll find something amazing. Heck, I’ve been living here for 11 years later and I’m still falling in love with the island!
As for good places to stay, there are honestly so many! Whichever one you choose you are sure to have a wonderful time. A couple I could suggest are Sadama öömaja or Kuraga farm.
(Nitasha) : What are the top three must see/do things in Kihnu?
1) Visit the Kihnu museum! That would be the first thing I would suggest. The museum is open all year round and offers a great overview of Kihnu culture. The gift shop is full of beautiful, locally made handicraft and there is always a different temporary exhibit to enjoy. Not to mention the building is just beautiful and is sure to make tourists fall in love.
2) During the summer when the restaurant is open, I would suggest eating at the Rock City cafe. Located next to the beachside near the harbour, Rock City offers a variety of home-style Kihnu meals. The cozy feel of the building and the gorgeous view, combined with the tasty food always makes me feel like I’m visiting a good friend for dinner.
3) As for the third must see/do thing in Kihnu, it would be to stroll through my favourite place on the island. The männimets (pine forest). Although there are many forests on the island, this particular one is located on the road between the harbour and Kurase shop. The forest is filled with tall, powerful, pine trees that stretch far up to the sky. I honestly can’t even explain what it is about this place that feels so magical to me, but it is definitely something one needs to experience on the island. Whether sun, rain, snow, or wind…..this forest will make you believe in magic.
(Nitasha) : Which are the most celebrated event and festival of Kihnu?
(Silvia) : I’d say the most celebrated festival would be Jaanipäev (Midsummer’s day). Even the days leading up to the festival are full of excitement as islanders prepare for the festivities. Before the festival, islanders will cut downs birch tree branches and place them in the corners of their rooms. This is one of my favourite traditions because it makes the whole house smell of fresh birch.
On the actual day, people will heat and go to sauna, often make a grill and lots of other delicious food, get dressed up in their proudest skirts and costumes and gather together at the community field. Here they perform traditional Kihnu dances and songs, light the large bonfire (usually an old fishing boat loaded with wood), and celebrate the shortest night of the year when the sun barely even sets.
(Nitasha) : Kihnu has a rich tradition of music and dance. Would you like to tell us the story behind this?
(Silvia) : Kihnu islanders have carried ancient songs and dances from hundreds of years ago into todays modern society with grace and strict dedication. It’s truly something admirable. Kihnu has had a more untouched culture thanks to the island’s isolated location from the mainland but regardless, the rapidly modernizing world threatens the prosperity of these traditions. Back in the day, majority of songs were sung as a way to pass the time while islanders were working or sailing at sea. Nowadays, the songs are more of a way to preserve the traditions and culture and sung during performances. Unfortunately, the rapid modernization of today’s society makes it tricky to keep the younger generation as interested in these traditions as before.
Kihnu song and dance is a part of the elementary school’s curriculum and many students also take extra curricular lessons for violin, accordion, or guitar. Even as I’m writing this in the museum, violin lessons are taking place and I’m serenaded by the sound of traditional Kihnu songs.
(Nitasha) : What is the most loved local food of Kihnu? Is there any specific way of preparing or serving it? Which are the best places to try the local cuisine?
(Silvia) : Probably different dependant on who you ask but generally……Fish!
Fish cutlets, fried fish, smoked fish, fish salad, salted fish, marinated fish….. you get the idea? Kihnu is a fisherman’s island so naturally they love their fish and they know hundreds of different ways to prepare it. If you’re looking for the best places to try the local cuisine then pretty much any Kihnu farm could offer you mouth watering dishes. Kihnu women are my favourite cooks. They know how to make something so simple taste so good.
There are two delicious events that take place on Kihnu which are purely dedicated to food and local chefs. Kihnu Räimeretk in May (Baltic Herring hike) and Kihnu Keretäüs in June (Kihnu Cafe days). Both events offer a wide variety of different Kihnu cuisine from different farms, Räimeretk being more focused on Baltic Herring. For more information visit http://www.visitkihnu.ee
(Nitasha) : Which are the local crafts or souvenirs of Kihnu Island? Where can one see them being made?
(Silvia) : Local souvenirs of the island range anywhere from handmade handicraft to books/publications to food. There’s something for everybody. Popular souvenirs are hand knit socks/gloves or woven Kihnu textiles. The museum’s gift shop has a wide variety of everything and is your best chance to find souvenirs no matter what time of year you visit.
Women mostly make their handicraft at home during the winter months when there’s not as much work to do outside, so it’s difficult to see it in person unless you know where to go. Women do gather once a month at the museum where they chat, have some coffee and cake, and work on their handicrafts together. Another great opportunity to see them at work is by watching a performance of “Kihnumua” either at the museum or at Mõnu farm. Kihnumua is a folk ansamble that performs traditional Kihnu song and dance as well as makes traditional handicrafts.
(Nitasha) : Kihnu Island is visited all year round by tourists. What do you think is the impact of mass tourism on the island? Would you like to give tourists any tips on do’s and dont’s in Kihnu?
(Silvia) : This is a complicated question. On one hand, the mass tourism of the island is helping islanders to earn money and survive during the winter months when there is less work. Jobs aren’t exactly easy to come by in Kihnu so unfortunately most islanders have to leave to the mainland or go abroad in order to earn a decent pay. Having the tourism industry’s support helps to provide for those who need/wish to live on the island all year round. Not to mention, it’s a beautiful culture that deserves to be shared and experienced. However, on the flip side…the mass tourism can bring in a lot of negativity.
For example, although most tourists are quite respectful, there are always some that come to the island and feel like there are no boundaries here. As if they can do whatever they want and then just leave. Whether that’s littering, trespassing on others land, acting inappropriately and so on. So with this being said, my advice to tourists coming to Kihnu is honestly just to be respectful of those who live here and of the nature. Kihnu people think of the whole island as their home and it’s very precious to them, so we just ask that you respect the land as much as we do.
If you’re looking for more information you can check out the Kihnu website here: VisitKihnu or KihnuVald
Hoping to see you soon! 🙂
IF YOU ARE TRAVELLING TO KIHNU ISLAND OR WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT SILVIA’S TRAVEL EXPERIENCES THEN BE SURE TO FOLLOW HER ON INSTAGRAM
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To know more about Estonia, check our interviews with locals of Tallinn, Tartu and Setomaa