Estonia's fruitful friendship clan - a club for men only

  • 2001-07-26
  • Devyani Banerjee
TALLINN - "It is around a table that friends understand best the warmth of being together."

It was probably this old Italian saying that prompted 28-year-old Rotarian Louis Marchesi to found the Round Table, a social club for young men committed to the cause of friendship, understanding and cooperation in England in 1927. Marchesi wanted to capitalize on the enthusiasm and vigor of young people for the making of a better world.

The idea received an overwhelming response, and more Round Table clubs were established in different parts of the world. Today there are 43,000 Round Table members around the globe and the number is steadily increasing every year.

The Round Table came to Estonia in 1990, when the first club in Tallinn was chartered. Today there are 10 clubs in Estonia - in Tallinn, Tartu, Viljandi, Hiiuma and Paide - with 156 members. An 11th is proposed for Hapsaalu by the end of the year.

"The Round Table is completely non-political and non-sectarian," asserts Primo Annus, an active member of Club Number 7 in Tallinn. "Our aim is to increase our social awareness."

"The club encourages free and open discussions on all topics except religion and politics, which are considered too sensitive and bring about unnecessary discord," Annus says.

Another taboo topic, apparently, is business. "That's because we're not foolish enough to do business with friends."

Another aspect of the club is exercises in charity. Each club decides its own charity programs for the year. In 1999, Club Number 7 participated in Tallinn's annual beer festival. They managed to raise 50,000 kroons ($2,800) for a local children's hospital by selling beer provided by Saku brewery for free.

A fair assortment of VIPs get to put their heads round the door of Club Number 7. There are two meetings a month, the highlight of each being a couple of speeches. "Our guests have included Vahur Kraft, the president of the Estonian Central Bank, the minister of culture, some musicians and other dignitaries," beams Annus.

All of the clubs in the world that carry the same club number meet once a year, helping to create that all-important aim of international friendship and brotherhood.

But receiving club membership is not a cake walk. "The Round Table is more concerned with quality than quantity," Annus says. "We don't want to have members who are too frivolous and who might bring about the downfall of the club."

The only way in is through another club member. The aspirant then introduces himself and tells the throng why he wants to join. This is followed by an open election to determine whether he should be accepted.

New members are given a temporary membership of four to six weeks, after which it is decided via secret ballot whether he is fit for permanent membership. Even one vote against the applicant makes him ineligible. Doesn't this make each club rather small?

"True enough," agrees Annus. "This way the club does not grow fast and we know we have faithful members."

There's some fun involved, too. "We also have fun-filled family gatherings," Annus says. There's a theater visit every year, followed by a dinner party. There's also basketball, fishing, water games, golf and hunting.

"The quality of my life has definitely improved since joining the Round Table," says Einar Leibak, the president of Round Table Estonia. "I have made friends all over the world, and wherever I am I know there's a fellow tabler around who can help me if I am in trouble."

One major flaw in the Round Table, many would argue, is that women are banned. Are the tablers misogynists? Leibak shrugs off the suggestion.

"We're not prejudiced against women," he laughs. "Ever since its inception, the Round Table has been an all-men's club. We just haven't changed the tradition."