necessary/ unnecessary

At the end of our meeting, I tugged the box of Greek strawberries nervously from my bag. There are all kinds of Estonian social customs to which I am still oblivious. Sometimes it is rude not to give a gift upon visiting someone, sometimes it is unnecessary, which might as well be rude. Estonians don’t care for unnecessary things. They get annoyed if you have to make two trips to the store because the second trip was unnecessary. The Estonians believe that they are being graded for efficiency by some omniscient god, Taara perhaps. If all goes as planned, if they get good marks in this life, then they can go to Estonian heaven, where they can eat as many strawberries and as much šašlõkk as they like …

gossamer thin

At first I agreed to play the role of the Estonian man to her. The Estonian man brings wood and carries heavy items and says nothing. He says nothing and grunts and then he scratches his chin a bit and mumbles something unintelligible and saunters off toward the forest for a pits of vodka or a run-in with some red and black currants. Yet again I am failing. I try and I am failing. I’m not like the kind they want. The soft and easy type who idles away the day on renovation projects, makes the dough, fixes the roof, gives it to them when they feel like (when they’re not getting it from someone else, to which he averts a dull, blue-eyed gaze) and doesn’t give it to them when they don’t feel like. Tells them he loves them, but sparingly, ‘gossamer thin,’ as my friend puts it, and expects nothing but a dry bone in return. No, I am not one of them. I am one of these ‘womanly’ Latin men. I used to think it was an insult, to be called womanly, but I feel in these moments more manly and more womanly than any of these people.

see jaanipäev

IT’S TODAY, or was. Yesterday was Victory Day, Võidupüha, and today is another wonderful opportunity to sell more shit. When I think of the Estonians, when I think of their intestines, the acres of salads that are passing through them on their way to the outhouse hole, the alcohol-burned villi, the chewed up red pork that finds its inevitable route to the black and brown dung heap, flies swarming, the amount of grain and feed that goes into stuffing those animals so that they can be painfully fashioned into neat-o products with names like õllepärlid — beer pearls — I get a sort of lingering sickness in my insides that I’ve come to equate with the blue, black, and white flag itself. The plastic empties, the scent of beer and burned wood. Not like I am one to shy away from the very thing I detest: I’m all for it. I gorge myself as well, and then head to the sauna to be reborn in sweat, staring at a brick ceiling, trying to make sense of it all, but there is no sense. “Women!” is all my Seto friend Väino told me when I tried to explain my life. “Women! You don’t need to explain, noormees. I know. Ha ha. Believe me, I know.” “To think of all the time I’ve spent thinking about them, worrying about them,” said Elias in the sauna. “When I could have read more books, or enjoyed my life more.” Awakenings, awakenings. Summer’s here. It must be good for something.

wana eesti raha

The first currency of the Estonian Republic was the mark. It was introduced in 1918 and tied to the German ostmark. It remained in circulation through the late 1920s, at which time the kroon became the new currency. I have heard interesting anecdotes about Estonian children finding stacks of old 1000 marka or 100 krooni bills stashed away in attics during the Soviet era, and presenting them to their parents and grandparents who just shrugged as if they really had no recollection of seeing them before. Interesting that the Estonian mark was once pegged to the German ostmark, just as the reintroduced kroon was once pegged to the Deutsche Mark and later the euro, before full euro adoption in 2011.

It is a good example of the centrality of Germany’s influence on the Estonian state.

head aega

Head aega! This is the all-purpose Estonian goodbye. It is more sincere than the forced nägemist which implies that you might see the person again, and though you most likely will, there is the possibility that you won’t. (There is also the presumption that you might actually want to see the person again). Then there is the androgynous nägemiseni. I once used this with my friend Mart, but he blushed a bit and said, “Justin, men don’t say nägemiseni.” That’s nägemiseni. It’s for little girls. Yet head aega! It just means, literally, “good times.” Isn’t anyone worthy of good times? I can still hear Nile Rogers’ chinkalink guitar on Chic’s old disco hit “Good times/These are the good times/A new state of mind/These are the good times.” The funny thing is that for the Estonians, head aega is something an older serious person would say to you. The cry of the old men. For Americans, it sounds like leftover stoner. “Good times, man.” “Same to you.” Like you should be munching on chocolate chip cookies in the corner of a college keg party in Connecticut listening to Chic. Not that I know anything about that. Gotta run now. Head aega!

when the heart corrects itself

All of life is a process of tuning in, and a process of making decisions. I can find the very places in my old journals where certain decisions were made. These are silent, internal decisions. I wonder sometimes to what extent the Estonians around me have mastered these kinds of facts. Many seem to be experts when it comes to the human condition. I recently asked K. and M. at the cafe if they believed that it is possible to feel another person’s feelings, even if they never express them, even if they are in another city. Both of them looked up from their coffees and said, in unison, muidugi! Of course. M. is a woman and so a witch. Most Estonian women see an equals sign between nõid (witch) and naine (woman). There is no separation between the two. If you are an Estonian woman, you are a witch. So, yes, we are dealing with some ‘next-level’ stuff here. The idea that your heart can correct itself, can choose to tune into something, if it so decides, makes perfect sense in this eerie place. The twin enemies of these things are fear and doubt, I’ve learned. If you can ignore your doubt, accept your fear, you can get somewhere.

when the heart goes silent

A morning where it’s hard to get out of bed. I used to have these long ago, before and after. After school, too I would come home and just try to sleep through the rest of the evening. And then the morning too. I felt myself in free fall without any catch. You cannot expect anyone else to bail you out in your life, but what if you can’t be bothered to catch yourself? I realize this is depressing, but that’s how I feel. There is something truly isolating about this country too, and this feeling does come to other foreigners here. The distance between people is greater, the embraces are not genuine, at times, or feel awkward, and beautiful women run roughshod over your heart, like one of those primitive plows they use out in the countryside. But what do you do when the heart goes silent? You try to tune in, but it tunes out. The signal is lost. No frequency.

where’s your seal?

N. needs a man with a hammer, but M. is a höövel sort of man. This was related to me recently by an estranged yet amiable couple, one that cooperates at all levels, and yet whose personal life is that of sister-brother, not man-and-woman. I had to look up höövel. It’s a carpenter’s plane. M. would prefer to slowly and easily work his wood into shape, but N. wants it all done, now. She wants a man with a hammer to take over and nail things into place, not some easygoing höövel. “I don’t even know what I want,” I tell this troubled duo. “Maybe just some kind of Inuit woman, in a warm igloo, with a lot of sled dogs,” say I. “And we just lay there in the furs and have a lot of sex and that’s pretty much it.” As if caught in a dream, I end my vision of the perfect relationship. “You know, you don’t need hammers or a höövel if you live in an igloo.” “You still have to provide,” says N. “Are you really willing to go out and tackle some seal, pull it out of the ice, and eat it?” “It doesn’t sound so complicated,” I say. She squints. My seal-catching talents are in doubt. “Ready to come home to an angry Inuit woman grunting to you, “Noh, kus su hüljes on?” (Where’s your seal?) This idea sours me out a bit, leaves me cold. I was there with the steamy igloo sex, but demanding iglunaised are all the same I guess. Grumpy and dissatisfied. 

gold paint splashes of sun

Sunset is the time I usually arrive back home to V-town, I can see it riding up beyond the horizon as I come up past Vana-Võidu, Jaan Tõnisson’s birthplace, etc., those shadowy pillars in the smoky dusk, the outline of an ancient city. I am so eternally grateful for the stars in the deep Atlantic blue sky, that come out just beyond dusk, which lingers so deliciously, those gold paint splashes of sun, the white gold light all over the facades of Old Town, the hills that roll down and away, then curl up on the horizon, with blue-green evergreens patterned up upon. Where better to be than here among the verandas and wood barns and moss? I’ll take the silence, the quiet traffic hum, the too familiar faces and maddening conversations … I feel somehow beyond the kaubanduskeskuse maailm of Tartu and Tallinn and anywhere else here, safe from that department store world of discount sausages and organic soaps, where most of the remaining good of the cities has been encased and surrounded and jailed in plastic and metal and escalators. There’s more. When you get lost in life, as I have, you must live on not by your wits, but your “heart.” If you don’t, you betray yourself and get ever deeper into this labyrinth of life illusions. High rows of green hedges rise spreading to gray horizons. Somewhere a bird sadly singing. Sometimes I wonder how many other people are lost and if they even know it. 

you used to all come here

You used to all come here for the geopolitical analyses, okay. People are worried, the media shows British troops amassing in the Estonian hinterlands, the American tanks in Narva, specter of Russian aggression, the pro-Kremlin zombie stooges amok on the commenting boards, like the worst case of Montezuma’s Revenge. Shit. I just don’t feel it though. Maybe I am just too blissed out by the advent of spring, those lovely little birds chirping (and yes, spring did come to Europe, even in 1939) but I just don’t sense the danger and here’s why: because short of invading Estonia, losing a lot of little green men, getting into a nuclear eye-for-an-eye, city-for-a-city, and imposing Yana Toom on the throne as a yes woman (who will be perpetually pelted with rotten potatoes and turnips until driven into exile in Damascus where she can behold and becoddle her boyfriend Assad’s hand lovingly), the Estonian leadership now is, quite honestly, the best the Kremlin could hope for. The President, Kaljulaid, is a born and raised Estonian woman whose outlook east is not the outraged Atlanticism of her predecessor, but the rather common moral superiority of the nordics (“the situation is not ideal, but the ethical state must make do, etc.”) making her sound, in a roundabout, removed, unfinlandized yet way, like Tarja Halonen. The prime minister’s party had that deal with United Russia in the ’00s, which probably doesn’t mean much, but it does mean so very much to the Kremlin (“our guys are in power there”), the same way that Lavrov still talks about Swedish “neutrality” as if it really meant something, or that they’re flustered about being “engulfed by NATO,” when it’s obvious the West is in shit shape. That doesn’t mean that the gasket protecting us from global meltdown isn’t going to blow soon, but if it does, it’s probably going to steam in Korea or some such place, where heavy missiles land in the seas. In which case, we all should feel alert and alarmed, no matter where we are.