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 …
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.
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.
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! 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!