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!
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
Back here, contemplating the human condition. Some days are wondrous, bright, sun-backed, a white light on the castle ruins, other days a bit more blue and gray. Ain’t so easy to walk into a cafe and spit out a mouthful of Estonian after a few weeks back in the US. All of those vowels. Sometimes I think people only pretend to understand me. (“What is he saying? Something weird again. Who knows!) I think about the male-female back and forth, about things that are inferred, things that are never said, things that are said but that mean something else. The iceberg theory! Above water, only the tip, but below, whoa, down and down it goes. I remember how once in the New York Aquarium in Brooklyn ages and ages ago, I stood watching the walruses dip and twirl in the waters, then was astonished when one pushed its nether regions up against the glass and realized that I was looking at the largest vagina I had ever seen in my life. “Maybe she likes you,” someone said to me at the sight of that massive morsa tussu. Maybe so. I appreciate it now, how direct nature can be. What was there to misinterpret? It was just there.
It wasn’t too long ago that the president arrived to V-town with her entourage. Some plain clothed security guards, a police escort. From the lip of the sewer across from Rohelise Maja I awaited her entry. This is my favorite sewer in Viljandi because of its most ungodly awful rot smell. “They’re supposed to fix it in the next few years, because the sewer and the street stuff run together,” says Enn the proprietor. “But whaddya gonna do? That’s life.” Enn says if it’s still ripe by summer they’ll put an easy chair out there for me. “Get a good whiff.” Ooooooh … that putrid funky pungent stink stank stunk of Estonia, up in your nostrils. So Kersti arrived, never saw her sneak in. In through the back door, I guess. I only glimpsed her through the dark window glass, leaning over her goat cheese salad or whatever. The telling bangs and mop of hair. She went ice skating the night before, down on the lake, or so they said. The children of Viljandi were whispering. “The president is ice skating, the president is ice skating …” I was happy with my glimpse and that’s all. Not a message to relay. Tell you the truth, I was invited to my share of Independence Day Galas in the Ilves era, but never went, somewhat out of shyness, mostly because my partner refused to go. She dreaded the annual edition of Kroonika, the garish cutthroat tabloid, where they take down the best and worst attired. Hirmus! Who could blame her? If I had gone though, they wouldn’t have let me in anyway, because I would have worn traditional Calabrian attire, the daring clothes of briganti, which includes a musket and cutlass …
I confess my ignorance of 20th century British political history. I knew the name Anthony Eden, I knew he had been prime minister, I knew he was a SIR Anthony Eden (naturally), but I did not recall that he was Churchill’s foreign secretary during the majority of the Second World War, and I did not realize he urged Churchill to recognize Soviet control over the Baltic countries, which Churchill opposed. The unfortunately named Lord Beaverbrook was even more adamant about recognizing the Soviet takeover, referring to the Baltics as the “Ireland of Russia” — an apt comparison, but one that most would see as strengthening their bid to retain full independence, rather than accommodating their subservience to an ancient imperial master. Those were the days of map rooms and sitting rooms and sitting in the map rooms looking at maps. The Aegean Islands! The Ljubljana Gap! The Ireland of Russia! It was supposed to be history. Now it’s back.
Some ocean of big vulnerability these days. The whole Atlantic in my chest. New beginnings, new something. People’s dissatisfaction rising. Rising within themselves, with their world. It’s always been that way. Nothing’s ever been satisfying. Tinkering with Eastern Philosophies. But can we Westerners ever truly understand? For so long we have lived within the Christian prism. Even the Godless ones. The way we intuit, the things that motivate us. There are regional idiosyncrasies. The distance, the space between. Does every Estonian come wrapped up in plastic or ice. Something does not happen here that happens elsewhere. I’m used to a loud kitchen, a lot of big voices and big forces. A force of nature. “You’re a force of nature,” a woman tells me. Sounds nice. Stacking the firewood. Lighting it up. R. is afraid to sauna. He’s too English, too cultured for local tastes. He thinks that a bunch of naked men sweating in a hot room is “gay.” “What do you think I am going to do with you in there?” I ask him. “Look at you, you’re all hairy and … male. I don’t want to have anything to do with you.” “You are going to sweat in there,” says R., pacing the floor like a distressed cavalier. “I’m not because I won’t be joining you.”