YESTERDAY, A DOG BIT ME in Obinitsa Village. I was just strolling through and saw the tiny pooch sitting there, snarling at me. Then, a second or two later, a growl and a bite. It went for my ankle, bit it’s teeth couldn’t penetrate my pants or socks. It only left a scratch. Still it added to my feelings of being totally out of place in Obinitsa, which is a place in Estonia where I have spent considerable time. I get this feeling there, as in much of rural Estonia, that at some point in the not-too-distant past (1960s), there was a lot of activity here that shortly thereafter (1980s) dried up. You know what I mean — the half finished barns that dot the landscape, the run down old collective farm buildings. New York is actually dotted with similar mistakes. At that time, people were intent on public works, planned communities, and they somehow just didn’t function. So Obinitsa has devolved to its status as marginal Seto village, which it always has been. That is its nature, the nature of the place. It’s a pretty area, with great pine trees, vistas. I can’t say I hate it or dislike it. I should I guess feel happy and honored just for the experience of being there. But it never feels like I belong there, whatever that sense of belonging is. I guess I have gotten used to the Estonians over the years, but I am not used to the Setos. It’s a bit much for me to go that deep, beyond Estonia into Setomaa.
I WAS THINKING about this. A number of people have asked me about why I am able to write about my personal life, and have no qualms sharing things. The first thing you should ask yourself is, how do you know I’m telling you the truth? The second is, what is the truth? One interesting concept is how do we omit parts of stories to create new fictional narratives. We leave out vital pieces of information (vital perhaps to other people), therefore creating fiction from nonfiction. I suppose it’s all nonfiction, if it really happened. But then again, if you dreamed it, and felt it in the dream, then it’s just an experience like any other. Flimsy material this stuff called reality. Flimsy material. Another piece of my puzzle though is what I actually think is coming from a Mediterranean heritage. In Northern Europe (above the Mediterranean), you have an individualist mindset. The individual is paramount, as is personal choice. The individual is defined by his or her individuality. Stories about an individual’s life are particular to that individual. Sharing your individual stories is somehow opening up your privacy. But from a collectivist, Mediterranean outlook, I am not so much different from you. We are a bit different — maybe you are female, I am male, or you are older, I am younger — but more or less, our experiences of life cannot be so great. If I eat a meal, are my impressions of that meal so much different from your own? We have all been tired, sad, hungry, drunk, miserable, overjoyed. We have all had great (and terrible) sex. So how is my great sex any different from your great sex? Maybe the details and circumstances are different (with whom, in what location, in what situation) but, in general, we are not so different. This is another reason why I don’t mind sharing some of my experiences. They are not so different. I might arrange them in an artful way to create an engaging new experience, but they do not belong particularly to me and they do not define me as an individual. They are just my impressions of the overall human experience.
I AM SLOWLY losing faith in the United States. Not as an entity all together — it exists as various joined territories, with a more-or-less common language and some shared history. But as a centralized government that upholds certain shared principles, I am skeptical the state will continue. The Constitution is now 230 years old. That’s a rather long lifespan for a constitution. It has left us pacing around trying to uncover the hidden meanings in what a few men in the 18th century thought about certain issues. To these “Founding Fathers” has been ascribed near divinity. One must ask: is this any way to run any country? The impeachment trial is the same circus. The conditions for impeachment are vague. Anyone can stretch them either way. So in no way is any kind of justice served via this trial. It’s some anachronistic show. We have reached a point though in the Trump era, that the veneer of serving some idea of “the United States” has been openly abandoned for serving the executive’s personality cult. It’s no longer about “the United States,” it’s about Trump. And unless you accept that Trump is the United States now, and only him, then you run into a major problem. McConnell has abandoned his loyalty to any idea of the state and does the bidding of the leader. He does not work for the United States. He works for Trump. The idea of the United States is dying on his watch. The United States is mere dressing for the posturing of the leader. There is no “state” anymore, there is only the presidency, and this particular president. In the past, if we disagreed with the state, we disagreed with the policies of political factions. We disagreed with actors within the state, but not the core idea of the state itself. But now the very actors of the state, the most important players, are not respecting its principles. They have somehow had that crossover moment, as if the actor on a TV show suddenly looks into the camera and breaks the third wall. “Live from New York, it’s …“
A FUNNY LITTLE THING LAST NIGHT. I was out with a friend and she noticed the spots on my shirt. I had been cooking and not noticed that some of the sauce had dripped everywhere. “I look like a goddamn lobsterman,” I told her in Estonian. Homaarimees. For Estonians, this makes no sense. Lobsters — homaarid — are not a regular part of their diet, and they don’t really know what a lobsterman is. This is something I knew from having grown up at the end of Long Island, which is more or less like New England. For me, the term lobsterman conjures up a rough and tumble character with a dirty old jacket and a stained shirt, someone who hasn’t shaved in a while, someone who has cuts on his hands. All of that is missing here, where they do not feast regularly on lobsters. There are cultural similarities with New England aplenty. To better explain myself, I told her that I looked like a fisherman. A kalamees. This, of course, she knows. Everyone knows what a fisherman looks like up north in these parts.
I READ THIS PIECE about Joe Biden in the New York Review of Books. It has some interesting insight into identity construction, how Biden portrays himself as an Irish Catholic in the vein of the sainted Kennedys. It made me think of how we pick and choose elements from our pasts to construct a self, yet that that same constructed self is not always all it seems. By virtue of my name alone, and to a lesser extent my looks, I have been stuck with an Italian identity. It need not be exactly — there are many thousands of Italian Americans divorced from their origins, and many have been bred thin, so that they retain a surname, but in ancestry they are majority something else. But no matter, if you have this kind of name and you go to Italy, then they will have questions for you, because it comes from somewhere. If anything, it was an identity for me that was de-emphasized, in part because of shame about Italian identity in America. We did not wish to emphasize our Italianness, rather we sought to be “normal Americans.” My grandfather’s real name was Gennaro, he was born to Italian immigrants, yet as far as I knew him he claimed to know not a word of the language, and to not be an Italian at all. Of course, my father knows some of the language, so this is not true. There is a kind of lie in all of this. Or perhaps a misunderstanding. Perhaps he thought of “being American” as related to place, rather than ethnicity. He was in an American uniform, therefore he was an American. Had he worn an Italian uniform, he would have been that. Most of his neighbors and acquaintances were also Italians of this variety. It somehow might not have occurred that to outsiders, a street where there were Petrones, Mastroiannis, and other such-named men might be seen as an Italian community. But this is just one line of my family. I had a Virginian grandmother, of mainly British ancestry, and an Irish Catholic grandmother from New York. I wonder sometimes about those Welsh dissidents in my lines, or those stubborn Irish. I wonder why I like James Joyce so much, and if there is some mystical link there. I suppose I could have claimed to be those things, though I do not think I could make a convincing Irishman. I do not think I could ever join a group like The Clancy Brothers, put on one of those sweaters, and start singing “Whiskey, you’re the devil.” Not with this name. Not with this nose. So I have been stuck with Italy, mostly not of my choosing, but I accept my roots. In Estonia, I am known as “their Italian,” and I do not dispute nor protest this. This is how they take me. It must be who I am.
IT WAS A NICE MADE-FOR-TV MOMENT. American power in the form of a surgical air strike took out one of the top military leaders in Iran. He most certainly had it coming to him. It was done on Iraqi soil, and there will be retaliatory measures there or elsewhere. I am sure some American diplomat or general will get it in the end. Probably not the commander-in-chief. He gets to watch it all on TV. I am sure the Russians are quite happy to see the Americans slip into a war with Iran. They were all too willing to accommodate them in Afghanistan too. America is 0 for what now? Yes, some great victories in Grenada, Panama, Kuwait. But Vietnam? Afghanistan? Iraq? The “triumph” of Hiroshima is setting like the sun. We haven’t been winning. The Russians know this. They also know that colonial/imperial wars bleed great powers dry. It’s the same reason the Americans looked the other way at East Ukraine. A Russia bogged down in Donetsk is farther away from the Suwalki Gap. Nothing really good comes out of this, other than maybe his ratings tick up or his base (and donors) are re-energized. This is what they voted for, right? Rambo-style America First! “Yo, Tehran, I’m your worst nightmare!” In Estonia, they prepare for the visit of the Russian tsar next year. He will arrive bearing unusual gifts, I am sure, like Herr Drosselmeyer on Christmas. Estonia used to be more hawkish on Russia, the vanguard of NATO expansion, but they are now trying to reach some accommodation. No one wants to see Russian mercenaries blowing up blonde children in Tallinn’s Old Town. So we teeter on this brink of Northern Europeanness, watching helplessly from the comfort of our cozy homes.
I CAN’T SAY ANYTHING of real value about the 2010s. We entered the decade with the establishment-saving aplomb of Obama, who inherited two rather pointless wars and the worst financial crash since 1929, and managed to smile through it all with a little help from his Hollywood friends. But his made for TIME magazine popular revolution was short lived, and soon he was challenged by Tea Party types who somehow forget they had supported George W. Bush wholeheartedly just a few years before, this scion of the establishment who left office in complete disgrace with people throwing their shoes at him. The decade basically degenerated from there. It was a decade of populist uprisings, political fragmentation, civil wars, terrorist attacks, secession movements, and posturing, vain demagogues. Yet by the time 2020 arrived, almost none of the big questions raised in the 2010s had been resolved. There was still no wall between Mexico and the US, Britain was still in the EU, Crimea was still Ukrainian on paper, NATO trudged on, Putin was still in office as was Syria’s Assad, and the world continued to burn.
IN ESTONIAN, the word is kurnatud. Embittered. The word came to me last night when I went to fetch a drunk friend. Why are we like this? I wondered. Even in our prime of youth, no one remarked on the optimism or forward-thinking zest of the youth of the day. Instead there was a rash of self-destructive tendencies. Suicides. Drug overdoses. They blamed it on the parents, the heavy metal, the gangster rap. But those were just manifestations of this curmudgeonly beast. When I look down at people 10 years younger, I see a resilience that among my peers is not there. When I look into the eyes of people 20 years younger, I see beauty and hopefulness. But we never had these things. Instead we have been kurnatud. Embittered. Again, why? I tried to explain it to a friend like this: maybe we just saw too much at an early age. Maybe we just burned out too young. The late 1980s and early 1990s were a dizzying era of change. Countries collapsed. New ones sprung up. It became almost boring — “Oh, Czechoslovakia is two countries now? So what?” “Oh, they cracked down on those Tienanmen Square protesters? Sad, but it happens.” Space shuttles were blowing up, nuclear reactors were melting down. Yeltsin was standing on a tank and then sending tanks against the parliament. Normal. Normaalne. This theory doesn’t hold up though when you think of people 20 years older than us who saw presidents assassinated, missile crises, and mass protests. Who saw the tanks roll into Prague. So why are we so embittered, when we’ve arguably had it quite good? I just don’t know. There was even a song that came out in 1996 by a forgotten alternative rock group called Cracker, “I Hate My Generation.” The thing is, I understood it then and I understand it now. Recently, while enjoying coffee with a friend here who is two years older than me — she is 42, I am 40 — I said something like, “Oh, to be young and hopeful again.” To this, she responded in dry way, “But were we ever really young and hopeful?” Were we ever?
I JUST RECEIVED word that my old friend Rein passed away. I believe he was born in ’41, so he would have been 78. Quite respectable by Estonian standards, but he had health problems going back many years and could barely walk toward the end. For years he walked with a cane, and I would see him making his way across the street with his hat and cane. Then one day, I noticed Rein was walking, but without a cane. A miracle, I thought. I called out to him, “Tere, Rein!” but no answer came. Then I realized that the man was just a little different from Rein. It looked like Rein, but it was just a bit different. It was a completely different Estonian person. Rein actually read some of my books and taught me about the Greek origins of the words kaheksa and üheksa, which mean “eight” and “nine” in Estonian. In Finnish, they are kahdeksan and yhdeksän. The Greek word for “ten” is δέκα, or “theka.” Kaheksa means “two before ten” (kaks (two) – kahe (two, conjugates) – kahe-theka (two-ten) – kaheksa). Üheksa is “one before ten.” It makes sense. I’m not sure how Rein knew these things. I just saw him in the supermarket two days ago. He was pushing a cart and leaning on it to hold himself up. He really could barely walk. Rein once held some high rank in the Soviet army, but I could never recall what it was. I think he was a captain. I always saluted him though as a general. “My general! Mu kindral!” I said. Rein laughed and said, “You know, people always ask, kuidas käsi käib? How is your hand doing? I say my hand is doing fine, käsi käib hästi, but my legs don’t go so fine. Mu jalad enam ei käi.” Rest in peace, Rein. Puhka rahus.
IT SEEMS THE TORIES’ plan is just to ignore the Scots. Their position is that there was a referendum on independence five years ago, and so there’s no need for another. This view conveniently leaves out the fact that something called Brexit has been going on since 2016, and that Scotland unanimously voted to stay in the European Union. So why won’t the Conservatives support another referendum? Simple — they are afraid they will lose. Sturgeon’s party won Scotland again. Consider this. It’s the Scottish National Party. It’s a party that has as its main goal the independence of Scotland. The majority of Scots are voting for the independence party. This is not because they feel particularly patriotic. They are choosing the party that has promised them another referendum. Boris is going to feel quite confident now that he got his electoral majority (and wasn’t the UK supposed to leave on October 31? Remember all those signs and promises? Never happened.) That kind of short-term amnesia will be on full force as Nicola Sturgeon pushes ahead with her plans. Ultimately, there will be a conflict between the Tories and SNP and one of them will blink. Maybe the Conservatives think the Scots can be ignored, or they can get some good dirt on the leadership. Maybe they can. Maybe they can crush SNP and no one will care. People wonder about how this impacts the US election. American Conservatives are gloating. The truth is, it has no impact on the US election. The reason Boris Johnson was reelected, in part, is because he seems like a dynamic leader. Corbyn never stood a chance. But Bernie Sanders is not Jeremy Corbyn. Sanders is Old New Left, but Corbyn is Old Old Left. And the contexts are so different. Corbyn was fighting to preserve what Labour governments built in the past. Sanders wants to build things that Democratic-led governments never got around to doing. It’s just a different dynamic. Great job figures can’t obscure the daily pressure Americans are under related to education, healthcare, and ubiquitous debt. Americans have to put up with crap that Britons would never have dreamed of, and with good reason, because they were given these benefits because the Attlee government feared there might be a popular revolt. Here in Estonia, the temperature hovers around freezing. Seems like business as usual. Funny to see Prime Minister Jüri Ratas in all those EU and NATO photo-ops. Nothing like getting your picture taken with Macron and Merkel, Jüri.