“What, speak Russian?”
“As far as I know there aren’t too many Russian speakers in Lithuania. How did you learn?”
He gave me an odd look, as if I asked him how he learned to swim or tie his shoes.
“We learned in in school and,” he paused, “it’s a very useful language. You should learn it.”
“No way,” I told him. “Learning Estonian is a full time job.”
He gave me that same strange look again, as if I had escaped from the Kaunas insane asylum. His look said, He speaks Estonian but not Russian? How could that be possible? He probably doesn’t know how hard it is even to learn Estonian, and I mean really learn it, learn it so that you can read any newspaper article or book off the shelf. It takes time, patience, and a good dictionary.
It also takes stamina, stamina that is not fit to be wasted on learning Russian or any other “useful” language. If I opened the Russian door or Arabic door or Chinese door, they would become more languages I had tinkered with but never really learned. That’s not what I intend with Estonian. I intend to be as functional as possible. That’s why my summer reading is Pikk Jutt, sitt Jutt (“Long story, shit story”) a newish Estonian-language title by Vello Vikerkaar.
Who is Vello Vikerkaar? He’s a foreign Estonian, a väliseestlane, and like a lot of väliseestlased, he brims with witty insights and a hint of arrogance. Until they became presidents and ABBA managers, most väliseestlased could be seen as having drawn one of life’s medium-sized straws. They weren’t farmers running from the Khmer Rouge, but life was no swanky suite in Vegas either. They were citizens of a country that existed on some Western maps and in corners of the universe of international law. They couldn’t restore the family farm because the family farm had been collectivized.
So Vikerkaar can be forgiven the dry way with which he digests life’s absurdities. In a way, it’s what’s made him famous. Aside from cross country skiing and šašlõkk consumption, dissecting other Estonians is a national passtime. Another is wondering how Estonians are perceived by outsiders. Put the two together in one weekly column, and you get the success of Vello Vikerkaar.
The dictionary and I are two chapters in already. I’ve already picked up nifty words like jändama (to make a fuss) and kütkestav (glamorous). I’ve followed Vello as he and his Estonian-born wife Liina take in Liina’s Aunt Virve, a woman with a very inconvenient, wire-gnawing pet bunny. I’ve been there with Vello as he traces the origins of the famous Ernest Hemingway quote, “in every port in the world, at least one Estonian can be found.”
An added bonus is that Vello, who was reared in Canada, writes in English, which is later translated into sturdy, riigikeel Estonian. There are few funky south Estonianisms (they have a habit of slippin a dialect word in here and there) or metaphors about farm animals in the book. From my perspective, it’s a good place to start for an Estonian language student who yearns to break free of tiresome self-help books.