I couldn’t find my regular rihm, so I went searching for one in Tartu. A replacement. But if you are searching for something as simple as a regular brown belt in Tartu, you are out of luck.
I found some other belts at the Tasku shopping center. Tasku is kind of like the Solaris of Tartu, except the ceiling hasn’t caved in yet. But what I mean is that the developer — a patron of the local Reform Party, no doubt — got the prime real estate of the old bus station smack in the center of town. In return, he promised to build the city a new bus station. That he did. He built a pint-sized bus station and a gigantic shopping center around it. “If they have to wait, they can wait in my shopping center.” That was the line. I have nothing personal against the guy. He was out to make a kroon or two. They all are.
They have belts in Tasku. White leather ones. Big fat black ones with giant belt buckles. You ‘d think only pirates or floozies shop there. But nothing for a boring, normal human being like myself. One belt I fingered cost 449 Estonian kroons ($42, €29). I thought that was expensive. Then I found another tolerable one. It was brown, alright, but fundamentally flawed. Flaw number one was that it cost 669 EEK. Flaw number two is that the belt buckle spelled out the brand name. C A M E L. Do you think I’m going to move around this city with a giant belt buckle that says C A M E L on it? As if I was Sean Combs or something? It’s not going to happen.
I just wanted a belt. A simple brown belt. I wanted to look timeless. I don’t remember seeing any photos of Ernest Hemingway hunting in Africa with a C A M E L belt. F. Scott wasn’t wearing some white, false diamond-studded fashion accessory when he was putting up with one of Zelda’s moods. Jimmy Joyce wasn’t parading around Dublin on Bloomsday flaunting his designer jeans. I’m a writer, damnit, I tore into myself. I need a belt!
I didn’t find a belt, but I found my book at Rahva Raamat. Minu Eesti. 352 pages of the lurid details of my life. How I met my wife. Our courtship. The highs and lows of bicultural marriages. What’s it really like living with a person who eats smoked fish and blood sausage? This book will tell you. It’s all true, and yet, when I look back on what really happened, Minu Eesti is quite tame. It’s PG. The real story is so twisted and convoluted that I couldn’t explain in 1,000 pages. Or even explain it all. Who really can explain the way things happen? Nobody can. All non-fiction is but a fairytale. All memoirs are lies. Vague recollections. We experience our own lives, but when asked to explain something, we’re instantly all like Reagan up there on the witness stand, talking about Nicaragua. “I don’t recall.”
I started writing it in February and completed it in July. The first 50 or so pages just rolled off my fingertips. Then I had to blast through the middle of the book. That’s how I envisioned it. “Ok, here’s some dynamite, now WRITE!” Boom. Boom. Boom. I was blasting a way, hitting the hardest rock imaginable. But I knew I’d make it through to the end. Just one more stick of dynamite. The last week, I was racing to meet a deadline. I cranked out a chapter a day, but not more. The brain can only do one chapter. My brain at least. Then it’s dry. It’s a terrible feeling to be dry. You need some time to recuperate.
All through the process, my editor Bolling was rubbing my face in it. “What’s this? This is a cliche, Giustino. We can’t have a book with cliches.” Or, “How many times are you going to use the word ‘laughed’ in this friggin’ book? Grow a vocabulary, son.” Bolling showed me tough love. He didn’t even have to say it sometimes. He’d just take his pipe out of his mouth and glare at me in his study, as if to say, Don’t waste my time with this nonsense. And so I’d go do another rewrite. I swear, it was like The Karate Kid. I wanted to learn the martial arts, but Mister Miyagi had me washing cars and sanding floors. Only now that I’ve done the crane can I truly understand the value of those lessons.
I was racing to complete it so that Raivo, the whiz tõlk, could translate away. Raivo did a great job, in my opinion, and I’m not just saying that because that’s what you are supposed to say. He managed to render English-language scenes into Estonian-language ones. People of different linguistic persuasions react the same way to the same things at the same points in the book. Reading my translated work in Estonian has introduced new words and expressions to me. My favorite expression is Vatvat! I don’t even know what it means. It just feels good to say it. It sounds boisterous, kind of like. “How’s the wine, darling?” “Noh, Vatvatvatvatvat!“
Minu Eesti is about my life. But real life is more complicated. There are characters in that book that are maybe two people put together. Scenes in that book that took place, but in different locations on two separate days of the same week. I didn’t lie to you, Estonia. I just wrapped the truth up in a nice chocolate box. Maybe call it a slightly fictionalized autobiography. That’s how I think of it. But, whatever, it’s all been printed now and is available for any pirate or floozy to read in Tasku while they wait for their bus. It’s on its own now. It’s got to learn to fend for itself. Live by its own wits. Next month it will be available in English. Then some of you can read it as well.
How to feel about it? I don’t know. When I read it, parts of it still make me laugh. But at least I don’t hate it, like most tortured artists come to hate their work. It can always be better, but, for me, it’s good enough. This was the first volume. Another is coming. I’m patching together some ideas. I’m thinking of the time we visited Signe in Oslo and the first thing she said was:
“What are you, some kind of mama’s boy?”
“No,” I said.
“No,” she mocked me. “Yes, you are, I can tell a mama’s boy just by the way he stands. My ex-husband was one.”
Signe drank all the vodka we brought her. She drank bottle number one the first day. That was the day we lost her at the Vigeland Sculpture Park.
Poor Signe. She used to associate with an Estonian television personality named Hannes back in the day. Hannes and I don’t know each other, but the people we interact with do. I never see him, but I see his shadow, and if you know Hannes, then you know he has a recognizable shadow. Hannes. Peculiar fellow. He’s off on vacation now. The only place where an Estonian celebrity can be free. You think that Estonia is so small that you can be a celebrity and sauna and swim with the rest. But you can’t, because you’re buying some Georgian wine at Selver late at night and some drunk comes up and tells you he wants to be a millionaire.
It happened to me the day after I came back from talking and singing about the book on Terevisioon. I stopped to get gas in Mäo and the attendant was looking me up and down. Then I saw she was watching ETV on the gas station TV. And I was wearing the same clothes, naturally. I took one look at that striped shirt and realized I might not ever be able to wear it in public again. Such was my first real brush with fame. “Hey look, honey,” passersby might say, “there goes that writer who wears the striped shirt.” But no belt, my dear Estonians. No belt.
I don’t even know how I became a writer. I don’t even know why I am writing this right now. It just spills out of me. The inner monologue bursts forth. It has a life of its own. It’s not me in a way. Somebody else. I remember I wrote an article for the high school newspaper about the arrest of the entertainer, Pee-wee Herman. The kids loved it. They made their homeroom teachers read it to them. Then I got involved with an alternative newspaper and we got in all kinds of trouble. Those were the days.
Sometimes I think musicians have it easier. As a musician, all you have to do is sing a song. But then your song lyrics are misinterpreted and, before you know it, the Chinese have banned you because of some unintended allusion to Tibetan independence, or the CIA is smoking banana peels to see if they are bound to be the very next craze. That’s just how it all is. It’s inescapable. You try to lead a private life and then you wind up on a reality TV show with Flavor Flav.
You stand there on the rooftops of Manhattan apartments experiencing the hummingbird buzz of human existence, looking south towards the gaping space where the Twin Towers once stood, and you know, in your bones, that you make no difference. You lie in the snows of Karlova awash in the faint glow of the lights from Annelinn, and feel as lucid as a stone or spare tire. You can breath or not breath, swim or not swim. You can do nothing or anything, because everything is possible. And then you go and write a book, and people read it, even like it, and you still waste your time wondering about such things. Maybe the best thing is just to shut up and enjoy it and eat your piimasupp.