folk you

Who knew Estonia had so many “dirty hippies”? At least that’s what my curmudgeonly punk-rocking friends would call them. From some unknown well in the mists of Estonia’s bogs spurted forth this month enough natty dreads and nose rings to fill a small city. And of all Estonian cities they chose this one, Viljandi, in which to congregate.

Well, they were invited. They were promised music — at a price — and access to alcoholic beverages. There was also food, lots of it. During the Viljandi Pärimusmuusika Festival, also known as the Viljandi Folk Music Festival, held here over the weekend, decent food was to be savored and enjoyed, and all of it a five-minute walk from my house. If only the food vendors could stay on. If only there was a an ice cream jahutus punkt (“cooling station”) operational from noon to midnight every day, right there, next to the Johan Laidoner memorial. If only.

It’s good the concertgoers left though. Despite the music, the food, the cosmic vibration, things got a bit too wild outside our window on Saturday night. I heard drunk Estonian guys trying to pick up foreign girls, their voices echoing in the cobblestone streets: “Hey prrretty girrrls! Wherrre arrre you going? You look verrry nice!”

Each morning I woke up to a heavy metal concert broadcast from someone’s massive car sound system on the lake. Estonian heavy metal is noxious: I can’t get into it, never will. The muddy growling, the repetitive trashing of electric instruments. But if you attended the Meestelaulutuba (“the mens’ singing room”) then you’d see that traditional song and Estonian metal are linked. Estonian guys have deep voices. When they sang together, some drinking beer already at 11 am, the floor of the room vibrated with the all-bass choir. A typical verse:

Läksin metsa puida tooma/Läksin metsa puida tooma. (“I went to the forest to get some wood”). The bold denotes when the chorus of voices sing together with the song leader.

As they went around the room trading verse about leaves and forests and the sea, I started to nervously formulate my own lyrics, fearing I might have to lead the room in a song. Something like:

Üleeile läksin ma Selverisse/Üleeile läksin ma Selverisse. (“The day before yesterday, I went to the supermarket”).

Fortunately, I didn’t get to try it out this time. Maybe I’ll work up a whole regilaul (“runo song”) about shopping at Selver for my next male singing experience. I left half way through because I had no idea what we were singing. I did learn some sexual metaphors though. Who knew that metsakaev (“forest well”) could be such a loaded term? Don’t bring that one up in the presence of grandma. I wonder what the Estonian ladies sing about in private.

So, Estonian folk culture is like anything else. It has its good sides and bad sides. Good sides are probably the singing and the clothes. Runo songs are ancient and interesting: it’s a literary language in its own right. One verse we sang was about the Swedish king … and the last time Estonia had a Swedish king was 300 years ago. Estonian folk costumes, at least for men, can be extremely accessible. All you need is a pair of medieval-looking workman’s clothes with a folk pattern on the neck and a skullcap and you’re set.

But what’s bad about Estonian folk culture? The dancing. Estonian folk dancing is like the final question on your tenth-grade math final. You keep looking at the equation, trying to reduce it to something less complex, but no matter how much scrap paper you use, you just can’t solve it. That was me trying to comprehend the mix of line dancing and polkas that comprised the Estonian dance taught at a festival workshop. Dancing in such conditions is dangerous. Do not polka if you have not polkad before. Someone could get hurt. Believe me, I know.

This amuses me, because I really enjoyed dancing to the Habana Son Club. They did a salsified version of “Sunny,” which was closer to the Boney M. ’76 version than Marvin Gaye’s ’66 rendition. See, I know pop trivia. I used to work in a music store. I know music, but I don’t know how to polka. And I could dance to a lawless Cuban rhythm but not an Estonian one. Or maybe there were Cuban laws, ones I understood innately as a former denizen of the Western Hemisphere? The more I thought about it, the more Estonian dancing seemed like a social activity, an clever way to get to know the opposite sex, while Cuban dancing seemed to operate on an entirely different spiritual level. There seems to be a religious quality to Latin music that is absence from the valley of the polka, or maybe I just haven’t done enough polkas yet to get to the next level.

The festival happened to coincide with a full moon, and it was an evil, yellow one at that. Lightning and thunder twirled around Viljandi Lake almost every evening. The seemingly non-stop parties lasted until 5 am. Walking around, unshaven, dressed like Kalevipoeg, I kept thinking about David Crosby, not Stephen Stills or Graham Nash or Neil Young or Roger McGuinn or Chris Hillman, but Crosby, and only Crosby. He was there in a way, counseling me about how to escape a gathering of the tribes unscathed. Of all people, Crosby would know how to survive an event known colloquially as “Folk.” Crosby’s folk days were colored with mind-altering substances and licentious women and Hells Angels and did Viljandi Folk not differ ? Mind-altering substances? Check. Licentious women? Check. Motorcycle gangs? Check. I imagined a new bumper sticker for concertgoers. Rather than, ‘What would Jesus do?’ attendees could ask themselves, ‘What would Crosby do?’

The most obvious answer is, “get high,” just like everyone else. But beyond that, I think that Crosby and other prophets of the sixties milieu would manage to extract something profound and borderline divine from the naked squalor of music festivals. In the face of 21st century e-oppression, forced to be available to all around the clock to provide any service at any time, I managed to mostly disconnect for a few precious days. In spite of the trash, in spite of the heavy metal campers, in spite of the drunk hooligans, there is something redeemingly positive about Folk, which is why it has been a successful draw for 18 years, even here in Viljandi, this country’s very own Glastonbury or Roskilde or Coachella.

Which doesn’t mean that I don’t despise drunk hooligans. Nothing like being told to Mine ära (“go away”) by some idiot who, upon observing my public use of the English language, decided to make it known that he was a supporter of a homogenous, vanilla Estonia.

Mis asja?” (“What do you mean?”) I responded to the idiot.

Mine ära!” he repeated.

Kust? Viljandist või?” (“From where? Viljandi?”) I asked.

Üldiselt,” (“In general”) he grumbled.

My wife took me by the hand as we walked away. “Those people are really dangerous,” she whispered in my ear. Were they? I wanted to ask the idiot if he was Estonia’s last Nazi. He probably wasn’t, but his presence did behoove me to get away, from him. I wondered how he felt about the Austrian yodelers and Cuban conga players and Irish fiddlers and all the others who had taken over his town, at his own people’s invitation no less. How did he feel about the Hungarians and Poles and Spaniards and Somalis who had come to conquer Viljandi’s hills and valleys. I felt encouraged by it. Moved. Empowered. Bring them all to Viljandi. Come tattoos, come nose rings, come squalor and empty beer cans and accordions and bagpipes. Come bad pickup lines and carrot smoothies. Come to Viljandi. Rescue us from the tyranny of the idiot. Infuse this provincial town with diversity, cleanse it with noise, like fluoride to teeth, soap to skin, seawater to natty dread.

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elu tulnukana

Sometimes I can’t believe I am only 30 years old. Thirty. It sounds so young. But I don’t feel young and I also don’t feel old. I feel timeless, placeless. I feel like one of the UFO-like molecules that go zipping by your plane window over the cloud cover in the North Atlantic. Something catches your eye. You stare out at the wing and swear it was there. But it’s gone. Gone, gone, gone. Nothing but a memory of something you once thought you saw, something you can’t even bother to describe to the person seated next to you.

I’m in Viljandi now, and all I can say is that it reminds me of Tallinn and Tartu and just about every other Estonian place: the mishmash of medieval castle ruins, 1920s villas, Stalinist eyesores, and weeds growing through the cracks in the pavement. One guidebook I flipped through referred to Viljandi as a “gem,” and our little part of it is certainly quaint. I informed Epp that we should make a coffee table book, a photo essay of Viljandi’s spectacularly painted wooden doors. It would be called Viljandi uksed. I told her we could make “alotta money” (as my Virginian grandma puts it) on the book, but she was unconvinced.

Since my arrival, I’ve spent some time at the beach, maybe the only American there, but not the only foreigner: there were Latvians too and a Chinese couple. The radio played a very soulful version of “Proud Mary,” so Ike and Tina were also there, at least in spirit. In Tallinn, the tourists somehow annoy me, but in Viljandi, I welcome them with open arms. I think this place is so bland, so homogenous, safe as milk, but everytime I go to the Tegelaste Tuba restaurant, there are people speaking English.

It was surreal to see so much life in what even Estonians consider a smaller town. At the beach, there was some kind of dance class going on: Estonian women were bobbing and weaving and kicking to Spanish pop music. The beach was thronged with naked torsoes. There was even a towering diving platform where young crazies could launch themselves into the lake. I began to realize that every tiny hideaway in Estonia has its own story to tell. You can drive through these places a hundred times and never actually know them.

I’ve been out of Eestimaa for exactly a month. When I left the mosquitoes were eating me raw, but now the heat seems to have tamed even the most insolent of summer’s creatures. Instead it’s just hot, all I do is sweat, all I do is drink. Our bedroom window faces the sunrise. The sun dries the sand in the corners of my eyes. I easily drink a bottle of water before I get out of bed, one of many I will consume during the day. The heat doesn’t seem to bother the neighbors though. They don’t need liters of water, for I am convinced that Estonians can survive on but coffee, beer, and strawberries. Estonian children meantime require only one thing to keep on moving: jäätisekokteil – “cocktails” of ice cream blended with fruit juice. I imagine that every night, all over this country, the children lie snoozing, dreaming about that one special thing.

Like a naive anthropologist I observed the tanned locals at the beach. I took note of the different types: the blond Scandinavians, the dark Inuits, the rolypoly Germanics. Estonia is both diverse and uniform. I’ve been to too many genetics conferences these days. I am aware of the perils of cosanguinity. And safe as milk Eesti is not so intimidating. Horror stories about intolerant Estonians abound online, but not one gave me nor has ever given me an awkward look. These people just don’t care.

For me, at least, there are very few places in Estonia where I could even minorly feel “in danger,” and here I think of a young Tom Hayden and the other “freedom riders” of the United States, traveling to Mississippi in the early 1960s to “get their asses kicked for civil rights.” That was dangerous. Estonia in comparison is pleasant, genteel. At least until you see some middle-aged loser wearing a Panzerdivision commemorative t-shirt at the supermarket. I’ve heard the term “self-hating Jew” before. I gather such people are self-hating Estonians.

Here in Viljandi, I can’t figure out if I’m in western Estonia or central Estonia or southern Estonia. It seems to network with Pärnu but also with Tartu. I guess it’s its own thing or even the dreaded middle of nowhere. But Tallinn is nowhere too. And leviathan Finland? The navel of nothingness. Tallinn is to Helsinki as Viljandi is to what? Oulu? But Oulu has over 100,000 people. I can’t keep up. Why even bother to compare? To many, cities are judged by the sum of their restaurants, hotels, boutiques, and museums. People take great pride in the place in which they live. When I was in New York, I met a gentlemen who was trying to sell me on Harlem. Harlem! Harlem! They’ve put up new apartment buildings, but kept the old, charming brownstone facades, he said. They’ve even retained the doormen.

“Do you really need a doorman?” I asked him. He had a pencil-thin mustache and suspenders. A real zoot suit riot.

“Of course you do! I mean, who else would get the door for you, or let you know if someone’s left you a package?”

I took aliking to the Harlemite. He entertained me. I could imagine us as neighbors, sitting on a doorstep, swapping stories.

“Can you believe when I was in Mexico, a lady from Michigan asked me if I had seen any Olive Gardens there?” the Harlemite informed me. “I was like, ‘Lady! You’re in Mexico! You have your pick of great food and you’re looking for an Olive Garden?’ See, when my wife and I go on trips, we like to eat at the real authentic places. But people from Michigan, they go anywhere, even Rome, and they want to eat at an Olive Garden. You can’t really hold it against them though. That’s all they know.”

Savory New York provincialism. I loved it. I’m so happy for that fella in Harlem. He seems to get out so much he needs a doorman to collect his packages. But me? I am an exile. Tallinn, when I lived there, was the apartment, the tram, and the office. Tartu on most days became my house and the local supermarket. Viljandi hosts the cultural college, which means that acting and musical talent finds its way to town; indeed I had a disarming experience at a Tagaq concert here, one that convinced me that it might not be a bad place to set up shop for awhile. But will I really go to those concerts? Maybe Viljandi will just wind up being our apartment and the lake. I mean, I wanted to be in Estonia during the winter so I could learn how to cross country ski, but the only thing I did in Otepää was consume some meatloaf at a local tavern. I bought into the idea of a Seto retreat so I could go hiking in the woods. So far I’ve painted and stained a lot of wood, but the forests have eluded me.

That’s just how it is. Reality never matches your expectations. Every place I move I dream of different futures, but new ones always present themselves anyway. And, besides, I’ve no time for concerts. I’ve got things to do. I must finish a long-delayed master’s paper on Estonia’s June Communists, listen to Baden Powell and Vinicius de Moraes, and work on the second installation of Minu Eesti, trying the impossible, to marry Woody Allen and Rick Steves, in between slipping down to the lake for a dip.

Not a bad start really for a stranger like me.