What did I expect from Los Angeles? Dragnet, Joe Friday, Frank Gannon, the Virgin Connie Swale, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, hot dogs, Ice Cube, Venice Beach, Big Kahuna burgers, guitar solos, Emilio Estevez, gin and juice, rollerblades, the OJ Simpson trial, afros, boob jobs, Michael Jackson’s doctor, Melrose Place, Liz Taylor’s dead husbands. What I got was a lift to the Los Angeles Estonian House courtesy of an Estonian woman with a Pakistani name.
By that point, I was afraid I had completely forgotten the Estonian language,but it comes back to me with Saima, rushing in, and it occurred to me what a peculiar thing it is to know more than one language. I’ve been on what accounts to a book tour for most of this year, and I agreed to present at the LA Eesti Maja. It’s in a single-story, pueblo-like structure in one of the city’s neighborhoods, and neighborhoods are the skeleton key to understanding Los Angeles, but I can’t remember in what LA neighborhood the Estonian House is situated. Something something “Hills” or “Park” or “Heights” maybe.
Inside, it was like the New York Estonian House, the dim lighting, the flags, the portraits of Johan Laidoner and Konstantin Päts, Lennart Meri and Toomas Hendrik Ilves “Rüütel didn’t send us one,” a gentleman says. Then the dolls in national costume, the choirs, the Saku beer, the imported issues of Kroonika with the photos of national “celebrities” and their love lives. The Estonian press is so starved for material you can tell them almost anything and they’ll report it. Faux Esto Celebrity: “I don’t feel well today. Maybe something I ate. Can we do the interview tomorrow?” Estonian Tabloid: “Faux Esto Celebrity Ill!” Stranger on Los Angeles Street Approaching Faux Esto Celebrity Clutching Imported Estonian Tabloid: “Hey, esse, are you feeling okay? I read you were sick, bro”
Yes. It’s a pity I haven’t joined forces with the Estonian comedy troupes, even just to heckle them, because by now because all book tours basically become standup comedy routines. The return of Seinfeld. Cue the popping, synthetic basslines. Cue Kramer. Cue Newman. I ramble on about the foundation of the publishing house, the struggle to finish a book — and it’s my first book, ok — but the audience doesn’t want to hear that, they want to hear funny stories about meat jelly. “It’s clear and it jiggles and it has something in it. They tell me it’s ‘meat and it’s delicious.’ I ask, ‘what kind of meat is it?’ and then I ask, ‘from what part of the animal?'” “That’s good,” they roar. “Now tell us about blood sausage!” And I tell them.
Estonians are so polite. I am afraid to cuss in front of them for fear that they might blush. And, you know, a lot of them are quite short, sturdy and round: the little people. Maybe the Hobbit comparisons aren’t off their mark. I really like when an Estonian is even taller than me, someone like Jaak Aaviksoo, you know, and you talk, and the Estonian leans in like Lyndon Johnson to hear, just to let you know that they may wear ties now, but their forefathers carried battle axes. It is in the midst of the polite Estonians that I become acutely aware of my Mediterranean hilltop peasant roots, dirt that cannot be scrubbed free. What do the singing elephants think of me?
And here’s the calendar I’ve been waiting to see, the one with the photos of Estonians in military uniform, German military uniform. It hangs innocently on the wall and I suppose there is nothing wrong with it, to those who will listen, except the conscripted soldiers are smiling like they actually are having a swell time under foreign military occupation. “It was a great time,” they say, “they gave us these cool uniforms, neat guns, three squares a day.” There’s something very hazy and peculiar and Los Angeles about the whole scene, like they really shot the photos somewhere up in the smog of the Hollywood Hills.
The Estonians don’t talk about the calendar though. They offer you food, they offer you beer, they offer you coffee, they want to talk about languages and lives and the coming of the euro. Everyone is so polite. Why are they so polite to me? I look around at the faces in the room and they all look similar, the Uralic eyes, the Teutonic ears. They are all related, they’ve been together for a long, long time. From the marshlands to the mesas, from the Läänemeri to the Pacific Ocean. And this is the end. There is nowhere else to go. The kids speak Estonian, but the grandkids? I tell them I am disappointed in LA. I was expecting to see Angelina Jolie. “I’ll go call her,” a gentleman says and walks out the door. “Angelina will be right over.”
Cue Cesar. My college roommate enters with his gal Jenna, she of the Cheviot Hills/Culver City borderlands. Cesar used to take half-hour showers screaming Del the Funkee Homosapien lyrics from our eighth-floor window. Now he’s the real thing, a hip hop John Travolta. Cesar’s got shoulder-length black hair, a faint mustache. He doesn’t look like he comes to the Estonian House often, but is here now, and he’s here because of me.
From the Estonian House to the Hollywood Cemetery. Dia de los Muertos. Horns, drums, skulls, sombreros, puppets, portable toilets, glowing lights, altars, beef burritos, skeleton earrings and pipes, Frida Kahlo badges, dresses and braids, sugary churros, painted faces, t-shirts that read chicano and chicana, and at its beating heart, the furnace of death, the Mexicans.
Mexican chicas are as beautiful as Estonian plikad, their superb beauty in part because of what the geneticists call “admixture.” The chicas are toasting the dead out in Hollywood, they celebrate death, they’re playing death on the radio. Muy delicioso! “What should I get Epp? I don’t want to scare her.” “You’ve got to get her something with skulls,” Jenna answers, a cigarette hanging from her lips. “Then she’ll really know you’ve been to LA.” And I like the city, I like the day of the dead because just as there is something to being Estonian, there is something to being Mexican. But what does it mean to be American? “What do you want for breakfast?” Jenna asks the next morning, groggy. “Mexican or Hawaiian?” What does it mean?