These have been days of contrasts. The sun and the cold. I welcome the sun. It has lifted us all up. People seem happier, friendlier. In November, the clerks at the A ja O wouldn’t look you in the eye. Now they seem like they actually mean it when they say, Head aega! Strangers waved to us when our car zoomed past them on a country road on Sunday. Can you believe it? And they didn’t even want anything.
Each day is longer than the one before by two or three minutes. It used to be dark when I brought my daughter to school. Now it’s light out before we leave the house. It’s been sunny for days now. I hope it never ends. Light is important. It soothes me, and I need a good soothing, especially since both taps in our office are frozen, as is the toilet, and I’ve been working from home.
I returned to the office on Monday to discover the heating system had broken. Ice and snow had accumulated around the windows. The Estonians keep track of the weather. They check the reports everyday. But I didn’t know what the temperature was on Monday. Could have been -20 C or -30 C. All I know is that I could see my breath in the office and I didn’t bother taking off my coat.
The tap in the bathroom was still working then. I managed to fill up a pot and put a bag of frozen gnocchi to boil for an early lunch. I don’t know if they’ve kidnapped some Italians, but they sell fresh gnocchi at the local Rimi supermarket. Really delicious. I stood over the stove as the huge puffs of steam lifted off the boiling water, trying to stay warm. I kept thinking about Sir Ernest Shackleton’s expedition to Antarctica in 1915; how they got stuck in the ice flows, eating penguin meat and drinking boiled penguin blubber. I imagined I would have no problems drinking the stuff on that day.
That’s an odd side effect of the cold. It makes me hungry. After the gnocchi boiled, I fried them in a pan with olive oil, slicing the remnants of a hunk of Synnove parmesan cheese to sizzle among the dumplings. In summer, I would never eat such a heavy meal in the middle of the day. That day I ate the whole bag of gnocchi and sliced parmesan and then ran to the shop downstairs to buy some chocolate.
It was Valentine’s Day. In the shop I also picked up the ingredients for an Estonian dessert called kirjukoer, “spotted dog,” which actually has nothing to do with dogs. Our recipe called for cookies and cocoa powder and marmelaadid. Cookies? Check. Cocoa powder? check. But marmalade? I later searched three stores looking for marmalade jam, but couldn’t find it anywhere. I found apricot jam and cherry jam, but no marmalade. I began to lapse into the foreigner’s delirium. How come they don’t sell marmalade in this goddamn country?
When I was a child, I watched a program about a British bear named Paddington who loved to eat marmalade sandwiches. That’s how I learned about marmalade. But Viljandi is a long way from London. Haven’t seen any bears here either. Exasperated, I called my wife to inform her that there was no marmalade to be had in Viljandi. Then she told me that marmelaadid are actually little jelly candies, which I easily managed to locate about 30 seconds later.
To make kirjukoer, you mix melted butter with sugar and cocoa powder and then add in the crumbled cookies and marmelaadid. Roll it up in wax paper and let it set in the refridgerator. When it’s ready, long and brown, it does resemble something doglike, but it’s still is worth the effort, especially on cold days when the sweeter and more filling the food is, the better.
On Sunday, I went cross-country skiing for the first time. It was a beautiful sunny morning, but there was nobody else on the course. At first I was gliding along with ease, but then, when I had to get up a small knoll, I realized how out of shape I was. I know nothing of cross-country skiing. My old downhill skiing tricks were useless. I tried to wedge coming down a hill and came down hard on my hip. Good thing no one was around to see my embarrassing spill. Only later I was informed that it is against the law to ski when it is that cold out. But I know nothing of Estonian laws or sports. I simply know nothing.
While I was lying on my ass on the course, I considered taking a teacher, but only for a moment. Then I realized that I actually have some prejudices against the Estonians, particularly against the males, who are the inverse of me. While I am glad to admit that I know nothing, they are keen to pretend that they actually know everything. I could imagine the look on my teacher’s face. “You mean you’re 31 years old? And you still don’t know how to cross country ski?” Tsk tsk. But I felt great when I got home, and I’ve decided to go again. Energy begets energy.
My lack of knowledge of marmelaadid and cross-country skiing is amusing when considering I have now written two books about Estonia. A lot of people enjoyed the first one, but others complained that I wrote too much about my personal life. They wanted some kind of anthropological exploration of this intriguing land. “The natives are known to frequent warm dwellings and whip themselves with branches to repent for their sins. In summer they don colorful striped skirts and worship a deity they called leelo with songs.” I got the first review of the second book from a reader today. He’s already read it and it’s not even in bookstores yet.
“How did you read it already?” I asked. “I don’t even have a copy.”
“I got it as an e-book,” he answered proudly.
“Is it as good as the first?” a woman nearby asked him.
“It was a little different compared to the first one,” he said. “But the ending was very moving.”