The setting: a parking lot in Tartu, Estonia’s second largest city. The parking lot is situated on top of a hill. To the rear stands the university library, across the street is the Vanemuine theater. Both buildings are culturally significant, both are sprawling masses of gray. Neither has any discernible shape. The day is gray and misty. The parking lot accommodates the maximum number of vehicles.
The characters: My daughters, two little girls high on gelato, running around the (mostly) dry fountain in front of the library. A friend named Kristjan, a wiry Estonian man in his mid thirties with deeply set, Finno-Ugric features, and deeply set hatred of neoconservatism. He is dressed in black and seems preoccupied with the state of the world. Me, a Roberto-Benigni-meets-Luciano-Pavarotti colossus of awkward gestures and jerky body movements, dressed in a gray coat and flat cap. I am in dire need of a shave and haircut. Finally, a young woman, perhaps in her early twenties, dressed in a white coat with jeans. She is tiny, and perhaps stands as tall as my elbows. The woman has long blond hair that may or may not be genuine, and one of those eyelash jobs that consist of generous helpings of mascara and tiny false pearls.
The young woman approaches me. Kas te saate mind aidata? she asks. Mul on aku tühi. Kas teil krokadiilid on?
My brain is a bit slower than usual, perhaps because I have just consumed a giant glass of melted ice cream. Still, it quickly processes that she needs my help and that her car battery is empty. The last bit, about the crocodile, throws me off. In the distance, my children are running wild in front of a sculpture of the revered semiotician Juri Lotman’s profile. Kristjan is watching them with an unsatisfied look on his face that tells me that he is now thinking intensely about global inequality.
I mumble something like, “I’m sorry,” to the young woman and walk away. She frets, biting her lip. She looks around for another person to save her. As I walk toward my car, I think about crocodiles. I think about their big jaws. A certain poem by Lewis Carroll comes to mind. I think about how if the woman’s car battery is empty, someone will have to jump the car. To do that, would require jumper cables. Then something clicks in my tired, gelato-weary brain. The jumper cables resemble the jaws of a crocodile. Perhaps the animal-obsessed Estonians refer to jumper cables as crocodiles?
I return to the woman a moment later with the cables in hand. I have been saved so many times by other travelers in situations just like this. Now it is my opportunity to return the favor to the universe. The woman shows no sense of relief, and she has no reason to, as my oldest daughter is now tugging at my sleeve. “I need to go pee pee,” she says. “I’ll be right back,” I tell the woman.
Twenty minutes later, my daughter and I emerge from the library, during which time she locked herself in the bathroom, and I stood outside the woman’s toilet, unable to rescue her until an inquisitive librarian inquired as to why the strange man was hanging around the woman’s toilet and promptly entered and liberated the frustrated child. In the parking lot, the woman is still standing in front of her car. My wife Epp has now appeared, following an afternoon meeting with some witches and conjurers on the edge of town. After some light bickering about what took so long, laughter ensues when I explain the toilet situation. Now, to rescue the woman.
“Every chick has a car these days,” Kristjan remarks to me with a grin before I pull my car in front of the young woman’s tiny white car. Igal tibil on auto tänapäeval.
I have the cables in hand. I am ready to jump the young woman. But there’s one problem. Does red go on the positive or negative? And which to connect first? I am almost 98 percent sure that red goes on positive and black on negative, and positive is connected first. I have done this so many times before. Why can’t I remember now? I think about calling my father, but decide against it, as not to embarrass myself again. Epp calls our business partner Tiina who knows everything about cars, as her father is a mechanic, but she does not pick up. Just then, two men and a woman pass by I inquire about the colors and they are eager to help. The men speak Estonian. One is dressed in a red jacket. He has the kind of sturdy figure and round face that make him immediately recognizable as an Estonian. To me, with his short red hair and big cheeks, he looks a bit like the outgoing Virginia Senator Jim Webb, but nobody here knows who that is. His friend is darker and lankier. The woman is dolled up. Long black boots, black dress, blond (from the bottle), miserable makeup job.
While the he helps consult the young woman on letting the battery charge, the dolled up woman complains loudly to the Jim Webb lookalike. He answers her back in Russian. This throws me off completely. Are these guys Estonian Russians? It’s possible. Tartu has a sizable Estonian Russian minority (about 16 percent of the population considers itself Russian), but most are well integrated into society and the “us and them” vibe that still pervades to some extent in Tallinn is absent here.
When the young woman’s car successfully starts up, I thank the Jim Webb lookalike in Russian. “Sbasibo,” I say, awaiting a quick, happy retort in Russian. Instead he looks incredibly confused, as if he doesn’t understand the word, or as if I have even insulted him. I say Aitäh instead. Then the two men wave to me and rejoin the Estonian Russian woman, who is still pouting beside the car. I imagine she might have been jealous of the young woman in trouble.
On the way out of Tartu, we try to decipher the ethnopolitics of the parking lot situation. Kristjan hypothesizes that the Jim Webb lookalike was an Estonian guy with an Estonian Russian girlfriend. “Estonian women prefer to partner with foreign guys like you,” he says. “That means Estonian guys have to partner with Estonian Russian girls. But then who do the poor Estonian Russian guys hook up with?”
“I don’t know,” I answer. “Uzbeks?”
“Chinese!” Epp proposes and laughs from the backseat. She might be serious.
We drive on. “Can you believe the Estonians reelected Andrus Ansip?” Kristjan says, glaring out the window at some unfinished suburban housing developments. “This is very Estonian. We have an economic collapse, and we’d rather blame ourselves than a politician. High unemployment? It’s my fault. It’s all my fault.” He taps himself on the shoulder.
“There is a photo of Ansip in that sports club over there,” I gesture at a building on the edge of the city. “It’s on the wall. It’s of him, Siim Kallas, and Anders Fogh Rasmussen. I guess they took a sauna together.”
The part of the city we are driving through now is an ugly landscape of gray buildings, power lines, mud, and mist.
“Sure,” says Kristjan. “I bet they had a nice little neocon summit in there.”
In the backseat, the children are now fast asleep, their sugar highs finally crashed as we head back to Viljandi.