something salty

Estonia, Estonia. You never cease to surprise me. Just when I thought I had turned over every rock, leafed through every page, looked up every tree, a new piece of information assembled itself before my very eyes.

This new find has nothing to do with deportations or bailouts. It has to do with food. From hanging out at the local √∂kopood (“eco store”) in Viljandi, I have learned that there are exactly two kinds of foods in Estonia: magustoit (“sweet food”) and midagi soolast (“something salty”).

Forgive me if I seem naive, but I never really thought of food this way. Sure I understood that junk food basically fell into two categories: salty and sweet. On one side you have your potato chips and on the other side you have your chocolate chip cookies. But to take that principle and apply it to all foods? That’s what is new to me.

Under this new Estonian principle, if a food has salt in it, it is described as midagi soolast. This is the most important information the Estonian eater needs to know. Whether it is pizza or Indian curry or pork chops and sauerkraut, it’s all just food from the saltier side of the spectrum. And so the seller doesn’t ask, “Do you want Indian curry or rhubarb pie?” or even, “Do you want lunch or a snack?” She asks, “Do you want something salty or something sweet?” It’s all just midagi soolast or magustoit.

More baffling to me is if all Estonians actually think this way. Rather than desiring a particular kind of meal, be it Indian curry or pork chops and sauerkraut, the hungry Estonian’s brain only registers desire in terms of salt and sugar. The Estonian doesn’t think, “I could really go for some Armenian food.” The Estonian thinks, “I could really use something salty. Maybe followed by something sweet.”

I guess I think similarly, but in my mind, salty food is just regular food. Breakfast, lunch, dinner — 90 percent of the time, all the food items are salty. There is no need to define it as salty as far more important information can be shared about it. And, to me, “sweet food” is simply dessert. In fact, the very crude Estonian-English dictionary in my brain translates magustoit as “dessert.” The terms are equivalent.

Even more peculiar here is the Estonian habit of mixing salt and sugar in the same food. This is most likely to occur with some kind of porridge or pudding. You add equal amounts of salt and sugar to the mix, producing an odd yet stimulating taste. These recipes call for dishes that are “not too salty, not too sweet.”

I’m really not sure into what category these mixed dishes fall. Are they midagi soolast or magustoit? Is it possible that they could actually be both?

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human cattle

Someone asked me about the legacy of the June 1941 deportations from Estonia. About 10,000 people were loaded into cattle cars in the span of two days and removed to Siberia. More than half of them were women. A quarter were children.

I would say that the deportations not only destroyed lives in the sense that many of those who were deported died from disease, hunger and horrendous working conditions, not to mention execution. They destroyed the families of those who remained behind. And even if the person who survived the deportation managed to return to Estonia, he (or she) was often a shadow of the person he once was.

For Estonia’s younger generations, the deportations are less tangible. But for the post-war generation, the memory of the broken families and broken people created by the actions of the Soviet state linger. I wonder sometimes how it is possible that Estonians, who can really be considered historical activists, like Mart Laar or Imbi Paju, are driven so passionately to tell the story of this period of history.

Then I remember that they were raised by those very people whose lives were destroyed by Soviet actions. And what a contrast it must have been to be a small Soviet child in the golden 1960s surrounded by adults who were not keen to talk about themselves or their childhoods or what had happened to their various relatives. Even for them it must have been hard to fathom a situation where they were woken up in the night and placed into a cattle car bound for Siberia.

I don’t know what to tell my own children about the deportations. I had a hard time explaining to my eldest, now seven, that Estonia was at one time not free. She did not understand the concept of an Estonia that was not independent. How do I explain to her how people were rounded up and loaded into cattle cars? How do I even try to explain to her what the motive behind such actions was? As time grows between the present day and the collapse of the Soviet state, its ideology becomes even more far-fetched and preposterous. Its crimes are inexplicable.

notes from the north

As I have discussed previously, living in northern Europe does funny things to you. While one might feel as if he is living on an oil rig in the Arctic during the long winters in Estonia, the same person finds himself at the center of a very perverse sleep-deprivation experiment every time June rolls around.

This is because, as everyone knows, the sun rises earlier and earlier (and sets later and later) until the longest day arrives towards the end of June, and the sun sets at 10.38 pm only to rise at 4.02 am, making for 18 hours of light.

These extremely long days cause all kinds of bizarre behavior among the locals. It becomes completely appropriate for a neighbor to mow his lawn at 6 am on any given Sunday in June, as the sun has already been up a good two hours. It is also completely appropriate for the same neighbor to cut down dead tree branches with a chainsaw at 10 pm, as he has got a good half hour until the sun really sets. In summary, Estonians take advantage of the long days to work even more.

The term “sunset” is relative here. The sun does disappear from the sky, and so a state of “night” does exist somewhere between 11 pm and 4 am. At the same time, light is still lurking on the horizon, and so total night does not really ever arrive. What you get instead is an extended dusk that returns at dawn. The light at around 10 pm is also not like the afternoon sun. Instead a hazy dusk falls upon the land, akin to the grayish light that occurs right before a thunderstorm, lending a certain eerie quality to this time of day.

Going to sleep, especially when you have children, becomes more absurd as the June days wear on. It’s hard to convince a child that it’s “nighttime” when light is visible through the blinds. In this circumstance, the time one goes to sleep, and the length of the period of rest, become completely arbitrary. Feel free to nap during the day and work all night. Indeed, the other day in Setomaa, I started a painting job at 5 pm, knowing I would have plenty of time before “night” rolled around. I worked until nightfall, that is, about 11 pm, and went to sleep in a curtain-less room, only to be awakened by ecstatic birds at 4 am. I was back on the job, paintbrush in hand at 4.30 am. A new day had begun and I had gotten probably less than five hours of sleep the night before.

This is just one manifestation of the freakish quality of Estonian life. Another came yesterday, when a friend delivered bottles of organic astelpaju mahl to our house. We weren’t home at the time, so it was left at a neighbor’s apartment. I went to go pick it up later, unaware of the size of the order (my wife had placed it), and was surprised when he pulled a dozen bottles of the yellow stuff from his refrigerator, placed it back in the cooler it came in, and handed it to me.

I make it a point to always speak to my children in English, no matter how complicated the situation. And so I found myself sitting across from my youngest daughter who asked for a cup of astelpaju mahl, which in English translates as sea-buckthorn juice. This drink is popular in northern Europe but I have never encountered it anywhere else, so I had to look it up just to find the proper English translation.

“More astelpaju mahla, please,” my little daughter begged of me.

“Don’t you mean ‘more sea-buckthorn juice,’ honey?” I was forced to ask her.

“Yeah,” she responded. “That.”

It was 10.30 pm.