Down, down, down into the belly of the whale, through the looking glass, down the rabbit hole, out the keyhole, out into the sunlight of a Pärnu street scene where a young woman is playing an accordion, another is selling ceramic mugs, and a third is drinking beer before noon, calling out to her friends in Finnish, that archaic northern tongue that sounds so ridiculous to Estonian ears.
I don’t know why it surprises me to see signage in Finnish in Estonia. They are Estonia’s second largest foreign investor, one of its greatest sources of tourists, and, let’s not forget, its fourth largest minority, weighing in at just under 1 percent of the total population. But to actually see their language in windows and on menus and basically everywhere, that’s a different story, especially when the Estonia I read about is supposedly so bent on eradicating Russian and every other foreign language from public eye.
It’s just not true. Horseshit, is what it is. In reality, the Estonian public space is a free-for-all of languages. Just the other day I walked into Rademar in Viljandi and was astonished to see a sign in Swedish, with the Estonian printed in smaller lettering below. How was this possible? Okay, I have two Swedish friends in Viljandi, make that three, but do they really deserve their own signs at Rademar? It doesn’t add up. I have deduced after many cappuccinos that the sign was acquired from Sweden, and the Estonian text was added later. That’s the only plausible explanation, right?
Russian goes without saying. Every train station I enter in Estonia, every water park, every menu I pick up has some of those eye-tickling Cyrillic letters below the Estonian language. English is often there too. But there are others. Latvian, Lithuanian, Polish, and German. Italian, French, and Spanish. Danish and Norwegian. You can even find Icelandic on the plaque on Iceland Square. In fact, I’m trying to think of languages I haven’t seen in Estonia on signs or menus or products. I’m sure there are a few. Irish is one, sure. Haven’t seen any Thai recently. Or maybe they are out there lurking somewhere. Maybe there is a shop window somewhere in Otepää that displays the store’s contents in the Estonian, Irish, and Thai languages. You never know.
And so it happened that I went to a handicrafts seller in the basement of the De la Gardie shopping center near the Viru Gate in Tallinn looking for some ceramic plates with bees painted on them. A birthday gift for my dear wife. The seller was an upper middle-aged woman, creases at the eye, gray hair pulled back into a pony tail. I conversed with her in Estonian, and everything was done in the national language, effortlessly, politely. Then when she went to get a cardboard box from a neighboring merchant, the neighboring merchant made a remark about her accent.
“These Estonians are always making fun of my accent,” the seller said to me in Estonian, returning with the box.
“What accent?” I asked.
“You don’t know? I’m not Estonian, I’m Finnish.”
“You are?” I squinted at the woman, at her high cheekbones, pouting lips, studying her. Yes, aha, mmhmm, definitely Finnish, like Kekkonen, now I see it, now I see it. “Well, if it makes you feel any better, I’m American,” I said.
“You are?” she stepped back. “Well, then, why the hell aren’t we speaking English?” she asked in English.
“I don’t know,” I said in English.
Her English was pretty good, but she said that she spoke Italian even better. “It’s my home language,” she said.
“So you are a Finn living in Estonia who speaks Italian at home.”
“My husband is Italian. Was Italian. He’s dead,” she said. “But I speak to my children in Italian. We used to live in Rome before we moved here.”
“Come va?” I asked her.
The woman’s eyes narrowed again. “Bene, bene. You speak Italian too?”
“Just a little,” I said. After she finished packing the ceramic dishes with the bees on them, she handed it to me. “Kiitos,” I thanked her in Finnish.
“And Finnish!” she was surprised. “You speak Finnish too! Amazing!”
“I only know two words,” I told her. “Kiitos and perkele.”
“But those are very important words,” she said, nodding. “Maybe the most important words.”
On the way out of the center I got into an elevator with two Brazilians wearing identical Ronaldinho t-shirts, mumbling away in Portuguese about feijoada or João Goulart or whomever or whatever. They were still beside me when we stepped back into the sunlight of Tallinn street scene in July, girls playing accordions, processions of German tourists floating by, Finns sipping beers and calling out to each other from cowboy bars. What a crazy country.