I am a foreigner here. I am many other things, but this is my chief designation in the eyes of society. This is perhaps the situation of anyone who is a foreigner anywhere. Now I regret all the times I inquired as to the source of a person’s accent in the US. “And where are you from? The former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia?”
Foreigner. This is not necessarily a burden. It lifts you above the others, singles you out from the pack. Anyone can be a writer, but not everyone can be a foreign writer. Anyone can play guitar, but not everyone can be a foreigner playing guitar. Some of Estonia’s most successful musicians are foreigners: see Dave Benton or Ruslan Trochynskyi from Svjata Vatra. Anyone who’s seen Ruslan yield his scythe and croon about sexy time in Ukrainian remembers him for his foreignness. But who are the guys backing him up? Ah, just a bunch of Estonians. So, there you have it. Foreigners are special. When you walk down the street, my fellow foreigners, hold your heads up high!
And yet, just as being a foreigner sets you apart from the lumpenproletariat, the “flotsam” of Esto society,it also makes you invisible. Conversations typically revolve around language acquisition or reactions to the local cuisine. Few people really talk to you about anything important, because few people really know how to talk to you. Whole conversations cascade around you of which you can play little role, maybe because you don’t understand everything being said, but mostly because you have so little to contribute. I recently watched two acquaintances have a deep conversation about forestry. Forestry! What the &%¤£ do I know about forestry? Even if we were speaking the same language, we’d be speaking different tongues. Do you catch my drift?
This was an issue in my second book. Most of the main characters, the deep characters, the ones who carried around with them meaning, were foreigners. The Estonians were like cardboard cutouts of people, two dimensional, but not only for my lack of ability to translate them into text, but because so few of them had shared any shred of their souls with me. This was perhaps less because of the national character of the Estonian people, than because of the simple fact that I was an outsider, a foreigner, and somehow disconnected from the reality around me. Being a foreigner gives one the unique ability to walk down the street in one land, and still simultaneously, metaphysically, be in another.
Not like it would be any better there. I feel the same claustrophobia around most of my countrymen. Just as Estonia is too quiet, America is too loud. When I arrive home to New York, I snake through the sweaty bowels of John F. Kennedy International Airport, only to cross through the gates of US customs, where I am always made to feel as if I have done something wrong, though at last check, I have committed no crime. I get nervous standing there, wondering if my name has somehow wound up on some kind of list. “No Teen Idols!” “But I’m not Timberlake, I’m not Bieber!” “Guards, take him away!” “I swear, hey, what are you doing? Get your hands off of me! I’m innocent! I can’t even dance, watch me, I’ll prove it to you.” “Mmm. Resisting arrest? That’s another 10 years.” “No, no, there must be some mistake!” “Tell it to your lawyer, kid.”
America. The over-saturation of stimuli, the clamor of the crowds, the thousands of TV sets suspended from the ceilings blaring the day’s misfortunes, pundits yelling over one another, people climbing over each another, the aroma of fried chicken and pizza, old newspapers, Andean flute players, Penn Station, New York City! One never feels so alive as when he’s cruising the 6, drunk as a skunk, standing next to some punk Wall Street broker with a flattop who is singing along to The Supremes on his iPod. “You can’t hurry love. No, it just has to wait …”
And when you finally emerge from the swampy mess, battered and chafed, and you land back in Estonia, you exhale. I feel this every single time I make the journey between the two countries. The heat of America, the coolness of Estonia. The more I think about it, the more it reminds me of the Estonian sauna, running between the oven-like conditions of the saun to the ice waters of the lake, only to find peace somewhere in between for a few fleeting moments.
Just as the Americans annoy me with their 24-hour cable news networks, the Estonians annoy me because they don’t know how to live, they don’t know how to enjoy themselves. Each day I watch construction workers slave late into the evening, 10, 11 o’clock at night, cigarettes dangling from their lips, blue circles beneath the eyes. There is this incredible urgency to everything they do, because summer only lasts so long, and soon it will be too cold to work anymore. I am sure that it all makes sense, but at the same time I feel that they are committing suicide, that never-ending work and drink and smoke are the Estonian version of harakiri.
I cannot change anything though. I cannot advocate a mezzogiorno for my neighbors. I cannot organize one for myself. Could you imagine in Estonia stopping work at around 1 pm to rush home and eat a prolonged, savory meal until about 5 in the evening, lounging around, munching on olives and fennel and telling pointless jokes and stories? No. Here it would be condemned as rape, a brutal, graphic violation of the Protestant work ethic. It just doesn’t happen. Even when Estonians do relax, it involves the consumption of hard liquor, stuff that hits the bottom of your gut like a fiery asteroid. There must be moving, doing, consuming … The more I think about it, I don’t fit into America or Estonia or anywhere. I have become a perpetual foreigner. I will be a foreigner everywhere I go.