How do I make myself clear without slipping into 19th century racial theory? Somebody in the Estonian woodpile had very high cheekbones.
I know the people of this land like to fancy themselves as northern Germanics, a sort of cross between Hans Brinker, Heidi and the von Trapp Family Singers, but when I look at my daughters, all three of them, I’m seeing Genghis Khan.
Not that they have mustaches. Or swords. But those impossibly high cheekbones! So high. We’re talking K2, Mount Everest! Several people have commented already that the newest addition to our flock resembles a small Chinese girl. Väike hiinlane they call her. Which she doesn’t at all, but for the eyes. The eyes, the eyes, it’s all in the eyes. And if the Estonians are somewhere genetically between the Latvians and the Finns (like it should be), then where does the Mongolian aspect kick in?
Those are looks, but how about temperament? I’ve been back a week or so, and I’ve run into people in public who I have sworn to myself are distraught. Women who look like they are about to burst out into tears. Men who look like they’ve been constipated for ages. Children who look like they’ve been freed from the frozen carbonite on Jabba the Hutt’s wall. But the thing is … there’s nothing actually wrong with them. They just happen to look miserable all the time. It doesn’t mean that they are miserable.
That’s a minority though. Most people have a sort of stern, business-like quality to them, and then there are even the few jolly old fellows with the mustaches who wear blue overalls every day of the week and cry out, “Tere!” at every opportunity. But, for the most part, smiling is not part of the average Estonian’s repertoire of facial expressions. And so I have made it a point now of smiling in the direction of every miserable or stoic person I meet.
I’m like a miracle worker, I tell myself, a healer. I’m like a leather-jacket wearing Christ, the Joel Osteen of Estonia, except instead of turning water to wine, or making every day a Friday, I am making Estonian bank tellers smile. Incredible. All you have to do is make sure to be as pleasant as possible and show joy at every turn. “Ah, I have to sign my name here? How lovely.” Maybe they are laughing at me, not with me, but at least they don’t look like they’re sitting on a spike anymore. Sooner or later they will all come around with a little sunshine. The country will fall to me, one by one, each miserable, mopey-faced Finno-Ugric is going to be a little happier if I have to slip something in their kama.
That’s not everybody, of course, not at all. But most male conversations are as abrupt and monotone as possible. I walk around wondering, what happened to these guys? They seem so … hopelessly lost. People famously complain about the stoic, quiet Estonians, and when they do, they are talking about the men, and they are telling the truth. And does anybody have a real job here? Most of the guys I know are employed doing odd jobs. A little construction here, a little IT work there, plenty of time for home improvement here, some forestry there … don’t you have an office to go to, or some product to produce? You’re putting me to shame by hammering stuff all the time. I can’t keep up!
Basically, what I am getting at, is that I have decided not to integrate. You don’t want to talk, that’s too bad, because I want to talk. You want to spend your free time building another house in a land full of empty buildings, go ahead, but don’t expect me to follow suit. You don’t want to smile? Well, that’s too bad too, because I am an American and I feel like having a nice day. It’s my birthright. The descendants of prewar Estonian citizens get their passports and the Israelis get their Holy Land. I get my white t-shirt with an obscenely yellow happy face on it.