sunday morning

Velvet Underground front man Lou Reed and Velvet Revolutionary Vaclav Havel discuss bondage, sexual and political.

Pulled into a Statoil in Pärnu on a rainy December night to get a coffee, left with the three disc Rolling Stones Singles Collection, just so I could zoom among the dark pines and listen to Mick Jagger croon, “I am the little red rooster, too lazy to crow for day …”

I had to buy it. Just had to. What other Statoil customer would? What demand exists in Estonia for vintage Stones? I felt it was my duty as a lifelong Stones fan to snatch up their product.

I was thinking about rock ‘n’ roll music the whole ride home, wondering what impact it had had at all in Estonia. Many of the songs of the Singing Revolution were nominally rock songs, though it’s hard to trace the musical lineage from “Johnny B. Goode” to “Eestlane olen ja eestlaseks jään.”

I have no idea what music my father-in-law Andres enjoys. His brother Tiit, who actually is a musician, is one of these frustrating people who likes all kinds of music. No luck there. I know my late mother-in-law Aime supposedly had a fondness for French pop. But nothing seems to light the old folks’ fire like “Satisfaction” does when my father John hears Keith play that fuzzy introductory riff for the 1,965th time.

When I got home I saw that Vaclav Havel had died. He wasn’t Estonian, but he was a so-called Eastern European, a dissident who helped topple the local Communist regime and later became president. A Mandela story in other words, but not exactly. Havel was also an avid rock music fan, and the group that tickled his fancy wasn’t the Stones but one that originated closer to my home, the Velvet Underground, consisting of Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison, and Maureen Tucker, all of Long Island, and John Cale of Carmarthenshire,Wales, with vocals by Nico of Cologne, West Germany.

From what I understand, the records of this New York based experimental rock ensemble, which gained notoriety in the US but sold dismally, were smuggled into then Czechoslovakia and embraced by the underground dissident movement. Reed has claimed that the name “Velvet Revolution” evolved out of the Czech dissidents’ affinity for the Velvet Underground’s music. It’s possible. Reed and Havel were acquaintances, if not friends. He came to visit Havel in Prague in 1990, and played at the White House dinner in Havel’s honor in 1998. To give one a sense of the profound change that had taken place in global culture, try imagining the frontman for a group that sang about heroin addiction, transvestites, and sadomasochism playing at a state dinner during the Johnson or Nixon administrations …

I can see why Europeans liked the Velvet Underground. Nico’s deep, accented vocals immediately gave the group’s first album a Teutonic tinge, and John Cale’s palette was different from any working class New Yorkers’, a viola player trained in classical music at the University of London. Even if you listen to those records now with Nico moaning over Reed’s choppy, anxious guitar and Cale sawing away on his electric viola, you can see how they fit in among Prague’s gothic architecture, far more than the Grateful Dead’s sunny West Coast psychedelia or the Stones’ attempt to revive the Delta blues with a Kentish accent.

I guess what I am trying to say is that music is important. It doesn’t get enough credit. When we write the history of the 20th century, we of course should remember to put the dissidents-cum-presidents front and center. But don’t forget about the poets and their guitars who spoke to them through stereo speakers in their bedrooms late at night. Maybe there is more to those spur-of-the-moment Statoil purchases.

milch lait latte

If there is one conversation topic that never ceases to irritate me in Estonia, it is language. Estonians are obsessed with language, with their own language, with other languages. They can spend whole nights sitting by the fire trading interesting dialect words that they learned from their grandmother one summer in Võrumaa. Which makes President Toomas Hendrik Ilves’ recent interview with Der Bund, a Swiss newspaper, even more frustrating. You’d think that in an interview for a foreign publication they wouldn’t pester Härra President with questions about languages, given the extent to which he is tormented at home. No such luck.

The excerpt making the rounds is the following, the Swiss paper asked Ilves why Russian wasn’t an official second language of the Republic of Estonia, and Ilves deflected it with a short history lesson and a laugh. “Don’t ask me ridiculous questions.” I’ve heard this stuff before, a million times. Sometimes Estonian leaders deflect to Germany when these questions are tossed in their direction, “There are X many Turks in Germany” … To which the German mind silently processes, “Yes, but they’re Muslims …” and then moves onto the next question. This time Ilves trotted out the Occupation rhetoric, but there was a gem in the rough.

Toome näiteks: me okupeerime teie maa ja pärast 50 aastat ütleme, et te peate eesti keele ametlikuks keeleks tegema.

“How about we occupy your country and after 50 years tell you that you have to make Estonian your official language.”

Now that was splendid. One can imagine the Swiss journalist’s mind silently processing, “Yes, but you are a small insignificant country that couldn’t occupy another if it tried, well, maybe Latvia …” but then conveniently moves on to the next question. It also got perhaps a few people to think about things a different way.

As president of Estonia, Ilves has to walk a tightrope when it comes to the “Russian question.” On one hand, he’s got the right wingers, not to mention segments of the exile community, who fervently resent the presence of Soviet-era migrants and their descendants on the holy soil of the fatherland. On the other hand, a plurality of those Soviet-era migrants and their descendants are Estonian citizens today, and their membership in the Estonian body politic does not need to be qualified, especially by their own president. So, basically, no matter what Ilves says, he’s bound to piss off somebody.

Still, I think of these questions as opportunities missed. Why isn’t Russian your second official language? Simple: because it does not need to be. First of all, Russians are an official minority — go consult your Law on Cultural Autonomy for National Minorities (1925, 1993). “National minority cultural autonomy may be established by persons belonging to German, Russian, Swedish and Jewish minorities and persons belonging to national minorities with a membership of more than 3,000.” This names Russians as an official minority. It does not qualify them by what year they arrived to Estonia. Russian is the language of instruction of 20 percent of Estonia’s public schools. And what are the first foreign languages most pupils, regardless of background, learn in school? Russian and English.

Honestly, I don’t know who is Russian and who is Estonian anymore. A good number of my daughter’s classmates have Russian surnames, and yet their parents seem as Estonian as one can be. Our publishing house has published books written by Andrei Hvostov, Vahur Afanasjev, Maria Kupinskaja: they’re all Estonians too.

The arguments about protecting the Estonian language during the Singing Revolution were coached in terms of ethnic national survival. But in the 22 years since Estonia reverted to having one national language, Estonian has become the default language among those with Estonian and German and Swedish and Russian and Ukrainian and Italian backgrounds. The inhabitants of Estonia have in a way become Homo esticus. This is not a new process. Estonia has a way of luring people in and assimilating them. And if you stand on a hill in Harjuimaa on a breezy day, and put your ear to the wind, you can hear that giant sucking sound …


A screen capture from Scooby Doo or just another old house in Viljandi?

On a warm summer’s day, Viljandi looks like a pretty-as-a-picture northern European town, on a wet December day, it looks like a dump, some sort of Dickensian slum of crooked dwellings spewing smog, one-legged tramps hobbling down a busted road, one third puddles, one third cobblestones, one third dirt, little bratty pickpockets without parents rustling by to congregate at the local sweet shop. I should dislike it, pining for a cheeseburger in paradise, but instead my interest is piqued, because this is prime real estate for a novel.

Not only does Viljandi have the scenery down, but the characters, the characters. My pal Sten (name changed), a Vietnam vet with an expanding roster of offspring who lightens his load by doing flips on a trampoline. The school master Leivo (name changed again), who is like some kind of cross between Santa Claus and DIY painting guru Bob Ross. The local handyman Benno (another name changed) who is friendly on most days but especially friendly on the days that he drinks, and who I once saw collapse in a parking lot.

Then there are the poets and musicians: Kristiina (name not changed) writer of earthy poetry and her husband Silver (name not changed) whose talents include playing the bicycle tire. The motorcycle enthusiast (wait for it) who bought a sticker so that his yellow “Jeep” reads “Peep.” Ruslan (name unchanged) the Ukrainian trombonist and Sofia (name unchanged) the Swedish folkie, plus the Armenian restaurateur and the Roma lady who told me she liked my books and then asked me for money (both names unknown), with all of whom I speak only Estonian, as if it was the only language in existence. It all adds up to something, an extravaganza, on ice, sometimes literally, but the only problem is that I just can’t find a story line.

A madcap comedy? A murder mystery? A tale of passion and betrayal? Dangerous Estonian liaisons? An epic struggle between good and evil? Some modern-day rewrite of a Biblical parable? After our two cats disappeared, right in the neighborhood of a Chinese restaurant, I began to suspect that some kind of serial cat killer could pick up in Viljandi right where he left off in Kafka on the Shore. That one had no legs. The excitement over the discovery of a corpse in the lake after last winter’s thaw (and there’s always one or two) didn’t lead me anywhere either. There’s a haunted house around the corner too, but, who cares?

Fortunately, I’ve got plenty of other stories to write. But, for now, I am living in a book without a plot.