the thaw

Drip, drip, drop.

I’ve been stateside for a number of weeks now, and will be for a number of weeks more. Two news items to lighten the heart out of E-land … First, an opera, about Krugman and Ilves, with lyrics penned by my dear friend Scott Diel. It’s international news. On a less serious note, Europe’s healthiest economy has its worst drug problem (and highest HIV infection rate).

One week plus was spent on the West Coast, affectionately dubbed by me as the Pot Coast, where the air is thick with green smoke, and everyone is second-hand stoned. All of that goofy sunshine is a bit of a change from Estonia, where the darkness had put a damp chill in my soul, until I could barely communicate with anyone, not unlike so many of my neighbors.

When you go from North to South, cold to bearable, darkness to sunshine, something happens to you. I can only equate it to the prickling feeling one feels in his toes as the blood rushes in after a period of elevated suspension.

At City Lights in San Francisco, I went looking for a kindred book to cozy up with and could find nothing among the current jewels and emeralds of contemporary writers workshops. I went home with Jack London instead, Northland Tales, a literary godfather without an MFA. To my surprise, London encountered this sensation too. Just as he describes, an emotional thaw takes place when exposed to the sun’s rays after light starvation. One becomes human again, more human than he will ever feel.

This was how I was feeling. It is a feeling I would like to nourish and maintain, though slowly it is being pried from my enlightened hands by 24-hour news coverage and village gossip. This was a feeling I met during my first winter in Estonia a decade ago. I touched on it in the first book, where the protagonist confesses his attraction to many other women to his wife-to-be. Diel wasn’t buying it. He wrote to me. How could the main character have been so naive? Of course he knew that his eye would continue to wander, with or without ring.

But that wasn’t the point! Not at all. That was a tale of being emotionally overwhelmed by a change in environment. It’s not that the main character is attracted to other women, it’s that in the context of going from dark to light, these simple biological impulses evolved into phenomenon that could, I suspect, jeopardize one’s sanity. Drinking, carousing, knife-fighting, womanizing, philandering, believing in elves … in Greenland, I am told of how they wait for the ship to arrive with its bounty of booze, then do it with whomever in the snow between the pretty-as-a-chocolate-box houses.

So it goes. I am very grateful though for the sensations, the emotional thaw, the enhancement in perception. I am richer for it, which is why I must say thank you Krugman and Ilves, thank you TIME and thank you Wall Street Journal, thank you Kurt Vonnegut and Aldous Huxley. Where would I be without you? But most of all, thank you Jack London. I finished half of your Northland tales in California. I’ll finish the second half in Estonia.

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nii naljakas

Käi perse, Semper!

So, the number one most read blog post last year appeared in April. “Eat Your Heart Out, Truman Capote!” Not like so many Estonian and Esto-connected readers care so much about Mr. Capote, or Friedebert Tuglas for that matter. It was because of something I included in the post: the fact that a member of the Estonian Writers Union told my wife, a rejected applicant, partially in jest, that membership depends on on who one drinks and sleeps with.

This led to an Õhtuleht article, where the headline inferred that I was the one who said the stuff about drinking and sleeping with writers. After that, Mele Pesti discussed the manner in which my words were taken out of context in Memokraat. Meantime, the affable gents at the Writers Union were sending me private messages on the world’s most popular social networking site about how getting in has absolutely, positively nothing to do with whom one sleeps and drinks. Absurd!

My main point was that there is a disconnect between some of Estonia’s archaic ideas about art (or anything) and the reality — a shred of evidence being that self-annointed “writers” wallow away in obscurity, while people who sell many, many books are not even deemed to be worthy of the term “writer” in an Estonian context. I am actually not writing about myself here, though when I accidentally told someone I was a writer, a kirjanik, it amused them greatly, and I was informed that only people who can translate from ancient Greek into Estonian dialect are allowed to call themselves writers in this little cold land. See what I mean? Anyway, whatever I tried to say, it interested people. That controversial post received about five to ten times more clicks than any other in 2012.

eestlanna pariisis

From one jobu to another.

Had the chance to watch a film on the Finnair flight. Three films, in fact. The other two are not worthy of discussion, not only because they had nothing to do with Estonia, but because they were so outrageously stupid (The Campaign and The Hangover), although this reverence for stupidity is among the sturdiest pillars of Americanness.

Eestlanna Pariisis is not a stupid American film. It is a quiet, brooding European film and it made me cry. Maybe that happened because I was so exhausted. But there was something about the way that Anne’s (Laine Mägi) life in Estonia was portrayed — the jobu drunk ex-husband, the spacey grandmother with dementia, the silent funeral with vodka shots, the unrenovated apartment with Soviet furnishings, the primped, self-absorbed kids who couldn’t stick around for a funeral because they had to go to work, not to mention all the darkness and snow —  that brought me to tears, probably because it was so accurate.

My sister-in-law’s mother-in-law really does have dementia and lives at home. We do have close relatives whose lives have been destroyed by alcohol. Most of the 80s and 90s-born youth in our Estonian family (“Republicans” as the Estonian writer Andrei Hvostov describes the rising generation of Estonian youth that has no memory of the Soviet era) have adopted global personas and fantasize of a new, hipper existence at the center of it all in New York or London. Goodbye Põltsamaa, hello Paris!

But as Anne finds out, Paris isn’t much better than Tallinn. She trades one jobu (jerk) at home for another abroad, in this case nasty old coot and Estonian exile named Frida (Jeanne Moreau). I hate to say it, but I think Estonians were proud that the aging film legend Moreau appeared in an Ilmar Raag film with the word Estonienne in the title, that Frenchness itself could coexist with Estonianness in such a mopey and intense European manner. Moreau didn’t speak Estonian in the film, except maybe an attempt at “Tere,” but a lot of exiles have left their linguistic identities behind, as I have seen time and again.

It’s the, “Wait, this isn’t a dream?” phenomenon. Estonia feels like an island, you see. Water and swamps all around. When you leave, you start to wonder if it really exists. It made my heart stir a bit to hear Estonian and French spoken in the same scene, not only because it proved that Estonia is real, but because Mägi has superb diction and I could understand every word, so unlike Seenelkäik (Mushrooming), another film from the past year, where actors Raivo Tamm and Juhan Ulfsak’s muddy and impenetrable baritones made my wife our official translator.

Mägi also played her body well. There were messages in the simple ways she removed trays of food or cleaned up an intentionally spilled cup of tea. Mägi has a thin, elegant frame and as she doesn’t say much (many Estonians aren’t big talkers), so she has to use her movements to fill scenes with the emotions required (humiliation, determination, loneliness, apprehension). I did find some of the Frenchness in the film overplayed (the fresh croissants, the fashion), but I can’t criticize that, considering I did some of the same things in my novel Montreal Demons (“behold, the boulangerie, the thigh high boots!”) Plus, this is a film geared to ladies who go to the cinema with other ladies, not to the audience of The Hangover or The Campaign, or even Seenelkäik, ie. guys like me.

So, is it a great film? I am not a film critic. Maybe it was terrible. But I liked it and it had an effect on me sitting up there above the cold clouds and strong gusts of Greenlandic wind. Yes, I liked it.