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.


24 thoughts on “the thaw”

  1. I say, the caress of the other woman makes a man a better family man.

    Too bad it is not generally accepted. I accept it and I go with it. Marriage is a relationship, not a diagnosis. Relationships evolve, like a dance. Would a sane person get stuck in the same dance move forever?

    My two cents.


  2. Yes, I was in SF for work. This winter? I'll tell you when I get back. The darkness didn't get to me as it did those first years – no drinking. But the cold is hard on my body. I noticed that I had pain in my toes from being cold — could it be a harbinger of arthritis? That went away with enough warmth, but I have other chronic problems that are exacerbated by exposure. My body is not made for that climate. Most of my ancestors came from the Mediterranean. I didn't use to think that mattered much, but then my doctor basically told me it was so — foreign guys have a rough time healthwise in Estonia. Meantime the natives harm themselves with vodka and cigarettes and are still in better shape.


  3. I'm told I should dress warm, but sometimes I slip up — forget to wear long underwear on a colder day — and them BAM! I'm down again. At first, I felt kind of cool — survivalist! — but I do wonder about the longterm effects of constantly being in a semi-weakened state.


  4. That's interesting. I know some black people in Estonia who are rather fine with the climate, but then again they were born in Estonia. Maybe its to do where you grow up as a child, rather than genetical background?

    I used to have asthma and waves of random headaches in Estonia, but since I moved to Britain (a fairly mild climate with lots of pollution) it all cleared. I think it might have to do with air pressure and such. Climate can definitely have an effect on our health, both physical and mental. I stay in Scotland at the moment and we've got literally a weeks worth of sunshine here for the whole year, and I find myself a lot more irretable and stingy. Even my hair is turning darkish-gingerish-godknowswhat weird color. Dreading the fact that I might get freckles, lose my teeth and start to walk funny, lol. Thanks, but no thanks! I'll be emigrating back shortly!


  5. “Most of my ancestors came from the Mediterranean. I didn't use to think that mattered much, but then my doctor basically told me it was so — foreign guys have a rough time healthwise in Estonia.”

    Food for thought, certainly. One is tempted to say things like “tough it out” or “man up, Kusti!”, but this seems to be a serious issue. I didn't realise how serious. I'm of so-called southern type, a “lõunamaalane” with dark eyes and hair myself, and somewhat sensitive to cold, but I do have an advantage of having lived in Estonia all my life, Marko's absolutely right.


  6. Hmmm, I remember he had this post about how Estonians dress up warmly even if the temperatures are relatively high. Maybe there's more to that. Old Estonians used to be nature worshipers, among other things that also means making close and detailed observations another the martial world around us, including the weather and its impact to humans. When I was a teenage lad I hated all these stupid hats and mittens and scarves and I remember my mum telling me that, look, you'll be fine for just one winter but mark my words, forty years down the line it will have an impact on your well-being. Or as they say that you shouldn't sit on the ground, that includes park benches and like, before the first thunder, or at least not until St Georges Day. Again they tell us not to do something that might seem harmless in short term, but can have a long term effect. Obviously you should take this with a pinch of salt, but there might be something in it, as Estonians still follow these sort of old 'wisdom', perhaps you should look in to that? You'll never know.


  7. Cool. I go to school in SF at the University of San Francisco. I only know of you because my former girlfriend, as of yesterday, is from Estonia. She just finished her thesis work at Tartu University. I was planning to come this summer after graduation, and get to experience for real, the land that has only existed in words from her, and your books. Maybe I will come experience the sauna in the far future…


  8. School bullying made headlines this week, again. When will they put end to this madness? Among other things Mr Ligi proposed to raise tax free income to 500 euros a month, to what Mr Palts added that we could do without income tax all together. What do you think Temetsa, is it even possible? That would be something. We'd be more capitalist than the Americans, should we succeed. But what would be the downside?


  9. Kids are just reacting to their surroundings which is not very nurturing, caring or loving. They feel that to survive they need to beceom mean and rude, just like the people they see on TV, the one's who create the atmoshpere and set the tone for the rest … Ansip, Ligi, Savisaar … all of the fisheyed obnoxious elites of the poor banania.

    One a less sad note, in case you guys missed the Obama's swearing in … here's the footage … enjoy:


  10. You must have an awful lot of free time on your hands, LPR. Don't really get the American humor (like am I supposed to laugh about that makeup comment – in Europe everybody wears a little, at least light foundation, inc politicians, athletes, store assistants) but you have to give them credit for at least trying. Also in Europe we laugh about our own shortcomings rather than point the finger at others.

    God, I'm turning into right Joy Killington here, aren't I? Yes, I giggled a bit, cheers for the share. 🙂


  11. Gosh, getting defensive about your eyeliner now, Marko?

    Chill out.

    How about this line … “Ladies, romance is a deception. This is how we get you cuddly and naughty, naugthy, naughty …so that you won't question us men in two days' window …”

    or … “… walk in our backwards pants … Whoof, it is rough! Sure it is. Like the opiates”.

    And I thought, estonians dig absurdist humour like no one else …


  12. Absurd is fine, in small quantities. Just the general American attitude, they're a lot like Russians, aren't they – lacking of manners and boundaries.

    But as I said, it was funny, just not sure of if I laughed about the things intended to be laughed at, lol.


  13. Marko,

    If the income tax would be abolished, public spending would have to be cut drastically, which would make life quite unpleasant for a lot of people, or the government would have to increase the VAT or corporate tax and the impact of these measures on the economy would also not be so good (increasing VAT while abandoning the income tax would be bad for poor people who already pay almost no income tax). A mixture of these measures would also be possible. Or the government should find the goose with the golden eggs. I know of some oil producting countries that have no income tax, so that's a third option. Who knows what is still hidden under the Estonian soil?
    The idea of a 500 euro tax free minimum seems reasonable for the longer term. Wages will increase in the future, so gradually raising the minimum would not have a negative effect on the government budget. It depends on the level of median/average wages Ligi has in mind. In Belgium in practice you don't pay income tax if you earn less than 900 euro amonth, but in Belgium 900 euro is an extremely low wage, so the average income tax is still quite high.

    By the way: are you and your partner still thinking about moving to Estonia? I remember that you mentioned it some time ago.


  14. Thanks, Temetsa, for your thoughts. I think Ligi mentioned that he will finance it from the growth it will generate. I mean the lowest earners can barely make their ends meet as it stands now, the tax exemption will simply leave them more money to spend – it wont be going to their savings accounts, that's for sure. With an increase in domestic spending, it is likely more jobs will be created in low skill level, thus getting more people off the benefits and back on their feet, which in long term will cut down the bills for benefits, housing and healthcare. If done properly, I believe its a big step forward for the whole society. With regards to 500 euros, when compared to Britain it would be equivalent to about 1100 hundred here – you can just about afford a tiny flat and basic bills, and that's about what majority of Britons are living on anyway.

    And yes, we are dealing with the move as we speak. Will be in Estonia late spring, early summer. That reminds me – I was suppose to email you with regards to language courses for my partner. Sorry, must have slipped my mind. Could you drop me your mail address again, please?


  15. I am still 'worried' about the public finances. The increase in consumption will not immediately lead to enough revenue to fill the gap caused by lower taxes. The budget deficit would increase, and probably the government's policy would be to start cutting it, which would depress growth in other sectors of the economy, so the net effect would not be so big after all, unless the government would accept a deficit for some time.
    But Estonia could certainly use a boost in consumption. The level of consumption is quite low for it's level of economic development. Estonia's per capita GDP in 2011 was 67% of the EU average, but it's AIC (Actual individual consumption, according to eurostat a better indicator of the material welfare of households) is only 58 %, that's only 1% higher than Latvia's AIC. For this indicator there's a wide gap between Estonia and Lithuania, Poland and Hungary, countries that have a similar per capita GDP. I know Poland quite well and ordinary people seem to be better of than their counterparts in Estonia. Wage levels are the same as in Estonia, but the price level is much lower. (which doesn't prevent mass emigration to the UK 🙂 )

    I would prefer lowering the income tax for low incomes and increasing it for higher incomes, although not to Swedish or Belgian levels. I know this is a difficult topic Estonia. But Czech republic and Slovakia recently abandonded their flat tax and introduced a slightly higher level of taxation for higher incomes. For example in Czech republic there are two rates now: 15% and a 22% rate for higher incomes. Not the end of the world I think.
    Anyway, I think that Estonia should be careful about lowering taxes to much. The budget depends to much on EU cohesion funds and the government should prepare for the time when these start to decline. The level of public spending that Estonia now has, would require a much higher level of taxation (or government borrowing) without this support.


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