where to?

Ilves: “Today, on the 95th anniversary of Estonia, the thought of independence has, once again, become natural. It neither requires interpretation nor explanation because it is a basic truth. // Standing on this foundation, we compare ourselves to other nations, and no longer to those who used to share our fate, but instead to those whose history and opportunities have, in the meantime, been different. // And this is exactly what it should be like. For we cannot endlessly search the past for the cause of our problems like a former colony that continues to blame it all on some 19th century injustice.” Laar: “Right-wing parties have been in power for so long and this is a risk because in politics it is clear that things change because people would like to see new faces. They would like to try something new, new concepts or trends. But this is a luxury that you can afford in a strong democracy. I don’t know if Estonia would survive such experimenting, life will tell.” // ERR: “The countrywide survey indicated that 23 percent of decided voters would support the Reform Party if elections were held tomorrow, an increase of three percentage points from last month.” // Ilves: “No, I do not consider the current government to be irreplaceable, nor do I consider the way our decisions are made to be the best. Both will inevitably change if only the citizens so wish.” // ERR: “The two opposition parties, Center and the Social Democrats continue to lead the polls, each with 26 percent support in February. January’s figures were 28 percent for Center and 27 percent for the Soc Dems.” // Ilves: “One of the greatest virtues of democracy is the legal transfer of power without the spilling of blood, in which the state continues, and decision-makers change. Democracy teaches us that if one is insensitive or deaf to the murmurings of the people, someone else will soon come to power, already after the next elections.” // Laar: “There is a possibility that when people come to power, they will also come to their senses. This is always a possibility and very welcome. But more often than not, it will not happen. Then it will be difficult, especially if you look at promises that have been made in public. When these promises get to be implemented, the consequences will be dire.”

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no memory

“And did you see, he was born in 1988?” “So what.” “I don’t know, it’s just weird for me still.” “What, that they’ve grown up and become young adults?” “And not even, ____’s daughter was born in ’92! Now, she’s a young lawyer in Tallinn.” “A lawyer?” “Yes.” “I wanted to write a column about them once, but I never got around to it. There is this quote in The Shawshank Redemption. He’s talking about how he wants to forget about prison and go to Mexico, to the Pacific, because they say the Pacific has no memory. And that’s how I feel about them. They have no memory. No Cold War, no Persian Gulf War. On one hand, it’s kind of sad, but on the other, it’s liberating and fresh. No memory. It’s like starting all over.” “It’s a good movie, especially the last scene.” “I know. But think about it. To us, Gorbachev is like an old uncle. He’s a huge, I don’t know how to say it, kuju, you know.” “Uh huh.” “But to them, he’s just someone in a textbook, some guy who led the Soviet Union for a few years before it fell apart … Oh, Uncle Gorby, we’ve missed you, it’s been too long” …

say che

Got to thinking about Ernesto “Che” Guevara at the spa in Pärnu … him of all people. I think it was the cover of Minu Jamaica that set off the thought, how Bob Marley was one of the 20th century’s lowercase jesuses, and then naturally Guevara entered my mind as another … Or maybe I just looked in the mirror at my red eyes, chlorine-moussed hair and beard and thought, “My God, he’s alive!” He’s a lightning rod, Che. For some he’s a revolutionary Robin Hood, for others a Red Executioner. The lefties love him because he escaped “drawing room Bolshevik” status (that’s what August Rei called Johannes Vares) by having the nutsack to resort to violence and think that he could actually win …  The discussions about his legacy always wind up in, “Oh yeah, that, well … anyway,” territory. “X killed Y, what do you have to say about that?” “Oh yeah, that, well … anyway.”  Ho hum. It seems that blood is on everybody’s hands around this table. Which side are you on anyway, huh, the fruit company’s or the Marxist guerillas’? The cigar-chomping dictators’ or the cigar-chomping rebels’? Are you down with fruit company exploitation or world revolution?! Usually, when I am at a restaurant and given such unsavory choices, I pack up my things and find another restaurant …

flash fiction

Here comes the judge, here comes the judge … I am a judge in a new contest for something called flashfiction. What is flashfiction? It comes to you in a flash BOOM! BAM! Shit’s written, done, submitted, passed on for judgment to me and Vello Vikerkaar and Mike Collier … almost as if you wrote it in your sleep, or maybe the other you wrote it, you know, the lightning quick Flash Gordon you. But what the hell am I talking about? What should you be writing in your sleep? Details: “ERR News challenges readers to write short stories of a maximum 750 words that capture a particular aspect of life in northern Europe.” More here. And one sentence in Estonian should appear somewhere in the story. Think on that one. Nokk kinni, saba lahti? No. Kel jänu, sel jalad? No. Alguses ei saa pidama, pärast vedama? Wait …


here’s to swimmin’

… with bowlegged women … This is what the oldtimey fisherman Quint says in Jaws. I’ve written too much already about Estonian wimmin here on this blog, as if I was an expert, or that anyone desired such insight or expertise. But honesty, honesty … the honest message is that when I returned to Tallinn a week or so back and was confronted with the gray and the white and the brown and the black, the stale glow of shop lights on the slush of the rutted sidewalks, this soul of mine plummeted to the lowest rungs of “What have I done?” and yet was resurrected by the female kind, hope! … these local girls know how to dress, they dress well, buttons up, zippers down, they’ll take your angst off, knock the foam off your coffees and beers. And it ain’t like Elsewhere East Europe, where they’ll disgust you with yellow-high-heeled whorewear … these are Estonians, blue, black, and white, tight-lipped and tidy and taciturn … that’s what the roving foreign fishermen who harbor in these waters don’t understand … they may look pretty pretty on the outside, but behind those fruity bosoms (that just make your mind icemelt over with warmth and champagne bubbliness and harp-playing angels) is just another stoic, stalwart, seafarin’ Estonian man … one may appear more pleasant than the other, but they are still one in the same, flesh from flesh … incarnate. Imagine me, though, transplanted to this part of the world as a young man, a Walking Hormone set down in a biological Nor’easter.

I never stood a chance.

jõudu / tarvis

One peculiarity among the people of this country is what I call “workguilt” or work-associated or work-related guilt. This is the idea that we must all be working, working very hard, and slackers/shirkers are scorned by the all-seeing village eye [An Estonian’s dream is that he dies while working, says my friend Ain].  // When you are walking down the street in Estonia, and you see someone doing some form of manual labor — the most respected kind! — you are obligated to bellow out a buoyant “jõudu!” (which means “strength”), to which the sweaty snow shoveler or wood chopper or brush clearer grunts “tarvis!” (“needed”) in a bassy, work-worn, air-gasping voice. // The other day the femme and I were walking down the street here in Viljandi and chanced upon several very industrious neighbors who were building a basilica-sized igloo. So taken with the size of their ambition, we forgot to speak up. No big deal. But a geyserburst of workguilt erupted up up a little farther down the road. // “I should have yelled out ‘jõudu‘,” my femme lamented after we passed the iglooists. “Why don’t you go back and say it,” I offered. “No,” she sulked and shook her head and whimpered on. “The moment has already passed.”

Read more about workguilt in my column, “Golden Hands,” here. It’s part of a new collection that will be published this month by AK called Misjonäripoos, or “The Missionary Position.”

thinner

Iron lady. Psychopath?

An interesting commentary by Estonian journalist Krister Kivi on a recent media event in Britain, where an actress who played the former British prime minister described her as having “oversights when it came to thousands of people. No, millions,” as “not being in touch with herself or anybody else,” and as having “psychopathic tendencies.” Kivi notes that it was Thatcher who inspired the architects of post-1991 Estonia, who are still in power, and likens some Estonian officials’ fetish for a lean state to anorexia. Estonia stands before its mirror, Kivi writes, admiring “how trim is her waistline, how balanced are her budgets.” In the pursuit of this perfect body image, “one stops to feel hunger,” even as the organism’s “hair falls from its head and its stomach shrivels to the size of an apricot.”

Grisly.

It’s interesting to give Thatcher another look in the rearview mirror. I knew her as a child, when she was just another 1980s cultural icon: Ronald Reagan, Michael Jackson, Mihhail Gorbachev, Prince, Margaret Thatcher, Madonna. It was the era of personality cults. We kids spent perhaps more time thinking about the source of MJ’s white glove or Gorby’s magnificent birthmark than we ever did trying to figure out what was the difference between glasnost and perestroika. It’s interesting to think that a significant number of Estonia’s political elite were my age at that time, that is, fully formed adults with careers and children, and I wonder if they still see the Iron Lady the same way. That is, it might be 2013 on the streets of Estonia, but it could still be 1987 in the heads of some of its leadership.

seedless

In the local Maxima supermarket the other day I was asked the question, “Kas need on seemneteta?” by an earnest cashier, who held up the bunches of grapes in a clear plastic bag, across which was written in gigantic letters, S E E D L E S S.

For the uninitiated, a ‘ta’ ending to a word means ‘without,’ and a ‘ga’ ending means ‘with.’ Läksin poodi Epuga, I went to the shop with Epp, läksin poodi Eputa, I went to the shop without Epp.

Back from the good ol’ USofA, it startled me a bit that this poor soul in bumblefuckbogland could hold up a bag that said S E E D L E S S on it, and ask me if the grapes within had seeds or no seeds. But she’s a foreigner, or, rather, I am a foreigner, so why should I expect her to understand English?

I did lean a bit over the counter and say, “You know, S E E D L E S S means seemneteta in English.” She blushed a bit, those moist apple freckled cheeks. A plump cashier, a young cashier. I peered at her nametag. Her first name was something like, Angela. Her second was too long to be bothered with. Maybe it said Baryshnikov or Rachmaninoff.

Maxima, though Lithuanian owned, is the domain of the Estonian Russians. Maybe it’s the cheaper prices (because most Estonian Russians are poor, except for the wealthiest people in Estonia, the transit tsars and restauranteurs and casino magnates, who are also Estonian Russians). Or maybe they feel a big Balto-Slavic affinity with the Lithuanians. Shit, whatever it is, if you want to meet a Russian in some homogeneous town (with some culture) in south Estonia, he or she can be found behind the register at the local Maxima.

Like the gal chatting with the American in Estlandic about S E E D L E S S grapes.

And if you are searching for a point, there is none. But life is entertaining, no?

oh georgia

Estonia continues to support Georgia’s aspirations to join the EU and NATO. So said Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves recently. Its accession to these organizations is up to the Georgians’ ability to meet their criteria, and no external powers should influence these process, he said.

I do wonder about where Georgia fits into the post-2008 “global order.” That is, until the heady year of ’08, we were experiencing a dynamic of continued EU and NATO expansion, which logically could extend as far east as the leaders of these organizations saw fit. But economic crises, political crises, and, well, multiple crises have diminished that eagerness.

I also wonder about the psychology behind Estonian diplomacy, which appears to be based on pure principle, but could also be seen as the outcome of interlocking myths about Estonia’s role in the world, such as “the little country that showed it could be done isn’t about to keep anybody else down”  …

Some interesting discussions with Georgian students yielded the information that Georgia sees EU integration in terms of attaining a higher status, and that it is not thought of in civilizational terms of hooking up with ancient Black Sea trading partners like Romania or Bulgaria (whereas the Estonians reconstructed themselves as a forgotten outpost of Scandinavia, which, quite naturally, was deserving of membership), and when they think about NATO, they think about the US and some stalwart allies, not their neighboring NATO-member country Turkey.

It’s all just a bit too abstract for my unseasoned mind to grasp. Too many slippery concepts about status and democracy and corruption and whatever else you can throw at the wall. Expect the Georgians to live up to standards of organizations that are not met by constituent members? Be like us, but not like Berslusconi? And how are their oligarchs different from our oligarchs really? Do any of these big words still harbor any meaning?

Where’s that Hemingway quote? Ah. There it is:

“There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the names of the places were all you could say and have them mean anything. Words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.”

the lonely crowd

I have just finished The Voice is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac. It’s a biography that digs into the American author’s French Canadian roots. And, the thing is, I understand the author as he is portrayed, and I think that a lot of us do. Here is a man who could never be fully American, as his first language was French, and who, once he left his hometown to attend Columbia University, could never again be from Lowell, Massachusetts. He was at once too French to be American, too American to be French, too Lowell to glide with ease among New York’s intelligentsia, too worldly to reconnect with his factory town roots.

I am attending a cousin’s wedding here in New York, got to visit the beach where I played as a child. It’s a homecoming. The beach that night was black and cold, but the lights of the houses were just as I had left them almost 30 years before. Nothing has changed there, but I have changed, and yet am still fundamentally the same. In Viljandi, moving between the hard-drinking-smoking white trash and folk hipsters, I will return to the same base dynamic. Even the globetrottingest most dissident Estonian hipsters are still Estonians, and to espouse Estonianness is to spend one’s life before the mirror.  In Estonia, bar fights become “rebellions,” lonely tsarist poets become icons of national literature.

Molehill, meet mountain.

Still, I am happy to be going back. I am happy to be going anywhere. I’ve got a pretty good reading list set up for my return: Dos Passos Manhattan Transfer, e.e. cummings’ EIMI, and, of course, Jack London, the other Big Jack. I also have Anais Nin’s Delta of Venus. Pity me, the few female writers I most connect with are Nin and Tina Fey. Also setting up my music website, though it needs much improvement. Astonished to find I created, with help, listenable music. Got a new book coming out called Missionary Position. Still looking for a publisher for Montreal Demons/The Demons of Montreal. Doing light rewrites in brief passings. Amazing how eight or nine months can help you see things for what they are, and bring out those great motifs and ideas with a brilliant shine.

There are many other things going on too, but those I cannot reveal to you, at least not this time.