Estonia is blessed with expatriate writers. Abdul Turay, Vello Vikerkaar, João Lopes Marques… Sometimes it seems we landed our gigs as columnists on the basis of our foreignness alone. Our editors tell us to write about the foreign experience in Estonia because Estonians want to know what we think of them. At the same time, I believe we feel compelled as emissaries who have come from Western lands to make suggestions on how Estonia can transform even more positively than it has ever transformed before.
This is our position in this society: the missionary position. Like Jesuits of old, we have arrived by sea, and air and land to Estonia so that we can point out the locals’ flaws, save their souls, and guide them all the way to the promised land.
We missionaries come not only as writers. In any facet of daily life, you will find travelers from Western lands spreading their lifestyles. A Californian friend now teaches transcendental meditation in Tartu. In recent years, American and Australian friends of mine in Comedy Estonia together with Estonian collaborators have introduced stand up comedy to this country. From these tiny foreign seeds, we all believe, many Estonian flowers will blossom.
For years, I trudged along in my capacity as a missionary, writing columns and books for the Estonian audience. But something changed in my heart, recently, and I can only attribute this about face to living in this land and living in Viljandi.
It’s easy to play the role of the preacher in Tallinn and Tartu, where a foreigner can still feel as if he is at the center of life. It’s easier to believe you can make a difference when the parliament or the country’s most prestigious university is just a quick walk away. It’s harder when you are standing behind the local alcoholics at the bottle return in Viljandi.
In these desperate moments I have come to embrace a new reality, that the best I can do to change Estonia is paint my house, plant my garden, mow my lawn, and make sure my children’s teeth are brushed. From this new-found fatalism is born these columns in this new book. I write to you now not only as a foreigner, but as one of you, just an average guy from Viljandi.
A significant chunk of this material has appeared in abbreviated form in the magazines Anne ja Stiil and Eesti Naine. Other columns are based on posts I have written on my blog, Itching for Eestimaa. But a lot of the material is new. When I first held the book in my hands, I couldn’t believe how much I had written, and it happened almost effortlessly, just for the fun of it.
My hope in all of these endeavors has been to write honestly, to the point of embarrassing myself and, let’s face it, a lot of this material will make you blush. But you’ve got to embarrass yourself if you want anybody to listen to you, to really listen to you, to take you into their hearts.
In these moments, I think of those ancient missionaries with their silly robes and crucifixes, looking like a bunch of girly boys, fanning out into the wilderness in the name of faith. A missionary’s life has never been easy. And the only way to manage with it, I believe, is to actually believe in what you do.
So consider this book, Mission Estonia, as a chronicle of all the embarrassments and hardships I’ve faced along my way. I still have faith that things will change for the better. I still believe in Estonia.