naplinski receives a letter

It was another fine late August day. Unseasonably warm for a land known for being so cold. Naplinski heard the clang of the metal on the mailbox outside, caught a glimpse of the young, fair-haired postiljon filling it up. Her head turned slightly in his direction when he opened the front door, as if she was aware of his presence, but her eyes did not focus in on him. Rather they seemed to look beyond him, as if he was some inanimate object. Or, Naplinski shrugged, maybe she was just blind.

Either way, rather than hand Naplinski the mail directly, she put it through the correct slot. After she left, Naplinski unlocked the box and retrieved the day’s delivery. Most of the mail was junk — bilingual advertisements for grills and patio swings, the conservative party’s magazine with the bearded, cock-headed prime minister Märt Pärt standing beneath an emblazoned Cross of Liberty, the symbol of his party, Fatherland. Pärt had cross country skis in one hand, and a copy of Forbes magazine in the other. Beside his iconic squint was the caption, “Let’s Make Estonia One of the Two Richest Countries in Europe.”

Beneath the political magazine was a plain white envelope addressed the Härra Naplinski. He opened it and tugged the letter forth. It read in black ink:

“With your Kükita, you, Jaak Naplinski, got your appropriate treatment. Yes, yes, your fellow Estonians are cold, inhuman, wrote a novel about it. All, 100 per cent are cold and inhumane, wrote even five novels about it.”

Naplinski blinked a bit, trying to recall if he had written even one novel like that. But, whatever, he pushed his spectacles up his nose and read on:

“There are some nice, cordial and warm Estonians, too. My parents taught me goodness, warmness — they traits they themselves have. They are more warmer than your French Existentialists! But you never ever write such Estonians because it is not interesting. Because you have a stereotype Estonian must be non human and weird. You write all your existentialist works from that stereotype point of view. Unfortunately, there are many of our countrymen who enjoy such masochism and agree with you.”

He had no idea why another Estonian would write to him in English. He did recall how he heard teenagers in Tallinn speaking English to each other on the beach earlier that summer because they thought it was cooler to speak English. Perhaps this was a continuation of that pitiful trend.

“You write only about your churlish Viljandi types and want to prove all Estonians are like those. Yes, yes, right you are, all are inhumane, angry, negative enjoy now that.”

The letter was unsigned. He turned it over. An address in Viimsi Vald. And it was that word “churlish” that got him. In all the poems and plays he had written, Naplinski had never used that word. Yet it seemed to capture the very essence of what he was suffering through these days. Churlish. Churlishness. Naplinski fetched his dictionary to look it up and there it was, “Rude and mean-spirited in a surly way.”

Naplinski recalled how he had walked to the playground with his granddaughters, watched them play innocently on the swings. It was a sweet stunning scene, backed by the lake and the tufts of white clouds and pretty dark trees that rimmed it. For the first time in a good while Naplinski had felt content. Until a band of teenage ruffians descended, two of them leaping into the big, black tire swing, chugging beers and conversing loudly. He remembered how his younger granddaughter had walked toward the big violently swinging swing, how he had run and scooped her out of harm’s way while the youths drank and played on, oblivious to everything else.

“Churlish,” Naplinski underlined the word three times. “A fine word, indeed. I must use it more often.”

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naplinski in paris

It was Naplinski’s relationship with Sartre that had secured him an invitation to read his absurdist prose at a conference in Paris.

It was the autumn of 1969, a flowery and vivid and inspiring time, so different from the cold and indifferent spiritual vacuum he now inhabited in what seemed to be his new home and final destination, the Kükita parking lot.

Through the moisture on the glass of the cafe, he watched the policemen eating their potatoes while they were entertained by the establishment’s pretty keeper. His eyes trained in on their colors — blue and yellow. He noticed the fearsome three lions embroidered on their costumes. “Typical,” he snorted to himself. Then he glanced back at his car, where his young innocent passengers were fortunately still sleeping beneath their blankets of Estonian flags.

Naplinski may have been deprived of his right to drive by an expired document, but he felt as if he had stepped into the jaws of those three Estonian lions. He had been around the world, you see, and knew how states always chose carnivorous predators to represent them. While Estonia had three ferocious lions, Finland had one, except Finland’s lion also had a sword. This amused Naplinski, as he had never encountered a wild lion in Estonia or Finland, and the ones at the zoos seemed rather unimpressed and glazed over. He seriously doubted that one could be trained to handle weaponry!

The US meantime had a very aggressive-looking one-headed eagle, while the Russian Federation’s pissed-off eagle had two heads! It was like the Cold War all over again, except the coats of arms had existed before the Cold War.

Naplinski kicked an empty plastic Gin Long Drink container out of his way in the cold and wet parking lot. Stranded in Kükita after the Robbie Williams concert. Who could make something like this up? It had to be a dream!

But Paris had also seemed like a dream. He recalled the regal hotel meeting room that had served as the setting for his reading, the famous faces in the audience. How he had placed Magical Mystery Tour on the turntable and read the crowd into the stratosphere. Naplinski was so excited by it, he almost forgot about his Soviet handlers. And, most of all, he thought of how he would have to tell his friends Fred Jüssi, the naturalist, and Lennart Meri, the dramatist, back home all about the Paris reading.

Naplinski’s goattee had been strawberry blonde back then, not the gray and white it was today. His intellectual’s spectacles had merely been decorative in 1969. These days he really needed them. He still wore the same black beret though, tilted to one side, as Sartre had instructed him during their meeting in 1964. “There you go, mon ami Jaak,” he had said. “Like a real existentialist!”

And after the reading, he felt a finger tap him on the shoulder. Looking up into a long, angular face, with a tuft of graying hair, Naplinski recognized the man at once as steely-sad-eyed Samuel Beckett.

The author of Waiting for Godot was crying.

“What’s the matter?” Naplinski had asked Beckett.

“They’ve given me the Nobel Prize in Literature,” answered the playwright.

“That’s terrific!” said Naplinski. “You of all people deserve it!”

“It’s absurd is what it is,” said Beckett, his lips shriveling. “All of it. Just absurd. A catastrophe!”

“A catastrophe?”

“Absolutely, it is,” said Beckett. “Quick, please, tell me something about Estonia, anything to take my mind off of this terrible luck, like … what is the coat of arms of Estonia? Just tell me,” Beckett stepped forward, and Naplinski stepped back.

“Y-you mean the S-soviet coat of arms or p-prewar coat of arms?” Naplinski had stuttered.

“Prewar,” commanded Beckett, leaning in.

“Th-three lions,” Naplinski whispered. “I-it had three lions.”

“Mmm, three lions, I like it,” Beckett leaned back, put his hand to his mouth and mused. “Jealous, actually. You know, in France, we just have a bundle of rods and an axe.”

“N-no, there’s certainly some animals on the French emblem, too,” said Naplinski, gesturing to the coat of arms on the wall. “Look.”

Naplinski and Beckett strode over to the mounted emblem, stood before it, studied it.

“So there are, so there are,” said Beckett. “But what animals are they?”

“I th-think the one on the l-left is a l-lion, the one on the r-right is an e-eagle.”

Lion?” Beckett arched an eyebrow. “No, no. The head on the left is clearly a monkey.”

“A monkey?”

“Yes, precisely.”

“And the one on the right?”

“Why, that’s a baby monkey, of course.”

“A baby monkey,” Naplinski repeated in puzzlement, staring at the emblem. But when he turned to look back at Beckett, there was nobody there.

Later, Naplinski searched the hotel stairway and lobby for his distraught Irish playwright friend. He asked the hotel concierge about it too, but he disputed the story, claiming that Beckett had never been there. “The very best writers, Monsieur Naplinski” commented the concierge, waxing his handlebar moustache, “are wise enough to never leave their homes.”

How true! Naplinski now thought in the Kükita parking lot. How catastrophically true.

confessions of a semi-depressed jobu

Kirjutan nüüd tõdest ja oma tundest. Tõde oli, et ma jõin sel ööl, 20. augustil 2013 kohvi enne kui ma alustasin sõitu Tallinnast tagasi Viljandisse. Tõde on, et kui ma läksin mööda Ardust ja Annast, mahakkasin tundma end väsinud. Eesti liiklus olinagu see tavaliselt oli, hästi palju rekkad, kiired autod, ebaseaduslik kiirus. Ei saanud hästi näha, oli udune, ja oli ebamugav mulle nii ruttu sõita. Mina ei ole esimene inimene, kes on seda enne märganud. Mul on olnud sajadhirmsad kogemused eesti teedel. Ma tean väga hästi, kui ohtlikudnad on.

Tõde on, et ma hakkasin aru saama seal ja sel ajal, et ma ei saa niimoodi jõuda normaalselt Viljandisse. Otsustasin, et peaks Mäo Statoilissevõi Kükita kohvikussejõudna, uue kohvi ostma ja puhkama natukene. Ei tahtnud seista seal tee ääres ja puhata seal, sest et liiklus oligi nii ohtlik. Kartsin, et kui seisaksin seal, et rekka sõidaks kohe meie peale. Avariid on juhtunud niimoodi enne. Täpselt sel ajal jõudis politseinikud meie juurde ja vilgutasid tuld. Ausalt, ei teadnud, et ma tegin midagi valesti. Ausalt mõtlesin, et nad otsisid mingimuu auto, mis sõitis liiga kiiresti. Väga paljud sõitsid väga kiiresti.

Juhiloast, ausalt ei teadnud täpselt, mis see seadus on. Mul on erinevad sõbrad välismaalt, kes elavad Eestis ja on rääkinud igasugusedest variantidest. Kas ma pidin võtma eesti juhiluba, või kas see rahvusvaheline luba oli sobilik nagu mõned on öelnud? Miks ja miks? Tegelikult, ei teadnud mis see rahvusvaheline luba oligi, sest et ma seda pole nainud minu elus. Jamiks mu sõber rootsist võib sõita tema rootsi loaga näiteks? Kuidas Rootsi ja USA on erinevad selles kontkestis? Ja kui ma pidin midagi tegelema, kuhu ma peaks pöörama? Kas ARK-sse või autokooli? Kas on mingi teine koht kus nad teevad need asjad? Nii see oli minuga. Olin loll nagu saabas ja kogu aeg oli liiga kiire, ei saanud targemaks saada. Ma lihtsalt ei teadnud mida täpselt ma pidin tegema. Ja kuulsin, et on teised ka samamoodi USA lubadega. Praegu tunnen, et igaüksteist ütleks, et, “Jah, aga see on sinu süü, Justin, et sa ei teadnud!” Vist küll. Aga jagan minu lugu igatähes. Olen kirjanik, hea või halb, ja kirjutan mis on mu meeles ja südames. Õppige minu vigadest. Mina ei ole perfektne.

Mu abikaasa sel ajal oli täitsa hädas. Minu telefoni aku oli tühi, ja tema ei saanud helistada ka temaõe tütrele, kes oli meiega. Ma helistasin talle, ütlesin, et meil on probleem, et ei saa koju sõita. Minu naine tahtis rääkida politseinikuga, rääkis mõnda aega, aga siis ei saanud temaga suhelda. Tehnoloogia ei töötanud Kükitas. Abikaasamuretses hästi palju. Pani mõttedFacebookisse, et äkki mõni sõber võiks teda või meid aidata.

Mitte midagi siin on tema süü. Kõik on minu süü.

Jah, kõik need asjad olid ja on minu õlgadel. Ma tahtsin olla Super Eesti Mees, kes suudab sõita tagasi pärast kesköö Viljandisse ainult paarikohvidega. Super Eesti Mees ei ole mitte iialgi väsinud, saab kõike teha igal ajal, ja, kõige tähtsam, ei vingu üldse. Need aastad, millal olen elanud Eestis, olen õppinud mõtlema niimoodi. Aga see oli vale mõtlemine, mina arvan nüüd. Lisan, et olen tundnud päris üksikut tunnet siin mõnikord, eriti hiljuti, viimasel ajal, ja kui ma olin seal pimedas külmas parklas, tundsin, et ma olen üks jabur jobu maailma lõpus. Võite ette kujutada, et ei olnud väga hea tunne.

Aga olen õppinud midagi. Parim mõte on: ära ole Super Eesti Mees. Kui sa oled väsinud, ära sõita. Kui tee on legendaarselt hirmusja alati täis ohtlikutesõitjatega, siis ära sõida sel teel. Mõned sõbrade põhimõte on, et nemad ei kasuta üldseTallinn-Tartu maantee, sest et see on nii ohtlik tee! Nad lähevad koju läbi Jõgeva või Rapla. Nüüd arvan, neil on õigus. Veel: kui sina ei tea, siis küsi abi. Kui sina ei saa aru, mis see seadus täpselt on, siis pead küsima ja küsima ja küsima, kuni sa leiad õige vastuse.

Nii, lõpetan selle mõttega, et ma ütlen lihtsalt PALUN VABANDUST kõikidele kes on olnud seotud minu suure jamaga, eriti mu abikaasa. Palun unustage see suur jama, ja las hää päike tõuseb jälle meie ellu.

naplinski and estonian driving culture

Naplinski had actually met Sartre once. It was in Moscow in the Sixties. A dinner was shared among the gathered intellectuals. Naplinski was there as a representative of his country’s rising “LP Generation,” so called because they wrote poetry that was intended to be read aloud to the musical backing of contraband Beatles albums. Sartre had taken an interest in the young Naplinski’s ideas. While puffing on his pipe in the corner, he had asked the youthful Naplinski, “What can you tell me of Estonian driving culture?”

The question came to Naplinski as a shock. He was prepared to discuss realism and surrealism and Dadaism and existentialism. But Estonian driving culture? Sartre wriggled his French philosopher’s eyebrows and waited for the response. Naplinski said he wasn’t sure if his country even had a driving culture. The coveted Ladas and Žigulis were spread thin. Those who drove them did so with half the apartment bloc stuffed inside, children on the laps of front-seat passengers, neighbor boys hanging from the windows, old ladies sitting in a row from the open trunk.

“So your people have a taste for danger,” said Sartre. “What do you mean?” Naplinski raised an eyebrow. “They just want to maximize their resources,” he said. “These people have places to be, on time. Normaalne.” “Ask yourself this, Jaak,” Sartre had said. “Where are they going that is so important, that they need to risk their lives to get there?” Then, after a brief and enigmatic chuckle, he commented, “You know, you can tell a lot about a country by the way its people drive.”

That night in the parking lot in Kükita, Naplinski thought about those words once uttered over brandy nearly 50 years prior. “You can tell a lot about a country by the way its people drive.” He had seen in his lifetime, especially in the past 20 years, a complete change in the automotive culture of the Estonians. The availability of “cheap money” had enabled the masses to acquire the vehicles of their choice. Cars were status symbols, and the way they were driven said much about the masculinity of the driver. The rule of the roads was to drive as fast as possible, passing as many other vehicles as possible, without getting caught.

Naplinski himself had learned how to speed, usually doing 10 or 20 km over the speed limit. But that was still too slow for the other Estonian drivers, who sped by him doing easily 40 or 50 km over the speed limit, sometimes more. They drove like Porsche owners on the Autobahn, except the Estonian Autobahn had two lanes and wound through bogs and forests and pastures for grazing cows. But that didn’t matter to the Estonian driver. He was impulsive, a big risk taker who had seen too many Hollywood action movies. He had to be there, wherever there was, right now, and if not right now, then very, very soon.

While traveling around the world to attend various meetings of formerly left wing intellectuals, Naplinski had only witnessed a similar disregard for mortality in China, where it seemed that life was very cheap, almost as cheap as the money was in his home country. The one thing that had separated the Chinese from the Estonians, was that the Estonians still used safety belts, whereas the Chinese saw no need for them to minimize any kinds of risks. Yet the Chinese were also lacking the spite he felt from other Estonian drivers when he dared to actually drive the speed limit.

One time, while three cars raced each other to pass him on a dangerous curve at night, he had felt their wrath. The first flashed its brights at him, the second honked its horns. And it was the third driver who tossed a mayonnaise-covered hot dog at his windshield. He recalled how the white slop streamed across the glass, and how his windshield wipers struggled to cut through it.

“Welcome to Estonia,” Naplinski thought. He recalled how he had once signed the Letter of 41 in 1980 in protest of Soviet Russification efforts. Naplinski had served in the first parliament, helped to draft the new constitution. Naplinski thought of himself as a true patriot if there ever was one. But these days more than ever, Sartre’s foreboding, haunting question trailed him, causing him to reexamine that national pride. If Estonia’s driving culture spoke to the core of the national character, then what did he actually think about the people of his nation? The question caused him shudder and lose sleep at night.

the naplinski paradox

It took the famous Estonian writer Jaak Naplinski an hour and a half to leave Tallinn after the Robbie Williams concert. The concert had pleased him, especially the moment when the British song and dance man had appeared on stage, draped in the blue, black, and white national flag. It was strong evidence for him that Estonia indeed did exist, and that he was not dreaming. Or perhaps the spectacle was even greater proof that this was all a dream. Such thoughts clouded his mind as his drove his vehicle into the wilds of Kükita, Estonia. He was also exhausted from a day of translating Sartre’s No Exit into the Võru language, but he dared not to mention the French existentialist’s name to the Estonian police.

When the police apprehended Naplinski for driving at an unusual speed — he was actually doing under the speed limit while the video game-like flow of traffic dictated a speed of 10 to 20 km above the lawful limit — he was asked to blow into a device that measured the amount of alcohol in his system. He was afraid that some drop of alcohol might have been in the šašlokk he had consumed at the Robbie Williams concert, and was grateful that his grandchildren were oblivious to the situation, sleeping beneath the tiny Estonian flags they had waved in fervent patriotism while Robbie, ever the historian, likened a woman’s comings and goings to the War of the Roses. He puzzled over that line, “thinks she’s made of candy.” What was Robbie trying to say there?

For some reason, it took the police a long time to return with Naplinski’s license and registration. He sat and sat, and thought about Robbie, and about the long-haul trucks zooming by him in the mist. Any one of them could plow right into his standing vehicle. He asked the police if they could remove to the Kükita Cafe. They said no, and that he should have a seat in the back of their vehicle. Naplinski’s license was expired, they showed him, and said that he would not be allowed to proceed. What was he to do? “Don’t you have a friend who can come and drive your car home for you?”

Now, Naplinski was a recluse. He spent most of his days writing at his farm in Võrumaa, and most of the people he still considered his friends were not only other writers, but functional alcoholics who could not be counted upon to pick him up in Kükita at 3 am. Also, while Robbie’s showmanship had lifted his spirits, after the police had had their way with him, his clinical depression set on in one of the darkest broods he had ever experienced. He questioned the very meaning of his stupid life. Expired license! Why not just expire altogether? It had all been a dream. He was sure of it. Robbie Williams draped in the Estonian flag! Never happened. Those police eating potatoes in the cafe. Mirage, shadows of early morning central Estonian mist. In a word, Naplinski was fucked. Utterly fucked. Not fucked by himself or the police or by the law or his own willful ignorance. He was just fucked, period.

The weather in Kükita was cold for anywhere in August, but normal for Estonia. The oil-slicked puddles, soggy cigarette butts, indifferent and large pilots of other vehicles who had stopped into the cafe for a mayonnaise and pork sandwich, the frosty temperaments of the police officers — it reminded him of that rhyming poem he had been writing about Estonia, Sügis Juulis, “Autumn in July.”

The next morning, after he had somehow made his way home to the farm in Võrumaa, wrestling with that feeling of utter-fuckedness that wrapped around his appendages and choked him like smoke, he did the only thing he knew how to do. He sat down to his laptop and wrote about his feelings on his sometimes-read blog, Itching for Inanity. He even was so bold as to make a suggestion — that there could be a stronger effort made to alert aloof, existentialist writers to the peculiarities of the law.

Later that day, when the media had gotten wind that Jaak Naplinski had been relieved of his driving abilities on account of an expired document, and stuck in a parking lot with a car full of Estonian flags and Estonian children in a place called Kükita, all hell — as they once said and continue to say — broke loose. It was top news for the bottom-feeding fish of the nation’s media businesses. Forget bigger than Jesus. This was bigger than Robbie Williams!

The stone-throwing knaves of one particular online site, some known far and wide for their failure to pass the Nazism IQ Test {If you’re still defending it in any way, you’ve failed}, particularly tore into Naplinski for even daring to write down his story, as if he, as a writer who had been considered for a Nobel Prize in Literature, expected special treatment from the Estonian police. Shut your mouth, Naplinski. Don’t say a word. Others questioned the actions of the Kükita police, who had left a man stranded in a parking lot in the middle of Estonia after a Robbie Williams concert {if it had indeed occurred} without any real legal means to get out of it. There were two camps, and you had to choose one: Fuck the Police or Fuck Naplinski.

Naplinski, privately, remained in the passive use of the word. He was still fucked, and his fuckedness ticked up with every bitter online comment. When he went to the store to buy some Kalev chocolates, he noticed the eyes on his back. They were looking at him. Thinking. Judging. Dismissing. Rebuking. Naplinski was someone who had done something about which some opinion was merited. But what were these somethings? That was left up to The Others to fill in the blanks, a sort of real-life Mad Libs.

At home, he returned to his translation of No Exit. How to translate that often misinterpreted line, “Hell is other people”? He thought back to when his mother used to speak to him in Võru language in the countryside when he was a child after the war. Her resigned look often seemed to contain that very sentiment. At the same time, he had never heard her say such a thing.

kükita, alabama

The road that winds between Ardu and Mäo in central Estonia must be among the country’s most treacherous. It is snake-like in its ominousness, curving and wriggling off and out in unexpected directions, lined by dark, conspiring trees.

The official speed limit is 90 kilometers per hour, but Estonian traffic tends to dictate a speed of at least 100 km per hour, unless you want to get passed by every other vehicle, even trucks hauling lumber. Sometimes drivers will pass you two or three at a time, even on a curve. At night, when all one can make out it is the white cascading lights from these vehicles and the forest shadows, the road can become quite disorienting.

I was tired last night, and felt comfortable driving BELOW the speed limit at about 80 km per hour on those turns. Occasionally, the car moved a bit too much toward the middle, or toward the edge of the road. When I saw the flashing police car lights, I thought they were after somebody else, maybe one of those other cars that went zooming by at 140 km per hour. Instead, they told me I had an ebaühtlane sõit, which I interpreted as “unusual” or “inconsistent,” though it was the first time I had heard the word ebaühtlane.

What I can tell you next involved the back of a police car, lots of paper work, questions of which I understood maybe 75 percent of the content. “How long have you lived in Estonia?” Good question. I don’t know. I told them I had first come to Estonia 11 years ago but had lived in other places in between. In the end, I was informed that I would not be able to proceed on my way, as my license, from New York State, is not recognized by the Estonian State.

It wasn’t an entire shock. I’d heard recent tale of foreigners being stopped for driving with foreign documentation, and made a mental note to look into it. At the same time, I had no idea of where to begin, or what the laws even were. To what agency should I address my queries? The police in Kükita told me I should go to ARK, the traffic registrar. I did go to ARK, the first thing this morning, but was not provided with a definitive answer of what my fate would be. I could obtain an international driver’s permit, or there may be a driving test in my future. They said that they don’t even know. They need to look into it and get back to me.

It is this ambiguity that had perhaps kept me from looking into the matter further. I had been pulled over before and shown my document with no comment from the officers. I had even gone to ARK with my New York State driver’s license to register a vehicle, and was not informed of any urgent need to acquire new, Estonian documentation.

I have heard some stories about adults with decades of driving experience being obligated to retake driver’s education in Estonia, but again, I wasn’t sure in which circumstances that led to those examinations. Was it just for certain nationalities? According to some information online, licenses issued by EU countries are recognized in Estonia. Which means that the document issued by my state (New York) which has about 18 times as many people as Estonia is not recognized by the Estonian State, but the driving document of, say, Albania, is. Or maybe it isn’t.

Anyway, according to the law, as interpreted by the officers in Kükita at 3.30 am, I did not have the right to drive my automobile any farther than the Kükita Cafe. “Don’t you have any friends who can come and pick you up or drive you home?” I was asked. No, Mr. Officer. I have no friends in Kükita, Estonia. I have no friends in Paide, no friends in Järvamaa, and least none I felt comfortable enough with to call up at 3.30 am and ask for a lift to Viljandi.

Sitting in the parking lot in Kükita, I tried to think of how to get myself, my nine-year-old daughter, and her 15-year-old cousin back to Viljandi. Were there any buses at 4 am? The woman working at the cafe didn’t mention any when I discussed the option. Paide was seven km away, but how was I supposed to get to Paide? Walk? And even if I did hike through the mist to Paide, how did I get my passengers there? I called to a hotel in Paide, but was informed that nobody could come to pick us up as there is no taxi service in Paide. So our only option was to sleep in the car. And then what? It could be hours before anybody would come to pick us up.

The police had meantime convalesced at the Kükita Cafe where they sat in a back room eating an early morning breakfast of potatoes and sauce. I was willing to accept responsibility for my ignorance and stupidity, but the idea that I would be allowed to drive straight home, or even that they suggest some solution to my very big problem, was met with cold stares. My wife tried pleading with them on the phone, but their decision was final. I was not authorized to drive myself and family members home, even though I have been driving since 1995 and have held a full license since 1996, valid in a country that has been a pretty staunch ally of the Republic of Estonia. I had provided that document to a German rental car agency, driven with it on and off the ferry into Finland, and, yes, Estonia, too. But as of that night, or morning, it was entirely useless to me.

The whole scene began to take on a surreal veneer. Here I was, almost 34 years old, stuck in a parking lot of a non-village called Kükita, which translates into English as “Squat.” I was in a country far away from the one of my birth, trying to communicate with officers of the law in a language I have tried to learn for 11 years, but still am pained to understand. I thought of how an Estonian might feel somewhere in the US — say, Alabama — when informed in a thick, Southern drawl that he could not drive himself or his family away from a parking lot at 4 am, and instead was asked by the local police if he had a friend who could come and pick him up, maybe from Tuscaloosa or Bessemer. “Don’t you know anybody around here who can help?”

I won’t comment on how I did get home in the end, but will say that it was one of the worst nights of my life. The best thing that could be done for foreigners like me in Estonia is to make the local rules regarding driving licenses clear, simple, and easily accessible. Perhaps a public information campaign is warranted. Maybe such a booklet could be provided to any foreigner who obtains a residence permit. I am sure I am not the only foreigner who has found himself in a place like Kükita at the mercy of the local traffic police.  It would be good if I was one of the last ones to have to go through such an experience.

abdul+sde

I think the most interesting news I’ve heard in days is that Abdul Turay is going to be on SDE’s list in the coming municipal elections. It might warrant international coverage, too, at least in the British press, as one of their own stands a chance of playing some kind of role in Estonian politics. In local media, Abdul’s subhead is “the first black candidate” in Estonian politics, accompanied by his very-un-Estonian-looking head shot. He’s certainly unique for that reason, but I think he’s more unique because of his citizenship — he’s a Briton who has made some impact on domestic politics in Estonia. And he might serve as a model for others in Estonia’s sizable community of foreign transplants to stick their necks out more, rather than complaining fatalistically about life from behind the computer screen or with friends at the pub, or pulling an, “Aw, shucks, what do I know about that?” routine when asked for their opinions. I personally don’t feel like a career in politics is in the bag for me though. My earlier dabbling in well-catered international conferences and cutthroat online boxing matches, and then career shift toward stuttering Woody Allen-like neurotic self analyses have shut those doors for good. But if I did have to run on a list, it would probably be SDE’s list. To be in Reform, I’d have to start wearing a suit and putting all my faith in the invisible hand. Centre, and I’d have to sleep with a pillow that has Savisaar’s face printed on it. IRL, and I would need to part my hair on the side and study up on my war history, not to mention Estonianize my name. If you think about it, SDE is probably the only party that people like me and Turay could join. It’s becoming the party for people who don’t fit in to any of the other parties.

outrageous

I enjoy reading media accounts of Russian leaders “outraged.” And they’re always outraged over something. But how do they express that outrage? When “Russia” is “outraged,” does it mean that Lavrov is tossing expensive vases against the wall in the foreign ministry, or Putin is placing a pillow over his mouth and screaming into it?

The latest-oldest outrage is that annual gathering of Estonian SS vets and admirers up in Sinimäe, and that the defense minister, Urmas Reinsalu, of Isamaa Res Publica Liit (called the Union of Pro Patria and Res Publica in English, because “Fatherland Union” sounds too scary), addressed them, praising their sacrifice in defending their fatherla-, I mean, their mother country.

Sidestepping the argument of, “Who is Russia to tell us what we can and cannot do in our own country?” I’d like to make a general statement: Not all Estonians see the members of the 20th Waffen SS who held off the Soviet advance in 1944 as heroic freedom fighters. They’re not generally viewed as Hitler’s evil henchmen, but more as young men in a complex and difficult situation (not unlike their counterparts across the River Narva in the Estonian Rifle Corps).

Urmas Reinsalu, as defense minister, represents all Estonians, not just members of his own party who interpret history a certain way. Maybe he sees it that way, and people who vote for his party see it that way, but the population of the country he represents, regardless of tongue, religion, or sexual orientation, doesn’t necessarily see it that way. Getting up and pretending that to be the case is insincere.

rockers

‘Rock Ramp.’ The words stir fear in the hearts of all. They mean something, but what? Loud heavy metal music? Yes. Public consumption of alcoholic beverages? Uh huh, yes. Parades of bad-looking, tattooed dudes draping protective inked arms around girlfriends with unusually colored hair? Yes. Skulls, motorcycles, sunglasses, sneers, cigarettes … Look, I’ll stop there and say that Estonia has a vibrant “rocker” culture. “Rocker” as in young men and women who would fit in fine at a Gene Vincent concert. Be-Bop-A-Lula, I don’t mean maybe. My brother-in-law’s one of them, too. I asked him over pancakes the other morning, “So, who’s in Metallica these days?” And he just rattled them all off, “James Hatfield, Lars Ulrich, Kirk Hammett, Robert Trujillo.” “Ah, Robert Trujillo, he’s the one who replaced…” “Jason Newsted,” and he was right there with the name, like a conscientious concierge. But I’d be fooling you to just say, “Rocker” is “Heavy Metal.” It’s not. It’s more like Hells Angels, The Wild Ones. These guys aren’t head bangers … they’re greasy. There was even a parade of bikers roaming around Viljandi with their “ESTONIA” leather jackets on. Like Genghis Khan on an iron horse, as Hunter S. Thompson put it. And I did catch myself wondering, what year is it? Twenty Thirteen? Nineteen Sixty Six?

ghetto lapsed

They came to jump on my children’s trampoline, then gave me the finger when I told them to stop. After I had gotten them off the property (and been shown the middle finger a few times), they ran around to the property next door and shouted out “fahk yew, asshoh!” at me, because they know I’m an American {Got that curious look from the shits, that ‘Could this person be a Russian?’ chin-scratching look}

“I feel bad for them,” says the wife. “Did you see them at Folk? They were collecting bottles.”

One of their mothers is a drunk. I’ve seen her out on the veranda smoking her cigarette. Asking for parental assistance in keeping her potty-mouthed preteen in line is out of the question. I can only pray to the Gods of gentrification. That’s what’s going on in Viljandi’s Old Town right now. There are the Folk people — a sort of back-to-earth, sing around the campfire, sewing and wood-carving appreciating lot of formerly young urban professionals — who have taken to the charmingly crooked old buildings. And then there is the ghetto element, the “slugs” as my friend Sven calls them.

“That’s the thing about the Old Town,” Sven says. “It’s filled with white trash.”

“White trash is kind of a racist term, don’t you think?” says the wife. She still feels bad. And maybe it is racist, or classist. Anyway, I keep on  hearing that Elvis song in my head, “People, don’t you understand this child needs a helping hand or he’ll grow to be an angry young man …” I was going to call the ghetto lapsed on their “fahk yew, asshoh,” too, tell ’em that their English was good, that they’d all grow up to be diplomats and international bankers with mouths like those. But I didn’t. Even I am not that mean.