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.