As the year closes, I think of its unseemly demises. With simple time, it carried away so much. Memories, people. I’ll never forget that peculiar feeling I had walking along the train tracks in Tartu on the day it was over. Abielu katki. It was high May, California weather, sun that lingered, warmth sumptuous and succulent and erotic, the trees like Dr. Seuss would have sketched and colored them, except greener and more pungent, luscious and octopus, enveloping you up in like her red-gold locks. As I eased into single-hood, the temptation to be a bastard ever strong, I clung to ideas of her natural boughs because of what they represented to me — the last vestiges of the soul, the last morsels of the self. Now the year ends and I am not even halfway toward her, not even a quarter of the way there, or a sixteenth. “You need more time, you need more time.” Watch me scratch the rocky bottom of the tunnel, trying to move toward something that I’m convinced must be light. Sometimes. More time, it all takes time … The ghost of one love gone, and another arrives to take her place. Vulnerability. Deep as death. Not nearly enough time, she tells me. This is how it goes and goes. It’s not exactly easy, all this. But what other choice do I really have? If you see light, you must move toward it, correct? Candle light flickers over dinners and there it is again, a well-contained thrill. Someday, someday. The one, the one.
I wrote so much about my driving mishap three years ago, but what years have passed. The past three years have been nothing but life changing. It wasn’t even every year, or month, but every week, every day of every week, that turned my life upside down. For the longest time, I clung to my ship of stability but eventually let go and began to drift in these big waters. To flow with the wet current, to accept all that comes and savor. When my US license was up, and my international one with it, I at last took my theory exam, took my driving exam, and passed fine. I have been a driver for 20 years now. The staff at Maanteeamet were friendly and helpful, and I found my passenger for the sõidueksam concise, clear-headed, and amicable. Things went smoothly, and I had no trouble. If you ask me why I never did this before, I will tell you: my life used to be crazy. I know I could try to explain it all to you, but no words would do it justice. But if you had been inside this person, inhabiting this flesh, it could have all happened to you exactly the same way. Now it feels quite good to be here in Eesti-land, and write in a warm cafe. Wonderful.
I do wonder sometimes about the flow of Estonian foreign policy, and the idea of the independent state in general. The idea of Estonia, going back to 1918, was to separate the country from the “rotten foundations” of the Russian Empire. Essentially, they decided their statelet was better off alone (and they were right). The story of each Baltic country’s path to independence is different and involves different regional players. Consider that the first Lithuanian declaration of independence occurred under German occupation. The reemergence of the Lithuanian state on the map of Europe was a byproduct of First World War German foreign policy. One might see Lithuanian EU membership in a different light given that particular tidbit. Or that the headquarters of the Latvian Republic were for a time aboard a British vessel moored off the coast, at a moment of political upheaval at the end of the war when there were three governments in what became Latvia — a pro-German and a pro-Russian one as well. Latvian independence owes a significant debt to the British navy. Estonia actually fought to remove foreign armies from its soil, which gives its independence a rather local, robust flavor. Yet, in 1917, when Estonian servicemen demonstrated in Petrograd, they were demanding autonomy within the Russian Empire — the desire to manage their own affairs, not to be aligned in various military alliances. In the late 1980s, the country again demanded independence, encouraged by the example of Finland. And yet today it is Finland that remains “Finlandized,” while Estonia is constructed to either the front line in the “New Cold War,” or some kind of symbolic “West Berlin.” As additional NATO backing arrives to this remote, forested place of 1.3 million souls, I do wonder how this all fits into the concept of Estonian independence. The people of this land just wanted to manage their own affairs. Somehow they keep getting caught up in problems many times larger than themselves.
An ethical state does not play with its people. A self-confident people requires an ethical state. An ethical state supports choices made by Estonians. A self-confident Estonian makes themselves happy. An ethical state does not prescribe methods of becoming happy or definitions of this concept in general or for Estonians. A self-confident Estonian is free in their choices.
This from the site of the president, Kersti Kaljulaid. It seems to touch on themes central to the Estonian mindset. The ‘you don’t touch me, I don’t touch you ideal’ is played out in the concept of the ‘ethical state’ that ‘does not play with its people’ (and would like to have as little to do with them as possible, other than that which is necessary). The ethical state, therefore, will shake your hand, but with its gloves on. It will embrace you, but stiffly and ethically. Do not expect any loving kiss. You will get a chapped peck on the cheek. Enter the Estonians, preoccupied with their important work of making themselves happy. The Estonian does not look to the aloof, gloved ethical state to assist. No! The Estonian is self-reliant and industrious in all pursuits. One day, they will all be happy. I am quite sure of it.
Well here we are. Welcome to the cold, cynical new era. The Kremlin successfully influenced the outcome of the American presidential election in its favor. Went down a bit like this: Kremlin-backed Wikileaks divulged the information damaging the non-Kremlin candidate (Hillary Rodham Clinton). FOX and other sympathetic media turned the information into a national scandal supporting the Kremlin’s favored candidate (Donald J. Trump) and other networks followed. The Kremlin candidate’s past misgivings started to undermine his campaign (mid-October). The supporters of the Kremlin candidate in the FBI (Comey) reopened the investigation in a timely manner, damaging the non-Kremlin candidate by triggering another round of damaging disinformation from FOX, et al. This helped to depress support for the non-Kremlin candidate, pushing their selected candidate over the top. Thus the Republican Party became the United Russia of the United States. Terrifying.
After going cold turkey for a while on social media I cannot go back the same way. What’s more, all of the merry images and self promotion that occur there seem incredibly wasteful and vain. I can’t take a person seriously anymore, he or she who prostitutes and flaunts his or her own image. It’s as if the superstitious old-timers were actually right, that the camera could steal your soul. Never am I happier than when I am at Mandel in Tartu working or reading. This is a comforting cafe, with good coffee and good atmosphere, and lovely old-fashioned aprons and wallpaper. There, I have rekindled my friendship with F. Scott and his This Side of Paradise. The more I read of him, the more I recognize a similar bemused contempt for and delight with the stratum of the established and ambitious, the fiscally sound but morally hollow. And he enjoys it, you know. He does not preach disgust, but ridicules with superb fun. People ate it up.
Standing on line at the Maanteeamet, overheard a fellow traveler’s tale of woe. He was traveling down there in the border area, between Võru and Läti, when the police stopped him, judged him to be in possession of the wrong papers, and promptly took his car and drove away with it. “But you do have the correct paperwork,” the official, an older lady, said, reviewing his file online. “You should have told him that everything was in order and he wouldn’t have taken your car.” At this, the man, a stocky, gray-haired sort with a jolly countenance, peered over at me with a grin, waving his hands in the air, as if to say, ‘Can I get a witness?’ “Don’t you understand?” he told the official. “When you are stopped by a police officer, he is like the king, and I am just a peasant.” He smiled to me again. “Nii see on,” I backed him up. This is true. If a police officer in this country tells you something, there is no debate, there is no point-counterpoint, they just decide it so, and it’s done. Nobody reads you your rights, although they might hand you a slip of paper that has them written somewhere. This gentleman had his car commandeered by some cops in Võru. The rest is just an embarrassing story. Algus ja lõpp.
Just when this gray weather has me contemplating suicide, some little soldier inside me convinces me to go on. I have been struggling, both with cultural differences as well as physical challenges. I think people misinterpret the Estonian ideal of stoicism as being somehow Germanic, but I have after many years here begun to appreciate the populace’s farther eastern links. (Ask yourself this, could any Estonian ever give a rousing, Nuremberg-like speech?) They aren’t some warlike tribe from the central European peneplain, no, they are from the silent, distant east, like blond Yupik or something. So I can forgive myself for feeling lost, as lost as any Westerner would feel in, say, Japan. My eldest daughter’s obsession with Japanese anime hints at recognition of that island country’s mentality, the warrior-poet Art of the Samurai corresponding roughly to the stiff-backed, impersonal manner of Swedbank customer service, or the static reception you get at Eesti Post. There is a woman who works at Eesti Post who is most fetching, but whenever I give her the eye, she shrinks and wilts, as if she has never seen the sunlight.