morsa tussu

Back here, contemplating the human condition. Some days are wondrous, bright, sun-backed, a white light on the castle ruins, other days a bit more blue and gray. Ain’t so easy to walk into a cafe and spit out a mouthful of Estonian after a few weeks back in the US. All of those vowels. Sometimes I think people only pretend to understand me. (“What is he saying? Something weird again. Who knows!) I think about the male-female back and forth, about things that are inferred, things that are never said, things that are said but that mean something else. The iceberg theory! Above water, only the tip, but below, whoa, down and down it goes. I remember how once in the New York Aquarium in Brooklyn ages and ages ago, I stood watching the walruses dip and twirl in the waters, then was astonished when one pushed its nether regions up against the glass and realized that I was looking at the largest vagina I had ever seen in my life. “Maybe she likes you,” someone said to me at the sight of that massive morsa tussu. Maybe so. I appreciate it now, how direct nature can be. What was there to misinterpret? It was just there.

through green house glass

It wasn’t too long ago that the president arrived to V-town with her entourage. Some plain clothed security guards, a police escort. From the lip of the sewer across from Rohelise Maja I awaited her entry. This is my favorite sewer in Viljandi because of its most ungodly awful rot smell. “They’re supposed to fix it in the next few years, because the sewer and the street stuff run together,” says Enn the proprietor. “But whaddya gonna do? That’s life.” Enn says if it’s still ripe by summer they’ll put an easy chair out there for me. “Get a good whiff.” Ooooooh … that putrid funky pungent stink stank stunk of Estonia, up in your nostrils. So Kersti arrived, never saw her sneak in. In through the back door, I guess. I only glimpsed her through the dark window glass, leaning over her goat cheese salad or whatever. The telling bangs and mop of hair. She went ice skating the night before, down on the lake, or so they said. The children of Viljandi were whispering. “The president is ice skating, the president is ice skating …” I was happy with my glimpse and that’s all. Not a message to relay. Tell you the truth, I was invited to my share of Independence Day Galas in the Ilves era, but never went, somewhat out of shyness, mostly because my partner refused to go. She dreaded the annual edition of Kroonika, the garish cutthroat tabloid, where they take down the best and worst attired. Hirmus! Who could blame her? If I had gone though, they wouldn’t have let me in anyway, because I would have worn traditional Calabrian attire, the daring clothes of briganti, which includes a musket and cutlass … 

the ireland of russia

I confess my ignorance of 20th century British political history. I knew the name Anthony Eden, I knew he had been prime minister, I knew he was a SIR Anthony Eden (naturally), but I did not recall that he was Churchill’s foreign secretary during the majority of the Second World War, and I did not realize he urged Churchill to recognize Soviet control over the Baltic countries, which Churchill opposed. The unfortunately named Lord Beaverbrook was even more adamant about recognizing the Soviet takeover, referring to the Baltics as the “Ireland of Russia” — an apt comparison, but one that most would see as strengthening their bid to retain full independence, rather than accommodating their subservience to an ancient imperial master. Those were the days of map rooms and sitting rooms and sitting in the map rooms looking at maps. The Aegean Islands! The Ljubljana Gap! The Ireland of Russia! It was supposed to be history. Now it’s back.

from here on out, etc.

Some ocean of big vulnerability these days. The whole Atlantic in my chest. New beginnings, new something. People’s dissatisfaction rising. Rising within themselves, with their world. It’s always been that way. Nothing’s ever been satisfying. Tinkering with Eastern Philosophies. But can we Westerners ever truly understand? For so long we have lived within the Christian prism. Even the Godless ones. The way we intuit, the things that motivate us. There are regional idiosyncrasies. The distance, the space between. Does every Estonian come wrapped up in plastic or ice. Something does not happen here that happens elsewhere. I’m used to a loud kitchen, a lot of big voices and big forces. A force of nature. “You’re a force of nature,” a woman tells me. Sounds nice. Stacking the firewood. Lighting it up. R. is afraid to sauna. He’s too English, too cultured for local tastes. He thinks that a bunch of naked men sweating in a hot room is “gay.” “What do you think I am going to do with you in there?” I ask him. “Look at you, you’re all hairy and … male. I don’t want to have anything to do with you.” “You are going to sweat in there,” says R., pacing the floor like a distressed cavalier. “I’m not because I won’t be joining you.”

the one, the one

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.

the darkest days

It didn’t occur to me that light deprivation might be the cause of the immense maelstrom of sadness that has left me sprawled across a couch poking at various old wounds for days on end until I overdid it on the kodujuust and noticed an immediate light and easy boost in the serotonin levels. The mechanics of light, Vitamin D, cottage cheese, dark chocolate, mandariinid, and the like, are still not clear to me, but I understand that these are cornerstones of warding away suicidal thoughts at this time of the year. It’s not just me. Most people who do not live in the north swear they would never survive without their Californian sunshine. “I could never do that.” And yet we sadists contend with submarine pressure. It’s sinister and dreamy all at once. Look up at those gray milk soup skies. They will turn your eyes blue, your skin white. Anyway, I am off to get some more kodujuust. A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. Iceland is the land of fire and ice. Eistland is the land of cottage cheese, dark chocolate, and mandariinid. And the sauna.

Ei saa me läbi ilma saunata.

big waters

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.  

this remote, forested place

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.

the ethical state

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.

kennan from the grave

Came across this interesting old interview with George Kennan, then 94 years old, from August 1999. Here is what America’s premier diplomat and architect of containment had to say about Baltic-Russian relations an an interview with Richard Ullman. It’s interesting for me that so many of these old issues — NATO expansion, the Kosovo War — seem so ancient and done with. But the Russian leadership today is the same leadership that came to power in 1999. They are stuck in the past.


G.K.: We are now being pressed by some advocates of expansion to admit the Baltic countries. I think this would be highly unfortunate. I agree that NATO, as we now know it, has no intention of attacking Russia. But NATO remains, in concept and in much of its substance, a military alliance. If there is any country at all against which it is conceived as being directed, that is Russia. And that surely is the way the Poles and others in that part of the world perceive it.
These are sensitive borders—these borders between Russia and the Baltic countries. I will not go into the history of Russia’s relations with those Baltic peoples, other than to ask you to remember that they were included in the Russian empire for nearly two hundred years in the two centuries before World War I, and much of their advance into modern life was achieved during that time. And then, for a period of almost another two decades, they were quite independent, and this was accepted by the world community and, with the exception of the Communists, by most of the Russians themselves. It took Hitler to virtually compel the Russian government to take them over in 1939, and then to put an end to their independence in 1940. And the later entry of Russian forces onto their territory occurred (and this we should remember) in the process of pushing the German army out of that region—a process which had our most complete and enthusiastic approval.
In other words, the Russian relationship to the Baltic peoples has had many ups and downs. They have been a part of Russia longer than they have been a part of anything else. For a time they were fully independent. I never doubted or challenged the desirability of their independence. I never ceased to advocate it in the years when they didn’t have it. But I don’t think that it would be a good thing for NATO to try to complicate that historic relationship by taking these countries into what the Russians are bound to see as an anti-Russian military alliance.
R.U.: What do you think the relationship between Russia and the former Soviet republics will look like say a decade or so from now?
G.K.: Oh, I don’t think it will be too troubled. After all, the Russians, under Yeltsin, took the lead in pushing them into independence ten years ago. He left them no alternative but to accept it. Why should the present Russian government wish to reverse it? By and large, Russia has been better off without them.
Of course, there are the problems of Russian minorities in two or three of those countries. In the case of Ukraine, in particular, there was the thoughtless tossing into that country, upon the collapse of Russian communism, of the totally un-Ukrainian Crimean peninsula, together with one of the three greatest Russian naval bases. For that we, too, must accept a share of the blame. But even in this case, all the recent Russian aspirations have been limited to the alleviation of the effects of these blunders; they have not taken the form of any encroachments upon Ukrainian independence.