neljapäev, detsember 31, 2009

kakstuhat üheksa

According to Barbi Pilvre, the chronically dysfunctional state of the Estonian Victory Monument -- which has been in various states of illumination and repair since its grand opening in June -- is the failure of the year 2009. I agree.

But there have been other failures. Having more than 100,000 unemployed people in a country of 1,340,000 people is a failure, for one. Then there was the horror of watching both Sweden and Finland succumb to the overtures of the German-Russian Nord Stream project, a geopolitical energy deal that sends shivers up the backs of all on the east coast of the Baltic Sea. And Obama didn't even visit Tallinn. Failures, failures, failures all. Line them up. Watch them fall into the sea.

Ouch, Nord Stream. That one really cut. It hurt to see two larger adjacent countries fold in the face Saxon-Slavic pressure, to admit that even with 9 million people and a coastline to rival India's, Sweden is still, in the context of northern European geopolitics, about as intimidating as a lobster. Their security environment and Estonia's are not so different. If Russia really is to buy that Mistral warship from the French -- capable of transporting and deploying up to 16 helicopters, 13 battle tanks and 450 troops -- then surely, they could anchor that sucker off of Gamla Stan or Suomenlinna and bring down hell and fury there, too. But the Swedes and the Finns do not object. Such scenarios are regarded as outlandish. Why?

It appears there is not so much a difference in actual threat, but a difference in threat perception. One central difference between the foreign policies of the Swedes and the Finns and the Estonians, is that the Russian state lacks overt political objectives in the prior two countries. The Russians do not provide the Swedish ambassador with a list of demands to improve relations, as they did in 2002 to the then Estonian ambassador to Moscow. Russia has demands for Estonia, any tango over the laying of pipe in its waters would lead to more avenues for the Slavic octopus to slide its tentacles up the trousers of Estonia's decision makers and play this country like a puppet show. "Hi, I am your prime minister," the Russian Octopus would throw its voice holding up the doll-like Estonian PM. "We've now decided to give the Russians a more privileged interest in our land, because if there's one thing the Russians love, it's having a privileged interest."

No, no, no. Nasty, slimy, grotesque, icky. No. Keep your clothes on. Keep the Russians out and the boys from NATO in, at all costs, even if it means a stronger commitment to the war no one can ever win, Afghanistan. Anglo-led divisions have been in and out of there since the 1830s and yet, the tribal rivalries, the cumbersome terrain, it still feels brand new. And now there are Estonians there, again. To borrow a line from the esteemed Scottish-born poet Byrne: "And you might find yourself living in a shotgun shack/ And you might find yourself in another part of the world/ And you might find yourself being a 20 year-old from a small northern European country patrolling the steppes of Helmand province." And he always finds himself marching in the same direction.

But enough about failures. Who needs failures? Why dwell on failures when everyone knows that failure is just another word for success? Barbi Pilvre may say the monument is a failure for being mired in a state of perpetual renovation. Others might say it's a success for even having been built at all. Even if it was lit up for only a few minutes, what wondrous, successful minutes those were. Sure the economy is still down, but we might get the euro next year, even though we were supposed to get it years ago. The country might have taken a few punches thanks to the financial crisis, but it hasn't burned up in the same decadent, spectacular burst of mismanagement that characterized the Icelandic or Latvian crises. That's success, not failure. The ship of state is in good hands. Estonia is a success story.

Who to salute? Prime Minister Andrus Ansip. According to Ansip, the Reform Party [his party -- Ed.] has welded today's sleek, slick 2009 model Estonia from the corroded junk metal of Soviet socialism. You don't have to wait in line for hours anymore to obtain matches to start the wood furnaces in your homes: there are boxes and boxes of matches at the local Selver or Säästumarket or Comarket or Rimi. That's progress. That's why the Reform Party was and continues to be the most popular party in Estonia according to all polls. Even when they went down in municipal elections, the polls still showed them on top. They've got the upper hand. Great success.

But what do I know, anyway? I could just be making all of this stuff up. But if I am capable of making up the past, and capable of distorting the present, then I might as well predict the future as well. Estonia, I think you are in for a long, boring year. Political life will ossify. The glögi at the local Selver will taste the same as it did in the first decade of the 21st century. Cultural life will ferment with a hint of artsy superficiality and a pinch of dastardly behind-the-scenes badmouthing. And as for getting by, existential politics, well, mu kallis Eesti, we have been getting by, little by little, by and by, for decades. Like the Estonian foot soldier in the central Asian mountains, we know we can march in but one direction.

Piparkoogi mees ja naine courtesy of Nami-Nami, a food blog.

pühapäev, detsember 27, 2009

new yorgi hing

Italians and Jews. Jews and Italians. For a significant chunk of my life, these were the two main ethnic groups around me, the bread and butter of my existence.

Sure there were Canadien transplants and Irishmen and Germans and even the old ice-blooded melange of English, Dutch, and Scotch, not to mention Indians and Pakistanis and Chinese and Taiwanese and Koreans but, no, when it came down to it, the others were but patterns on the wallpaper. Here, it was either Jews and Italians, or Italians and Jews.

Take my high school band. The guitarist? Jew. Bassist? Italian. Drummer? Jew. Singer? Italian. Backing singer? Jew. Trumpeter? Italian. Saxophonist? Jew. And, yes, other trumpeter? Jew, too. There was a third backing singer on occassion. A Pole. That's diversity.

Where did we come from? How did we get here? New York has been overdeveloped but the wildness still sneaks through the cracks. This isn't really our land. This isn't the Mediterranean. This isn't Poland. This is a place where the indigenous names are sprawled across palate-tickling consonants and vowels. The latest addition to the roster of federally recognized tribes is a local one: Shinnecock. They have the luxury of owning the original real estate deed to a piece of Long Island now frequented by the likes of such titans as Billy Joel, Jerry Seinfeld, and Martin Scorcese. But they'll have the last laugh. After receiving recognition 10 days ago, it's almost guaranteed they'll build a casino. They just want what their neighbors have. Call it a case of keeping up with the Seinfelds.

Yesterday I sat in a mall here and the strangest thing happened to me. A man sat down next to me and started to talk. From his looks, he could have been an Italian. Or a Jew. Either way, within five minutes I knew his daughters' ages, knew the story of how he had once plopped all three of them on a wagon and dragged them around this very mall on Christmas Eve way back during the first Clinton Administration when they were all just little girls.

"My oldest is 22, my youngest is 17," he said. "Is she your first?" he pointed at my younger daughter, who was asleep on my chest.

"No, I have an older one, too."

"Well, I guess you just got here. You should take off her hat. Unbutton her jacket. It's hot in here."

I did as I was told but I was concerned. Something was not right. Who was this strange man and what did he want? Money? A special favor? No. His story checked out. The 17-year-old daughter emerged from a nearby boutique and they left together. He even wished me a Merry Christmas. I was puzzled. I tried to think if any random Estonian had ever started a conversation with me in a public place. And I sat. And I thought.


Epp wanted to know if I felt nostalgic at the mall. But when I was a child, most of this overdeveloped stretch of Long Island was just fields. It wasn't like this, I tried to explain. The subdivisions, big box stores, acres of parking lots, Lowe's, Sports Authority, Target, Home Depot, K-Mart, Starbucks, none of it was here. I watched them plow it under, piece by piece. And yes, I felt a little bit hurt as they did it. I felt like it was not exactly theirs to develop. Even if I did not own those fields, they were still part of my environment. Once the new temples were erected, though, the curious bystanders went inside. I was one of them.

When I think of my childhood, I think of this reflexive grasping for nature. I remember the snails crawling along the wooden fence in our backyard. I remember the smell of low tide at the beach. The most enthralling entertainment around was The Muppet Show. If my childhood had a host, it might as well have been John Denver. Well, maybe just part of it. Because the mall did make me nostalgic. I was thinking of how my cousin and I went shopping when we were adolescents. I bought Pink Floyd, he got Psychedelic Furs. We stayed up late at night listening to Depeche Mode, discussing the plot twists of Die Hard. These were our totems. Audio, cinema: they linked us to something much greater than ourselves.

I imagine that Estonia is undergoing a similar experience as it watches its fields give birth to shopping centers. You have not been bombarded by a shopping experience until you've walked through the mall at Lõunakeskus in Tartu around the holiday season. It's a disorienting, mind altering experience. You cannot even walk anymore; your brain is overpowered by each advertisement, each revolving sign. You become one with the Coco Chanel perfume, the Timberland boots. It's non-stop action, Lõunakeskus. On one day the ice-skating rink at the center of this commercial octopus might serve as a platform for a hockey game, another day might see it host a figure-skating competition. Lõunakeskus will not rest, it will not stop until you reach into your pocket and buy something.And in the midst of this muddle my older daughter is asking me questions.

Do you believe in God?

I, uh ...

Was Jesus God or God's son?

God's son. At least, that's what they say.

If he died, then how could he come back to life again?

It's complicated.

Good thing we have Christmas presents to blow the hell out of all theological discussions. How did he come to life again? Who cares? Who can care when there are more boxes to open or chocolate to consume? Say grace? Say, how about some more mashed potatoes? God bless you Christmas. God bless you for stuffing your gingerbread dynamite in the cracks of self awareness and laying waste to it all. Destroy, destroyed, destruction, enlightenment. The paper ruffles and the boxes tear, the high of opening gifts lights the air afire. I care to know the answers to no questions other than the one question, the most important question of them all: What did Santa bring me this year?

Santa brought me Henry Miller's Quiet Days in Clichy and a new brown belt. I needed both. Almost a month ago our bus pulled into Roma at 5 am. We all got out in the rain, and I waited on a platform next to a Nigerian drunk who was vomiting all over himself for a train to take me to Termini. I got out at Termini and followed the streets down to the River Tiber, over the river, and onwards to Vatican City. I sat at the foot of the city finishing off Tropic of Capricorn and eating a leftover sandwich of prosciutto and mozzarella. All around me priests and policemen floated by as I regaled myself with Miller's foul language (he's fond of words, all of them). And I wondered if Ratzinger had read this book. He should. He should read it. He might like it. Ratzinger can communicate in dozens of languages. Why not know one tongue more intimately? Miller was from a southern German Catholic family, so's Ratzinger. Why, they're practically cousins.

For the longest time, I have been trying to explain away some of these attributes that allow me to wallow in vulnerability. How come I do not think about God? Ever? Why are they lining up for mass and I am asking Santa for another dirty book? The soul is important and yet, I am not nourishing it, not even at Christmas time. Or am I? I try to explain it away. It's not me, I might think, it's my roots or it's the town I grew up in. It's the company I keep, or the books I read, or the stars that were in the sky on the day I was born. But, as I get older, I am understanding to an even greater extent that it is none of those things. It is simply me.

I even once met a guy who was born on the same day of the same year as me. He had been living one floor above me during my last semester of college. The university had taken possession of a particularly unruly fraternity's house and turned it into student housing. By some turn of luck they had housed me there, along with a group of other seniors who were keen on making use of the premises for wild keg parties. We even invented a name for our imaginary frat: Lambda Lambda Lambda. And this guy, my birthday twin, was at the center of the racket. He asked me for $20 the day before the first party. They day after the first party, he returned to my door with $80.

"We need to throw a few more parties before March," birthday twin said. He wore a black leather jacket, had potato peel-colored hair that was already fading to gray, spoke in a dry deadpan, and always looked a bit amused. "I'm saving up for spring break."

"Where are you going?"


"You're excited about going to Mississippi?" I cocked an eyebrow.

"Southern belles!" he grinned. "Southern belles! I've got a friend at Ole Miss and he's promised to hook me up with some Southern belles!" He played with the remaining cash in his hand. "So are you in for the next one?"

"Sure," I said.

"You had a good time last night?"


"Good," he snatched $20 back from me. "I'll need this to get us started."

That was my birthday brother. We shared rising signs and moon signs, but when it came down to it, I lacked his adroit business sense and fondness for the Southern lifestyle. It's like I said. It's simply me. Me and nothing else.


I went for a walk through a nearby nature preserve yesterday, still hung up on the question of culture. The wild and raw land of the original inhabitants here has been beaten back and reshaped into the image of America's mother country: England. Even now the process is not complete. Everything will be ordered and manicured and named. When I was a teenager I could disappear into the thickets of the nearby forests for hours. Now, most have been tamed and converted for public use or razed to give way to new housing units. I could not resist, though, to just stroll off the path into the forest and then out the other side. To avoid the paths altogether. In the center, I met animal tracks of all different shapes and sizes. Deer had certainly been here. But maybe something else. Maybe a bear? Probably not, but, what a thought.

I know none of the names of the trees or bushes or birds. I wish I had Fred Jüssi along for the stroll. I wish I was Fred Jüssi, just so I could disappear into the forest with a great excuse ("It's my job!") I need to learn more. Right now I know little of nature and little of God and I am 30 years old. There is obviously still much to do. In the evening my father called me from my grandmother's house with a boyish urgency to his voice.

"There's a photograph here," he said. "It's of cousin Cosmo in San Giorgio, except he's dead."

"I don't understand."

"It's like a photo of his wake. He's in the coffin. Do you know who Cosmo is?"


"Me neither."

"But where did you get the photo?"

"It was on my mother's kitchen table."

"And where did she find it?"

"She said she doesn't remember."

Grandma just turned 91. She's forgetful. But how did she dig up a photo of a man nobody remembers from a village our family left over a century ago? It had been a century until I returned last month. But I'm getting ahead of myself. That's another story.

"She doesn't remember?" I was skeptical.

"She says she doesn't know how it got there."

When my grandfather died, he lingered. I never saw him again, but I felt him in interesting places. He'd just be there, sitting in the chair when I came home late at night. And I was never scared, because it was him. His air was in the chair. He was just relaxing. Maybe flipping through a celestial magazine. Sometime after that he faded away. I figured he was gone for good. Now, I wasn't so sure again. Who knows what goes on in that house at night? Of course, there was a manicured, orderly, curated explanation for it all. Grandma had simply resurrected cousin Cosmo and then forgotten about him altogether. There were a lot of memories in her 91 year-old head. How to balance the events of, say, Dec. 26, 1939, with the events of the same day 70 years later? I decided, though, to believe that some other power had compelled cousin Cosmo to resurface. The photo on the table. My father at the house. For me, the whole thing seemed too perfect.

pühapäev, detsember 13, 2009

christmas in tallinn

I would have walked right past him had two other people not stopped to help him up. And when I saw them stop, I knew they must be foreigners. Only foreigners would stop to help a disheveled drunk with a bleeding head wound in the frosty streets of Tallinn's Old Town.

"Are you ok? How can we help you?" said one foreigner, a man.

"Your head is bleeding! Do you need help? What happened?" said the second, a woman.

"I have a passport!" slurred the drunk. He looked to be about 50 years old, and the top of his shirt was unbuttoned. When he leaned forward, I saw the blood stains on the medieval stone wall.

I stood back, ready to assist. The man turned to me. "Can you speak Estonian?"

"Yeah," I said. "Kas ma saaksin teid aidata?" (Can I help you?) I addressed the drunk in Estonian, but knew it was no good.

"I have a passport!" he said again and reached towards his inner pocket.

"Oletko suomalainen?" (Are you Finnish?) I tried in my best Finnish accent.

"Yes, I am Finnish," he nodded. "I'm fine, I'm fine, I'm just," he paused to hiccup, "fine."

"Maybe you can call someone?" said the foreign man.

I went into a nearby shop and approached the clerk, a young, dark-haired woman who was texting a friend.

"There's a guy outside your window. His head is bleeding," I told her in Estonian.

"There's a guy outside my window," she murmured, still mesmerized by her mobile.

"Can you help at all? I mean do you have any tissues, paper towels?"

"Oh, ok." She finally put her phone in her pocket, and pulled on a jacket. "Where is he?" We went outside together with some tissues for the drunk's bleeding head.

"What am I supposed to do?" she panicked when she saw him.

"I don't know. Call the police?" I said.

"The police? I don't know." She looked around and accosted a round, bearded man in the street and they began to speak in Russian. The man called to someone while the foreigners helped the distressed Finnish drunk up.

"I'll just go back to my hotel," he said, staggering towards the street. "I'm fine, I have a passport," he lunged towards me.

"I have one, too. Are you going to be ok? It's cold. Kylmä," I said.

"Yes, yes," he buttoned his top button. "Fine, just fine, just."

The burly Russian man hung up his phone. "Is everything going to be ok?" I asked him, this time in English.

"Yeah, he'll be alright" he said and walked away. The clerk also returned to her shop and beloved mobile phone.

"Are you sure you'll be ok?" asked the foreign woman.

"Yes, I have a passport, I am going to my hotel," the drunken Finn slurred and limped towards the Town Hall Square.

On the way up the street the foreigners introduced themselves: two tourists, a husband and wife from Oslo. Oslo: I had been there before. I recalled there were drunks and junkies aplenty lining the streets from Prince Haakon's doorstep straight down to the train terminal. And yet these two cared enough to help some stranger in a foreign city. Were the Norwegians just the penultimate specimens of human dignity, or was it just by luck that these two kind ones had passed the drunken Finn, Tallinn's own Little Match Girl?

I bid the Norwegians God Jul and felt ashamed for not having stopped by myself to help a fellow human in distress. Had it not been for the Norwegians, I would have stepped over him like a crumpled, day's old copy of Postimees. Was that the spirit of Tallinn in me, or the spirit of New York, or just the plain old mean-spirited spirit of indifference?

esmaspäev, detsember 07, 2009

matilde ja mina

Disappointment. Utter disappointment. When did it set in? First I had to use the restroom. But it was midnight at the Tallinn bus station and the public pay-for-relief toilets all close at 11 pm. Which means that if you've got to go and you're on the night bus to Tartu or Saint Petersburg, you are quite literally shit out of luck.

"Is there a toilet around here?" I ask the night watchman at the station.

"Not at this hour," he frowns. "Believe me, it's a big problem."

The poor fellow had to hold it until morning. It's amazing what people are forced to do in order to earn a living.

So I let myself go behind some trailers parked on the other side of the bus station parking lot. I tried not to make too much noise, should I attract the attention of adjacent alcoholics. When you think of the term "alcoholic," you might think of an old man with a strawberry for a nose and the stink of rotten innards that shocks the air with its outrageous foulness. But the alcoholics at the Tallinn bus terminal weren't old, they were kids.

I watched them pass a bottle of moonshine around. It had no label. Just a bottle of vodka. Not water. Not juice. Not even limoncello or a 40 oz. Pure alcohol. And how old were they? 19? There was some commotion at the Tallinn bus terminal. Some yelling, some chest beating. Some cry of the frustrated Estonian youth. Maybe it had something to do with unemployment, I don't know. But when Epp told me that the meteorologist for Postimees was beaten to death with a baseball bat outside of Tallinn's Old Town two weeks ago, it didn't come as a complete shock. There are evil people in that city, Tallinn. They lack hope and access to necessary facilities.

The taxi driver was bad. He broke the cardinal rule: don't bitch to your customer about how great things were during "Russian times' (vene ajal -- which actually means "Soviet times" in Estonian, he wasn't talking about life as a subject of that affable chap Nicholas Romanov). Oh, vene ajal this and vene ajal that. "In Russian times, trains were going everywhere all the time: Riga, Moscow, Minsk."

"Who the hell wants to go to Minsk?"

That shut him up.

And the worst thing is that I was coming from Copenhagen airport. All of Kastrup was enlightened by Tivoli-like goodness. There were oceans of Tuborg Julebryg, the Danish beer maker's delicious Christmas blend, waiting to be swum, steppes of chocolate waiting to be traversed, armies of titanic flight attendants waiting to be noticed, and, the most endearing, my old girlfriend, Matilde, waiting for a late-afternoon rendezvous.

For me, my study abroad period in Denmark in 2001 was deafening in its destruction of all things sentimental and sane. It was like trying to sleep inside a timpani during the 1812 Overture. My neighbor was your typical Scandinavian nutcase. Every time she got in a fight with her boyfriend, she'd visit my room just to make him jealous. He'd sit there in her room moping, blasting "I Just Can't Get Enough" by Depeche Mode, while she would tuck herself into my bed and light up a smoke. This happened two or three times, and each time I told her, "I'm sorry, but you just can't smoke in here."

But there were others. The Swedish aristocrat who hated my guts. The Faroese girl who invited me to fix some furniture in her room and then rewarded me with morss (juice from concentrate). The ex-model who used to date the son of the star of an American 1980s TV show, and kept telling me about how she really preferred his dad. "He was just so funny." Only once did I see a normal pige in all of Denmark: she was wearing a shirt with a picture of the Buddha on it and seemed genuinely pleased by the efficiency of Danish mass transit. She was smart. She didn't talk to me.

Through all of this, there was Matilde, the chocolate milk I drank every morning on my way to school. She was always there waiting for me, soothing me in times of distress. And when I saw her there in the airport -- I actually saw about 50 boxes of her there -- my eyes moistened. It had been too long. Yes, I cut my teeth on sweets in Denmark. I pounded the sugar, I saturated my blood. And in the airport I had to relish one more. One more Matilde for old times. It was good. Just as I remembered.

The dark is rising now. In Denmark and in its former possession, Eistland. The dark consumes us, breaks our souls on a wheel of mist and moisture and night. It's sinister. It's the kind of creeping dread that can make a man fall in love with a box of chocolate milk. In such a despondent crapper of humanity as the Tallinn bus terminal, you'd think they'd make it an all night party, just to help us live through this. There should be batches of fresh piparkoogid, vats of simmering hõõgvein, Hanseatic bus drivers in medieval costumes, and toilets that stay open all night long that you can use for free. Free toilets? I know, what you're thinking: that's socialism.

The bus that night eventually dropped me off in some foggy forlorn armpit of south Estonia called Veeriku. I walked past the glimmering Selver, the oase di pace of Tartu, a spark of northern commercial vibrancy in a junkyard of imperial trash, then crossed the miserable railroad tracks where trees are ugly and want to die, and the buildings look as if they permanently contemplate suicide. This was my spot on the earth, for now, the only thing redeemable about it being my little family, a family of women so resplendent they could light up a mining shaft.

As soon as my head hit the pillow, I knew that I would have to procure the necessary ingredients just to survive here. Lemons would have to peeled for more limoncello, armfuls of spaghetti, fusilli, and penne bought just to keep our insides aglow. We would need kalamata olives and pesto and a lifetime supply of passata di pomodoro. And, most of all, dolci, sugary sweetness, loaves of gingerbread dough, ladles full of glögi. There is light at the end of the tunnel. I believe in it, I can almost see it. The more chocolate milk I drink, the brighter it gets.


By the way, My Estonia is now available via Amazon (finally). It should also be available soon through, Amazon UK, Barnes and Noble and other online bookstores. Enjoy.

reede, detsember 04, 2009

dead parrot

I couldn't resist. Here's a quick deconstruction of British conservative journalist John Laughland's piece in The Brussels Journal, "The De-Russification of the Baltics Serves a Geopolitical Purpose."

While I will not reprint the whole article here, I believe it contains some interesting and all-too-familiar anti-Baltic memes. Taken one by one, each can be unfolded and discussed. But put them all together, and you have one mesmerizing anti-Baltic ideological stew.

Laughland, Point One: Take the case of the Baltic States. These territories formed part of the Soviet Union from 1944 to 1991, when they became independent a few months before the Soviet Union itself was dissolved completely. They had enjoyed a brief period of independence between the wars, as a result of the humiliating peace forced on a defeated Russia, weakened by revolution, by Germany and Austria at Brest-Litovsk in 1918.

Here are two memes in one paragraph: Baltic independence was brief and the result of a humiliating peace treaty forced on a defeated Russia. I take issue with both. First, the interwar period of independence was not brief. 22 years is not brief. 22 years is a whole generation. Within 22 years, a person is born, raised, and may even get married and sire offspring. Georgia's period of independence from May 1918 to February 1921 was brief. Second, when countries lose wars, they are forced to sign treaties, weakened by revolution or otherwise. I am sure it was "humiliating" when Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, too. Nobody feels empowered after losing a war and signing away real estate.

Laughland, Point Two. During independence, the Baltic states became dictatorships (Lithuania in 1926, Latvia and Estonia in 1934). Prior to 1918, Latvia and Estonia had never existed as states: they had been part of the Russian empire from the 1720s onwards, i.e. since shortly after Scotland and England united to form the United Kingdom, and before that they had belonged to Sweden and earlier to the Teutonic Knights. (The history of Lithuania is different.)

Meme three and four: the Baltics were under dictatorships in the '20s and '30s and there is a lack of historical precedent for statehood. But, wait a minute, a lot of countries were ruled by dictators in the 1920s and 1930s. Poland, Germany, Italy, not to mention the USSR. So, the point here is? Second, plenty of states devolved from empires without having experienced recent periods of independence, especially in the 20th century. At least half of current EU countries were not independent in 1914. Good to see though that, in regards to this point, Lithuania doesn't count as a Baltic state.

Laughland, Point Three:
Their incorporation into the USSR in 1944 was therefore not, as many claim today, an act of naked Russian aggression but instead the restoration of a status quo ante which had existed for centuries and which in any case was supported by a significant section of the Baltic political class, many of whose members were ardent Communists.

Meme five and six: a) That whole blockade Tallinn harbor, shoot down commercial aircraft, and threaten to invade with our vastly superior military unless you do everything we say thing wasn't "naked Russian aggression" at all. That was just, like, you know, the "restoration of a status quo ante which had existed for centuries." So if the British took back Ireland in 1940, shot de Valera, and deported the Irish ruling class to Tasmanian slave labor camps, it wouldn't have been "naked British aggression," just a restoration of the way things had been before. I'm telling you, there is a Monty Python sketch in here somewhere. "I didn't kill you, mate, I just restored the status quo ante." b) Baltic political class? Ardent Communists? Really, in whose political interest was it to get a) executed or b) deported by the Soviets? The "Communists" they found to play the roles of statesmen in their orchestrated coups weren't even politicians (or communists for that matter). The prime minister of the Soviet-picked government in Estonia was a poet and doctor, his assistant PM a historian, and his foreign minister was a school master. These men were neither ardent communists nor members of the political class.

Laughland, Point Four: As a result of their long existence as part of Russia (and, later, the Soviet Union) these territories, especially Latvia and Estonia, have large Russian minorities.

That's true, though not in the way he means it. Estonia's largest minority before the Second World War was the Russian minority, about 8 percent of the population.

Laughland, Point Five: When they achieved independence in 1991, the Baltic States decided to adopt as their founding constitutional principle a piece of political fiction known as the theory of occupation. They claimed that they had been “occupied” by the USSR, rather than incorporated into it, and that their independence was merely the restoration of an interrupted statehood.

Meme seven: the occupation never happened. The problem is that, be it political fiction or not, most countries in the world believed it because they had never recognized the original occupation and annexation. They rightly returned Baltic assets kept for 50 years to said countries. Call it a return to the status quo ante. Or maybe just a nefarious Western conspiracy.

Laughland, Point Six:
This theory of occupation is, quite simply, a lie. Occupation is a specific situation in international relations when one country dominates another by installing troops on its territory.

So, according to this definition, the ultimatum to create the bases pact in 1939 and uninvited entry of Soviet troops in June 1940 would count as an occupation. Good to know. From this point on, Laughland careens into the stratosphere. He's bouncing off satellites, diving through black holes. Here's an example: The most important of these measures has been, in Latvia and Estonia, the dogged introduction, over two decades now, of laws on citizenship whose goal is to erode the national identity of Russians by closing their schools and by preventing them from voting.

Say wha? 2+2=5? I keep reading that sentence over and over again, and I get the feeling like he wrote this late at night from a jumble of talking points provided by the Russian foreign ministry.

I think the Russian argument, transmitted via Laughland, is that if all the people in Estonia were allowed to vote for parliament (since they already can vote in municipal elections), regardless of where they were born or what passport they held, then Edgar Savisaar's Centre Party would be running the show and eating out of the Kremlin's hand. But that's not really true. When Savisaar raised the issue of reforming citizenship laws during his address to the Centre Party congress last week, the Social Democrats (SDE) and the Estonian People's Union (ERL), the two parties that would most likely form a government with the Centrists should they win in 2011, quickly said they would not back such reforms. It's just not going to happen the way you want it to happen, Moscow. It just isn't. Sorry.

Supposedly the Russians are gearing up for another exhausting propaganda campaign to waste more time trying to slime Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, with the desperate hope that if they repeat the same lies over and over again, they will suddenly become true. I find these campaigns dull and so tiresome I regret even writing this blog post. I also regret actually reading Laughland's article.

neljapäev, detsember 03, 2009

la dolce vita

I just got back from a whirlwind trip of Puglia and Calabria in Italy. I'd love to tell you about it, but I already have a 70-page manuscript and it's growing and growing and growing. It's a book, not a blog post.

At dinner one night in Puglia, though, I was asked a harmless question. We were munching on olives, waiting for the first course.

"Do they have pizza in Estonia?" asks cousin Beppe.

"Sure," I say in Italian. "There's a great restaurant in Tartu where I live called La Dolce Vita. The boss is Italian."

"Boss?" Cousin Lino shudders at the word.

"Boss?" Beppe is equally as astounded.

"Hah," snorts Lino. "I can't believe the mafia is in Estonia, too."

"Mafia? No, no, no, no, no," I throw my hands up in protest. "He's not in the mafia. He's just the boss. The owner. The proprietor."

"Then why didn't you say so?" Beppe looks incredulous. "Don't you know that 'boss' in Italy means only one thing: mafioso?"

"No, I didn't know that."

"Well, now you know," Lino spits out another olive pit.

"Anyway, I didn't think they had mafia in Puglia," I say. "I thought the mafia was in Sicily, the 'Ndrangheta was in Calabria, and the Camorra was in Napoli."

"I can't believe how much he knows," Beppe shakes his head. "How do you know these things?"

"Everybody knows these things," says Lino. "It's common knowledge."

"But who's running things in Bari?"

"The Sacra Corona," Beppe and Lino simultaneously announce and roll their eyes.

"Sacra Corona?"

"They're not Barese," Lino cuts swiftly through the air with his hand to deny the association. "They're from Lecce."

"Lecce," Beppe sighs and grabs another olive.

"And you guys aren't in Sacra Corona are you?"

Lino smiles and raises his right hand, palm facing me. "No," he swears.

Beppe also raises his hand. "No," he gives his word of honor.

"Me neither," I laugh and raise my hand to face theirs. "No."

reede, november 06, 2009


"My people were entirely Nordic, which is to say idiots. Every wrong idea that has been expounded was theirs ... They were painfully clean ... After dinner the dishes were promptly washed and put back in the closet; after the paper was read, it was neatly folded and laid away on the shelf ... Everything was for tomorrow, but tomorrow never came."

I am digging through Tropic of Capricorn and I am reminded of my neighbors. They are all Estonians, eestlased, every single one of them. I don't know most of their names. Maybe they know mine, but they never use it. We only see one another when we are working outdoors, because that's all Estonians do outdoors. If they see me working, they look genuinely pleased and grunt out jõudu, which means "strength." Then I grunt back tarvis, which means "needed," and continue moving. There must be constant movement.

An Estonians' idea of a good time is digging up root vegetables or examining fallen apples for worm holes or bruises. When an Estonian wants to relax, he grabs two poles and goes for a walk. It's called "Nordic walking." All across the country you can see them, poling down some highway, their neatly hung reflectors glimmering in the flash of headlights, a catatonic expression on their Finno-Ugric faces.

The odd thing is that I want to join them because they look so satisfied with themselves. It's the Estonian smug. It hangs in the air, caressing the islands' coasts and blanketing the drumlins and potato fields and berry patches and apple orchards and country lakes. You can't escape the smug. You breathe it in through each nostril, and after awhile you are patting yourself because the state in which you dwell is not dead last, ie. Latvia. As long as Estonia continues to measure its success by comparing itself to Latvia, then the air is likely to be choked with smug. It's in all the weather reports. It'll be 10 below tomorrow with a 99 percent chance of smug.

I've tried to fit in as best I can. I spent last weekend raking frosted leaves and examining frozen apples for worm holes. And yet, at some point, I got tired and I made for our hammock and just couldn't help but to collapse into it, to lay there with the November sun on my face, to feel my heavy body suspended in air, to relax and breath and feel human, to savor the pleasures of existence. I was almost smiling when I suddenly realized that one of my neighbors might spy me slacking off, so I leaped out of the hammock and was back scavenging for apples in no time.

You may think I've become neurotic, northern Estonian. But then I caught my neighbor patrolling the front yard at dusk to make sure that every stray leaf had been raked and removed to the backyard to be burned. His yard is tip top. Ours? Well, let's just say that ours is getting there. I saw the Estonian neighbor crane his neck around, too, while he was on leaf patrol. He gave our yard a quick inspection, like I could work with all that smug in the air, stinging my lungs. And I knew what he was thinking. Italians. Lazy, sloppy, careless Italians. It doesn't matter if I've got an American passport or an Estonian wife. Our work is tainted by our Mediterranean work ethic. It's in the amount of olive oil we consume. We're not real northerners. We're something else.


What is the defining attribute of a northern country? Social capital? Gender equality? Personal happiness? No. The defining characteristic of northern countries is the cold. Supposedly it is 10 below outside. All I know is that Kuperjanovi Street in Tartu might as well cross the face of the moon.

The cold wrestles with you. Your fingers and toes burn with blue, every digit succumbing to the pain. Your teeth chatter and your eyes glaze over, but that's nothing compared to your chest, which shakes and rattles like a busted carburetor. It's brutal what the cold does to you. People wonder why Estonians seem so immune to it all. There's a reason for it; every winter they fight a personal war with winter, beset by a hostile climate that seems bent on eradicating all signs of life from the face of the earth.

The Estonians have a saying: there is no such thing as the wrong weather, only the wrong clothes. Well, gloves, hat, scarf, thermal wear -- it's really nothing up here at night. Your fingers atrophy and your eyes hollow out and your chest shakes in anger as it tries to adjust to the temperature. And then to make it worse, you notice an Estonian guy parading down the street without a hat on, or the sight of an Estonian gal in a short skirt taking money from an ATM, oblivious to her environment. Estonians are fashionable people, you see. They don't let little things like Arctic temperatures stand between them and looking good.

There are only a handful of remedies for this kind of weather. One's alcohol. Another's chocolate. I've been leaning on chocolate. Supposedly, it fires up the neurons. All I can say is, fire away! Chocolate. It keeps you moving. It quickens your pace while you do yard work. But I ate 200 grams of it the other day in one helping and it went right through me. I even ate more. No effect. I've eaten so much chocolate recently I have had to compensate by joining a gym. And in the gym I found a third remedy for the cold: a sauna.

Saunas are magical places. They can cure any ache or pain. Broken arm? Go sit in the sauna awhile. It'll heal more quickly. I always thought that saunas were just for fun, a sort of outdoor pub for woodsy drunks. I've come to learn that, during the winter at least, a long stew in the sauna is exactly what you need to defrost those frigid digits. You can cancel out the damage done by the northern climate in a sauna. By exposing yourself to extreme cold outside, and extreme heat in the sauna, you may finally arrive at a normal body temperature. Or so the logic goes.

But what of summer saunas? Now that's interesting. If winter saunas are therapeutic, then summer saunas are like Woodstock. There's nothing but nudity, lake swimming, and cool vibes, man. You sit there covered in sweat and silt, and feel as if you are truly one with nature, as if you should have moss for eyebrows and snails hanging from every appendage. In fact, after a co-ed sauna in the summer, it's kind of hard to justify wearing clothes anymore. I mean, if you've already seen everybody in their birthday suit, and it's hot out, then, what exactly is the point of wearing trousers?

One July day, I asked our friend Mart why people sauna in the summer. I told him I understood the rationale behind winter saunas, but wasn't quite sure what purpose summer saunas served. It was hot already. Why get purposefully hotter? Could it be just for fun? No. There had to be some really good Estonian reason like, "It helps us work harder."

Mart's eyes bulged at the question as if to say Does not compute. In reality, he just repeated my words back to me. "Why do people sauna in summer?" I remember the puzzled expression on his face as he said it. He was stunned. I could have asked him why he breathes air or why he sleeps at night. But he might have actually had reasonable explanations for those activities. But why sauna in the summer, when it's hot? What a silly question. Mart shot an odd look at me again, then took another sip of his beer. He never answered.


Onu Leo gave up the ghost on Halloween. 80 years old. For years he'd been in and out of hospitals. And yet when I met him last year, the only time I actually met him, he was in good spirits. He was born in the year of a great global financial crisis and he died in the year of a great global financial crisis. But it probably didn't faze him. These old Estonians don't worry themselves with the world. They are simply content. They are content to eat and drink and read and sleep and wake and live. I envy them.

The funeral took place at a wooded grove in the outskirts of Tartumaa. Tall pines reach up into the heavens there. Small, modest stones mark the graves of the departed. Even in this weather, Leo had an outdoor funeral. He was laid out in a small, half-open stone house. Relatives and friends gathered around and sang songs about candles and angels and heaven. There was a long speech about Leo's life. He was a good worker. An industrious man. I didn't know how to feel there. Another person I know is dead. Leo's granddaughter cried though. She sobbed. She really loved the guy.

I envied her expression of emotion. When my grandfather dropped dead almost 14 years ago, I didn't shed a tear. Not one drop. I was numb during the whole thing and felt like a real shithead because of it. I wish I could have been like Leo's granddaughter, open about my feelings. But for some reason, I feel uncomfortable at funerals. Maybe it's the lousy music.

Still, as I watched Onu Leo's relatives cry, my eyes moistened, and my mood turned somber. I thought about how Leo was someone's son, brother, father, and grandfather. I thought about how, 80 years from now, towards the end of this century, people will be gathering around to say goodbye to the babies of today. I decided that there was still a bit of humanity left in me after all.

The pallbearers bore Leo's coffin to his final place of rest, below a giant pine. After he was lowered in, and a few more songs were sung, the vicar invited able-bodied men to grab a shovel and finish the job. I was surprised, but accepted the offer. Six or so shovels lay beside mounds of dirt. I grabbed one, and we began to fill in the hole. When dirt hits a coffin, it makes an uncomfortable "thwumpf" sound. After the coffin was covered though, we began to fill the gaping hole in the earth at a rapid pace. I was thinking of Siberia while I was doing it, how men like Leo's father, Aleksander, who spent 10 years in that rotten Russian hellhole, must have felt as they worked with others to move soil. And I liked the feeling. It felt right. I felt as if, even though I had only known Leo for one day, I was doing him a favor. It was up to us to tuck him into eternal rest.

The reception was held at a nearby hotel. We sat at a long table, and shot glasses were filled with vodka. Then Leo's oldest son stood and thanked everyone and lifted his glass in memory of his father, for whom a seat was left empty at the table. The funny thing about Leo is that his father was Russian and his wife was an Ingrian Finn. So these people are actually only one-quarter Estonian, and yet their language, their customs, everything about them follows the description of classical Estonian literature. Whenever I hear the term "ethnic Estonian," I chuckle and think of families like these.

Estonian parties are dreadfully predictable. At first, nobody talks. No one. After some alcohol is consumed, there will be some light chatter. That's it. And then comes the dreadfully predictable food. What will it be this time? I asked myself. Pork and potatoes or potatoes and pork? But those schnitzels were delicious. And the sauerkraut? It hit the spot. Of course, afterward, when my belt was about to burst, they brought out the kringel, covered with chocolate and laden with raisins. I ate some of that, too. By this time, conversations approached what I considered to be a normal volume. Yeah, you can really get fat in Estonia. All the more reason to have a gym membership.

After dessert, Leo's son approached me and gripped my hand.

"Do they do it different in America?" he asked.

"How did you know I'm from America?"

"I know," Leo's son grinned but didn't let go of my hand.

"I've never done any digging before," I mustered. "And, of course, the songs are different."

"We should get together some other time, in happier circumstances," Leo's son tightened his grip. "We can have a drink and go to sauna."

kolmapäev, oktoober 28, 2009

kaljukitse pöörijoon

I was looking for a belt. A brown one. Your regular old brown belt. I needed one to hold up my trousers. You need a belt there. It's like Jerry Seinfeld says, you feel naked without a belt.

I couldn't find my regular rihm, so I went searching for one in Tartu. A replacement. But if you are searching for something as simple as a regular brown belt in Tartu, you are out of luck.

I found some other belts at the Tasku shopping center. Tasku is kind of like the Solaris of Tartu, except the ceiling hasn't caved in yet. But what I mean is that the developer -- a patron of the local Reform Party, no doubt -- got the prime real estate of the old bus station smack in the center of town. In return, he promised to build the city a new bus station. That he did. He built a pint-sized bus station and a gigantic shopping center around it. "If they have to wait, they can wait in my shopping center." That was the line. I have nothing personal against the guy. He was out to make a kroon or two. They all are.

They have belts in Tasku. White leather ones. Big fat black ones with giant belt buckles. You 'd think only pirates or floozies shop there. But nothing for a boring, normal human being like myself. One belt I fingered cost 449 Estonian kroons ($42, €29). I thought that was expensive. Then I found another tolerable one. It was brown, alright, but fundamentally flawed. Flaw number one was that it cost 669 EEK. Flaw number two is that the belt buckle spelled out the brand name. C A M E L. Do you think I'm going to move around this city with a giant belt buckle that says C A M E L on it? As if I was Sean Combs or something? It's not going to happen.

I just wanted a belt. A simple brown belt. I wanted to look timeless. I don't remember seeing any photos of Ernest Hemingway hunting in Africa with a C A M E L belt. F. Scott wasn't wearing some white, false diamond-studded fashion accessory when he was putting up with one of Zelda's moods. Jimmy Joyce wasn't parading around Dublin on Bloomsday flaunting his designer jeans. I'm a writer, damnit, I tore into myself. I need a belt!


I didn't find a belt, but I found my book at Rahva Raamat. Minu Eesti. 352 pages of the lurid details of my life. How I met my wife. Our courtship. The highs and lows of bicultural marriages. What's it really like living with a person who eats smoked fish and blood sausage? This book will tell you. It's all true, and yet, when I look back on what really happened, Minu Eesti is quite tame. It's PG. The real story is so twisted and convoluted that I couldn't explain in 1,000 pages. Or even explain it all. Who really can explain the way things happen? Nobody can. All non-fiction is but a fairytale. All memoirs are lies. Vague recollections. We experience our own lives, but when asked to explain something, we're instantly all like Reagan up there on the witness stand, talking about Nicaragua. "I don't recall."

I started writing it in February and completed it in July. The first 50 or so pages just rolled off my fingertips. Then I had to blast through the middle of the book. That's how I envisioned it. "Ok, here's some dynamite, now WRITE!" Boom. Boom. Boom. I was blasting a way, hitting the hardest rock imaginable. But I knew I'd make it through to the end. Just one more stick of dynamite. The last week, I was racing to meet a deadline. I cranked out a chapter a day, but not more. The brain can only do one chapter. My brain at least. Then it's dry. It's a terrible feeling to be dry. You need some time to recuperate.

All through the process, my editor Bolling was rubbing my face in it. "What's this? This is a cliche, Giustino. We can't have a book with cliches." Or, "How many times are you going to use the word 'laughed' in this friggin' book? Grow a vocabulary, son." Bolling showed me tough love. He didn't even have to say it sometimes. He'd just take his pipe out of his mouth and glare at me in his study, as if to say, Don't waste my time with this nonsense. And so I'd go do another rewrite. I swear, it was like The Karate Kid. I wanted to learn the martial arts, but Mister Miyagi had me washing cars and sanding floors. Only now that I've done the crane can I truly understand the value of those lessons.

I was racing to complete it so that Raivo, the whiz tõlk, could translate away. Raivo did a great job, in my opinion, and I'm not just saying that because that's what you are supposed to say. He managed to render English-language scenes into Estonian-language ones. People of different linguistic persuasions react the same way to the same things at the same points in the book. Reading my translated work in Estonian has introduced new words and expressions to me. My favorite expression is Vatvat! I don't even know what it means. It just feels good to say it. It sounds boisterous, kind of like. "How's the wine, darling?" "Noh, Vatvatvatvatvat!"

Minu Eesti is about my life. But real life is more complicated. There are characters in that book that are maybe two people put together. Scenes in that book that took place, but in different locations on two separate days of the same week. I didn't lie to you, Estonia. I just wrapped the truth up in a nice chocolate box. Maybe call it a slightly fictionalized autobiography. That's how I think of it. But, whatever, it's all been printed now and is available for any pirate or floozy to read in Tasku while they wait for their bus. It's on its own now. It's got to learn to fend for itself. Live by its own wits. Next month it will be available in English. Then some of you can read it as well.

How to feel about it? I don't know. When I read it, parts of it still make me laugh. But at least I don't hate it, like most tortured artists come to hate their work. It can always be better, but, for me, it's good enough. This was the first volume. Another is coming. I'm patching together some ideas. I'm thinking of the time we visited Signe in Oslo and the first thing she said was:

"What are you, some kind of mama's boy?"

"No," I said.

"No," she mocked me. "Yes, you are, I can tell a mama's boy just by the way he stands. My ex-husband was one."

Signe drank all the vodka we brought her. She drank bottle number one the first day. That was the day we lost her at the Vigeland Sculpture Park.

Poor Signe. She used to associate with an Estonian television personality named Hannes back in the day. Hannes and I don't know each other, but the people we interact with do. I never see him, but I see his shadow, and if you know Hannes, then you know he has a recognizable shadow. Hannes. Peculiar fellow. He's off on vacation now. The only place where an Estonian celebrity can be free. You think that Estonia is so small that you can be a celebrity and sauna and swim with the rest. But you can't, because you're buying some Georgian wine at Selver late at night and some drunk comes up and tells you he wants to be a millionaire.

It happened to me the day after I came back from talking and singing about the book on Terevisioon. I stopped to get gas in Mäo and the attendant was looking me up and down. Then I saw she was watching ETV on the gas station TV. And I was wearing the same clothes, naturally. I took one look at that striped shirt and realized I might not ever be able to wear it in public again. Such was my first real brush with fame. "Hey look, honey," passersby might say, "there goes that writer who wears the striped shirt." But no belt, my dear Estonians. No belt.


I don't even know how I became a writer. I don't even know why I am writing this right now. It just spills out of me. The inner monologue bursts forth. It has a life of its own. It's not me in a way. Somebody else. I remember I wrote an article for the high school newspaper about the arrest of the entertainer, Pee-wee Herman. The kids loved it. They made their homeroom teachers read it to them. Then I got involved with an alternative newspaper and we got in all kinds of trouble. Those were the days.

Sometimes I think musicians have it easier. As a musician, all you have to do is sing a song. But then your song lyrics are misinterpreted and, before you know it, the Chinese have banned you because of some unintended allusion to Tibetan independence, or the CIA is smoking banana peels to see if they are bound to be the very next craze. That's just how it all is. It's inescapable. You try to lead a private life and then you wind up on a reality TV show with Flavor Flav.

You stand there on the rooftops of Manhattan apartments experiencing the hummingbird buzz of human existence, looking south towards the gaping space where the Twin Towers once stood, and you know, in your bones, that you make no difference. You lie in the snows of Karlova awash in the faint glow of the lights from Annelinn, and feel as lucid as a stone or spare tire. You can breath or not breath, swim or not swim. You can do nothing or anything, because everything is possible. And then you go and write a book, and people read it, even like it, and you still waste your time wondering about such things. Maybe the best thing is just to shut up and enjoy it and eat your piimasupp.

neljapäev, oktoober 22, 2009

the hardest working man in show business

I was asked earlier this week on Terevisioon, ETV's daily morning news and entertainment program, what I thought about Estonian politics, like I could actually muster an articulate sentence in Estonian about such things.

If I had been a bit sharper at 8.20 am, after zooming north through a snow storm in central Estonia blasting James Brown at the crack of dawn, I might have said something like this.

The most interesting dance in Estonian politics right now is taking place in Tallinn, where Edgar Savisaar's victorious Centre Party has invited Jüri Pihl's Social Democrats to negotiations on forming a center-left coalition in the Tallinn City Government.

Why is it interesting? Because if the results of the 2011 parliamentary election are anything like last week's municipal election results -- where Centre received 31.5 percent of all votes cast in Estonia, followed distantly by Reform at 16.7 percent, IRL at 13.9 percent, and SDE at 7.5 percent -- then a KESK-SDE coalition in Tallinn could be a trial run for a similar coalition in the next parliament.

In some ways, a center-left coalition in Estonian politics has been a long-time coming. For the past 10 years, Estonia has either been led by conservatives or liberals, partially due to to the success of their policies and partly due to a weak, polarized political left. But, as in all parliamentary democracies, the pendulum swings. Eighteen years of Thatcher and Major in Britain gave way to the past 12 years of Blair and Brown. If Estonia is to grow up politically, it must come to terms with the idea that the national idea is bigger than its right wing politics. It can't just have the liberals and the conservatives rotating seats until the end of time.

Savisaar has earned a lot of "political capital," as W. would say, but how he spends it will have a major effect on Estonian politics. Thanks in part to his victory many parties could have less reservations about cooperating with a political force referred to as roheline koletis -- the "green monster" -- both for its colors and its approach to governance.

For SDE, which was tossed out of the ruling coalition in May, it makes sense to at least entertain the idea of a center-left coalition in Tallinn. They are in a weak position, and yet, at a national level, they did better this time around than they did in 2005. Besides, the most common critiques of Savisaar's party -- that they are arrogant, uncooperative, and out to fill their own pockets -- are often lobbed at SDE's former partners, Reform, who fired them. So what exactly do they have to lose? That was the argument SDE founder Marju Lauristin made to the party list this week.

As for the agrarian Rahvaliit and the Greens, they are in an even less favorable position. Both of these parties are on life support, Any invitation to share power with the big vote winner will probably be welcomed. Having party members in power creates the impression of competence, and competence is a major factor in winning a person's vote. For all of these parties, the opportunity to have even a little power could translate to future electoral victory. Rahvaliit, as of my writing this, has already been asked to merge with the Centrists. That will give Savisaar's party a modicum of support in places like Jõgevamaa, where Rahvaliit, for some odd reason, continues to win.

At the same time, the Centrists still don't seem to get the point that they may have won the most votes, but that doesn't mean they have the authority of a national salvation committee. It's hard to pick the most embarassing moment so far, and it's only been a few days. Was it the call for early elections or Centre's clumsy overtures to form a coalition with IRL (which were immediately rebuffed)? Don't worry, there'll be more of them. And as they pile up, the people's memories will stack the decks in favor of the sweet boom years, paving the way for the eventual return of right-wing rule.

And what of the right-wing parties? It wasn't a total loss for them. In Tartu, Estonia's second biggest city, Reform solidly held onto its position as the leading party. It also won the most votes in Võru, Viljandi, Kuressaare, Haapsalu, and other towns. IRL, too, did not fare poorly. And, they should take any loss to Savisaar as a temporary set back as Savisaar's base includes two large divisions of people that continue to decline in numbers, pensioners and Estonian Russians.

The current crop of pensioners are people who spent most of their adult lives in service to the ESSR. But the next group of pensioners, those who came of age during the Singing Revolution, are unlikely to shift their allegiance to the roheline koletis. As for the myth of the Russian "fifth column," as of Jan. 1, 2009, but 36 percent of Tallinners identify themselves as ethnic Russians. Savisaar can continue to pander to them (I saw one advertisement strongly hinting at the relaxing of naturalization requirements), but it's not a recipe for a long-lasting majority.

The decline of the base is Savisaar's weak point. His political campaigns create the illusion of a state beset by anarchy where huge masses of have-nots join hands and overcome the starry-eyed Friedmanites that assuage everyone that, if we just follow the holy scripture of Saint Milton, everything will turn out alright. But, unfortunately for Savisaar, the masses aren't that huge, and he manages to capture their votes because they exist in places where rival parties dare not tread.

If Reform, IRL, SDE or even the Greens seriously put some efforts into attracting candidates that could compete in Centre Party strongholds, then they wouldn't get their asses so severely kicked in municipal elections.

So here are some suggestions for next time. These are very simple thoughts, forgive me. Ahem.

Reform's keyword is "reform." Once they get new leadership, they might be able to sell "reform," as most aspects of Estonian life require reforms. It's such a simple point, they themselves might have missed it. They can stick to their liberal principles, too, but also think of ways to attract voters who aren't wowed by references to economic theory. It's not unthinkable.

IRL? You'd think their keyword would be Isamaa -- "fatherland" -- but I would say their keyword should be "integrity." That's why people vote for Mart Laar -- because they believe he won't ever sell out the national interest. They should be the party of good governance. They should call other parties on every sleazy real estate deal, every sell out of Estonia. There are people who vote for Centre who know quite well how corrupt their politicians are. They just need to be called on it.

SDE? Their key word is "solidarity." If they stopped dressing up in bogus red and actually went door to door, they might be able to get people to believe in their values. They should spend less time at Tallinn wine and cheese events and more time in Estonia's shanty towns. Get a bus and go on a listening tour of Võrumaa or Ida Virumaa. I'm sure the people there will have a lot to share.

This will all take time. But I do believe a day will come when the green monster will lose big in districts it once held captive. And they'll deserve it.

esmaspäev, oktoober 12, 2009


Autumn in Setomaa to me is more appealing than summer. Sure, summer is just like one big sõir* and sauna party. But you can barely get any work done without being harassed by sweat and insects.

In autumn, you are alone with your thoughts and the pleasing cool colors of the northern foliage. From an American perspective, you might as well be somewhere deep in the mountains of Vermont. You develop a sudden urge to hear pedal-steel guitar licks and twangy vocal harmonies, even if you've never really enjoyed country music.

This is the mindset that sweeps in as you put up one wall of an outhouse. I said I was going to build one, and I am building it, even if it takes a really long time. Even if it falls over after its first Christening. I am building the outhouse to prove to myself that I am not only useful for writing funny blogposts and changing diapers. I am building it to show that I am capable of building an outhouse. Other people do sillier things -- run marathons, scale buildings, sail solo around the world -- to test themselves. And here I am with my powerdrill and saw. This is my test. The outhouse will be built. I can feel it.


Poor Indrek Teder. The chancellor of justice stepped it in earlier this month. He got up in front of the Riigikogu and did the Estonian political equivalent of asking for diarrhea. He suggested Estonia change part of its citizenship requirements for stateless persons. The procedure for naturalization in question concerns minors born to stateless parents. At the moment, the parents must request that their stateless child be given citizenship in order for the child to receive it. Teder suggested that the child be given citizenship automatically. Why deny the Estonian-born child a passport if his or her parents are too lazy to do the paper work?

Now, to be fair, it's not like it was his idea. When Thomas Hammarberg, the Commissioner for Human Rights at the Council of Europe, last visited Tallinn, he suggested the same change be made. That is because, in most of the world, statelessness is viewed as a problem. Diplomats undertaking human rights missions are mandated to urge countries to reduce it. Estonia officially says it is working hard to cut its number of stateless persons. It has, slowly and steadily. Over the past six years, the number of stateless persons has been reduced from 12 percent to 7.5 percent of the population, or around 100,000 people. An issue, though, is that many of the newly naturalized do not acquire Estonian citizenship. They acquire Russian citizenship which, if you take the Russians' moral imperative for intervention in Georgia last year, can cause big headaches for a state trying to maintain its sovereignty.

But proponents of the current policy say that they cannot force Estonian citizenship on anyone, even children without a passport. The Estonian state is run by nice people. They don't even force ice cream on anyone. It's up for the parents to decide, they argue. Of course, they might force an Estonian integration program on you in schools, or mandate a certain level of linguistic proficiency for you to hold certain jobs. But, that's just their way of helping you get along so that one day you can get that passport. According to this line of thinking, an Estonian passport is like the ripe, sweet cherry atop the multi-layered cake of integration.

The argument against naturalizing more people at a faster rate through the years has rested on several concepts. One is legal continuity and the idea that those who are currently stateless did not enter Estonia with the permission of its citizens, who were under a military occupation (and they were, you needed special permission to visit Hiiumaa). Plus many of those stateless persons were born in Russia and did not have longstanding ties to Estonia. A significant chunk of them went back to their mother country in the nineties (about 150,000 people, off the top of my head). But, from the vantage point of 2009, it looks like those who are still here are here to stay. They're not going "home." They are "home."

Another argument rested on loyalty. How could Estonians know that those stateless people were not Intermovement-backing saboteurs? How could they be trusted with the right to vote for the parliament at such a critical time in the nation's history? This argument also made sense, considering the large number of Russian military personnel and pensioners in Estonia in the early 1990s. And Estonia was trying to navigate its way into the EU and NATO, two Western clubs that didn't especially want it, but seemed like the best antidote to post-Soviet detritus.

That argument made sense for a long time. But then came the Herman Simm case, where a birthright Estonian citizen traded security secrets to the Kremlin so that he could buy up more land in Viljandi County. Those who opposed the merits of the "loyalty argument" in the citizenship discourse suddenly found themselves with a powerful counterargument: citizenship does not guarantee loyalty. Just look at Herman Simm.

For some one with nasty social democratic tendencies like myself -- and they are hard to shake -- I tend to be attracted to the idea of the state as a steamroller, or even a crazy monster from a Japanese science fiction movie. The Estonian Godzilla emerges from the Baltic Sea. Everywhere you hear air-raid sirens. People are fleeing this way and that. There's chaos on the streets of Tallinn. But the Estonian Godzilla does not care. It does not ask its stateless victims if they want to be citizens or not. There's no paper work. With a determined, pissed-off look on its face, it grabs them, tosses them towards its killer jaws, and gobbles them up. "Mmm, tasty," it belches as it breaths fire and heads towards Lasnamäe. "Who's next?"

And you can't help but cheer on Godzilla. I mean, why should the lizard just stay there lounging in the ocean when real fun can be had on the streets of Eestimaa? Sometimes, you need a little bread and circus. Entertain us, oh Estonian state. Then again, I never get eaten in those movies. I'm always sitting safely with my passport and loved one in the theater.

But Teder didn't sell the proposed change to his skeptical audience that way. He's too polite. He said that Estonia is too "nationality-centered" right now, and that he wants to build a happier country where citizenship, or state identity, is paramount. You're not defined by your language or the folk costume hanging in your closet, according to this line of thinking. You are defined by your nifty, society-leveling state-identity card. That's a sweet, bureaucratic thought, but the current coalition isn't going to change anything related to citizenship laws. And why would they? These are the kinds of issues that elicit hundreds of angry comments on Postimees' online edition. As I said, it's like asking for an intestinal disorder. Anybody who opens up that shit box is destined for ruin.

An interesting aside is that Estonia is "nationality centered" because Estonians actually are the largest group of people in Estonia. Seven out of every 10 individuals on the soil of this land speak Estonian with their mom and/or dad. And one of those 10 is loyal to Dmitri Medvedev or some other president -- typically Yuschenko, Lukashenka, or Halonen, so they aren't part of the parliamentary equation. That means that people speak Estonian in the Riigikogu because that's the language that most people speak. These days, the official language is de facto, not just de jure. But don't tell anybody that. It'll be our little secret.


When you are building an outhouse, you learn that life is a series of compromises. Oh yeah, you think you measured those posts correctly and spaced them evenly apart. You think that your outhouse frame is a model of geometric perfection. But then you take a few steps back and realize how badly you've messed the whole thing up.

So you hammer a bit here, and dig a bit there, and screw in an extra piece of wood here, and lean on it a bit there, and, when you look at it again, it's not perfect, but it's standing. It might even last the winter. And you see that every last piece of it is a compromise. The whole structure hangs on slight alterations, each fixed to the other. To put in another way, the sturdy whole is built on interlocking flaws.

I turn over mismatched concepts as I saw another piece of wood. Russia claims a "sphere of privileged interest" in the post-Soviet space, which includes Estonia. NATO reiterates that the cornerstone of the treaty is collective defense, which includes collective defense of Estonia. Nuclear-armed NATO also does not see little Russia as a real security threat, supposedly because if Russia did threaten NATO, the organization would drop an Article 5 bomb on Moscow. At the same time, Russia has decided that Ukraine will not join NATO, and there are some tremors of badness originating from the Crimean peninsula. I read about this everyday. I read about geopolitics so much I even dream about it.

Our friends regularly make the pilgrimage to the Russian side of Setomaa. I've even thought of getting a multiple entry visa so I can see what life is like over there in Asia. Supposedly, the bake shops in Petseri are not to be missed! But I'm worried they've got me in their secret files. I'm worried Russian Ambassador Nikolai Uspenski has a dossier that reads, Giustino: Enemy Blogger.

"I haven't written nice things about Putin," I told my spouse. "I'm sure they'll deny any application I put forward."

"Then why don't you write something good about him for a change?" she suggested.

"Good? About Putin?"

The other night, I dreamed I was in a beautiful European city filled with canals and fountains and outdoor cafes. I thought I was back in Turku, or Stockholm, or Amsterdam, but no, I was in St. Petersburg drinking beer at an outdoor cafe with Putin.

"I read your blog all the time," Putin says and guzzles his beer. "It's pretty funny, but why do you write so much nasty shit about Russia all the time, eh?"

"Nasty? Like what?" I feign innocence.

The waiter comes and asks if we want another round. Putin tells him we do, and that it's on him.

"You said our ambassador Nikolai Uspenski is incapable of smiling," Putin glares at me. "How would you feel if I said that your Estonian ambassador is incapable of smiling?"

"He probably is. I mean, he is Estonian."

Putin laughs, and when Putin is drunk and laughs, he really loses it. He's slapping his knees. He's pounding his fists on the table. After a minute, he wipes the tears of laughter from his eyes.

"You're not so bad, Giustino," Putin says. "You should spend more time in Russia. We have pretty girls. Old buildings. Great literature. Here," Putin rummages through a knapsack. "have you ever read The Brothers Karamazov?"


"Take it, take it," he hands the book to me. "How about," he dips again into his bag, feeling around, "Anna Karenina?"

"I haven't read that either."

"You haven't read it? My God. Here, here, take it. It's yours." Putin pushes the other thick book across the table.

"Thanks," I say, flipping through the Cyrillic text, "but I don't know Russian."

"Don't play with me, Giustino," Putin sneers. "Everybody knows Russian."


"Wait, I think I have something written in fascist, I mean English," Putin chuckles, feeling around in his book bag. "Here!" he thrusts a third book in my hands. I look down. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov.

"You'll love it," Putin says. "It's right up your alley. Sick," he chuckles again, "sick." He chugs his beer and slams the glass on the table.

I put the books aside and finish my beer. "You know, Putin, you're not so bad," I say, wiping the foam from my mouth. "You should come to Tartu sometime. We've got pretty girls. Old buildings. Great literature."


It snowed yesterday in Tartu and I was a little annoyed. I am enjoying autumn. I want it to extend for as long as possible. Some people are summer people. They're hedonists. Their idea of a good time is grilling meat in their swim trunks eight days a week. Other people like spring. The river ice is melting. The pollen's in the air. The girls are apt to try out exotic fashions. It's mating season. A third group of oddballs enjoy winter. It's so dark and sinister, and yet, by withstanding all that pressure, you are ultimately enlightened. For them, winter is like a really good Radiohead album.

But me? I am enjoying autumn, especially autumn in Setomaa. I want it to last. I want the trees to stay the way they are. They soothe me. Yes, I think I've decided. I am an autumn person. I want to finish the outhouse before it's too late, before it starts snowing every day from now to April 1.

In the distance, I hear a the muffled explosion of a gunshot. Our neighbor and some of the other locals have gone off hunting deer. It's all supervised by the state. When you drive into this corner of Võrumaa, you can see the hunt supervisors, dressed in neon orange vests, making sure nobody gets out of line.

I know I am not like the locals. They are country boys. They build outhouses that actually are geometrically perfect. The Estonian giant mythological figure Kalev himself could use it. The locals are different. They speak Võro language, albeit only when they are drunk or joking. But they don't mind me. Maybe they'll even compliment me on the outhouse when it's finished. Nothing like a New York tenderfoot greenhorn trying to manage in the Montana of Estonia. But I enjoy it. I could just stay here in this moment for a long time, powerdrill in hand, having a meaningful dialogue with a half-finished outhouse.


* Sõir is a kind of cheese popular in Võromaa and Setomaa,. The word sõir is of Slavic origin (the Czech word for 'cheese' is sýr) . The local varieties of sõir are soft, often with caraway (not rye) seeds mixed in. The Estonian word for 'cheese' is juust. It is of Germanic origin (the Swedish word for 'cheese' is ost). The etymologies of these words could be seen as examples of the different influences on Estonian and Võro/Seto culture.

kolmapäev, oktoober 07, 2009

enam ei ole

Estonian months carry a variety of names. For instance, July or Juuli is also referred to as heinakuu -- "hay month" -- a month where, I guess, you are supposed to make hay.

Oktoober's alter ego is viinakuu -- "vodka month" -- named so because of people's fondness for vodka making. But, if I were printing calendars, I would give it a different name, õunakuu -- "apple month" -- because it's the month when people are busy trying to think of creative ways to get rid of the avalanche of apples in their backyards.

Estonians treat apples more kindly than they treat one another. Harvesting begins not with ascending a ladder to pluck nature's bounty from your personal orchard, but with searching the ground for apples that have dropped over night that might still be good. Good apples are never wasted. Even the bruised ones can be sliced and made into jams or used to sweeten cakes.

Only after you have personally judged the quality of every grounded apple can you move to the trees. Using both methods, we collected about eight bags of fruit two weeks ago, resulting in liters and liters and liters of apple juice. We also have jars and jars and jars of sweet apple jam. But the apples kept coming. Last weekend, I scavenged, picked, and cleaned four more bags of fruit. A group of Estonian guys up in the Tartu neighborhood of Veeriku work morning til night every night making juice for Tartu residents for a fee. For 180 kroons our apples were turned to raw juice overnight. We boiled the juice and packed away even more jars of the stuff for the months to come. But there were still more apples. So this weekend I picked six more bags and brought it to the Veeriku õunavabrik. This time though, I went without my spouse.

The leader of the Veeriku pack is a guy who looks to be in his 50s or 60s. He wears an old sweater, and has a salt and pepper beard and a ruddy face that looks like he's seen too many saunas. He also suffers from south Estonian mud tongue -- that is, he sort of mumbles in a deep voice. Only other Estonians can truly understand the system of grunts and sighs that make up this variety of the language. I manage to make it through most of the conversation. Then he points at my apples and says something about "Antonovka." I figure that he thinks my name is Antonovka -- that I am an Estonian Russian. I do have a noticeable accent.

"No, my name is not Antonovka," I tell him.

"No, no, these apples, are they Antonovka's?" he grunts.

"No, they're our apples, not Antonovka's."

"I know they are your apples. But what kind of apples are they?"

Now, I attended pre-school in the United States, so I know the names of different apples. The big yellow ones are called Yellow Delicious. The big red ones are called Red Delicious. And the tart green ones: Granny Smith. How would I translate 'Granny Smith' into Estonian, I ponder. Vanaema Sepp? But the reality is that none of our apples look like those American apples. They're all a little different.

"Well, some of our apples are red and some are yellow," I tell the Veeriku õunamees. "Those are the kinds of apples we have."

He sighs and takes down my number. I give him Epp's name though. I don't even want to go through the process of spelling out my name or, even worse, being reminded that I share a name with American pop singer Justin Timberlake.

I ask Epp about Mr. Antonovka when I get home. She just laughs, and tells me that Antonovkas are a kind of apple. There is no Mr. Antonovka. My mistake! Later, when I bring my daughter to visit a friend, I discuss the dilemma of Estonia's overproductive apple orchards with her father. Margus is standing at the top of the drive way, twisting the top of a juice press. Beside him is one large wheelbarrow filled with apple pulp, another tub filled with raw juice, and then two more plastic tubs filled with apples.

"I've been drinking apple juice for weeks," he says proudly. "I won't need to buy juice from the store all winter."

I relate my tale to Margus. "I went to get the juice pressed in Veeriku, and the man kept asking me about Antonovka -- I thought he thought it was my name!"

Margus laughs. "There are lots of different kinds of apples in Estonia that you probably don't have in America. Antonovka apples come originally from Russia. They don't taste so great, but they last a long time."

I realize he's right. They probably don't have Vanaema Sepp apples in Estonia. And I haven't seen any Yellow Delicious at the store. I'm still a foreigner in a foreign country. It's like John Travolta's character says in Pulp Fiction. The funniest thing about Europe is the little differences. "I mean they got the same shit over there, we got here," he tells Samuel L. Jackson's character, "but it's just there's a little difference."


Making juice causes logistical headaches. When is the right time to begin boiling? Who will be on straining duty to skim off all the nasty foam that rises to the top? And worst of all, what do we do when we run out of jars?

You'd think the answer to the last question is just to head to the store. There are always more jars, right? This is a capitalist country. There is supply and demand. If the people demand jars, then the stores will order more. Sure, Estonia is on the east coast of the Baltic sea, but it's not the middle of nowhere, is it? Such simple things as jars must be as plentiful as, well, as plentiful as apples in a Tartu backyard.

I am sorry to report that there were no more jars at the Zeppelin shopping center in Tartu. Nor were there any at Eedeni Keskus. The Rimi Hypermarket was also out. And Selver didn't have any either.

Kas teil purke on? (Do you have any more jars?) We asked the sellers.

Enam ei ole. (Not any more) They replied.

Enam ei ole. Enam ei ole. I heard that line so many times. How could it be? This is a city of 100,000 people. There must be jars in it, somewhere. As we found out there are, just not at the stores. After searching around, friends began to volunteer huge bags full of empty containers. Apparently, there are ladies all around town that have jars stashed in their cellars. They have more containers than they can fill with fruit byproducts. And the best part of this social networking experience was that we got all our jars for free, though I did spend 51 kroons to buy 30 jar lids this morning. You see, even after boiling juice by the gallons, there's still one more giant aluminum canister to work through.

"Don't worry," our friend Pille tells me. "If you run out of jars, my neighbor has plenty." Pille spends her weekends in Võrumaa, in the southeastern corner of the country. I am informed that they have enough apple juice down there to swim in.

"How much apple juice do you drink?" I ask.

"I average about a half liter per day," she says.

And maybe I do too. I must confess, when I'm in the mood for something quick, I might just grab a jar of juice, a jar of chunky apple jam, and a spoon. They say an apple a day keeps the doctor away. But what about 40 apples? Am I adding years to my life?

As I write this, the sunny morning has given way to a gray, windy noon. The only bits of light that catch my eye from the second floor window are the golden orbs that are suspended before me -- the highest-hanging fruit of our personal orchard. It almost makes me sick to look at them. I feel guilty for not making use of every last goddamn apple. But there's only so much juice and jam a family in Tartu can make.

reede, oktoober 02, 2009

alati valmis

My wife sensed that our younger one had a cold coming on. The solution? Küüslauk -- garlic. But she didn't dice it up and feed it to her. No, she took a thread and stitched the slices of garlic into a necklace, which she hung around our daughter's neck to ward off evil spirits.

I never really thought of Estonians as the folksy east European gypsies one might encounter in 19th century British literature. They always struck me as slow and steady northern peninsula people with marvelous cheekbones. But the natural remedies they push anytime anyone gets sick makes me think twice. Maybe the garlic serves other, unspoken purposes.

I fell ill on the 20th, the day before my father's 62nd birthday. In Estonian, they call what I got angiin -- which should correspond to the English 'angina' but means something entirely different. My angiin meant acute tonsillitis plus four days of aches, pains, and recurring fevers. For those few days, all I could do is gurgle in a voice that, to me, sounded a bit too much like Humphrey Bogart's, and ask my abikaasa -- spouse -- to bring me some more throat-soothing Coldrex and Theraflu.

"Thanks for the Theraflu," I would murmur to my abikaasa. "Here's looking at you, kid."

Theraflu was the only kind of remedy I received that came in a paper box. The rest was straight from the garden. On the morning I fell ill we were in Karksi, a small town on the Latvian border where my wife's people dwell. Somehow my wife's cousin Helina got word that I was in bad shape. I was dispatched to see her mother, Randi, who had some ideas about how to mend me.

In Randi's kitchen I was given astelpaju berries mixed with honey. I have only encountered astelpaju derivatives -- jams, juices, et cetera -- in Estonia. In English, it's called sea-buckthorn, but I don't recall ever seeing sea-buckthorn juice on sale in Manhattan. Maybe it is, in some organic grocery in the East Village. But it's not the kind of thing you find in your American grandma's kitchen, which is a shame because it's supposedly high in anti-oxidants and vitamin C.

Astelpaju berries remind me of cranberries, just as powerful but lighter and softer and sweeter in every other way. While I swallowed the astelpaju and honey, I told Randi about a remedy I had seen for prostatitis at a country fair -- dead wasps floating in vodka. Supposedly, the double-punch of insect venom and vodka would wipe any prostate clean of invaders. I didn't try it though. You can question my masculinity all you want -- I'm not one for drinking dead bee juice.

Randi made for me something entirely different -- chopped onions and garlic in a jar.

"You should wait awhile until the syrup rises," she said, holding the jar of chopped alliaceae before me in the kitchen sunlight. "Then you have to take it. Three spoonfuls a day."

Mick, Randi's British beau entered the kitchen. His real name's Michael, but in Estonia it helps to have an Estonian name. Mick, or Mikk rather, it is. They met while she was working in the UK. Mick's the same age as my father. I am always intrigued by these guys -- the young men of the 1960s. I imagine that Mick was there on Carnaby Street in '67 with Dr. Strangelove and Austin Powers. Everything was just shagadelic and groovy, and people were guzzling beers out of those old-fashioned tall containers and smoking because, as everyone knew back then, smoking was good for you.

"I just got a new guitar," Mick tells me. "It's called Variax -- like a variety of axes." Using his 'Variax' Mick can get the sounds of different makes of guitars -- Rickenbackers, Gibsons, Fenders. He's one of these guys that really loves guitars. I have several -- an acoustic, a classical, and an acoustic bass guitar, but I think Mick belongs to a whole other caste of musicians, the type that really loves guitars and cannot resist the temptation of acquiring a new axe. Each time they pass the window of a music shop, they inevitably fall in love. So maybe Variax is the best solution for Mick. It's like buying several guitars all at once.

When you're sick, people are nice to you but nobody wants to shake your hand. And so I waved Mick and Randi farewell as they left to go visit relatives. But the talk with Mick made me realize that it had been too long since I had played guitar. Life has a tendency to interfere with joyful activities. But music is like that. It can't let you go. When you're in, you're in for life. It's a neverending activity perpetuated by a group of enthusiasts. Sure, sometimes you slack off, but then the others remind you that you and your guitars are headed in but one direction. If you fall out of rank, they'll step in and force you to pick up the pace. "Forward!" the guitarists charge, axes in hand, eager to conquer the world of sound. "Edasi!"


Later that day, we arrived in Suure-Jaani, the seat of my wife's childhood. Everytime we go to Viljandimaa, there are always little stories that pop up. The bubbles of memories just can't be suppressed. It's just pop, pop, pop. Here's the school house that my father-in-law attended a billion years ago as a child. And that's where my wife's grandfather was a school director. And over there, that's the place where one time ...

We had watched a film on Soviet Estonia a few nights back. It was filmed probably in the mid-1970s, but to me, as an American, the haircuts and clothing dated to 1964. There's a weird lag in time between American and Soviet styles. You think that somewhere in Los Angeles they came up with that look around the time of the Kennedy assassination and it took a whole decade for it to reach Main Street USSR.

In the film young Pioneers waded down the aisle of a gathering where they spouted Communist slogans and then, in a militaristic way, put their hands up and proclaimed that they were alati valmis -- always ready -- to defend their socialist superstate from the imperialists with their platform shoes and Mott the Hoople LPs.

My wife was one of those children. They used to have to sing songs about Lenin in school. Lenin. It's been 90 years and I still can't believe they killed the tsar and his family. I mean, ok, they killed the tsar. But his four daughters? Anastasia, Tatiana, Olga, and Maria - executed by one Yakov Yurovsky, later chief of the Soviet State Treasury. Yakov Sverdlov approved their execution. For that and other accomplishments, the city of Ekaterinburg was renamed Sverdlovsk in his honor in 1924. It reverted to its original name in 1991. But they sang songs to Lenin. And if you ask most Estonians of that generation today, Brezhnev's kids, they look back on their bizarre Red youth with a certain nostalgia.

I actually drove to Viljandi from Karksi, keeping an ill-man's pace on the Viljandimaa roads. But Epp's brother Aap had to take over for the trek from Viljandi to Suure-Jaani. Fortunately, Estonia's asshole drivers tend to stick to the Tallinn-Tartu road. We made it to Helle's apartment in one piece, but the first thing I did was make for the spare bedroom and collapse into delirium and pain.

This is the first bed I slept in when I moved to Estonia back in early 2003. That day was cold and life obliterating. I'll never forget how I walked on the ice with Epp towards her aunt Helle's place from the bus stop and took a spill on the frozen blackness, my whole body sliding down part of the street. Man, that was rough. But at least I was well back then. This time I was sick.

I guess my fellow travelers grasped by this point that I was done for. All Helle could do is pile blankets on me and keep her fingers crossed. There's nothing like having your wife's aunt tuck you in and bring you tea. Talk about extended family. "You actually care about me?" you ponder as she lays another blanket on top. "You care if I am well or sick?"

But Estonians care. If you get sick, there is a group effort to get you well. Aunt Randi contributed the garlic and onions and astelpaju. Aunt Helle kicked in the blankets and teas. And the next day, back in Tartu, I got a phone call. A phone call from Laine.

"Epp's downstairs," I croaked to her. I always have a hard time talking to Laine and Karl -- Epp's grandmother and grandfather. Maybe it's because I am insecure about my linguistic abilities. But their language is different. It's not the clipped, decipherable Estonian that you hear on the radio. It's this meandering stream of vowels and consonants, where the grammar is otherworldy. Somewhere in the back of my head, my brain is still deconstructing those phrases and reassembling them in English. I don't notice it, but it creates a slight strain on my thought process.

"But I didn't call to talk to Epp," Laine said. "We were worried about you. How are you doing?"

Worried about me? I was shocked. "I can barely talk," I told her of my condition. "But I don't have a fever right now."

"You should drink hot teas," said Laine. "Lots of hot teas." In the background, I heard Papa Karl mutter something. "Papa recommends hot milk," Laine added. "He says hot milk with honey works best."

That night I wished my father a happy birthday via Skype. I could see my unshaven, pärslane image on the screen of the laptop. I looked bad. And, you know, I was supposed to go on a business trip to the UK the next morning. I kept thinking that the illness would pass, but my wife pulled the plug on the whole thing as I lay in bed, molested by changes in body temperature.

"You're not going," she decided. "I spoke with the doctor. She said there's no way you can travel like this."

Could you imagine what would have happened if I went? If I had gotten to Stansted, sweating from illness, unable to talk because of the angiin. They would ask me how long I intended to stay in the UK, and I would respond in sign language or scratch them a few sentences on a sheet of paper. Maybe they would have denied me entrance, or shipped me off to wither away in some British hospital. It certainly pays to have an abikaasa. Someone who can talk sense into you. Someone who knows when it's time to cancel the business trip. Someone who brings you teas when you are down.

But still, hot teas? Garlic and onion syrup? Milk with honey? It was like firing arrows at a destroyer. The next day a doctor was called to the house. Heavy duty antibiotics were prescribed. We were going to napalm the shit out of my illness. No germ would be spared. It was curtains for angiin. Die, you bastards, die. It took two days, but finally the beast was subdued. I could swallow again. Given some time, I might even return to something resembling 'normal.'

I still don't feel that I am there yet.


As the autumn light filtered through the windows, I recovered and watched the news on TV or read newspapers and books. I have to admit it, I like Jüri Pihl, see mees kes teab ja välja veab. That's the electoral slogan of the Social Democrats -- it means that he knows things and fixes mistakes. I'm not really sure what he knows or doesn't know. I just like him because he seems amused whenever he is interviewed.

During one program, the reporters asked the Tallinn city council candidates random questions as part of a poll, things like, 'How much does a liter of vodka cost?' And there was Jüri, looking amused. "Everyone knows that a liter of vodka costs between 120 and 180 krooni" he shook his head from side to side, apparently entertained. And he was right. He got the most questions correct out of all the other candidates. It's like they say, Jüri teab ja välja veab. I guess that after decades in the security services, getting asked dumb questions by reporters is amusing.

But mostly I spent my recovery with Haruki Murakami and his book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. Not that I am about to pick up running. Murakami says that certain bodies, like his, are designed for traveling long distances via athletic shoes, and I've come to conclusion that my body isn't one of those bodies. Still, I enjoyed the simplicity of it all. The freedom of a mind traveling down a road, savoring ideas like the little tufts of clouds that float by above.

That's the hidden benefit of illness. Clarity. You realize that you've been spending 90 percent of your time engaged in full pursuit of counterproductive crap. You require a clean slate -- to disengage, to step back from it all, and see things as they really are. To not think in disjointed paragraphs, but to approach the world one perfectly crafted sentence at a time. It's like Jüri and the reporters. You can either be threatened by the outside world and its cascading waves of troubles, or you can enjoy it for what it is. Maybe you'll even find it amusing.