big intestine

Life,” said Emerson, “consists in what a man is thinking all day.” If that be so, then my life is nothing but a big intestine. I not only think about food all day, but I dream about it at night. But I don’t ask to go back to America, to be put in the double harness again, to work the treadmill. No, I prefer to be a poor man of Europe. God knows, I am poor enough; it only remains to be a man.

From Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller, published in Paris by Obelisk Press in 1934.

that hemingway quote

No well-run yacht basin in Southern waters is complete without at least two sunburned, salt bleached-headed Esthonians who are waiting for a cheque from their last article. When it comes they will sail to another yacht basin and write another saga. They are happy too.

From Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not, published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1937.

tlingit girls

Two Tlingit girls, Tsacotna and Natsanitna, pose for a photograph in 1903. The nose rings are common ornaments among Indians of the Northwestern tribes, jewelry being a symbol of status.

Two Tlingit girls, Tsacotna and Natsanitna, pose for a photograph in 1903. The nose rings are common ornaments among Indians of the Northwestern tribes, jewelry being a symbol of status.

From The Encyclopedia of North American Indian Tribes by Bill Yenne, published by Arch Cape Press in 1986. The Tlingit are an Algonquian-Nadene speaking group in southern Alaska. In 1985, they numbered about 8,700.

where people go to get away from the news

A woman cowers behind the base of a flagpole at the University of Texas at Austin on Aug. 1, 1966

A woman cowers behind the base of a flagpole at the University of Texas at Austin on Aug. 1, 1966

The word “linn” in Estonian is translated as “city” in English, but it would be an exaggeration to call “Viljandi Linn” a city. It is more of a town, and not much of one at that, with somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 inhabitants, depending on who is counting.

Situated in south Estonia, about two hours from Tallinn and an hour from Pärnu and Tartu, the fourth and second largest “cities” in this sparsely populated country, its main attractions are a well-preserved Old Town with colorful leaning wooden houses, a gorgeous lake view, mysterious castle ruins, and a cultural academy that attracts much of the country’s major musical and theatrical talent.

Every summer at the end of July, people from all across Estonia and many other places come to Viljandi to enjoy its annual folk music festival. It’s usually a peaceful event, and brings to mind Woodstock, with its carnival-like atmosphere and assortment of crazy characters and absurd and spontaneous happenings.

Every country has a bohemian hub like Viljandi, I guess. It’s where people who want to seek refuge from mainstream life disappear to. Women wear old-fashioned, homemade clothing, bake their own bread (when they feel like it), sit around fires in winter with their feet up against the soothing texture of wooden floors and spread village gossip while the men drink coffee or beer and make idle jokes about everything. The children play, too, with dolls or toy cars, and sometimes they strum their zithers and sing songs.

It’s about as ideal and enjoyable as life can get, but it’s only one part of Viljandi life.

Along with the cultural shakers, there is a rougher, left-behind, working-class edge to Viljandi.  Just around the neighborhood where we used to live, one could hear the coarse voices of village drunks arguing behind houses and encounter bratty street kids smoking cigarettes and yelling obscenities at passersby. In my own time there, I watched a young couple graduate from high school in love, bring a baby into the world out of wedlock, and then separate. I have not seen the young woman in some time, but the last time I saw the young man, he was standing outside a liquor store drinking. So there is a ghetto-like undercurrent to Viljandi that few comment on or address, a specter of hopelessness that tiptoes right behind the folksy frivolity.

There is also atomization, an increase in the space between people, a devolution to perpetual disengagement, and this is a phenomenon that has occurred throughout Estonia, as it has around the world. Children who spend their free hours staring at screens while their parents stare at other screens chatting with other adults who stare at screens. My God. Nobody talks, nobody opens up, nobody shares what is in their hearts. Why share something personal with another person when you can satisfy your needs the way you want to with a tap of the fingers? Many nights in Viljandi I would work late at the office and walk home alongside the buildings and look up through the windows to see zombie-like young people seated in the intoxicating glow of a device.

I cannot tell you much about the school shooting that occurred this week in Viljandi beyond what you have already read in the news. I can tell you that my first instinct has been to not think about it or what it means, and to continue on with my life. We no longer live in Viljandi, which makes it a “there” even though it’s right “here,” just an hour west of where I type this in Tartu. But many of my friends are “there” and I know that they are in shock, as am I, and are probably ignoring it as well because it is so hard to process how a 15-year-old boy could walk into a school and murder a teacher.

We are shocked because we believe that it should not have happened in Viljandi, which is where people go to get away from the news, and also because we believe that it should not have happened in Estonia, which is not Finland or Norway or the US, but small and quaint, a kind of Viljandi of the world. We are also shocked because we just cannot fathom that kind of act of violence, even though it has happened again and again and again in our societies. While the Columbine shootings in 1999 seemed to announce a new era of violence in schools, these kinds of things have occurred before many times, such as at the University of Texas at Austin in 1966, when a 25-year-old man climbed to the top of a tower and shot and killed 16 people and wounded 32 before being killed himself.

The writer Hunter S. Thompson famously labeled the unrest of the 1960s as the manifestation of a second, downward half of the 20th Century. It seems today though that the trend for the 21st Century is not up again but rather the same direction. And so people moan to each other about a world circling the drain, of which the Viljandi shooting is just another dip lower toward some eventual bottom. Because if there is social movement it must be toward a bottom. Unless, of course, there is no bottom at all.

the terrible truth about extreme estonia

It's unconventional.

It’s unconventional.

THE TERRIBLE TRUTH about the book Extreme Estonia is that I didn’t take it very seriously when it landed on my so-called desk. I was too biased, too doubtful, because the word “extreme” to me carried with it unwritten references to tattoos, piercings, snowboarding events sponsored by fast food companies, and bungee jumping.

And the pathetic thing about Estonia is that so much of it is not extreme in any way. There’s nothing particularly extreme about gazing at some fluffy white sheep under some fluffy white clouds on Saaremaa, is there, unless you happen to contract Lyme disease while doing it. Honestly, I almost fell asleep when I wrote about Saaremaa for Minu Eesti 2, because it was just such a relaxing place. But fortunately the extreme in Extreme Estonia refers more to the idea of being remote, outermost, farthest removed, and in this sense it is a very credible title for such an interesting book.

What Terhi Pääskyla-Malström does in Extreme Estonia is take readers to the extremities of this intriguing northern land. And what one learns while flipping through these 192 pages, is that there is a hell of a lot to experience up here. Sure, I have been to Haapsalu and to Narva and to Võru and to Pärnu, but I haven’t managed to get out to the Pakri Islands (and I probably never will). And given the pace of the book, the terrain covered, and the author’s wonderful sense of humor, one gets the sense that he or she has hitched a ride with Terhi and is finally going to all of those distant-feeling places, locations and settings I would bet that many Estonians have not even visited.

My favorite section of this book dealt with humorous place names in Estonia. Feel  a sudden urge to visit Urge? Mustvee? Of course, we must! And why not say “I do” in Aidu? Good old Terhi! She’s a tremendously sympathetic writer. She can be honest and sarcastic at the same time, and her buoyant  and informative text obliterated any doubts I had about this book. Doubt. It’s a peril that all writers face, that irritating question of who are you and why do you have any business writing a book about anything? Many readers ask authors this question, and the authors restrain themselves from answering back, “Well, if you have such doubts about my abilities, why don’t you go write a book yourself?”

But maybe Terhi doesn’t have these doubts. She seems like a courageous person, and her book inspired me to be more courageous too. Get out a bit more. See Estonia, see the world. Time to set away the laptop and trek out to that remotest, farthest removed, outermost point. And don’t forget to take along your copy of Extreme Estonia.

independent people


Independent People is also the name of a 1935 novel by Icelandic Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness. It has been sitting unread on my shelf for two years.

SEPTEMBER 1 it is and so so long to a summer of zero play dates. In New York, this was the key phrase, connoting two heavily supervised children comingling for a set period of time. “Daddy, can we have a play date?” How I rued the phrase, how it turned disgust over in my guts. When I was a kid, we never had play dates. We just got on a bike and rode away. As it is here in Estonia, where kids just come over and then they leave. Most have their own telephones and are reachable by them. I ran into my own daughter the other day on the other side of town. She was crossing the street with a friend. “Oh, hi Daddy, I’m going to so-and-so’s house,” she said. “That’s fine with me,” I said. And off they went. Just like that.

When I was in Orient, which is a little seaside village at the easternmost edge of Long Island, I did talk about my Viljandi friend Enn and his five children once in the general store, and about how Enn’s sons would climb a ladder up to the roof and then dive off onto the trampoline below. And the lady behind the counter said, “Oh, my, that does sound like Orient of yesteryear.”

I’m sure it did. I am sure that the children of decades ago played just as I played, and had those rough and tumble childhoods. Like I told my therapist, when I was a boy we would roam uncharted woods for hours in an attempt find our way back home. “It prepared you very well for this life,” she said. And hasn’t it. I’ve been lost everywhere, Helsinki, Beijing. I got lost outside the Summer Palace among the little stone shanty houses and cages of tiny yipping dogs kept for some special canine stew. And yet I’ve always found my way back home. But what of those children of today? I have wondered. Will they be able to find their way anywhere?

The fear culture has not yet gripped Estonia, and maybe it never will. Too small, too familiar, too many eyes, too many cameras. Sometimes here I think people know more about what’s going on in my inner life than I do myself. But there is also fatalistic trust in things, and in a free childhood, and with that freedom comes responsibility. Small, properly dressed children tote student identity cards on their first day of school, a document that will get them a discount anywhere when displayed. They learn to carry it with them, to identify with it, and to wield it out of self interest. This staircase of responsibilities leads upwards, so that my friend’s 15-year-old daughter spent most of the summer alone in Tallinn living with a friend.

“My friends in the States can’t believe it. They said, ‘Wait, you let your daughter live in Tallinn alone for the entire summer?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.'” My friend is an American too, but our childhoods happened a long time ago before the suffocating embrace of the play date clung tight. “Yes,” his wife said, with a bit of a satisfied smile on her face, “We do raise children to be independent and self sufficient in this country.” They do, that’s true. Estonia has its problems, as do other countries. Independence and self interest can lead to egomania and the complete abdication of any kind of social responsibility.  I admit that I have thought from time to time that the personal motto of too many an Estonian is, “But, hey, what’s in it for me?” 

Still I am impressed by local attitudes toward children in this little country. Help to self help. Sounds about right to me.