huracán by don’t chase the lizard

Don’t Chase the Lizard’s Lee Taul and Tomás del Real, photo by Annika Vihmann

EVERY OTHER DAY I catch sight of Tomás del Real leaving the house on Posti Street. It’s a sprawling, timber, 19th century structure across from the courthouse, and the South Americans have settled into the apartment at the far end. In the evenings, I can hear them singing through the windows. Sometimes I peek through to watch them play. I am not sure if Tomás is actually living in the house or visiting. Del Real turned up in town with his guitar and some other Chileans maybe a year ago. Suddenly, there were these dark-haired musicians milling about, the kinds of nomads who carry the winds of Los Andes with them wherever they may venture.

Del Real was one of them. He’s got thick hair, a scruffy beard. He likes to wear sunglasses. I know almost nothing else about him, other than that he is one half of Don’t Chase the Lizard.

The other half of this indie folk duo is the Estonian violinist and vocalist Lee Taul. I see her around town too. Usually she is either coming from rehearsal or going to rehearsal or getting coffee while taking a break from rehearsal. Sometimes she prickles with electric enthusiasm. Sometimes she is frustrated with the slow pace of a project. Sometimes it is raining and she is taciturn. Sometimes it is sunny and she looks more vibrant and Latin than Tomás the Chilean. Sometimes she has been rehearsing with her fiddle all day and yet no new ideas have arrived. Sometimes Lee has a really brilliant idea.

Taul and del Real met at some kind of musical camp or event years ago somewhere in Europe. When del Real found himself in Viljandi, a town of about 20,000 people steeped in culture that serves as a kind of Glastonbury or Roskilde for this Northern European country, they reconnected. Del Real had just washed up on Estonian shores after leading a peripatetic existence that took him from Chile to México to the US, then back to Chile before embarking for Europe. 

“I spent a year without performing and filling myself up with anxiety, not being able to develop much as a person,” he says of this time, which coincided with the Covid-19 pandemic. “I decided that I needed to explore other possibilities, so I moved to Europe with one of my friends.”

During this period, they decided to reach out to old friends they had made at ethno music camps, including from Estonia, which del Real had visited years ago. “I had good memories of Estonia from my past, so we decided to hang out here,” he says. “I connected deeply with the place, the culture, the people and the nature, so that week turned into a year, and here we are now.”

Del Real also got a residency at the Pärimusmuusika Ait, or Estonian Folk Music Center, a converted manorhouse barn that serves as the hub for folk music. It was here that he and Taul began to compose the songs that feature on Don’t Chase the Lizard’s debut album Huracán

ESTONIAN WINTERS ARE WEIRD. Anyone who has ever lived through one can tell you that. From about November through April, the ground is covered in snow and ice. Sometimes it melts a little, only to be reinforced by double the amount of white cold. Days dawn and end with sheets of the sticky stuff falling all around. Time doesn’t stand still during an Estonian winter. There is no time. In a way, the hypnotic character of the Estonian snowfall found its way into Don’t Chase the Lizard’s songs. It is this strange yet appealing overlap between northern natural elements and Latin rhythms that colors the group’s music, like João Gilberto mixed with a little Hedningarna. 

Del Real wrote most of the songs early in the morning. There was an almost monastic quality to the composition process, steeped in solitude and peace. He would wake, work, and send his ideas to Taul, and the two would build on them. “I was the winter resident at the Ait, so we started to work while being very much in isolation from the world,” says del Real. Because of pandemic restrictions, there wasn’t much activity at the Ait, which is located adjacent to the ruins of 13th century castle and a wooded lakeside landscape. With few visitors, they were especially isolated.

“All the tracks from the album come from that experience,” says del Real, “being in our little bubble and around nature.”

Within two months, they had an album’s worth of material. “Huracán” was the first song written for what would become the group’s debut album. “It was very early in the morning and I couldn’t sleep so it was almost like having a conversation with your subconscious,” he says of the song. “Lobos” was the last composition. By the time it was written, the duo had started to play live.

Don’t Chase the Lizard performing, photo by Ako Lehtmets

THE GROUP’S FIRST CONCERT took place in the Ait itself in February and by March, they had released their first single, “Buscar la Luz.” The single has a soothing, undulating quality, held together by del Real’s splendid guitar work and the droning quality of Taul’s violin, which adds color and depth to the melody, topped off with sincere lyrics and beautiful harmonies. 

The duo appeared on several Estonian radio programs in the early spring before making their Tallinn debut at Philly Joe’s in May. From there, they flew over the ocean to take part in Folk Alliance International, where they had an official showcase in Kansas City in May and performed at the Kansas City Folk Festival. Once back in Estonia, they played the Seto Folk Festival in July and opened for Rita Ray in Tallinn the same month. They are also scheduled to play at the Ait’s Harvest Party concert this coming October. 

In the meantime, Don’t Chase the Lizard racked up more than 30,000 streams on digital platforms with its singles “Huracán” and “8,” incidentally the eighth track on the album, which was released in July. “8” features more intricate guitar work, with a hushed, almost prayer-like quality to the vocals. The violin work takes its time, no note is wasted, every tone is supple and adds to the sound. Credit is due to Kaur Einasto, who recorded the album in Viljandi, as well as to Jorge Fortune, who edited, mixed, and mastered it at Estudios Triana in Patagonia, Chile. 

According to Taul, the concerts have gone quite well, and the crowd’s positive feedback has surprised the duo. “I don’t know if it’s the fact that the folk audience is used to a different kind of music, and ours has had a refreshing effect, or that the songs, mainly in Spanish, give the program a special flavor,” she says. “In any case, we have been satisfied with the results.” Taul notes that audiences in the US received the group warmly and that the group made new contacts. “We met amazing musicians, producers, and agents,” says Taul. “We can only hope that some future cooperation will come out of those interactions in the future,” she says.

“I think people have been reacting very well to the live performances,” agrees del Real. “It seems that people connect with feelings and sounds that seem genuine to them,” he says. People have particularly been intrigued by the combination of Chilean and Estonian sounds. “It’s attractive to see how two people from opposite regions of the world have a sound that might fit together very well and become something quite unique,” he says.

GOOD ALBUMS are like the best novels, of course. They have a way of effortlessly reaching you on their own time. Someone might give you a book and urge you to read it, but you put it aside until one day, out of boredom, you pick it up and devour it all at once in a few hours. Likewise, someone might give you an album and ask you to listen to it, but it might take time for the right moment for listening to arrive. In my case, it was a Sunday morning in August when Huracán presented itself to me. The sun was already shining, I was about to take a shower and go to the cafe to get some coffee. Many of the big milestones of the summer, such as the annual Viljandi Folk Music Festival, had passed. I myself was in a calm morning contemplative mood. 

Each song on Huracán is a treasure to be savored in its own way, unwrapped slowly and delicately. The voices reach out to you. While well produced, it’s a bare bones recording yet with stirring atmospherics. It sounds like it was recorded in an old church in the Andean Mountains. There is del Real’s guitar and Taul’s fiddle, plus their exceptional voices, del Real’s intimate delivery and Taul’s intuitive and sensitive harmonies. There are no electronics gurgling in the background. There are no distractions. It’s as if they are right there with you playing in the room.

I will always recall that moment of putting on those songs and letting them play. They seemed like the best way to start a quiet Sunday morning in the first week of August. It was kind of funny as well. This music, written in isolation in the winter, somehow made sense in summer. Huracán, the ultimate winter album, had unwittingly become the ultimate summer album too.

the game of hockey

AFTER SHE HAD finally purged her life of her husband, Céleste invited me over. I wasn’t surprised they had gone their separate ways, but Céleste had often spoken lovingly of Georges, a man of business, a man of ideas, a man she could depend on. It was a relationship consecrated in a cathedral, celebrated at a manor, formalized with the necessary paperwork.

They also had a child.

Then, just like that, in a matter of eighteen months or so, there had been a crumbling, a dissolution, a reversing of the course. Everything she loved about Georges she now despised. She disliked the way he drove, especially. I wasn’t sure if infidelity was involved. I never dared to ask, but I had my suspicions. If anything, Georges was more married to Pierre on his hockey team than he was to his wife Céleste. As soon as she had banished him from the home, she invited me over to dinner. I went there accordingly. I had no idea what to wear or to expect.

When I arrived at their house, the door was open. I knocked and rang the bell and when no one answered, I went in. I could hear that someone was in the shower downstairs, and then Céleste’s mother came out from the kitchen, holding little Antoine in her arms. She invited me in, and I saw that Georges was very much still in the house, eating dinner together with Pierre. They said they were both going to play ice hockey, and then asked if I’d like to come along.

Naturally, I thought they were plotting to kill me. Georges must have known there was something going on between me and Céleste. Perhaps he had even read our erotically charged letters? Or seen some of the photos she had sent in her more vulnerable, early morning moments? I studied him as he walked toward the rink. He was no doubt regarded as handsome, I thought but at the same time, a rather stale, dry kind of character, the kind who breezes through life into positions of power, even ascends to the presidency, or who collects great wealth, but in person is rather a bore. Such a character is the very epitome of manhood by all metrics, yet lacks anything that would distinguish him as a man. The only thing that defined Georges was his love for hockey. He knew statistics associated with all of the players. He played hockey. He watched hockey. He was hockey. During that solemn walk, I did not dare mention his failed marriage, but the man never mentioned it. Instead he spoke of the game with Pierre, and they recalled with great accuracy different plays from the season. His only lament was a sore shoulder that was taking too much time to heal. I suggested he take some time to recuperate. Georges sneered at me as if I knew nothing and said one word: “Never.”

I left the two players at the rink and walked back to the house for my dinner with Céleste. The evening had just begun and yet had already taken a strange turn. Even the trees down the boulevard looked sinister. In a nearby park, a man tossed some breadcrumbs to some pigeons.

At the house, Céleste was waiting for me. She had put on a red dress, and draped herself in a white shawl. Her blonde hair was pulled back. She held a glass of red wine before her and stared at it in contemplation. I knew she wanted something from me, but did she want it all, and tonight? The grandmother had apparently left, and Antoine was sitting in his high chair.

“Well,” said Céleste. “At least you came.”

Dinner was nice. Afterward, she told me she wanted to show me the cellar. We came down an iron staircase to a series of underground rooms, full of antiques, magazines, and a plush bed in the corner beneath a ground floor window, through which shone some early evening sun. The child held to its mother. When she set him down on the ground, he started to scream.

“Please kiss me now,” said Céleste. I obliged and kissed her. She fumbled with my pants, grasping at my underwear. “Now I want you to make love to me,” she said. “Would you?”

Of course I said yes. “Please do it. Here, like this. Take me from behind.” I complied. Antoine kept sobbing. Then, from outside the window, I could see a shadowy figure approaching us.

“Don’t stop, ” Céleste said. “Whatever you do, do not stop.” “I am not stopping,” I told her. 

The figure put his face to the window and began to speak through it in hurried French. 

It was Georges! He had returned to the house to fetch a hockey stick. That was all he said. Céleste put her face up to the window and began to pelt him with obscenities. I tried to make myself invisible, but this was impossible. How do you make yourself invisible when you are servicing another man’s wife in a messy basement with a screaming child on the floor? I was wrapped up tight, deep inside the lady of the house. There was no way back or out of this thing. “Céleste, please come to your senses,” I heard Georges say through the small window.

“No, I want you to watch,” Céleste responded. “I want you to watch this all, Georges. This is how I feel now. This is exactly how I feel about you, and us, and about the game of hockey.”

the road to a folk hangover

THURSDAY IS THE first day of the Viljandi Folk Music Festival. I have decided to do this year’s festival sober, which may explain my melancholic mood. Also the rain, which sends me and my youngest daughter to seek refuge beneath some trees, only makes things less joyful. The rain is heavy and floods the streets, soaking the kebabs and donuts. I bailed on the opening ceremony because of the rain. Of course, the Folk people are starting to trickle into town. You can spend all year in Viljandi and never see these people, but then suddenly they are back and swarming in. Where do they go for the rest of the year? Maybe they sleep in the hills behind the castle ruins? When people do come, you look at them. I think lingering eye contact is the currency of Folk. Somehow a look is more meaningful than any words. What does that look mean? Sometimes different things. It can mean I like you, or think that you are beautiful. But it can also mean that I don’t want to have anything to do with you, leave me alone. Sometimes people just look familiar though. “Don’t I know you from somewhere?” Maybe that is what all these looks mean. I have learned to trust people’s looks. They are meaningful moments, moments that linger and haunt you, even while the accordions are blaring and the Cubans are performing. I wonder how many stories start with just a look in a crowd at a music festival.

The highlight of Thursday night is inarguably the Korean ensemble, whose name nobody can say, even though they have a special language lesson in the middle of the concert. (They are actually called “Ak Dan Gwang Chil“). They have great costumes and I can make no sense of the structure of their songs or melodies. I cannot name most of the instruments they are playing. This is exactly how the best music must be, challenging. I am surprised by the turnout for the Koreans, even on a Thursday night. I can only guess that pandemic-era restrictions have increased people’s appetites for live music. Afterward, I head to Romaan to hear Gilly Jones and the Evocations playing in the new samasama.studio in the back. Gilly Jones is from Ghana and leads a band of the “cream of rhythm players” in Estonia. They play afrobeat and highlife music. Even I have to dance to this music. The best dancer is of course Pepi, who manages this creative space. He is from Argentina and has the moves. I am studying Pepi to improve my dancing. The night ends in Joala Park, drinking wine from a plastic bottle with DJ Jaanika and Inxu. Inxu is a vivacious and sharp young woman who is giving an impromptu lecture about US domestic politics. A few young men are seated across from us. One of them is especially proud that he is seated on the spot, more or less, where the Joala Monument was. “And it was located right here where I am sitting,” he says.

AT ABOUT 7 PM on Friday night, Marko Veisson from Puuluup undertakes a stage dive. It is in the middle of their set on the Second Cherry Hill, or II Kirsimägi, and happens while the duo is performing “Roosad suusad,” “pink skis,” which is a song about pink skis. The dive is a success and the crowd is pleased by Puuluup’s performance. The band’s reggae-inflected repertoire is stunningly ridiculous. Even old people like Puuluup’s music. Especially old people. The show ends with applause, unanimous cheers, joy, whistling, and this “three, four, good band” cheer. 

At 8.30 pm, there is a young man in a kimono grooving to the guitar licks of a Malian performer called Samba Touré on Kaevumägi. Three kids in Pokemon hats walk by and I see them again at the Hempress Sativa concert, which is pure Jamaican reggae, along with some speeches about the sacrament of marijuana. There is a funny mood. In general, the music on Friday night is good and satisfying like that. By 11.30 though, I walk by a teenager who is leaning against a tent and watching Geneza, a Ukrainian band, play rock music in Freedom Square. There is something about the blank look on his face opposite a rock band that speaks to the exhaustion of Folk. Even the young get tired. I can’t tell if he is burned out or sleepy, but fatigue has set in. It’s the bagpipe music. I think. It gets to you. But how much bagpipe music can you hear? How many dances can you dance? How many old friends can you greet?

Of course, there are the real Friday night stories. The real thoughts you think while you are wandering around at the festival. The real feelings you feel when you see certain people you know. The memories you have. The ones that you can’t forget. The people you have lost in the crowd. The impossibility of dreaming of anything, and yet the bravery to still be hopeful in life, if only because you have no other choice than to be hopeful. There are secrets you can never tell. Even on your most honest and forthcoming day, you can never tell the complete truth.

SATURDAY DAWNS the same way that every Folk Saturday dawns, with flies tickling your nose. You walk to the café, any café, to get some coffee. Strangers emerge from tents, cars, and apartments, wearing those little quasi-religious “Folk hats.” One wonders about the true lives of these devotees. Maybe they lead a humdrum existence in Tallinn border towns like Jüri, working as accountants, pushing along in drudgery through the year. Now and then they spot the Folk hat in the back of the closet and sigh to themselves, knowing it will be maybe half a year until the next festival. 

The peak of Folk, I think, is the slow Saturday afternoon before the bigger crowds show up. This is when you can take time to eat with your kids, sit around and reflect. You hear church bells chime, the creak of the hammocks tied between the trees. You have time to sit and think. Teenage fry cooks struggle to fill all of the orders for fries. And sometimes people forget their orders. “Maarja” has apparently disappeared to see Polenta, a Finnish group. The cooks keep calling for “Maarja” to pick up her fries, but “Maarja” never comes to claim them.

At 8 pm on the First Cherry Hill, Black Bread Gone Mad takes the stage. This is one of my favorite local bands. During the encore, bassist Mati Tubli asks people to sing along, but the lyrics to their songs go, “u-ja-ei-u-ja-ei-u-ja-ei,” or something like that, and then the next one is “ayibobo.” Okay then. After that, Zetod storms the Second Cherry Hill and the crowds are stricken. Much longer after that, I decide to see Untsakad which, believe it or not, I have never seen. There is a long table behind these Untsakad fellows — it is their 30th birthday celebration — and notable musicians like Ruslan Trochynskyi and Brad Jurjens are at the table. It reminds me a bit of King Arthur’s Roundtable, with Sir Galahad and Percival. I confess, I am jealous. Who wouldn’t want a seat at the Untsakad’s table? The music is Estonian traditional song, but I am surprised by the numbers of young people who are dancing boldly to tunes like “Metsavendade Laul,” a song about postwar guerrilla fighters. This year it is especially relevant.

ON SUNDAY AFTERNOON, Imar Kutšukali, a Dutch adventurer and part-time folk musician, informs me in the yard of the Green House Café that he understands most of Untsakad’s lyrics. This is perhaps the highest level of Estonian comprehension you can have. The next level is understanding what drunk men mumble to you outside the bottle returns and trash bins. Imar is wearing a cowboy hat he picked up in Louisiana, and plucking at a friend’s mandolin, then switching to his own fiddle. Kutšukali is so embedded in Estonian Folk culture, he can name the members of Untsakad. Later, I drag my acoustic bass guitar out of my house, making sure to wipe the dust off it, and dive into a jam session with some other musicians. Folk music operates according to other rules. It has a repetitive, spiraling quality, almost like a cyclone, and it can billow up high or swirl down deep. Providing the bottom end is a challenge, what to play, what not to play, but it seems my fellow musicians welcome my contribution. We even joke about forming a band. Later, at another concert, I run into Ramo Teder from Puuluup who informs me that he also wanted to stage dive during the performance of “Pink Skis,” but there weren’t enough strong men in the audience to support both him and Marko. Maybe next year.

The evening ends in the company of Silver Sepp and Kristiina Ehin, who cannot walk a few paces without meeting old or new friends. Talking with both of them is a challenge, but Silver more so. We just can never manage to have a straightforward, average conversation. It can only go from absurd to more ridiculous. Dancing is easier with this cultural power couple. Kristiina is a sensitive dance partner, and Silver slips me some pepper vodka during VLÜ’s set, most of which I spend dancing frantically with a Swiss psychiatrist. By midnight, people decide to move to the upper floors of the Ait. Within this confined space, there are constricted dances, and there is some kind of guitar, fiddle, accordion jam. I had promised myself this would be a sober Folk, but it is proving once again to be impossible. Kutšukali is seated with Ando Kiviberg. They are drinking cognac and I pour myself a big glass. Veisson is there too. I am asking him if women are constantly trying to seduce him on account of his fame. Veisson assures me that this is not the case, but I am doubtful. A guitarist named August is seated with Lee Taul, and they offer me wine. I inform Ms. Taul that I’ve had too much to drink and am perhaps enjoying myself too much this year. She responds that you’re actually supposed to enjoy yourself at Folk. “Come on, it’s a party,” she says. “You’re supposed to have a good time.”

An Estonian version of this article appears in the 3 August 2022 edition of the newspaper Sakala.

elementary, my dear watson

YESTERDAY, I RECOUNTED to a friend the story of how I once tried opium, but by accident. No one ever believes me when I tell this story. They like to think that a person knows exactly what drugs they take and when, and how, and their provenance, but in my case, it really just happened. I was a senior in college then, and had just returned from a study abroad program in Europe to Washington, which is where I was studying journalism. I had gone to call on my friend Seán who was renting an apartment up on O Street, across from a boisterous gay nightclub. There were many quarrels outside the nightclub, and at night we could hear lovers fighting in the alleyways. There was pure torment down there. It was interesting to walk through that neighborhood if you were not gay, because you might notice some old man looking at you a little too long while he took his dog out for a walk. A funny little district.

Seán lived up on the third floor. He was one of these drug people, people who knew of and experimented with drugs. I was never a drug person per se, but, for whatever reason, I have always had one or two of these characters floating around nearby, hovering in the near distance, the kind of cat who will lecture authoritatively on the effects of indica versus sativa. Even in high school, I had another friend, Beaver, who used to roar up in his car and whisk me away to some field on the edge of town where he would set up his howitzer-like water pipe and implore me to try it. My college friend Seán was one of these experimenters and lifestyle artists, but he also was and is in his bones an Irish intellectual. His walls were lined with the books of Joyce and Yeats. Whether sober or not, he could engage you at the highest levels on the political conditions in Ireland and the history of Ireland. Seán also had a habit of attracting strange characters, like me I suppose. After my time in Europe, I had taken to walking around with a “Learn to Speak Danish” cassette and could be seen strolling up and down the avenues of Washington repeating back Danish phrases out loud. Many of his other friends though were of another sordid sort and I didn’t even know their real names. These kids only had nicknames. One was called Scooby.

It was February then and they were watching the Olympics in Salt Lake City. This was the year that Veerpalu won the gold and Mae took home the bronze. Estonia was not at all on my radar then, even almost exactly a year to the day I would be moving into a Khrushchevka in Tallinn. The hash pipe came around the room, and Scooby handed it to me. The first thing that struck me was its odd metallic taste. But there were other factors at play. A cannabis high is different from an opium high. A cannabis high will surprise you a bit, because even if it is strong, you won’t recognize it at first, unless you are a connoisseur, a pure play drug person. You can watch skiing on TV all day long with a cannabis high, and not miss anything. This was different. I was overwhelmed by a kind of gray melancholic sleep, a complete withdrawal of desire. I was on the couch but could not move. There was a glass nearby, but I could not bear to reach for it. I tried to move my hand, but I couldn’t make it move. “Hey, this hash is strong,” I remember saying to Seán as he watched the men ski on TV. My own words sounded faraway, as if not my own. Seán looked up at me through his glasses and raised his red eyebrows with his Irish intellectual eyes twinkling and said. “It’s not hash, man. It’s opium.” Opium? The kind of opium that started wars in China in the 19th century? The kind of opium that Watson caught Sherlock Holmes smoking in an East London den? That kind of opium? Seán nodded. Then the pipe went back around the room.

In a puff of smoke, I had become one of them, the lotus-eaters, dreaming my winter blues away in peaceful apathy. It was a drug that took away not just your pain but everything else. It wasn’t my thing. I preferred psychotropics, something that might help me see things in a new and refreshing light. I believed in a psychedelic world, a world of color and permeable meaning. I am not sure how that day ended, but perhaps with me walking home, listening to my “Learn to Speak Danish” cassette and muttering to myself. Now that such experiences are decades in the past, I have to wonder what I was even doing there, how I walked into that scene, how I wound up smoking opium by accident. It seems like a lifetime ago, and my experiences are back there, in the distant past. Those kinds of characters are still floating around me though. They always are. When you are a writer, you make a habit of surrounding yourself with such people and experiences. I just didn’t know that I was a writer back then.

honey

IT WAS SUMMER and splendidly hot. The white tower of the town hall looked like one of those old colonial administrative buildings in the Danish West Indies. If you’ve ever heard that old Muddy Waters tune, “Good Morning Little School Girl,” then you have heard this story. But I actually didn’t know she was a school girl, I swear. I thought she looked interesting. In retrospect, the skirt should have tipped me off. It looked like it had been stitched together from old curtains. And then the worn red blouse, the messy blonde hair. She was not one of those bank clerks. She was holding something in her hands too, bearing it in front of her, but whatever it was, I couldn’t see. I decided to follow her but to keep my distance, as if I just happened to be headed in the same direction. If she looked back, I could inspect a hedge, or stroke the little dog of a passerby. Pretend to be a legitimate pedestrian. She walked through the park and then down Hollow Street. At one of the old houses, she paused to chat with a young man who was sipping his coffee in the doorway. She laughed at his joke. Then she came up Trench Street and arrived to the intersection with the main road. It was here that I caught up to her. I felt guilty for following her. I should have just glanced her and let her go. Yet she waited for me there. It was as if she had known I had been following her. We stood there and she looked forward and then turned and cleared her throat, but said nothing. Instead, she showed me what was in her hands. A small container enclosing a honeycomb. “Would you like some of my honey?” the girl asked. She had such a pleasant air, and I said, “Of course, I’ll have some of your honey.” She smiled at me and pulled a dripping hunk from the container and handed it over. She took a separate chunk and slipped it in her mouth. “It is good, isn’t it?” said the girl. A touch of golden honey was on her lips. From the crest of the hill looking down the road, I could see the lake in the distance. I could see the beach and the pines. “It is,” I said. The youth said nothing and we crossed the street. The wind blew and toyed with her sunshine hair. It was that kind of day. Disarming. Innocent. Bluesy. Honeysweet.

tüütumaa park

I HAD TO GO to the airport to pick up a daughter flying in from Brussels (and there was panic about whether or not she was even on the plane). While at the gate, I was pacing in worry when she called out to me, “Dad. Dad! I’m right over here. God, what an idiot.” Then we had to go back home. All of Europe was arrayed in Scandinavian-style apartment blocks. You know those big yellow brick buildings you see in Stockholm, or Copenhagen especially. “Estonia” was merely at the end of one particularly long boulevard. It was dark and it was raining. When I got home, my woman friend was gone. She had come to see me but I had to leave her alone to attend to my family needs. Apparently, she didn’t have the patience to spend all day, leafing through old magazines. She had worn a special dress for me, but where was I? At the airport? She didn’t even bother to say goodbye. Not even a message. When I inquired after my female guest my other daughter said, “You mean the one with the breast implants?” “Breast implants? I thought they were real. When did she get breast implants?” I was not convinced about the fake breasts. But I also didn’t want to ask. They were fine, firm, very believable breasts anyway. Organic. I understood then that my other daughter was just trying to downgrade her in my mind. It was all about attention, you see. These daughters of mine, they wanted my attention. Another female interloper was just a drag on the attention stock. She needed to be pushed out of the picture. They sure were crafty. The next morning I had to go out with Morris for a meeting at a startup company on the other side of town. It was somehow impossible to get to this place on foot. I looked at the map. It said it was located in “Tüütumaa Park.” The river flowed straight toward the park, and we decided to commandeer a small vessel. It was this ramshackle wooden thing, leaking, but still seaworthy. The waterways were full of great sea lions, walruses, elephant seals. They floated by, big furry masses of dopey fish-feeding mammals. “There must be sharks in these waters,” I told Morris. “Where there are seals, there are sharks. I don’t like it one bit.” The water was incredibly clear, but I saw no great whites or hammerheads. They had to be down there somewhere. It was just so troublesome to get all the way down to Tüütumaa. Why were we even going? To visit another software company? Excuse me, ICT. Who cared anymore anyways? I really hoped that they had a food court down there. Maybe a coffee house that roasted its own beans. Something to make the trip worthwhile.

in search of chief ted

AND THEN ONE MORNING, I went out for a walk in Setauket. Setauket is, or was, a tiny Anglo settlement. The original European inhabitants were Puritans from New England. They arrived by boat, and traded with the local Algonquians, who were recorded in history as the Setalcott (which might hint at the original pronunciation of the name). Old timers like Ted Green and Sherman Mills used to say SEE-tauket, but newer arrivals call it Set-AUK-et. Hence, the famed Se-Port Deli.

I looked for Chief Ted’s grave at Laurel Hill, but couldn’t find it, but I found some other Greens, Harts, and Sells. I had never gone into the cemetery itself, which is an old Setalcott burial ground, and seems somehow off-limits to outsiders, but I was surprised by how lush and leafy the whole place was. There used to be an old house at the end of Locust Avenue terminating in Christian Avenue that belonged to this enclave of the original people, but it’s long gone, and has been replaced with some standard suburban structure, of zero cultural value. There used to be a kid who lived up that hill named Reggie, but I can’t recall what his last name was. I just remember him walking up that hill when our bus dropped him off. Maybe Chief Ted’s nephew?

Chief Ted told me that when he was a kid in the 1930s, the Klan was active on Long Island. Men in white sheets would come through the forests at night to terrorize the people of color. There used to be a series of houses over at the intersection of Old Town Road and Main Street called Chicken Hill, and a pub nearby. Chief Ted told me that the owner of the pub took out life insurance policies on all of his Afro-Indian clients, so that each time one of them croaked after a lifetime of drinking his alcohol, he earned a little money too. Sharp fella. In the Setauket of the ’30s, Chief Ted would walk with the other children into Port Jefferson to buy ice cream at Grandma’s and walk back. I remember going to Grandma’s when I was a kid. I think we had my seventh birthday there. It’s long gone now. Port Jefferson of old.

I gave up on looking for Chief Ted and turned left onto Lake Street. The original settlement of Setauket was built around this now stagnant green inlet. The land where my parents live up the hill was undeveloped into the 1970s. Some of these houses are built in the traditional saltbox fashion that is common throughout New England. Up the hill and down Old Field Road, you find more wannabe colonial mansions. These are hidden behind hedges and gates, and there are no people. It is a peculiar feeling to walk all the way down Old Field Road, and then down Mount Grey Road, and then turn onto West Meadow Road, heading for the beach, engulfed in shady affluence, and still see no people. Now and then you can hear them, children’s voices in a distant garden, but other than a passing car, it is silent.

There are certain roads, like the one that leads out to Flax Pond and Crane Neck, that are framed by stone posts and look like the entry ways to a Mexican caudillo’s hacienda. One might expect armed guards in camouflage to arrest any intruder. It is more Gatsby than Escobar here, but it begs the question, what is the real difference between Gatsby and Escobar? Skin tone? Language? Gatsby wasn’t a killer, but he was dealing in moonshine. Pablo was selling cocaine. At some level, big money is just big money, whether you made it legally or not. The desire of big money is to isolate itself, to insulate itself, to hide itself away from the world. A person of means does not socialize with the common man. He hides himself away down a long drive, vacations to an exclusive island, cherry picks visitors. Old Field felt so silent and lifeless and I recalled dramatic teenage mornings, roaming around these same vacant streets listening to the Paul Butterfield Blues Band singing “Walking Blues.”

At West Meadow, I decided to go for broke and make it to the Gamecock Cottage and the heralded “Porpoise Channel” of Johnny Remorse. I kept looking around for the Krip Keepas, but there was none in sight. Not even Matty D. Where could he be? Still running from the Suffolk County PD? Instead I filled up my cup at the artesian well in the middle of the wetlands reserve at the Erwin Ernst Marine Conservation Center. There was an older man there who told me he had been getting water there for 40 years, and that I should be grateful and thank Mother Earth. I thanked her and went on my way.

Along the road back, I overheard some Italians, identifiable by their use of the words “qui” (here) and “la” (there). I managed to fake my way through some dialogue. They were from Napoli, Naples, and I told them I was Barese, from Bari, which in some remote way I am. “Ah,” the Neapolitan said. “We are over here and you are over there” (the cities are on opposite sides of the Italian peninsula). Next I passed two women who I think were speaking Czech or Polish. Some western Slavic language. And then there was a Chinese couple out on skates. Funny, I came all the way to Setauket on Long Island, ancient hamlet of Puritan settlers, and yet nobody is speaking English here, I thought.

I’m not even speaking English.

‘and she was wearing blue’

ESTONIA. How did I wind up here? Oh, that’s right, I met some girl. How many men are sitting in cafes this morning pondering the same thing? There they are, getting to the cafe as it opens in Istanbul or Tashkent or Saigon, ordering up an espresso, which is the preferred no-frills drink of the life-lived man, conjuring up memory, wistfully, dreamily, merrily, ‘Ah, yes, that’s how I wound up here, and she was wearing blue!’ I tell you though, those Finnish airport workers are sweethearts. Each time a Finnish woman wishes you moikka or kiitti, you melt. They are the firm rye crust. I am the rice being baked into the Karelian pie, melting, as I said, with every kiitti and moikka. I am not sure what it is, perhaps it’s that sisu they keep speaking of, the unknown Finnic element, a melange of grit, no nonsense, and vital essence. Here I am reminded of Jack Kerouac in The Subterraneans, “I am crudely malely sexual and cannot help myself and have lecherous and so on propensities as almost all my male readers no doubt are the same.” Nonii. Or maybe it’s just been hanging around preteen girls who keep confessing to me that they are in love with the actor who plays Draco Malfoy. They have all awakened my inner youth, the one who has been suppressed, kept down, imprisoned, chained, forgotten, beaten to the curb, beaten back. The heart, the soul, they yearn to sing, to fly, volare, but the weary humdrum clock of the world keeps them down, hidden away in the back of the drawer in the desk in the garage, like my grandfather’s bottle of scotch, which you only take out once in a while to sip on while musing over old photographs. “And she was wearing blue!” This morning I related some American idioms to a friend here. Or rather New York idioms. America is a big country, spread across many time zones, encompassing north of 320 million people. But in New York you hear expressions like, “How much does he make?” (Make as in money, not as in chocolate. Nobody asks how much chocolate a chocolatier makes in New York. They ask about how much money he earns from his craft). Another gem is, “I bet he’s really raking it in.” This is as if there was money scattered across the lawn after a storm and the New Yorker has to go out and use some landscaping tools to capture it all. Those greenbacks are like leaves, you see. You need to rake them in (I gesture with my hands to my friend, as if I am actually raking money). In Estonia, people talk about work. There is even this expression, mul läheb töiselt, which means something like, “It’s going industriously.” Estonians feel proud of this, if they are pulling out their hair and working first to last light and, especially, if they are not getting paid for it. They just work because … well, just because. They rake leaves, not money, and nobody even asked them to! In New York, the ideal is that you check on your investments from your phone on your yacht and then go and get some lobster or something. You barely lift a finger. In Estonia, you rake all day and then you die penniless of heatstroke and exhaustion, but at least you die happily, not because you got some money for it, but because töö sai tehtud, the work got done, and your heart is thus at peace, su süda on rahul. Not always, no. Not always always. Not everyone is like that, always, but sometimes they are. Sometimes.

weed world

WEED, WEED, tufts of weed. Rolling through the streets, gathering dust like in the Old West. Wyatt Earp’s weed. Doc Holiday’s ganja. The holy sacrament of Jah! Ever living, ever fearful. Bat Masterson’s dank nuggets. Wild Bill Hickok’s satchel of chronic. The fragrant stink of green. It arrives, a plenitude of stenches. It stings, it hits high and sweet and then low and pungent, heavy, somehow melancholic and sad too. It floats over the heads of Texan tourists through Times Square, hugs the indigent people with tattoos who are laughing at their own jokes, and hovers over the local New Yorkers out for a jog, and the business ladies with their manicures at the corner table on East 81st Street. On 31 March 2021, cannabis was decriminalized in New York, and its potent winds wind across avenues, down side streets, up museum steps, down kitchen basements, linger about in taxis, chase kids into 99 cent pizza parlors. The weed wraps around the shanty tents promising immediate COVID-19 testing, even same day PCR. It’s different from the New York I left behind many years ago. New York smells different nowadays.

The trains rattle in, shake along, dive under the East River. They are worn and rusty, and there is no free wireless internet. New York is not about giving things away for free. New York is about charging you two times as much, if not three, and making you feel like you somehow got a good deal, because someone else is charging ten times as much. It is worth remarking that every piece of Manhattan island has been made over and remade, sculpted, hollowed out, reconstructed, and that even the wilds of Central Park were cultivated out of earth that was moved from elsewhere to make way for an elevated train. Once upon a time, this beatific isle was unspoiled nature. There were no property rights, nor air rights. You must take a moment to let that sink in. Nobody owned the land of New York State, and there was no New York State. There was no state, no governor, no avenues, no Subway, and you could smoke anything you wanted, if you could get your hands on it, or trade for it, maybe with one of those long clay Dutch pipes of the Henry Hudson days, or maybe a local Indian one. There was no line where one man’s tract ended and another began. It was all seamless. Land rolled into land. Such was Manhattan of old.

At Madame Tussauds, I took a selfie with Donald Trump and then another with Sean Combs. At the Met, I saw Van Gogh trees and Monet seasides. Winslow Homer had a thing for bare-chested Bahamanian men. George O’Keefe had a thing for desert bones. My favorite painting was The Three Sisters by Léon Frédéric, a Belgian, anno 1896. It is interesting for sure that they dragged all of this European art, Chinese and Egyptian art, and Japanese art, and even the furnishings of hotels and palaces in France, and set it up for us to see here in New York, a city that bulldozed nature and chased remnant Algonquian culture away. New York in this sense is a funny place. It is both everywhere and nowhere. Everything is here, but everything that is here came from somewhere else. Even the name was borrowed from the North of England.

That’s why people need weed. They need it to make sense of the humidity and appropriation.

three years away

THREE YEARS I was away. Almost exactly, to the date. The last days I remember being here were in July. It was the time of the Green Corn Festival, hosted by the local Indian nation. I went to the powwow and talked to the head woman. We both knew her predecessor, Chief Ted. She told me she was disappointed in him, because he died and left her to run things.

I knew not what to say, but that was three years ago.

In the August after my return to Estonia, I traveled to Stockholm, and that fall, the fall of ’19, I turned 40 years old and took a ship to Helsinki the following day to participate in Slush, a major meeting of startups. I was supposed to have a meeting with an important source regarding a book, but she stayed in Paris and changed her plans. I don’t even remember coming back on the ship. It would be the last time I would leave Estonia for almost three years.

Then the new decade dawned, and the pandemic with it. I welcomed the first lockdown and slept through those weeks in late March and April. But there were others, and I cannot really say where the time went. 2020. 2021. It was only in May 2022, that my car crossed the Latvian border, and we drove all the way to Riga and flew to Copenhagen, like normal people, like the way it once was. And in June, they finally allowed American citizens to travel to the US without showing any kind of COVID-19 test result. So our flight back went smoothly. There were no additional hurdles. There we were, after three years, in John F. Kennedy International Airport.

THE FIRST THING that I probably noticed in New York that struck me as strange was the clerk at the airport shop asking me about my shirt. He asked me where the North Fork was, and I explained to him that Long Island, the same island we both stood on at the time, had two forks at its end, and one fork was the North Fork and the other was the South Fork. The North Fork had Orient Point and the ferry to Connecticut and the South Fork had the Hamptons. It occurred to me that in Estonia, nobody would start a conversation with a client like that.

The following day yielded a few more surprises. In the liquor store, I watched as a man greeted the owner with, “God bless you and God bless this great country!” The seller was taken slightly aback but welcomed the blessing. I was then trying to determine the price of a bottle of prosecco with my father. Almost as soon as I had stepped off the plane, the US Supreme Court had repealed Roe vs. Wade. “Oops, we were wrong about that one.” What was going on in this country? Later, former President Donald Trump was quoted as saying the ruling was the will of God. How did he know what God wanted? And what did God have to do with a Long Island liquor store? None of these things seemed to make sense. These were my thoughts as I stood outside Carvel beneath a great poster celebrating the 45th birthday of Fudgie the Whale.

“A whale of an ice cream cake.”

MOST NEW YORKERS are foreign in provenance. The Republican primary for governor was between Lee Zeldin, a “Trump won” denialist who is Jewish, and Andrew Giuliani, who is Italian. New Yorkers don’t notice these things. They are trained to ignore them or to pretend that they don’t matter. For someone who has lived abroad for many years, you cannot help but notice that nearly all the inhabitants of this place arrived, mainly by ship, within the past 150 years. Within a generation, they had stripped themselves of their languages and roots, and became Homo americanus. Zeldin won, but Giuliani got to raise his profile in the press. Their signs were everywhere on the island. Giuliani, Zeldin. Zeldin, Giuliani. They love America. Did we love our predecessor countries as much? Was there once a contest featuring an ancient Zeldin proclaiming his love for Minsk, or a Giuliani kissing the blessed vineyards of Tuscany?

The land my parents live on was part of a land grant to British settlers made out by the local Indian nation in the 1660s, the same one that celebrates the Green Corn Festival every July. They are still here. For the ensuring three centuries, it remained mostly undeveloped farmland and forest. The postwar boom brought city dwellers east. The land was carved up into small estates of an acre or two. Each homestead has a manicured lawn, carefully placed trees and shrubberies, often a swimming pool. Food is imported from local farms or from California or Mexico. To get anywhere, you need to drive there, but rising gas prices are starting to bite. It is an inherently unsustainable way of life, but it limps forward, nurtured by sprinkler systems, tended to by cheap Central American labor. Hefty trucks, driven by contractors, rule the roads. Nobody wants to accept that it is unsustainable, even if it is. They want lower gas prices and a Fudgie the Whale the cake. They want god to bless their prosecco and this great country too.

It certainly is great, but how and in what ways, that I cannot yet discern. More vast than great. That’s how it seems to me.