outer hebrides

TO DIE FOR TALLINN? For some, it’s an uncomfortable question. Because is Estonia is so very small, and full of moose and pine, and stubborn tech-savvy peasants, that the idea of risking nuclear war for a tiny peninsula does alarm.

Yet, I feel it is both an important question and a false one. Let me explain. It is important, because Estonia is part of the West. It is part of our common space. It is as Western as the Outer Hebrides or North Vancouver. We move with ease within our common Western space without thinking about it. In Estonia, in Canada, in Scotland, it is 2015 everywhere. So we should be ready to defend our common 2015. And if we don’t — why not just surrender everything. Here, take Tallinn, take North Vancouver, and the Isle of Lewis.

What’s the difference?

The difference is that when you cross into Russia, you do not cross into 2015. You do not move deeper into our common space. When you cross into Russia, you cross space and time, you are beamed back into 1985. You cross into hungry cops out for bribes, Lenin in the metro, militsiya on the street corner, a supreme superman ruler who intends to stay in charge until the end of his natural life. And also, denim jackets.

The border between Estonia and Russia, between the West and the non-West, is real and worth defending. But while we must be vigilant in defending our common space, we must also not be deluded by its value. Estonia is a land of moose, pines, and tech-savvy peasants. Some shudder to think that we would go to nuclear war for moose, but we must turn the question around: are these same moose really so important for the Russians?

The true principle behind Estonian NATO membership was a northern one. It had little to do with Ukraine and nothing to do with Georgia. It had to do with the Baltic Sea. Denmark and Norway were already NATO members. So went Western control of the Danish Straits and the Baltic Sea. Russia maintained its exclave in Kaliningrad (nee Königsburg). Estonian NATO membership did not alter this balance of power. It couldn’t. All that Estonian NATO membership did was effectively take Estonia off the post-Soviet table. Recall, to attempt another occupation of this land of moose could lead to nuclear war (and trust me, Russia would lose that war). On the flip side, Estonia strategically wasn’t worth very much and therefore was not worth the risk.

Estonia’s fate is much less tied to 2004, when it joined NATO and the EU, and more to the early 1990s, when Swedish economic influence secured the country’s place among the Western markets. By 1998, Sweden dominated Estonian FDI and the country’s banking sector, and the economic crisis of 2008 only brought the two countries closer. Estonia’s banks are Swedish banks. Estonia’s money is European money. Estonia is a part of the West. You can deliberate sacrificing it to an unreasonable aggressor, but in the end, you’d just be sacrificing a piece of yourself. A pinkie perhaps, or maybe just a baby toe.


WHEN I READ recently that Estonia led the other OECD countries in alcohol consumption, I was not at all surprised. Instead I had that old Selena Gomez song ping-ponging between my ears, “Tell me, tell me, tell me something I don’t know, something I don’t know.” [Oh, yeah, I have three daughers, I know the entire Gomez back catalog like the back of something I know too well]…

There are of course negative social ramifications of this fondness for the drink — lessened lifespan, alcohol-associated health problems, a decrease in worker productivity. Some people here though don’t seem to take this seriously. Even if you put a warning on every bottle of booze, the way the cigarette packs read suitsetamine võib tappa (smoking can kill) people will narrow in on the word võib — can — and realize that it might not kill them, at least immediately, and drink and smoke on with festive indifference.

In Estonia, I believe that drinking takes place at a different level. In Ireland or Austria — beer countries that came in right behind Estonia– drinking is a social rite. In France, another OECD-flagged land, it is largely wine that is consumed, also socially, but as an extension of the local cuisine (although Italy, where many people still make their own wine too, was lower on the list).

In Estland, there is a medicinal aspect. People use viin — vodka — to treat colds, or to cope with loss. At every funeral after-party table there are several open bottles of viin. Lunch or dinner cannot proceed without a toast. People keep jars of clear, high-grade alcohol in jars in the cabinet for special occasions. It’s called puskar in Estonia proper and handsa in Setomaa and it is strong. This is no mere social lubricant, and it is not designed to be imbibed with a fine meal. This is a holy drink, a maarahwa folk absinthe that exists only to alter one’s constitution. There is even a special hand signal — the flicking of the skin beneath the chin — to indicate the necessity of a firewater remedy.

This is why it may be difficult to reduce alcohol consumption in Estonia. Some people respect drink here. Perhaps even more than they respect the OECD.


READING A NEWISH ESTONIAN TRAVELOGUE by British author Max Boyle called The Indrawn Heart, I came across this description of his one-time love interest/heart break  —

Quiet to the point of almost being sullen, Riina embodied the stereotype of the introspective, uncommunicative Estonian. She was hardly a suitable match, but this did not deter me. Within days of our meeting I’d been hopelessly, debilitatingly obsessed. I loved her air-cushioned walk as she came gliding over the cobbles of Town Hall Square to meet me; the way the tip of one ear protruded through the strands of her brown hair; her shyness, signalled by the occasional aversion of her gaze.

I remember the first time I fell for a woman, and being young and stupid, I mistook her golden hair for angel’s wings. She was no angel as it turned out. Oh, well. What we have here in Boyle’s book is a good long peak at the idiocy inherent in the ventricles and atria of the male heart. He does not want to fall for the sullen girl’s soft-cushioned walk, yet …. he just cannot help himself. One averted gaze and he’s in deep and down the abyss.

ok kuressaare

THERE IS NO RHYTHM, rhyme or logic to the back and front streets of Old Town Kuressaare. One leads to another which is bisected by a third and bypassed by back alleys. There are cobblestones and parks with blue and yellow spring flowers, cream-colored stone houses, cream-colored wooden houses, cream-colored clocks and cream-colored churches. It’s all cream and custard in Kuressaare, capital of Saaremaa, Estonia’s largest island. It takes hours and hours to get there and even when you reach the island’s shores via the Muhu causeway, you are still not there and so it takes an hour more.

When you come to and the hour arrives in Kuressaare you hear the creamy church bells chime. Ding dong bong. While you wander you know that people are meeting in Tallinn at the Lennart Meri Conference, and that author and TV producer Peter Pomerantsev is there, and that there is strong competition to have one’s photo taken with Peter Pomerantsev, to obtain the coveted “Pomerelfie.”

People have always been worried about Estonian security. They even built a castle in custardy Kuressaare to protect the creamy town from unsavory invaders. What’s the purpose though of such intrusion? A lot of blood spilled over a small land filled with peasants, birch trees, and moose? Saaremaa has no edge. It unwinds you. One imagines that soldiers on the front in Saaremaa might be lulled to sleep by its bird calls and ticks. Many battles have been fought here, they say, but you wouldn’t know it. Just listen to that jazzy version of Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine” playing in the trendy bistro on the square.

Ahhhhh. During my talk at the 10th anniversary of the American Corner at the local library — where guests were treated with glass bottles of Coca Cola and mini hamburger hors d’oeuvres — I spoke not of security nor of Russia, but of islands and the island mentality. That feeling of emptiness that an islander feels when he is far from the heaviness and space of the sea. A phenomenon strange to landlubbers. An islander learns to accommodate the heaviness of the sea, so that one part of him is in balance with the big water nearby. An islander away from the big water is off balance, because one of his anchors has been drawn up. He staggers always to one side, like a landlubber set back on land.

“Do you know what I mean, when I say that you feel weird when you aren’t near the sea?” I asked the Kuressaare audience. Heads nodded in agreement, some of them with sad faces, so tormented by the idea of being set adrift from their watery anchor.

too much land

Even Nyan Cat thinks Russia has too much land.

Even Nyan Cat thinks that Russia has too much land.

RUSSIA’S SLOW DEVOURING of East Ukraine, after its abridged Crimean “reunification,” has not gone unnoticed among the Estonian youth, who are otherwise occupied, as we all are, by the fascinating glow of the iPad screen, in putting new applications to good use, and sometimes whiling away dreary April days playing Nyan Cat.

Yet unbeknownst to Comrade Putin, Comrade Lavrov, et al., is the way in which their land grab has aroused long dormant anti-Russian feelings in the young people of the Baltic Rim. These are children who are vaguely aware that their country was not always as it is, though cannot quite understand how it was different before it came to be as it is. Yet they have come to loathe Russia — not fear it — but strongly dislike it, the same way one might feel about a bout of gastrointestinal distress, “Oh, darn, that Russia, I just hate it when that happens.”

The eldest of my daughter trio has voiced such opinion to me. “Ugh. Russia? I hate Russia.” “Why do you hate Russia?” “Hmph. Russia has the most land in the world and they want more land. They’re just greedy.” End of statement. It reminded me of Mano, a fine young Viljandi chap, who once informed me that going to Moscow, even for vacation, could be life threatening. “Don’t you know? Didn’t you hear? Haven’t you realized?” Mano accosted me. “They kill Estonians in Russia.” This is what Estonian children are telling each other, mind you. I rarely hear a parent mutter the “R word” aloud. Thanks to Moscow’s actions though, irritable, anti-Russian feeling is being bred into a brand new generation of Western neighbors.

Our second eldest daughter, aged 7, is not immune from such whispering and rumor sharing. She too knows that Russia is bad. She said so. “I don’t like Russia. Russia is just bad.” “Why do you think that Russia is bad? The people in Russia are just like you and me. It’s just their leadership who are bad.” This reasoning had no apparent effect. “But … but Russia is the biggest country in the world, Daddy,” said the second eldest. “They have so much land and now they want more in Ukraine. It’s just too much land, Daddy. Too much land.”

nord e sud

NOW THAT I’VE BEEN back and forth several times to Italy, Italia, the motherland, the paese of all paesans, no matter how distant, how removed in space and citizenship, I have soaked its internal divisions into my red wine-colored red Mediterranean blood.

My family is from the South. This means something to people from the North. In the North, the South has something of an unfortunate reputation. “All of our money, all of our money goes down South,” said a granny in Firenze. “Where does it go after that?” Corruption. Insinuation. “But you know what my cousins in the South say,” I told the Firenze granny. “All of the good criminals from the South have moved to Milano.”

Bari, the home of my maternal grandfather’s family, gli Abbatecola, is known to Northerners as a Southern city. Most of them have never been there, but they are sure it is dangerous, or even if there is no scheming swarthy pickpocket out to make off with their Milanese borsa, their bag, something is still probably not quite right. Bari is still Italy, if not the Italy they would like to present to others. Bari, Napoli, these are Italian cities. It’s the tip of the boot, Calabria, the point of origin of my father’s line, i Petrone, that is not only shrouded by the gauzy veil of Northern suspicion, but considered foreign and peculiar for its Greek churches and old Albanian villages.

Strano. Strange.

Yet there is something unfulfilling about the cities of the North, about Bologna or Firenze. They are too clean, too modern, too nice, too convenient. “Italy lite.” There are too many tourists there. In the streets of Bari at night, the fishermen chant “fresh fish” and sell the day’s catch from carts and old men play cards in the piazzas and the only tourists are other Italians visiting cousins. This is the South, my South, our South. For me, something is not quite right about the North. Something is off up there, something is strano.

Something is not Italian.

greek easter, russian easter

TWO CHURCHES to attend, one near the river, the other deep in Karlova. I used to pass the Karlova church, Püha Aleksandri, a long time ago, when we had a little office over on Alevi Street nearby. It has I don’t know how many onion domes and looms out of the Earth, big and white and vaguely Greek-looking like a dream or a phantom ship.

This is the church of Constantinople. I recognize the chairs inside. In the Russian churches, they do not have chairs, and it is standing room only. The Estonian Orthodox churches seem quiet and a bit forlorn, and yet they give one room to breathe, to think. I mainly go to church to think, though it does bother me how much I think about sex in church.

But doesn’t everybody? Hey, who’s that guy in the shirt? That girl in the headscarf?

I think about other things too, the long litany of drug overdoses and terminal diseases, the sirens and the accidents, to quote an old singer from LA named Arthur Lee. Colorful headscarves, devout peacocks. I like to hear the women sing, even in Old Slavonic. It gives me goosebumps. I know each and every person with head covered sings not out of obligation, but because they have probably lived through something awful. You have to live through something awful before you wind up in such a place singing. And yet there is joy in their eyes. They sing joyously. They know something. Have learned something. Have come to an arrangement with the man upstairs.

The bearded priests in the Estonian church look alert and interested but a bit lonesome. In the Russian church, the priests are more like rock stars swinging caches of incense, “Christ is risen!” “He has risen indeed!” “Christ has risen!” “He has indeed!” Then the procession around the church, the one by the river, Püha Jüri, also known as Püha Georgi, for this is Moscow’s church, and perhaps that is why it is more ornate, more gold and glimmering, more Russian. The people are Russian, of that stocky, assertive build. They hold candles and speak to each other, huddle together before the staffs of the clergy, who lord over them like triumphant knights. There is a pleasing cadence to their prayers, a repetitive lift at the end, but I cannot understand them. This is all foreign to me and I am a foreigner, but that is fine.

You must at some point in your life stop worrying about why things are so, and why you are in a Russian church at Greek Easter, and just huddle beside someone who is holding a candle. The Russian church has an icon shop and candles are on sale too. I had no change for a candle and I didn’t want to steal somebody else’s lit prayers, so I went and walked around the church without light in my hands. That was okay though. It was all okay and it is all going to be okay. Such was my midnight Easter revelation.