‘sober’ september; or, the desperates

WE DROVE BACK INTO TOWN on a Saturday evening in September. “Sober September,” I had been calling it because I hadn’t had one drop of drink since the wine festival at Õisu Manor at the end of August when I emptied perhaps two bottles of red wine and found myself seated at the “political table” on the estate grounds where I rubbed elbows with Helir Valdor-Seeder and pretended to have something profound to say about Estonian politics. “And you? You support Isamaaliit, don’t you?” I remember asking of Seeder. He had nodded and said, yes, indeed, he was a supporter of Isamaaliit. The lights of the Õisu Manor growing dimmer and blurrier, blinking. All that sloppy drunkeness, people slinking off toward midnight rendezvous in the bushes, and then that ride home with the party goers singing “Mustamäe vals.” That had been the summer’s last big soiree.

After that, I had pledged not to drink again. I looked forward to a month of clarity, of prolific writing, of pure sobriety, but just because I was having a sober September didn’t mean that everyone else in Estonia was. As we pulled up the hill, I spotted a solitary figure walking down its center, right in front of the old Orthodox Church that the Soviets once used as a morgue. A solemn, stick figure of a man, clothed in a black jacket. He was walking a bicycle up the hill. We waited and then I drove the car around him. I parked the car and my daughter got out.

As she did, the man reached the crest of the hill and collapsed. It was a stunning, dramatic fall. One moment he was standing, the next he was flat against the ground, the wheels of the bike were still spinning beside him. A crumpled pack of cigarettes had tumbled out into the street. The man was still.

“Let’s go inside,” I told my daughter, who watched the man with a curious but unconcerned look. “We’ll see if he gets up.”

From the window of my bedroom, I peered out the curtains to see the man had curled into a fetal position and was still sitting there beside his bike. I decided to call an ambulance. The dispatcher peppered me with questions. “Are you sure he needs help? Can you go and ask him if he needs assistance?” I went outside to check. He had a gash in his face that ran from his forehead down his nose and was bleeding. “Do you need help?” I asked the man. He just waved me away. “Does he need help?” she asked again. “I don’t know. He’s bleeding.” “How old do you think he is?” “I don’t know.” “Guess.” “Maybe 50.” Maybe. His hair was thinning, but he could have been my age too. He could have been younger or much older. Alcohol does things to your body.

Just then a jogger with a headband arrived, as if from some parallel universe. I handed the phone to him. “She keeps asking me if he needs help, I don’t know what to tell her,” I said. The jogger spoke with the dispatcher and with the man. The man just mumbled to us, “You people are too good for me. You don’t need to help me.” An ambulance finally arrived and three jolly medics in red overalls jumped from its back. “We’ll take it from here,” one of them told me, “after you help fill out the accident report.” The jogger ran on, and I filled out the report and went back inside. The medics helped the man. He declined to go to the hospital though, and pulled himself up with his bike and walked off.

Years ago, I had tried to describe the people like this that inhabit every community in this country. I had used the word pööbel (riffraff) to describe them but it had been the wrong word. Watching that man saunter off, realizing that he was just a street or two away from another emergency call, the right word occurred to me. The man was desperate. These were the desperates. They collapsed in the roads of the land, haunted its parks guzzling bottles of beer in the summertime, sipping vodka in the winter. Once, when we were driving south through the mist, a man ran straight out in front of the car. He wouldn’t let us pass, so we drove around him. At first, I thought it was a moose.

My daughter reminded me of the “man in the fog” later. Something about both stories troubled me. My indifference, my lack of compassion. The man had said we were good people, but I was no longer so sure I was good. I had become too accustomed to the sight of a fellow human being in anguish. I searched my heart for some traces of kaastunne, but I couldn’t find any at all. It was buried in there though, somewhere. It had to be.

the secret feminine world

WHEN I FIRST MOVED BACK TO VILJANDI after the split, I took a one-bedroom apartment in the Old Town. Then my second-eldest daughter decided to come and live with me. She slept in the bedroom and I slept on a pull-out couch. She was only nine years old at the time and still deep in her childhood. She would spend hours playing with toys. Later, she would go to take a shower and think nothing of me being there as I made food in the kitchen or did the laundry. One day though something unusual happened.

She asked me to leave. 

There is a kind of door that exists between fathers and daughters. When girls are young, the door is wide open. They come and go and the fathers come through the doorway and think nothing of it. There are no boundaries, no borders, and everything is open and fluid. As time goes on though, as the children grow, that invisible door starts to close, bit by bit, until one day it’s shut tight. Now the girls only come out to ask for some pocket money for ice cream, or if you can drive them to a friend’s house. Fathers never notice this until they reach for their daughters, only to notice that the door is shut. It’s not a depressing moment, only a bewilderment. It’s confusing. The door used to be open. 

Now it’s closed.

Living alone with one daughter though, I was subject to some new requests, ones that most fathers are perhaps not so familiar with. One day she asked if I could buy her a new bra, which I set out to do one evening at the local shopping center. I knew there was a lingerie store there, one that I had noticed many times because of the posters of half-naked women posing in various states of excitement in the display window. As you know, any man who stumbles into a lady’s lingerie store is immediately suspect. The seller looks you up and down. Who is this strange man fingering lacy brassieres?

I thought it would be easy. I buy shirts for my daughter all the time. I buy her pants, socks, shoes. With clothes, you can buy small, medium, large or, sometimes, according to age. Shirts for ages 10, 11, or 12, for instance. Here in the lingerie store, though, the bras had all kinds of interesting numbers. 65B, 70C, 75B? These are like apartment building addresses, not women’s bra sizes. At last, the seller came to help me. I told her my story. 

“But don’t you have anything for an 11 year old?” I said.

“I am afraid it doesn’t work that way. You will have to measure her.”


“Or she’ll have to come here by herself.”

I forget how this particular situation was resolved, but I think her mother bought her everything she needed a week or so later. Still, every time I walk past that lingerie store I feel that something’s not right. It’s a place where I know nothing, a reality to which I do not belong. It’s an outpost of the secret feminine world, a door to their dimension. Sometimes my daughters come through. They come and act like everything is as it once was. After some time, they disappear behind the door and return to the other side.

This column appears in the autumn edition of the magazine Hingele Pai.


the final solution

AFTER CERTAIN DARK FORCES consolidated their power in Estonia, they hit upon a remedy for the most-pressing issue facing the country. All foreigners would be rounded up and removed to a single concentration camp on the Baltic Sea and forced to undertake national work projects. They called it the lõplik lahendus or the “final solution.” 

It was unclear who came up with this solution first, but many point to Member of European Parliament Jaak Madison’s statement in August 2019 that “die endgültige lösung ist erforderlich,” or “the final solution is required,” as laying the foundation for what came next. Madison referred to Eritreans, Kazakhs, and Syrians in his anti-immigrant outburst, but all foreigners in Estonia eventually were seen by the powers as suspect and confined to the camp.

They were arrested in the middle of the night and transferred in the backs of Cargobus vans. There had been no prior announcement. Americans, Chileans, Chinese, it made no difference. Each was awakened by a knock at the door and told to take along a few choice personal items.

Adam C., a translator from Minnesota, decided to take a few more Estonian books to translate. Stewart J., a comedian, hid his list of new jokes in his shoes. Louis Z., the Australian entertainer, hid his in his underpants instead. And members of BC Tallinna Kalev agreed to take a basketball. A local instigator who used the pen name Vello — widely considered to be the worst of the bunch — managed to bribe his guards and was allowed to take along several boxes of classic literature.  

These would form the backbone of the library of the first cafe that the foreigners opened at the new camp on the seashore, a charming little dive that its owners called “Cafe Final Solution.”

Each new inmate was given a number, a blue-black-and white uniform, and a new tablet. Each was allowed free and unfettered access to the internet. The camp had free wifi and SmartPOST. It was protected by a birch fence and heavily guarded. Many came in, but only few went out.

The work projects envisioned by the state — harvesting potatoes, cleaning and frying enormous batches of mushrooms, mass assembly of birch branch bundles to be sold in gas stations — were undertaken begrudgingly. The trouble was that the foreigners in Estonia weren’t particularly good at agriculture or Estonian national crafts. They had other talents though. Many. As the new forces came to recognize, almost all the best chefs in Estonia were actually immigrants. Alongside Cafe Final Solution appeared Swedish and Italian restaurants and bistros. The best Asian food was to be found on that pathetic little dirt street in the camp for foreigners.

After a hard day of frying mushrooms, the camp’s literary figures would gather at the cafe and write. Even the government started to outsource translation gigs to this assorted gang of foreign rapscallions. No one was ever in need of anything to do and each night there was a basketball game. Diego A., the Chilean barista, would be there making cappuccinos for whoever wanted.

The camp’s popularity, its peculiar success, would also prove to be its downfall. Word began to spread across Estonia about the hip scene at the Cafe Final Solution, the great food, the infinite delights. Old Estonian cassette generation hipsters wanted in. There was a special request for Vaiko Eplik to put on a free concert. Then other musicians wanted to perform there too. Rather than ending something, rather than bringing something to some final solution, the political powers now had to deal with lines of Estonians pleading for them to also be let into the camp. That’s how the camp finally met its end. The birch barricades came down and the foreigners returned to their humdrum lives of raising their Estonian kids and trying to make a living. 

It was all over.

I still have the wooden sign from the Cafe Final Solution though. I stole it before the camp was liberated and it hangs on my bedroom wall. Sometimes I toast it with a cup of kasemahl and cry.

background noise

AROUND A NEW YORK TABLE on a rainy summer eve a most intriguing theory is shared. “Everyone thinks it was the Russians,” says a cousin, raising an eyebrow. “‘The Russians, the Russians! It was the Russians,’ they say. But I have a friend who works for the airlines. He says he was taken to a bunker deep in the desert. It was a Donald Trump troll factory, row after row of computers. They’re the ones who hacked the election,” he folds his arms. “It wasn’t the Russians. It was us!”

No one quite knows what to make of my relative’s story, but it is not immediately dismissed. Anything is plausible in this era of conspiracy theories. In Britain, a certain Rees-Mogg is building a time machine to take people back to the Victorian Era. Italy is run not by the prime minister but by his deputy, a Kremlin fan boy named Salvini. Estonians are mystified by their politicians’ hand gestures. They wear broad hats and parade around like tsarist-era preachers.

Some are disowned for being soft on the new powers. Then disowned again for being too tough. Are you with the new government or against it? Are we all being played by Russian intelligence?

The gulf between the people and their leaders only grows. They are more like cartoon characters than politicians. Their boasts, absurd claims, midnight twitter storms only feed this alienation. The Estonians are despondent about their sullied national image. All major newspapers herald the rise of right-wing populism. Britain has a nervous breakdown. America has its mad king.

“Nineteen Eighty-Four!” an older uncle weighs in at last. “It’s coming to pass, just as they said. They are watching us through all of these new devices to control our thoughts. We’re in 1984!”

“You know, 1984 was actually a pretty good year,” my father says, looking up from his wine. Like his son, he’s been here all this time physically but mentally he’s somewhere else. “At least for me it was. Business was great. I had a great car. What was that band? With George Michael?”

“Wham!” I say.

“Yes, Wham! They were big in 1984. So was Van Halen. It was a great year, it wasn’t bad at all.”

“That’s not the 1984 I was talking about,” the uncle cocks an eye. “I’m talking about Orwell.”

Orwell. There is a deathly finality to the name and a sort of sullen agreement among the family members that things are trending that way. On the wall, the portrait of my long-dead Italian great grandmother watches over us with olive dark eyes. Deep sorrow. Mussolini has been resurrected. The lament of the ages.

The day after the Orwellian family dinner, I take a long walk to the end of a peninsula with all of the world’s troubles swirling around me. The sandy spit juts out into the Atlantic. It’s covered with near tropical greenery. Somehow it still seems impossible to get away from the noise. It’s everywhere, in everyone, a kind of contagious disease. Animosity, despair. People at each other’s throats. And yet the sea here is the same for now, as is the beach. The turtles still pull up on the sand to mate, and the crabs scatter before the seagulls swoop in and peck at their many thin legs.

If you wanted to, you could just turn the whole world off for a while, live and enjoy your time. Let your feet sink into the sand. Breathe, sweat, suck on the smell of the sea. Everyone is so worried, but their worry gets them nowhere. It only robs them of their lives. Let the background noise fade into the distance. Sooner or later, every Mussolini-sized ego is bound to implode. When it does, you’re far away. There’s a pretty world out there to be savored still if you want it.

the age of exploration

AFTER MY FRIEND FINISHED URINATING on a young tree in the parking lot of a major shopping center, I pushed him into the passenger’s side of a black sedan, shut the door, and the driver sped off into the blood-orange sunrise.

I began the walk home in the company of a woman I had only just met, and whose surname I never learned, telling her my life story. Across the street, a provincial scene played out in front of a ruined garage, where a group of men stood around several cars with arms folded, lights on, engines running.

“Maybe it’s a mechanic’s shop,” the woman whispered to me.

It was 4 AM.

There was something about the night’s events and the peculiar scene that appealed to my nomadic nature. And it reminded me that after all these years, nothing had changed. I had remained the same person I had always been, fully intact, given equally to melancholia, euphoria, and travel. I had wandered early morning streets in a similar haze, from San Francisco to Beijing, past blooming trees, earthy fragrances, glorious sunrises, singing birds. Life’s delicious dream. It was the same, for I had not changed. The idea that we progressed through life in steps or stages had been flawed. Our spirits, our souls were constant. The only difference was that I at last recognized this truth. It had all been part of the same long voyage. It was a kind of awakening for me.

A day later, with my hangover from Viljandi’s orgiastic Hanseatic Days fading, I took a train to Tallinn and walked the distance from the Baltic Station to Lennusadam to present from the publishing house that bears my name a set of books to a certain Mr. Pruuli, who was about to christen a sailing ship called the Bellingshausen before the vessel’s departure to Antarctica.

I came down Valgevase Street, passed the house I had once called home for a few months in a frosted, long-ago winter when I was a first-time father. In the backyard, a woman was watering the garden. She didn’t notice me when I stared up at our old window. I stood there and looked up into it a while, sighed, and continued on my way, turning left on Tööstuse, right on Kalju. Years ago this neighborhood was a real pommiauk, as they say, a “bomb hole,” but now it’s gone soft, gentrified. There are new buildings, the old ones have been refitted. Fine cars line driveways, some houses have swank address signs — 37B — as if they were hotels. The feral cats have diminished in number. Even the armies of the zombie drunks have fallen.

This time, I counted only two.

At Lennusadam, the land gave way to the port and the smell of the sea. A crowd had gathered around the spry adventurer Mr. Pruuli with his spectacles and seafarer’s earring. He would lead the expedition to the great white south, recreating the voyage of Saaremaa-born explorer von Bellingshausen two centuries ago. There was a priest, a choir, a broken bottle of champagne. Grave men with names like Tarand, Vähi, Kuuskemaa, Rumm, and Ratas were in attendance. Guests milled about silently. I got to board the vessel, feel its rise and fall.

I stared out at the expanse of water, the water over which I had first arrived to this country many years ago. For too long, I had tried to figure out the mechanics of how it had happened. What had brought me here of all places? This little remote country. I had tried to understand it, to pick it apart. At last, I gave up and surrendered to the odyssey of life, the sea drift. I looked around. Somehow I had wound up on the deck of an Estonian ship bound for Antarctica. Then it occurred to me. I could go with them!

“Huh. Loomulikult,” I thought. Naturally. How could it be any other way?


From a mural by Jason Mario and Kim Pluskota in Viljandi

THIS HAPPENED TO ME not too long ago, in the winter maybe, when I was coming around the corner at a local shopping center and saw a group of young women coming the other way. There were three or four of them, most of them had blonde hair, which wasn’t unusual, but there was something about their posture, or facial expressions, or hidden vital essence that tipped me off. “Ah,” I thought to myself. “Finns. Soomlased.”

You can imagine my surprise when I heard them speaking Finnish a moment or so later, detectable even from some distance by the intonation, the way they tend to pronounce certain sounds, and how they enunciate loudly, rather than swallowing up all their words in a whisper like the Estonians. I was rather impressed with myself, but also unnerved.

I had really been living here for a long time. Not only had I started eating buckwheat porridge with salt, I had a sense of the neighbors. I could now tell an Estonian from a Finn just on sight.

Estonians think the differences are stark and tangible, but for outsiders, Estonians and Finns don’t actually seem too different from one another. I’ve spent plenty of time on trams in Helsinki doing double takes as some random fellow traveler happens to look like a relative or a friend of mine. “Silver Sepp? Is that you?” “Mitä?” One young woman on a Helsinki tram looked like my child. My own child. Think about that. This is how the Finns and Estonians have become my people.

In my mind, this expanse of our people covers not only Finland and Estonia, but Setomaa too, the Sami in the far north, and the Karelians on the lakes in the east. It’s like some submerged nation, split up by some political borders, divided by official languages, but really a continuum. My roots are not in this place, but I do get the chills when I understand something in Karelian.

How is that possible? How do I know?

While I recognize the Estonians and the Finns as kindred nations, things feel a bit different once you cross the southern border, because it’s there that you start to encounter Latvians, who to someone who is used to the company of Estonians, seem foreign. The terrain of northern Latvia looks familiar enough, all of those pine forests and moss, but soon you are bound to meet someone named Niks or Dace, someone who doesn’t look like an Estonian. They seem strange.

As an American, none of this should faze me. In fact, it bothers me a little that I would have picked up some local prejudices. I should feel just as close to the Latvians as I do to the Estonians. They are all Europeans. Somehow, living here though, I have developed a very deep sense of who is “one of us” and who is a stranger. How? I cannot really say. It’s not in how they look, or how they carry themselves. Yes, the language is different, and looks distinct to eyes accustomed to Estonian. But there is something else there. Something I cannot express in words but just know on sight. Recently, I confessed this deep suspicion to an Estonian friend of mine.

“I know I am not one of you,” I said, “but I just feel more comfortable in Tallinn than in Riga.”

“Of course, of course,” he said, patting me on the back. “They are strangers. Not our people.” Nad on võõrad. Mitte meie omad.

  • This column appears in the summer issue of the magazine Hingele Pai.


mysteries of the south

IT WAS A FUNNY PHENOMENON. In all my years living in Tartu, I would notice that when summer came, in the weeks after Saint John’s Day, the city would empty out and the streets would be mostly silent and a light breeze would scatter dust down the vacant sidewalks. There was no one around anymore, even though the city’s parks were their most lush and inviting. The peculiar scenes of the academic year — students in corporation uniforms standing on rooftops drinking mugs of beer — disappeared, and Tartu, like most other cities in the south, became a ghost town.

There still were people in the south of Estonia, of course, but they had dispersed to the countryside, and were living at their country houses and farms, scattered and hidden between the mossy forests and rolling hills and lakes. It was harder to see all of the people this way, and one got the sense that there were no people left in the south at all. From Tartu down to Obinitsa and the Russian border, the only evidence of life were the distant lights and smoke from the bonfires.

When you would go out to meet friends in the summer, the geography of the south revealed itself to you in its unknown forms. On the map, everything is spread out for you to see. Everything is held together by roads, intersections, gas stations, signs. On the map, you have a great sense of the distances between places. From Tartu to Võru it’s 73 kilometers, and from Põlva to Võru it’s 27 kilometers. Once you get off the roads though, once you venture into the forests, the distances between minor topographic changes — a hill, a valley — become enormous. One ventures down the steps of, say, Süvahavva to the Võhandu River, discovering forest trails and blue flowers along the way. There are endless discoveries to be made. Every tree here has its own biography.

You can walk for hours like this through the countryside and feel as if you haven’t reached any real destination. It’s one of those ‘the journey is the destination’ kinds of things. No matter where you go in the south, to the little Seto farmsteads in the hinterlands, with their midnight black smoke saunas, you will always find a little path behind the outhouse that leads to another farm, another sauna. There is always something new lurking just beyond those woods, over those hills.

Just when you think you have reached the edge of civilization itself, you spy a light on in a distant cabin window and hear the echo of an accordion. Once you reach the cabin, you realize you have stumbled into a wedding party. An old farmer with a scruffy beard offers you a shot of handsa and you drink it gladly, not really knowing how you got there or where you will go next. This is the true mystery of the south, revealing itself to you one intrigue at a time.

This column appeared in the spring/summer issue of Kõik Koos – Lõunakeskuse Ajakiri. Photos by my daughter, Maria Petrone.