burned pancakes

This piece appears (in Estonian) in the most recent issue of Ajakiri Ema

IT’S 11 AM ON THE SECOND MORNING of the new year and my pancakes are burning. My business partner asked me to clean up some copy and to file a new invoice, and I was doing this after flipping pancakes, keeping the fire going, and trying to pay attention to my youngest daughter’s stories about something that happened with another girl at school. I was trying to pay attention when the wisps of smoke reached me and I turned to see big plumes of it in the kitchen.

“Oh no!”

Fortunately, I made a lot of batter for this batch, so it’s okay if a pancake or two goes in the trash. I’m used to losing pancakes and other meals the same way. I forget food in the oven. I have to be reminded to take out the trash and when I do take out the trash, I have to be reminded again to deal with a clogged drain in the bathroom. I fix the drain, take out the laundry, and then try to make pancakes again, but burn a few of course. Then the youngest demands juice or milk, which I spill. There’s real mayhem to the whole scene, real anarchy, but at the end of the day, we somehow get through it, and I can even read the youngest a story. Somehow the children are fed, the dishes are clean, and we can sleep in peace, but while they sleep, I lie staring out the window.

From my bedroom window, I can see the Old Water Tower in Viljandi, and for some reason the clouds are very low here. So I can watch the clouds passing behind the tower. This becomes a meditative focus point for me. I watch the Old Water Tower and I go into the zone.

My weak spot as a single father, I think, is multitasking. It always has been my weak spot. I imagine women are geniuses at this. I am sure a few scientific studies have shown this to be true. Women can make the pancakes, keep the fire going, and keep listening to the kids’ stories. Women are more cut out for this kind of life. They can juggle everything at once.

My handicap therefore is that I’m not a woman. I’m a man. I can actually only do one thing well at a time. Give me a task, and I will do it. Assemble the furniture. Fix the wifi. Simple! Time and again, I have amazed people with my ability to complete complex, focus-intensive tasks. But making breakfast, working, and trying to be an attentive parent at the same time is much harder. There is no choice in the matter though. I am a single father now, and I must and will manage.

***

The term “single father” is political. None of us are really single parents. Each one of us — with a few exceptions — is born to two parents, and even if one of them isn’t there, that doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. I have a friend who fits the classic definition of the single mother — the father of her daughter long ago cut off all contact — but that doesn’t mean the child doesn’t ask questions about who her father is, or miss his presence in her life. He does exist, somewhere out there, and so even though her mother is raising her alone, her father is present in his absence.

I am not a single parent in that responsibility is shared with the mother of our children. I am not a single parent in that we co-parent, the kids move freely between both households, and we even celebrate Christmas together. This is not the kind of single parenting you see in movies. This is more like decentralized parenting. Canada is no longer a colony of the British Empire, but it’s still part of the Commonwealth of Nations. Queen Elizabeth II is still their monarch and her face is still on their money. This is the political situation. It’s the best way I can explain how things function.

I am a single parent though in the sense that I live with one of my children and with nobody else. I am single in that I am responsible for the upkeep of my home and I am single in that I sleep in a twin bed that can only accommodate one person. How this came to be is a story like any other. What I can tell you is that since January 2017, I have been living with my second daughter, Anna, here in Viljandi. The eldest has moved to New York to go to school, and the youngest is living with her mother in the south. On occasion, I am lucky enough to have all three of my daughters here. That’s when I become a short order cook and make food all day long and burn some pancakes. Somehow we manage to survive and even have a good time.

***

When all three children are here, it’s actually easier. The eldest is a teenager now — 16 — and she helps with the youngest, who is eight. She makes her take a shower and combs her hair and helps her with her clothes. The middle child — the one who lives full time with me — has become incredibly self reliant and independent in all of these years growing up with dad. She wants food, clean laundry, and maybe some entertainment. She mostly asks for money. Even if I see her on the street, she’ll pick me clean of five euros and then be on her way with her friends to a shop.

I chiefly entertain the kids by taking them hiking, usually to one of the trails in Soomaa, which is near Viljandi. Or we go to the movies. I have seen so many kids movies, you have no idea. I think the girls watched Mary Poppins two or three times. My skill is cooking. This is one of the ways I know how to be a parent. I make them gnocchi with Bolognese sauce. It’s one of the few ways I can pass any Italian culture to them. At least my children know what Pecorino Romano is. At least they know something!

I suppose most mothers would disapprove of the scene when all three of them are here. There is no law or order. I am too busy making dinner and putting laundry out to run some kind of tight ship. I am not Captain Von Trapp from The Sound of Music with his whistle. The youngest rides her bike around the house, the other two talk to friends or watch films. They are free, in essence, to do whatever they want, so long as they stay alive. Yet we do survive — that’s the most important part — and I’m proud that we manage together. Maybe there is no bedtime, maybe I don’t feel like washing the dishes, but everybody’s awake the next morning. It’s truly a cause for celebration.

***

I do feel sometimes that I have no script or manual on how to do this. Yet I know many fathers have done what I’ve done. My neighbor was raised mostly by her father. It’s not unusual. When you are living alone with one child, though, you have to take on both roles. You have to be father and mother sometimes and this is hard to do. As kind as I am, as tender as I can be, I can never give them that motherly feeling you get when you rest your head on a soft chest because my chest is hard. Or when you come home and there’s some lovely woman standing with an apron on and she gives you a wet kiss on the cheek. That never happens in my house. I just can’t give them those kinds of motherly experiences. I suppose it’s not my responsibility to even try.

Sometimes I’m aware of how pathetic the whole show I am running is. They see some 40-year-old man struggling each day. Someone who is tired. Someone who is focused on writing all the time, and for what purpose? I try to help them understand that without all this typing that goes on, there can be no movies, no trip to the spa in Pärnu, no flights to New York, and no toys.

I don’t have much of a personal life. There are no dates with women, no dining out at restaurants, no going to the movies or on trips. I know Brad Pitt has a hundred children and can manage to do those kinds of things, but I can’t. I don’t go out to parties or concerts that often, but I can get out sometimes if I need to. I don’t think the children think I would ever remarry. They have somehow gotten used to the idea that their father is alone and that’s just how it is. The idea of bringing some new disruptive female personality into the equation also seems complicated. It would bring into force a new political reality. I am sure everything would be reorganized in about 45 minutes.

On most days, I recognize that I just don’t have time for anything like that. My job is not to have that kind of life right now. My job is to make the dinner and clean up the cat vomit. Someone needs to fix the curtain that fell. This is my real purpose in life. Of course, I have a dream life too. This has taken on greater significance in these years. For me, my dream life is more nourishing to the soul than my real life. This is why writing helps me. It helps me to cope.

***

The girls are changing too. Only the youngest is still affectionate with me. The older ones? Not so much. Those little girls who used to hang on me now cringe when I hug them. I try to tell them they look nice, or are very smart, because supposedly this will help build their self esteem. They brush away any compliments, but I keep on saying them. My eldest daughter Marta used to tell me everything. Now I don’t know what’s going on. We keep in touch via applications. Skype. Whatsapp. Being a father to her from so far away has proved to be nearly impossible on a day-to-day basis. Yet I am still here, and I think my existence counts for something in all this.

Proximity isn’t everything though. Anna used to ask me to read her stories long ago. Now I have to knock to even speak to her. I knock and she asks, “What do you want?” “Your dinner’s ready.” “Oh. I guess I’ll come.” I go in her room sometimes, sheepishly, and ask how she is. She tells me, “I’m fine. Now can you please leave? And make sure to shut the door behind you. Really shut it.” Anna has also adopted the Estonian habit of ending the call without saying goodbye. I’ll be standing in the supermarket talking to her for a minute or two and then realize she’s no longer listening. Then I feel really foolish.

It’s hard to discipline them as a father, I admit. All my life I have heard so many stories about what abusive, terrible people men are to women, so that I treat my daughters with kid gloves. I can’t be too strict. It’s very complicated for a man who is almost two meters tall to be hard on his daughters.When I do have to set them straight, I try to be as honest and forthcoming as possible. I’m not sure if it works though. They’re pretty much the same people they have always been.

Some people would characterize me as a passive father, or a passive man. Yet in my experience, it’s been those tough guys who are the first to crack under pressure and go running to the forests or for a bottle of vodka. They’re the ones who hit midlife and suddenly “fall in love” with some chick they met at a bar. You have to know when to pick your battles. You have to keep moving.

Only once in a while do I recall those first few nights alone with my second daughter. It was the middle of winter, we had just moved into that first apartment. It felt like Napoleon in exile. I remember watching the snow drifting down beyond the windows, listening to the little girl sigh in her sleep. Back then, it felt like an incomprehensible turn of events. I couldn’t understand what was going on. I felt so weak and so vulnerable, completely at the mercy of the universe. Now I feel this experience has made me much stronger. I can take on anything. I’ve become resilient.

***

I have been very fortunate, I think, in that unlike fathers of the past, I have spent a lot of time with my children. Even when I was a kid, I would usually see my father at dinner and on the weekends. He had an office and he went to it. He would go away on business trips. Other than steaks cooked on the grill, I think he made me two meals in my entire life, and one of them was a bagel. I’m not sure if he even knows how to make pancakes. My mother would take me aside and say, “Here, let me teach you how to cook. Someday, you will make a woman very happy.” She didn’t know then that I would wind up living in a little northern land called Estonia. Had she known that, she might have taught me more about animal husbandry or forestry. No matter. Maybe these “women” I was supposed to make happy weren’t my love interests. Maybe they were these small women I’ve wound up raising at times. I make them plenty of pancakes, and when they get a whole plate full of them, covered in butter and syrup, they are happy indeed.

once upon a time in england

LAST NIGHT’S nighttime immersion. Another sloppy mash up, but this time with Britishers all around, including Ian Will, who was an old marketing exec I used to see at meetings doing card tricks and seducing girls at the bar (and a happily married father of two, I might add) and there he is across the table with me in some office building in London, and I am surrounded by all of these cheeky twit Britishers around, cracking jokes I cannot understand (meantime I need to do an interview, but it’s like a goddamn Monty Python sketch, Monty Python meets The Office, yes) and they just won’t shut up. I take the interview into a phone booth in the corridor (because those still exist in dreams), but it’s no use, and somehow I tumble down into a bathtub with a familiar writer’s long and luscious legs around me. But, you know, it’s not sexual, she just wants to comment on my new efforts. (“They could be better,” she says. “You know you’re more talented than that,” she adds.) So, yes. In the time of pandemics and death, I find myself dreaming of England, old stone walls, haunted graveyards, war memorials, black taxis, pubs with fat sausages and mash and thick pints of beer, crummy tabloid newspapers with nonsensical headlines, gray-white weather, and that winsome brook in Duxford that gurgles over the road. Missing, missing England. Missing England in March. Missing the hot and the cold taps, and filling the bath, sliding in and watching the lovely weather presenter in East Anglia. Look East! I never learned her name either. Never needed to.

scott fitzgerald’s irish curse

HE COULD ONLY write if he was tight. The literature of the 1920s and 1930s is a goldmine of outdated slang and references. Songs, novels, newspaper headlines of the day, discarded politicians, drinks in favor, hairstyles, and the like. It was the first truly modern era, the era of radios, telephones, automobiles, reading and leisure. It was a time where women could already vote, drink, smoke, and revel in their promiscuity, long before the 1950s ad men did them in with sexist advertising. And into the most extravagant Ritz Bar walks the lonesome Minnesota Irish Catholic writer Scott Fitzgerald and he orders another drink. He sips his hard stuff the way I sip my tiny cups of hot brown stuff. He can only write, he thinks, if he is tight, liquored up, inebriated, loose. Only then can the anxiety recede, the words flow freely. Just a thunderbolt of sweet cognac to undo his writer’s tie. Such was Scott Fitzgerald’s Irish curse. Dependency, dependency ….

via san simone

A WEIRD SLEEP below a hot window. On a train with a young woman searching frantically for Via San Simone. People in masks getting off and on the train (and garbage blowing through), old people coughing in corners, and, of course, a whole football/soccer team gets on in matching red jackets. “Why did we go to Rome?” I think. I fumble with the map. Now to find Via San Simone. Via San Simone! The young woman is frustrated. There is a boat waiting nearby to take her out of Italy. Everything is warm. The clouds are pink.

the end of days

I SPENT LAST WEEK with a technicolor ax in my chest, struck into me by some young woman for whom I felt some murmuring of affection. That’s how it goes with me and love these days, I open the door just a crack, just a tiny sliver between the darkness and the light, and then I collapse into my bed wounded and try to stagger back out into the cold sane air of February.

Such authority, she had, this youth. There are so many people talking to you all the time, but when one of their voices pierces the noise and cuts to the core of you, you sit up, take notice. I felt as if I was in some old Jules Verne novel and the heart of the earth was radiating its rainbow heat on me. One of my friends — a Finn, of course — was swift in his assessment of my injury.

“Just shut up,” he says. “You’re in love.”

“Remember how Peter the Great chopped his window to Europe? How he founded Saint Petersburg? She chopped a window to my heart. She’s got Ingrian workers draining the swamps!”

“You know too much about history,” the Finn says. “Shut up and enjoy it.”

My Finnish friend is wise. We have wonderful conversations. A cafe is closing down in town and we even have a scheme to open up a karaoke bar for Finnish tourists. We’re going to call it “General Mannerheim’s Karaoke Bar,” and there will be a little portrait of the Finnish hero general smiling and waving on the sign, and it will in no time be full of moose from the north.

“What the world really needs right now,” he says, “is another Finnish karaoke bar.”

Maybe he’s right, I think. We need more impossible love dreams and nonsensical fantasies. We need young women who speak with authority and Finns singing old pop songs. As I write this, all of China is under quarantine and reports of new infections rise every hour. The death count rises and there are conspiracy theories spreading. There is no way this virus made the transition from bat soup or snake tartare to the human population so quickly, some hypothesize. It must be a biological weapon. Look at the over-the-top response of the Chinese authorities. They must know something. This is how the decade dawns, feeling like the end of days. People are stockpiling food and masks. A man sneezes in the cafe, and I get up to move. Later, I load up on Vitamin C, just in case. Even my 12-year-old daughter can smell the doom.

“The 2020s are just a few weeks old,” she says, “and they already suck.”

“What do you mean?”

“There was almost a war with Iran. There’s the coronavirus. Is there any good news?”

To be honest, I had hardly noticed this distinct apocalyptic flavor until recently. It all seemed par for the course, business as usual. Haven’t we lived through pandemics before? I must knock on wood though because I’m sure we aren’t too many contagious tourists away from some Stephen King-like scenario, where people are collapsing in the streets and there is a man ringing a bell encouraging people to bring out their dead. This could all happen. It’s happened before.

It happened a hundred years ago. They called it the 1918 flu pandemic but it stretched on for years. It killed numerous family members, among them my father’s grandmother. She was 26 when she drew her final breath. The date was February 12, 1920. Exactly a hundred years ago. I know a little about my great grandmother. I know that she was college educated — rare for the time — a musician, and she also wrote poetry. There is a love poem she wrote to her husband that has been handed down. I have also inherited a poetry anthology of hers where she wrote notes about her favorites in the margins of the pages. “This,” she scrawled in pencil about the American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson during some literature class, “is the best thing he ever wrote.”

Reading her notes, I have to forgive myself for worrying more about my heart these days, or dreaming up some crackpot schemes with my Finnish friends. It seems better than getting caught up in the terror of the end of the world, even if it is coming to an end.

Even if this is the apocalypse, what could any of this have been worth if it wasn’t lived with fire and fervor?

the very picture of nordic anonymity

AFTER A LONG STRETCH of gray mornings, could there be any better fate than to crack an eye open and spy a patch of blue in the sky? Especially when you are living in the older part of the town, where a custard-colored horizon is flavored by the wondrous silhouettes of chimneys and spires? It makes you happy to still be here alive, to know that somewhere a good cup of coffee awaits. Yes, there is a God, there is a Santa Claus, and all the good things in this world are real and true.

I can imagine Interior Minister Mart Helme felt the same way the other day when I spied him sipping a frothy drink in the back corner of the Maiasmokk Cafe in Tallinn’s Old Town, the very picture of nordic anonymity. It was the day after the Sanna Marin “sales girl” controversy broke and Helme had again become an international news item for his words about the new Finnish prime minister. The American and British press had picked it up and it had gone both global and viral. People in New Zealand were even reading about it.

It’s hard to imagine that many were rushing to Helme’s defense, but no matter, there was still good chocolate and coffee and it was still December after all, just a few days before Christmas. Minister Helme sat in the corner of the cafe alone. He sat alone and no one disturbed him and his hot drink. Down the way at the Tallinn Christmas Market, they were selling spicy glögi. Children were singing, there was a beautiful tree. Seeing Helme, I suddenly found myself chock-full of Christmas cheer and at once wanted to rush into the cafe to wish him good tidings. “There, there, Helme,” I would say with a jolly, good-time wink. “There, there. This too will pass. It is still Christmas!”

Of course, I didn’t go in. Something inside me repressed that convivial, joyful Christmastime feeling. Instead, I watched the solitary man enjoy his drink alone and then take the long solemn march back to his offices, his distinguished profile obscured by the brim of his trademark cap. There was such isolation, such lonesomeness in the scene that triggered a memory of the old Hans Christian Andersen story about the little match girl, whose father made her sell matches on the frozen streets of old Copenhagen, and who was afraid to go home out of fear of being beaten.

One by one, the little match girl lit her matches, watching each flame burn out with sad, Scandinavian eyes. Within each flame she saw happy memories though, the memories of her grandmother, in particular, who was waiting for her in heaven. When the locals discovered the frozen girl the next morning they knew not who she was. “She only wanted to warm herself,” the people had said. Yet no one imagined what beautiful things she had seen, or how happily she had gone with her grandmother into the light.

For the life of me, I couldn’t understand how the sight of a friendless government minister in Tallinn and Andersen’s fairy tale girl in Denmark were linked, but the feeling of the two was similar. I thought of how the little girl in the story had pressed her nose to the glass of the warm houses of the Danish capital, seen the Christmas trees through them, smelled a goose roasting, and then I thought of the glass between me and the minister at the Maiasmokk Cafe, the reflective mirror-like glass on the Russian Embassy across the street, the glass in the windows of the Swedish Embassy a bit further down.

Between all us here was that impenetrable glass. Even in the warmth of Christmas, it kept us apart, prevented us from that sense of camaraderie, togetherness, of amity. That thick nordic glass. It was just everywhere. Even a Swedish friend had reminded me of the glass in a recent conversation. “You’re too much like an open book,” he said. “Everyone knows everything about you. But we northerners are not open. We are closed. It’s because of the cold weather. You should learn to be more like us now that you have been here so long. You should learn to be closed.”

I tried to change the topic, but I started to look at people a little differently after he said it. I watched the people on the streets of Tallinn at Christmas and saw them differently. I started to fear that he was right.

hail and full moon

I WAS COMING BACK FROM RAPLA of all places, traveling that curvy road south through Türi and on to Viljandi. I know the dark woods of northern Viljandimaa well enough, but the forests of Raplamaa, Järvamaa, those are true mysteries. Eerie shadowy little orchards and pine forests spread out alongside the roads, then big bundles of hay. Up there in the gray clouds, that big full moon. People in Viljandi kept messaging me. “Where are you?” “Why aren’t you at the party?” “You’re in the wrong place!” They were all drunk. Down at the Ugala Theatre, a major party was underway. People had come from as far away as Karksi-Nuia in their finest to take part in the scene, the socializing, to rub elbows at the bar. I didn’t want to go anywhere near that place.

I was done with it, and the thing was, I had just left another big party behind in Rapla too. There a funky band called the Kangelased was playing in an industrial yard to the local youth. But I just wanted to be on my own, to think things over. I’ve been there, done that, the drinking scene, the music scene, the one-night-stand scene. I wanted to breathe a bit. My daughter’s birthday was coming up and my 40th birthday too just months away (but now passed as you read this), and I didn’t know what to think. Had it all been a big party, a glorious triumph, or a bloody disaster?

There was this sensation as if I had been fleeing a crumbling bridge, like in some adventure movie. You run and the bridge just crumbles beneath your feet into some abyss as you head toward the safer ground. All of that was over. The big traumas, the big changes, the upheaval. That was all done, they said. So this is it, the safer ground, the vantage point. I had reached it and it looked like a tree-lined road outside of Rapla. Looking back, looking down that ravine of the past where the bridge fell was terrifying though. That moon hung in the clouds like an owl.

I put on some music to take my mind off things and it began to hail. Big glassy chunks of the stuff came hammering down out of the sky and pummeling everything. That lovely musical tinkle. This godforsaken beautiful country, what a mess. No matter the season, you could count on a freak hailstorm. The way grew icier and soon I could barely see, so I decided to pull the car over onto the side of the road and wait out the storm. Down it came still, in thick crystal flurries. It wasn’t freezing though, but it was moist enough that I could see my breath. Soon all the windows were obscured by fog. It was me there alone in the car and the sound of mother nature.

A song came on there in the dark. It was an old song that reminded me of my childhood, but it reminded me of something else. There had been another night, a humid, sumptuous evening in the hot summer. On that night, there had been another party, and there had been a lot of drinking, and when our wine glasses were empty we refilled them and refilled them again. Then, in the thick of it, a young woman I admired walked into the party in a red dress. As soon as I saw her, I leapt to my feet, as if animated by some supernatural power. I went at once to her and we began to dance to the same song that was now playing on my tiny car stereo in a hailstorm near Rapla.

A great gush of love began to flow through my body as we danced together that night, and it lingered even when the song ended, and we held each other briefly and I kissed her on the side of her head and embraced her just one moment more. “Thank you for the dance,” I had said to her, and she had looked at me and thanked me as well. “But now I must be going,” she said. “I know,” I said. Go now and live. Let the dream of life carry you forward into never-ending ecstasy.

For a few moments, everything had been worth it.

This column appears in the winter issue of the magazine Hingele Pai.

read it in books

I’M GRATEFUL NOW, when I think about it, that I was exposed to Estonia’s eldest generation when I came here years ago, through the mother of my children, whose older relatives were all still quite alive, and came to visit and be photographed with our eldest daughter when she was born. These were people who were born in the 1920s and whose entire youth was anchored in the prewar Estonian state, that time when AH Tammsaare was mass producing literature, not just Truth and Justice (1926-1933), but I Loved a German (1935), and The Misadventures of the New Satan (1939). It was the radio era, when books were treasured and families would sit around the fire on winter nights reading for pleasure, without any disruptive technologies.

My understanding is that books continued to be valued in the Soviet era, and that they were quite cheap. As such, though they needed special permission to visit the islands of their own country, the elder generation was still able to amass a trove of good books at minimal cost at that time, so that even though their options were limited in the physical world, mentally they enjoyed more freedom, and the walls of their homes were still overflowing with volumes when I came to visit them, old books everywhere.

The book age was all supposed to come to an end though with the digital era, and we were supposed to abandon paper books for glowing flat screens. Yet something strange happened. We continued to invest in and buy books.

As someone who is deeply involved in the creation of these products, I have to say I am mystified. Why do we still buy them? A visit to a bookstore in Estonia today can be overwhelming. Have we ever had such choices? Even the series of Minu books takes up several book cases. There is Estonian literature, and then foreign translations. But there is also a wonderful selection of English-language books (yes, I prefer to read in English) which was not available 10 or 15 years ago. Recently, I was given a gift card to a bookstore and spent a good hour perusing all of the new offerings because I couldn’t decide which books to take home. In the end, I bought two obscure Ernest Hemingway titles — Death in the Afternoon (1939) and To Have and Have Not (1937) — which are, 80 years after the radio era, still in print.

Books (and gift certificates for books) remain one of the most cherished gifts that Estonians give each other during the holidays. I used to think this was because people had limited imaginations, and couldn’t think of what to buy each other, and books seemed like a respectable gift, but others say it is because Estonians treasure books as they have for many decades in the past. They were the literate peasant people, they say, able to read since the Swedish monarchs established a system of schools many centuries ago. Yet I think one of the reasons books remain a popular gift, especially at Christmas, is just because they are wonderful items to share among people.

Books are paper and print, true, but, if they are well-written, and their authors have worked their special author magic, they are also filled with a substance — sisu, as the Estonians say — that is lacking in new ski boots, cinnamon-smelling candles, or loaves of gingerbread dough wrapped in plastic. Is there really a gift out there that measures up to a new, good book? I no longer have any doubts. If you come to my house, it’s starting to look like one of those old Estonian relatives’ places. The titles are stacked up on the shelves by my bed. Old books, new books, favorite books. I don’t even need to read them all. Just looking at all of those books makes me feel good.

This column appeared in the winter issue of Kõik Koos – Lõunakeskuse Ajakiri.

dolce far niente; or, the sweetness of doing nothing

The following is the English-language version of the interview I did with Hedvig Hanson for the Estonian magazine Edasi. The original interview was done in Estonian.

I first met Justin Petrone three years ago when we met each other via the Petrone Print “Letters” series. His book was “Sketches of Estonia.” Mine was “Letters from the Mainland.” We spoke on the radio, in libraries, in book stores, and we even played a few songs at book launches, as the writer Petrone is also interested in music. His own swinging song carried the title, “The Green House Cafe.” This is an organic cafe in Viljandi. And the song wonderfully characterizes Justin’s creative outlook — from everyday things can be written chapters, or songs. Viljandi connects us as people, our kids attend the same school. There are other things that connect us, divorce among them, so we write sometimes or go for walks in the woods and discuss life. Sometimes we understand each other, sometimes not. 

An American with Italian roots, Justin Petrone has spent 12 years of his life in Estonia and on November 20th will celebrate his 40th birthday. Let’s discuss things with this writer.

Justin, the title of one of your books is “What Happened?” I could start by asking you the same question. You were born on Long Island into an Italian-American family, you studied journalism in the US, traveled the world, married, fathered three daughters, divorced, and now live in Viljandi where you are raising one daughter. If you rewind your life like a film, how would you describe what happened? How did you get here? Do you see these things as circumstances, or does everything seem logical?

This is all connected with me. I remember when I went to Mexico in March 2000, I had this feeling that I wanted to stay there. Then a year later when I was in Iceland, I had the same feeling, that I wanted to move to Reykjavik. I really don’t know why I didn’t want to stay in Washington, where I was living and where I attended university. Then I looked for a study program in Iceland, but I couldn’t find one. I found one in Copenhagen and went there. At first, it was hard to be in Denmark. I was deeply depressed. All of these beautiful blond people riding around on bikes. I felt like a real alien. But then I started to drink! No, honestly, I really did start to drink, but not only. That was a very crazy fall, because we had the September 11 attacks in New York. What did that mean for me? Well, my brother worked in Manhattan, and for some time, I didn’t know where my brother was, whether he was alive or not. Fortunately, I don’t think he went to the office that day, but when I heard the news, I had no idea. It was a horrible feeling. I remember how we were all sitting around the TV in Denmark and a German said to me, “This is payback for what you did in Vietnam!” The polite Danes sighed, but for them it was just bad news. “Change the channel.” The Americans were sitting around the kitchen, I remember, and there was a magazine that showed the people leaping from the towers. One of them just picked it up and tossed it across the table. “I can’t even bear to look at it,” he said. But I somehow understood that this life doesn’t last forever. It’s better to do what is in your heart. Not everyone gets to live forever. Those people who jumped were probably planning vacations they never took, or planned to propose marriage, but never got around to it because they thought their lives would last forever. So when I went to Finland in the following summer, and I met an Estonian wanderer, I decided that I would go along with her, and that adventures awaited.

If you would paint us a picture of your childhood on Long Island, what do you remember? What was around you, the environment in which young Justin was raised? What were your family traditions?

To start, my home was an island, which meant that I saw the sea from my bedroom window, and I played in the sand every day. I was very deeply connected to the sea, and I thought of life as being like water, because even when I was young and started to swim, I understood how the sea comes in and goes out, and how the moon can control the tides. In the ocean, there is a very strong and dangerous current, and you have to learn how to go along with it, or how to get out of it. I still think that life is the exact same experience. The best is when you have been in the water the whole day and you go to sleep, because you can still feel the motion of the waves in your blood. We lived in a very cool place, very hilly, almost impossible to ride your bike there. The hills go up and down. When I was five, there was a hurricane. This was really cool. We came outside and there were trees down everywhere. We didn’t have electricity for a week.

My mother’s sister lived on a nearby street and she had young children. I remember she would always come with a stroller and I would play with her kids in the sandbox. My mother’s family was essentially my family. She has three brothers and a sister. We had big parties, and Christmas was very important. My grandmother was like the matriarch and my grandfather had died long ago. I should add here that the Catholic Church was in my life at a young age. My grandmother is very devout and her brother, my great uncle, was a Catholic priest. Sometimes I would sleep there and I would be a little frightened by all the images of Jesus on the cross, honestly. At the same time, I took this faith in too. I probably still believe a bit. I even started school in a Catholic school, where there were nuns. My teacher was Sister Karen. But my mother had other beliefs. She was interested in psychic powers, reincarnation, New Age stuff, clairvoyance, telekinesis. I remember I would play this game with my mother where she would start a sentence and I would finish it. She was really shocked because I already knew what she was going to say. So it was kind of a weird childhood, full of esoteric stuff. 

When I was six years old, we moved away from there. I had new neighbors and I felt very free. I played with other boys in the woods a lot. Sometimes we went farther than we were supposed to, but we didn’t tell our mothers about our adventures. I remember I was very young, six or seven, when I already knew about sex and drugs and even knew that someone’s older brother drank or smoked pot. Kind of funny that we were kids, but still lived in an adult world. Grotesque a bit. I remember that when we moved in, some friends from the old neighborhood came to visit one summer’s day and then my new friends organized a gang against it. This was no joke. People were really fighting. There was one bad kid, a few years older than me, who gave a rope to another boy and said, “Go and kill Justin.” And he came after me. Unbelievable! It really happened. Then I remember that I hid myself in a bush in the forest and the other boys started throwing rocks at me. I still remember how I looked up and this rock came down and nailed me on the head. It was a big rock and it hurt a lot, but I survived. Maybe that’s what happened to me?

One more thing. I loved music. I found my parents’ old Beatles and Rolling Stones records and would listen to them all the time. Even at three in the morning. I talked non-stop about the Beatles in school — John, Paul, George, and Ringo. I drew pictures of them. They were gods and role models. Others thought I was talking about insects.

You have published 13 books — 8 in Estonian, 5 in English. I have read a few of these. Your descriptions of Estonian life really make one smile! Is it possible for a person with Italian blood who misses the sea to ever adapt to culture here?

My connection is mostly through my children. They are my children, but they are also Estonians. And because of that, Estonia can never be completely foreign. It’s a bit strange. I was just watching Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) and there was an actress who looked just like our daughter, Anna. I thought, wow, we really are Italians. But she also takes after her mother, and, especially, her grandmother, whose family name was Tulev. I thought, “What have we done? We’ve mixed Petrones and Tulevs together? And this was the outcome?” When I was in Helsinki, it also happened that I got lost and a young woman stepped forward and helped me find the right tram stop. And she looked just like my daughter! The same Finno-Ugric eyes, the same hair color, same facial features. It was weird. She was somehow also related to me. In this way, the Estonians are my relatives and apparently some Finns are too.

I have had tough times with the culture. I think that every foreigner here reaches that point where he starts to hate Estonians. They are really aggressive drivers. I have driven in Italy, New York, even in China (by taxi). But the Estonians won the competition. That arrogance, impatience, ego-centrism can be exhausting. Out of my way! Even my daughter says it to me in the kitchen when she goes to get milk or something. “Out of my way, I need milk!” It happens often that at this point, the foreigner flees, because he can’t deal with it anymore. I have learned how to manage. It even makes me laugh. “Okay, Estonian, I’ll get out of your way. Go and get your milk.”

I understand that at some time in the deep past, the Estonians were living with moose in the forest. It was very snowy and they even lived in tents. They sat around the fire, ate moose meat, butter, and karask, sang runo songs and it was very hard in the winter indeed. They have this primitive instinct to stay alive. And because of that they can be rather desperate at times, when they are driving for instance, or when they want something to drink. They are afraid they might not reach the destination. They’re afraid there might not be any more moose milk left.

You are funny! I recall one chapter that reminded me of the blues. It was a winter evening where you were walking around Pärnu and there’s a raw lonesomeness to it. Another similar chapter was about Narva-Jõesuu, how you lost your daughter and what feelings you had when you lost her and when you found her again. That was deep. It gave an impression of your sensitivity. The time when you were writing those chapters must have been a difficult one in your life.

I don’t remember where I wrote the Narva-Jõesuu chapter, but the title was “The End of the World.” That period really felt like the end of the world for me. I didn’t know what to do with myself. The fact that I was married, a family person, was a big part of my identity. It was who I was. But then my life started to change. If I didn’t live together with my wife and all of my children, then who was I? At that time, I started to watch the film The Grand Budapest Hotel a lot. I started to feel that I was that writer in the film, who is just sitting around in an old hotel alone. I don’t know why, but I had a great understanding that this was who I was. A writer. Not that I especially wanted to be one. I just realized I had no other real choice. I read Scott Fitzgerald’s books at that time, how he was also living in some hotel while his wife Zelda was in a psychiatric hospital, and he tried to write, drank too much, and their child was with relatives. I understood this deeply. But what else can you do except pull out the old typewriter?

But let’s talk about this “end of the world” experience. Nowadays, people take divorce relatively easily. For you, it was serious. In an Italian family, the whole family works together to keep things together. It is said that if you marry an Italian, you marry the whole family. In Estonia, we are all somehow on our own. There is the opinion that you have to manage yourself. I felt this acutely when my family fell apart. You have said that in Italy, it takes years to divorce. Here only a few months.

Yes I have said that here marriage is actually “cheap” in the sense that you only have to pay some money, sign your name twice, and that’s the end of it. Estonians praise this, because for them individuality is the most important and everyone is separate, but here I have to ask, if it’s so easy to marry and divorce, if these are such carefree events, then why do people marry at all? To have a big party, eat some cake, dance and take a lot of photos? It’s true that it takes more time in Italy and in New York to divorce, but at the same time, marriage is actually supposed to last for your whole life! That’s the point. People pledge this in church, before God. So this confuses me and I don’t understand what the point of marriage is at all.

In the year 1913, my great grandfather Salvatore Petrone, age 19, married my great grandmother, Rosaria, aged 21. From this marriage were born eight children, one of whom was my grandfather. They remained married until his death nearly 40 years later. Long ago, in southern Italy, family was the only social institution that mattered. Church? State? These were weak and corrupt. What was important to them? That they might have some money, a home, and work. But nowadays everyone wants to live like he’s Ingmar Bergman or Marcello Mastroianni (although Mastroianni remained married to his death, even though he fathered a child with actress Catherine Deneuve). We want more. It seems quite decadent, but that’s how it is. This is my nordic life henceforth. I try to live this Bergmanesque life.

You live together with one child, 12-year-old Anna. What’s father and daughter life like? Who does what? What do you teach her, what does she teach you?

Anna has a lot of questions and sometimes they are difficult to answer, because I don’t know the right answer or it’s too difficult to explain. One question is, for instance, “But why is Donald Trump a bad president?” Well, where to start? Or, “How come Estonia wasn’t always free?” It’s interesting for me, as a father, how important her home is for her. For me, these are just couches, tables, shelves — things that aren’t very important. But she would like to have a beautiful and cozy room, and that we would have a comfortable and well-ordered home. She sorts things, organizes her room, puts pictures on the wall. She has Christmas lights in there. She looks for and creates a homey feeling.

There aren’t many of us, fathers who live alone with our daughters, but we do exist.

That I had to in a way start over has not been easy for her, because I also had a crisis and I didn’t know how to get out of it. Was I only supposed to work? I don’t know how our children see us, but we try. With the others I have tried to share information. The eldest, Marta, often asks what really happen, and I tell her honestly what I think happened, who did what, how people sometimes manipulate others, and I think she has become quite adroit because of this. With Maria, I share things from my own childhood. I remember how when we were in New York, I would take her to the beach and we would sit there alone in the sand. That’s how she started to understand the timeless feeling of being beside the Atlantic Ocean.

Recently, I watched an old British program with her that I saw when I was very young. It came out in 1983 (it was so cool because though I didn’t notice it in the program at that time, New Order and Human League were playing in the background. The sounds of my childhood!) It was all about witchcraft in England and I felt somehow that she better understood those things, or that I had shared an experience with her. Now we have both seen it. I read my old childhood books to her too. I have even taught her a few Italian words. I just remember that one day, when I was very young and together with my mother in the kitchen, she took the milk out and said, “This is actually called latte. And the bread is actually called pane.” I do the same with Maria. At least this language won’t feel completely foreign to her, and she will understand that it is still our language in some way. I have repeated these experiences with her.

Your daughters are growing up separately. The eldest, Marta, lives with your parents in the US: The youngest, Maria, with her mother in Setomaa. And you travel between them all. This is certainly a complicated family system. But I am sure there is something positive in it. I am sure your daughters will grow up to be very strong women. Especially when they take after their mother.

No solution is completely satisfactory. The First World War was a hundred years ago. Great empires collapsed. All kinds of new countries emerged on the map of the world — Estonia one of them. Where there once stood the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian Empires, were now interesting new countries, and nobody knew where the “correct borders” between them were. Even today the Kurds and Turks are fighting over this in the Middle East. We see the same between Ukraine and Russia. These are actually old conflicts that have not been resolved, because nobody is satisfied with the outcome. But sometimes, states become tired of fighting and the status quo is the new reality. The Åland Islands belong officially to Finland, but Swedes are living there, and there is no war there. Life just goes on, and I believe the islanders in Mariehamn are happy. Northern Ireland is another such example, perhaps. Nobody is completely happy, but they made up somehow because people were tired of fighting. They want to go to work, to live their lives. It’s not so important where the exact border is. Life isn’t just war. And family systems work the same way. I was with Maria in the countryside recently and I saw that she actually enjoys the country life. Every day, she sees what the animals are doing. For her, animals are characters, just like people. The hardest of course is that my eldest is so far away from me. It’s very strange for me and I have not gotten used to it. But I will forever be her father and that will never change. Naturally, they will become strong women. But I hope they will also be wise enough to know when to use their strength and when not to.

Right now you are writing My Viljandi, which will come out next summer. And you have started a new genre — novels. What is your novel about?

My Viljandi will come out in July 2020 at Viljandi Folk. We always planned that the new book would come out at Folk. I have worked on this book for three years. I have so much material and I don’t know how many pages. Actually, there are a lot of good books about Viljandi already available. Heikki Raudla has written very well about Viljandi, for instance. I advise them. This book is something else, definitely, but I hope these characters start to live in people’s hearts in the future, and become part of the lore of Viljandi.

People think that Viljandi is the bellybutton of the world, or at its end, but this is a town that breathes art. I think every person here is living in their own novel. Sometimes really because Romaan (“Novel”) is a favorite bar on Koidu Street. When I was in Reykjavik a summer ago, I bought Sjon’s books The Whispering Muse and Moonstone. I thought I would like to write the same kinds of novels. They are both beautiful books, but not very long. I just don’t have the time to write some huge novel but I could write shorter ones. I have different ideas. One takes place in Estonia in the 1960s, the other is set during Prohibition.

In addition to your books, you also write about genetics. Can you explain your interest in genetics?

As I wrote in my novel Montreal Demons, genetics is our new god. Genetics explains everything. Now they say that old traumas live on in our genes. All from genetics. I arrived to the genetics world in 2003 when I lived in Tallinn. The newspaper The Baltic Times sent me to Tartu for a genetics conference. I started to write about it, and that world pulled me in. I was already tired of politics. To write about politics is a dangerous profession. Politicians lie. That’s their job. They aren’t two-faced. They have 50 faces or more. A politician will tell you something in the morning and by nightfall will say that it never happened and that you haven’t done your work well, or you’re a liar, or you support another party. But scientists are actually cool people. 

I will gladly meet with Andres Metspalu or Lili Milani. Let’s have some coffee and talk about genetics. I am not a scientist myself, but I enjoy their company. It’s a colorful world. These are people who are really trying to change everything. A politician’s promise is that the pension will rise x percent, or that public transport in Tallinn will be free. But a geneticist is a person like Kari Stefansson in Iceland who believes he can predict everyone who is at risk for breast cancer in Iceland and, if the government will allow him, wants to alert people to that risk to potentially save their lives. In this way, they do want to play God. They are creating a new world for us each and every day. My articles appear mostly on GenomeWeb. This is a popular publication based in New York. I have worked with them since 2005. My first editor there was from St. Petersburg. For him, Estonia was a neighboring country and he was greatly interested in Estonia. So, thanks to Estonia, I got the job.

You also have a great interest in history. I believe you know more about Estonian history than the average Estonian. Does knowing history help to better navigate the present?

An interesting question. Recently I was reading about the history of Viljandi and understood better why people are afraid of Russia, because every 100 or 150 years, the Russians return, burn the place to the ground, and leave. Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great did it. So it’s easier to understand the trauma that is inside Estonians. I also have this in me now. If I hear a rattly motorcycle engine in Viljandi, or the fireworks go off, I immediately think, “Did the Russians come back?” Interesting that people don’t fear the Germans the same way, though they behaved the same. It’s also interesting to read old Estonian narratives that are a few centuries old and understand that things haven’t changed a lot. They had the same concept of life. I recently was reading about Jaan Tõnisson, and what a hardworking, industrious youth he was at his family farm out in the countryside, and then there were photos of him in a student corporation hat and I thought, “See, nothing changes.” It only repeats itself. Some Estonians die, others are born to take their place. Time is not chronological. It repeats and repeats. It’s a spiral.

I believe that knowing our family histories helps us to better understand ourselves.

Absolutely. I only recently learned that my great grandfather was once an anarchist in Italy, and his brother too. And on my other side, my father’s side, it was the same story. I have a relative, Attanasio Dramis from Calabria, who was a very influential anarchist in 19th century Italy. So we have never respected authority! Or maybe it’s more the idea that rules are meant to be broken. During Prohibition, they still made their wine, because a law is just a rule. My mother’s family, the Abbatecolas, are passionate people. Even on Facebook they are fighting sometimes about politics. Sometimes it’s even too intense for me! The Petrones are more melancholic ladies’ men, I think. They loved wine, women and song, but mostly women. It’s nice to think that, yes, I am a bit alone in this world, but once upon a time there were uncles who were just like me. Maybe they were a bit dumb at times, but that’s just who we are.

How do you feel in Estonia really? From an outsider’s perspective, it seems you’ve really taken it into yourself — You speak Estonian, know the culture and history. But do you feel it’s your home?

In some ways, it’s quite comfortable. I was in New York in the summer and it was hot and fun. I really enjoyed it. Then I came back, there was a brisk wind, I went to the market in Tallinn, the people were so beautiful, and Postimees wanted a column from me. So I pulled out the laptop and I wrote it up — this was the fantasy that there was a concentration camp for foreigners in Estonia. It was a satire, but I read in the comments that Lauri Vahtre said I had spit in the face of the Estonian nation. Really? So satire is prohibited then. But my soul brother Jaan Kaplinski liked it. That also counts. I often think of how we are different. It came to mind recently, that an Estonian’s first thought is, “What should I do,” followed by, “What’s the point at all?” I once told an Estonian woman that I had romantic feelings for her and do you know what she said? “That’s nice. But what’s the point?” And then she said, “It’s nice if you feel something, but you don’t have to talk about it all the time. Feeling and talking are two different things.” 

When an Estonian wants to relax, she does something. Picks potatoes. Goes mushrooming in the forests. Skis. An activity. For me, this is all backward. When a person relaxes, he doesn’t do anything at all. For me, life is absurd. There is no point or reason to life. I don’t know where that idea came from. Maybe a little Italian dolce far niente (“the sweetness of doing nothing”), but there is also a French existentialist influence. Not that I, as a youth, read Jean-Paul Sartre, but I think the French existentialists were very influential in culture in general in the 1960s and 1970s, so that it influenced me via the culture. The hippie phenomenon was very existentialist in outlook. So, dear Estonian lady, wherever you are at the moment, those feelings were great and wonderful. I liked them.

Estonian women. You have admired them, your children’s mother is an Estonian woman, but sometimes it seems that you still don’t understand them. Are Italian women different? Or is it just different from men to understand women’s logic, hormones, and behavior, and isn’t connected to nationality? For me it seems logical, we don’t have the experience of living in another gender’s body.

Italian women? Listen, it’s a damn good feeling to step inside a store in Puglia and have all these Italian women be friendly to you and smile and say, “Ciao, bello, ciao.” I love it. My whole body bubbles like hot chocolate. I need that kind of warmth, especially when these winters are so cold. It’s like a warm breeze. It’s something within me that I need at times, because that’s just who I am.

Most of my friends think I am a pretty mild-mannered person, but there is a crazy Mediterranean side, especially if I have some wine. Then I start to flirt and things get out of hand. I can be very intense. If I am sad, then I am very sad. If happy, then with a big smile. Once I got very angry and threw a container of milk against the refrigerator. Then a moment later I looked down and thought, “God, what an idiot you are,” and got the mop out. Damn.

The average Estonian woman, if she has a father, has not grown up with this kind of man. The average Estonian father is peaceful, does his work, comes home, eats some potatoes, goes back to work, and later puts up some shelves. Nobody’s throwing milk at the fridge! Once a whole stack of firewood collapsed on me and then I really started to curse. But then I felt better.

There are volcanoes in Italy, you know. Sometimes you need a good earthquake or explosion. Then things get better. It’s cathartic.

But in fact, I love Estonian women a lot, especially those wild Sami, Finno-Ugric types of women. I think that they have fire in their hearts too, and in a strange way complement Mediterranean men. This overly pragmatic, Germanic, city mentality doesn’t suit me because, for better or worse, I am not a logical German. But these wild Finno-Ugric women are full of vital essence, sisu. I would never say they are tepid or reserved. They are a force of nature, terrifying, passionate, wise, and insanely sexy. If you like extreme experiences, then I definitely advise one.

Women most certainly have a different perspective. My daughters are already as children far more intelligent than I am at the moment. How did they get so smart so quickly? It’s unbelievable, but I have a very rich life thanks to the fact that I have these smart young girls and women in my life who can explain to me what’s actually going on. Sometimes it is hard to understand how they see the world, because in their minds, all things are connected. It happens that I might do something wrong, but I don’t know what it is. They are angry, but later feel better, but I still don’t know what I did, and they won’t tell me. It’s a real mystery.

You have stayed single after your divorce, even though I imagine that for Estonian woman, a tall, mature Italian-American, who is still sensitive, is their romantic dream. Is that your conscious decision or are you too complicated to fulfill someone’s romantic image of you?

I have certainly had love interests after the divorce. Each one has been inspiring, intelligent, and beautiful. I have also communicated with a lot of women and have learned a lot from them. I take it that I am learning new things right now. This is a period in my life when I talk to a lot of people and have new experiences. This helps my writing too. It’s good when you have new characters. I should also acknowledge that I have learned a lot from younger women in particular. Often people think that young people are dumb, don’t know anything, are immature, unreliable. But actually women who are my age behave exactly the same way. Some things just don’t change and it is often young people who have a clearer picture of the world and how things actually are. They are the wise ones, we are the ones who are still confused. So I am grateful to them. In this context though, it would be very complicated if I just had one “new partner” if I want to wander, discuss, experience, listen. I no longer need someone at home. I am now looking for inspiration.

You get along well with Epp. Divorce is a painful process and many never make up or become friends. Why have you been able to do that? For the children, it’s very necessary. Perhaps you can give some advice?

I don’t think I am the right person to give anyone advice. I see a psychologist about once a month. That has helped and I advise that for sure, because, let’s be honest, our friends tire quickly of our complaining. As I see it, most conflicts are built on top of an old wound. Something that went wrong in the past. “You did this!” Even international relationships function this way. Take Estonia and Russia, for example. And also in Western Europe. I remember when I was 14 in Switzerland, someone said that the Swiss were worried about all the land the Germans were buying up. “See, they are trying to take over again, but this time without an army. They are just going to buy everything!” This is a conflict that is based on something that happened in the past. These wounds and traumas are sometimes quite difficult. They are real and they haunt you. At the same time, life goes on and they are exhausting. You have to think, do you really want it to be that when you die and go to heaven and God asks you what you did with your life, you answer, “I fought with my ex. But I won in the end!” This is absurd and stupid. This woman or man is also your children’s mother or father. In this way, you are joined to the end, because from you has come a new bloodline. Our children are part of me and part of her. We are therefore still a family. From a biological perspective, whether the paper says you are married or not doesn’t matter very much, honestly.

What are your creative ideals? What else would you like to do? Is the life of an international writer your dream?

I would really love to be in a band. Is it a midlife crisis or not, I can’t say, but I love to play music and supposedly I am a good bass guitarist. That is definitely a dream. I tried to put something together in Viljandi, but we all work and have children. It’s hard to do. I have a lot of friends who play, but they are professional musicians. It just doesn’t work this way that you ask Jalmar Vabarna, Silver Sepp, or Rauno Vaher, to put a band together. Because Silver is on tour in Uzbekistan, and Jalmar is playing in the Shetland Islands, and Rauno is … well, I am not sure where he is. Maybe in Jamaica? But I still hope it might happen.

The other thing is that I am a writer, not an Estonian writer I put my thoughts about an Italian trip on my blog once and it became one of my most popular posts. Thousands of people have read it. So I think it would be a good idea if I wrote something about Italy too. As a writer, I still feel I am very young and these coming years will give me plenty of opportunities to write interestingly and wonderfully. It would be great if some time in the distant future, I would end up like Henry Miller, who lived to be 88. All the other writers of his generation were long gone — Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, John Dos Passos — but every time they needed to wheel out an old man to spin some yarns, he would be there with an old cap on his head, a cane in hand, and twinkle in his eyes, to say, “Well, in those days, it was like this …”

Name some people who have inspired you.

Björk Guðmundsdóttir is a terrifically creative person, who showed me that art can be therapeutic. This feeling that when the shit starts to fly, you can always put out a new album and the sun will rise again. All the New York rappers have inspired me, I even listen to A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul when I write. Gypsy jazz has been a huge influence, the rhythm helps me to write a lot. The French guitarist Stephane Wrembel is my favorite and Django Rienhardt is our godfather. But you know, I have a lot of friends who are turning 50 this year. They are all born in the year 1969. I call them 69ers. When I worked in a music store in New York long ago, then my colleague Max was a cool hippie adventurer who worshiped John Coltrane, and I learned a lot about music from him in general. I was still a teenager and he was 28 or something. Already a wise old man! We sold a shitload of Spice Girls albums. And then when I came to Estonia, there was Steve Roman, my expat role model. All of my bosses in New York are born in 1969. I don’t know why this is. Why don’t I have a lot of friends who were born in 1968, or 1970? Why not? But since they are turning 50 this year, I ask you to pull out that bottle of wine and lift a glass to them too. Happy birthday, my dear friends!

I know you like old blues. I think the blues suit your personality. What do you think Justin Petrone’s blues name would be?

The Greasy Goose, because the water just rolls off my back.  A rolling stone gathers no moss.

You have said that you had your midlife crisis at 35. We have different crises in life. What did you learn from yours or are still learning?

The biggest thing was probably that you can’t control life. We’ve all heard that we are the masters of our own fates, but I don’t believe this, because I tried very hard to change my fate, but it did not work in the end. A person can control his or her own life, what he or she does. But not the bigger picture. I can’t change what my mother does, or what my father thinks, or how my wife feels. With this understanding came a great degree of surrender. It’s been an interesting experience for me, and I have to learn how to let go more every day, how to flow with my subconscious. It’s interesting, because actually you get some control over your life back. Because you actually do not control your own subconscious and at the same time, nobody else does either. It’s absurd, but a cool experience. I think that before the crisis, I lived more within frames or in boxes. Everything was constructed. Now the stuff of life is out of the box. Every day, I lie down, feel, think, dream. I see what’s in my heart. To where it flows, I don’t know, but let the water flow.

How do you feel about your 40th birthday? How will you celebrate? Will you make a tiramisu? I’ve heard your tiramisu is quite good.

My birthday is on a Wednesday, so I might go out with some friends. I’ve never liked big parties, especially in my honor. But this weekend I might go swimming with my kids. I think it’s a good choice to celebrate my 40th with my children.

Happy birthday and lots of inspiration!

apple preserves, two thousand seventeen

I WAS RECENTLY CLEANING out my refrigerator when I found an old glass jar buried deep in the back. It contained an intriguing gold-colored liquid and tiny white slices of apple that looked like sprats. Across the front, a faded, peeling piece of masking tape upon which some poor hand had written in marker, õunakompott, kaks tuhat seitseteist, “apple preserve, two-thousand seventeen.” I set it on the counter, not quite sure what to do with it. I assumed it was safe to eat, but I didn’t know and I have to admit it didn’t arouse my appetite. Those apple slices did look like dead fish. The truth was that I just couldn’t remember where the jar had come from. These Estonians were always giving me things that I didn’t know what to do with. I never asked, but they always gave.

Just a year ago I had to toss a whole bag of something called ebaküdoonia, a hard, bitter fruit that in English is translated as “flowering quince” but some also call the “nordic lemon.” We didn’t have ebaküdoonia where I grew up, and so I wasn’t really sure what to do with it. I took one of the fruits and sliced it and then tried to eat it raw. I imagined it was of some value for the Vitamin C content, and the fiber no doubt, and that it was perhaps a healthy food, maybe the healthiest, but I just didn’t have the time or will to chew through a whole paper bag full of ebaküdoonia.

This bag had arrived into my possession via the mother of my children, who had received it from an Estonian who lived on the prairies of southeast Estonia. It seemed odd how these Estonians seemed to be traveling the countryside with bags full of fruit in their cars. Then they would pull up to strangers at gas stations and offload the goods. “Here, here. Take it. Take it.” That twisted sparkle in the eyes. “You want some potatoes, man? Some homemade apple wine, man? I’ve got it all here. Some jars of sauerkraut too? And more ebaküdoonia? Just take it!”

I suppose for them, it was some kind of currency in those parts, as good as gold. Why, one could walk into, man a little general store in a place like Niitsuku and buy sugar or coffee with an ebaküdoonia or two. Three ebaküdoonia could get you a bag of makaronid from the Tartu Mill. They worshiped these fruity hunks of gold, but I had no use for the bitter things. Maybe they could be used for jams or juices? One or the other. The paper bag sat in the cold, limp and sad.

There was another situation in the summer where someone had gifted me a giant yellow squash. It was as big as a saxophone and delicate, so I didn’t want to just throw it in the back of the car. So I held it in my arms like a baby, and even buckled my seat belt over the squash, so that it would be safe in case of a collision. We drove like that, from one end of South Estonia to the other. The driver was an Estonian friend. When we neared Nuia, I turned to the driver and said, “Don’t you think it’s a little weird that we’re driving around the country with a giant squash?” The driver looked at me and the squash, shrugged, and said, “Noh, mina ei tea.” “Well, I don’t know.” It was all just normal, I guess. Normaalne.

If you ask the Estonians about these things, you’ll likely get a lecture about food shortages during the Soviet time (“It was all so hard, you know, so hard”) or they’ll even reach further back and talk about the old agricultural economy of the peasant days, how food actually was a traded commodity, sometimes more valuable than whatever the money of the day was. It’s also a symbol of trust and belonging. When the neighbor shares his apple wine with you, then you will know that you’ve finally made it and they accept you as one of their own. Being Estonians, they won’t actually tell you how they feel, but they will use free bags of fruit to express themselves. Then you’ll no doubt hear about the cold climate and the need to survive the harsh winter frosts. “That jar of sauerkraut could save your life!”

Meantime, I’m in the kitchen, staring at this archaeological artifact, a jar full of floating, shriveled two-year old apple slices that look like pickled fish. Yet when I told my friend, she thought I was joking. “Two-thousand seventeen?” she said. “But that’s fresh! I just found an old jar from 1997. By the way, do you still have that bag of ebaküdoonia?”