the greatest city in the world

nyc

The Old Gray Lady

THERE IS SOMETHING ABOUT NEW YORK, as they say, but I am not sure what that something is. On this day, the tip of lower Manhattan that protrudes into the Atlantic is blanketed by gray clouds. The wind comes in off the water and finds its way between the buildings. These unnatural barriers that rise into the sky only embolden the wind. It ruffles your hair and clothes.

The colors of Manhattan are muted. The people dress in black and gray, with the occasional festive hat or scarf. Even the most colorful scarf though loses its vibrancy in the city’s shadows. This is among the most diverse corners of the world, so they say, and there are many tones of skin and angles of faces, African, indigenous, European, Asian. Rather than being some carnival of humanity, these too are rendered in shades of gray.

On a spring day, nearly 400 years ago, a Dutch vessel anchored in these waters, and a man named Peter Minuit, who wore the dashing attire of the Dutch Republic, acquired this sliver of an island for trinkets valued at around a thousand euros. Minuit bought it from a group of Indians he met who resided in what is now called Brooklyn. The island of Manhattan was actually controlled by a different group of Indians. As such, these Indians sold something they didn’t own and enriched themselves in the process.

It was Manhattan’s first business deal.

Ever since then, all threads of the world have passed through the eye of Manhattan’s needle. New York remains the obelisk around which my own life has turned. As far as I have retreated from its allure, to the fringes of Europe, I will never be released from its magnetic tug. I work for New York, I set my clock to New York. When it’s afternoon in Estonia, it’s morning in New York. The story of my family goes through New York. On Saint Mark’s Place in the East Village there is an old house covered in ivy where my great grandmother was born to an Irish family. This same old woman whom I knew as a child. Her name was Genevieve Carroll. It was for her that I received my middle name. Even today on Estonian documents, I sign my full name.

To get into the office where I will work today, I have to show my Estonian identity card, the one with the terrible photo that was taken in a booth in Tartu. It somehow passes the scrutiny of the gray man at the desk, who calls up to the office to check whether or not I am a welcome visitor.

Then I am shown through a security gate to the elevators by another colorless face. You must push your destination floor, and then you are prompted to enter a certain elevator. If you get in the wrong elevator, you will be sent to the wrong floor. To get into the office, you need a code. When I go to use the restroom, I see a shadow on the floor, the shadow of another man. Instinctively, I quicken my pace to get away. In such an environment, everyone is suspect.

This is the era of security, the era of bombings, shootings, political dysfunction. The people work on, the markets of Manhattan rattle on, but something has been lost. The color has turned to gray.

It wasn’t always this way. During the roar of the Nineties, Manhattan was the kaleidoscopic center of frivolity and good will. Famous people who were famous for being famous roller-bladed through the park holding hands. Even a decade ago, before the economic crash, one would only need to pause by the side of the road to hear good hip hop blaring out of a passing radio, or see a smiling girl skateboarding down the street. There was a feeling of camaraderie, of unlimited possibility. Manhattan still felt young then. Now it has turned into my great grandmother, an old gray lady.

Yet there is still hope in old age, I think. The hope of being reborn. The hope of reincarnation.

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just a catholic boy

santrifone

The feast of San Trifone, Puglia, Italy

I HAVE TO BE CAREFUL what I write this time because God is watching. He sees all and is taking everything into account. I am deeply convinced of this, no matter what you might say to me about logic. I was born into a Catholic family, and so things like logic are irrelevant to me. What matters is that when the mathematics are done at the end, I will come out mostly good, not bad.

This is what weighs heavy on my soul.

“What did I do to deserve this?” A common Catholic exclamation. My mother says it. I don’t say it, but I think it. If I trip on the steps, I am merely being repaid. Any negative mishap is not a twist of fate, bad luck, or chance. It is divine retribution for some sinful deed or transgression. This balance of good and evil wreaks havoc on the Catholic soul.

We do lose sleep at night.

I remind myself that Jack Kerouac, who I think of as a true soul brother, and who remains one of the better known American writers to Estonians, was educated by French Canadian nuns, and that he prayed for forgiveness each night after romping with Mexico City prostitutes and sketched a tiny cross in the corners of his diaries. I know that when I divorced, I put a cross over my signature as well. I felt somehow that by putting my little name on that paper I was doing something unholy. In this mindset, there is no happy or unhappy, there is merely right and wrong, black and white. This was no doubt wrong, so the thinking went, even if it might have been necessary or inevitable.

These are things that I feel are almost impossible to explain to Estonians, who tend to shrug off the intricacies of relationships. They are focused on the visceral, the here and now, the physical experience of love. If it’s there, it is, and if it disappears, it isn’t. The forces of good and evil are less at play. Many of them, grounded as they are in the forests, have a very different understanding of wickedness and virtue. In the pagan world, the concept of evil takes on a naughtier, childlike quality. It’s part of the balance of life. It’s just as much a part of us as any other quality. Something to be accepted as part of a whole, rather than denied, or kept at bay, or beaten into submission like nature itself.

For those of us who have grown up in a Latin civilization, though, these concepts are in greater contrast. I’ve spent much of my adult life trying to navigate my own way through it. And I have learned that I am of it, whether I like it or not. My grandparents met outside a confession booth in New York in the 1940s. My great uncle was a Catholic priest. When I was an adolescent, we left the Catholic faith though and became Protestants, and then much later, I joined the Orthodox faith, seeing it as somehow more representative of early Christianity, and more aligned with my deep Mediterranean past. What I have understood though during this journey is that you can never really leave the faith. You remain what you are born into, and so inside I remain just a Catholic boy.

How good a Catholic, though, I hesitate to calculate. Whenever the Ten Commandments are set before me, my heart sinks, just to see how many of them I have broken. It was always the material covering human sexuality that was my undoing. There you would be, sitting in church, the most pure and divine of places, and find your gaze wandering over to your neighbor’s wife. The very woman you were not supposed to be coveting!

Then you would realize: it’s just not working. All of the praying and crossing and kneeling, all of the bread and wine, and you still couldn’t escape the unholiness of the self. Later, though, a Catholic girlfriend comforted me when I confessed these sins to her.

“Don’t worry, Justin,” she said. “We all go to church to check people out. I always do it. That’s actually what church is for.”

something about love

beach cave
RECENTLY, IN THE COMPANY of a woman I admire, I sensed her slip away. It was in nothing she said, or did, but I felt it all the same. Sensed it, yet in a physical way, so that my whole body began to quake within, though I did my best to smile through it, nod, and to make small talk and conversation.

If I had been given permission to speak at that moment, if someone had put a microphone up to my mouth and asked me that question, “How do you feel?” no sound would have come out. Maybe only a dull, death-like croak. Inside, lava was bubbling, plates were shifting. I was going to explode.

Yet I suppressed my own voice, my own feelings, because who really has any use for something that cannot be expressed in simple words? The truth was that a simple phrase like, “I love you,” would have been enough to calm me. The “I love you” never came out though. Even that had to be hidden away.

On the train home, I sat stunned, overcome by the sensations in my body. I listened to music, or entertained myself with work, yet I could not describe what was happening to me. Surely, a man at my age should have total control over his faculties, to be able to shut off or turn on certain parts of his psychology as the need arose. My entire life I had been bullied and teased on account of my softness — soft, this is the first word that often comes to people when asked to describe me — and yet as hard as I tried to scrub it from me, my sensitivity had again betrayed me, left me out to the cold.

I was a sensitive man and I had a heart and this just would not do.

At home in my bed, the overwhelming crash of the waves fell upon me. It had been nothing she said, nothing she did, but just that sense of someone being there, being present, and then withdrawing into obscurity.

I decided then, that I would get rid of the cursed feeling for all time. I imagined this soft, pink, membrane of thing, this feeling that some call love. I imagined placing it in a box, and taking it deep into a cave by a beach. I put planks of wood over the box, and covered it with mounds of sand. There it stayed for some time, repressed. Tucked away. Hidden from everyone. Including me.

Life went on like that, and I was happy to have my feelings under control. Everything was in its right place, and such feelings served no purpose. The more time that went on though, I began to feel that something was not right. I felt dry, and stale, and I could no longer write as well or as fluidly as I once had. The fact that I had concealed my heart from all others did not trouble me so much as the reality that I had stopped paying attention to a part of myself. That whatever love or admiration I had felt for this woman was good, and there was no reason to be afraid of it, or to keep it in a crypt.

So on another day, I summoned the courage to descend back into the cave and to find the mound of sand, where I had once buried my heart. I moved the dirt away with my hands until I found the wooden planks, and after removing them, I found the box, and pried that open too, until my heart, my love, once again felt sweet oxygen and began to pump and feel again. At last, I dragged it out of the cave and into the sunlight and let it pulsate. Maybe it was soft, maybe it was vulnerable, but I could not do without it.

An Estonian-language version of this column appears in the autumn 2018 issue of the magazine Hingele Pai.

prague spring

PragueSpring2

Soviet tanks roll into Prague, Czechoslovakia, 21 August 1968

IT’S TOO COMMON that we spend our whole lives in the company of our closest relatives and friends and still know little about their experiences. I knew my father had been drafted into the US Army on November 15, 1966 — he still remembers the date. I had heard a lot of stories about that time — mostly about the worry young men my father’s age felt about the prospect of being sent to fight in the jungles of Vietnam. Some drank poison to get sent home, others injured themselves so that they would no longer be fit for service. It was my father’s fortune that he was sent to what was then called West Germany: he had enrolled in radio operator school during training, and the previous class of operators had already been sent to Southeast Asia before him.

There was also a helpful hint supplied by a commanding officer while out drinking: If you cannot type more than 15 words per minute of Morse code, you will not be sent to Vietnam. I like to think that my father slyly evaded an almost certain death by slowing his performance, but according to the man himself, he actually couldn’t type that fast.

I knew a lot of stories about my father’s time in Germany that he shared over the years, but I didn’t know until just a few weeks ago that at 4 am on the morning of August 21, 1968, he and his fellow soldiers were awakened in the barracks and dispatched from their base to the Czech border. “We had had these kinds of drills before, but what surprised me was that even the commanding officers were caught off guard,” he told me recently. A full armored convoy moved through the Black Forest toward that invisible dotted-line that at the time separated the West from the East. “We were fully armed with tanks, mounted machine guns, ammunition,” he said.

The convoy disappeared into the forests along the border, until it had nearly lost its bearings. “I had no idea where we were,” he said. There they waited, in the dark woods, for orders to come.

On the other side of the border at that exact time was Arvi, like my father, also 20 years old. A young athlete from Viljandi, Estonia, who had been drafted into the Soviet Army on November 13, 1967 — he also remembers the exact date. “Of course, I remember it,” he told me on the night of August 21, just a few weeks ago, when I went to visit him. “That’s the date from which they calculated my monthly salary.” Arvi was sent to Kaliningrad for basic training. It was there that he, just like my father, enrolled in radio operator school to learn Morse code. The job came with perks — avoiding heavy labor, for instance, because radio operators were too valuable to risk injury.

From Kaliningrad, in 1968, as the relationship between the Czechoslovakian government and its “brother nations” in the Warsaw Pact deepened, Arvi was sent to Poland for nearly a month, before they were dispatched to East Germany and then finally into Czechoslovakia. He rode in the same car as the commander, with two other radio operators. “That was one of the most depressing moments, when we crossed the Czech border,” he recalled. “Someone had painted a skull and crossbones on a boulder at the border in white paint, and underneath it, ‘USSR.’ The commander had traveled the whole time without a helmet. Then he turned and asked, ‘But where is my helmet?'”

They were sent to the border with West Germany where they were stationed guarding a Czechoslovak tank battalion. Each morning after he stood watch, from 6 am to 8 am, he would tune his high-powered radio to pick up the news from Estonia. “The Russians had incredibly strong radios,” he said. One morning he heard that someone had hoisted a satirical protest sign on a street in Tallinn that showed a Russian tank chasing a Czech JAWA motorcycle. And Arvi was there on the Czech side of the border that same morning that my father was in the woods on the German side. Waiting there for orders. Waiting. Then, later that morning, the order came to the American troops to stand down and return to base. The two men never saw combat, and both are today grandfathers to many grandchildren. They never had to fight each other in the woods.

Yet the memory of that time haunts them.

“It was horrible,” my father said. “Almost a hundred people were killed, many hundreds were injured. But as I found out later, President Johnson told the Russians they could do what they wanted with Czechoslovakia. He was more interested in negotiations on reducing nuclear arms.”

One thing that I really understood from talking to my father and Arvi about those events 50 years ago is how young they were. Both of them were 20 years old, both of them had been drafted into the army, both of them were at the will of commanding officers. In almost every conflict it is the young men, some of them still teenagers, who are awakened suddenly at 4 am, who wind up having to give their lives for the decisions of men many times older than them. Brezhnev and Johnson are long gone, but others have taken their places. As conflicts continue to rage, from the sands of Syria to the fields of Ukraine, it’s something I believe we must always keep in mind.

calliope

20180808_085132SOMETIME IN THE WINTER (or was it spring?) I was approached by two Americans from the Pacific Northwest who had holed up in Tallinn’s Old Town for weeks, trying to put together the second issue of a new literary magazine they had christened Calliope.

In one of those fortuitous events, one of the editors had encountered one of my books, read it cover to cover, and decided to contact me, not only for a submission, but for the contacts of other writers in Estonia who might be on the look out for new opportunities. Some of the names I provided made it into the Tallinn issue of Calliope, I’m happy to say.

In writing my own piece, ‘All Those Restless Souls’, I thought of the magazine’s readers, many of whom might be in the Pacific Northwest, and a recent visit from an old friend to Tallinn came to mind. The story began to write itself:

This is Adam Fish’s new life. He wakes up at the Hotel Europa with the wind howling something ferocious against the glass, and a moist streaky vision of Tallinn Harbor visible through the gray sliver of light that separates two carpetty-looking burgundy hotel curtains. Through it, one can see the rows of discount liquor stores, and beyond that, the great jutting jaw-like shape of the bow of one the white ships that goes to Helsinki, as if poised to swallow the whole scene up.

Originally titled, ‘This is Adam Fish’s New Life,’ ‘All Those Restless Souls’ tries to draw out some of the paradoxes in the expatriate dream of leaving it all behind. “I’m already so bored with it,” Adam opines in the story. “Just sitting there, sitting there. Drinking wine. Eating cheese. Sitting there. Drinking wine. Eating cheese. Sitting there. Drinking …”

We’re in class talking about our bright futures. It’s 1988. Czechoslovakia still exists. Estonia is a republic of that massive red country that eats up most the map. “I will become a Slovak salesman,” says Adam proudly. “And I will become an Estonian writer,” says I.

There is so much more to it, isn’t there? If you want to read this piece and others, including haunting work by Eia Uus and Adam Cullen, be sure to invest in a copy of Calliope. And many thanks to Lauren Schwab and Matthew Conyers — our editors, curators and publishers — for this opportunity to be read in a wonderful new context.

the long hot summer

stockholm

Långholmen, Stockholm, Sweden – July 2018

FOR WEEKS, we have been beset by heat and haze. The temperature reaches 30 degrees Celsius on some afternoons, and the land bakes in the never-ending sun, awaiting thunderstorms that either never come or blow through too fast. There is absolutely no way that any person from this notoriously frosty region could complain about a drawn-out July heatwave, even as the hospital emergency rooms fill up with sweaty old ladies on stretchers holding ice cubes to their temples.

The Estonians’ industriousness continues. My own neighbor — a thirty-something woman — can be seen sawing wood almost until midnight, propelled by that inborn desire to get as much done as possible before the snows return. At 6 AM, the neighbor starts mowing the lawn, or sawing wood. It’s hard to tell the difference, though I train my ears on the sounds of the machines.

For my part, I have found it impossible to do anything. I cannot read, I cannot write, I can barely think. My dreams are a frayed network of primitive impulses, bizarre scenarios, drama and suspense. My waking life is equally as strange. At the promenade in Pärnu just a few days ago, I came across two men cycling around on bicycles, one wearing a rubber Putin mask, the other wearing a Trump mask, and blasting out Kukerpillid’s “Pole Sul Tarvis” from a portable speaker.

This is a famous country tune, the refrain of which is Pole sul tarvis teada mida ma teen. “There’s no need for you to know what I’m doing …”

There is a kind of madness that engulfs people during a heat wave. We lose our bearings, our sense of right and wrong, even our sense of self. We give in to wickedness and it feels wonderful. The sensation of sweating 24 hours a day brings out our most animal instincts. The political debates do continue, the chaos of the world spins on, but all we really need is a glass of water.

The Helsinki Summit between Putin and Trump has just been another surreal part of this heatwave, I think, as off-kilter and mirage-like as those masked cyclists in Pärnu playing Kukerpillid. The farcical press conference that followed the two-hour meeting between the two men, the uproar over Trump’s backing of Putin’s assessment that the Russians did not meddle in the elections, then the ridiculous pivot that he simply misspoke, all blend into the carnival blur of summer. People do say stupid things in summer after all. Why not just blame it all on the heat?

Maybe there was no air-conditioning in Helsinki?

Putin and Trump are what the Estonians would call pensionärid, pensioners, men above a certain age. You might expect to find them playing a chess in a park somewhere and arguing about Vietnam. Yet the extent of their old-age narcissism and vanity has been startling and perhaps only matched in recent times by leaders of certain southern countries who might decorate themselves in leopard skins. Trump has gone from being a loud-mouthed, pasty-faced real estate developer to a bloated, doughy creature given to childlike outbursts, very much resembling the giant baby blimp that hovered London during his visit. The slender face of Putin’s secret police days in East Germany is barely visible beneath his mounds of thick makeup and flabs of flesh. Looking at images of this duo at their respective podiums, one might think that he’s not witnessing a moment of international statesmanship, but rather lost in an exhibit at Madame Tussaud’s. In this heat, is it any surprise, that these outlandish wax figures have started to melt?

This is when one longs for another glass of water. That’s all we humans really are, just water. The world may seem nonsensical and run by narcissists and its form and substance might seem as permanent as a gooey chocolate left out on a dish to melt in the sun. But relax, just drink water. Stay hydrated. Together, we’ll all get through this.

a part of history

helsinki anna

Anna at Linnanmäki in Helsinki on her fifth birthday, 2012

FOR SOME TIME NOW, our mornings have begun with the same question: “Did my results come yet?”

I check my email again and answer: “No, they haven’t. We have to wait a bit longer.”

“How long?”

“I don’t know. The system shows that they are analyzing your sample and preparing your reports. Maybe this week they’ll be ready.”

“You said that last week!”

“I am sure they will come soon.”

“But I have already waited for so long! What do you think, am I more Finnish than Marta?” asks my daughter Anna.

Marta is her sister, who is almost 15. I bought both daughters DNA tests at a good price. The process is simple: the person spits in a vial and sends it via mail to the laboratory. Numbers are printed on the vial that are entered into the system. This makes the process more or less anonymous. In the lab, they analyze your DNA and compare it to reference samples from different populations. In this way, they can determine how much of your genome is Finnish.

This is very interesting for people these days, especially for children who want to know their origins. Numerous companies sell tests in Estonia, including 23andMe, AncestryDNA, Family Tree DNA, Insitome, and others. Some of them also provide information about your health, including data about your genetic risk for certain cancers or neurological diseases. Since our children are so young, they haven’t expressed interest in their health data, only in their ancestry. They want to know more about their identity, for example, what soccer/football team to support. If they are 6 percent Swedish, then why not support the Swedish team?

I decided to use 23andMe this time because my mother and my children’s mother have both taken the test. At last, the long-awaited results arrived for Marta. She found out that 31 percent of her DNA comes from my mother, her grandmother, while she got 19 percent from my father. Inheritance is indeed arbitrary.

Since we have an international family, I wondered if this would be at all interesting for Estonians. They already know that they are “Estonians,” so why should they waste their money on a test that would only confirm it? But when my children’s mother’s test came back, someone who should be a “pure Estonian,” it said that she was only half Estonian.

A quarter of her ancestry was actually Finnish.

I had read that after the Great Northern War, there were so few Estonians in Virumaa that many Finns moved there to work. I know that my daughter’s mother’s grandfather was from somewhere near there. Maybe that’s why she has so much Finnish blood? Or is every Estonian a bit Finnish? Who knows. For my daughters, this was very interesting. Though their mother was a quarter Finnish, it showed that Marta was 8 percent Finnish.

Now Marta’s sister Anna can’t wait to find out how much Finnish ancestry she has.

“I think you have a bit more,” I told her.

“Why?”

“Because when we were in Helsinki, I noticed you looked like the other Finnish girls.”

“Aha. But have my results come yet?”

“Let me check. No, they haven’t come yet. But maybe tomorrow.”

I don’t know why this is so interesting for our kids, but maybe because family trees are so complicated and connected to history. For children, it’s very hard to understand why something happened in history and how that can impact our identities to this day. But when you can show them a chart that shows them that they are 10 percent Finnish, for instance, then history is somehow closer. It isn’t just history anymore. It’s a part of you.

You are a part of history.

Note. This story was originally written in Estonian and posted on the Parim Aeg family blog. Shortly afterward, we learned that Anna was 44 percent Estonian, 17 percent Italian, 7 percent British & Irish, 5 percent Balkan, and just 3 percent Finnish. She was also more than 3 percent Middle Eastern.  The remainder was classified as generic “Southern European” and “Northwest European.” It meant she was just 96 percent European according to the test.

If you believe it.