IN THE SUMMER OF 2015, I received a letter from Sigrid Kõiv at Postimees asking if I would care to contribute a monthly column for the newspaper’s weekend Arter section. I of course said yes. Not only was it a great opportunity to reach a weekly audience in Estonia, but it offered me the possibility to write in a fresh context.
Most writing assignments are would-be columns. Going back to elementary school, we are asked for our opinion and to be brief about it. I studied column writing and reviewing when I was a university student, so I had my training, but with the Arter columns, I wanted to break free of the ‘Someone with an opinion says something and defends it with a few facts,” model. I wanted to deliver something more poetic to an audience drowning in politics and business news.
One of the pieces I wrote for Arter was called “Mirror World” in English. It discussed the phenomenon of outsiders adopting the perspectives and biases of their host countries to an extreme degree. I gave the example of Dean Reed, the American rock ‘n’ roll musician who defected to East Germany and became such a good communist that he once described the Berlin Wall as being a defensive measure against the West. This is the concept of Mirror Man. The idea of an outsider reflecting back the attitudes around him.
Mirror Man is not only a collection of Postimees Arter columns. It also contains much of the pieces I wrote while I was a health columnist for the magazine Tervis Pluss, plus some articles that appeared in Eesti Päevaleht, Estonian World, ERR News, and other outlets. A favorite, “The Death of Pensioner,” was published online by ERR News in 2011. To date, I still think it’s one of the best things I have written about life in this country.
There are other new pieces included in Mirror Man, such as “Üleminekud” (“Transitions”) and “Uus Algus” (“A New Beginning”), which I penned last summer. Some of these are really personal and crescendo into the more recent columns I have done, including “The Breaking Point,” “Rapla Witch,” and “The Last Bit of Mourning“. In these new pieces, I have tried to improve my approach to making a point through imagery. Rather than tell you what I think, I would like to recreate in words for you what I experience, and for you to arrive — maybe — at a similar experience, or a familiar feeling.
Mirror Man reads like a good book though. It reminds me a bit of The Beatles Magical Mystery Tour. This was an album made for a 1967 film made up of singles and some studio cuts that didn’t fit in here or there. Yet if you listen to it all the way through, it’s a real pleasure. It was one of the first LPs I had. I would listen to it all the time. Since my record player was so primitive, I would have to flip it every time and then flip it again. It’s my hope this book will offer readers the same kind of good and satisfying experience.
EACH DAY WE LOSE FIVE MINUTES OF LIGHT. A little shaved from the morning, a smidgen trimmed from the eve. Like a small yellow fish being swallowed by a dark lake trout, I sometimes think. Or a moist face disappearing into forest shadows. This is how autumn goes. It’s an introspective time. The antics and disappointments of summer are over. The crushed hopes of spring are long lost. What remains is a quiet, cozy contentedness. A silent peace.
I like it.
Some of the days are gray and wet and I don’t mind them. On other days, the sun is brave enough to smash through. The sky turns a brilliant blue and the sun’s strong rays bake the leaves gold and red. Such yellow days can last for as long as a week. Good weather for drying your laundry outside. Perfect weather for heading to the woods in search of fungus. Metsa seenele as the Estonians say.
To the forest, mushrooming!
I understand the Estonians best when they are in the forest harvesting mushrooms because to me it’s the most intimate and sensual experience you can have in this land. There is something about being surrounded by birches, with your hands deep in the moss, that settles and cools you inside and then excites, arouses. It’s as good as a long kiss or a passionate embrace, yet slow and soft. God knows how many Estonian babies have been conceived in these woods. Not enough, I say.
What I like about it is the loving intensity. The way hands scavenge. The surprise of finding a new bloom of chanterelles, one that leads to another, and then to another, until you somehow become frustrated that you can’t take the whole forest home in a bucket, berries and all.
I’ve been there, though I have never done mushrooming well. I only know a few of the species on sight — puravik (boletus), kukeseen (chanterelle) — and when I do find a good mushroom, I spend so much time admiring my catch that I forget to look for others. Once I forgot to bring a knife with me, though I had a bucket. I wound up using a pair of scissors from my car’s first aid kit.
“Päris Macgyverlik,” as the Estonians say, “Just like MacGyver.”
It feels good to be able to understand at least one aspect of Estonian life, to take it as my own. It feels good because on most of these days, many of the people here remain a mystery to me. I don’t always understand their fondness for silence, or their northern zen of “waste not, want not.” I don’t appreciate their ideal of a smoothly running world, where time hums along, where no unnecessary word is spoken, no unnecessary feeling is expressed, no precious second wasted.
You send letters to people that are never answered, not because they dislike what you said, but because they merely felt that everything had already been expressed, and there was no need to waste time or additional letters of the alphabet. Then you run into them two weeks later and say, “Did you get my letter?” and they reply, “Yes, I did.”
In Estonia, I imagine, some couples fall in love and break up without saying anything. How do they even know? Maybe they just search each other’s eyes for answers.
I have wondered how an Estonian might understand that another Estonian is showing interest. Will this Estonian say anything, or will she just show up one morning with a suitcase and a pet and move in? In a land where silence is golden, it’s not easy to keep it all inside. A volcano could erupt from the need to say something. Sometimes I just don’t get these people.
This is why I love to go mushrooming in the forests. It allows me to cool and calm. It’s just me, the woods, and no one else. If you do encounter a stranger with a knife and bucket, there can be no misunderstandings. Who could misunderstand another in such a mossy and nourishing place?
I HAD A NEW BOOK come out over the summer called Sketches of Estonia. This is the English version of the material that was published in 2016 as Kirju Eestist. The title is in homage to Miles Davis’s 1960 album Sketches of Spain and Jack Kerouac’s Book of Sketches.
My beatnik leanings are no secret, but this book is really a collection of not only interesting short stories about Estonians and Estonia, but an exercise in literary styles. The pieces in the book — there are 24 chapters — were written at different times, and have diverse influences.
Some were pieces that were drawn up or held over from the My Estonia 3 or Minu Eesti 3 project. Originally, I wanted to write a similar collection of shorts for that book, which came out in 2015, but quickly recognized that the book demanded some kind of linear story line, and that there was simply too much material to pack into another My Estonia book.
The first two books are entirely linear and carried by a narrative. However, they covered roughly 18 months in my life in 2002-2003. My Estonia 3, however, covered 2007 to 2013, which made such an approach difficult. I wanted to cover this period as a general memoir, along the lines of Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. However, while I was doing it, I noticed that the book demanded a narrative. So pieces that were originally written for the My Estonia 3 project were set aside if they were superfluous to the narrative. These formed the foundation for what later became Sketches of Estonia.
Chapters like “Kid Sirts and Surfer Taavi,” “Tea with the Icebreaker,” and “Drinking in Tallinn” came out of that time period. They were largely written in 2013 and 2014 at Aldo’s Coffee House in Greenport, Long Island.
Some of the other chapters here are even older though, and these are in my opinion quite personal. “Tree Balsam,” “How Romet Became a Clown,” “Gold Fish,” “Vastlapäev Arithmetic,” and “Gypsy Vika” were written in the 2011-2013 time period when we were living in Viljandi. I think I wrote “Tree Balsam” in Setomaa on a laptop set up on the porch. I would work and then come back to the laptop and write down my thoughts and then return to working on the country house.
Some of the pieces are quite different though. I had always wanted to write a new journalism-style profile about Andres Metspalu, and “Metspalu’s Elevator Speech” is absolutely one of my favorite chapters in this book. I took a similar approach when constructing my “Kuressaare Tropicalists” chapter. I also experimented with some modernist approaches in chapters like “Chaos and Spirits,” where I inserted “images” into the text, to allow the readers to imagine what these images looked like. I happened upon this approach once while copying something from Wikipedia. It preserved a space marked IMAGE and then the caption, but the actual images did not copy over. I realized that one could invent all kinds of images this way, ie. [IMAGE: Björk meeting with the Dalai Lama]. Ask yourself, what was Björk wearing when she met with the Dalai Lama?
It is fun, right?
The newer material in the book dates back to the 2014-2015 time period. “Pärnu After Christmas” has been readers’ favorite. It was written in Pärnu, after Christmas, in 2014. Two of the pieces were written in an ashram in India though. “Karksi House,” and “With Kaplinski at the Supermarket” were both written at Sai Baba’s Ashram in Puttaparthi in November 2015. I like these chapters because they were not heavily rewritten, and are largely untouched from what I put down working there in that peaceful state of mind. The Kaplinski chapter was later amended to include a note from the man himself!
I think I am really proud of the final chapter though, “The End of the World.” I like that I was able to get so many images into the beginning, without them being directly related, perhaps only by time. Somewhat fittingly, I can’t recall how or when I wrote it. I imagine it was finished up in Lanzarote, in the Canary Islands, in March 2016, when all of the chapters underwent editing ahead of their publication as Kirju Eestist.
Before I go, I wanted to thank Kerttu Kruusla and Signe Valdmäe for helping me with the cover of the book. Kerttu photographed the image at the Rohelise Maja Kohvik in Viljandi, and Signe wrote out the text on the same board they use to advertise their daily specials. I also thank Epp Petrone for assisting greatly in the editing and revision of the pieces, and Kristopher Rikken for his editing work, noting discrepancies in the details, or things that might not be obvious to a person not immersed in Estonian culture. Taken all together, I believe that Sketches of Estonia is solid and very much worth your time.
When my daughter Anna returned home from school on the day of last year’s historic presidential election, she asked me, “Is it true? That Kersti is our president?”
At first it was hard for me to understand her pride, her joy, that a ‘girl’ like herself had been selected by the Estonian parliament to be the next president. I’d been dealing with all kinds of stodgy males my entire life: Reagan, Gorbachev, Ansip. Yet never did I feel any kind of camaraderie or solidarity on the basis of our gender. If you had asked me as a child what I had in common with President Reagan, I might have said nothing. He was old, I was young. He was an actor, I was a student. He was from California, I was from New York. He wanted Gorbachev to tear down the wall, I wanted to listen to Pink Floyd’s The Wall. I never thought, ‘There goes Ronald Reagan. He’s my boy! One of us!”
(This changed slightly when Justin Trudeau became prime minister of Canada though, if only because I can now say, ‘Justin. Like Trudeau,’ when I check into hotels, instead of being taunted by little Estonian children who call me, ‘Justin Bieber, juustuviiner*!’)
From my daughter’s perspective, however ‘President Kersti’ was already part of the tribe, one of their own. They loved her without hesitation. I’ll never forget how President Kersti came to Viljandi in the winter to meet her citizens and skate on the lake. Some girls even followed her to the down to Lake Viljandi, just to see President Kersti on ice.
Estonia’s first woman president! It touched me in a way, made me feel connected to her. My daughter had gained a new positive role model overnight.
Not that it’s all ice skating and adulation. Sometimes when I imagine the president trotting about the halls of Kadriorg though I can’t help but think about that old Communist poet Johannes Vares-Barbarus who shot himself in the hall toilet in 1946. There’s something about that image, the ghost of Vares hunched over in a water closet in the presidential palace, that hints to the mystery of Estonian political power. The secrets, the intrigue. Who really knows what goes on behind the windows of Kadriorg when power is involved. Who really knows what else has happened within those pink walls.
President Kersti is appealing anyhow. When she was elected, after much intrigue and sauna whispers, there was a sigh of both relief and astonishment. After Lennart Meri, that old school adventurer with his deep connections to the prewar state, including a diplomat father; or Arnold Rüütel, who rose through Soviet politics, only to pivot in old age and oversee EU accession: or Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the emigre returnee with the bow tie, Swedish birth certificate, and American diploma; we suddenly had one Kersti Kaljulaid, who was born in the final month of the 1960s, a mother of four, auditor, and bureaucrat.
Could it be that the next Estonian president would just be some tubli Estonian person?
I only glimpsed her through the dark window glass that day during her wintertime visit to Viljandi, saw her silhouette as it leaned over her goat cheese salad or whatever she had for lunch. Those telling bangs and mop of hair. The fierce and intelligent presidential eyes. The heads of all her special guests turned in her direction. Anyone who walked past the Rohelise Maja Kohvik that day had to pause and look through the windows. The Viljandiers were so curious to see their Kersti. Especially the little girls.
*Juustuviiner — a cheese sausage.
The annual Viljandi Folk Music Festival retains a haunting and cinematic quality, especially at its peak on Saturday night, when the Tallinners swarm into town in their old-fashioned linen shirts in search of Curly Strings, beer, and kebab.
Crowds form around the street performers — violinists, bagpipers, a washtub bass — and the sounds of exuberant conversations grow intoxicating beneath the lush green foliage.
Under the watchful spire of Saint John’s Church, scores of children occupy themselves with entertainment set out just for them. A giant game of tic-tac-toe, a small stage decorated with a sign reading Lastelava, “Children’s stage,” and colorful curtains that the children wrap themselves in. Finally, there is a maze constructed from the rough wooden pallets used to transport goods. Dozens of youths, their clothes stained by mud and dripping ice cream, filtered into the maze, only to get lost here and there, with others trying to hop the walls to escape while exhausted parents like myself looked on, happy just have a break, to sit and observe the scene. As the clocked ticked closer to midnight, and the fun showed no sign of end, it did occur to me.
This would never happen in America.
First of all, children were allowed into Viljandi Folk for free. Provided they could prove their age, they were given a special bracelet that gave them permission to enter. Back in my home country though, anything this good would certainly come with an admission price. Any kind of childhood entertainment would likely be fenced off, and that rough wooden maze over there? That would probably be constructed out of some kind of rubber synthetic material to minimize the chance of injury. In America, the organizers would do so not only out of concern for the well-being of the playing children, but out of fear of hungry personal injury lawyers eager to make a few bucks. Taken together with the disapproving looks of worried parents — Do they know how dangerous that is? They could get a splinter! — the play area of Viljandi Folk would no doubt be closed.
It wasn’t always that way in the United States. Even when I was a child, we would disappear for hours into the woods. I got into my share of scrapes and still have the scars to prove it, and yet I am grateful for those times, totally convinced that if I was ever shipwrecked on a deserted island, I could set to work constructing a livable shelter from some young trees, just as I did when I was a boy. Piece of cake! That was only 30 years ago when I could roam free like the children of Viljandi Folk. Only 30 years!
But then something happened. A cloak of ‘safety first’ descended on the great land of freedom. Most child-related activities became intensely supervised, and children of responsible parents were not allowed to leave the confines of their suburban castles unless encased in a suit of protective plastic armor, or accompanied by a tough, eagle-eyed adult guide on the lookout for falling tree branches and sexual predators. The classic American childhood, epitomized by literary gems like Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn became something you could only read about in an old book, watch in a film, or experience during a ride at Disney World. You could watch characters have real childhoods in the movies, but you couldn’t actually have one yourself.
I learned this first hand years ago when we lived in the US for a school year. It was a pretty, pristine place at the end of an island, with woods and beaches that begged to be explored, and long country roads with little traffic. It seemed like the perfect spot for a classic childhood, and yet no adventurous youth ever came to our house on a bicycle, none ever knocked at our door unaccompanied to see if one of our children could come out and play. Instead, all so-called “play dates” were prearranged, even though the parents would, at times, while we were exchanging children, fess up to the antics of their own wild childhoods long ago, which were chaotic and joyful and free. Kids who had once carried slingshots, sped around on skateboards, and robbed candy stores had grown into cautious adults happy to embrace and enforce “safety first.” It was hard to believe.
If you asked them why it had happened, they would tell you that things had simply changed. “Just look at the news,” they would say, pointing to the steady stream of sensationalized stories about child abductions and murders. Sometimes I wondered how safe American youth had actually been in earlier eras, the Industrial Revolution perhaps, or the Great Depression, yet this line of questioning went nowhere. The culture of worry had fallen on us. It was senseless to struggle against it. Like the other parents I went along with it, even though I sensed something was amiss. There are some in the US, of course, who have tried to steer the culture back the other way, with a free-range parenting movement set to raise a new generation of independent kids, parents who risk interference from social workers to let their kids go to the woods or ride the metro alone.
The fact that the last hope for American childhood is a book, or a movement, or a website, only deepens my sense that something has been lost and cannot be replaced.
To be honest, among my fellow countrymen there are those who would view my lifestyle with some contempt. I have certainly been denounced by a few for living what they see as a shiftless, libertine, decadent European life, where I while away the days writing in cafes. Some say they have no respect for me, others have accused me of running away. Yet as I watch my children laugh as they tear through a wooden maze under the watch of a medieval church at midnight, I have to respond: Can you really blame me?
Downtown Northport, Long Island, just a week ago. Gunther’s Tap Room, Jack Kerouac’s famous watering hole, burned down not too long ago (and Pete Gunther, the bartender who served him, died suddenly too). Gunther told me in an interview that Ti Jean once paid his tab with an autographed copy of Tristessa, his 1960 novella about his Mexico City junkie girlfriend, which Gunther attempted to read and then quickly discarded, perhaps to the trash. While Kerouac and his bartender are both now gone, someone has affixed Jack’s ghostly image to the bar, anticipating his inevitable future Christ-like return.
Kerouac’s mother Gabrielle owned a home in Northport in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The town is referenced in his 1962 novel Big Sur (page 5, “so I had sneaked into San Francisco as I say, coming 3000 miles from my home in Long Island (Northport) in a pleasant roomette on the California Zephyr train watching America roll by …”) The writer complained about beatnik wannabes climbing over the backyard fence. This was a good two and a half decades before I started school at Saint Philip Neri, just up the hill from Gunther’s on Main Street, unaware of the drunken literary great who had walked its ways.