mirror world



American singer Dean Reed and Estonian main squeeze Eve Kivi. Dubbed the “Red Elvis,” the Denver-born, East Germany-domiciled Reed finely mirrored the propaganda around him, defending the Berlin Wall and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

AT THE MIGRATION BOARD, I was asked for my parents’ names, dates and places of birth, my address, phone number, and email address, and a number of other identifying information. During my cordial dialogue with the representative there, I was also asked for my “rahvus” or people.

“American,” I said, without any thought.

“Hmm,” she stared at the computer monitor. “I can’t seem to find that option here.”

“Then just put Italian,” I said after waiting some more time.

“Italian?” she looked me over, as if I should be dressed up like a Venetian gondolier.

“My father is Petrone, my mother is Abbatecola,” I sighed. “Just put Italian.”

Whether Italian or American, the very question about my identity brought my non-nativeness into perspective as I sat in that room. I am one of these creatures known as the foreigners or välismaalased. Because I have arrived here of my own free will, seemingly for the thrill of it, I am called a välismaalane, literally an “foreign lander,” rather than a refugee, or pagulane. But given our equal footing as strangers on Estonian soil, watching the natives tear each other to pieces over the arrival of mostly Muslim refugees from the Middle East has be nonetheless fascinating.

The funniest aspect, I think, is that I understand the nationalists’ angst over the dilution of the Estonian population with these desperate strangers, some of whom cover their heads, even in shopping malls. I understand why they are upset, why they worry about the future of the mythical land of Kalev. Because if there is one thing you should know about välismaalased, it is that we are the ultimate sponges of national culture. Forced to make quick sense of our strange adopted countries, we soak up the prevailing views, even if some of them are, in a sense, against us.

When I arrived in Estonia, I quickly devoured Mart Laar’s book about the Forest Brothers and started to loathe Russians, so much so that just going to the Central Market in Tallinn would drive me crazy. I was a good foreigner with an armful of Estonian language books. I had been promised the Estonia depicted on the front of chocolate boxes with a little blonde girl and a little yellow bird, not towers of Soviet apartment blocks and little old ladies saying “Shto?”

I was angry at Estonian Russians for not being Estonians, even though I was not an Estonian.

It’s not an unusual phenomenon.

I have seen it happen to other Americans abroad. The businessman in Shanghai who will tell you that Taiwan belongs to China. The transport manager in Moscow who sees Putin as some benevolent — though highly corrupt — God who is incapable of failure, and if he does appear to fail, was merely failing on purpose to strike again with his Judo-inspired realpolitik. “And did you see that energy deal he just did? He’s a genius!” There was an American living in Minsk who was convinced that Lukashenka was the greatest president of all time. And who could forget the American rock ‘n’ roller Dean Reed, Eve Kivi’s ex-boyfriend, who in a 1986 interview defended the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Berlin Wall from his adopted home of East Germany?

It was for “self-defense,” he said.

Yes, we välismaalased are an interesting species. We mirror back the messages all around us. In this way, we are more local than the locals themselves. We are an excellent barometer of the national mood. Confronted with hysterical news headlines about handfuls of refugees flooding the country, we suddenly start to pay more attention to those Syrian ladies buying shoes at Kaubamaja. What are they doing here in “our” Estonia? And will they really stay?

I’ve lived in this strange “mirror world” for nearly 15 years now. I have noticed my ideas change over time. I no longer think anything of Russians at the Central Market. When I arrived, I was told that Konstantin Päts sold Estonia to the Soviets because his mother was Russian. Now I see that the majority of Estonians want to elect a woman named Marina Kaljurand president. The messages being mirrored are different. In a year of intense debates about refugees, the Estonian Russians suddenly became a dull, average, and uninteresting national minority.

Could it be that the Estonians have actually changed?

This little Italian-American-Estonian mirror is a bit confused, but will keep on reflecting.

southland and northland


A scene from Pippi on the South Seas (1948) by Astrid Lindgren, with illustrations by Ingrid Vang Nyman.

THE ISLAND OF LANZAROTE is among the more serene of the Canary Islands. Its rolling hills and valleys are treeless and often barren, and many of them are covered with black petrified lava fields. For this, one could call it the Spanish moon. The resorts — while they exist — approach nothing of the scale, mayhem, and decadence of those found in Tenerife and Gran Canaria, other islands to which many Estonians escape to bronze themselves and soak their snow-white toes in the Atlantic these months, and maybe have a fling with a Spaniard, or at least a Brit on holiday.

Just to observe the Estonians’ behavior in Lanzarote is a treat for me. The way they pass around the current temperature reading in Arrecife like a hookah on the airplane (“I heard it’s 30 degrees.” “Really?” “Yes, really. Thirty degrees!” “Uskumatu!”) As if this was some minor miracle of nature. Then the grumbling on the way back to Estonia. (“The news this morning said it’s 3 degrees.” “Oi, issand.”) As if they had forgotten on Lanzarote that it never really stops snowing in Estonia.  

I think the funniest aspect of the Estonian vacation mentality was raised by my daughter Anna on the flight back though.

“Why did you go to Lanzarote?” said an older fellow, making chitchat with her.

“Well, it’s supposedly just 100 kilometers from Africa,” she said. “It’s almost Lõunamaa.”

“It’s not almost Lõunamaa,” the man cut her off. “It is Lõunamaa.”

“Really? I thought that Africa was Lõunamaa. Hmm.”

Someone (her mother) must have told her that Africa was “Lõunamaa” when she was very small and now the idea was stuck in her head. But, as I had to explain to her, for most Estonians the term “Lõunamaa” (“Southland”) is not one place. It is any place there happen to be palm trees, beaches, and smiling, dark-skinned locals, waiting to serve up a tropical drink. “Lõunamaa” isn’t just Africa, or the Canary Islands, or India, or Brazil, or Australia. They are all part of one giant imaginary landmass.

My own idea of how the Estonians’ see “Lõunamaa” is probably influenced by Ingrid Vang Nyman’s illustrations in Pippi in the South Seas, where three children called Pippi, Tommi, and Annika, find themselves in a “Lõunamaa” paradise, go native, wear grass skirts, eat bananas, turn a pinkish color, and are treated like royalty. Of course, nobody mentions the rebel militias on the island, the lack of sanitation, or cruel poverty. Because that’s not what “Lõunamaa” is about. “Lõunamaa” is an imaginary place, that many real places, like the Canary Islands, only resemble.

The opposite of “Lõunamaa” of course is “Põhjamaa” (“Northland”). For the Estonians also intuit “Põhjamaa” in a similar way, and I have come to see it that way too in my years here. Because when your plane at last lands back in Tallinn after this jaunt abroad to “Lõunamaa,” you notice the neat and even squares of electric lights below. You arrive into city at midnight that is like the moon in some ways too. But while Lanzarote’s nature resembles the moon, it is Tallinn’s temperature and vacant streets that are moon like. Supposedly Tallinners pride themselves on their city being the most happening place in this country, but at midnight, there is nobody out in the streets, a handful of cars, and the only cheerful sight in Tallinn, or anywhere, is the glowing light coming from the Statoil gas station.

A graveyard quiet comes over you and you readjust your inner temperature to match the outside one. You suddenly don’t feel much like eating bananas. You feel like saying nothing at all. You just want to have some tea and curl up in bed or something. You watch the thick pine forests through the car windows on the drive home. You find a neatly cared for wooden house, set back among the trees, warmed by wood-heated furnaces. This place is called Estonia, but it could be Finland (with that Rimi Hypermarket), or Norway (with that Statoil sign). The Estonians call this place “Põhjamaa,” and while it pains them to step out into 3 degrees Celsius and a light drizzle, they are also comforted by it in a way. It wakes them up, like a refreshing splash of cold water to the face.

After all of those adventures with the Lõunamaa natives, it is at last time for them to come home.

an unusual question



American literary greats on skis in Shruns, Austria, circa 1926. Ernest Hemingway is second from left, John Dos Passos is second from right. While being masters of the English language, Hemingway spoke fluent Spanish, and Dos Passos was fluent in French.

THERE ARE THREE TEACHERS at our daughter Maria’s preschool: Darja, Leena, and Natalia. Each of them differs in appearance and temperament, though they are as a rule kind, generous, and caring toward our daughter Maria, who will leap into each one’s embrace, as if throwing herself into the loving arms of a favorite aunt.   

These three teachers are similar in another way. They are all Russian speakers. This is a special preschool group, where at least half of the children speak Russian with their parents. And so little Maria has learned to shout out “Dasvidanya” to her teachers when she leaves in the evening, and has even begun to overhear people in the streets of Tartu who are speaking this other language.

“Hey, Daddy, look over there! Those are people who speak po russkie. Privet! Kak dela?!”

While little Maria’s world of languages continues to swell, she has noticed something else. Her father speaks Estonian with her teachers and they speak Estonian with him, even though he speaks English at home, and the teachers speak Russian among each other and with some children. Her father speaks Estonian with the other parents who visit the school, no matter what language they speak at home. Whenever one of them sees another, the default greeting is “Tere.”

One day recently, little Maria presented her father with a most curious and unusual question.

Issi,” she said. “Daddy. If you can speak Estonian with Darja, Leena, and Natalia, then how come you don’t speak Estonian with me?”

“Because I speak English,” I answered her immediately. “That’s why I speak English with you.”

“But you can also speak Estonian,” Maria pressed on, with a strained lilt in her voice. “I know you can. At preschool, at the shop, when we go to the movies. You speak Estonian with everybody! And I speak Estonian even better than English! So why don’t you just speak Estonian with me?”

She blinked at me excitedly from beneath her chestnut bangs as if to say, “No more English! Problem solved!”

“Because I speak English,” I said.

And that’s all I said, really, because I still haven’t come up with an easy answer yet. What should I say? That my Estonian isn’t so wonderful and that I’m not fluent? That I don’t like the letter Õ? That hasn’t stopped many emigre Estonians from raising their children speaking English, or Swedish, or any other language in their adopted countries. They will speak to them in bad Swedish and not miss a wink of sleep over it. So I am a language purist at heart, I guess. A writer.

There’s also the matter of bigger and better, isn’t there? English is the language of international culture, business, and politics. Isn’t it great that you have a father who speaks it as a native language? Now you don’t need to read Harry Potter books with an Estonian-English dictionary. Now you don’t need to ask me what those Justin Bieber song lyrics mean. Now you are better poised to get that wonderful job in Brussels when you grow up. And if you are really in need of work, you can translate the next Disney film into Estonian so that nobody says anything too weird.

These are fine answers, but I don’t find them a hundred percent honest. Because the third, and perhaps most truthful answer, is the most complex. Look at these bookshelves at home, Maria. Look at Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, Henry Miller. Look at that thick Mark Twain anthology I have owned since I was eight years old. English is not just the language of my family or my country of origin, Maria. It is the linguistic music that is playing between my ears. It is the music that I read, the one I write in notebooks when I go out to walk. I write this music with a shaky hand, and use the walls of buildings as a brace. When I speak English to you, Maria, I am not teaching you how to talk. I am teaching you how to appreciate a whole other world of sound meshed with ideas. The gift of this language is one of the greatest I can give you.

This is an answer that I cannot articulate to a four year old. It’s hard for me to even express it now. But I am sure that when Maria gets older, she will come to understand it all the same.

newfie vocab


Winter Fogo Island, Newfoundland 5Scrob – a Newfoundland term, synonymous with “to scratch” / Roky – UK dialect, foggy, misty / Scurf – scaly dry skin that has been exfoliated, such as dandruff / Transom – the flat surface forming the stern of a boat / Aubergine – British, a deep purple color associated with eggplant / Jabot – an ornamental frill or ruffle on the front of a shirt or blouse / Landwash – a Newfoundland term, the foreshore, especially that part between high and low tidemark / Craquelured – a network of fine cracks in the paint or varnish of a painting // These gems and many more found in Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News (1993), a fine novel about a 36-year-old, third-rate newspaper man named Quoyle who begins again in his ancestral home of Newfoundland.

when estonia wasn’t free



Leonid Brezhnev, or “Blahblah,” General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1964 to 1982.

ON A COLD WINTER’S NIGHT, not too many weeks ago, I was enjoying a sauna with my eight-year-old daughter Anna when she turned to me and asked me a question.

“Daddy, who was president when I was born?”

“Toomas Hendrik Ilves,” I answered. “And he’s still the president of Estonia believe it or not.”

The inquisitive child thought for a while and then asked me another. “But who was president when you were born?”

“Jimmy Carter,” I said.

“But who was the president of Estonia when Mommy was born?”

Now we had entered more complicated territory. “Estonia had no president when your mother was born,” I answered. “It was part of the Soviet Union, and the leader at that time was named Leonid Brezhnev.”

“What?!” She cocked a very bewildered eyebrow at me. “Leonid Blahblah?! But that sounds like, that sounds like, well, like … like some kind of Russian name!”

“He was Russian, I think.”

“How the heck could Leonid Blahblah be president of Estonia? That doesn’t make any sense!”

It’s a very curious trend I have noticed about my daughter’s generation of Estonians. They cannot conceive of an Estonia that was not free. And not only that, they cannot conceive of an Estonia that was led by anyone with a vaguely Russian-sounding name. Just the fact that the Soviet premier’s name in the 1970s was Leonid Brezhnev, or “Blahblah” as she called him, troubled her because it sounded so foreign and suspicious. Of course, her name is Petrone, but with all these books going around with the name Petrone on it, this southern Italian patronym has since been co-opted into the Estonian mainstream, like Keränen or Šmigun.

The foreign policy of the current Russian Federation has not helped matters for little girls like Anna. I do not preach at home, in fact, current affairs are rarely discussed, but that hasn’t stopped her fellow little people from gathering outside the doors of the school to whisper among each other about their nation’s enemies. Russia is treated at best with a cautious disdain. Once, after I went to Moscow, an Estonian boy told me that I had been crazy. “Don’t you know — they kill Estonians there!” Estonian Russian classmates are treated with a mixture of camaraderie and pity. “Sure, he’s a Russian …. but he’s super, super friendly!”

All of this comes to a head on Independence Day, when even girls her age must make acquaintance with their country’s history of foreign subjugation to Russia. Because it was Russia that Estonia gained its independence from in 1918. It was the crumbling Russian Empire and its rising Bolshevik successor against which the new Estonian republic was idealized. And in spite of the fact that it was Lenin who first recognized Estonian statehood, or that these empires had multicultural leaderships that included Germans, Poles, Ukrainians, Georgians, and, yes, even Estonians, these birth pains of separation from Russia continue to haunt Estonians to this day.

Even those were born when Toomas Hendrik Ilves was president.

“But who was the real leader of Estonia when Mommy was born?” my daughter asked me again.

“Well, a powerful man in Estonia at that time was the head of the Estonian Communist Party,” I said. “And his name was Johannes Käbin.”

“Ah, Johannes.” She paused to let the name sink in. “Johannes Käbi* was the leader of Estonia. Normaalne.”

  • “Käbi” is the Estonian word for pine cone.


bernie sanders’ danish dream

foto-38THE SCANDINAVIAN MODEL, as it is known, is the metric by which the American left measures its own inferiority, juxtaposed against nationalist claims of leading in perpetuity the free world. Hence, the deep crisis and cracks in the American psyche — the greatest nation in the world isn’t so great after all.

What to do? A) Question the metrics of greatness — perhaps we are actually greater than we think we are, and those other countries with their cradle-to-grave welfare benefits are suckers; B) Try to apply the instruments of greatness at home in all 50 American states. Let’s Scandinavianize Vermont. And Massachusetts. And, much later, Texas.

Some American Republicans are A people. Some American Democrats are B.

B also stands for Bernie Sanders.

[CNN: Bernie Sanders’ American Dream is in Denmark]

Having lived in and adjacent to the Scandinavian Model for the past 15 years, I now find the simplicity of the American fondness for its supposed supremacy to be comforting, like a memory of a childhood day spent playing with the ocean beach sands. It was very likely the idea that the Scandinavians knew how to do it better that prompted me to come to Denmark and Finland to study. Yet now, when I think of Denmark, from my time spent there, I think of its shameless decadence first, not its self-professed levels of contentedness, or thriving public sector. If Bernie Sanders dreams of Danish welfare benefits, my Danish dreams were far more erotic in nature, for Copenhagen is a city that outdoes Paris when it comes to lust and longing.

In Copenhagen, I have seen too many men try to pick up women on the train with poetic one-liners. “I like your look, you are very sexy, yes?” In Copenhagen, I indulged in decriminalized street drugs. In Copenhagen, I spent nearly every night of that autumn as a study abroad student inebriated. Later, as an adult man with a family returned on a business trip, I ventured forth into a Friday night to witness a war zone of debauchery. Nothing had changed. I recalled how helpful civilians would drag the passed out young men and women of the greater Copenhagen metro area to the front of the train station to sleep. One literally walked among piles of young women sleeping off terrible hangovers. Once, I even encountered a Danish girl lying in the gutter clawing among the trash, drunk. I helped her out to safety.

And that is the key word that came with that shameless Danish decadence. Safety. Just as I felt safe nodding off on a train after too many beers so many years ago, only to be woken by a polite police officer — a woman, who was actually concerned for my safety — young Danes felt comfortable partying in the city to the point that they could no longer move themselves, certain that a well-meaning Samaritan would drag them closer to home. Youth was allowed to roar in such a way in Denmark because the people felt comfortable among one another, trusted each other. This was not Penn Station in New York City, where you wander past armed guards and try not to look them in the eye. That deadened anonymity, that uncomfortable relationship with a militarized authority, just didn’t exist in Denmark. In America, we had different instincts. That is why Denmark still seems like such a dream.