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.