escape to latvia

MiksAFTER A JOINT birthday party held for our daughter and her mother — both of whom were serenaded with candles and desserts — I took a car south to Latvia. Social media was just awakening to the news of my official change in relationship status, and though I tried to ignore it, now embarking on a new stage in life I had not especially sought out, I could feel the curious mind of the Estonian Nation pursuing me, and knew I must leave the country at once.

I was headed to Cēsis, what some Estonians still call Võnnu, if only to remind themselves that they once won a battle there against the German landeswehr in 1919, and for the first time in my life, actually happy to be going to Latvia. The truth was that I was never that interested in the other two Baltics — Latvia or Lithuania. I regarded them as a New Yorker might regard New Jersey or Pennsylvania. The fact that they spoke languages of a completely different origin only made them seem more distant, reinforcing my idea of Estonia as a lonesome island floating in the sea.

The Estonians, too, had this ambivalent and ambiguous relationship with Latvia, I had learned over time. It was as if Latvia was a partner it had been assigned in a folk dancing class, forced to dance together through time without any true chemistry. So much had been made of the idea of the Baltic countries as a geopolitical unit, and Western newspapers often ran articles about “The Baltics,” as if it was one contiguous place, the borders merely cosmetic, yet most Estonians’ knowledge of their southern neighbor’s language after centuries living beside each other seemed to be one word: saldējums, ice cream. There were exceptions, of course, like the poet Contra, who has written the book Minu Läti — “My Latvia” — and even penned poems in Latvian. But few people I knew had Latvian friends, and it seemed that the only reason they went to Riga was for a concert, or to pass through the city on the way to Jurmala to swim and eat more saldējums.

I did have a Latvian friend to visit in Cēsis, but he was also not local. Mike Collier, also known as Miks Koljers, is the author of the satirical novel The Fourth Largest in Latvia and the excellent new collection Baltic Byline. He wears a flat cap and has the ruthless dry humor the British are loved best for.  I didn’t burden him with tales of my personal life, but welcomed the opportunity to sleep at his country estate with its majestic views of rolling hills. And eat saldējums. According to Mike, the Latvians do hold the Estonians in higher regard, “because they think that all Lithuanians are crazy, which, based on my own experiences, does seem to be the case.”

The Latvians preferred the company of their northern neighbors, even if they were only interested in their southern friends for their rich, creamy ice cream or, on occasion, exotic women?

A fair trade, I guess.

For me, as an American who had absorbed a lot of Estonia’s prejudices about people and places, plus that sense of superiority they have over all the other ex-inmates at the geopolitical prison called the Soviet Union, I had to say that I enjoyed being in Latvia in this time, pleased to be distracted from everything else going on, titillated by the tiny differences and architectural curiosities and funny words. Imagine a bar called Miks. “Should we go in?” “Miks mitte?” (“Why not?”) Imagine a river called Seda (“That” in Estonian). “Vaata, Seda.” (“Look at that.”) “Mida?” (“What?”) “Seda. The name of this place is Seda.” “Mida?” “Seda!”

Latvians remain a mystery. Women named Ginta and Gunta. Men named Dzintars and Gintars. I have so far not been able to grasp their perspective, though it became more apparent with my visit. There is much in Latvia that is similar, the houses, the history, the cadence of the voices on the squares. Yet Latvia remains apart from Estonia with its Indo-European tongue. There are more brunettes in Latvia, too, so at times I got the sense that I had stumbled across a long-lost Latin settlement, another one of those vanished Roman legions, gone missing in the curling mists and berry bogs of the north woods.

It was these Indo-European roots, I at last grasped, that divided the Estonians from the Latvians, that feeling of connections to the Finns, and, especially to the Sami, that is only apparent in some place names in northern Latvia. As soon as I recrossed the border a few days later, sensing less scrutiny from the Estonian Nation on the back of my neck, feeling more fluid and optimistic about my future, less worried about what might come and content to live life day by day, and saw that sign with the strange word Tahkuranna written across it, I understood that I was on different terrain. Estonian terrain.

I felt like an English trader crossing the frontier, preparing to live among the Cherokee.

a good crisis

Kirju-Eestist_kaas-220x316“A good crisis will bring your work to the next level.”

  — from the chapter “Naised Köögis,” Letters from Estonia

WHEN WE ARRIVED to America with our overstuffed suitcases at the end of the summer of 2013, we moved to the very tip of Long Island, nearly 170 kilometers to the east of New York City. There, in a seaside village, I began working in cafes on much of the material that became this new book.

I was, in retrospect in crisis in every way at that time. Emotionally, physically. Too overwhelmed to work toward some great literary goal, I just borrowed an approach from some of my favorite musicians. Instead of composing perfect pop songs and then going into the studio, they would enter the studio every day, record whatever came to mind. Some of the greatest albums of all time have been recorded in this chaotic, spontaneous, loose way. Think of the eighteen messy songs on The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street. Or the 36 tracks on The Clash’s Sandinista.

That’s how you accomplish great things: improvise.

So the “letters” in Letters from Estonia were envisioned by me really as “song demos.” Every day I would begin work on a different song. Whatever idea came into mind, it was written down. I think the first two chapters I wrote this way were “Kid Sirts and Surfer Taavi” about two bohemian friends of ours, and “Tea with the Icebreaker” about the naturalist Fred Jüssi. I remember when I showed the Jüssi chapter to Epp, she was really pleased with the outcome.

My favorite scene in this chapter is hovering outside Fred Jüssi’s window in the 1980s and watching him write the book Jäälõhkuja and then floating outside my window at the same time.  

That was fun.

I was inspired to write more and to try new approaches to writing, each time focusing on a person, or a place, or an experience in Estonia. This process continued after we moved back to Tartu. “Andres Metspalu’s Elevator Speech” was one interesting result of this experimenting, a new journalism style profile piece, while “Naised Köögis” was one of the more challenging projects I worked on, because my source material was a notepad full of scribbled thoughts from the night they recorded their video in our old house in Viljandi. For this project, I used a new technique, where I inserted “images” into the story, so that the reader could imagine snapshots of the scene without ever seeing them. I love the idea of using imaginary images to accompany text.

As I wrote on, I also started to dig through my older “demos” to discover stories or pieces of dialogue I had written years ago but never finished. A beat up old notebook of conversations from Viljandi that evolved into some great chapters, like “Vastlapäev Arithmetic,” or “Kuldkala,” where I literally wrote down the scenes as they happened, or “Tree Balsam,” from Obinitsa, where I would take breaks working on the farm in November to type my feelings with cold, shaky hands. The project gave me the opportunity to at last complete them.

The desire of anyone involved in such a project is that once it is done, it will all fit together. A song is a song, a chapter is a chapter, but put them all together, and you may get a great album or a great book. I am sure that anyone who reads this book will understand what my life has been like during the past years. It is at times humorous, at times playful, at times melancholic, at times just sad. It begins with a ghostly encounter in the forests of Vormsi, and ends with a man losing his family on a beach at sunset in Narva-Jõesuu, his own idea of the “End of the World.”

These have been the toughest years of my life. This book documents them best.

terrific player

 

poom

“I know Mart Poom personally,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. “Terrific player.”

ONCE,  WHILE I WAS attending a conference in England, I went to visit my wife’s relative. The taxi took me out into the suburbs of Cambridge, where I walked to the door and pressed the doorbell.

{“I should warn you, he’s had a stroke”}

I did notice that one of his hands was clenched when he greeted me, and when he spoke, it did sound like he was struggling. He told me how he had staggered to the neighbor’s house one night, and the neighbor had understood. “Oh, you’re having a stroke.” But he was still very active. The television was on and he was watching football on the couch. Gamely. Leaning forward a bit. His name was Enn, and he had an Estonian flag on top of his TV set. It was beside a framed image of him with Mart Poom, the famous Estonian goalkeeper.

“I know Mart Poom personally,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. “Terrific player.”

His childhood story had been pretty dramatic, full of war and refugee camps and new beginnings. I had even seen the photo of the two little boys in old-fashioned flat caps fleeing the great disaster.

They were relatives, sons of my father-in-law’s uncle. One was named Tiit and the other was named Enn. Tiit, who became a professor, called himself “Tim,” out of convenience. Enn was just Enn. For his life he remained a man with a name that sounded like a letter of the alphabet.

James Bond had M. Cambridge had Enn.

He wasn’t a big guy, kind of wiry, had a face that was believably English with a little bit of Estonian Lord of the Rings mixed in. He had a working man’s inflection, the cadence of a person who spent a lot of his time hanging out with friends on the corner. There was nothing posh or stiff-lipped about this Brit. And he loved football. I mean, he really loved it. This was obvious from the second you met him. Just watching the movements of the players, sizing them up. “Ooh, look at this bloke, covered with tattoos, seems arrogant though. Ooh, look at that one, he’s pure muscle, isn’t he?”

I tried to appreciate it, but the truth was that organized sports always bored me a little. I never fully understood the pleasure of watching little men run back and forth on a screen. This is probably because I had been raised by people like Enn. In my house growing up, my father, mother, and older brother had gathered just like him at the lip of the couch to watch the little men run, and sometimes get angry and throw things at the TV set and curse the referees.  Whole years of my life passed by like that, with them watching games and me in my room, tinkering with a guitar or something. Once we went to a real game and tried to follow the plays from our stadium seats. It was like watching fleas on the moon. Everyone else was having fun. They had painted their faces. They were crying, laughing, and, predictably, a few were drunk. I asked Dad for more popcorn.

Enn looked up at me from the couch. “I used to play too, you know.”

He had a whole stack of cool old photographs, with a recognizable young Enn standing with various football teams consisting of other players with determined looks on their faces. I remember that one photo was dated 1959. It seemed like so long ago. And yet, it was probably the period of his life that best captured his energy. He seemed to have — even after suffering a stroke — athletic impulses. He showed me photos of his wife, too, who had died, but whom he still adored, and of his parents and his brother, these Estonians that had somehow escaped their native soil and wound up in postwar Britain. Something seemed off about it, like one of those TV shows where they bring in the cast of another TV show for an entertaining, but truly weird special episode.

Enn’s father had been a professor, a musician, and an all-around renaissance man. Many of the men and women in this family were learned people. There were old photos of them with violins and fine suits and dresses, playing in unison, a prewar family, with a well-stocked library in the house, full of musty books. In a word, they were nerds. They were the kind of people tossed around words like filoloog like table salt. And then there was Enn, who didn’t care much for those things, but loved football.

“My parents were good people, they helped us, but they just never took an interest in my games,” he said, tracing a finger around an image of his teenage face in an old picture. “I kept playing for years. I never really quit. If it wasn’t for this stroke, I’d still be playing.”

It was true, his daughter told me later. He had played football up until he was 61. His favorite team was Estonia, but he also supported Cambridge United.

I felt compassion for the man. In my family, it had been the opposite. In my family, it was my older brother’s football heroics and cousin’s baseball victories that filled us with pride. Playing guitar was seen by some as rather regrettable hobby. Enn had experienced the opposite. He had discovered life’s true thrill in athletics. While relatives fiddled, he sweat, he kicked, he knew that full-throttle adrenaline rush.

We should have just switched families.

I didn’t tell Enn this. I watched his game from then on with more interest though. Watched it like I listened to music, or read a good story. It was an art form, too, wasn’t it?

I heard some more tales of football field glory from Enn and, as I did, I remembered that I had also enjoyed running back and forth on a field when I was boy. I realize now that I owe him for that, since word has reached me that he just passed away after Euro 2016. He went to sleep and didn’t wake up. A peaceful way to go. I don’t know what team he had been rooting for but I am sure he was watching.

i’m so bored

Young-children-playing-in-a-yard

Tartu, Estonia, may be one of the last places you can still see scenes like these. At least when the smartphones batteries run out.

MY CHILDREN ARE BORED. They tell me this all the time. They are bored with their toys, with their rooms, with their books. They sit on the couch and fret and they complain to me. “Daddy, I’m so bored.” They’re so bored even the alluring shine of a smartphone screen excites nothing in them. They are more jaded and weary than a Las Vegas lounge singer. Not one of them is a teenager. Yet the world for them has already lost its vibrancy. There is nothing left to do. They’re bored.

“Daddy, I’m bored,” says the middle one, groaning in the kitchen. “What can I do?”

“I don’t know. Read a book.”

“That’s boring.”

“Why not go and play with the neighbors?”

“They’re boring too.”

“Oh well. I’m sure you’ll think of something to do.”

“But I’m bored.”

And so it goes around. I am frustrated with my children, but I am not the only one. Many articles have appeared in recent years discussing the exact same dialogues. Not only are my children bored, it seems. Other children are bored. A whole generation of children is bored. They have been entertained and occupied for their entire lives. With activities, with applications. So when that brutal moment arrives when nothing is being offered for them to do or to watch or to consume, they fall into despair. They are bored. They are like baby chicks crying to be fed from the nest, and we are like anxious and irritable mother and father birds tiring of feeding them worms. It’s time for them to leave the nest, at least mentally, and to think of something to do by themselves. But they won’t leave. They tweet and twitter and flap their wings, convulsing with helplessness.  “Help us, help! Help us! WE’RE SO BORED.”

My own childhood was not the stuff of magic — pretty ordinary as I see it — but I don’t recall being bored whenever a free moment arrived. Instead, I saw it as an opportunity to get something done. I always had little projects going on, for as long as I can remember. I was building a castle with blocks. Or setting up a battle with toy soldiers. I recall my grandfather coming over to visit once to help my father assemble a swing set. As they worked, I sat in my sandbox, creating a parking garage for my toy cars. It was multi-leveled, with different routes in and out. Pretty ingenious for a garage made out of sand. Nobody told me to make one either. I just decided to do it myself.

Recently, I went for a walk with my two older daughters near the famous lighthouse in Montauk, New York. If you want to know where Montauk is, I will tell you. You drive two hours east of New York City, through the famous Hamptons — those quaint beach communities where Paul McCartney and Jay-Z own beachfront homes — and then through miles of desolate and sandy pine barrens, until you finally reach the windy point.

We decided to walk around the lighthouse, which went well, although one slipped on the stones and skinned her knee, and the other one spent half of the time taking selfies of herself with the lighthouse in the background. On the way back, we got lost. The area around the lighthouse was fenced off, and so we had to find a path through the woods, which were lush and thick, with vines hanging, creating a canopy that hid the light. It was jungle cave dark there in the woods, and I recognized many plants: the wild raspberry bushes, the suspended honeysuckle flowers. I knew which plants were edible, which ones were poisonous. I knew, because I used to play in the woods when I was a boy. I went into the woods with other children, other children who taught me which berries to eat. Nobody’s parents ever came in the woods, and none of them sent us to the woods.

We just went.

That instinct — to just do something, anything, to satisfy one’s inner curiosity — seems to be lacking in my children and others like them, who expect entertainment to be delivered with the touch of a button. This is not a critique of modern youth, but it does worry me from time to time. Yet, I should be fair. This is not always the case. Sometimes they are quite creative on their own. They dress themselves up, or invent interesting games. “Let’s play Valge Daam,” one declares, and they vanish into the cellar to pretend.  I can hear them act out the various roles and I feel so proud in these moments. By that time, they’ve become so disenchanted with life, they forget they were bored to begin with.

pony power

ponies

Can you name them all?

WHITE, WHITE NIGHTS. We don’t sleep much these days. The children play in the parks until 10 pm or later, and the evening light on the lush leaves of the park trees is just stunning. Sometimes I forget that I am in Estonia, and feel as if I have been relocated to California, to those grassy hills outside Palo Alto, where the ponies run at the ranches between the tech company headquarters.

But other ponies are on my mind at the parks in Tartu: little plastic ponies. They come in a variety of sizes, some as tiny as my thumb, others a palm-full, and others as big as my hand. All of them have that lovely rubbery feel that Asian manufacturers have perfected, and that articles have warned me might actually be toxic and lead to hyperactivity or even some peculiar diseases. No matter. They come in pastel-beautiful colors and have wonderful names: Fluttershy, Rainbow Dash, Twilight Sparkle, Applejack. The leader of these ponies is an “alicorn,” so called because it has wings like Pegasus and the horn of a unicorn. This one is known as Princess Celestia.

That’s right. I’m an expert.

The reason they are on my mind at the park is because one of them typically gets left behind. All kinds of things get left at the park. It’s not unusual. Socks. Ice creams. Bicycles. But if one of these ponies gets left behind, then Maria will bawl and quake like Mount Vesuvius.

WHERE IS MY PRINCESS CELESTIA?”

That’s when her father leads a reconnaissance mission to recover the toys. They are usually found. Yet they reveal what is most important to my daughters’ generation. My Little Pony. They care about their sisters, and they even care about their country, at least when they have to sing about it. They also care about Shopkins and Littlest Pet Shops. When Estonians say Pet Shops,“Petšopid,” I think it’s so adorable, because it sounds the same way they say ketchup, “ketšupit.”

My Little Pony though is their secret religion. This is the animated world they live in. It’s what they dream about. Princess Celestia. Applejack. It’s what connects them not only to all other Estonian girls. Wherever they are, they share a common faith: My Little Pony.

Four-year-old Maria once drew an image of the iconic ponies at preschool. They were stick figures, differentiated by their colors, one was yellow, another rainbow. When I showed the child’s drawings to my eldest daughter Marta, now 12, she could identify each pony immediately. “That one’s Applejack, that one is Twilight Sparkle. But, hmm, she left out Rarity and Pinkie Pie.”

So maybe I am not the greatest expert. But I am trying. Sometimes they quiz me about my pony knowledge. “Here are four ponies, can you name them?” asked Anna, lining up the toys.

“Hmm, let me see,” I began to examine them. “Is this one Apple Pancake?”

“It’s Applejack, you dummy,” said Anna, aged 8. “Everybody knows that.”

“Of course, of course. I’m so sorry. And is this one called Butter Dash?”

“No!”

“Rainbow Pie?”

“It’s Twilight Sparkle, silly! Oh my God! Didn’t anyone ever teach you anything?”

“Oh, that’s right, I see it now. Twilight Sparkle has little stars on its butt.”

“That’s its Cutie Mark!” A groan. “How could you not know this stuff?”

How could I not know? It’s common knowledge for them. Sometimes I wonder if the little Estonian girls have taken their love for My Little Pony to some other, bizarre trough of fandom though. Sometimes I wonder if there is some deep Eurasian component to this next-level obsession. Maybe the reason the Estonian children respond so well to the toys manufactured in East Asia is because they are Asian themselves. I have noticed this trend among my elder daughter’s peers, who are all infatuated with Pokemon and Japanese anime. It’s true that American youth also like these things. But Estonian youth really, really, really like them. They find the look of the toys pleasing. The shapes, the symbols.

Something else is going on here.

In this way, I have come to see the Estonian children’s cult of My Little Pony as just another of one of those Estonian things, like grilling Armenian šašlõkk all summer long  or getting into really emotional arguments about Eurovision. That it originated elsewhere is no matter. They have adopted them as their own.

mirror world

 

1716638t81h1bd9

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

pippi-i-söderhavet

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.