little fish town

“A little fish town,” or how it used to be.

THAT “LITTLE FISH TOWN,” called Setauket, or so it was known to anyone who wondered what it was. A little fish town in the middle of the bottom of nowhere. Setauket was settled in 1655 by land-hungry New Englanders. Ancient churches, village greens. It still retains that doomed, Salem witch trial feel. This is why it makes the perfect setting for AMC’s TURN: Washington’s Spies.

That the “Setauket” of TURN was assembled in Virginia is no matter. The series captures its tart, backwater taste perfectly. When Abraham Woodhull’s frustrated wife moves to her father-in-law’s house, and Abe gets wasted on homemade beer and shoots his musket into the winter air and then has a confusing romantic encounter with Anna Smith Strong — that’s the futility of Setauket right there. Never have I identified with a main character like I identify with the proud and painfully independent Woodhull. So I am proud to see Setauket portrayed as it revealed itself to me in my own youth.

Nothing has changed in the little fish town in the past 200 years.

Yet so much has changed. When my daughter saw the opening scenes of the series, she said, “But Setauket doesn’t look like that.” When I was going to school we had a local history book that ended in 1955, when the area was still agrarian. It looked a great deal like the Setauket you see in TURN. Then something happened. The State University of New York at Stony Brook was founded in 1962. A rash of development spread from abandoned farmstead to abandoned farmstead, placing Best Buys and Targets and Home Depots on land where people used to grow cabbage. It’s still going on, as condominiums choke the remaining patches of unused land out of memory. Sadly it’s not just Setauket. When the camera panned in on virgin forest and then revealed the location as “Northern New Jersey,” I had to laugh. Really. Call it graveyard humor.

One of the centerpieces of the colonial-royal conflict was the idea of land ownership. “This is not your land, this is the King’s land,” says the villainous British officer Simcoe in one of the earlier episodes. “They are fighting for their King, we are fighting for our homes,” says the patriot spymaster Benjamin Tallmadge in another scene. Yet what’s become of all of this contentious real estate? Nail salons, gas stations. Housing estates with quaint-sounding names. They call it progress, but progress toward what? They call it development, but development toward what?

These are just some of the many ideas I have while watching this excellent show. My only regret is that it wasn’t made when I was 10 or 11 years old and we were learning about the Setauket spies in elementary school. If I had obtained it on DVD then, if they had had DVDs then, I would have never have left my house. My friends would have been the actors on the screen. I would have dressed up like them, and affected their peculiar transatlantic accents toting a toy musket bought at Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride. There’s something telling about either my fragile childhood mental state or the place in which I grew up that I found the idea of living under foreign military occupation absolutely thrilling. British troops in Setauket? Couldn’t be better. I’m sure it was terrible, but at least something was actually going on then. Anything to kill the boredom in that little fish town.


THE WORD IS usaldusväärne. It means worthy of trust. Trustworthy. Something upon which you can depend. It is a dependable word, and yet deceptive, too. Recently someone complained to me about a colleague who arrived late to a meeting. “If it was the first time, that would be okay, but she’s late all the time. For me, that means that this person is not trustworthy.”

I’ve written too much about timeliness in my time here, but this for me brought out two interesting facets of what can be called the Estonian Mind. The first is to see other people not as individuals who merit a sort of commonplace compassion, but rather as other free agents, walking business fronts. A person is not just flesh and blood and feeling, but rather a social implement, someone who has a set of skills that may be of use to me. Another person is a tool that I can use to get what I want. Social interaction is a kind of on-going marketplace where various individuals exchange skill sets to advance each other’s agendas.

Another curious aspect of the psychology of usaldusväärne is the idea that by merely displaying competence, a person can gain others’ trust. You may have another colleague who completes all tasks assigned, is never late, is always properly dressed, and is just a miraculous and meritorious manager of time and function, and yet is stealing thousands of euros from the company while nobody else is looking. Criminals can be quite charming, can’t they? Here, I might argue that being on time to a meeting does not equate trustworthiness. Being on time only means that you have a watch. You may still be a conniving crook.

These are thoughts that I will never share with friends and acquaintances here. I fear that even venturing into the world of intuition will provoke a certain impatience, or, even worse, render me as being less usaldusväärne than I was before.

gold streaks

“AH, YOU SEE what being outside has done to your hair. You have more gold streaks.”
“My hair is still darker than the other girls’. I want to have really light hair, like so-and-so.”
“But you are Italian. You will always have darker hair.”
“I don’t want to be Italian.”
“One day, I will take you to Italy, and you will see lots of girls with even darker hair. We can go to Rome. And then we can eat.”

curly strings

CURLY STRINGS are a new and sincere {Estonian} band. I love them but their sincerity bothers me. They have achieved, perhaps with a few young others, what those of us who have tried to escape the mucky muck of swampy postmodernism have long sought after but only partially achieved — the ability to say something honestly without using cultural references or props to disguise or flavor the message.

Consider this audience member, Justin. Yesterday, I wore my Question Mark and the Mysterians t-shirt. I wear this t-shirt because I like Question Mark and the Mysterians’ music, even though their hit song, “96 Tears,” was recorded in 1966, many years before I was born. When I was a teenager, I was not supposed to like this music because it was my parents’ music, and therefore did not belong to me. To me, belonged nothing, because anything anyone my age produced was derivative and thus nothing. Even Nirvana produced nothing but noise and anger and therefore nothing but the soundtrack to this hollow nothingess. It was the Golden Age of Nihilism.

Consider this. In 1966, Question Mark, the lead singer of a rock band, claimed to be an alien, which seemed to jibe with the Star Trek future fascination of that more idealistic era. The name “Question Mark” referred to questions about his origins. His song about his feelings, “96 Tears” was sincere. In 1996, a person singing in a rock band who claimed to be an alien was merely referencing the past. His rendition of the song was in half jest, he was partially mocking the naivete of the past. Even if he enjoyed the song secretly, and felt the lyrics expressed his true feelings, he would be mocked as being a poseur and derivative. And so postmodernist man learned to smile when he was sad, and not say anything when he was angry. The postmodernist world was brutal like that.

The only means out of this postmodernist hurt trap matrix was quirky metamodernism, which is what I latched onto to save my heart. This was the acknowledgment, in film, in literature, in music, of the existence of the postmodernist critique, backed by a healthy middle finger in the same direction. It was a “that’s right, I’m going to dress up like Question Mark, sing ’96 Tears,’ and you won’t even know the difference, because even though it’s derivative, it is also sincere, and everything that came before was derivative anyway …” Maybe you even changed the name of Question Mark to Question Rick, just to be that subversive. One can sense this rebellious attitude in Wes Anderson’s 1998 film Rushmore, when the main character, a teenager named Max Fisher, attempts to build an aquarium on the school’s athletic field. When told that the authorities intend to halt his absurd project, Max responds, “Fuck it. I’m building it anyway.” He is later expelled.

And now to finish this with Curly Strings, those fortunate young souls who have escaped this urban rumble of the modernisms. They are just a folk band with fiddles, mandolins, banjos, basses, curly hair, and sincerity. Even if their songs critique something, it is not a mean-spirited postmodernist critique, and it is not a determined-but-struggling metamodernist burrowing out from the black space hole of late 20th Century cynicism. It just is a message, delivered sincerely, and well. Well done.

where i wrote my estonia 3


Aldos’s — Greenport, Long Island, New York, USA

Aldo’s is a coffeehouse on the water in Greenport, Long Island, New York, which is where we lived last year. In Aldo’s, I ordered a lot of cappuccinos from the friendly Guatemalan ladies who worked there, and wrote. I found it easy to write about Tartu from far away, because it allowed me to create my own Tartu, rather than to be distracted every time somebody walked by. In Aldo’s, I wrote the first chapters for the new book, including Väino’s Magic Trick, Woodsman Mats, and Keeping the Fires Lit. Aldo, the proprietor, who was this tough little Sicilian guy with a bush of white hair, would often be roasting coffee beans in the same room. If you stood outside, you could see the smoke coming out of the chimney and could barely breathe because it filled the air with a strong aroma. It probably inspired to write so much about wood-heated furnaces.


Costa Adeje — Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain

I was already deep in the book when we went to Tenerife at the end of February this year. While Epp watched our girls on the beach, I wrote in the little restaurants that line the water in Costa Adeje and Playa de las Americas. To keep myself going, I would order inexpensive appetizers, like pimientos de padron, Spanish green peppers, and papas arrugadas, a Canarian speciality, where baby potatoes are boiled with sea salt, producing a certain, wrinkled texture. I remember how I was trying to describe how Rein Taagepera, a political scientist who figures prominently in one chapter, looked, and then glancing down at the bowl of boiled potatoes.

“When Taagepera’s eye slits opened a bit, you could see the irises, which were an otherworldly intelligent blue. All of the skin on his face seemed to fold into itself, like the wrinkled and puckered peel of a yellow baby potato boiled away in sea salt.”

veeriku selver

Veeriku Selver — Tartu, Estonia

When I was working on the book, I usually kept a journal in my coat pocket, just in case some ideas would start to flow in while I was sitting somewhere. Writing is not really about the act of applying pressure to a keyboard, I guess. It’s more about listening to the various streams of language and memories flowing through your head. So I found myself in Veeriku Selver last autumn, waiting while the mechanics at the garage around to corner put the winter tires on our car, and jotting down thoughts for the book. A woman saw me writing and asked if she could take my picture. “It’s my hobby — I like to photograph people. And you still use a journal, wow, such old-fashioned technology.” I let her take my photo, and when she was done, she stroked my head a few times and left. She smelled like vodka, but all together it was a nice encounter.


Päris Pariis — Tartu, Estonia

It was in Päris Pariis where I finally realized that I was going to have to write the damn book through to the very end. This is a newer cafe on Lai Street in Tartu run by a Frenchman named Matthieu Chillaud who speaks Estonian to his clients with his outrageous accent (and yes, we speak Estonian to each other sometimes too). There are round tables built out of barrels, and a fine selection of galettes and crepes. As you work, you can listen to old French pop songs. It was here that I wrote a lot of good dialogue, I remember, including the back and forth with Vello Vikerkaar from the First True Writer chapter. Sometimes when I write good dialogue I enjoy it so much that I laugh out loud, so I’m sure some other patrons of Päris Pariis thought I was crazy.


Cafe Fellin — Viljandi, Estonia

I know some writers hate to be disrupted while they are writing, and they need a very, very quiet place to reflect, but I love working in a place like Fellin, where friends stop by and say hello. First Tiina Kaalep came by, and I tried to explain to her how Estonians had a different way of seeing the world, their own Order of Things, and I told her about my neighbor Peep in Viljandi who liked to saw wood at midnight. “Normaalne,” she said. At last, just when I was settling into working again, after meeting another good old friend, I saw our old neighbor Gea heading toward the door with her young son Samuel and I waved to her. This became part of the last scene in the book.

M/S Baltic Queen — Somewhere between Estonia and Sweden

The very first chapter I wrote for the book was the long draft of what became What Happened? This was written on August 30th, as our boat sailed for Stockholm, where we would take a plane to New York. I was in a booth near one of the cafeterias. The motion of the boat, and the fact that I was exhausted, meant that I wrote, then fell asleep, then woke up and wrote some more, then slept more.The incident with the police near the Kükita Cafe in central Estonia had happened just 10 days before, and so everything was fresh in my mind as I wrote it down. I think that’s why that chapter flows so well, and pulses with energy straight through from beginning to end.


Mount Teide — Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain

If conjuring Tartu from a coffeehouse on Long Island was inspiring, then writing about Tagaq’s performance at the Estonian Traditional Music Center in Viljandi from the base of the highest peak in Spain was just as motivating. I wrote the opening sequence to what I thought of as the Viljandi part of the book while Maria, our three year old, slept on my shoulder, and Epp and Anna rode a funicular to the summit of the volcano. I wrote the chapter out in my journal by hand. In my experience, writing by hand is more rewarding, and much of what you write is often better by hand than what you can do on a keyboard. The only annoying part is having to transcribe it later.


Mahedik — Pärnu, Estonia

The problem with this book from the very beginning was that I had employed two different approaches. One was the idea of an artfully written collection of chapters that were not linked entirely together. I was going to be like Mozart, you know. Compose a bit in the morning, then retire for a nap, then compose a bit more. The problem with the Mozart approach was that it took me months to write, and rewrite, and rewrite. Some of the material from the first approach — The Birth of Petrone Print chapter, for example — developed out of this concept. I wrote it and rewrote it and rewrote it, and I guess it got a little better each time. I remember spending hours in Mahedik in Pärnu, this wonderful cafe with organic food, including the best carrot and mushroom pies in Estonia — there is no debate here — rewriting that chapter. Finally, I got frustrated with it and wrote the rest of the book in about a month’s time. I prefer the second approach. It moves.

Pikk 13

Sepa 3/Pikk 13 — Viljandi, Estonia

Did I say I wrote the first chapter for the book on the Baltic Queen? Not entirely true. I actually wrote some of the Viljandi material years ago from our kitchen table in Viljandi, with the fire roaring in the little black furnace beside it. I wrote “Maria and the Bird” as it happened — it did rain, and stop raining, and start raining again during those September days — and I wrote the “One Arrogant Mouse” chapter as that sad saga unfolded. That may have been around the time I was struggling to finish the book that is known in Estonian as Montreaali deemonid (“Montreal Demons”). Writing about everyday life was a way to blow off some steam. I think that some of the best things are written this way — while you are relaxing from writing something else.

Roheline Maja

Roheline Maja (Green House) Cafe — Viljandi, Estonia

Everybody knows you in Viljandi. You cannot write for two minutes in the Green House Cafe on Koidu and Tartu Streets without someone offering to share a coffee with you. My friend Elias was one of these coffee-drinking instigators. I have so many good stories about the Swedish chef Elias. We used to go get out apple juice made on the edge of town by this guy we called Jutukas Kalev (“Talkative Kalev”). He pressed the juice in this old barn that looked like an antique furniture store after it had been hit by an errant Soviet bomb. You could find anything in that hay — accordions, kitchen tables, body parts — who knows. Kalev found out I was a journalist and he wanted to use me to get back at the police for something. “Let’s cooperate! You do the investigative reporting. We can put it in Sakala!” “No, no,” I said. “I’m not that kind of journalist.” I have so many good Viljandi stories. There should be a book of those, too. That might annoy Elias, who just needs a friend to drink a coffee with at the cafe. “Why do you spend so much time writing?” he asked me. “It’s not like anybody’s going to read your book anyway.”

outer hebrides

TO DIE FOR TALLINN? For some, it’s an uncomfortable question. Because is Estonia is so very small, and full of moose and pine, and stubborn tech-savvy peasants, that the idea of risking nuclear war for a tiny peninsula does alarm.

Yet, I feel it is both an important question and a false one. Let me explain. It is important, because Estonia is part of the West. It is part of our common space. It is as Western as the Outer Hebrides or North Vancouver. We move with ease within our common Western space without thinking about it. In Estonia, in Canada, in Scotland, it is 2015 everywhere. So we should be ready to defend our common 2015. And if we don’t — why not just surrender everything. Here, take Tallinn, take North Vancouver, and the Isle of Lewis.

What’s the difference?

The difference is that when you cross into Russia, you do not cross into 2015. You do not move deeper into our common space. When you cross into Russia, you cross space and time, you are beamed back into 1985. You cross into hungry cops out for bribes, Lenin in the metro, militsiya on the street corner, a supreme superman ruler who intends to stay in charge until the end of his natural life. And also, denim jackets.

The border between Estonia and Russia, between the West and the non-West, is real and worth defending. But while we must be vigilant in defending our common space, we must also not be deluded by its value. Estonia is a land of moose, pines, and tech-savvy peasants. Some shudder to think that we would go to nuclear war for moose, but we must turn the question around: are these same moose really so important for the Russians?

The true principle behind Estonian NATO membership was a northern one. It had little to do with Ukraine and nothing to do with Georgia. It had to do with the Baltic Sea. Denmark and Norway were already NATO members. So went Western control of the Danish Straits and the Baltic Sea. Russia maintained its exclave in Kaliningrad (nee Königsburg). Estonian NATO membership did not alter this balance of power. It couldn’t. All that Estonian NATO membership did was effectively take Estonia off the post-Soviet table. Recall, to attempt another occupation of this land of moose could lead to nuclear war (and trust me, Russia would lose that war). On the flip side, Estonia strategically wasn’t worth very much and therefore was not worth the risk.

Estonia’s fate is much less tied to 2004, when it joined NATO and the EU, and more to the early 1990s, when Swedish economic influence secured the country’s place among the Western markets. By 1998, Sweden dominated Estonian FDI and the country’s banking sector, and the economic crisis of 2008 only brought the two countries closer. Estonia’s banks are Swedish banks. Estonia’s money is European money. Estonia is a part of the West. You can deliberate sacrificing it to an unreasonable aggressor, but in the end, you’d just be sacrificing a piece of yourself. A pinkie perhaps, or maybe just a baby toe.


WHEN I READ recently that Estonia led the other OECD countries in alcohol consumption, I was not at all surprised. Instead I had that old Selena Gomez song ping-ponging between my ears, “Tell me, tell me, tell me something I don’t know, something I don’t know.” [Oh, yeah, I have three daughers, I know the entire Gomez back catalog like the back of something I know too well]…

There are of course negative social ramifications of this fondness for the drink — lessened lifespan, alcohol-associated health problems, a decrease in worker productivity. Some people here though don’t seem to take this seriously. Even if you put a warning on every bottle of booze, the way the cigarette packs read suitsetamine võib tappa (smoking can kill) people will narrow in on the word võib — can — and realize that it might not kill them, at least immediately, and drink and smoke on with festive indifference.

In Estonia, I believe that drinking takes place at a different level. In Ireland or Austria — beer countries that came in right behind Estonia– drinking is a social rite. In France, another OECD-flagged land, it is largely wine that is consumed, also socially, but as an extension of the local cuisine (although Italy, where many people still make their own wine too, was lower on the list).

In Estland, there is a medicinal aspect. People use viin — vodka — to treat colds, or to cope with loss. At every funeral after-party table there are several open bottles of viin. Lunch or dinner cannot proceed without a toast. People keep jars of clear, high-grade alcohol in jars in the cabinet for special occasions. It’s called puskar in Estonia proper and handsa in Setomaa and it is strong. This is no mere social lubricant, and it is not designed to be imbibed with a fine meal. This is a holy drink, a maarahwa folk absinthe that exists only to alter one’s constitution. There is even a special hand signal — the flicking of the skin beneath the chin — to indicate the necessity of a firewater remedy.

This is why it may be difficult to reduce alcohol consumption in Estonia. Some people respect drink here. Perhaps even more than they respect the OECD.