I WAS NEVER THE PERSON to take offense in the name of good taste. Rather, I enjoyed the idea of a world where experiences rose and fell on their own merits.
There are those days though. Those days when even the most jaded intellect can be stirred. This was me not too long ago in a parking lot in Estonia. This was me holding our youngest daughter as we got out of our car and saw a poster for a bicycle shop.
Six, sun-bronzed ladies in string bikinis, each one in a row, each straddling a bicycle on a beach. The bicycle wheels, yellow, matched the color of their neon swimwear. Their round buttocks stood at attention above the seats, bringing to mind the delicious baked color of hot cross buns straight from the oven.
I see these kinds of sexy signs all the time. Once, when I was standing outside of Seppälä admiring the Finnish models in the storefront advertisements, our eldest daughter asked me how I felt about the smiling women in lingerie. “It does make me feel good, when I see them,” I admitted. “Like a breath of fresh air.”
But this advertisement bothered me. Was it ridiculous with its bikes and bikinis? Its taut hindquarters roasting in the sun like hams? Something about the scene troubled me. I think it was this: I have reached the point where I feel responsible for the world.
I understood that somewhere, some men devised this poster. Sex sells, they thought. It makes you look. I imagined the photo shoot, how the director set it up, told them what to do. “Okay, everybody has their string bikini on now? Good. You over there, could you tighten your butt muscles just a little bit? No, a bit tighter. Clench, clench, beautiful! Hey, could you spray their butts with some oil? We need shiny butts. Shiny. Terrific. Action!”
Then I wondered how could I ever justify such a grotesque image to Maria, a four-year-old girl with bangs who likes ponies and rainbows, whose face I turned quickly away from those shiny buttocks for fear that she might ask me some strange questions. But I couldn’t justify it. Not for the sale of more bicycles. Not for the sale of more anything.
I am still not offended. But I am disappointed in my fellow man. So much of the discussion over these uncomfortable experiences is dominated by women. It is women, we are told, who are most offended. It is women therefore, we are told, who must speak out. I am part of a Facebook group called Virginia Woolf Sind Ei Karda, where I read women’s opinions, and sometimes see that men have shared their thoughts, too, in a context set by women.
But where are the men? We are the target market, are we not? We are supposed to see those butts and spend thousands on new bikes. Are we really so cowardly that not a soul will stand up and tell the world for once and for all that we are really not so stupid?
In the end, I took my daughter into another shop, and my moment of distress soon passed. That advertisement did make me worry about her future, though, and all the other things she might see. I couldn’t shake the feeling of being responsible for it either, knowing that all of it had supposedly been created for me.
I HAVE MET Marina Kaljurand, I have met Hillary Clinton, I have crossed paths with Siim Kallas outside the foreign ministry on Iceland Square (and had someone whisper in my ear, ‘Do you know who that is?’) and remember very well as a boy going to visit Trump Tower in Manhattan, so that we could take in this cathedral of 1980s greed and excess. For me, this presidential election is — unlike any before it, either in America or Estonia — very, very personal.
The people running for president are not so much candidates as they are like family members. Your kooky uncle. Your obstinate cousin. You look down the table at a holiday — maybe Fourth of July for Americans, maybe Jaanipäev for Estonians — and realize that, ‘Oh, no, we really must choose one of them to represent the entire country again.’ And not just for a day, but for a decade.
One might be excused for suffering from indigestion.
Then comes the measuring, the sizing up, the countryside whispering. America still harbors its Cold War mentality. There is blue and there is red. There is good and there is evil. There is Clinton and there is Trump. Are you for him or against her? If you are for him, you are against me. Trump is working for Putin. Hillary only serves the interests of her shady “Clinton Foundation.” In my hometown on weekends, demonstrators gather at a certain intersection with signs. On the left side, you have what might be considered Republicans. They have Trump signs. On the right, you will find Democrats. They support Clinton. They yell at each other and people honk their horns in support of either side, raising their fists in solidarity from car windows. This is American politics.
In Estonia, the dialogue is more nuanced. Here there are more choices. How confusing could it be for me, as an American, to look at a stage at the Arvamus Festival in Paide, for instance, and see four people engaged in a meandering discussion about where to take the country? To know that beyond those four, there might even be four others who could become the next president? People aren’t sure why their head of state is so important — How many times has someone told me that this figurehead has no power? — and yet they know that he represents Estonia, the chosen land.
It starts, as expected, in the sauna. “What do you think about so-and-so?” someone will whisper to you in Estonia. Then comes the inevitable discussion about what happened to that money. “But I think the Estonians respect that in a way,” I will say. “They like the idea of being clever with money. It’s the chewing gum in public thing they can’t stand.” Then I remind them of my handshake with Kaljurand at an Arvo Pärt concert in New York in a room full of monks. By shaking my hand and smiling, she won my support. “Yes, but did you see what so-and-so wrote on his blog about her?”
The sauna whispers continue. Siim Kallas, Erki Nestor, Allar Jõks, Mailis Reps, Mart Helme, Marina Kaljurand, and Jaak Jõerüüt — who should probably be elected on the strength of his surname alone. It’s like some complicated card game. I can’t follow all of the moves. This is what it comes down to — for at least the Estonians. Some facts, some gut instinct, a few public gaffes. Slowly the Estonian mind accommodates some popular choices, which might be, in comparison to America — where people fantasize about moving to Canada or seceding from the union should their candidate lose — a slight bit healthier.
In the end though, I am reminded — tragically — of Seto Kuningriigide Päevad, the Days of the Seto Kingdom in southeast Estonia, where the Seto leader, the Ülemsootska, is selected for the coming year. People gather and whisper. “Maybe I should vote for him, he is a good traditional dancer.” “But she knows all of our folk songs!” “He came over to my house once and helped me with some rotten logs. He’s definitely the candidate for me.”
The people line up behind their chosen leaders. Whoever has the most people standing behind him gets to lead the masses. This is how village politics works everywhere.
WHENEVER SOMEONE brings up the word Olympics, two things come immediately to mind. One is Tõnis Mägi’s famous song for the 1980 Olympics, “Olimpiada,” a disco classic, with a solid beat, stirring runs of strings (and in Russian!) The video of him strutting around with dancers and Misha the Bear in the background is not to be missed.
One of his best.
The other thing that comes to mind is how I once wanted to be an Olympic athlete. This was not just a fleeting thought that came to me one day, but one that I invested some time and emotions in. I even had a poster in my room for the 1998 Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan. I put the poster on the ceiling above my bed, so that each morning, when I opened my eyes, I would see it. That was my goal when I was 15 years old. As anyone who has ever watched the Olympics knows, you have to set your goals. Then you can talk about how you achieved them when they interview you after you win. “It’s about self-discipline,” you tell the reporters. “About getting up every morning and thinking, ‘I want to be an Olympic champion.’” A montage of images of you working out with a determined look on your face follows as the media recounts your path to victory.
This is how you become a winner, a hero, a man beloved by all.
I wasn’t after the fame though. I was after some girl.
This was a downhill skier, of course. I always go for the skiers. She was raised in the Rocky Mountains by hippies who rather than give her a name, decided to wait until she was old enough to name herself. For the first few years of her life, she was known as “Girl.” This “Girl” won the silver medal at the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer in 1994, which is how she became known in all American households at the time. Including my household, where I became captivated by her winning spirit, strange family story, and curvy figure.
One must acknowledge the backdrop however. Frost-crusted Norway with its lovely folk dancers from the opening ceremony. The reindeer, those red Scandinavian cottages. The chill of the mountain air seemed to waft from the television set. The Olympics get under your skin this way, in that you fall in love with the Games’ gestalt: not just a charismatic athlete, but the entire picture. Whether it is Lillehammer or Vancouver or London or Athens, we become enraptured by this idea of how life could or, rather, should be. Instead of political corruption, military occupations, and a migrant crisis, the world could just be a cute village of beautiful and interesting athletes, where people whiled away the day enjoying world class catering and engaging in sporting competitions.
It was definitely a world I wanted to escape to and there was a chance that I could. At that time, there were commercials for the American luge team. I’m serious. There were videos of men on tiny sleds shooting down icy tunnels, gripping the sides of their toboggan at every slippery turn. “Dial 1-800-USA-LUGE” the man said on the commercial. So I did. I picked up the phone and I called and was sent pamphlets in the mail about the sport and about competitions to be held at Lake Placid in Upstate New York that spring. It meant that I would have to prepare.
I put the poster for the Nagano Games above my bed to keep me inspired, and told all of my friends that I would probably not be attending university because I intended to become an Olympic athlete. (Even today, some of them send me letters asking about what became of my career). It was winter, so I spent my time practicing my moves on my sled, imagining myself one day up on that podium in Japan with the coveted medallion suspended from my neck, only to descend into the soft embrace of my hot new girlfriend, the hippie daredevil downhill skier from the mountains.
As gossip spread in the school that they had a new member of the Olympic luge team in their midst, it reached other students beyond my immediate social network. It turned out that one of them, a less dreamy, immensely more physically fit youth named Chuck, was also going to Lake Placid to take part in the luge contests. In fact, he had already been training for the luge team since he was 10 years old. Chuck took one look at me in the hall and told me my career was over.
“They’ll never take you,” he said, looking up at me. “There’s just no way.”
“What do you mean? Why not?”
“You’re way too tall,” he said. He held a hand up in the air. “It’s all about the aerodynamics. They want shorter guys like me, because we weigh less, meaning we can slide faster,” the hand curved down an imaginary luge course. “But your long legs will dangle over the toboggan. It won’t work.”
I was crushed but I knew he was right. I went home and tore the poster off the ceiling, and never said a word about the Olympics to my classmates again. I still do check on that skier from time to time though to see how she’s been doing since she retired with all of her gold and silver medals. Some bits of Olympic magic never fade.
AFTER 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.