i’m so bored

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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

 

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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

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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

 

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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.