ok kuressaare

THERE IS NO RHYTHM, rhyme or logic to the back and front streets of Old Town Kuressaare. One leads to another which is bisected by a third and bypassed by back alleys. There are cobblestones and parks with blue and yellow spring flowers, cream-colored stone houses, cream-colored wooden houses, cream-colored clocks and cream-colored churches. It’s all cream and custard in Kuressaare, capital of Saaremaa, Estonia’s largest island. It takes hours and hours to get there and even when you reach the island’s shores via the Muhu causeway, you are still not there and so it takes an hour more.

When you come to and the hour arrives in Kuressaare you hear the creamy church bells chime. Ding dong bong. While you wander you know that people are meeting in Tallinn at the Lennart Meri Conference, and that author and TV producer Peter Pomerantsev is there, and that there is strong competition to have one’s photo taken with Peter Pomerantsev, to obtain the coveted “Pomerelfie.”

People have always been worried about Estonian security. They even built a castle in custardy Kuressaare to protect the creamy town from unsavory invaders. What’s the purpose though of such intrusion? A lot of blood spilled over a small land filled with peasants, birch trees, and moose? Saaremaa has no edge. It unwinds you. One imagines that soldiers on the front in Saaremaa might be lulled to sleep by its bird calls and ticks. Many battles have been fought here, they say, but you wouldn’t know it. Just listen to that jazzy version of Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine” playing in the trendy bistro on the square.

Ahhhhh. During my talk at the 10th anniversary of the American Corner at the local library — where guests were treated with glass bottles of Coca Cola and mini hamburger hors d’oeuvres — I spoke not of security nor of Russia, but of islands and the island mentality. That feeling of emptiness that an islander feels when he is far from the heaviness and space of the sea. A phenomenon strange to landlubbers. An islander learns to accommodate the heaviness of the sea, so that one part of him is in balance with the big water nearby. An islander away from the big water is off balance, because one of his anchors has been drawn up. He staggers always to one side, like a landlubber set back on land.

“Do you know what I mean, when I say that you feel weird when you aren’t near the sea?” I asked the Kuressaare audience. Heads nodded in agreement, some of them with sad faces, so tormented by the idea of being set adrift from their watery anchor.

too much land

Even Nyan Cat thinks Russia has too much land.

Even Nyan Cat thinks that Russia has too much land.

RUSSIA’S SLOW DEVOURING of East Ukraine, after its abridged Crimean “reunification,” has not gone unnoticed among the Estonian youth, who are otherwise occupied, as we all are, by the fascinating glow of the iPad screen, in putting new applications to good use, and sometimes whiling away dreary April days playing Nyan Cat.

Yet unbeknownst to Comrade Putin, Comrade Lavrov, et al., is the way in which their land grab has aroused long dormant anti-Russian feelings in the young people of the Baltic Rim. These are children who are vaguely aware that their country was not always as it is, though cannot quite understand how it was different before it came to be as it is. Yet they have come to loathe Russia — not fear it — but strongly dislike it, the same way one might feel about a bout of gastrointestinal distress, “Oh, darn, that Russia, I just hate it when that happens.”

The eldest of my daughter trio has voiced such opinion to me. “Ugh. Russia? I hate Russia.” “Why do you hate Russia?” “Hmph. Russia has the most land in the world and they want more land. They’re just greedy.” End of statement. It reminded me of Mano, a fine young Viljandi chap, who once informed me that going to Moscow, even for vacation, could be life threatening. “Don’t you know? Didn’t you hear? Haven’t you realized?” Mano accosted me. “They kill Estonians in Russia.” This is what Estonian children are telling each other, mind you. I rarely hear a parent mutter the “R word” aloud. Thanks to Moscow’s actions though, irritable, anti-Russian feeling is being bred into a brand new generation of Western neighbors.

Our second eldest daughter, aged 7, is not immune from such whispering and rumor sharing. She too knows that Russia is bad. She said so. “I don’t like Russia. Russia is just bad.” “Why do you think that Russia is bad? The people in Russia are just like you and me. It’s just their leadership who are bad.” This reasoning had no apparent effect. “But … but Russia is the biggest country in the world, Daddy,” said the second eldest. “They have so much land and now they want more in Ukraine. It’s just too much land, Daddy. Too much land.”

nord e sud

NOW THAT I’VE BEEN back and forth several times to Italy, Italia, the motherland, the paese of all paesans, no matter how distant, how removed in space and citizenship, I have soaked its internal divisions into my red wine-colored red Mediterranean blood.

My family is from the South. This means something to people from the North. In the North, the South has something of an unfortunate reputation. “All of our money, all of our money goes down South,” said a granny in Firenze. “Where does it go after that?” Corruption. Insinuation. “But you know what my cousins in the South say,” I told the Firenze granny. “All of the good criminals from the South have moved to Milano.”

Bari, the home of my maternal grandfather’s family, gli Abbatecola, is known to Northerners as a Southern city. Most of them have never been there, but they are sure it is dangerous, or even if there is no scheming swarthy pickpocket out to make off with their Milanese borsa, their bag, something is still probably not quite right. Bari is still Italy, if not the Italy they would like to present to others. Bari, Napoli, these are Italian cities. It’s the tip of the boot, Calabria, the point of origin of my father’s line, i Petrone, that is not only shrouded by the gauzy veil of Northern suspicion, but considered foreign and peculiar for its Greek churches and old Albanian villages.

Strano. Strange.

Yet there is something unfulfilling about the cities of the North, about Bologna or Firenze. They are too clean, too modern, too nice, too convenient. “Italy lite.” There are too many tourists there. In the streets of Bari at night, the fishermen chant “fresh fish” and sell the day’s catch from carts and old men play cards in the piazzas and the only tourists are other Italians visiting cousins. This is the South, my South, our South. For me, something is not quite right about the North. Something is off up there, something is strano.

Something is not Italian.

greek easter, russian easter

TWO CHURCHES to attend, one near the river, the other deep in Karlova. I used to pass the Karlova church, Püha Aleksandri, a long time ago, when we had a little office over on Alevi Street nearby. It has I don’t know how many onion domes and looms out of the Earth, big and white and vaguely Greek-looking like a dream or a phantom ship.

This is the church of Constantinople. I recognize the chairs inside. In the Russian churches, they do not have chairs, and it is standing room only. The Estonian Orthodox churches seem quiet and a bit forlorn, and yet they give one room to breathe, to think. I mainly go to church to think, though it does bother me how much I think about sex in church.

But doesn’t everybody? Hey, who’s that guy in the shirt? That girl in the headscarf?

I think about other things too, the long litany of drug overdoses and terminal diseases, the sirens and the accidents, to quote an old singer from LA named Arthur Lee. Colorful headscarves, devout peacocks. I like to hear the women sing, even in Old Slavonic. It gives me goosebumps. I know each and every person with head covered sings not out of obligation, but because they have probably lived through something awful. You have to live through something awful before you wind up in such a place singing. And yet there is joy in their eyes. They sing joyously. They know something. Have learned something. Have come to an arrangement with the man upstairs.

The bearded priests in the Estonian church look alert and interested but a bit lonesome. In the Russian church, the priests are more like rock stars swinging caches of incense, “Christ is risen!” “He has risen indeed!” “Christ has risen!” “He has indeed!” Then the procession around the church, the one by the river, Püha Jüri, also known as Püha Georgi, for this is Moscow’s church, and perhaps that is why it is more ornate, more gold and glimmering, more Russian. The people are Russian, of that stocky, assertive build. They hold candles and speak to each other, huddle together before the staffs of the clergy, who lord over them like triumphant knights. There is a pleasing cadence to their prayers, a repetitive lift at the end, but I cannot understand them. This is all foreign to me and I am a foreigner, but that is fine.

You must at some point in your life stop worrying about why things are so, and why you are in a Russian church at Greek Easter, and just huddle beside someone who is holding a candle. The Russian church has an icon shop and candles are on sale too. I had no change for a candle and I didn’t want to steal somebody else’s lit prayers, so I went and walked around the church without light in my hands. That was okay though. It was all okay and it is all going to be okay. Such was my midnight Easter revelation.

black maze

A LONG TIME ago I wrote my first novel, which was published in Estonian as “Montreali deemonid,” and rendered as Montreal Demons in English, which many people noted was the name of a local hockey team. So the title was a bit of a failure. I haven’t thought about this book for a good while, but recently, the worldly inspiration for one of its characters got in touch with me. I thought about sending it out again, after some read through edits and a retitle, and came across this line from the text.

 “Montreal unfolds like a black maze, department store window jollies pass me by, hamburgers and hats framed by buildings with rows of ornate columns, curvy balconies, and pointy roofs that poke up into the moon-lightened sky like witches’ bonnets.’

It was always difficult for me to get the right perspective on this book. But I checked and there is no other novel called Black Maze. Two other titles come to mind, “Black Math,” a song by The White Stripes, and Henry Miller’s “Black Spring.” So it works. I hereby lay claim to it.

peipsi fish

This one’s for you, Herk!

WE STUMBLED ACROSS a little paper the other day somewhere in downtown Tartu. It probably fell out of the purse of a tourist. I’ve seen tour groups with busy cameras around despite the frosty weather. It is beautiful, though, because the frost eliminates the +1 C fog, that murky gray soupy awfulness that just sops you of all your life’s desire when the winter temperatures rise above freezing. But when it goes below O, things right themselves, and so all of the city is illuminated with warm yellow sun that reflects off the crunchy ice, and there are even birds singing cautiously in the trees, like scouts for legions of more birds

The paper contained pictures of different fish found in Peipsi järv, which is known to English speakers as Lake Peipus, which sounds very weird to these ears, so I just call it Peipsi järv. And looking at the sea creatures, I realized that many of the people I know or know of are actually named after fish. There’s Pärnu drummer Herk Haug, whose name means ‘pike,’ or the famous playwright Oskar Luts, whose last name means ‘burbat.’ And what about the Estonian film producer Anneli Ahven, whose name translates as ‘perch’?

Showing the other Peipsi fish to Epp, we realized we knew a person for each one of the marine life depicted.

‘Latikas? (Bream)’

‘Urmas Latikas!’

‘Koger? (Carp)’

‘Urmas Koger!’

‘Linask? (Tench)’

‘Elo Linask!’

‘Angerjas? (Eel)’ I asked.

‘Angerjas? Hmm.’ Epp tapped at her chin. ‘I really don’t know.’

‘Alo Angerjas,’ I offered.

‘Who’s that?’

‘I don’t know. This is Estonia, though. There must be at least one Alo Angerjas out there somewhere.’