The Good Old Days

Aitüma entered my vocabulary at some point in the recent past. I don’t know when and I honestly have no idea what the etymological difference is between aitüma and aitäh because as far as I can tell they mean the same exact thing, “thank you.”

So I started saying it to everyone, to the cashiers in Tallinn and the telemarketers trying to sell me cookbooks and the guy who delivered my boots. They didn’t seem to mind but a few were amused to see this foreign guy standing before them saying this archaic word.

My guess was that aitüma was just one of those funky South Estonian words making a comeback like hüva and hää and too. I asked my friend Silver about this and he explained that I was only half right. “Only ökoinimesed say aitüma,” Silver said. “Why?” I asked. “Because it’s so cool and old,” he said, “and ökoinimesed love anything that is old.” (Ökoinimesed translating as “ecopeople,” people who wear old-fashioned clothes and eat only organic foods, people like a lot of our friends, people like us.)

I liked this dialogue with Silver because it was the first time that someone in my group of friends had expressed irony about the popularity of anything aged among the young people of Estonia. But it’s true. Call it the öko lifestyle or just retro infatuation, the adults around me seem obsessed with traditional life. Öko in this sense is nothing new, but rather old, öko is the food your grandmother’s grandmother ate, öko is the clothes your grandmother’s grandmother wore. In Viljandi, they advertise dance nights at the Pärimusmuusika Ait (the happening folk music center) with images of men and women who look like they could be characters at a wedding from a hundred years ago with their old caps and whiskers and braids and granny dresses.

Mind you, not just anything ancient will do. No one is trying to harken back to the days of the Black Plague or the Napoleonic Wars. Instead, Estonians have settled on an optimal period of nostalgia centered on the 1920s. I hypothesize that this makes life more convenient because the Estonians of the 1920s lived in a sort of limbo betwen the archaic and modern eras. That is to say that they lived in wooden houses and spoke their various local dialects and largely ate food that they grew on their own and had homespun clothing and milled around drinking homebrewed beers and moonshine, but they also had radios and cars and bicycles and tennis rackets and went swimming in Pärnu and sometimes even holidayed outside of the country. And I think this is what these öko people are aiming for: the 1920s plus wireless Internet, for the Internet is the one modern thing that öko people will never abandon.

There is a deep irony here. To hear oldtimers tell it, nobody wanted to live in the dark, crooked old wooden houses of Kalamaja and Karlova and Supilinn in the 1950s and 1960s. They dreamed of a life beyond those ramshackle old neighborhoods, in newer projects like Mustamäe or Annelinn, a comfortable existence of organized building maintenance and central heating with vacuum cleaners to pick up dust and gas-heated stoves to do the cooking, and television to entertain.

Now their grandchildren boast about the virtues of wood-heated furnaces, think the crooked old wooden houses are charming, clean the house with brooms and wet rags, gave the TV away long ago, and cook pork and potatoes or porridges or bread in the fireplace. And it’s the pensioners, the very people who were the little children during this vaunted golden age and the only ones who actually remember it, who are living alone in the apartment blocks of Estonia with their eyes glued to Latin soap operas eating canned meats and vegetables and factory-made bread.

This has led me to wonder — will any of our current creature comforts become fashionable in the same way, 50 or 100 years from now? Maybe our grandchildren will astonish us by trying to imitate life as my generation lived it as children in the 1980s, with no Internet (because there was no Internet), no mobile phones (because there were no mobile phones), no piercings or tattoos (because only junkie guitarists had tattoos), no GPS (only foldable paper roadmaps), and no bicycle helmets (because nobody wore bike helmets back then). Some might argue that this has already happened. As my friend Hannes, a former music label owner, informed me, nobody wants to buy CDs anymore, but vinyl is making a comeback. I haven’t relied on vinyl for music since I was eight years old, but chances are I will be playing records again.

Or maybe the 1980s will be forgotten, and it is the 2000s we will aspire to recreate, the “good old days” when people had laptops for computing, mobile phones for calling, and iPods for listening to music, not just one high-tech instrument for doing all of these things. In Estonia, future generations may yearn for “good old” euroremont, ah, those vinyl floors, those styrofoam ceilings, those plastic windows, “just like grandma and grandpa.” Or maybe they will scower the Internet looking for “vintage” versions of programs like Skype, not the modern one, but the first version, just so they can feel like an earlier, more idealistic, more genuine denizen of the web.

I am sure such sights will elicit a few chuckles from old geezers like us, and maybe more than a little Déjà vu.

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4 comments

  1. Don John

    “My guess was that aitüma was just one of those funky South Estonian words making a comeback like hüva and hää and too. I asked my friend Silver about this and he explained that I was only half right. “Only ökoinimesed say aitüma,” Silver said. “Why?” I asked. “Because it’s so cool and old,” he said, “and ökoinimesed love anything that is old.” (Ökoinimesed translating as “ecopeople,” people who wear old-fashioned clothes and eat only organic foods, people like a lot of our friends, people like us.)”

    Hipsterism in Viljandi style…

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