calliope

20180808_085132SOMETIME IN THE WINTER (or was it spring?) I was approached by two Americans from the Pacific Northwest who had holed up in Tallinn’s Old Town for weeks, trying to put together the second issue of a new literary magazine they had christened Calliope.

In one of those fortuitous events, one of the editors had encountered one of my books, read it cover to cover, and decided to contact me, not only for a submission, but for the contacts of other writers in Estonia who might be on the look out for new opportunities. Some of the names I provided made it into the Tallinn issue of Calliope, I’m happy to say.

In writing my own piece, ‘All Those Restless Souls’, I thought of the magazine’s readers, many of whom might be in the Pacific Northwest, and a recent visit from an old friend to Tallinn came to mind. The story began to write itself:

This is Adam Fish’s new life. He wakes up at the Hotel Europa with the wind howling something ferocious against the glass, and a moist streaky vision of Tallinn Harbor visible through the gray sliver of light that separates two carpetty-looking burgundy hotel curtains. Through it, one can see the rows of discount liquor stores, and beyond that, the great jutting jaw-like shape of the bow of one the white ships that goes to Helsinki, as if poised to swallow the whole scene up.

Originally titled, ‘This is Adam Fish’s New Life,’ ‘All Those Restless Souls’ tries to draw out some of the paradoxes in the expatriate dream of leaving it all behind. “I’m already so bored with it,” Adam opines in the story. “Just sitting there, sitting there. Drinking wine. Eating cheese. Sitting there. Drinking wine. Eating cheese. Sitting there. Drinking …”

We’re in class talking about our bright futures. It’s 1988. Czechoslovakia still exists. Estonia is a republic of that massive red country that eats up most the map. “I will become a Slovak salesman,” says Adam proudly. “And I will become an Estonian writer,” says I.

There is so much more to it, isn’t there? If you want to read this piece and others, including haunting work by Eia Uus and Adam Cullen, be sure to invest in a copy of Calliope. And many thanks to Lauren Schwab and Matthew Conyers — our editors, curators and publishers — for this opportunity to be read in a wonderful new context.

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the long hot summer

stockholm

Långholmen, Stockholm, Sweden – July 2018

FOR WEEKS, we have been beset by heat and haze. The temperature reaches 30 degrees Celsius on some afternoons, and the land bakes in the never-ending sun, awaiting thunderstorms that either never come or blow through too fast. There is absolutely no way that any person from this notoriously frosty region could complain about a drawn-out July heatwave, even as the hospital emergency rooms fill up with sweaty old ladies on stretchers holding ice cubes to their temples.

The Estonians’ industriousness continues. My own neighbor — a thirty-something woman — can be seen sawing wood almost until midnight, propelled by that inborn desire to get as much done as possible before the snows return. At 6 AM, the neighbor starts mowing the lawn, or sawing wood. It’s hard to tell the difference, though I train my ears on the sounds of the machines.

For my part, I have found it impossible to do anything. I cannot read, I cannot write, I can barely think. My dreams are a frayed network of primitive impulses, bizarre scenarios, drama and suspense. My waking life is equally as strange. At the promenade in Pärnu just a few days ago, I came across two men cycling around on bicycles, one wearing a rubber Putin mask, the other wearing a Trump mask, and blasting out Kukerpillid’s “Pole Sul Tarvis” from a portable speaker.

This is a famous country tune, the refrain of which is Pole sul tarvis teada mida ma teen. “There’s no need for you to know what I’m doing …”

There is a kind of madness that engulfs people during a heat wave. We lose our bearings, our sense of right and wrong, even our sense of self. We give in to wickedness and it feels wonderful. The sensation of sweating 24 hours a day brings out our most animal instincts. The political debates do continue, the chaos of the world spins on, but all we really need is a glass of water.

The Helsinki Summit between Putin and Trump has just been another surreal part of this heatwave, I think, as off-kilter and mirage-like as those masked cyclists in Pärnu playing Kukerpillid. The farcical press conference that followed the two-hour meeting between the two men, the uproar over Trump’s backing of Putin’s assessment that the Russians did not meddle in the elections, then the ridiculous pivot that he simply misspoke, all blend into the carnival blur of summer. People do say stupid things in summer after all. Why not just blame it all on the heat?

Maybe there was no air-conditioning in Helsinki?

Putin and Trump are what the Estonians would call pensionärid, pensioners, men above a certain age. You might expect to find them playing a chess in a park somewhere and arguing about Vietnam. Yet the extent of their old-age narcissism and vanity has been startling and perhaps only matched in recent times by leaders of certain southern countries who might decorate themselves in leopard skins. Trump has gone from being a loud-mouthed, pasty-faced real estate developer to a bloated, doughy creature given to childlike outbursts, very much resembling the giant baby blimp that hovered London during his visit. The slender face of Putin’s secret police days in East Germany is barely visible beneath his mounds of thick makeup and flabs of flesh. Looking at images of this duo at their respective podiums, one might think that he’s not witnessing a moment of international statesmanship, but rather lost in an exhibit at Madame Tussaud’s. In this heat, is it any surprise, that these outlandish wax figures have started to melt?

This is when one longs for another glass of water. That’s all we humans really are, just water. The world may seem nonsensical and run by narcissists and its form and substance might seem as permanent as a gooey chocolate left out on a dish to melt in the sun. But relax, just drink water. Stay hydrated. Together, we’ll all get through this.