the nordic ibiza

ONE CANNOT FORGET the man with the saxophone. He stood on the deck above the Aloha Bar, bent passionately proclaiming his melodies. First came Wham’s a “Careless Whisper,” then soon after “True” by Spandau Ballet. Around him frolicked many golden ladies in various stages of undress and excitement, each of whom had a drink in hand as the saxophone player grooved among them. I eyed them with a mix of wariness and disgust. To think, I had been running away from the Eighties for 30 years, only to be cornered by them again on some Estonian beach.

Yet not just any Estonian beach. This was the Pärnu Rand, the Nordic Ibiza. Set back among the sand dunes were hammocks and secret gatherings of lithe, pretty people without any cares in the world. Muscled youths played volleyball in the sands, while blondes cycled by, taking one’s breath away with each toss of straw-colored hair. Hidden between the ice cream putkas and burger kiosks was a red van converted into a bar called Põks, from which one could buy tropical drinks — mango cocktails, passionfruit spritzers — and lounge in white beach chairs. There really was no place like this anywhere in the world. Many things in Estonian were stolen from some other place, but the Pärnu Beach scene was its own homegrown experience. It contained elements of the Caribbean, of the East Indies, of the French Riviera, but it was all repackaged into some perfect, symmetrical Estonian wonderland. My daughter loved it. “Just look at this great place, it was just made for bikinis and drinks,” she said. My response was a nod, but nothing more. “Why are you in such a bad mood again?” she asked. “I’m not in a bad mood,” I told her. “Yes, you are. You have the same mopey face that you always have these days.” “It’s that saxophone player. Any second now he’ll start playing ‘Come On, Eileen.'” “It’s not the saxophone player, Dad. You always look like that.” “Well, I’m going to get an espresso,” I said. “Of course,” I heard her say as I stormed away. “You always go and get yourself an espresso.”

The true reason I always get myself an espresso at the Pärnu Beach is because the young woman who makes it has the kind of rare wild and rugged beauty that makes all of the blondes in all their colorful bikinis obsolete. She looks perhaps like many of the other women who work at the many cafes and bistros along the boardwalk, but there is an authority, a sense of confidence, of power and command in her step that always pulls at me, just like her wavy hair and strong build. Such are the rare women who can surpass the heavily armed fortifications that ring my heart. I have never dared to ask her name, nor care to know it, who she is, where she lives, or what she aspires to be. Perhaps she is studying to be a doctor or an archaeologist. This I shall never know, for as long as I do not know, she can flavor my imagination with her mere presence. I can only glance for a moment, as I stand behind half a dozen Finnish men in thong bathing suits who are waiting to order up another beer.

There is something else you should know about the woman at the espresso bar. She reminds me of someone else, someone I met many years ago when I myself was a teenager captivated by the mysteries of the world, a teenager just like my daughter who loved nothing more than this kind of beach milieu. That other woman, whose name I also did not know, worked at a beach cafe just like this one. I had encountered her one night long ago and was similarly thunderstruck. And I remember how I had thought about her all night and then returned to the cafe in the morning to declare my love for her, only to discover she was off from work that day. It was that very feeling I had come to treasure most in this life, the feeling of being compelled to do something, even if I had second thoughts, even if I was hesitant, even if I was afraid. I was going to ask her name, everything that morning in fact I was prepared to lie about everything — pass myself off as a 19-year-old college student, instead of some 15-year old kid — to somehow ingratiate myself with this older, impressive woman. But I never thought I would see her again until I saw a reflection of her in a Pärnu barista, her cheeks turned pink by a generous August sun. “What would you like?” she asked me at the bar with the kind of cool intonation a lady develops when she has to deal on a daily basis with scores of sad admirers. “Just an espresso,” I said. “That’s all I want from you. Nothing more.” She nodded and made me the drink which I downed in a gulp. I missed my old self, I thought, wiping my lips with my hands. I missed him sorely. I ached for him. I missed that silly boy who would run to a beach cafe in the morning to chase some wild girl he had eyed the night before. Who would even lie about his age! At what point do we become embittered? I wondered. At what point do we turn cynical? And can the process be reversed without the aid of some tantra course, hippie camp, or taoist retreat?

It had to be if I ever was going to allow myself to feel happy again.

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