päevaleht interview

Many associate Viljandi with the Folk Music Festival and the Green House Café. What is your Viljandi?

Viljandi is like an old pair of pants. It’s very comfortable. I can leave my home in the morning and get a cup of coffee without worrying about how I look. Viljandi is like a big family. We are all relatives and close friends, so I don’t need to worry about what people think about me. Certainly, there are other places that influence me deeply, but even where I grew up, I didn’t have that kind of feeling. New York isn’t the kind of place where you can walk around and feel that it belongs to you.

What makes Viljandi different from other Estonian towns?

I always feel relieved when I come into Viljandi. Tartu and Tallinn are known for their urban anonymity. People enjoy and look for that anonymity, because they are tired of village life, where everyone knows everything about you. They would prefer that nobody knows anything about them. People are more closed. Viljandi is the kind of place that accepts all the refugees from Tallinn. People who are tired of urban life and are looking for a comfortable oasis in South Estonia.

Doesn’t this Viljandi oasis ever get boring though?

It depends on where you are in life. I am 41 and I live with my 13-year-old daughter. Actually, there is even too much to do in Viljandi. There is always some concert or exhibition, your friends invite you out. This can be tiring, and I don’t have the time for it.

What led you to move back to Viljandi four years ago?

I had hit bottom. Viljandi seemed like a safe place to start over again. I thought about moving to Tallinn, but this seemed too expensive. It seemed like a huge headache. I moved to a place where rent was cheap, and there is a café with free wifi and good coffee. I needed to be in a safe place surrounded by supportive people.

Are you now a happier person?

Definitely. More stable as well. For Estonians, it seems that relationships and having children are a natural phenomenon. People meet, they like each other, and somehow children show up. Like apples or pears tumble from tree branches. Then, at some moment, the love is lost and they separate. People take this so peacefully in this society. I am influenced by a stricter Southern Italian culture, where a person’s personal happiness doesn’t count so much. It is more important to be loyal to your family. There is a stricter family system.

How did life change for you after your divorce?

When everything fell apart, it created for me a serious existential crisis. I lost my sense of purpose and direction. I was programmed to be a family man, and suddenly I had to live in this Nordic chaos, where everyone basically does what they want to? I had seen how others had lived this way, but I didn’t know how to do it myself. I really struggled with the local culture, and I didn’t understand how people here think or see the world. So I learn each day and things have gotten better. I can’t say that I see the world the same way that Estonians do, but I have adapted, and made some changes in my identity.

In the book, different muses played important roles: the Designer, Miss Cloud, and the Tigress. Do you still believe that you really loved them?

People talk about love all the time. For me, they were more like spirits than muses. They got inside of me and reached me deeply. Usually, people are more distant or neutral, but they went straight to my subconscious and stayed there. It was actually pretty terrifying. A person who is conscious makes decisions for himself. He thinks that his life is under control. But the subconscious has its own mind, its own wishes, and leads you in other directions. So I cannot say if they were loves, but certainly great influences in my subconscious. I put them in the book, because each one reflects different aspects of my life.

More along those lines, the Designer …

In the book, there was the metaphor of the dog and the squirrel. The dog knows that there is a glass window between him and the squirrel, but still he runs and hits his head against the glass. He tries to catch the squirrel, even when he understands that it isn’t possible. This is his instinct. I wanted to show what goes on in the heads of men when they start to chase after women. All the stupid and clumsy things they do. And then they are disappointed, when the woman doesn’t reciprocate interest. My own experience is that the heart is like real estate. When one person leaves, another arrives to take her place. The room is never empty. Sometimes even several people want to move in at the same time.

The Tigress was very young, just 20 years old.

I had always criticized men who take up with younger women. It seemed disgusting. Then I saw how it happens. You go to a café, you meet a woman, you start to talk. You don’t know at first how old she is. That happens later. What do you do? Do you take her to be a child or speak to her as an adult? Pure comedy! And I wound up in the same situation as other divorced men, who wind up talking to women half their age. What a cliché!

What do these interests have in common?

I have typically chosen unstable women. Women who don’t know what they want in life, or where they will sleep tomorrow.

What has helped you find peace at heart and self-love?

Routine and writing help me a lot. I have projects, objectives, and deadlines. At the start, I didn’t. I don’t know what self-love is, but these give structure to my life and keep me grounded. What does self-love even mean? I know who I am and this helps me.

Do you have someone new in your life?

I am not looking for love. Women blow through my life like hurricane winds and it can be tough. If I tried to hold onto them, they would be like pretty birds trapped in a cage. I don’t want that. A person isn’t attractive anymore when their life is stagnant. Relationships turn into prisons. People start to belong to each other and this can be destructive. That set up seems risky to me at the moment. I was married for about 14 years. It was a long, interesting, and intense experience. It’s as if I just got off a rollercoaster. Usually you don’t want to get back on. Some want to, but not me. My head is still spinning. I’m still a bit nauseous. Better to sit a while and sip some water.

You spend a lot of your life in cafes. Can you share a good café story?

Every café has its own story. The Green House is my home café. I go to Ormisson when I am tired of the Green House. The Aida café is very discrete, for example, you can go and drink tea in the corner there. Harmoonia and Fellin are good for dates and meeting people. They are more elegant places. I was surprised that I had passed the Tähe Pub many times and never gone in. Then once I went to a healer across the street. She didn’t have a toilet in her office, so she sent me to the pub across the street. I walked in and it was full of people I had never seen before. A completely different Viljandi! Unbelievable that even in Viljandi you find these kinds of hiding places.

Folk also reveals another side of Viljandi.

Folk is like spring, the whole town blooms. But Viljandi’s branches can support the weight well. There is no othering of visitors to the festival. We are them and they are us. We take them in and embrace them. It is strange to meet famous people from the capital though. I always wonder how they got here and if they are lost.

The Joala Monument has also gotten stranded in Viljandi. How do you feel about it?

I think it’s funny. He is highly respected and I have nothing against him, but this monument is a bit like a voodoo doll. We have built an energy column to Jaak Joala which is now leading a life of its own and is influencing others. I hear the songs from the monument from the moment I step out the door until I go to bed at night. A lot of the songs they selected are covers*, and I feel as if the Estonians are toying with me. “Look, we took your favorite English-language songs and made them our own!” It’s hard to imagine that Americans would take a beloved Estonian song like, “Eestlane Olen Ja Eestlaseks Jään“* and make their own version about chicks in bikinis, hamburgers, and cars. But that is what it feels like. This is cultural cannibalism!

This interview was conducted by Laura-Marleene Jefimov for the Estonian newspaper Eesti Päevaleht. An Estonian-language version was published on 27 January 2021. The interview was conducted in Estonian.

  • The Joala Monument plays Jaak Joala’s covers of The Archies’ “Sugar, Sugar,” The Monkees’ “Last Train to Clarksville,” and The Beatles’ “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”
  • “An Estonian I Am and an Estonian I Will Stay,” a song popularized by Ivo Linna at the time of the Singing Revolution in the 1980s

benjamin linus moves the island

AT A CONFLUENCE OF SEVERAL RIVERS stood the citadel, surrounded by semi-mountainous terrain. I was there in the white house when the riots started, an angry mob destroying everything in its wake. I took refuge on the windowed-in balcony of the second floor, hot and soiled with cobwebs and sunshine, which is where I encountered Vesta, who somehow was there too, so far away from Estonia, also seeking refuge. All of her modern life troubles of divorce lawyers and child support payments had been swapped out for this real-time flare and calamity, the violent militia rabble breaking into the house, smashing windows, knocking down walls, bent on blood and destruction. They were going to light the place afire. Vesta’s hair was a flame of browngold, and her skin was sun-kissed and brown, which drew out the sky blue in her eyes. She was more alive and womanly than I had seen her in years. In the upheaval, I found my face against her breasts, surrendered to them, and then the full throb confluence of the sexes, that little bit of sanctuary amid a backdrop of chaos, heat, disorder. It was a beautiful, replenishing drop of dream, the very reason I even bother to sleep, and when I awoke the snows tumbled against on the Old Town roofs, and I knew that there still lurked deep within me some tiny shining golden god or goddess. The angels were looking out for me again, yes, and I had been moved, safe and away, like Benjamin Linus once moved the island. I watched the snow and thanked my angels.

howlin’ wolf

A LOT OF PEOPLE is wondering, what is the blues? I hear a lot of people saying, ‘the blues, the blues.’ But I am going to tell you what the blues is. When you ain’t got no money, you’ve got the blues. When you ain’t got no money to pay your house rent, you’ve got the blues. A lot of people holler about, ‘I don’t like no blues,’ but when you ain’t got no money, and can’t pay your house rent, and can’t buy you no food, you damn sure got the blues. If you ain’t got no money, you’ve got the blues, because you’re thinking evil. That’s right. Any time you’re thinking evil, you’ve got the blues.”

minu joala

A monument to the singer Jaak Joala (1950-2014) in Viljandi, Estonia.

IN THE SUMMER, there were two men living in the park at the corner of Posti and Koidu Streets. One of the men would keep watch while the other slept. I noticed one of the sleeping men one day and presumed him to be dead. The police were summoned to rouse the sleeping man, but he refused to budge from his bed of dirt and grass beside the hedge. At some point though, the two men disappeared from the park. I don’t know if they moved to another park in Viljandi. Possibly they left town. They were quickly replaced by two or three fellow alcoholics, who commandeered the wood bench like Serengeti vultures overtaking the branch of a dead tree. 

On occasion, I would see the trio on my way home from visiting a local drinking establishment called Romaan. On one evening, they stood beside one another urinating in the bushes. I didn’t know what to say to them, so I cried out, “Jõudu tööle,” (‘strength to work’) which is the Estonian custom for greeting strangers engaged in activities, to which they replied merrily back, “Tarvis, tarvis” (‘needed, needed’). This is what life was like in the park at the corner of Posti and Koidu Streets. Then Joala showed up.

Jaak Joala, by all accounts a handsome and beloved fellow, known for his Estonian-language covers of American and British pop songs. He was born in Viljandi 70 years ago, and some felt he deserved his own monument in town. The resulting design, which shows his head and hands protruding from a metal column, crowned by blinking, multicolor lights, infuriated locals to levels of fire and passion that were unknown to me. The Estonians are a tolerant race if there ever was one, and not one of them had ever passed judgment on the drinking men who occupied their park, a rather prime patch of real estate in the center of town, no less. Yet when presented with this monument, petitions were circulated, opinions published, fists and voices were raised. 

The people were angry.

Once again, it had taken something as innocent as a monument to lure the Estonians out of their homes and into the public arena to do combat. Famously indifferent to their own suffering and the suffering of others, they burst into a rage when a commemorative statue is not done right. I do not believe these are my prejudices in saying so. It wasn’t so long ago that a statue erected in Pärnu to those who fought the Red Army was removed to Lihula in West Estonia, remember. 

Then when the government decided to move the statue to a war museum in Lagedi, riot police had to be sent into Lihula, a small town. They were met by angry protestors throwing bottles at them. Two years later, the removal of another statue, the Bronze Soldier in Tallinn, resulted in several nights of looting and rioting, more than a thousand arrests, more than 170 injuries, and one death. Walking through the now lush and fragrant park at Tõnismägi still gives me chills.

These have been my experiences with Estonians and monuments. 

Fortunately, the installation of the Jaak Joala monument has gone a little more peacefully in Viljandi. No riot police have been called in yet, and the monument has been visited by droves of sober visitors since its unveiling. They stand and take photos, while the monument plays Joala classics like “Suvi,” (‘Summer’), which is a remake of the 1969 hit “Sugar, Sugar,” by the Archies.  It also plays “Enne ööd sõida linna,” (‘Head to town before nightfall’) which is a version of the Monkees’ “Last Train to Clarksville.” They take photos, light a candle, and then go to their homes, where they don’t hear his music.

I live right next to the statue and it is therefore always close to me. It is a strange and surreal sight. At night it glows like a UFO and one gets the sense that aliens have just landed in the park. Whenever I go to bring in firewood or to clean the ice off my car now, I am serenaded by Joala. He is singing “Besame Mucho” or “Suvi.”  I keep wondering when the practical joke will stop and they will turn the music off. It seems difficult to imagine that this will never go away. Even when I no longer live in this house, Jaak Joala will still be there in the park, singing and singing. 

I’m not sure how my neighbors feel. It is hard to imagine them opening their windows in the summer, perhaps wishing to hear the songs of the birds as they lie dreamily in their lovers’ arms, only to be constantly regaled by Jaak Joala’s ghost. Imagine every day of your life henceforth having to listen to Jaak Joala’s music, whether you like it or not? It almost seems like torture.

In fact, this is exactly how the Americans torture Islamist prisoners at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Play it once and it’s enjoyable. Play it three times, and it’s tolerable. Play it a thousand times, and you will have a mental breakdown. One might suggest that those who live adjacent to the monument find out where its makers live. Then they can pull up to their homes and loudly play old Joala hits at all hours. Just think, at 9 pm, it’s “Suvi.” At 9 am, “Suvi.” Give them a taste of their own medicine. Which is rather a sad outcome for a statue meant to commemorate someone almost universally adored, including by me. Now I almost never want to hear Joala’s music again. 

I have to remind myself that this is not really happening. It’s just something I made up. Just another surrealistic vignette in wild Viljandi. There is no glowing alien monument to the singer Joala at the corner of Koidu and Posti Streets. There are no old retro songs playing at all hours of the day. It was all just a dream, I tell you. Just a weird dream! The two men are still there living in the park as they always have. The park is vacant and silent now. All is very calm and silent.