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