everglades

I KNEW I WAS living in a place much like Colombia or the Everglades, a jungle setting, but I also knew someone had to take my daughter to Tallinn Airport. And then there was the problem that a business associate had buried a body under the brick terrace in the yard the night before and we were expected to dispose of the corpse on the way to the airport. I protested. “I am not driving all the way to the airport with my daughter in the car, and some sandy dead guy in the back seat!” Fair enough. My father took the child to the airport, and we stayed behind to figure out what to do with the body. This was a scary, crime-ridden area we were in, made up of shanty houses built into the sides of the jungle hills. I remember that old reggae record, “Two Sevens Clash” by Culture, was playing from a PA system somewhere. A gunfight broke out at one point between two young women who lived at the top of the hill. And a local police detective started snooping around, and inquiring about “the man in the gray shirt,” ie. me. I was wearing my gray Greenport longsleeve. So I needed to get out of there and started to fly away. Nobody believed me, that I could fly on my own, just via my powers of concentration, but I willed myself upwards, and soon enough I was floating over the Everglades and heading toward the west coast of the US, which didn’t seem so far away when I was up there in the sky. My plan was to make it to the piers in San Francisco and send a photo back to my accomplices in the jungles to show it was possible, but I only made it to San Diego and San Francisco proved elusive. I could barely make out the gleaming Transamerica Pyramid through the depressing smog of Los Angeles. So I settled for the beachfront in San Diego. I tried to find my way to the beach, but this was harder than it seemed. I went around a house, but the path led me into a thicket. The water here was ankle deep and warm, and someone had put shoes and riding helmets into the sand, to protect against erosion, I suppose. I still couldn’t make it to the ocean, though I could hear those big waves in the distance. I saw a deck, climbed up, and went into the house. This turned out to be someone’s home. Two little girls ran across the corridor, and cried, “Daddy, there’s a strange man in the house!” A man came out of the kitchen, your typical SoCal surfer type, with blond hair, muscles, etc. “Sorry,” I told him. “I got lost looking for the beach.” “No problem, dude!” the surfer man replied cheerfully in the local ‘hang ten, cowabunga’ vernacular. “It happens.” I went out into the street. It was getting evening, and the restaurants and bistros of the Gaslamp were filling up. Haze filled the avenues and I at last felt tired and didn’t know what would happen next.

a bus full of books

I HAD TO GO to Portugal to deliver some books. The address was somewhere between Porto and Povoa de Varzim. It was a seaside street, ruled by proud white castles of houses. Matteo, of all people, answered the door and we shook hands. Then someone else, another Milanese, told me I should relocate to Portugal, and that the beach was “full of people like us,” in other words Italians. I decided to drive back to Estonia though. On the other side of the street there was a canal, and some local yogis were filling it with birthday cake. Deep channels of cake, cream, different kinds of colorful toppings, so that it almost resembled a floating chocolate garden. They were hanging decorations above the canal too, in preparation for a major street festival. Still, I needed to get back to Estonia and had to determine the best route. Would it be possible to drive all day across Iberia and rest in Barcelona? And could I take some system of ferries from Amsterdam to arrive back in Tallinn? When I got to Barcelona, I parked my car and went for a walk. On one back street, I passed an aerobics class in session. I could see Charlotta stretching. “You can stay and watch me,” she mouthed to me through the glass. “I don’t mind.” As she stretched, I caught sight of her undergarments, which threw me into an aroused frenzy. There was just something about the pattern of the lace on her tan skin, the way her golden braids hung down her back. I decided to curl up right there, outside the window glass, and sit beside her as she stretched. Later, a door opened and the class exited for a break. I noticed a hand on my buttocks. I turned around and saw it was a man, a musclebound gym rat. “Stop doing that,” I said. “Stop doing what?” he answered, as if nothing was amiss. I few seconds later he groped me again. This time, I was not so kind. I grabbed him by the arm and threw him into the jamb of the door. He was knocked unconscious. I watched Charlotta and the others come out of the class. A nurse had come to tend to them and administer COVID-19 booster shots. I remained at distance, though I could see the tiny glass vials of the Pfizer vaccine piling up. I didn’t want anyone to know of my secret affection for her. An old colleague showed up and we started to talk about people we had known from the old days in New York. I told him about the bus full of books and the ride from Portugal. He asked me what book it was and I told him. He said it sounded like a very good read.

cat master

AT SOME MOMENT in the night, I heard a door slam shut. It was a loud, forceful sound, as if a person had closed it on the way out in a hurry. I thought it must be the wind, and it must be one of the corridor doors, but when I awoke, and upon scrutiny, detective work, and inspection, I discovered they were all shut tight. After the door slam, I began to hear a strange tinkling sound, almost like a xylophone imitated by a computer, but with no particular melody, just tinkling and transmitting into the air, blending with the Christmas lights of the tree. “Aliens,” I thought. “They have come to abduct me. Just like in Whitley Streiber’s Communion!” Instead, a shadowy, four-legged creature prowled out of the darkness into view. It was Kurru the Cat. Once before, I had a strange experience with Kurru, when, half asleep, I heard someone whisper, “Look over here, look at me over here,” and awoke and turned my head in the direction of the whispers to see Kurru eyeing me from a chair and licking her fur. It was 3 or 4 am. Again it was 3 or 4 am when Kurru arrived to the sound of the strange tinkling electronic xylophone music. I stared at her for a while and she stopped and stared at me. This was highly irregular, as Kurru seldom allows me to even pet her and only shows me any notice when she wants to go out or needs food. Yet there she was, staring at me through the dark. “Is this strange sound your cat language?” I thought. “Is this what the cats hear when they talk to each other?” Kurru just watched me. It wasn’t as if an animal was watching me. It was as if a fully embodied, advanced entity had taken notice of my awareness of its existence. Then I turned over in my blanket and I heard Kurru’s paws shuffle into my daughter’s room and next I heard her jump up onto the bed, where she usually sleeps most nights. She made herself a nest, licked her paws a few times, and soon was asleep too. I got the sense that we belonged more to her than she belonged to us. The roles were reversed. We had been her pets all along. Kurru the Cat was master.

telliskivi can-can

STANDING IN LINE in Telliskivi, waiting to enter a French-themed can-can bar behind an older lady with short gray hair parted on the side, and spectacles, like an aged Frau Farbissina from the Austin Powers franchise. At the desk they requested her recovery, vaccination, and booster codes, and she was lacking one, fumbling through her purse, speaking in broken English, so they sent her away. When it was my turn, I spoke to them in Estonian, but the security guard, a husky type with a handlebar mustache, informed me that he had no knowledge of that language. Then an older man came out of the establishment and addressed him in German so perfect, I later marveled that my mind could reproduce the German language in such a believable way. He was trailed by a French-speaking couple. Same story. There were some Estonians working the front desk, but they gave me that dreadful Soviet legacy service, just shrugged their shoulders and blinked and did nothing. “Not my problem.” I left the can-can bar and went somewhere else. I didn’t have three passes anyway. Persona non grata, that’s what I was. No can-can for me. Not this time.

egede and the inuit

EGEDE SAILED FOR Greenland in his ship Haabet out of Bergen, Denmark-Norway, with his wife, children, and 40 nervy colonists in May 1721, and they were trapped in the ice in late June, from which they were spared death by only prayers and providence. The pastor was convinced that there still existed Norse on these shores who were still Catholic and had not yet been converted to Lutheranism, a great tragedy. After landing at Nuup Kangerlua, this crew settled at Hope Island, then later began to explore the Inuit settlements in search of their kinsmen, whom the Inuit knew of and called kablunak in their own polysynthetic tongue. The Inuit had not yet accepted Christianity, and instead still placed their faith in spirits, charmed amulets, and shamans. Egede tried to convert them to Christ, but his vocabulary was lacking. “Give us this day our daily bread” meant nothing to the Inuit, who had neither bread, nor grains. In his journal, Egede called the Inuit’s faith “monkey games.” He sojourned on, finding the remains of the ancient settlements at Vestribygð and Eystribygð. The Inuit in short time did take to Egede’s brandy, which they believed healed diseases and all wounds. The Inuit also believed brandy helped women in childbirth. And so a new generation of Inuit arose, one succored on Egede’s 18th century sweet and healthy Norwegian spirits.

time in the country

SOME TIME in the countryside. The big difference between the town and the country is the isolation. I’m used to hearing people, seeing people, taking note of people, and this, believe it or not, gives one a feeling of security. Even if I am accosted on a town street by a troubled person, there are multiple eyewitnesses, which reduces the likelihood of something getting out of hand or control. But when you wake up in the countryside at 4 am or so, and look out those windows into the black, and see nothing except the movement of some cat, or maybe the gray light of the moon filtering through the gauzy wisps of the clouds, every horror movie you’ve ever watched starts to replay in succession. In the Estonian countryside, I am afraid less of monsters and more of the drunks and other disturbed and indigent wild people. Of course, the real predators out there are the foxes and even the wolves. The last time I was here, I saw a very large deer jaunt across the road, and yesterday I saw some local hunters in their orange vests. My reference point is still the United States. Estonia is like Maine, I think, minus the mountains. It really is. I would like to go into the woods later just for a stroll, but I do worry about those hunters. I don’t want to be mistaken for a moose. I think they only hunt controlled areas. I hope so. Yesterday, I had an Italian moment. I was feeding the dog, as we had some leftovers. Without knowing I started saying, “Hai fame? Vuoi qualcosa da mangiare? Guarda, qui.” The dog speaks Estonian, and was acquired from Russia, so probably also knows a little bit of Russian, but it blinked at me with blue eyes. A very strange character indeed.

slieve bloom

AT THAT TIME, the Gaeltacht was shrinking, but the west of central Ireland still spoke Irish. Particularly the misted foothills and peaks of the ancient Slieve Bloom Mountains, which run through Laois and Offaly, and are among the oldest mountain ranges in Europe today, remained an Irish-speaking stronghold. This was an area once controlled by the O’Moores, but the English in Dublin did not feel comfortable with Irish rule in central Ireland, so they set up forts and plantations, and brought in English and Scottish settlers to pacify the local Irish. This was back in the 16th century. Then the O’Moores and their allies, the O’Connors, sheltered in the shadows of the Slieve Bloom, from which they led attacks on the forts and raided the settlements. They fell on the planters at night and in the morning nothing more remained of their dwellings but charred wood and smoke. A lengthy period of reprisals followed, a season of revenge killing and blood feuds. This happened centuries before the birth of Margaret Delaney and her daughter Catherine Collier in Laois. Delaney is an Irish name that originally was Ó Dubhshláine. This was a local sept. According to one source, peace was at last achieved by the year 1600, and the O’Delaneys and other families were given pardons and allowed to remain in the county. They did until the 1850s, when Margaret and Catherine left Ireland behind forever. They were Famine Irish. Margaret was the mother of Catherine and Catherine was the mother of Mary. Mary was the mother of Genevieve and Genevieve was the mother of Annabelle, who was my grandmother. So it goes back, hand over hand, chain hooked into chain, for hundreds or even thousands of years.

folkie otters, ringo starr, and england before brexit

THE NEWSPAPER POSTIMEES recently asked me for Christmas movie recommendations, in light of the recent publication of my new book Jõulumees (“Santa Claus”). I sent them the following:

  1. A Hard Day’s Night. There was a time, almost two decades ago, when Kalamaja was an apocalyptic ghetto neighborhood behind the Baltic Station, when I lived in a small apartment, munched on gingerbread from Säästumarket, and watched little Estonian children sing “Jõuluingel” in a singing competition. That Christmas long ago, for some strange reason, ETV broadcast The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night. Yes, really. Now, I know what you are thinking. A Hard Day’s Night doesn’t have anything to do with Christmas. Nothing. There is no shot of John, Paul, George, and Ringo decorating the tree or singing Christmas carols. If anything, the next Beatles movie, Help! is more like Christmas. This is the Beatles movie where they hide away in the Alps and can be seen sledding and skiing. But they that snowy evening they showed A Hard Day’s Night. And forever more, I shall associate gingerbreads, glögi, and verivorst with shots of Ringo Starr wandering aimlessly around the city in his trench coat. So, to be honest, A Hard Day’s Night is a holiday favorite. 
  2. Then there is Love Actually, which I don’t mind at all, because it’s like having all my favorite Brits over for Christmas. I mean, if Hugh Grant, Colin Firth, Emma Thompson, Rowan Atkinson, Keira Knightley, and the late Alan Rickman all turned up at your house for Christmas, wouldn’t you let them in? I think a lot of you would prefer their company to your own families. There is nostalgia in this film too. Long before COVID-19, long before Boris Johnson, long before Brexit, there was Love Actually, a fictional Britain where Hugh Grant was prime minister. Unfortunately, this never happened, but each Christmas we can imagine what could have been.
  3. There are a lot of American Christmas classics going back to It’s a Wonderful Life from 1946. My father loves It’s a Wonderful Life, and one Christmas set a record when he watched it about 25 times. He knows every word. None of these classic Christmas films are my favorite though. I much prefer Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer from 1964 and A Charlie Brown Christmas from 1965. These are the movies that I saw year after year as a child. A Charlie Brown Christmas has an excellent soundtrack by Vince Guaraldi Trio that one can even hear played in Estonia today in shopping centers.
  4. There are also quite a few Estonian Christmas movies out there, and the one that comes to mind is Eia Jõulud Tondikakul, which touches on all the popular domestic themes, workaholic parents, mixed families, gingerbread, the healing properties of nature, and bad guys who want to destroy the forest. It’s also nice to see a movie about Estonia with a happy ending.
  5. I actually do have one more favorite Christmas movie. It’s called Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas and originally aired as a TV special in 1977. Emmet was an otter living in a poor rural community and his mother was a wash woman, who washed people’s clothes in her washtub for money. Then Emmet borrowed her washtub to make a washtub bass, an essential part of any proper jug band. He formed a group and they took part in a music competition. I think people from this part of the world would appreciate this movie. There is something about a bunch of forest animals forming a folk band that reminds me of the groups that play at the Pärimusmuusika Ait here in Viljandi.

So, whenever I hear otters playing folk music, I know it’s time for plenty of gingerbread and to remind myself: it’s Christmas time again, and all will be well in the world, just like in the old days.

sadness

MY GRANDMOTHER DIED ON SUNDAY. She was almost 97 years old. I have some memories of her. She was my mother’s mother, and I remember once at a family party introducing her to my father’s father (who was married to my father’s mother) and saying, “Why don’t you two get together!” I was probably five years old. My grandfather and grandmother rather awkwardly dismissed this idea. My grandmother’s husband had died long before I was born. I also remember staying with her as a child a few times. She would wake up so early, at 5 am, to a radio alarm clock, and make coffee. She would read the paper. She asked me if I wanted my pancakes early in the morning or later. I remember she had loose skin, the skin of an older lady, and asking how it got so loose, and she explained how it would happen to me too when I got older. Then Mr. Snuffleupagus the gray cat would come in for food. “Snuffy.” Snuffy had been fighting with some other cats, or had eaten a bird. I can’t remember that part, only that Snuffy seemed like a very tough, self-reliant cat. I also remember Grandma’s hands deep in that stuff they call “hard sauce” at holidays. This was some mixture of sugar, butter, cream, and whiskey. An Irish family staple. Nothing like being a six year old and loading up on some minced meat pie and a few spoons of hard sauce. I was probably a little tipsy before I even understood the meaning of the word. I remember all of that religious artwork around the house. There was an angel doll in a glass case, and some very ancient looking paintings on the wall. I remember that when John Paul II at last died, and Benedict was selected, Benedict’s portrait promptly arrived on the wall in the kitchen, and then when he abdicated, Pope Francis’s portrait was just as swiftly there in Benedict’s old spot. Grandma actually knew a lot about religious history and various Catholic societies, the Josephites, Jesuits, Franciscans. I remember showing her an image of the Black Madonna that I had taken in an Italian church, and her explaining to me the significance of the artwork, and also after watching Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves her discussing the Crusades with me. I also remember a few stories about her childhood in the 1920s and 1930s. In case you were wondering, it wasn’t some happy wonderland of glowing memories. Actually, it seemed a rather drab and somber period to be a child. “The Great Depression.” I remember her telling me about how she used to go ice skating in Queens, and how another little girl was abducted by some kind of pervert who frequented the rink. New York in the 1930s could be a downtrodden, gloomy place. She had four brothers and two older half brothers and her mother was annoyed with her when she was a teenager, because she liked to wear trousers (she called them “slacks”) and not dresses. She was actually very tight-lipped about the past though and about herself. She did like to talk about her grandfather, Dr. Michael T. Carroll, a physician in Manhattan in the 19th century, and her great grandmother, Catherine Murray, who ran a cotton brokerage on Water Street and did business as “CE Murray” to disguise her gender in a male-run world. Grandma traveled a lot later on and went to Italy and to Ireland. I remember she brought me back a piece of peat from a bog in Ireland. It was the greatest gift anyone had ever given me. Imagine that, a tiny piece of Ireland in a little plastic bag. I still have it somewhere. Years later, when I was in Dublin, I was researching the family history at the archives and looking for a roll of microfiche from a parish in Laois where her great grandmother’s family, the Colliers, were from. It so happened that that roll disappeared from the library on the very day that I had arrived. They searched everywhere, and it seemed that someone had pocketed it that same morning when they had ordered it from the archive. So many times when I started researching that line of my family, microfiche would disappear, computers would shut down, notes would be lost. It was very strange and I came to accept that our Irish ancestors just didn’t want to be found. I told Grandma about that story the same day. I called her from a phone in the hotel corridor in Dublin and we had a laugh. “You’ll never guess where I am.” She told me how she had a similar experience at the library, and how she had done more or less the same thing and never told me. She had been working with a librarian to find books about her mother’s family, the Carrolls, and only found herself deeper and deeper in information she couldn’t make sense of. Grandma had a funny sense of humor, and as I got older, it seemed like that was one place where we could overlap and enjoy each other’s company. She was an extremely devout Catholic and sometimes wore a Celtic cross on her neck. For the rest of my days, whenever I see the round Celtic cross, gold and ornamented like in the Book of Kells, I will think of her.

gaudete sunday

THEN HE TOLD HIMSELF, that he was allowed to live his own life, and no longer worry about love, or achievements, or about the future, or what was right, and what was what and who was who. He allowed chaos into his life and stopped trying to control things. You can’t try to control life, no matter how hard you try to engineer it. Life can never be perfect, because a perfect life is just that: a life. From then on, he communicated freely with whomever he pleased, and did also whatever he pleased, freely and fluently, without any forms of worry, suspicion, despair, hang ups, ulterior motives, or second thoughts. When he wanted to lie with someone, then he lied with her, and when he wanted to be alone, then he was alone and he enjoyed it. It was Gaudete Sunday then, the third Sunday of Advent, also known as the Sunday of Joy. That was when he received the message.