the road to a folk hangover

THURSDAY IS THE first day of the Viljandi Folk Music Festival. I have decided to do this year’s festival sober, which may explain my melancholic mood. Also the rain, which sends me and my youngest daughter to seek refuge beneath some trees, only makes things less joyful. The rain is heavy and floods the streets, soaking the kebabs and donuts. I bailed on the opening ceremony because of the rain. Of course, the Folk people are starting to trickle into town. You can spend all year in Viljandi and never see these people, but then suddenly they are back and swarming in. Where do they go for the rest of the year? Maybe they sleep in the hills behind the castle ruins? When people do come, you look at them. I think lingering eye contact is the currency of Folk. Somehow a look is more meaningful than any words. What does that look mean? Sometimes different things. It can mean I like you, or think that you are beautiful. But it can also mean that I don’t want to have anything to do with you, leave me alone. Sometimes people just look familiar though. “Don’t I know you from somewhere?” Maybe that is what all these looks mean. I have learned to trust people’s looks. They are meaningful moments, moments that linger and haunt you, even while the accordions are blaring and the Cubans are performing. I wonder how many stories start with just a look in a crowd at a music festival.

The highlight of Thursday night is inarguably the Korean ensemble, whose name nobody can say, even though they have a special language lesson in the middle of the concert. (They are actually called “Ak Dan Gwang Chil“). They have great costumes and I can make no sense of the structure of their songs or melodies. I cannot name most of the instruments they are playing. This is exactly how the best music must be, challenging. I am surprised by the turnout for the Koreans, even on a Thursday night. I can only guess that pandemic-era restrictions have increased people’s appetites for live music. Afterward, I head to Romaan to hear Gilly Jones and the Evocations playing in the new in the back. Gilly Jones is from Ghana and leads a band of the “cream of rhythm players” in Estonia. They play afrobeat and highlife music. Even I have to dance to this music. The best dancer is of course Pepi, who manages this creative space. He is from Argentina and has the moves. I am studying Pepi to improve my dancing. The night ends in Joala Park, drinking wine from a plastic bottle with DJ Jaanika and Inxu. Inxu is a vivacious and sharp young woman who is giving an impromptu lecture about US domestic politics. A few young men are seated across from us. One of them is especially proud that he is seated on the spot, more or less, where the Joala Monument was. “And it was located right here where I am sitting,” he says.

AT ABOUT 7 PM on Friday night, Marko Veisson from Puuluup undertakes a stage dive. It is in the middle of their set on the Second Cherry Hill, or II Kirsimägi, and happens while the duo is performing “Roosad suusad,” “pink skis,” which is a song about pink skis. The dive is a success and the crowd is pleased by Puuluup’s performance. The band’s reggae-inflected repertoire is stunningly ridiculous. Even old people like Puuluup’s music. Especially old people. The show ends with applause, unanimous cheers, joy, whistling, and this “three, four, good band” cheer. 

At 8.30 pm, there is a young man in a kimono grooving to the guitar licks of a Malian performer called Samba Touré on Kaevumägi. Three kids in Pokemon hats walk by and I see them again at the Hempress Sativa concert, which is pure Jamaican reggae, along with some speeches about the sacrament of marijuana. There is a funny mood. In general, the music on Friday night is good and satisfying like that. By 11.30 though, I walk by a teenager who is leaning against a tent and watching Geneza, a Ukrainian band, play rock music in Freedom Square. There is something about the blank look on his face opposite a rock band that speaks to the exhaustion of Folk. Even the young get tired. I can’t tell if he is burned out or sleepy, but fatigue has set in. It’s the bagpipe music. I think. It gets to you. But how much bagpipe music can you hear? How many dances can you dance? How many old friends can you greet?

Of course, there are the real Friday night stories. The real thoughts you think while you are wandering around at the festival. The real feelings you feel when you see certain people you know. The memories you have. The ones that you can’t forget. The people you have lost in the crowd. The impossibility of dreaming of anything, and yet the bravery to still be hopeful in life, if only because you have no other choice than to be hopeful. There are secrets you can never tell. Even on your most honest and forthcoming day, you can never tell the complete truth.

SATURDAY DAWNS the same way that every Folk Saturday dawns, with flies tickling your nose. You walk to the café, any café, to get some coffee. Strangers emerge from tents, cars, and apartments, wearing those little quasi-religious “Folk hats.” One wonders about the true lives of these devotees. Maybe they lead a humdrum existence in Tallinn border towns like Jüri, working as accountants, pushing along in drudgery through the year. Now and then they spot the Folk hat in the back of the closet and sigh to themselves, knowing it will be maybe half a year until the next festival. 

The peak of Folk, I think, is the slow Saturday afternoon before the bigger crowds show up. This is when you can take time to eat with your kids, sit around and reflect. You hear church bells chime, the creak of the hammocks tied between the trees. You have time to sit and think. Teenage fry cooks struggle to fill all of the orders for fries. And sometimes people forget their orders. “Maarja” has apparently disappeared to see Polenta, a Finnish group. The cooks keep calling for “Maarja” to pick up her fries, but “Maarja” never comes to claim them.

At 8 pm on the First Cherry Hill, Black Bread Gone Mad takes the stage. This is one of my favorite local bands. During the encore, bassist Mati Tubli asks people to sing along, but the lyrics to their songs go, “u-ja-ei-u-ja-ei-u-ja-ei,” or something like that, and then the next one is “ayibobo.” Okay then. After that, Zetod storms the Second Cherry Hill and the crowds are stricken. Much longer after that, I decide to see Untsakad which, believe it or not, I have never seen. There is a long table behind these Untsakad fellows — it is their 30th birthday celebration — and notable musicians like Ruslan Trochynskyi and Brad Jurjens are at the table. It reminds me a bit of King Arthur’s Roundtable, with Sir Galahad and Percival. I confess, I am jealous. Who wouldn’t want a seat at the Untsakad’s table? The music is Estonian traditional song, but I am surprised by the numbers of young people who are dancing boldly to tunes like “Metsavendade Laul,” a song about postwar guerrilla fighters. This year it is especially relevant.

ON SUNDAY AFTERNOON, Imar Kutšukali, a Dutch adventurer and part-time folk musician, informs me in the yard of the Green House Café that he understands most of Untsakad’s lyrics. This is perhaps the highest level of Estonian comprehension you can have. The next level is understanding what drunk men mumble to you outside the bottle returns and trash bins. Imar is wearing a cowboy hat he picked up in Louisiana, and plucking at a friend’s mandolin, then switching to his own fiddle. Kutšukali is so embedded in Estonian Folk culture, he can name the members of Untsakad. Later, I drag my acoustic bass guitar out of my house, making sure to wipe the dust off it, and dive into a jam session with some other musicians. Folk music operates according to other rules. It has a repetitive, spiraling quality, almost like a cyclone, and it can billow up high or swirl down deep. Providing the bottom end is a challenge, what to play, what not to play, but it seems my fellow musicians welcome my contribution. We even joke about forming a band. Later, at another concert, I run into Ramo Teder from Puuluup who informs me that he also wanted to stage dive during the performance of “Pink Skis,” but there weren’t enough strong men in the audience to support both him and Marko. Maybe next year.

The evening ends in the company of Silver Sepp and Kristiina Ehin, who cannot walk a few paces without meeting old or new friends. Talking with both of them is a challenge, but Silver more so. We just can never manage to have a straightforward, average conversation. It can only go from absurd to more ridiculous. Dancing is easier with this cultural power couple. Kristiina is a sensitive dance partner, and Silver slips me some pepper vodka during VLÜ’s set, most of which I spend dancing frantically with a Swiss psychiatrist. By midnight, people decide to move to the upper floors of the Ait. Within this confined space, there are constricted dances, and there is some kind of guitar, fiddle, accordion jam. I had promised myself this would be a sober Folk, but it is proving once again to be impossible. Kutšukali is seated with Ando Kiviberg. They are drinking cognac and I pour myself a big glass. Veisson is there too. I am asking him if women are constantly trying to seduce him on account of his fame. Veisson assures me that this is not the case, but I am doubtful. A guitarist named August is seated with Lee Taul, and they offer me wine. I inform Ms. Taul that I’ve had too much to drink and am perhaps enjoying myself too much this year. She responds that you’re actually supposed to enjoy yourself at Folk. “Come on, it’s a party,” she says. “You’re supposed to have a good time.”

An Estonian version of this article appears in the 3 August 2022 edition of the newspaper Sakala.

elementary, my dear watson

YESTERDAY, I RECOUNTED to a friend the story of how I once tried opium, but by accident. No one ever believes me when I tell this story. They like to think that a person knows exactly what drugs they take and when, and how, and their provenance, but in my case, it really just happened. I was a senior in college then, and had just returned from a study abroad program in Europe to Washington, which is where I was studying journalism. I had gone to call on my friend Seán who was renting an apartment up on O Street, across from a boisterous gay nightclub. There were many quarrels outside the nightclub, and at night we could hear lovers fighting in the alleyways. There was pure torment down there. It was interesting to walk through that neighborhood if you were not gay, because you might notice some old man looking at you a little too long while he took his dog out for a walk. A funny little district.

Seán lived up on the third floor. He was one of these drug people, people who knew of and experimented with drugs. I was never a drug person per se, but, for whatever reason, I have always had one or two of these characters floating around nearby, hovering in the near distance, the kind of cat who will lecture authoritatively on the effects of indica versus sativa. Even in high school, I had another friend, Beaver, who used to roar up in his car and whisk me away to some field on the edge of town where he would set up his howitzer-like water pipe and implore me to try it. My college friend Seán was one of these experimenters and lifestyle artists, but he also was and is in his bones an Irish intellectual. His walls were lined with the books of Joyce and Yeats. Whether sober or not, he could engage you at the highest levels on the political conditions in Ireland and the history of Ireland. Seán also had a habit of attracting strange characters, like me I suppose. After my time in Europe, I had taken to walking around with a “Learn to Speak Danish” cassette and could be seen strolling up and down the avenues of Washington repeating back Danish phrases out loud. Many of his other friends though were of another sordid sort and I didn’t even know their real names. These kids only had nicknames. One was called Scooby.

It was February then and they were watching the Olympics in Salt Lake City. This was the year that Veerpalu won the gold and Mae took home the bronze. Estonia was not at all on my radar then, even almost exactly a year to the day I would be moving into a Khrushchevka in Tallinn. The hash pipe came around the room, and Scooby handed it to me. The first thing that struck me was its odd metallic taste. But there were other factors at play. A cannabis high is different from an opium high. A cannabis high will surprise you a bit, because even if it is strong, you won’t recognize it at first, unless you are a connoisseur, a pure play drug person. You can watch skiing on TV all day long with a cannabis high, and not miss anything. This was different. I was overwhelmed by a kind of gray melancholic sleep, a complete withdrawal of desire. I was on the couch but could not move. There was a glass nearby, but I could not bear to reach for it. I tried to move my hand, but I couldn’t make it move. “Hey, this hash is strong,” I remember saying to Seán as he watched the men ski on TV. My own words sounded faraway, as if not my own. Seán looked up at me through his glasses and raised his red eyebrows with his Irish intellectual eyes twinkling and said. “It’s not hash, man. It’s opium.” Opium? The kind of opium that started wars in China in the 19th century? The kind of opium that Watson caught Sherlock Holmes smoking in an East London den? That kind of opium? Seán nodded. Then the pipe went back around the room.

In a puff of smoke, I had become one of them, the lotus-eaters, dreaming my winter blues away in peaceful apathy. It was a drug that took away not just your pain but everything else. It wasn’t my thing. I preferred psychotropics, something that might help me see things in a new and refreshing light. I believed in a psychedelic world, a world of color and permeable meaning. I am not sure how that day ended, but perhaps with me walking home, listening to my “Learn to Speak Danish” cassette and muttering to myself. Now that such experiences are decades in the past, I have to wonder what I was even doing there, how I walked into that scene, how I wound up smoking opium by accident. It seems like a lifetime ago, and my experiences are back there, in the distant past. Those kinds of characters are still floating around me though. They always are. When you are a writer, you make a habit of surrounding yourself with such people and experiences. I just didn’t know that I was a writer back then.


IT WAS SUMMER and splendidly hot. The white tower of the town hall looked like one of those old colonial administrative buildings in the Danish West Indies. If you’ve ever heard that old Muddy Waters tune, “Good Morning Little School Girl,” then you have heard this story. But I actually didn’t know she was a school girl, I swear. I thought she looked interesting. In retrospect, the skirt should have tipped me off. It looked like it had been stitched together from old curtains. And then the worn red blouse, the messy blonde hair. She was not one of those bank clerks. She was holding something in her hands too, bearing it in front of her, but whatever it was, I couldn’t see. I decided to follow her but to keep my distance, as if I just happened to be headed in the same direction. If she looked back, I could inspect a hedge, or stroke the little dog of a passerby. Pretend to be a legitimate pedestrian. She walked through the park and then down Hollow Street. At one of the old houses, she paused to chat with a young man who was sipping his coffee in the doorway. She laughed at his joke. Then she came up Trench Street and arrived to the intersection with the main road. It was here that I caught up to her. I felt guilty for following her. I should have just glanced her and let her go. Yet she waited for me there. It was as if she had known I had been following her. We stood there and she looked forward and then turned and cleared her throat, but said nothing. Instead, she showed me what was in her hands. A small container enclosing a honeycomb. “Would you like some of my honey?” the girl asked. She had such a pleasant air, and I said, “Of course, I’ll have some of your honey.” She smiled at me and pulled a dripping hunk from the container and handed it over. She took a separate chunk and slipped it in her mouth. “It is good, isn’t it?” said the girl. A touch of golden honey was on her lips. From the crest of the hill looking down the road, I could see the lake in the distance. I could see the beach and the pines. “It is,” I said. The youth said nothing and we crossed the street. The wind blew and toyed with her sunshine hair. It was that kind of day. Disarming. Innocent. Bluesy. Honeysweet.

tüütumaa park

I HAD TO GO to the airport to pick up a daughter flying in from Brussels (and there was panic about whether or not she was even on the plane). While at the gate, I was pacing in worry when she called out to me, “Dad. Dad! I’m right over here. God, what an idiot.” Then we had to go back home. All of Europe was arrayed in Scandinavian-style apartment blocks. You know those big yellow brick buildings you see in Stockholm, or Copenhagen especially. “Estonia” was merely at the end of one particularly long boulevard. It was dark and it was raining. When I got home, my woman friend was gone. She had come to see me but I had to leave her alone to attend to my family needs. Apparently, she didn’t have the patience to spend all day, leafing through old magazines. She had worn a special dress for me, but where was I? At the airport? She didn’t even bother to say goodbye. Not even a message. When I inquired after my female guest my other daughter said, “You mean the one with the breast implants?” “Breast implants? I thought they were real. When did she get breast implants?” I was not convinced about the fake breasts. But I also didn’t want to ask. They were fine, firm, very believable breasts anyway. Organic. I understood then that my other daughter was just trying to downgrade her in my mind. It was all about attention, you see. These daughters of mine, they wanted my attention. Another female interloper was just a drag on the attention stock. She needed to be pushed out of the picture. They sure were crafty. The next morning I had to go out with Morris for a meeting at a startup company on the other side of town. It was somehow impossible to get to this place on foot. I looked at the map. It said it was located in “Tüütumaa Park.” The river flowed straight toward the park, and we decided to commandeer a small vessel. It was this ramshackle wooden thing, leaking, but still seaworthy. The waterways were full of great sea lions, walruses, elephant seals. They floated by, big furry masses of dopey fish-feeding mammals. “There must be sharks in these waters,” I told Morris. “Where there are seals, there are sharks. I don’t like it one bit.” The water was incredibly clear, but I saw no great whites or hammerheads. They had to be down there somewhere. It was just so troublesome to get all the way down to Tüütumaa. Why were we even going? To visit another software company? Excuse me, ICT. Who cared anymore anyways? I really hoped that they had a food court down there. Maybe a coffee house that roasted its own beans. Something to make the trip worthwhile.

in search of chief ted

AND THEN ONE MORNING, I went out for a walk in Setauket. Setauket is, or was, a tiny Anglo settlement. The original European inhabitants were Puritans from New England. They arrived by boat, and traded with the local Algonquians, who were recorded in history as the Setalcott (which might hint at the original pronunciation of the name). Old timers like Ted Green and Sherman Mills used to say SEE-tauket, but newer arrivals call it Set-AUK-et. Hence, the famed Se-Port Deli.

I looked for Chief Ted’s grave at Laurel Hill, but couldn’t find it, but I found some other Greens, Harts, and Sells. I had never gone into the cemetery itself, which is an old Setalcott burial ground, and seems somehow off-limits to outsiders, but I was surprised by how lush and leafy the whole place was. There used to be an old house at the end of Locust Avenue terminating in Christian Avenue that belonged to this enclave of the original people, but it’s long gone, and has been replaced with some standard suburban structure, of zero cultural value. There used to be a kid who lived up that hill named Reggie, but I can’t recall what his last name was. I just remember him walking up that hill when our bus dropped him off. Maybe Chief Ted’s nephew?

Chief Ted told me that when he was a kid in the 1930s, the Klan was active on Long Island. Men in white sheets would come through the forests at night to terrorize the people of color. There used to be a series of houses over at the intersection of Old Town Road and Main Street called Chicken Hill, and a pub nearby. Chief Ted told me that the owner of the pub took out life insurance policies on all of his Afro-Indian clients, so that each time one of them croaked after a lifetime of drinking his alcohol, he earned a little money too. Sharp fella. In the Setauket of the ’30s, Chief Ted would walk with the other children into Port Jefferson to buy ice cream at Grandma’s and walk back. I remember going to Grandma’s when I was a kid. I think we had my seventh birthday there. It’s long gone now. Port Jefferson of old.

I gave up on looking for Chief Ted and turned left onto Lake Street. The original settlement of Setauket was built around this now stagnant green inlet. The land where my parents live up the hill was undeveloped into the 1970s. Some of these houses are built in the traditional saltbox fashion that is common throughout New England. Up the hill and down Old Field Road, you find more wannabe colonial mansions. These are hidden behind hedges and gates, and there are no people. It is a peculiar feeling to walk all the way down Old Field Road, and then down Mount Grey Road, and then turn onto West Meadow Road, heading for the beach, engulfed in shady affluence, and still see no people. Now and then you can hear them, children’s voices in a distant garden, but other than a passing car, it is silent.

There are certain roads, like the one that leads out to Flax Pond and Crane Neck, that are framed by stone posts and look like the entry ways to a Mexican caudillo’s hacienda. One might expect armed guards in camouflage to arrest any intruder. It is more Gatsby than Escobar here, but it begs the question, what is the real difference between Gatsby and Escobar? Skin tone? Language? Gatsby wasn’t a killer, but he was dealing in moonshine. Pablo was selling cocaine. At some level, big money is just big money, whether you made it legally or not. The desire of big money is to isolate itself, to insulate itself, to hide itself away from the world. A person of means does not socialize with the common man. He hides himself away down a long drive, vacations to an exclusive island, cherry picks visitors. Old Field felt so silent and lifeless and I recalled dramatic teenage mornings, roaming around these same vacant streets listening to the Paul Butterfield Blues Band singing “Walking Blues.”

At West Meadow, I decided to go for broke and make it to the Gamecock Cottage and the heralded “Porpoise Channel” of Johnny Remorse. I kept looking around for the Krip Keepas, but there was none in sight. Not even Matty D. Where could he be? Still running from the Suffolk County PD? Instead I filled up my cup at the artesian well in the middle of the wetlands reserve at the Erwin Ernst Marine Conservation Center. There was an older man there who told me he had been getting water there for 40 years, and that I should be grateful and thank Mother Earth. I thanked her and went on my way.

Along the road back, I overheard some Italians, identifiable by their use of the words “qui” (here) and “la” (there). I managed to fake my way through some dialogue. They were from Napoli, Naples, and I told them I was Barese, from Bari, which in some remote way I am. “Ah,” the Neapolitan said. “We are over here and you are over there” (the cities are on opposite sides of the Italian peninsula). Next I passed two women who I think were speaking Czech or Polish. Some western Slavic language. And then there was a Chinese couple out on skates. Funny, I came all the way to Setauket on Long Island, ancient hamlet of Puritan settlers, and yet nobody is speaking English here, I thought.

I’m not even speaking English.

‘and she was wearing blue’

ESTONIA. How did I wind up here? Oh, that’s right, I met some girl. How many men are sitting in cafes this morning pondering the same thing? There they are, getting to the cafe as it opens in Istanbul or Tashkent or Saigon, ordering up an espresso, which is the preferred no-frills drink of the life-lived man, conjuring up memory, wistfully, dreamily, merrily, ‘Ah, yes, that’s how I wound up here, and she was wearing blue!’ I tell you though, those Finnish airport workers are sweethearts. Each time a Finnish woman wishes you moikka or kiitti, you melt. They are the firm rye crust. I am the rice being baked into the Karelian pie, melting, as I said, with every kiitti and moikka. I am not sure what it is, perhaps it’s that sisu they keep speaking of, the unknown Finnic element, a melange of grit, no nonsense, and vital essence. Here I am reminded of Jack Kerouac in The Subterraneans, “I am crudely malely sexual and cannot help myself and have lecherous and so on propensities as almost all my male readers no doubt are the same.” Nonii. Or maybe it’s just been hanging around preteen girls who keep confessing to me that they are in love with the actor who plays Draco Malfoy. They have all awakened my inner youth, the one who has been suppressed, kept down, imprisoned, chained, forgotten, beaten to the curb, beaten back. The heart, the soul, they yearn to sing, to fly, volare, but the weary humdrum clock of the world keeps them down, hidden away in the back of the drawer in the desk in the garage, like my grandfather’s bottle of scotch, which you only take out once in a while to sip on while musing over old photographs. “And she was wearing blue!” This morning I related some American idioms to a friend here. Or rather New York idioms. America is a big country, spread across many time zones, encompassing north of 320 million people. But in New York you hear expressions like, “How much does he make?” (Make as in money, not as in chocolate. Nobody asks how much chocolate a chocolatier makes in New York. They ask about how much money he earns from his craft). Another gem is, “I bet he’s really raking it in.” This is as if there was money scattered across the lawn after a storm and the New Yorker has to go out and use some landscaping tools to capture it all. Those greenbacks are like leaves, you see. You need to rake them in (I gesture with my hands to my friend, as if I am actually raking money). In Estonia, people talk about work. There is even this expression, mul läheb töiselt, which means something like, “It’s going industriously.” Estonians feel proud of this, if they are pulling out their hair and working first to last light and, especially, if they are not getting paid for it. They just work because … well, just because. They rake leaves, not money, and nobody even asked them to! In New York, the ideal is that you check on your investments from your phone on your yacht and then go and get some lobster or something. You barely lift a finger. In Estonia, you rake all day and then you die penniless of heatstroke and exhaustion, but at least you die happily, not because you got some money for it, but because töö sai tehtud, the work got done, and your heart is thus at peace, su süda on rahul. Not always, no. Not always always. Not everyone is like that, always, but sometimes they are. Sometimes.

weed world

WEED, WEED, tufts of weed. Rolling through the streets, gathering dust like in the Old West. Wyatt Earp’s weed. Doc Holiday’s ganja. The holy sacrament of Jah! Ever living, ever fearful. Bat Masterson’s dank nuggets. Wild Bill Hickok’s satchel of chronic. The fragrant stink of green. It arrives, a plenitude of stenches. It stings, it hits high and sweet and then low and pungent, heavy, somehow melancholic and sad too. It floats over the heads of Texan tourists through Times Square, hugs the indigent people with tattoos who are laughing at their own jokes, and hovers over the local New Yorkers out for a jog, and the business ladies with their manicures at the corner table on East 81st Street. On 31 March 2021, cannabis was decriminalized in New York, and its potent winds wind across avenues, down side streets, up museum steps, down kitchen basements, linger about in taxis, chase kids into 99 cent pizza parlors. The weed wraps around the shanty tents promising immediate COVID-19 testing, even same day PCR. It’s different from the New York I left behind many years ago. New York smells different nowadays.

The trains rattle in, shake along, dive under the East River. They are worn and rusty, and there is no free wireless internet. New York is not about giving things away for free. New York is about charging you two times as much, if not three, and making you feel like you somehow got a good deal, because someone else is charging ten times as much. It is worth remarking that every piece of Manhattan island has been made over and remade, sculpted, hollowed out, reconstructed, and that even the wilds of Central Park were cultivated out of earth that was moved from elsewhere to make way for an elevated train. Once upon a time, this beatific isle was unspoiled nature. There were no property rights, nor air rights. You must take a moment to let that sink in. Nobody owned the land of New York State, and there was no New York State. There was no state, no governor, no avenues, no Subway, and you could smoke anything you wanted, if you could get your hands on it, or trade for it, maybe with one of those long clay Dutch pipes of the Henry Hudson days, or maybe a local Indian one. There was no line where one man’s tract ended and another began. It was all seamless. Land rolled into land. Such was Manhattan of old.

At Madame Tussauds, I took a selfie with Donald Trump and then another with Sean Combs. At the Met, I saw Van Gogh trees and Monet seasides. Winslow Homer had a thing for bare-chested Bahamanian men. George O’Keefe had a thing for desert bones. My favorite painting was The Three Sisters by Léon Frédéric, a Belgian, anno 1896. It is interesting for sure that they dragged all of this European art, Chinese and Egyptian art, and Japanese art, and even the furnishings of hotels and palaces in France, and set it up for us to see here in New York, a city that bulldozed nature and chased remnant Algonquian culture away. New York in this sense is a funny place. It is both everywhere and nowhere. Everything is here, but everything that is here came from somewhere else. Even the name was borrowed from the North of England.

That’s why people need weed. They need it to make sense of the humidity and appropriation.

three years away

THREE YEARS I was away. Almost exactly, to the date. The last days I remember being here were in July. It was the time of the Green Corn Festival, hosted by the local Indian nation. I went to the powwow and talked to the head woman. We both knew her predecessor, Chief Ted. She told me she was disappointed in him, because he died and left her to run things.

I knew not what to say, but that was three years ago.

In the August after my return to Estonia, I traveled to Stockholm, and that fall, the fall of ’19, I turned 40 years old and took a ship to Helsinki the following day to participate in Slush, a major meeting of startups. I was supposed to have a meeting with an important source regarding a book, but she stayed in Paris and changed her plans. I don’t even remember coming back on the ship. It would be the last time I would leave Estonia for almost three years.

Then the new decade dawned, and the pandemic with it. I welcomed the first lockdown and slept through those weeks in late March and April. But there were others, and I cannot really say where the time went. 2020. 2021. It was only in May 2022, that my car crossed the Latvian border, and we drove all the way to Riga and flew to Copenhagen, like normal people, like the way it once was. And in June, they finally allowed American citizens to travel to the US without showing any kind of COVID-19 test result. So our flight back went smoothly. There were no additional hurdles. There we were, after three years, in John F. Kennedy International Airport.

THE FIRST THING that I probably noticed in New York that struck me as strange was the clerk at the airport shop asking me about my shirt. He asked me where the North Fork was, and I explained to him that Long Island, the same island we both stood on at the time, had two forks at its end, and one fork was the North Fork and the other was the South Fork. The North Fork had Orient Point and the ferry to Connecticut and the South Fork had the Hamptons. It occurred to me that in Estonia, nobody would start a conversation with a client like that.

The following day yielded a few more surprises. In the liquor store, I watched as a man greeted the owner with, “God bless you and God bless this great country!” The seller was taken slightly aback but welcomed the blessing. I was then trying to determine the price of a bottle of prosecco with my father. Almost as soon as I had stepped off the plane, the US Supreme Court had repealed Roe vs. Wade. “Oops, we were wrong about that one.” What was going on in this country? Later, former President Donald Trump was quoted as saying the ruling was the will of God. How did he know what God wanted? And what did God have to do with a Long Island liquor store? None of these things seemed to make sense. These were my thoughts as I stood outside Carvel beneath a great poster celebrating the 45th birthday of Fudgie the Whale.

“A whale of an ice cream cake.”

MOST NEW YORKERS are foreign in provenance. The Republican primary for governor was between Lee Zeldin, a “Trump won” denialist who is Jewish, and Andrew Giuliani, who is Italian. New Yorkers don’t notice these things. They are trained to ignore them or to pretend that they don’t matter. For someone who has lived abroad for many years, you cannot help but notice that nearly all the inhabitants of this place arrived, mainly by ship, within the past 150 years. Within a generation, they had stripped themselves of their languages and roots, and became Homo americanus. Zeldin won, but Giuliani got to raise his profile in the press. Their signs were everywhere on the island. Giuliani, Zeldin. Zeldin, Giuliani. They love America. Did we love our predecessor countries as much? Was there once a contest featuring an ancient Zeldin proclaiming his love for Minsk, or a Giuliani kissing the blessed vineyards of Tuscany?

The land my parents live on was part of a land grant to British settlers made out by the local Indian nation in the 1660s, the same one that celebrates the Green Corn Festival every July. They are still here. For the ensuring three centuries, it remained mostly undeveloped farmland and forest. The postwar boom brought city dwellers east. The land was carved up into small estates of an acre or two. Each homestead has a manicured lawn, carefully placed trees and shrubberies, often a swimming pool. Food is imported from local farms or from California or Mexico. To get anywhere, you need to drive there, but rising gas prices are starting to bite. It is an inherently unsustainable way of life, but it limps forward, nurtured by sprinkler systems, tended to by cheap Central American labor. Hefty trucks, driven by contractors, rule the roads. Nobody wants to accept that it is unsustainable, even if it is. They want lower gas prices and a Fudgie the Whale the cake. They want god to bless their prosecco and this great country too.

It certainly is great, but how and in what ways, that I cannot yet discern. More vast than great. That’s how it seems to me.

white nights

WHITE NIGHTS HAVE long since set in, or rather expanded, a kind of blissful surprise and yet all portended and predicted. They have been here before and now are here again. As my friend told me in the spring when the storks had just arrived and their cries could be heard along the streams and in the valleys, if you live long enough you will see the spring and if you live longer, you will see summer. The only choice then is to live, because this is the very fruit of living here, the forests so rich, green and thick, they bring to mind the savage equatorial jungles. The day grows from both sides, one side touching the other, like two arms squeezing out the dark.

Last night I went out for a walk at midnight. One local was in the yard searching for her cat as her neighbor stood on a second-floor balcony talking down to her about town gossip. From each house in the neighborhood, lanterns glowed, mingling with the stars. It occurred to me that such sights are only visible in the warm months, the search for a cat in the underbrush, the sky smashed into bloody purples, whites, and light oranges. What a treat it is to hear music coming from a party, any party, to hear voices behind the windows and gates. People gather together, to reminisce, to shake, to dance. They make such noise, they annoy the neighbors who are trying to sleep. There is a ferocity to it, that rattled energy, those early summer parties, a stirring vibration that sandblasts its way through the moisture of the evening.

Outside a local pub, a beautiful blonde came out through the backdoor, hoop earrings dangling, clad in red billowing pants, looking like a suspect in a detective novel, or the girlfriend of a suspect, asking me what I was doing there and what I was looking for? Or was she so beautiful? I can’t even remember now. One must be careful with such words. Each person is an experience, a breath savored for a moment in the lungs. Each person has a story. Where does hers go? Back to the bar? Back to the party? Back to the noise and the bottle? 

I told her I was just looking around and was on my way. I crossed the street and came through the park with its macabre stone statues. Two Ukrainian kids were out riding skateboards and I listened to them laugh at each other’s jokes. Then I turned another corner and then the next. This was it then, the spirit of summer, the summer we had all been waiting for. At last, I arrived at the familiar house and went inside. She was already waiting patiently for me in the kitchen.

The next morning I woke up goopy-eyed on the couch, the day fully dawned. I had some name on my lips, but I couldn’t remember whose name it was. I couldn’t remember who I was or how I had got home. All the memories of the night were faint, and they had stayed there, belonging already to history. It was so bright outside. A neighbor was already cutting wood with a saw. “Where am I?” I said. My daughter was up and about and said, “It’s 7 am and could you please make some coffee.” There it was, another day. What would this day bring, where would it lead?

At the cafe, I wrote to a friend about the predicament of man. The desire had been building in me for days, I said, that white nights ache, and I was afraid if I didn’t find a safe conduit, I might burst. Maybe I had. Maybe there would be only more hi-jinks and misadventures. Summer was just getting started. I was tired of society, anyway. I was tired of restraint. I was tired of trying to do things the right way. The world had been overdirected to extol control and perfection, but I was hungry and aimless and the endless days were only making me more restless. Those wildcat impulses. That craving and yearning. Summer was calling out to me. It was calling me out to its suspect blondes, its backyards parties, and into its midnight kitchens.

Once when I was riding around with the naturalist Fred Jüssi, he told me that he thought summer was the most sinister of the seasons. It was a time when people lost their senses, he said, a time when they broke their promises, lost their good faith. He was right, I think, but I would say that summer’s evil is a good kind of evil, a necessary kind of evil. Sometimes you have to give in to temptation. Sometimes you have to let it all go. That’s the kind of evil I like.

the danish girl

Frederiksborg Slotskirke, May 2022

SOME TIME AGO, when I was an undergraduate, I lived in Copenhagen, the capital city of Denmark. I don’t actually remember much of what I was doing in Copenhagen in those days, other than hanging out in night clubs on weekends and confessing to various Danish women that I loved them, “jeg elsker dig.”

One Danish girl did take me seriously enough to arrange a second meeting, which I was not brave enough to attend. I’m not even sure I told her why I loved her. It sounds absurd doesn’t it? But my Danish was primitive, and perhaps it was just the nicest thing I knew how to say to a member of the opposite sex.

I got to thinking about this long-lost Copenhagen night club girl a few weeks ago, on a trip to the Scandinavian city with my daughters. We were over by the university and happened to walked right by that same exact night club, and I only briefly remembered the girl. There were others from that time that began to flit in and out of memory. A Norwegian called Ingrid who was studying economics. Åsa, a Swedish designer. There was an Icelander named Ester, who lived with a fellow Icelander named Jón, who had a very taciturn expression and never said much. Lena from Jutland. What had become of all of them?

THAT WAS THEN and those were my memories of that time, but I certainly never visited any castles when I studied in Denmark. But it was to one such castle, the impressive Fredericksborg, situated in the Danish town of Hillerød, where I took a train with my daughters during the first warm days of May. Fredericksborg was built by King Christian IV in the 17th century. My teenage daughters love castles, you know. They love castles and they love royal costumes, and they love pageantry and jewelry. The castle at Frederiksborg is now an art museum and it is impressive. There are floors of paintings, portraits, clicking wooden clocks that ring and chime, dangling chandeliers, hand-carved beds, mirrors and tapestries, and a movable celestial globe and astronomical clock from 1656.

These were once the possessions and likenesses of noblemen and noblewomen, courtesans and artisans, consorts and escorts. The ceilings and walls are adorned with frescos of angels and gods, characters from antiquity, the stars and the heavens, pineapples and other exotic fruits. The clocks tick, tick, tick, ringing out every 15 minutes, on the half hour, then the hour. Through the warped window glass, one can see the baroque castle gardens on the other side of the lake, nestled in the sun.

One exhibit tells of the origins of the Danish flag, and the 13th century Battle at Lyndanise in Tallinn between the Danes and the Estonians. My daughter noticed the three lions of the Danish coat of arms in the castle. “That used to be on the 1 kroon coin!” she said. “When I was small, we didn’t have the euro, you know. We had kroonid.”

WHILE WE WERE in the museum, I started to became aware of a vague female presence. She was a younger woman, with curly hair, dressed in a sweater and skirt, and I cannot really say any more about what she looked like. That hair was familiar to me. There is something about girls with curly hair, and sometimes I think I continue to fall in love with different versions of the same woman who looks just like this.

Something about this person was so familiar to me, though, and I noticed that when we passed each other, we would look away, as if to ignore one another, and then look back, only to smile. It’s funny how these things work, how people just recognize each other. There was something so comforting about her presence in a haunted old castle, that I badly wanted to know her name. Even if it was something average and Danish, Sine or Stine, Mette or Jette, whatever it was, I wanted to know it.

I felt a little bit like that Shinagawa monkey in the Haruki Murakami story, who steals women’s names. I didn’t want to steal the name of the lady of Frederiksborg though. No. I wanted to cherish it forever. All I needed to know was her first name and I could build her into a breathtaking and beautiful illusion. I would devote myself to her name, pledge my very soul, rechristen cities in her name, rename navy ships, bastions, fortresses. I would write great novels and epic poems, and then affix her name to the cover, or perhaps some reference to her appearance. Something to remember this moment by. Something to last.

ALAS, SHE DISAPPEARED into the museum ahead of me, and I never saw her again. In the gardens I looked for her too, and in the town, and on the train back to the city. I kept waiting for her to walk in with her curls and look at me like she looked at me in the castle, but it never happened. She was just gone and maybe it was better that way. No need to fall in love. No need to troubleshoot a long-distance relationship. No need to worry about what went wrong. No need for anything other than the memory of an ancient castle with chiming clocks and celestial globes and gardens.

Farewell, my Danish girl. Jeg elsker dig. Thanks for the memories!


An Estonian version of this column appears in the June 2022 edition of the magazine Anne & Stiil.