deep country

THIS WAS DURING THE PEAK of the moon, the so-called “super flower blood moon.” I was driving the missus and our youngest to Tartu, but made a wrong turn around Võrtsjärv, that teardrop-shaped lake in the bottom of Estonia, after which we ventured into Deep Võrumaa, that expansive southeastern Estonian county. How did we get so lost? And who knew Võrumaa was so enormous? It was as if I had lost my way in the Yukon. The missus was mad with me, and decrying my lack of reliability. “Other women’s husbands don’t do this kind of stuff! Why did I get stuck with such an idiot?” This sort of tantrum ensued until I found the way back and went to meet the accountant, an older woman, well, older than me, who had piles of checks all around her in the office. At some point she was asking me about an expense report when I promptly pulled her rather large, flabby, middle-aged breast from her blouse and began to suck on it. She had quite firm breasts, I remember, and her nipples were exceptionally pink. This was how my meeting with the accountant went. Afterwards, I went home alone, and started to watch The French Dispatch. Frida, a girl from the neighborhood, popped by and we watched the film together. Halfway through the movie, she went and sat across from me, beside the screen, and took off her shirt. To my surprise, she had just one large breast instead of the usual two. This bothered me, and I blinked a few times until the large breast separated into two breasts, the way one bubble might split into two. These I suckled on as well. Then Frida sat upright in my lap, so that, if her legs were the right way, she could pretend she was a man. “I have always wondered what it’s like to be a man,” Frida said. “It must be very strange.” Her skin was milky white and she approached her query with the innocence of a child, though she is more or less my age. Satisfied, Frida left the room. Later, of course, I had to go back to Copenhagen. I went to a coffee shop to wait for the next flight, and sat at one table, but an old Finnish man told me it was taken and that I should go sit somewhere else. Who else should I see there but Silvia, the sommelier. A fine woman, with a love of good wines, exquisite in taste and dress, voluptuous and well attired. Silvia came and sat on my lap and we began to kiss. What a strange turn of events, I thought. Sooner or later, I would wind up sucking on her breasts too. Breasts seemed to be my lot in life these days. But if Silvia wanted a kiss, who was I not to oblige? After this, I was awakened by the sun’s rays and my daughter, who asked me if I would make some morning coffee. I got up and made the hot drink, not knowing how to interpret any of these adventures. I felt very good and settled though, that I knew who I was, and that nobody could ever take that away from me.

enghave plads

Copenhagen, Denmark, 10 May 2022

10.30 PM, PASHA KEBAB. I have no idea what this neighborhood is called, Enghavevej, I think. There is a park here, and it is ringed by fine cafes, cocktail bars, shawarma joints, etc. My daughters went to the concert early, there was a line around the block of 15-year-old Danish girls with chipped black nail polish smoking cigarettes, their eyes painted up like Cleopatra. It was really a moment, and I could see why I was prohibited from attending the show, and as soon as they got in line, I was banished. I saw one other adult person in line, a Danish mother, and we looked at each other, as if to say, “I feel your pain.” There were Swedish girls as well sitting around, maybe from Malmö, and then I did hear a few American voices. But then I disappeared and left them alone, and wound up here, at the kebab house. From here I ventured to a nearby kaffe, where I downed an espresso, two bags of potato chips, and two teas (actually a third, but it was a refill). Nice kids at the bar, one, a young man, is from the south of Sjælland, and the other, a pretty young lady in a white blouse who spoke both American and British English is from who knows where. I eavesdropped on her conversation, she had just broken up with her boyfriend, “And now I’m living the life!” she said, and her mother told her that in the scheme of things, her relationship was just parenthesis, “And it’s true, you know. It’s really true.” I started to develop a slight rapport with these two, the kid from the south, the pretty girl. I told her about how I studied Danish years ago, after she said that speaking Danish makes your voice lower over time. My favorite Danish word was the word for nurse, sygeplejerske. Her favorite German word is the word for ambulance, krankenwagen. She absolutely loves, loves the word for ambulance in German. “It captures the drama of an ambulance,” she says. If only the German krakenwagen was transporting a group of Danish nurses, or sygeplejersker? This is our shared dream. I like talking to the Danish baristas at the kaffe. Beside me, there is a woman approximately my age that looks dead bored, checks her phone, and digs through a mound of chocolate cake. Before, another writer type about my age came in with a pen and pad of paper and ordered a cappuccino and also checked his phone and wrote nothing. This made my very basic attempts to write dialogue and some concepts for my novel seem like a stunning achievement, and yet I also felt like a colossal failure, because I just couldn’t get it all done in two hours with a pen and paper in Denmark. I wanted to get it all done! I love and loved the view from the window of the people talking underneath the umbrellas, and how just a bit of sun crushes the gray clouds at Scandinavian dusk, and turns the whole sky red. The people keep talking, and gesturing with their cigarettes, and dogs scurry by, and more bikes come, and some bikes leave, and other people come into the kaffe, and others leave. One man tells the barista who likes ambulances that he hasn’t touched coffee in 40 days. Forty days! An Indian student with a beard and long coat. Our krankenwagen barista loves this too. “I just love that you even counted the days,” she says. Ah, the lush exuberance of youth.

mikkel bryggers redux

LAGKAGEHUSET, a Copenhagen bakery facing Buka, another Copenhagen bakery, facing a money exchange, cornered by pedestrians, pigeons, cappuccino foam drying in ceramic cups on little tables in the hot sun, and an old(er) bum sleeping on a bench nearby, which reminds me of another bum I saw this morning by the train station, sunburned and adrift, long greasy hair, indigent garbage picker, laughing at the joke of the world, amid the commuter crunch rush onslaught, and an impromptu business meeting in a café corner meantime overheard, the English catchphrase being, ‘exactly, exactly,’ all hours ago now, but a short distance from this Bum No. 2, under the God Smag, God Tid sign of the bakery, slumbering beside a peeling concert poster for an event that took place in April. This street is called Mikkel Bryggers Gade. It terminates with the Grand Teatret, gilded cinema venue of yore, wherein Young Justin and Young Patrick once watched Apocalypse Now: Redux in ’01. Patrick was unimpressed, as I remember, Young Justin was nonplussed. (‘Some more people die, and everyone gets laid,’ Pat’s review.) There used to be a little deli here too, run by an aspiring Dane in a chef’s hat and his wife selling smørrebrød. Today, their dream is dead, but the cinema survives, as well as a Vietnamese eatery. Across the way, an erotic boutique called Lust. The bum sleeps on, wonderfully.

sunny afternoon

Copenhagen, Denmark, 7 May 2022

HOW TO DESCRIBE a place like this? Tang of cannabis smoke, thick, white, and familiar, bicycles (many) and of all kinds, bearing all kinds of cyclists, young families (for example) with carts, Muslim businessmen, men with both ears pierced who are deeply in love, strawberry-haired girls as sweet as soft-serve ice cream, that choppy, guttural, lively language, spoken between shopkeepers watering flowers, or shoppers thumbing vintage clothes between the Homoware sex boutique and Café Dubrovnik, all of this at Studiestræde and Larsbjørnsstræde on a sunny May afternoon in Copenhagen.

the traffic incident

AN ODD DREAM, involving a) driving through a city while Ukrainians and Russians shoot at each other, with bullets visible as almost lightning bug-like glowing orbs of light; b) somehow surviving this unscathed; c) driving a car down an icy road to escape a rather ferocious musk ox-like creature; d) parking my car in a field to allow another vehicle to pass; e) from which exits Woman No. 1, who informs me that it is illegal to park your car in a field in Estonia, and that she has to wait for the police to arrive; f) following Woman No. 1 into her office, the entry way of which is littered with shoes, while we await the arrival of the police; and g) passing through a kitchen, wherein a Sicilian dwarf is making dinner. I try to summon romantic feelings for Woman No. 1, but it comes to nothing. An ice queen, business type, her only vice is apparently the impartial and ruthless enforcement of the law. The relationship is never consummated.

servant of the people

I AM JUST LIKE YOU. I’ve been watching Zelenskiy on TV every night on my couch. Not wartime Zelenskiy — I get my updates from wartime Zelenskiy on my phone — but peacetime Zelenskiy, when he starred in Servant of the People from 2015 to 2019. It’s almost painful to watch the opening credits, where he cycles to the presidential administration building through a clean-looking, sunlit Kyiv, winking at pedestrians, being watched by old couples, past leafy parks and old stone monuments. This was the Ukraine that still existed just a few months ago, I suppose, the freewheeling, post-Euromaidan Ukraine, the Ukraine where a comedian was elected president. That Ukraine, before the missiles, the deportations. Now it all seems like a lost world. 

When the war came, I was gripped not only by panic, but by a crisis of conscience, or a collapsing sense of self. The American writer Scott Fitzgerald’s first book, This Side of Paradise, published in 1920, described the development of his self-modeled protagonist from what he called an “egoist” to a “personage.” We have a core self, the self we have always been, and then a second self, a personage, or persona, a self we have created, one that is not necessarily an illusion, but the face we show to the world. Zelenskiy’s character in Servant of the People was very much his “second self,” just as my identity as a writer is my own. It’s a jacket I can wear all day and take off at night. Just as I put my feet on the couch and watch Zelenskiy and try to forget about the war, he once came home from the studio, kissed his wife and did the same things. Comedy, entertainment. It was just a job, but it wasn’t necessarily who he was.

Then when the war started something happened. I could no longer write. I searched for inspiration, words, but nothing came. Fiction? Columns? Articles? This wistful quasi-romantic bric-a-brac I have been serving up for years, like baked potatoes? Nothing materialized. I missed deadlines. I went missing in action. My editors pestered me, badgered me, waited for me, anxiously, and I had no idea what to say. I blamed it on the war, of course, because I could not write because nothing I could write could measure up to the terrors of this world. What need was there for writing anymore? What need was there for comedy? What need was there for fiction? What need? Within a few weeks, I had lost all desire to be whoever I thought I was. It had disturbed everything.

These sound like first-world problems, I know, but writing seems to be my sole surviving talent. If I cannot write, I cannot work. If I cannot work, I will not get paid and I will run out of money. If I have no money, I can’t support my family and we won’t eat, or I will have to borrow money and steal firewood from the neighbor. So whatever was happening out there, I had to pull myself together and push through the storm. Even if my core self was struggling, my second self, this writer character I had long ago devised, he had to see things through. That person had to keep writing, even if I didn’t feel like it.

I think a lot of other people have had to go through this process. In a war, it seems that all is needed are more soldiers, tanks, missiles, planes, better messaging. There is no need for books, no need for fiction, indeed, no need for comedy or TV shows. There is no need for anything, if you think about it. No need for concerts. No need for yoga classes. No need for finely prepared meals. No need for a walk in the park. Nothing, but to keep breathing, is necessary in a war. Yet if we cannot live our lives, then what exactly are we fighting to protect? Exactly that, our right to live our own lives, to write, to make jokes. To continue on without the dark threat of war.

This is the mindset I have adopted to keep myself in some kind of balance: that no matter what happens, life must go on. Even if they put me in a deportation camp, I shall steal a pen from a guard, and write my book on the back of a political poster. For I am a writer, and that is what I must do. For Volodymyr Zelenskiy, I believe it is the same. Right now, he is being the president, just as he once was a comedian. He is a father and a husband, too, and I hope that someday he will know a day without fear and frustration. One day Zelenskiy’s country will be rebuilt, and for a few moments his family will sit in a Kyiv park and forget it. Just a few moments. I don’t think any of us will forget about it, but for a few moments we can not think about it, I think. That is my hope.

araukaaria, live in viljandi

Araukaaria playing to a captivated audience in Viljandi, 15 April 2022, photo by Kerttu Kruusla

THE CITY OF VILJANDI, Estonia, has become in recent years a sort of hub or draw for artists and musicians from Latin America. It is the Santiago de Compostela of Latinoamericanos in search of something. More arrive each day, from Chile, Cuba, Mexico, Argentina, and other places. One of the first arrivals though was José Prieto, known to all as Pepi, who has been here for a decade.

Pepi is a programmer, teacher, and musician originally from Buenos Aires, but with roots in Chile. Lately he has been channeling his creative energies into several new projects, among them a band called Araukaaria, after the genus of great coniferous trees that grow in South America. He has also continued to innovate via, a digital production enterprise that recently rented the space of a former Viljandi jazz club called JASM, where it serves not only as a coworking space, and location for workshops and lectures, but also as a music venue at night.  

It was here last week that Araukaaria performed a 10-song set. The quintet is led by Pepi on vocals, guitar, and keyboards, with Lee Taul on vocals and violin, Harri Heinsoo on guitar, Cuban bassist Liosdán Herández (“Tito”), and Johannes Eriste on drums. This is a group in its infancy, and yet, perhaps because of it, a lot of fun to watch. One must remember that all bands in the world start out just like that, as a bunch of friends and accomplices on a small stage, surrounded by friends and curious onlookers. Even the Beatles themselves started out like this. 

During the performance Pepi began to develop a frontman persona which is somewhat apart from his usual thoughtful, insightful presence, engaging the crowd, telling stories about the songs, and also introducing the art of Argentinian Juan Yañez, also based now in Estonia, who has developed artwork to accompany each one of Araukaaria’s songs. All of this, complemented by good lighting (by Rommi Rutas) and sound design (Laura Sinimäe), made Araukaaria’s performance fun and a bit unpredictable.

The music has a variety of influences, pop, folk, progressive rock, and Argentinian sounds, like Vox Dei, Sui Generis, Seru Girán, Divididos, and Babasónicos, to name a few. Pepi’s acknowledged greatest influence is Pink Floyd, and one can hear some traces of David Gilmour in the guitar work and song composition. Lee Taul (Don’t Chase the Lizard, Black Bread Gone Mad) brings Estonian folk sensibilities with her contributions and helps to balance the vocals. 

This is a unique group that is just starting out and has some good things going for it. One is its links to savory Latin American music and culture, as well as its blending of those influences with local sounds, and another is strong compositions and memorable melodies and lyrics, sometimes sung in English, other times performed in Spanish. But above all this band benefits from reliable musicianship. Lee Taul is a charismatic, widely sought after performer, and Harri Heinsoo is a fiery, impressive guitarist. Tito and Eriste proved themselves to be a seasoned and sensitive rhythm section. And then there is Pepi, who has provided the outfit with vision and direction. 

We will all hear more from Araukaaria. I am sure of it.

kuivastu harbor blues

Kuivastu Harbor, Muhu Island, Estonia, March 2022

I PULLED THE CAR into the lane at Kuivastu Harbor to wait for the ferry to the mainland. It was still officially winter, and even though the Estonian islands were already warmer and sunnier, and there was the specific promise of springtime in the air, the waters around the docks were full of heavy pieces of ice, and the orange sunset on the horizon only made the place seem more like the Arctic. I love harbors, and found myself wandering the halls of the harbor building, and venturing upstairs to the café, where music was playing, but all the tables were empty, and there was no one at the bar. These places like Muhu and Saaremaa felt farther away from the war, safer. Still, at the Kuressaare Castle, there had been an exhibition about all of the battles that had been fought out in the islands, and some of the weapons that had been left behind were on display, machine guns and the like. There was also a mannequin of a man in a wooden boat that had actually been used to row across the Baltic Sea. He had an old-fashioned hat, a newsboy’s hat, as my children would say, just like the one I have. The same hat I held onto as I walked around the dock at Kuivastu, hoping for a peaceful spring.

I had been trying to keep my mind calm during the war, but this had proved impossible. For the first week of the war, all I did was check the news, from the moment I woke up until the moment I decided I could stand no more. Work completely halted for me, editors sent me assignments, but I could not do them. Who wanted to read about anything else other than the war? How could whatever it was I was supposed to do be any more important than what was going on down there? People across the ocean were bombarding me with letters, urging me to flee this dangerous part of the world. There were serious discussions about where to go, should we have to eventually escape. When would we know when it was time to go? When the government or the embassy said so?

In the castle museum, we had looked at all of those exhibits about Soviet life in Saaremaa. My children asked me questions. What was a Pioneer? What is a kolhoos? What was the komsomol? Of all people in the world, I was left with the task of explaining this complicated system, one in which I had never lived. There were images of Estonian Communists, of Estonians who collaborated with the Germans, of Forest Brothers, who stashed their belongings in milk containers in the countryside to keep them safe. To think, in some ways this conflict between them never ended. Some people are still fighting. But what was it even about? Why were Communism or fascism so important, that so many people needed to die for them? “Which side were the Estonians on?” my eldest daughter asked me. A good question. Every side. I tried to keep my calm, though the war continued to trouble me. The kids sensed this unease, but calmed themselves by wandering around through the gift shop.

I stared once again at the display with the man with the hat in the boat. Now, with the war breathing down our necks, I started to wonder how long it might be before I had to row across the sea. My neighbor back in Viljandi, a Kihnu girl, said that her great grandfather had helped take Estonians to safety by boat. If we were going to be forced to relive history, would we also be reliving this history?

The hotel in Kuressaare where we stayed had long been popular among Russian tourists, but this time, I only heard Russian spoken by a single dark-haired man outside, who was smoking and who looked like someone from the Caucuses. In the halls, there was a young woman vacuuming. When I asked her about the hotel breakfast, she just stared at me, and then said that she only spoke “vuh-nuh keel,” vene keel in Estonian, meaning Russian.

Another woman who worked in the hotel told me the girl was a Ukrainian who had fled the war. She now spent her days changing beds and sheets, washing bathrooms, and getting updates from relatives who were behind. To think, she had fled here for safety, and yet we still felt afraid too. Maybe soon enough we might all have to get on a ship together and go somewhere to get away from it. Like it or not, we were now all in the same boat.

pelé and ophelia

OPHELIA TURNED UP again. Just when I thought I was in a safe place, and I would never have to deal with her hands on hips and domineering personality and she had at last dissipated into the periphery of of my waking awareness, she came bounding into my apartment with her new boyfriend, a Brazilian football star who looked like a young Pelé, clad in his soccer shorts and socks, kicking a ball all around my living room. They demanded food at once and so I started making them dinner, slices of fried halloumi, cuts of plump tomatoes, platters of Greek olives, my usual fare. Ophelia put her legs up on my table and complained loudly that I did not seem happy to see her, and Pelé kept kicking his ball against the wall. They opened the door and windows too and left them open, so that soon the room was quite cold. At one point, while frying some breaded eggplants, I attempted to engage Pelé in a friendly football exchange, but Ophelia intervened. “Don’t even try. Go back to cooking. You know you’ll never be the man that he is. It’s pathetic.” Alas, such was my fate, to cook food for this woman, who gave her sex to some aloof Brazilian football star instead. After they ate, they left, and I was on my own. I cleaned up the dishes and put on an old song by the Canadian group, The Guess Who, called “No Time,” and went to sleep in a bundle of world weariness and misery. Who was she to treat me that way? And why did she have to bring Pelé along? To rub salt in the wounds of my heart? Then one day, a month or two later, I was walking along the coastal road when I encountered beautiful Ophelia again. She was less imperious this time around, and actually seemed happy to see me. I let down my guard and told her that I knew how to fly. “Show me,” she said, with her gold hair dancing in the sea wind. It wasn’t easy, it never is, but with the right degree of concentration, I began to lift off the ground. She wrapped her arms around me, and up we went into the sky. From the air, we could see the entire coastline, and all of the birds that shared it with us. When we landed, a man showed up with two small children. He was not Pelé. I guess they had broken up. This was a Welsh footballer. This, as I understood it, this man was the father of her children. They were headed to a picnic down the beach. “If you want, you can join us,” said Ophelia. I declined the offer, though I did consider it a second. Better to leave others to their stories. Better to leave old dreams alone.

misplaced toys

I WAS BACK IN ICELAND, in Reykjavik, of course. Erland was with me, as was Musi, and we decided to go to Sundhöllin to enjoy the hot baths. But none of my cards worked at the counter, and Erland and Musi went in without me. I decided to prowl around the harbor instead, walking by the old fishing cottages. I came across a warehouse that was full of wooden fishing boats and nets and decided to take a photo of it and send it back to Christa on the West Coast to remind her of the island and its history. Then I retired to my room on Freyjugata. There, in the early hours, I awoke to the sound of a small child playing on the floor beside me. Just playing with some blocks and sighing because he was so lonesome. Later, I got up and went out into the hallway. It was full of beautifully wrapped packages, and my neighbor’s apartment door was ajar. From inside, I could hear the sounds of a birthday party and I could hear my neighbor’s laughter. How disappointing, I thought, not to be invited. I glanced out the door into the street and happened to see a beautiful Icelandic girl with red hair painting her house. I watched each time as she bent over to wet her paint brush, and really marveled at her superb backside. What a lovely sight. Then I went back into my apartment to look for the lonely child I had seen before, but he had disappeared. Even his toys had vanished.