I WAS BACK in San Giorgio Albanese, but all of the buildings were painted festive yellow, including the massive restaurant perched on a cliff overlooking the Sila with a 360 degree view. There were just some small boulders equally spaced along the edge of the cliff to alert locals not to venture too close. Then a straight drop down of Grand Canyon-like proportions. I was afraid to even look that way. There was a fine bar in the middle of the restaurant, and some of my Petrone relatives were there and I was eating interesting yellow pastries that made no sense to me at all, odd bulky shapes, and sweet but not sugary, so maybe polenta? Some Petrellis cousins showed up and one was the chief of police. I tried to speak Italian but just broken sentences came out, and felt so embarrassed that I couldn’t even string a sentence together. Then grandma died, but not my grandma, Rosaria, my father’s grandmother, and I was asked to make food for the funeral. I made this really nice fettuccine and, yes, there were some tiny clams and shrimp in the sauce, and then, when people started to arrive, someone asked, “Is it possible to get the pasta without the shrimp?” and then I thought, we might as well just order takeout. There was a decent Greek restaurant nearby. Surely they might cater. There was no way I could dislodge or dissect the shrimp from the pasta dish. As is the case in most structures, there was a haunted room in the restaurant, and I went into the haunted room expecting it to be dark, dreary, and full of loathing, but it was surprisingly well-lit and remodeled with skylights. I didn’t sense any ominous presence (usually the ghost of a woman who wants to destroy me). But my daughters were sleeping like angels in a bed in the room, and they said they had weird feelings there, and all was not as safe as it seemed. Later, we all went to visit their old babysitter, but she was not at home. The littlest one was jumping to look in the windows and so I held her up to the glass. All three girls were with me. Then the babysitter arrived, but she was very busy and there was a man waiting in the car outside. The girls looked around the inside of the house. Then we left together.
I WAS GETTING READY to go to the Rolling Stones concert when a Spanish witch showed up. She called herself Lourdes. A vigorous woman from the west Pyrenees. “¡Deja que te lea el futuro!” I allowed this so-called witch or soothsayer to at least tag along, and out we set on our sojourn toward the Song Festival Grounds, at which point, some of her forecasts started to molest my conscience, so I sat down at a bus stop for a rest. Then Lourdes hugged me, rubbing her fleshy dowry in my face and patting my head. I was hesitant to partake at first, but was soon sobbing and licking away. Again I had succumbed to comforts of the opposite sex. “Sí, sí,” said Lourdes, stroking, brushing, caressing. “Conmigo puedes hacer lo que quieras. No hay nada prohibido.” After the concert, we arrived to a manor house, which was more like a chateau. The bedroom was beautiful, just like one of those gilded 18th century Versailles interiors they once displayed at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. There was our chestnut-haired witch Lourdes, with her great dark olive tree eyes, engulfed up and buoyed in white-tipped waves of soft sheets and duvet-covered blankets, illuminated by wax-dripping candles and candelabras. I thought she was reading a book on sorcery at first, but it turned out to be a European women’s handball video game. Lourdes was quite engrossed. Soon after she began to lecture me about my novel. When would it be finished? How many more pages left? Carla, my other publisher, came in and the two chicas sat together in the Versailles bed, blankets all pulled up. An impromptu business meeting. “Ah, I see you have been discussing your literary plans with this Spanish witch and not with me,” said Carla the publisher. I didn’t know even how to respond. More negotiations ensued. Soon after, my publisher left the room and Lourdes went away to take a shower. When she came out, I beckoned her over and she embraced me and sat in my lap. Then I said, “Is it okay if I dance with you, Lourdes?” “¡Claro que podemos bailar!” the bosomy witch said, and there we began to waltz slowly beside her bed, Lourdes in the dripping nude, me with my hands slowly advancing toward that plush cushion bottom. With a growl of thunder, the manor owner arrived, a Napoleon-like silhouette against the white nocturnal mists that engulfed the chateau, with hat and cutlass visible in the shadows. I climbed out the window and ran to an orchard, and tugged myself up into one of the lower branches of the tree. From there, I watched as Napoleon marched in to inspect his wife and property. Before this happened, Lourdes had cried out to me from the window, “Come back you scoundrel, there is nothing here to fear!” She was still naked and wet. She had yet to dry herself.
FOR MORE THAN A YEAR, my friend has lived a vagabond existence. He was the last supposedly happily married one in our gang, and had watched no doubt anxiously as each one of our marriages came undone over the years. One day, it was his turn. He informed us that his wife and the mother of his two daughters wanted a divorce. He denied the divorce, and a cold peace, or separation was agreed. Putin flew in from Moscow for the negotiations, and everyone walked away waving a white paper. It was decided to share the kids, meaning they would be with him some weeks, with her others. Ever since then, he’s been on the road in his off weeks, as far as it can take him in the pandemic era, which is still anywhere. He’s become another one of the rootless middle aged, his home is where he lays his head at night, his heart is a swirl of memories and yearning. He does not seem unhappy. He sends us dispatches from wherever he happens to be, or remarks on the quality of the coffee or reliability of the local wifi. He’s taking it well, I think, or at least I hope. You might think you know who I am talking about, and the truth is that you both do and you don’t. You probably don’t know him as a person, but you have surely met someone like him in recent years. There are many of us, the dispossessed. Legions. Enough to fill Freedom Square in Tallinn with torches and dread. I meet them everywhere in every situation. Just the other day, my friend invited me over for coffee and gave me a new address. “But I thought you lived in the country,” I told him. It turned out that his wife stayed in the country and he had rented a house in town. The kids shuttle between their old house, now called “mom’s place,” and the apartment, now called “dad’s place.” They seem somehow less troubled by it. From the outside, that’s how things seem. I can’t say it’s any surprise to me now, that all of these families are tumbling apart. It’s become a trite and terrible cliché. The only thing that still surprises me is how business-like couples often are about these big decisions. It’s as if after over a decade of life together, the most significant life events one can have, the wives (and according to some estimates, between 70 and 90 percent of divorces are initiated by women) just wake up one day, decide it’s over and then just have to break the news, like a landlord telling a tenant she has sold the apartment and the tenant has a month to move out. Or maybe a Swedbank marketing meeting where they decide to nix one advertising campaign over another. It’s just a thing, you know, lihtsalt üks asi. It reminds me of all of those countries that lined up to go to war after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. They thought it would be a little war way back in 1914. A territorial gain here, some losses there, and maybe just a few soldiers would die. A century later and we are still grieving it. There is no sense in trying to understand catastrophe. The only good question is how to stay sane. That question has led me to look elsewhere. It has led me away from questions, from thoughts themselves. For a time, the only way I could even function was to stop thinking. I had to stop thinking and trying to make sense of it, because I was never going to arrive at an answer. It didn’t make sense. All of the folk healers, psychologists, astrologers, witches, and the like, weren’t going to help me either. They tried, they did, but most of it was up to me. I take refuge in memories, mostly memories of myself when I was small, before I could comprehend some of these things. Before I was an adult and before I was married, I was still a person and I still existed by myself. More than that, I always had the right to exist, independent of how anybody else assessed me or evaluated me, or was satisfied with my performance as me being me. This memory of existing on my own, not because I fulfilled someone else’s idea of who they thought the perfect man was, has given me comfort in my days as a vagabond. When I consider my existence, I forget about everything that has happened to me and I forget about everyone else. I don’t want to think about them anymore. I don’t want to remember anymore. I am tired of thinking and I am tired of remembering. I want to be like my friend, head for the islands, or vanish into the snowy mountains, find a café with good coffee and free wifi and write.
I think he’s onto something.
This article appears in Estonian in the January 2022 issue of Anne ja Stiil. The title is borrowed from the Caetano Veloso and Gal Costa duet, “Coração Vagabundo” off their 1967 LP Domingo.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.