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 samasama.studio, 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.

vertigo

I HAD BEEN AVOIDING certain songs for the very fact that I was afraid of them, afraid that by hearing them I would come once again unglued and fall apart into malaise, despair, and torpor.  One of them was by a singer named Emiliana Torrini and the other one was “Blue Monday” by New Order. It even takes courage to write out the names of the songs, which is funny to me, that I am even afraid of the names of songs. I’m not even afraid of how they sound, or the words, but the names. I think her rejection letter had arrived toward the end of spring. Maybe it was the end of May? I had been watching Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo one of those nights, which was filmed in San Francisco in the 1950s, and so I somehow combined this memory of the rejection letter with shots of people in suits and dresses climbing into cable cars in the hilly city. It was as if we weren’t here in this country at all, that none of this had taken place in the lanes or shopping centers of Estonia, but there in that Californian city a long time ago, two old characters. Well, one of them was old, or at least older than the other. That seemed to be one main problem. “Given the facts, I just don’t see any perspective here,” I think those were her words to me. I can’t be sure. I haven’t looked at the letter since. I am brave enough to listen to music that reminds me of her, but not brave enough to read that letter again. What took place after that was something I have struggled to describe to my patient and well-meaning psychologist, but have always failed to adequately express. “Yes, I understand, I understand you felt pain that day,” my psychologist said. No. I felt like a building had collapsed on top of me in a cataclysm of dust, dynamite, and thunder. A stone building, constructed in the earlier part of the last century. Maybe Jugendstil? Every single part of my body ached for two days. Every single part. Even my feet hurt, especially my ankles. Later, a friend characterized it as withdrawal. I would explain it as an exorcism. Some kind of soul had left me. Her soul? I couldn’t say. “But this is so unfair,” I told my friend. “It’s like she gave a part of herself to me. And now she just wants me to give it back?” “Yes, she does,” my friend said. “It is unfair, but you have to give it back to her.” From a logical point of view, here in the rational workaday buzzing digital world, where we wake up, drink coffee, and watch people walking by on their way to work, and the phone chirps and people only want you to do more things for them, here in this flimsy pathetic construction, none of this made sense and was at all important. I wasn’t getting paid for being in love anyhow, so what was it worth to me? It was just some girl, and, as I told someone recently when she asked me if I had any women in my life, “but half the world is female. They are all in my life.” This was a lovely one, though, a smart one, a creative one who could leave you with sentences that you turned over and over again in your mind, if only to extract some remaining essence from them, but still a girl, not capable of collapsing a whole fortress on your head. Yet she did, and I was covered with bricks and dust. My ankles even hurt. What had even happened? Now I was afraid to even listen to some Icelandic singer, or British new wave band. They were like doors, shut and locked doors to cellar rooms in my subconscious that I dared not to open. Then, one day, in the winter, I decided it was time to face the music and give those songs a listen. I remembered the first time I had heard of Emiliana Torrini. It was when I visited Iceland two decades ago. One of my friends ran into a young singer in a café. I never met her but I always paid attention to her music after that, remembering the tangential connection. I recalled those lanes of the city, peering into the windows of restaurants at night, and the suspicious characters at the bars. As for New Order, I grew up with the sounds of their synthesizers. They remind me of childhood. These are all memories or pieces of myself, just as the object of my affection had become a piece of me too. Our story went the way it did, with its turns and catastrophes, but that didn’t mean that I could no longer dream of her sunstruck sensuality, or the words she said, or the way she once looked at me outside the cinema. Those parts were as much hers as they were mine. I couldn’t give them back.

This column appears in the March 2022 issue of the magazine Anne ja Stiil.

380 days that shook estonia

13 January 2022, the day the monument was dismantled

I CAN ONLY vaguely recall the day when the Jaak Joala Monument was installed in Viljandi. I remember Harri Juhani, the Finnish entrepreneur, was there, and perhaps Heiki the historian (and former mayor) was as well, but Heiki might have not been there. This might be what is called a false memory, a trick of the mind. For the next 380 days, I was to live my life in the shadow of the Joala Monument. I was there at its inception and installation, and I witnessed the parades of wayfaring pilgrims that came from all over to delight and bear witness to the great singer’s likeness. Strangers arrived into town and accosted me, asking where they could see the famed Joala. On cold winter mornings, I would go out to the wood barn and hear the echoes of disco blaring. At night, the Joala Monument would glow with extraterrestrial light. Toward the end of the first month, there was something of a vigil around the monument. Neighbors were selling soup and, I think, pastries, though that might be another false memory. Coffee was also being sold, hot cups of brew steaming in the cold, for the pilgrims of Joala. Then one day, Helir-Valdor, this wiry and friendly politician with the name of a Lord of the Rings character, met me outside of the monument, and we posed together, brandishing my latest book. It was an experience, and I felt as if I had been caught up in the great political winds, as if I was with Fidel Castro’s revolutionaries riding into Havana, or alongside Napoleon declaring himself emperor. “Peace, land, bread, Joala!” Yet I was a two-faced revolutionary. To my monument supporting friends, I feigned sympathy for their interests. “Yes, it is an interesting monument. Yes, it brings people to town.” For my monument opponent friends, who had pledged in blood to not rest until it was removed from the drunks’ park at the corner of Koidu and Posti Streets, I nodded and complained of the loud music. On the second day of February, a year ago, the first part of the saga of the monument came to an Orwellian end. The monument was enclosed in a wooden box. After which, the park became known as “Box Park,” and strangers asked me if I could show them the way to the “Joala Box.” I showed them. Still they came, from Jõgeva, from Rakvere, all to see this enchanted energy column. One morning, I even saw a couple, dressed sharply, posing in front of the box with a baby in an elegant bonnet. I imagined they had just come from a Christening, and wanted to celebrate it by visiting old Joala. The day when the monument was dismantled is clearer in my mind. I know because I was there, holding out my phone to play some of the singer’s more popular songs, so that the workmen could hear Jaak Joala sing, even as they unfastened the lower part of the wooden box and crawled inside. The hands of Joala came out first, still clutching that microphone, and then the head. Such was the mournful scene around the Joala Monument when it was at last dismembered on the 13th of January. It was like the death of a king. The famed box was surrounded by reporters and photographers. A journalist asked me for my personal opinion. One photographer I knew from Tartu was there, and I asked if it had been as exciting when they took down the Lenin statue in 1991. He said that he had been there that day in Tartu when Lenin came down, and that nobody had really paid much attention, as far as he could recall. Drones buzzed in the skies. People watched and chattered. And, at some point, nothing was left except some tubing extending from the icy ground. Later that same night, I encountered Heiki the historian outside of the Courthouse. He was in a sour mood and talking about “Black Thursday,” the day the Joala Monument had come down, a day that would no doubt live forever in infamy. I expressed sympathy. I asked Heiki about what had been in the park before the Joala Monument, and he said it had once hosted a bust of a Communist named Jaan Sihver, which had been removed in 1991. Sihver’s monument had been taken away to the same warehouse where Joala was now being kept and guarded, but was later stolen, and was last rumored to be an ornament in someone’s garden in the suburbs of town. I wondered about who would want to steal the bust of a dead Communist and worried that someone might wish to do the same with the remnants of our dear revered Joala. I also wondered what other secrets were kept in the Viljandi storage facility, perhaps the remains of a UFO crash from the 1940s, or other strange items that might have turned up here and there in the course of history. None of them, though, have been as peculiar as the remnants of the once proud Joala Monument. Yesterday, I happened to walk through the park, and saw that someone had built a snowman on the site where the monument once stood. Maybe a father and daughter had built it, or a mother and son. A simple snowman from this very snowy winter, with rocks for eyes and sticks for arms. I stood there and looked at it. Life does go on, you know. It changes, and you may not like the change, but it does go on. It was a beautiful February day, with a light snowfall, falling against the sunlight. There is something I like about the way the snow falls on these days. It’s like poetry.

don’t chase the lizard, live in viljandi

Don’t Chase the Lizard’s Lee Taul and Tomás del Real, photo by Annika Vihmann

FOR ABOUT A MONTH, Tomás del Real, a Chilean guitarist and singer songwriter, has been living in the cellar of an old barn that once belonged to the nearby palatial Viljandi Manor in Estonia, and working out tunes on his Spanish acoustic guitar. It has been a cold, snowy, and contemplative winter, and there has nearly not been a day since November without snowfall.

Here he sits, stands, and lies, in a meditative state, feeling out new songs. He has been quite successful in this endeavor, because the songs have come. He has also been waking up his musical partner, Lee Taul, a violinist and singer, perhaps best known for her work with the Estonian ethno group Black Bread Gone Mad, with ideas, sometimes at four in the morning.

Initially the two musicians, who had met several times before at various musical gatherings around Europe, just planned to duet to showcase del Real’s new songs. “Originally, Tomás asked me to take part in a couple of songs as a guest artist,” says Taul. “Soon enough it was clear our collaboration was going really well so we decided to form a new duo: Don’t Chase the Lizard.”

It came together pretty quickly. Within a span of weeks, they not only had perhaps an album’s worth of material, which can take other artists months to assemble, but felt comfortable enough with it to perform it together at the Estonian Traditional Music Center (Pärimusmuusika Ait) in its smaller hall (Väike Saal). This is an intimate performance space, enclosed in red bricks, with good lighting. Surprisingly, or unsurprisingly, the room was filled for their debut performance. About 30 people came out on a night when a thaw had made sidewalks almost impassable, to hear the duo play. 

Some other musicians were supposed to join them, but positive Covid tests nixed those plans, making just it a guitar, violin, and two vocalists, and a small raised stage. 

Del Real is a sensitive, insightful composer and understated performer. His guitar parts are elegantly structured, and not once during the set list did he miss a note, as far as the audience could tell. Taul brought to the performance her own remarkable presence and flash. Listening to her play, one wonders how she manages to find the main nerve, the core of a composition, and then craft the perfect response on her instrument to del Real’s impressive guitar work. Their voices are also delicate and well matched. The bulk of the material is in Spanish, but they do have some English-language songs. For the ears of locals, being able to hear freshly crafted songs in Spanish is a treat. One must also admire the boldness of a wandering guitarist who lives in a renovated old manor house barn, or a violinist who, in the depths of the pandemic, is committed enough to a new project to help build out the songs, develop the harmonies, and put on a concert.

One cannot argue that their debut concert was not a success. Instead, it seemed to be just what people needed on a black February night: Latin flavor, enchanting songs, and alluring vocals.

Don’t Chase the Lizard’s first single, “Buscar la luz” will be released on March 11.

the black anchor

ONE NIGHT I DREAMT about a black anchor. It had been cast into the sea, in a place where the surf was calm, the water was clear, and the sand crystal white. There it stayed, at the bottom of the water, clear to the naked eye from the surface through the transparent ocean glisten, clean of all mollusks and other maritime creatures, well-forged iron, but a secret, for only I knew about it. Then once day I tried to conceal the anchor, and dove down into the waters, just a few meters, and tried to place a cinder block on top of it, and cover it up with sands. The Red Queen had arrived and sought transport to another isle, and I took her, even though I loathed the very sight of her but, as you know, I have an unfortunate weakness for arrogant, self-possessed women. We made it past the anchor and thankfully she never once looked down. At the isle, we parted ways, and I went into a cantina, where I met with Anouk and some other people I knew from the town. Anouk made some comment about me going bald and I was insulted, so I left the cantina and started to wander back down to the port along a dirt road. Ophelia came walking in the other direction and stopped me. She was in her black dress and seemed to be quite fine, girlish even. Her curly hair was loose around her shoulders. She held in her hands my journals, with the pages covered with notes about her. I was dismayed, shocked even, to see my mad ramblings held out into the light like that, and even more worried about what she would think of me if she was to read all of them. I felt bad for having written them, perhaps for having written anything at all.

winter light

I CAME HOME in the early hours through the vacant streets of the town. It was crisp and cold, and it surprised me that the air could be so dense on such a cold night. Usually, the cold has brought clarity to things, made things easier to see and understand, yet somehow all of the houses and streets and automobiles looked to be wrapped up in a weird swirling white mist. I was coming home from a young woman’s house where we were drinking tea, letting honey dissolve into cups from one of those big jars people gift you around the holidays. Big clumps of honey melting away and lots of talking. Then her child woke up and I decided to leave. I didn’t see a soul on my trek home, not even a bum sipping from a flask at the bus stop. When I arrived at the house, I saw most of my neighbors were still up awake, as all the lights were on. They were no doubt snuggled next to their loved ones chatting or watching a film. I went inside, took off my boots, stretched out on the couch, and pulled a blanket on me. It was January and soon it would be February. After February would come March. I hadn’t yet taken the Christmas decorations down. Why should I? It’s so nice to sleep beneath some twinkling Christmas lights. Recently, I visited an older friend, and she remarked to me that it was such a shame that I was still solo after all these years, for she has known me for a long time. “What a tragedy, and such a beautiful boy too.” “Nii ilus poiss.” The thought hadn’t even crossed my mind until then, and it seemed a strange and different kind of thought. I thought about her words as I stared at the Christmas lights on the verge of slumber. For most people, partnership is the default, and being alone is just a way station, a stopover, a foggy interlude between relationships. One partnership ends and you look around and another soon after begins. That’s how life is supposed to work. While talking with the young woman over tea, I tried to guess the names of her ex-boyfriends by calling out random Estonian names. There had been a Jürgen, she acknowledged, and, yes, a Tõnu, but no Tiit. Not yet. “It depends on how you define ‘boyfriend,'” she said. My life had once been like that. The women in my life were like monarchs. The way we can talk about the architecture of various periods in British history — Georgian, Victorian, Edwardian — I could talk about years of my life. “Yes, that was during the Francesca period,” or, “Those were the Christiana years.” But what was this current period? The “bachelor sleeping alone on a couch under Christmas decorations period?” The “drinking tea late nights with young women in lonely town” period. Whatever this current period was called, it had lasted some time. At last sleep arrived. I often descend through various states of arousal at night. This is common for men, and it may be the case for women. On this night, I kept thinking of a video a friend had sent me from a swimming pool in a faraway country. There she was, swimming away in a white bathing suit at night, and something about the idea of this stretched bathing suit filled out by a very full Scandinavian feminine figure was suddenly all around me. There was something quaint about these visions. It was as if I was looking at one of those postcards of happy beachgoers from the 1920s. Golden hair, white bathing suit, stretched full. I could hear the water being displaced, I imagined the water was warm, and I began to feel safe and well beneath my blanket. In the morning, winter light came pouring through the windows, and I could see there was fresh snow on the ground. The couple that lives upstairs, whom I call “the Norwegians” because they sometimes live and work in Norway, were warming up their car and preparing their children for a trip. The yard was full of neighbor couples shoveling snow, or linking arms to go for a walk. They have come to seem alien to me, the couples, and I wonder why they even exist. Two people, living together? Forever? What a silly idea. Who would ever want to bother with that? Do they really believe they are soul mates? Will they stay together? I still felt the warm waters from the night before and thought about the Scandinavian swimmer in the stretched bathing suit, but the memory of the dream began to fade with my first sips of coffee. I wondered if I did have a heart somewhere, and if it was still capable of love. Maybe it was hidden away in a sealed-off part of me, like Anne Frank, writing secretly into her diary in the Annex in Amsterdam during the Second World War. Maybe the heart was writing its longings into that diary behind those walls just as she once had. Maybe someday I would be able to read that book.

the soul of tallinn

IN SOME WAYS today is not the ideal day for Tallinn. The weather is gray, the snow and ice are melting together. The sidewalks are slippery. In a word, one might say it’s depressing. But I noticed how some pigeons flew out of a tunnel by the Baltic Station. That was funny and lifted my mood some. Again, the same Old Town, the site of the Puppet Theatre (and isn’t it absurd that the Puppet Theatre was so successful, and of such high quality? We are talking about puppets here. These are children’s toys. Yet many successful, great actors got their starts there). Then Hirvepark, a noteworthy place in Estonian history. All these houses. All these dwellings. What is it that makes Tallinn Tallinn? An Italian restaurant, an Irish pub? And which is my favorite place? Reval Café? A boutique, a jewelry shop, with Russian sellers. Old LPs in the record shop window, where happy ladies pose sometime in the 1970s, back when sex was still exciting. I searched for the soul of Tallinn everywhere, but it was hard to find. Is Tallinn in Vapiano, where they ask for your COVID pass and identity document, and a Nigerian makes me Insalata Deliziosa? Or in the Õhtuleht Building, where there are beauty salons, cafes, and wedding dresses on display in the first-floor windows? There are people in the streets who are headed somewhere. Russians, Germans. I suppose it’s always been that way. Tallinn. An international place. The trams move forward, the casino lights blink on, and company meetings continue. This is how one gray January day passes in Tallinn. Elegant ladies with small dogs. Young fathers with baby strollers. One even has twins. Somewhere at the edge of the Old Town, I see a poster for a play. There are lots of women on the poster, but one catches my eye. Who is she? I take a photo and then later do some research. I learn that she is a young actress. I just wanted to know what her name was, but so what. Now if I was to meet with her, I would have to tell her the embarrassing story about how I once took a photo of a poster that featured her, because I thought she was a beautiful girl. I am not sure if this is strange or not. At least I haven’t built a shrine to her in a corner of my house adorned with her photos. I was just curious. Good luck with your career, young Estonian actress! Naturally, I find my way back to Fotografiska. A safe place where one can get some work done. Some American dance music is coming from the speakers. A turmeric milk, also known as a golden latte. I hear all kinds of languages. There’s a Russian man at the neighboring table, but the others are Estonians. Women with children, with laptops. The girl behind the counter was born in ’97. Which is no surprise, as she is 25 years old now and works in a café. Completely normal. I don’t want to tell her that I came to Estonia in 2003. I don’t want to hear how she was in kindergarten back then. But at least she speaks with me and looks me in the eyes. It’s nice when a Tallinner looks you in the eyes. Soon I’ll go back to the book shop and buy that Icelandic chick lit I saw before for my daughter. I think she likes these kinds of surprises, that “Daddy brought me something from the capital!” For her, Tallinn is a fantastic place, full of second-hand shops, interesting cafes, new experiences, and friends. I am happy she can discover her own Tallinn this way. I’m not bored here, but where is the soul of Tallinn? Does it even exist? Honestly, I feel pretty lonely here in this café. One woman sits behind a laptop. The next one is behind her laptop. The third is the same. The fourth is looking at her phone. In the hallway to the toilet, there is a portrait of Scarlett Johansson on the wall. To think, I came all the way to Tallinn just to see Scarlett Johansson on the way to the WC. Maybe some people think that all of these trimmings make Tallinn more international, but they also make it more generic. I think I’ll go and have a look around in Kalamaja. Maybe I’ll find some old fat cat there, or see an ancient drunk between the renovated old buildings. At least something without elevator music, turmeric, and quinoa.

This piece was written originally in Estonian and appears in the Estonian magazine Edasi.