EACH DAY WE LOSE FIVE MINUTES OF LIGHT. A little shaved from the morning, a smidgen trimmed from the eve. Like a small yellow fish being swallowed by a dark lake trout, I sometimes think. Or a moist face disappearing into forest shadows. This is how autumn goes. It’s an introspective time. The antics and disappointments of summer are over. The crushed hopes of spring are long lost. What remains is a quiet, cozy contentedness. A silent peace.
I like it.
Some of the days are gray and wet and I don’t mind them. On other days, the sun is brave enough to smash through. The sky turns a brilliant blue and the sun’s strong rays bake the leaves gold and red. Such yellow days can last for as long as a week. Good weather for drying your laundry outside. Perfect weather for heading to the woods in search of fungus. Metsa seenele as the Estonians say.
To the forest, mushrooming!
I understand the Estonians best when they are in the forest harvesting mushrooms because to me it’s the most intimate and sensual experience you can have in this land. There is something about being surrounded by birches, with your hands deep in the moss, that settles and cools you inside and then excites, arouses. It’s as good as a long kiss or a passionate embrace, yet slow and soft. God knows how many Estonian babies have been conceived in these woods. Not enough, I say.
What I like about it is the loving intensity. The way hands scavenge. The surprise of finding a new bloom of chanterelles, one that leads to another, and then to another, until you somehow become frustrated that you can’t take the whole forest home in a bucket, berries and all.
I’ve been there, though I have never done mushrooming well. I only know a few of the species on sight — puravik (boletus), kukeseen (chanterelle) — and when I do find a good mushroom, I spend so much time admiring my catch that I forget to look for others. Once I forgot to bring a knife with me, though I had a bucket. I wound up using a pair of scissors from my car’s first aid kit.
“Päris Macgyverlik,” as the Estonians say, “Just like MacGyver.”
It feels good to be able to understand at least one aspect of Estonian life, to take it as my own. It feels good because on most of these days, many of the people here remain a mystery to me. I don’t always understand their fondness for silence, or their northern zen of “waste not, want not.” I don’t appreciate their ideal of a smoothly running world, where time hums along, where no unnecessary word is spoken, no unnecessary feeling is expressed, no precious second wasted.
You send letters to people that are never answered, not because they dislike what you said, but because they merely felt that everything had already been expressed, and there was no need to waste time or additional letters of the alphabet. Then you run into them two weeks later and say, “Did you get my letter?” and they reply, “Yes, I did.”
In Estonia, I imagine, some couples fall in love and break up without saying anything. How do they even know? Maybe they just search each other’s eyes for answers.
I have wondered how an Estonian might understand that another Estonian is showing interest. Will this Estonian say anything, or will she just show up one morning with a suitcase and a pet and move in? In a land where silence is golden, it’s not easy to keep it all inside. A volcano could erupt from the need to say something. Sometimes I just don’t get these people.
This is why I love to go mushrooming in the forests. It allows me to cool and calm. It’s just me, the woods, and no one else. If you do encounter a stranger with a knife and bucket, there can be no misunderstandings. Who could misunderstand another in such a mossy and nourishing place?
I HAD A NEW BOOK come out over the summer called Sketches of Estonia. This is the English version of the material that was published in 2016 as Kirju Eestist. The title is in homage to Miles Davis’s 1960 album Sketches of Spain and Jack Kerouac’s Book of Sketches.
My beatnik leanings are no secret, but this book is really a collection of not only interesting short stories about Estonians and Estonia, but an exercise in literary styles. The pieces in the book — there are 24 chapters — were written at different times, and have diverse influences.
Some were pieces that were drawn up or held over from the My Estonia 3 or Minu Eesti 3 project. Originally, I wanted to write a similar collection of shorts for that book, which came out in 2015, but quickly recognized that the book demanded some kind of linear story line, and that there was simply too much material to pack into another My Estonia book.
The first two books are entirely linear and carried by a narrative. However, they covered roughly 18 months in my life in 2002-2003. My Estonia 3, however, covered 2007 to 2013, which made such an approach difficult. I wanted to cover this period as a general memoir, along the lines of Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. However, while I was doing it, I noticed that the book demanded a narrative. So pieces that were originally written for the My Estonia 3 project were set aside if they were superfluous to the narrative. These formed the foundation for what later became Sketches of Estonia.
Chapters like “Kid Sirts and Surfer Taavi,” “Tea with the Icebreaker,” and “Drinking in Tallinn” came out of that time period. They were largely written in 2013 and 2014 at Aldo’s Coffee House in Greenport, Long Island.
Some of the other chapters here are even older though, and these are in my opinion quite personal. “Tree Balsam,” “How Romet Became a Clown,” “Gold Fish,” “Vastlapäev Arithmetic,” and “Gypsy Vika” were written in the 2011-2013 time period when we were living in Viljandi. I think I wrote “Tree Balsam” in Setomaa on a laptop set up on the porch. I would work and then come back to the laptop and write down my thoughts and then return to working on the country house.
Some of the pieces are quite different though. I had always wanted to write a new journalism-style profile about Andres Metspalu, and “Metspalu’s Elevator Speech” is absolutely one of my favorite chapters in this book. I took a similar approach when constructing my “Kuressaare Tropicalists” chapter. I also experimented with some modernist approaches in chapters like “Chaos and Spirits,” where I inserted “images” into the text, to allow the readers to imagine what these images looked like. I happened upon this approach once while copying something from Wikipedia. It preserved a space marked IMAGE and then the caption, but the actual images did not copy over. I realized that one could invent all kinds of images this way, ie. [IMAGE: Björk meeting with the Dalai Lama]. Ask yourself, what was Björk wearing when she met with the Dalai Lama?
It is fun, right?
The newer material in the book dates back to the 2014-2015 time period. “Pärnu After Christmas” has been readers’ favorite. It was written in Pärnu, after Christmas, in 2014. Two of the pieces were written in an ashram in India though. “Karksi House,” and “With Kaplinski at the Supermarket” were both written at Sai Baba’s Ashram in Puttaparthi in November 2015. I like these chapters because they were not heavily rewritten, and are largely untouched from what I put down working there in that peaceful state of mind. The Kaplinski chapter was later amended to include a note from the man himself!
I think I am really proud of the final chapter though, “The End of the World.” I like that I was able to get so many images into the beginning, without them being directly related, perhaps only by time. Somewhat fittingly, I can’t recall how or when I wrote it. I imagine it was finished up in Lanzarote, in the Canary Islands, in March 2016, when all of the chapters underwent editing ahead of their publication as Kirju Eestist.
Before I go, I wanted to thank Kerttu Kruusla and Signe Valdmäe for helping me with the cover of the book. Kerttu photographed the image at the Rohelise Maja Kohvik in Viljandi, and Signe wrote out the text on the same board they use to advertise their daily specials. I also thank Epp Petrone for assisting greatly in the editing and revision of the pieces, and Kristopher Rikken for his editing work, noting discrepancies in the details, or things that might not be obvious to a person not immersed in Estonian culture. Taken all together, I believe that Sketches of Estonia is solid and very much worth your time.
When my daughter Anna returned home from school on the day of last year’s historic presidential election, she asked me, “Is it true? That Kersti is our president?”
At first it was hard for me to understand her pride, her joy, that a ‘girl’ like herself had been selected by the Estonian parliament to be the next president. I’d been dealing with all kinds of stodgy males my entire life: Reagan, Gorbachev, Ansip. Yet never did I feel any kind of camaraderie or solidarity on the basis of our gender. If you had asked me as a child what I had in common with President Reagan, I might have said nothing. He was old, I was young. He was an actor, I was a student. He was from California, I was from New York. He wanted Gorbachev to tear down the wall, I wanted to listen to Pink Floyd’s The Wall. I never thought, ‘There goes Ronald Reagan. He’s my boy! One of us!”
(This changed slightly when Justin Trudeau became prime minister of Canada though, if only because I can now say, ‘Justin. Like Trudeau,’ when I check into hotels, instead of being taunted by little Estonian children who call me, ‘Justin Bieber, juustuviiner*!’)
From my daughter’s perspective, however ‘President Kersti’ was already part of the tribe, one of their own. They loved her without hesitation. I’ll never forget how President Kersti came to Viljandi in the winter to meet her citizens and skate on the lake. Some girls even followed her to the down to Lake Viljandi, just to see President Kersti on ice.
Estonia’s first woman president! It touched me in a way, made me feel connected to her. My daughter had gained a new positive role model overnight.
Not that it’s all ice skating and adulation. Sometimes when I imagine the president trotting about the halls of Kadriorg though I can’t help but think about that old Communist poet Johannes Vares-Barbarus who shot himself in the hall toilet in 1946. There’s something about that image, the ghost of Vares hunched over in a water closet in the presidential palace, that hints to the mystery of Estonian political power. The secrets, the intrigue. Who really knows what goes on behind the windows of Kadriorg when power is involved. Who really knows what else has happened within those pink walls.
President Kersti is appealing anyhow. When she was elected, after much intrigue and sauna whispers, there was a sigh of both relief and astonishment. After Lennart Meri, that old school adventurer with his deep connections to the prewar state, including a diplomat father; or Arnold Rüütel, who rose through Soviet politics, only to pivot in old age and oversee EU accession: or Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the emigre returnee with the bow tie, Swedish birth certificate, and American diploma; we suddenly had one Kersti Kaljulaid, who was born in the final month of the 1960s, a mother of four, auditor, and bureaucrat.
Could it be that the next Estonian president would just be some tubli Estonian person?
I only glimpsed her through the dark window glass that day during her wintertime visit to Viljandi, saw her silhouette as it leaned over her goat cheese salad or whatever she had for lunch. Those telling bangs and mop of hair. The fierce and intelligent presidential eyes. The heads of all her special guests turned in her direction. Anyone who walked past the Rohelise Maja Kohvik that day had to pause and look through the windows. The Viljandiers were so curious to see their Kersti. Especially the little girls.
*Juustuviiner — a cheese sausage.
The annual Viljandi Folk Music Festival retains a haunting and cinematic quality, especially at its peak on Saturday night, when the Tallinners swarm into town in their old-fashioned linen shirts in search of Curly Strings, beer, and kebab.
Crowds form around the street performers — violinists, bagpipers, a washtub bass — and the sounds of exuberant conversations grow intoxicating beneath the lush green foliage.
Under the watchful spire of Saint John’s Church, scores of children occupy themselves with entertainment set out just for them. A giant game of tic-tac-toe, a small stage decorated with a sign reading Lastelava, “Children’s stage,” and colorful curtains that the children wrap themselves in. Finally, there is a maze constructed from the rough wooden pallets used to transport goods. Dozens of youths, their clothes stained by mud and dripping ice cream, filtered into the maze, only to get lost here and there, with others trying to hop the walls to escape while exhausted parents like myself looked on, happy just have a break, to sit and observe the scene. As the clocked ticked closer to midnight, and the fun showed no sign of end, it did occur to me.
This would never happen in America.
First of all, children were allowed into Viljandi Folk for free. Provided they could prove their age, they were given a special bracelet that gave them permission to enter. Back in my home country though, anything this good would certainly come with an admission price. Any kind of childhood entertainment would likely be fenced off, and that rough wooden maze over there? That would probably be constructed out of some kind of rubber synthetic material to minimize the chance of injury. In America, the organizers would do so not only out of concern for the well-being of the playing children, but out of fear of hungry personal injury lawyers eager to make a few bucks. Taken together with the disapproving looks of worried parents — Do they know how dangerous that is? They could get a splinter! — the play area of Viljandi Folk would no doubt be closed.
It wasn’t always that way in the United States. Even when I was a child, we would disappear for hours into the woods. I got into my share of scrapes and still have the scars to prove it, and yet I am grateful for those times, totally convinced that if I was ever shipwrecked on a deserted island, I could set to work constructing a livable shelter from some young trees, just as I did when I was a boy. Piece of cake! That was only 30 years ago when I could roam free like the children of Viljandi Folk. Only 30 years!
But then something happened. A cloak of ‘safety first’ descended on the great land of freedom. Most child-related activities became intensely supervised, and children of responsible parents were not allowed to leave the confines of their suburban castles unless encased in a suit of protective plastic armor, or accompanied by a tough, eagle-eyed adult guide on the lookout for falling tree branches and sexual predators. The classic American childhood, epitomized by literary gems like Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn became something you could only read about in an old book, watch in a film, or experience during a ride at Disney World. You could watch characters have real childhoods in the movies, but you couldn’t actually have one yourself.
I learned this first hand years ago when we lived in the US for a school year. It was a pretty, pristine place at the end of an island, with woods and beaches that begged to be explored, and long country roads with little traffic. It seemed like the perfect spot for a classic childhood, and yet no adventurous youth ever came to our house on a bicycle, none ever knocked at our door unaccompanied to see if one of our children could come out and play. Instead, all so-called “play dates” were prearranged, even though the parents would, at times, while we were exchanging children, fess up to the antics of their own wild childhoods long ago, which were chaotic and joyful and free. Kids who had once carried slingshots, sped around on skateboards, and robbed candy stores had grown into cautious adults happy to embrace and enforce “safety first.” It was hard to believe.
If you asked them why it had happened, they would tell you that things had simply changed. “Just look at the news,” they would say, pointing to the steady stream of sensationalized stories about child abductions and murders. Sometimes I wondered how safe American youth had actually been in earlier eras, the Industrial Revolution perhaps, or the Great Depression, yet this line of questioning went nowhere. The culture of worry had fallen on us. It was senseless to struggle against it. Like the other parents I went along with it, even though I sensed something was amiss. There are some in the US, of course, who have tried to steer the culture back the other way, with a free-range parenting movement set to raise a new generation of independent kids, parents who risk interference from social workers to let their kids go to the woods or ride the metro alone.
The fact that the last hope for American childhood is a book, or a movement, or a website, only deepens my sense that something has been lost and cannot be replaced.
To be honest, among my fellow countrymen there are those who would view my lifestyle with some contempt. I have certainly been denounced by a few for living what they see as a shiftless, libertine, decadent European life, where I while away the days writing in cafes. Some say they have no respect for me, others have accused me of running away. Yet as I watch my children laugh as they tear through a wooden maze under the watch of a medieval church at midnight, I have to respond: Can you really blame me?
Downtown Northport, Long Island, just a week ago. Gunther’s Tap Room, Jack Kerouac’s famous watering hole, burned down not too long ago (and Pete Gunther, the bartender who served him, died suddenly too). Gunther told me in an interview that Ti Jean once paid his tab with an autographed copy of Tristessa, his 1960 novella about his Mexico City junkie girlfriend, which Gunther attempted to read and then quickly discarded, perhaps to the trash. While Kerouac and his bartender are both now gone, someone has affixed Jack’s ghostly image to the bar, anticipating his inevitable future Christ-like return.
Kerouac’s mother Gabrielle owned a home in Northport in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The town is referenced in his 1962 novel Big Sur (page 5, “so I had sneaked into San Francisco as I say, coming 3000 miles from my home in Long Island (Northport) in a pleasant roomette on the California Zephyr train watching America roll by …”) The writer complained about beatnik wannabes climbing over the backyard fence. This was a good two and a half decades before I started school at Saint Philip Neri, just up the hill from Gunther’s on Main Street, unaware of the drunken literary great who had walked its ways.
On Sunday evening, I took a train into the Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn, and then walked the N blocks to a bar called Barbes on 9th Street to see Stephane Wrembel, who is in my opinion, the best gypsy jazz guitar player today. There are many great players out there, most of whom are dexterous, proficient, and skillful, but great jazz guitar playing is not just about technique, it’s about grease, that hidden slick element that makes the same song sound compelling when played by one guitarist and clinical when played by someone else. My phone camera captured these darkblurred images of the room, where I took a front seat before the players. Later, I had Wrembel autograph my copy of Scott Fitzgerald’s latest and last collection, I’d Die for You and Other Lost Stories. “You want me to sign your book?” Wrembel asked. “He’s dead,” I told him. “But you’re still alive.”
IT WAS A SUNNY COOL DAY and Rapla seemed almost too peaceful, just like heaven, if heaven really is a place where nothing happens. I stood outside a shopping center, buying some Greek strawberries to bring to the healer or ravitseja Ivika. The doors opened and shut, motorcyclists arrived and departed with a dream-like lull. Always departed, because who really stays in Rapla? It’s a remote place. Its people are so proud that Kristiina Ehin and Vaiko Eplik are from here, but it doesn’t surprise me. Rapla is beyond the grasp of the real. People from such a town have no choice but to turn within.
Ivika’s home is down a dusty dirt road. When I arrived, two strange older country gentlemen stood in its garden eyeing the foreigner from beneath the apple trees and I felt immediately that I had entered into new territory. The woman herself met me at the door, a country woman with long black hair and the epicanthal fold, skin that comes down over the corners of the eyes that connects the Estonians with kindred peoples in the east, traversing the ice to Alaska, down the spine of the Americas to Peru. The Estonians are only Europeans in part, of this I am now certain. They know other things.
“Your problem,” Ivika announced to me in her room in Estonian, “is that you are trying to be someone else.”
Of this I had no doubt, yet it was reassuring to hear it again in the country people’s language.
“Once you relieve yourself of this contradiction, all of your health problems will fall away.”
Ivika stood before shelves of Orthodox Christian icons and other symbols and for a moment I thought of what the good monks of Mount Athos in Greece, or Pope Francis himself might think of me, a supposed Christian, submitting to the care of country healer. Yet Rapla felt so far away from Greece’s sun-kissed chapels. There, Christianity seemed to grow naturally out of the rocky Mediterranean soils. Here, it was still a foreign import, imposed by sword or staff. Among the maarahwas, the Estonian country people, especially, Christianity still feels a little out of context. What could any of it mean to an apple orchard or a golden field of rapeseed? It has felt far away for me too as my mind succumbed to the Estonian way of thinking, much the same way that I silently intuit its grammar and even make mistakes in English when I tell someone to “put the door closed” — pane uks kinni — instead of to “close the door.” My dreams seem more profound here in Estonia, my longings, urges, and desires more meaningful, all connected to something the locals chatter on about called “energy.”
Energy. This is the crux of the matter: to have one’s energy cleared. Hence, people turn to healers like Ivika.
I wasn’t there for a miracle cure or a quick fix though, and I didn’t want her to tell me my future. I went there because I saw a tiny white spot at the end of a tunnel. I sensed that by liaising with her I might get closer to where I needed to be. It does take courage to accept that though. It takes the courage to surrender to her presence. It takes courage to abandon your defenses and let her understand you. You have to be willing.
When Ivika began to speak, her eyes became as distant and as hazy as two far-off islands. She spoke and I suddenly understood what aspect of my life was in focus. She kept talking about my daughters, but she didn’t specify which one, so I had to determine to whom she was referring. It was a fun kind of game. Rewarding. Her observations were so precise though that I had to laugh, a heavy chuckle that wouldn’t go away. I stared up at a poster on the wall of a lake in Alaska, with mountains around it, and I imagined that I was on the shores of this lake, and that every bear in the Alaskan mountains could hear my laugh. “You are really smart,” I told her.
She was still somewhere else.
“You are stuck between two lives, and are afraid to come out of the old one,” said Ivika. “But don’t worry about the others. They have their own lives too and will grow into them. You won’t lose your connections with them.”
At the end of our meeting, I tugged the box of Greek strawberries nervously from my bag. There are all kinds of Estonian social customs to which I am still oblivious. Sometimes it is rude not to give a gift upon visiting someone, sometimes it is unnecessary, which might as well be rude. Estonians don’t care for unnecessary things.
When Ivika saw the strawberries, she squinted at me ruefully and I was afraid I had offended her. Who wants to be on the bad side of a healer? “You like to be liked, don’t you?” said Ivika with her hands on her hips. “But you don’t need to be liked! You need to love yourself first!” Then she accepted my gift and even laughed and gave me a hug. It was such a good feeling and I felt that she was a friend. Whether the experience could be called real or surreal was immaterial. What was important was that I felt like I had gotten somewhere.