LAST NIGHT I DREAMED of a golden cobra, this after a long, arduous journey to get back home after a scientific conference in Berlin. The rest of my colleagues had to board some roundabout flight to New York via Cincinnati, and I was left at the docks with my suitcase trying to see if there was any kajut or cabin available on the next ship to Riga. There was, but it was a long line in the sweltering heat, an end-of-times, overcast humidity over the whole scene, as if we were waiting to board the Lusitania or Titanic. When I did arrive home, the small golden serpent was in the fireplace, like a kind of mechanical trinket or new toy. It began to hiss at me, and I somehow heard a rattle, though cobras do not rattle, or maybe that was the slink of its golden scales? Too often in times of peril I dream of serpents. But what to do about the cobra? I asked all my friends, and they told me to let it free in a marsh somewhere. I had no idea about the impact on wildlife, or if golden cobras could self-reproduce? Hissing, hissing. I mulled it over. What to do about the little snake? Then at the window, another story played out involving a man who fell in love and turned into a little bird. But the heat of the love was so strong it burned him from the inside out until his wings were charcoal and his eyes burned like embers. Burned from the inside out by love. And still the golden cobra in the fireplace, slithering in circles and rings. I had grown attached somehow to the treasure of a thing, there was a fondness, but I had to let it go. There was just no other remedy.
YESTERDAY THE POLICE searched the house across the street. I saw them pull up in their tidy neat blue-and-white cruiser and get out in their neon yellow vests. They looked so perfect and symmetrical, so out of place in this rougher-edged part of the town, where the houses are half-derelict, crooked, and leaning, the facades muddied with dirt and smog. An old man in a black coat with a cane pointed out the house to them, looking like a character from a Paul Revere engraving. Inside, they were looking for something, searching, searching. I could see the flashlights in the lower-floor windows, behind the curtains, poking and probing around. They left with no arrest as far as I could see. Yet later that night, a dreamy snow storm blew in, and the two criminals returned in the shadows. One of them, an older sort, walked me down the street and kept chatting with me and asking me what I had seen of the police. To excuse myself, I went into a friend’s house nearby. You went down a staircase, then through an underground corridor, and came up into the kitchen. There was a party in there, Vesta was with her boyfriend, and I said I had come to collect a few things. “Sure, sure!” she said. “Take your time! But remember to close the door. Don’t let in the cold!” I collected the few things I had left behind, but when I went to leave, I couldn’t find my shoe. There were piles of shoes everywhere but none of them fit me. Vesta came down a few times to help me look, but to no avail. We went back into the kitchen, but it was now full of snow, and looking out the window, I saw a nude woman dive into a hot tub, with steam rising. There was an outdoor party, and an indoor one too, as all the floor was covered with wet snow, and there was a hot tub in the corner of the kitchen now too, a great wooden tunnivann, or barrel tub, which are popular here. I still couldn’t find my shoe and decided I could make it home in my socks. Vesta walked me to the door but before I left, she took me by the hand and whispered, “Come back later and I’ll help you find your shoe.” It was such a warm feeling, delivered with warm hand pressed into warm hand, and my soul was soothed warm with the understanding of such a sugarplum promise.
This piece appears (in Estonian) in the most recent issue of Ajakiri Ema
IT’S 11 AM ON THE SECOND MORNING of the new year and my pancakes are burning. My business partner asked me to clean up some copy and to file a new invoice, and I was doing this after flipping pancakes, keeping the fire going, and trying to pay attention to my youngest daughter’s stories about something that happened with another girl at school. I was trying to pay attention when the wisps of smoke reached me and I turned to see big plumes of it in the kitchen.
Fortunately, I made a lot of batter for this batch, so it’s okay if a pancake or two goes in the trash. I’m used to losing pancakes and other meals the same way. I forget food in the oven. I have to be reminded to take out the trash and when I do take out the trash, I have to be reminded again to deal with a clogged drain in the bathroom. I fix the drain, take out the laundry, and then try to make pancakes again, but burn a few of course. Then the youngest demands juice or milk, which I spill. There’s real mayhem to the whole scene, real anarchy, but at the end of the day, we somehow get through it, and I can even read the youngest a story. Somehow the children are fed, the dishes are clean, and we can sleep in peace, but while they sleep, I lie staring out the window.
From my bedroom window, I can see the Old Water Tower in Viljandi, and for some reason the clouds are very low here. So I can watch the clouds passing behind the tower. This becomes a meditative focus point for me. I watch the Old Water Tower and I go into the zone.
My weak spot as a single father, I think, is multitasking. It always has been my weak spot. I imagine women are geniuses at this. I am sure a few scientific studies have shown this to be true. Women can make the pancakes, keep the fire going, and keep listening to the kids’ stories. Women are more cut out for this kind of life. They can juggle everything at once.
My handicap therefore is that I’m not a woman. I’m a man. I can actually only do one thing well at a time. Give me a task, and I will do it. Assemble the furniture. Fix the wifi. Simple! Time and again, I have amazed people with my ability to complete complex, focus-intensive tasks. But making breakfast, working, and trying to be an attentive parent at the same time is much harder. There is no choice in the matter though. I am a single father now, and I must and will manage.
The term “single father” is political. None of us are really single parents. Each one of us — with a few exceptions — is born to two parents, and even if one of them isn’t there, that doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. I have a friend who fits the classic definition of the single mother — the father of her daughter long ago cut off all contact — but that doesn’t mean the child doesn’t ask questions about who her father is, or miss his presence in her life. He does exist, somewhere out there, and so even though her mother is raising her alone, her father is present in his absence.
I am not a single parent in that responsibility is shared with the mother of our children. I am not a single parent in that we co-parent, the kids move freely between both households, and we even celebrate Christmas together. This is not the kind of single parenting you see in movies. This is more like decentralized parenting. Canada is no longer a colony of the British Empire, but it’s still part of the Commonwealth of Nations. Queen Elizabeth II is still their monarch and her face is still on their money. This is the political situation. It’s the best way I can explain how things function.
I am a single parent though in the sense that I live with one of my children and with nobody else. I am single in that I am responsible for the upkeep of my home and I am single in that I sleep in a twin bed that can only accommodate one person. How this came to be is a story like any other. What I can tell you is that since January 2017, I have been living with my second daughter, Anna, here in Viljandi. The eldest has moved to New York to go to school, and the youngest is living with her mother in the south. On occasion, I am lucky enough to have all three of my daughters here. That’s when I become a short order cook and make food all day long and burn some pancakes. Somehow we manage to survive and even have a good time.
When all three children are here, it’s actually easier. The eldest is a teenager now — 16 — and she helps with the youngest, who is eight. She makes her take a shower and combs her hair and helps her with her clothes. The middle child — the one who lives full time with me — has become incredibly self reliant and independent in all of these years growing up with dad. She wants food, clean laundry, and maybe some entertainment. She mostly asks for money. Even if I see her on the street, she’ll pick me clean of five euros and then be on her way with her friends to a shop.
I chiefly entertain the kids by taking them hiking, usually to one of the trails in Soomaa, which is near Viljandi. Or we go to the movies. I have seen so many kids movies, you have no idea. I think the girls watched Mary Poppins two or three times. My skill is cooking. This is one of the ways I know how to be a parent. I make them gnocchi with Bolognese sauce. It’s one of the few ways I can pass any Italian culture to them. At least my children know what Pecorino Romano is. At least they know something!
I suppose most mothers would disapprove of the scene when all three of them are here. There is no law or order. I am too busy making dinner and putting laundry out to run some kind of tight ship. I am not Captain Von Trapp from The Sound of Music with his whistle. The youngest rides her bike around the house, the other two talk to friends or watch films. They are free, in essence, to do whatever they want, so long as they stay alive. Yet we do survive — that’s the most important part — and I’m proud that we manage together. Maybe there is no bedtime, maybe I don’t feel like washing the dishes, but everybody’s awake the next morning. It’s truly a cause for celebration.
I do feel sometimes that I have no script or manual on how to do this. Yet I know many fathers have done what I’ve done. My neighbor was raised mostly by her father. It’s not unusual. When you are living alone with one child, though, you have to take on both roles. You have to be father and mother sometimes and this is hard to do. As kind as I am, as tender as I can be, I can never give them that motherly feeling you get when you rest your head on a soft chest because my chest is hard. Or when you come home and there’s some lovely woman standing with an apron on and she gives you a wet kiss on the cheek. That never happens in my house. I just can’t give them those kinds of motherly experiences. I suppose it’s not my responsibility to even try.
Sometimes I’m aware of how pathetic the whole show I am running is. They see some 40-year-old man struggling each day. Someone who is tired. Someone who is focused on writing all the time, and for what purpose? I try to help them understand that without all this typing that goes on, there can be no movies, no trip to the spa in Pärnu, no flights to New York, and no toys.
I don’t have much of a personal life. There are no dates with women, no dining out at restaurants, no going to the movies or on trips. I know Brad Pitt has a hundred children and can manage to do those kinds of things, but I can’t. I don’t go out to parties or concerts that often, but I can get out sometimes if I need to. I don’t think the children think I would ever remarry. They have somehow gotten used to the idea that their father is alone and that’s just how it is. The idea of bringing some new disruptive female personality into the equation also seems complicated. It would bring into force a new political reality. I am sure everything would be reorganized in about 45 minutes.
On most days, I recognize that I just don’t have time for anything like that. My job is not to have that kind of life right now. My job is to make the dinner and clean up the cat vomit. Someone needs to fix the curtain that fell. This is my real purpose in life. Of course, I have a dream life too. This has taken on greater significance in these years. For me, my dream life is more nourishing to the soul than my real life. This is why writing helps me. It helps me to cope.
The girls are changing too. Only the youngest is still affectionate with me. The older ones? Not so much. Those little girls who used to hang on me now cringe when I hug them. I try to tell them they look nice, or are very smart, because supposedly this will help build their self esteem. They brush away any compliments, but I keep on saying them. My eldest daughter Marta used to tell me everything. Now I don’t know what’s going on. We keep in touch via applications. Skype. Whatsapp. Being a father to her from so far away has proved to be nearly impossible on a day-to-day basis. Yet I am still here, and I think my existence counts for something in all this.
Proximity isn’t everything though. Anna used to ask me to read her stories long ago. Now I have to knock to even speak to her. I knock and she asks, “What do you want?” “Your dinner’s ready.” “Oh. I guess I’ll come.” I go in her room sometimes, sheepishly, and ask how she is. She tells me, “I’m fine. Now can you please leave? And make sure to shut the door behind you. Really shut it.” Anna has also adopted the Estonian habit of ending the call without saying goodbye. I’ll be standing in the supermarket talking to her for a minute or two and then realize she’s no longer listening. Then I feel really foolish.
It’s hard to discipline them as a father, I admit. All my life I have heard so many stories about what abusive, terrible people men are to women, so that I treat my daughters with kid gloves. I can’t be too strict. It’s very complicated for a man who is almost two meters tall to be hard on his daughters.When I do have to set them straight, I try to be as honest and forthcoming as possible. I’m not sure if it works though. They’re pretty much the same people they have always been.
Some people would characterize me as a passive father, or a passive man. Yet in my experience, it’s been those tough guys who are the first to crack under pressure and go running to the forests or for a bottle of vodka. They’re the ones who hit midlife and suddenly “fall in love” with some chick they met at a bar. You have to know when to pick your battles. You have to keep moving.
Only once in a while do I recall those first few nights alone with my second daughter. It was the middle of winter, we had just moved into that first apartment. It felt like Napoleon in exile. I remember watching the snow drifting down beyond the windows, listening to the little girl sigh in her sleep. Back then, it felt like an incomprehensible turn of events. I couldn’t understand what was going on. I felt so weak and so vulnerable, completely at the mercy of the universe. Now I feel this experience has made me much stronger. I can take on anything. I’ve become resilient.
I have been very fortunate, I think, in that unlike fathers of the past, I have spent a lot of time with my children. Even when I was a kid, I would usually see my father at dinner and on the weekends. He had an office and he went to it. He would go away on business trips. Other than steaks cooked on the grill, I think he made me two meals in my entire life, and one of them was a bagel. I’m not sure if he even knows how to make pancakes. My mother would take me aside and say, “Here, let me teach you how to cook. Someday, you will make a woman very happy.” She didn’t know then that I would wind up living in a little northern land called Estonia. Had she known that, she might have taught me more about animal husbandry or forestry. No matter. Maybe these “women” I was supposed to make happy weren’t my love interests. Maybe they were these small women I’ve wound up raising at times. I make them plenty of pancakes, and when they get a whole plate full of them, covered in butter and syrup, they are happy indeed.
LAST NIGHT’S nighttime immersion. Another sloppy mash up, but this time with Britishers all around, including Ian Will, who was an old marketing exec I used to see at meetings doing card tricks and seducing girls at the bar (and a happily married father of two, I might add) and there he is across the table with me in some office building in London, and I am surrounded by all of these cheeky twit Britishers around, cracking jokes I cannot understand (meantime I need to do an interview, but it’s like a goddamn Monty Python sketch, Monty Python meets The Office, yes) and they just won’t shut up. I take the interview into a phone booth in the corridor (because those still exist in dreams), but it’s no use, and somehow I tumble down into a bathtub with a familiar writer’s long and luscious legs around me. But, you know, it’s not sexual, she just wants to comment on my new efforts. (“They could be better,” she says. “You know you’re more talented than that,” she adds.) So, yes. In the time of pandemics and death, I find myself dreaming of England, old stone walls, haunted graveyards, war memorials, black taxis, pubs with fat sausages and mash and thick pints of beer, crummy tabloid newspapers with nonsensical headlines, gray-white weather, and that winsome brook in Duxford that gurgles over the road. Missing, missing England. Missing England in March. Missing the hot and the cold taps, and filling the bath, sliding in and watching the lovely weather presenter in East Anglia. Look East! I never learned her name either. Never needed to.
HE COULD ONLY write if he was tight. The literature of the 1920s and 1930s is a goldmine of outdated slang and references. Songs, novels, newspaper headlines of the day, discarded politicians, drinks in favor, hairstyles, and the like. It was the first truly modern era, the era of radios, telephones, automobiles, reading and leisure. It was a time where women could already vote, drink, smoke, and revel in their promiscuity, long before the 1950s ad men did them in with sexist advertising. And into the most extravagant Ritz Bar walks the lonesome Minnesota Irish Catholic writer Scott Fitzgerald and he orders another drink. He sips his hard stuff the way I sip my tiny cups of hot brown stuff. He can only write, he thinks, if he is tight, liquored up, inebriated, loose. Only then can the anxiety recede, the words flow freely. Just a thunderbolt of sweet cognac to undo his writer’s tie. Such was Scott Fitzgerald’s Irish curse. Dependency, dependency ….
A WEIRD SLEEP below a hot window. On a train with a young woman searching frantically for Via San Simone. People in masks getting off and on the train (and garbage blowing through), old people coughing in corners, and, of course, a whole football/soccer team gets on in matching red jackets. “Why did we go to Rome?” I think. I fumble with the map. Now to find Via San Simone. Via San Simone! The young woman is frustrated. There is a boat waiting nearby to take her out of Italy. Everything is warm. The clouds are pink.
I SPENT LAST WEEK with a technicolor ax in my chest, struck into me by some young woman for whom I felt some murmuring of affection. That’s how it goes with me and love these days, I open the door just a crack, just a tiny sliver between the darkness and the light, and then I collapse into my bed wounded and try to stagger back out into the cold sane air of February.
Such authority, she had, this youth. There are so many people talking to you all the time, but when one of their voices pierces the noise and cuts to the core of you, you sit up, take notice. I felt as if I was in some old Jules Verne novel and the heart of the earth was radiating its rainbow heat on me. One of my friends — a Finn, of course — was swift in his assessment of my injury.
“Just shut up,” he says. “You’re in love.”
“Remember how Peter the Great chopped his window to Europe? How he founded Saint Petersburg? She chopped a window to my heart. She’s got Ingrian workers draining the swamps!”
“You know too much about history,” the Finn says. “Shut up and enjoy it.”
My Finnish friend is wise. We have wonderful conversations. A cafe is closing down in town and we even have a scheme to open up a karaoke bar for Finnish tourists. We’re going to call it “General Mannerheim’s Karaoke Bar,” and there will be a little portrait of the Finnish hero general smiling and waving on the sign, and it will in no time be full of moose from the north.
“What the world really needs right now,” he says, “is another Finnish karaoke bar.”
Maybe he’s right, I think. We need more impossible love dreams and nonsensical fantasies. We need young women who speak with authority and Finns singing old pop songs. As I write this, all of China is under quarantine and reports of new infections rise every hour. The death count rises and there are conspiracy theories spreading. There is no way this virus made the transition from bat soup or snake tartare to the human population so quickly, some hypothesize. It must be a biological weapon. Look at the over-the-top response of the Chinese authorities. They must know something. This is how the decade dawns, feeling like the end of days. People are stockpiling food and masks. A man sneezes in the cafe, and I get up to move. Later, I load up on Vitamin C, just in case. Even my 12-year-old daughter can smell the doom.
“The 2020s are just a few weeks old,” she says, “and they already suck.”
“What do you mean?”
“There was almost a war with Iran. There’s the coronavirus. Is there any good news?”
To be honest, I had hardly noticed this distinct apocalyptic flavor until recently. It all seemed par for the course, business as usual. Haven’t we lived through pandemics before? I must knock on wood though because I’m sure we aren’t too many contagious tourists away from some Stephen King-like scenario, where people are collapsing in the streets and there is a man ringing a bell encouraging people to bring out their dead. This could all happen. It’s happened before.
It happened a hundred years ago. They called it the 1918 flu pandemic but it stretched on for years. It killed numerous family members, among them my father’s grandmother. She was 26 when she drew her final breath. The date was February 12, 1920. Exactly a hundred years ago. I know a little about my great grandmother. I know that she was college educated — rare for the time — a musician, and she also wrote poetry. There is a love poem she wrote to her husband that has been handed down. I have also inherited a poetry anthology of hers where she wrote notes about her favorites in the margins of the pages. “This,” she scrawled in pencil about the American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson during some literature class, “is the best thing he ever wrote.”
Reading her notes, I have to forgive myself for worrying more about my heart these days, or dreaming up some crackpot schemes with my Finnish friends. It seems better than getting caught up in the terror of the end of the world, even if it is coming to an end.
Even if this is the apocalypse, what could any of this have been worth if it wasn’t lived with fire and fervor?
AFTER A LONG STRETCH of gray mornings, could there be any better fate than to crack an eye open and spy a patch of blue in the sky? Especially when you are living in the older part of the town, where a custard-colored horizon is flavored by the wondrous silhouettes of chimneys and spires? It makes you happy to still be here alive, to know that somewhere a good cup of coffee awaits. Yes, there is a God, there is a Santa Claus, and all the good things in this world are real and true.
I can imagine Interior Minister Mart Helme felt the same way the other day when I spied him sipping a frothy drink in the back corner of the Maiasmokk Cafe in Tallinn’s Old Town, the very picture of nordic anonymity. It was the day after the Sanna Marin “sales girl” controversy broke and Helme had again become an international news item for his words about the new Finnish prime minister. The American and British press had picked it up and it had gone both global and viral. People in New Zealand were even reading about it.
It’s hard to imagine that many were rushing to Helme’s defense, but no matter, there was still good chocolate and coffee and it was still December after all, just a few days before Christmas. Minister Helme sat in the corner of the cafe alone. He sat alone and no one disturbed him and his hot drink. Down the way at the Tallinn Christmas Market, they were selling spicy glögi. Children were singing, there was a beautiful tree. Seeing Helme, I suddenly found myself chock-full of Christmas cheer and at once wanted to rush into the cafe to wish him good tidings. “There, there, Helme,” I would say with a jolly, good-time wink. “There, there. This too will pass. It is still Christmas!”
Of course, I didn’t go in. Something inside me repressed that convivial, joyful Christmastime feeling. Instead, I watched the solitary man enjoy his drink alone and then take the long solemn march back to his offices, his distinguished profile obscured by the brim of his trademark cap. There was such isolation, such lonesomeness in the scene that triggered a memory of the old Hans Christian Andersen story about the little match girl, whose father made her sell matches on the frozen streets of old Copenhagen, and who was afraid to go home out of fear of being beaten.
One by one, the little match girl lit her matches, watching each flame burn out with sad, Scandinavian eyes. Within each flame she saw happy memories though, the memories of her grandmother, in particular, who was waiting for her in heaven. When the locals discovered the frozen girl the next morning they knew not who she was. “She only wanted to warm herself,” the people had said. Yet no one imagined what beautiful things she had seen, or how happily she had gone with her grandmother into the light.
For the life of me, I couldn’t understand how the sight of a friendless government minister in Tallinn and Andersen’s fairy tale girl in Denmark were linked, but the feeling of the two was similar. I thought of how the little girl in the story had pressed her nose to the glass of the warm houses of the Danish capital, seen the Christmas trees through them, smelled a goose roasting, and then I thought of the glass between me and the minister at the Maiasmokk Cafe, the reflective mirror-like glass on the Russian Embassy across the street, the glass in the windows of the Swedish Embassy a bit further down.
Between all us here was that impenetrable glass. Even in the warmth of Christmas, it kept us apart, prevented us from that sense of camaraderie, togetherness, of amity. That thick nordic glass. It was just everywhere. Even a Swedish friend had reminded me of the glass in a recent conversation. “You’re too much like an open book,” he said. “Everyone knows everything about you. But we northerners are not open. We are closed. It’s because of the cold weather. You should learn to be more like us now that you have been here so long. You should learn to be closed.”
I tried to change the topic, but I started to look at people a little differently after he said it. I watched the people on the streets of Tallinn at Christmas and saw them differently. I started to fear that he was right.
I WAS COMING BACK FROM RAPLA of all places, traveling that curvy road south through Türi and on to Viljandi. I know the dark woods of northern Viljandimaa well enough, but the forests of Raplamaa, Järvamaa, those are true mysteries. Eerie shadowy little orchards and pine forests spread out alongside the roads, then big bundles of hay. Up there in the gray clouds, that big full moon. People in Viljandi kept messaging me. “Where are you?” “Why aren’t you at the party?” “You’re in the wrong place!” They were all drunk. Down at the Ugala Theatre, a major party was underway. People had come from as far away as Karksi-Nuia in their finest to take part in the scene, the socializing, to rub elbows at the bar. I didn’t want to go anywhere near that place.
I was done with it, and the thing was, I had just left another big party behind in Rapla too. There a funky band called the Kangelased was playing in an industrial yard to the local youth. But I just wanted to be on my own, to think things over. I’ve been there, done that, the drinking scene, the music scene, the one-night-stand scene. I wanted to breathe a bit. My daughter’s birthday was coming up and my 40th birthday too just months away (but now passed as you read this), and I didn’t know what to think. Had it all been a big party, a glorious triumph, or a bloody disaster?
There was this sensation as if I had been fleeing a crumbling bridge, like in some adventure movie. You run and the bridge just crumbles beneath your feet into some abyss as you head toward the safer ground. All of that was over. The big traumas, the big changes, the upheaval. That was all done, they said. So this is it, the safer ground, the vantage point. I had reached it and it looked like a tree-lined road outside of Rapla. Looking back, looking down that ravine of the past where the bridge fell was terrifying though. That moon hung in the clouds like an owl.
I put on some music to take my mind off things and it began to hail. Big glassy chunks of the stuff came hammering down out of the sky and pummeling everything. That lovely musical tinkle. This godforsaken beautiful country, what a mess. No matter the season, you could count on a freak hailstorm. The way grew icier and soon I could barely see, so I decided to pull the car over onto the side of the road and wait out the storm. Down it came still, in thick crystal flurries. It wasn’t freezing though, but it was moist enough that I could see my breath. Soon all the windows were obscured by fog. It was me there alone in the car and the sound of mother nature.
A song came on there in the dark. It was an old song that reminded me of my childhood, but it reminded me of something else. There had been another night, a humid, sumptuous evening in the hot summer. On that night, there had been another party, and there had been a lot of drinking, and when our wine glasses were empty we refilled them and refilled them again. Then, in the thick of it, a young woman I admired walked into the party in a red dress. As soon as I saw her, I leapt to my feet, as if animated by some supernatural power. I went at once to her and we began to dance to the same song that was now playing on my tiny car stereo in a hailstorm near Rapla.
A great gush of love began to flow through my body as we danced together that night, and it lingered even when the song ended, and we held each other briefly and I kissed her on the side of her head and embraced her just one moment more. “Thank you for the dance,” I had said to her, and she had looked at me and thanked me as well. “But now I must be going,” she said. “I know,” I said. Go now and live. Let the dream of life carry you forward into never-ending ecstasy.
For a few moments, everything had been worth it.
This column appears in the winter issue of the magazine Hingele Pai.
I’M GRATEFUL NOW, when I think about it, that I was exposed to Estonia’s eldest generation when I came here years ago, through the mother of my children, whose older relatives were all still quite alive, and came to visit and be photographed with our eldest daughter when she was born. These were people who were born in the 1920s and whose entire youth was anchored in the prewar Estonian state, that time when AH Tammsaare was mass producing literature, not just Truth and Justice (1926-1933), but I Loved a German (1935), and The Misadventures of the New Satan (1939). It was the radio era, when books were treasured and families would sit around the fire on winter nights reading for pleasure, without any disruptive technologies.
My understanding is that books continued to be valued in the Soviet era, and that they were quite cheap. As such, though they needed special permission to visit the islands of their own country, the elder generation was still able to amass a trove of good books at minimal cost at that time, so that even though their options were limited in the physical world, mentally they enjoyed more freedom, and the walls of their homes were still overflowing with volumes when I came to visit them, old books everywhere.
The book age was all supposed to come to an end though with the digital era, and we were supposed to abandon paper books for glowing flat screens. Yet something strange happened. We continued to invest in and buy books.
As someone who is deeply involved in the creation of these products, I have to say I am mystified. Why do we still buy them? A visit to a bookstore in Estonia today can be overwhelming. Have we ever had such choices? Even the series of Minu books takes up several book cases. There is Estonian literature, and then foreign translations. But there is also a wonderful selection of English-language books (yes, I prefer to read in English) which was not available 10 or 15 years ago. Recently, I was given a gift card to a bookstore and spent a good hour perusing all of the new offerings because I couldn’t decide which books to take home. In the end, I bought two obscure Ernest Hemingway titles — Death in the Afternoon (1939) and To Have and Have Not (1937) — which are, 80 years after the radio era, still in print.
Books (and gift certificates for books) remain one of the most cherished gifts that Estonians give each other during the holidays. I used to think this was because people had limited imaginations, and couldn’t think of what to buy each other, and books seemed like a respectable gift, but others say it is because Estonians treasure books as they have for many decades in the past. They were the literate peasant people, they say, able to read since the Swedish monarchs established a system of schools many centuries ago. Yet I think one of the reasons books remain a popular gift, especially at Christmas, is just because they are wonderful items to share among people.
Books are paper and print, true, but, if they are well-written, and their authors have worked their special author magic, they are also filled with a substance — sisu, as the Estonians say — that is lacking in new ski boots, cinnamon-smelling candles, or loaves of gingerbread dough wrapped in plastic. Is there really a gift out there that measures up to a new, good book? I no longer have any doubts. If you come to my house, it’s starting to look like one of those old Estonian relatives’ places. The titles are stacked up on the shelves by my bed. Old books, new books, favorite books. I don’t even need to read them all. Just looking at all of those books makes me feel good.
This column appeared in the winter issue of Kõik Koos – Lõunakeskuse Ajakiri.