THERE CAME A POINT during this year’s European Sauna Marathon, which was held in and around Otepää and had about 900 participants, that I had to turn to my teammate Allan and ask him an uncomfortable question.
We were standing outside the maasaun overlooking a frozen pond that, fortunately, did not have a welcoming ice hole awaiting one of our team members. I was the first team member to go into the ice hole at the Kekkonen Sauna at the start of the day in Kääriku. We weren’t permitted entry into the sauna until one of us went in. Down I went, down the ladder, thrusting myself into the chill water until it covered my shoulders. I came out blinking and cursing, feeling like I had just been baptized. But baptized by what I wondered? Tradition? Stupidity?
At the maasaun, we stood about with the other teams. Four grown men from Germany dressed in matching lederhosen and sauna hats. We saw their truck — which had a German flag painted on the side — at most of the saunas. There was a Mexican team, too, with sombreros, and a Danish team with Viking helmets and the red and white Danish flag, supposedly gifted to their countrymen during a siege of Tallinn in the 13th century. Yet it was the Estonian teams that were by far, the most varied and bizarre.
Some came in Spider-Man pajamas, others wore what looked to be their grandmothers’ bath robes. One team wore matching silver helmets, another wore fluorescent wigs and little else. There was a man in a full-body pig costume. I think I saw a man dressed up like a sheep at the indiaanlastesaun — a sauna located in a giant tee pee in the hills outside Otepää — but I am not sure. It was really smoky in there. There were the female teams dressed in bikinis with glittery tassels, like exotic dancers from space. They gathered around a karaoke machine at one point to sing along to the Estonian classic, “Viska Leili.”
Viska leili! Küll on mõnus, soe, ja hea! Viska leili! Viska leili!
This song was originally called “In the Navy,” and recorded by The Village People, a (mostly) gay disco group in 1978. Yet somehow the Estonians took a song about gay sailors and turned it into an anthem for tossing water onto the hot stones of the sauna. That’s not all they tossed on the rocks. At one sauna, marathon participants apparently ran out of water. Someone had peed on the rocks instead. We called this one the pissisaun.
Outside, dudes named Juss and and Janar were skating around on a frozen tiik in nothing but their swim suits and drinking beer. “Hey, Juss, would you throw me another can?”
That’s why I had to ask my uncomfortable question at the maasaun.
“Allan,” I said. “Did you ever think that the Estonians are a little, you know …” I put a finger to my temple and twisted it back and forth.
“What?” he asked. Allan’s Estonian himself, tall, big, and blonde with decades of sauna experience, especially at his country house’s sauna, which he insists is the very best.
“You know, when a man marries his sister and they have a kid. What do you call it?”
“What? Hmm. I don’t think we have a word for that in Estonian,” Allan replied.
“Oh well,” I pushed my freezing hands deeper into my wet pockets and thought of another way to present my question. “Have you ever thought that you Estonians are a bit crazy?”
Allan just laughed. “Not so much up in North Estonia,” he said. “But down here in South Estonia,” he cast an eye at some of the other, strangely dressed sauna goers and sighed. “The people down here are a little cuckoo, yeah.”
I HAVE HIGH HOPES FOR 2017. For one, it’s not 2016. That alone is an incredible improvement. The past year took enough beloved artists to crew a ghost ship. One can imagine them all — David Bowie, Prince, Alan Rickman, Umberto Eco, and Leonard Cohen — sailing that wonderful ship into the heavens while the rest of us are stuck here with Donald J. Trump and Vladimir V. Putin.
But we should not despair. We still have ourselves.
The self, yes, the most holy and high entity there is in the modern age. Isn’t that what all health and fitness magazines are about really? The self. You must exercise it. Maintain it. Finesse it. Love it too. Even practice self love — in private. You cannot do without it. At all times you must be testing it, probing it, exploring it. It’s like one of those Russian Matryoska dolls. You open one “self” only to find another, and within that self is another, and then there’s another. There’s even a tiny little self inside of that one too. It’s fascinating. The process of self discovery never ends, rather this game is supposed to keep you entertained for the majority of your time here on the planet.
Until you join the ghost ship with Prince and Bowie. Then a new journey of self revelation begins.
The self is only the vehicle though, the ship. The destination is perfection, or rather a perfect self. The goal is not really about improving the well-being of your community or your family, or if it is, it is through improving yourself. After all, how can you help others if you don’t take care of yourself? Surely, if enough people become vegetarians and do yoga, all will be right with the world. Stronger muscles, a healthier digestive track, healthy skin that glows, great sex — but not too much, an uncluttered mind as mindful as minds can be. Not the Dalai Lama, but close enough. We must hit the gym, lift weights, change our diets, not to mention daily meditation and asanas. And if you feel lost, you can go to India. Many others seem to be able to locate themselves there.
I know I sound like a cantankerous old bastard but hear me out.
As 2017 dawns, I must determine what to do with myself. Should I putter on as I did through the windstorm year that was 2016? Should I binge on coffee, on Internet, on apathy? Should I eat more chocolate, shivering in the cold waters of modern anxiety and restlessness? Or should I flip through one of those fitness magazines and download a bunch of self improvement applications, sign up for tantra courses, and commit myself like the others to the glorious cause of the self?
Mediocrity or perfection, that is the question. And I am starting to think perfection is a worthy goal.
I admit this with some hesitance. Why? Because being mediocre is so comfortable, isn’t it? When I look at the images of men and women who labor away in gyms, I cringe. It’s not jealousy, but a repulsion to anything to do with weight rooms and rowing machines. I hate fitness clubs. For one, you have to pay to go in. You pay to do work you don’t really feel like doing. It’s like college. Also, they stink of sweaty dudes — not my favorite aroma. I think I’d rather shovel horse manure. And yet, other than cross-country skiing, this is really the best place to improve your physique. Other people swear by it and say that it’s the greatest feeling in the world, working out regularly. They all want to be like Arnold Schwarzenegger but the truth is that I’ve never wanted to be like Schwarzenegger. Yet I may no longer have that choice. I’m getting older. I need more energy.
Like Arnold, I must pump iron.
And despite my apprehension about toying with Eastern Philosophies, the reality is that my mood and mindset do improve if I take time out each day to space out for a while. In fact, it’s been happening spontaneously more often, probably because my children are sucking my life essence. I’ll just sit on the couch and find myself staring off into oblivion. Apparently, this is what the Tibetan Buddhist monks do all of the time, other than eating. Maybe those guys are really on to something.
Or maybe these are the earliest stages of dementia?
Whatever they are. I’m in. It’s time to join up with the rest of you here in Estonia. A perfect amount of exercise in a gym next to big smelly dudes named Priit and Märt, a perfect diet of strange dishes cooked up at some vegan restaurant, and some extra expensive tantra courses, of course.
As much as I would like to deride it and resist it, the writing is on the wall for me in this fresh year.
In 2017, I must improve myself.
STOCKHOLM. Whenever I used to come here years ago, I was struck by ‘country envy.’ This was the sense, having left the then-derelict Port of Tallinn behind me, with its roving bands of Finnish vodka brigands, that Sweden was somehow superior, cleaner, better kept, more efficient. The moment I stepped onto the T-Bana and rocketed into T-Centralen with its many cute shops, I understood that Sweden was some kind of wonderful paradise, a promised land, where the cinnamon rolls were always softer, the coffee stronger, the Scandinavian people genteel.
Recently though, I have come to learn more about its seedier side thanks to my Swedish friend Jonas, who regales me of life having grown up in the tenements near the harbor, which is now pocked with litter and graffiti, making it look like some sad distant sister to Tallinn’s Linnahall, and reducing my faith in Swedish superiority. This is a neighborhood where the long-faced residents often live alone, watching TV and loading up on polarkaka and tabloids at the local supermarkets.
“But don’t they get lonely?” I asked Jonas, during a recent jaunt to the Swedish capital.
“Oh, they have ways of finding company. It is quite common in Sweden to have a knullkompis, you know,” he answered, as if he was one of those Gamla Stan guides talking about local culture.
“This is like a neighbor that you have sex with regularly, but aren’t together with.”
So it was true. Sweden had devolved into a big Melrose Place, just like Estonia. It was a land of isolated, lonely people seeking thrills. It was no longer the land of morally absolute Lutheran kings. It had become the land of knullkompis. In Estonian, I think the term might be kepivend or kepiõde. Or maybe it’s sõbrad boonusega. Whatever the locals call it, it exists.
I was recently told by a Tartu lady who is more or less my age and has been single forever that the city oozes with carefree sexual encounters. “Really?” I said. “It seems like it’s full of old folks named Aino and Endel.” “Watch out for Endel,” she answered me dreamily, as she was caught in a memory of some regrettable tryst.
I started to look at the people of Tartu differently after that.
I guess that this is now common all over the world. In Stockholm, or Tartu, New York or London, people have come to see life as as a one-time free pass to a vast amusement park. The purpose of life is not to live well, or properly, but rather to get as many thrills as you can get. You may even be married and have children, but that roller coaster on the other side of the park is too fetching. The family collapses and you chase after it in the name of happiness. And meaningless sex.
It sort of disgusts me, yet I must reconcile with it for I also dwell in the world of knullkompis now. Since I am officially single, people keep asking me if I am on Tinder, and someone stopped me in the street because her girlfriend wants to know where I hang out. “At the supermarket,” I told her, naturally. “Sometimes I am also at the kindergarten picking up my child.”
I have sworn off the idea of Internet dating entirely, even if it means remaining solo until the end of my days. I tell myself I would rather be dead before I would let someone select me for a date based on my online profile. Yet I’ve seen Jonas do just this. He likes dogs, so he always picks the Swedish girls who have dogs in their profile pictures. “That way I know we have something in common,” he says.
I admit I have found this mentality sneaking up on me. As I spent more time on my own, I find myself wondering why people would even want to be in a relationship at all. I marvel at politicians or celebrities who marry multiple times, as if this latest one will actually be built to last. Why waste your time?
Better to be alone, I think. Better to curl up in your place with a warm blanket and a good film. Better to keep a journal to absorb your self absorbed thoughts. Better to have some hot cinnamon rolls, some good Swedish coffee. Better to live each day for life’s simple thrills.
And if the neighbor should come knocking, well …
IT’S HARD TO RECALL when the elves first came into our lives, but it must have been during our oldest daughter’s second Christmas. The jolly child — who was adorable, with fat apple-red cheeks — would awake in the weeks leading up to Christmas to find some sweet waiting for her in a slipper beside the window. “Oh, päkapikud tulid,” she would mutter to herself on those long-ago mornings, munching on a chocolate, as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
For her, as an Estonian, it was natural.
To me it was strange. Having grown up with different, American traditions, I understood that two tasks were assigned to elves. The first was to observe children in the weeks leading up to Christmas to see if they were deserving of gifts. The second was to spend the rest of their waking hours toiling away in some kind of massive factory at the top of the world to produce those goods. So, espionage and slave labor. Such was the lot of the elves as understood by the Americans.
The Estonian elves were different. Independent, crafty. They were the undisputed Lords of Christmas, to whom everyone else, even Santa Claus, was secondary. The entire Estonian Christmas holiday revolved around their stealthy movements. From the moment the first sweets arrived at the beginning of the advent until the last bites of blood sausage were digested on Christmas, the elves were essentially running the Republic of Estonia. Children would gather and sing songs to revere these tiny gods. “Meil on päkapikud käinud, aga neid me pole näinud …” “Kuidas kõnnib, kuidas kõnnib, väike päkapikk.” “Seal elab päkapikk. Seal elab väike päkapikk. Seal elab päkapikk.”
They were also active in commerce. I will never forget the day I strode into a home goods store in Estonia, only to be greeted by an enormous icon of a wise-looking, red-hatted elf that read, “Päkapikk soovitab” — “The Elf Advises.” The Estonian elves, like the Estonian themselves, were quite resourceful. Not only did they deliver chocolate, but they could advise on sponges, rat poison, moth balls, and the like.
Our nine-year-old daughter has kept me up to date on the activities of the elves this year and I continue to learn more about their habits. For one, I am told that the elves are no longer peddling only in sweets. Some children come to school boasting that the elves have brought toys, even hover-boards. Others get whole boxes of candy, rather than just the traditional one or two pieces. She also knows exactly when the elves arrive. “Well, considering they start at midnight, and have to take care of the Finnish kids before they get to the Estonian kids, I would estimate that they come anywhere between 2:30 AM and 4 AM,” she informed her curious younger sister. When I asked her how she knew that, she scoffed at me. “Huh. Everybody in school knows that.” Selge.
It’s interesting how these children understand intuitively that the Finnish elves and the Estonian elves are connected. I know that it was several years ago when an Icelandic acquaintance mentioned to me in passing that the elves had recently visited her children in Reykjavik, leaving behind the same offerings of chocolates and modest gifts in slippers placed by the windows. As I began to read more about the role that elves have played in ancient nordic pagan beliefs, I understood that elves have been prowling around this part of the world for a long time. It made their appearance in our home, year after year, seem rather precious and sacred.
YOU SHOULD HAVE SEEN IT, a massive pile, like my own private garbage heap. Almost every item of clothing I had retained in the past 36 years was amassed on the bed in my new apartment, pants, socks, underwear, long underwear, dress shirts, ties, suits, pants, sweaters, socks, t-shirts, hats, belts, jackets. And just when I thought I had assembled it all for a final round of sorting, a suitcase was discovered that contained even more clothing! Somehow, I was supposed to dig through it all, excavate the gems, pack away the summer clothes, and find a way of discarding the remnants.
As a person who had little to no interest in clothing design, yet of course appreciates how well they can look and feel, it was truly dull work, so I decided to make a little sport out of it. With a fresh page in my notebook, I began to mark down the nation of origin of each item of clothing I owned. This was in part inspired by a recent documentary I saw, The True Cost, which highlights the uglier aspects of the global “fast fashion” industry, from murderous sweatshop collapses in Bangladesh to carcinogenic pesticides poisoning the minds and bodies of cotton-growing America.
Sure enough, Bangladesh was a popular country of origin for my attire, and so were several other Southeast Asian countries: Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Cambodia among the most popular. Since most of my clothes were purchased in America, this made me quite curious. Weren’t our airplanes bombing Vietnam and Cambodia just a generation or two ago? And now those people are making our clothes? Well, well. We must have mended ties and become good friends again.
Of course India and China were the two most prolific producers of Justin’s international wardrobe, which makes a strange kind of sense, as they do have the largest populations in the world. Most of my undergarments, including the long underwear I use daily here in snowy Estonia, were made in hot India. My higher quality clothes — dress shirts, jackets, and ties — were pieced together by the hands of millions of Chinese women who are in general paid about $1.26 a day for their work.
There were some surprises in the mix though. Shirts from Peru, ponchos from Pakistan. I even had a shirt from Mauritius, an island nation in the Indian Ocean. I had to double check its location. It was all quite exotic. My clothing had been to more places in the world than I had. There were other revelations. My Irish flag t-shirt had been produced in Thailand, not Ireland. My “Jorge Ben Brazilian Beat Box” t-shirt hadn’t been made in Brazil, but in Haiti. Haiti! Of all places! And my ultra-patriotic Captain America t-shirt had been stitched together by Mexican senoritas. My Breton sailor’s shirt was made in France though. That was a relief. My only EU-made item.
Those are just my clothes. I haven’t surveyed my daughters’ clothing, but I know a great deal of it comes from their beloved “Haa ja Emm,” fast fashion supreme. You can imagine how thrilled my girls were when H&M came to Tallinn, and then even more floored when it opened its glass doors in Tartu. Any time any one of these international brands comes to Estonia, they are welcomed like a liberating army. Yet this liberating army of fashion brings with it an unsavory sweatshop supply chain and a consumer junk culture that results in mountains of useless stuff. So, I am still sorting my clothes as I write this. If anyone wants to buy some old crap, you know where to find me.