LAGKAGEHUSET, a Copenhagen bakery facing Buka, another Copenhagen bakery, facing a money exchange, cornered by pedestrians, pigeons, cappuccino foam drying in ceramic cups on little tables in the hot sun, and an old(er) bum sleeping on a bench nearby, which reminds me of another bum I saw this morning by the train station, sunburned and adrift, long greasy hair, indigent garbage picker, laughing at the joke of the world, amid the commuter crunch rush onslaught, and an impromptu business meeting in a café corner meantime overheard, the English catchphrase being, ‘exactly, exactly,’ all hours ago now, but a short distance from this Bum No. 2, under the God Smag, God Tid sign of the bakery, slumbering beside a peeling concert poster for an event that took place in April. This street is called Mikkel Bryggers Gade. It terminates with the Grand Teatret, gilded cinema venue of yore, wherein Young Justin and Young Patrick once watched Apocalypse Now: Redux in ’01. Patrick was unimpressed, as I remember, Young Justin was nonplussed. (‘Some more people die, and everyone gets laid,’ Pat’s review.) There used to be a little deli here too, run by an aspiring Dane in a chef’s hat and his wife selling smørrebrød. Today, their dream is dead, but the cinema survives, as well as a Vietnamese eatery. Across the way, an erotic boutique called Lust. The bum sleeps on, wonderfully.
HOW TO DESCRIBE a place like this? Tang of cannabis smoke, thick, white, and familiar, bicycles (many) and of all kinds, bearing all kinds of cyclists, young families (for example) with carts, Muslim businessmen, men with both ears pierced who are deeply in love, strawberry-haired girls as sweet as soft-serve ice cream, that choppy, guttural, lively language, spoken between shopkeepers watering flowers, or shoppers thumbing vintage clothes between the Homoware sex boutique and Café Dubrovnik, all of this at Studiestræde and Larsbjørnsstræde on a sunny May afternoon in Copenhagen.
I AM JUST LIKE YOU. I’ve been watching Zelenskiy on TV every night on my couch. Not wartime Zelenskiy — I get my updates from wartime Zelenskiy on my phone — but peacetime Zelenskiy, when he starred in Servant of the People from 2015 to 2019. It’s almost painful to watch the opening credits, where he cycles to the presidential administration building through a clean-looking, sunlit Kyiv, winking at pedestrians, being watched by old couples, past leafy parks and old stone monuments. This was the Ukraine that still existed just a few months ago, I suppose, the freewheeling, post-Euromaidan Ukraine, the Ukraine where a comedian was elected president. That Ukraine, before the missiles, the deportations. Now it all seems like a lost world.
When the war came, I was gripped not only by panic, but by a crisis of conscience, or a collapsing sense of self. The American writer Scott Fitzgerald’s first book, This Side of Paradise, published in 1920, described the development of his self-modeled protagonist from what he called an “egoist” to a “personage.” We have a core self, the self we have always been, and then a second self, a personage, or persona, a self we have created, one that is not necessarily an illusion, but the face we show to the world. Zelenskiy’s character in Servant of the People was very much his “second self,” just as my identity as a writer is my own. It’s a jacket I can wear all day and take off at night. Just as I put my feet on the couch and watch Zelenskiy and try to forget about the war, he once came home from the studio, kissed his wife and did the same things. Comedy, entertainment. It was just a job, but it wasn’t necessarily who he was.
Then when the war started something happened. I could no longer write. I searched for inspiration, words, but nothing came. Fiction? Columns? Articles? This wistful quasi-romantic bric-a-brac I have been serving up for years, like baked potatoes? Nothing materialized. I missed deadlines. I went missing in action. My editors pestered me, badgered me, waited for me, anxiously, and I had no idea what to say. I blamed it on the war, of course, because I could not write because nothing I could write could measure up to the terrors of this world. What need was there for writing anymore? What need was there for comedy? What need was there for fiction? What need? Within a few weeks, I had lost all desire to be whoever I thought I was. It had disturbed everything.
These sound like first-world problems, I know, but writing seems to be my sole surviving talent. If I cannot write, I cannot work. If I cannot work, I will not get paid and I will run out of money. If I have no money, I can’t support my family and we won’t eat, or I will have to borrow money and steal firewood from the neighbor. So whatever was happening out there, I had to pull myself together and push through the storm. Even if my core self was struggling, my second self, this writer character I had long ago devised, he had to see things through. That person had to keep writing, even if I didn’t feel like it.
I think a lot of other people have had to go through this process. In a war, it seems that all is needed are more soldiers, tanks, missiles, planes, better messaging. There is no need for books, no need for fiction, indeed, no need for comedy or TV shows. There is no need for anything, if you think about it. No need for concerts. No need for yoga classes. No need for finely prepared meals. No need for a walk in the park. Nothing, but to keep breathing, is necessary in a war. Yet if we cannot live our lives, then what exactly are we fighting to protect? Exactly that, our right to live our own lives, to write, to make jokes. To continue on without the dark threat of war.
This is the mindset I have adopted to keep myself in some kind of balance: that no matter what happens, life must go on. Even if they put me in a deportation camp, I shall steal a pen from a guard, and write my book on the back of a political poster. For I am a writer, and that is what I must do. For Volodymyr Zelenskiy, I believe it is the same. Right now, he is being the president, just as he once was a comedian. He is a father and a husband, too, and I hope that someday he will know a day without fear and frustration. One day Zelenskiy’s country will be rebuilt, and for a few moments his family will sit in a Kyiv park and forget it. Just a few moments. I don’t think any of us will forget about it, but for a few moments we can not think about it, I think. That is my hope.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.