dolce far niente; or, the sweetness of doing nothing

The following is the English-language version of the interview I did with Hedvig Hanson for the Estonian magazine Edasi. The original interview was done in Estonian.

I first met Justin Petrone three years ago when we met each other via the Petrone Print “Letters” series. His book was “Sketches of Estonia.” Mine was “Letters from the Mainland.” We spoke on the radio, in libraries, in book stores, and we even played a few songs at book launches, as the writer Petrone is also interested in music. His own swinging song carried the title, “The Green House Cafe.” This is an organic cafe in Viljandi. And the song wonderfully characterizes Justin’s creative outlook — from everyday things can be written chapters, or songs. Viljandi connects us as people, our kids attend the same school. There are other things that connect us, divorce among them, so we write sometimes or go for walks in the woods and discuss life. Sometimes we understand each other, sometimes not. 

An American with Italian roots, Justin Petrone has spent 12 years of his life in Estonia and on November 20th will celebrate his 40th birthday. Let’s discuss things with this writer.

Justin, the title of one of your books is “What Happened?” I could start by asking you the same question. You were born on Long Island into an Italian-American family, you studied journalism in the US, traveled the world, married, fathered three daughters, divorced, and now live in Viljandi where you are raising one daughter. If you rewind your life like a film, how would you describe what happened? How did you get here? Do you see these things as circumstances, or does everything seem logical?

This is all connected with me. I remember when I went to Mexico in March 2000, I had this feeling that I wanted to stay there. Then a year later when I was in Iceland, I had the same feeling, that I wanted to move to Reykjavik. I really don’t know why I didn’t want to stay in Washington, where I was living and where I attended university. Then I looked for a study program in Iceland, but I couldn’t find one. I found one in Copenhagen and went there. At first, it was hard to be in Denmark. I was deeply depressed. All of these beautiful blond people riding around on bikes. I felt like a real alien. But then I started to drink! No, honestly, I really did start to drink, but not only. That was a very crazy fall, because we had the September 11 attacks in New York. What did that mean for me? Well, my brother worked in Manhattan, and for some time, I didn’t know where my brother was, whether he was alive or not. Fortunately, I don’t think he went to the office that day, but when I heard the news, I had no idea. It was a horrible feeling. I remember how we were all sitting around the TV in Denmark and a German said to me, “This is payback for what you did in Vietnam!” The polite Danes sighed, but for them it was just bad news. “Change the channel.” The Americans were sitting around the kitchen, I remember, and there was a magazine that showed the people leaping from the towers. One of them just picked it up and tossed it across the table. “I can’t even bear to look at it,” he said. But I somehow understood that this life doesn’t last forever. It’s better to do what is in your heart. Not everyone gets to live forever. Those people who jumped were probably planning vacations they never took, or planned to propose marriage, but never got around to it because they thought their lives would last forever. So when I went to Finland in the following summer, and I met an Estonian wanderer, I decided that I would go along with her, and that adventures awaited.

If you would paint us a picture of your childhood on Long Island, what do you remember? What was around you, the environment in which young Justin was raised? What were your family traditions?

To start, my home was an island, which meant that I saw the sea from my bedroom window, and I played in the sand every day. I was very deeply connected to the sea, and I thought of life as being like water, because even when I was young and started to swim, I understood how the sea comes in and goes out, and how the moon can control the tides. In the ocean, there is a very strong and dangerous current, and you have to learn how to go along with it, or how to get out of it. I still think that life is the exact same experience. The best is when you have been in the water the whole day and you go to sleep, because you can still feel the motion of the waves in your blood. We lived in a very cool place, very hilly, almost impossible to ride your bike there. The hills go up and down. When I was five, there was a hurricane. This was really cool. We came outside and there were trees down everywhere. We didn’t have electricity for a week.

My mother’s sister lived on a nearby street and she had young children. I remember she would always come with a stroller and I would play with her kids in the sandbox. My mother’s family was essentially my family. She has three brothers and a sister. We had big parties, and Christmas was very important. My grandmother was like the matriarch and my grandfather had died long ago. I should add here that the Catholic Church was in my life at a young age. My grandmother is very devout and her brother, my great uncle, was a Catholic priest. Sometimes I would sleep there and I would be a little frightened by all the images of Jesus on the cross, honestly. At the same time, I took this faith in too. I probably still believe a bit. I even started school in a Catholic school, where there were nuns. My teacher was Sister Karen. But my mother had other beliefs. She was interested in psychic powers, reincarnation, New Age stuff, clairvoyance, telekinesis. I remember I would play this game with my mother where she would start a sentence and I would finish it. She was really shocked because I already knew what she was going to say. So it was kind of a weird childhood, full of esoteric stuff. 

When I was six years old, we moved away from there. I had new neighbors and I felt very free. I played with other boys in the woods a lot. Sometimes we went farther than we were supposed to, but we didn’t tell our mothers about our adventures. I remember I was very young, six or seven, when I already knew about sex and drugs and even knew that someone’s older brother drank or smoked pot. Kind of funny that we were kids, but still lived in an adult world. Grotesque a bit. I remember that when we moved in, some friends from the old neighborhood came to visit one summer’s day and then my new friends organized a gang against it. This was no joke. People were really fighting. There was one bad kid, a few years older than me, who gave a rope to another boy and said, “Go and kill Justin.” And he came after me. Unbelievable! It really happened. Then I remember that I hid myself in a bush in the forest and the other boys started throwing rocks at me. I still remember how I looked up and this rock came down and nailed me on the head. It was a big rock and it hurt a lot, but I survived. Maybe that’s what happened to me?

One more thing. I loved music. I found my parents’ old Beatles and Rolling Stones records and would listen to them all the time. Even at three in the morning. I talked non-stop about the Beatles in school — John, Paul, George, and Ringo. I drew pictures of them. They were gods and role models. Others thought I was talking about insects.

You have published 13 books — 8 in Estonian, 5 in English. I have read a few of these. Your descriptions of Estonian life really make one smile! Is it possible for a person with Italian blood who misses the sea to ever adapt to culture here?

My connection is mostly through my children. They are my children, but they are also Estonians. And because of that, Estonia can never be completely foreign. It’s a bit strange. I was just watching Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) and there was an actress who looked just like our daughter, Anna. I thought, wow, we really are Italians. But she also takes after her mother, and, especially, her grandmother, whose family name was Tulev. I thought, “What have we done? We’ve mixed Petrones and Tulevs together? And this was the outcome?” When I was in Helsinki, it also happened that I got lost and a young woman stepped forward and helped me find the right tram stop. And she looked just like my daughter! The same Finno-Ugric eyes, the same hair color, same facial features. It was weird. She was somehow also related to me. In this way, the Estonians are my relatives and apparently some Finns are too.

I have had tough times with the culture. I think that every foreigner here reaches that point where he starts to hate Estonians. They are really aggressive drivers. I have driven in Italy, New York, even in China (by taxi). But the Estonians won the competition. That arrogance, impatience, ego-centrism can be exhausting. Out of my way! Even my daughter says it to me in the kitchen when she goes to get milk or something. “Out of my way, I need milk!” It happens often that at this point, the foreigner flees, because he can’t deal with it anymore. I have learned how to manage. It even makes me laugh. “Okay, Estonian, I’ll get out of your way. Go and get your milk.”

I understand that at some time in the deep past, the Estonians were living with moose in the forest. It was very snowy and they even lived in tents. They sat around the fire, ate moose meat, butter, and karask, sang runo songs and it was very hard in the winter indeed. They have this primitive instinct to stay alive. And because of that they can be rather desperate at times, when they are driving for instance, or when they want something to drink. They are afraid they might not reach the destination. They’re afraid there might not be any more moose milk left.

You are funny! I recall one chapter that reminded me of the blues. It was a winter evening where you were walking around Pärnu and there’s a raw lonesomeness to it. Another similar chapter was about Narva-Jõesuu, how you lost your daughter and what feelings you had when you lost her and when you found her again. That was deep. It gave an impression of your sensitivity. The time when you were writing those chapters must have been a difficult one in your life.

I don’t remember where I wrote the Narva-Jõesuu chapter, but the title was “The End of the World.” That period really felt like the end of the world for me. I didn’t know what to do with myself. The fact that I was married, a family person, was a big part of my identity. It was who I was. But then my life started to change. If I didn’t live together with my wife and all of my children, then who was I? At that time, I started to watch the film The Grand Budapest Hotel a lot. I started to feel that I was that writer in the film, who is just sitting around in an old hotel alone. I don’t know why, but I had a great understanding that this was who I was. A writer. Not that I especially wanted to be one. I just realized I had no other real choice. I read Scott Fitzgerald’s books at that time, how he was also living in some hotel while his wife Zelda was in a psychiatric hospital, and he tried to write, drank too much, and their child was with relatives. I understood this deeply. But what else can you do except pull out the old typewriter?

But let’s talk about this “end of the world” experience. Nowadays, people take divorce relatively easily. For you, it was serious. In an Italian family, the whole family works together to keep things together. It is said that if you marry an Italian, you marry the whole family. In Estonia, we are all somehow on our own. There is the opinion that you have to manage yourself. I felt this acutely when my family fell apart. You have said that in Italy, it takes years to divorce. Here only a few months.

Yes I have said that here marriage is actually “cheap” in the sense that you only have to pay some money, sign your name twice, and that’s the end of it. Estonians praise this, because for them individuality is the most important and everyone is separate, but here I have to ask, if it’s so easy to marry and divorce, if these are such carefree events, then why do people marry at all? To have a big party, eat some cake, dance and take a lot of photos? It’s true that it takes more time in Italy and in New York to divorce, but at the same time, marriage is actually supposed to last for your whole life! That’s the point. People pledge this in church, before God. So this confuses me and I don’t understand what the point of marriage is at all.

In the year 1913, my great grandfather Salvatore Petrone, age 19, married my great grandmother, Rosaria, aged 21. From this marriage were born eight children, one of whom was my grandfather. They remained married until his death nearly 40 years later. Long ago, in southern Italy, family was the only social institution that mattered. Church? State? These were weak and corrupt. What was important to them? That they might have some money, a home, and work. But nowadays everyone wants to live like he’s Ingmar Bergman or Marcello Mastroianni (although Mastroianni remained married to his death, even though he fathered a child with actress Catherine Deneuve). We want more. It seems quite decadent, but that’s how it is. This is my nordic life henceforth. I try to live this Bergmanesque life.

You live together with one child, 12-year-old Anna. What’s father and daughter life like? Who does what? What do you teach her, what does she teach you?

Anna has a lot of questions and sometimes they are difficult to answer, because I don’t know the right answer or it’s too difficult to explain. One question is, for instance, “But why is Donald Trump a bad president?” Well, where to start? Or, “How come Estonia wasn’t always free?” It’s interesting for me, as a father, how important her home is for her. For me, these are just couches, tables, shelves — things that aren’t very important. But she would like to have a beautiful and cozy room, and that we would have a comfortable and well-ordered home. She sorts things, organizes her room, puts pictures on the wall. She has Christmas lights in there. She looks for and creates a homey feeling.

There aren’t many of us, fathers who live alone with our daughters, but we do exist.

That I had to in a way start over has not been easy for her, because I also had a crisis and I didn’t know how to get out of it. Was I only supposed to work? I don’t know how our children see us, but we try. With the others I have tried to share information. The eldest, Marta, often asks what really happen, and I tell her honestly what I think happened, who did what, how people sometimes manipulate others, and I think she has become quite adroit because of this. With Maria, I share things from my own childhood. I remember how when we were in New York, I would take her to the beach and we would sit there alone in the sand. That’s how she started to understand the timeless feeling of being beside the Atlantic Ocean.

Recently, I watched an old British program with her that I saw when I was very young. It came out in 1983 (it was so cool because though I didn’t notice it in the program at that time, New Order and Human League were playing in the background. The sounds of my childhood!) It was all about witchcraft in England and I felt somehow that she better understood those things, or that I had shared an experience with her. Now we have both seen it. I read my old childhood books to her too. I have even taught her a few Italian words. I just remember that one day, when I was very young and together with my mother in the kitchen, she took the milk out and said, “This is actually called latte. And the bread is actually called pane.” I do the same with Maria. At least this language won’t feel completely foreign to her, and she will understand that it is still our language in some way. I have repeated these experiences with her.

Your daughters are growing up separately. The eldest, Marta, lives with your parents in the US: The youngest, Maria, with her mother in Setomaa. And you travel between them all. This is certainly a complicated family system. But I am sure there is something positive in it. I am sure your daughters will grow up to be very strong women. Especially when they take after their mother.

No solution is completely satisfactory. The First World War was a hundred years ago. Great empires collapsed. All kinds of new countries emerged on the map of the world — Estonia one of them. Where there once stood the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian Empires, were now interesting new countries, and nobody knew where the “correct borders” between them were. Even today the Kurds and Turks are fighting over this in the Middle East. We see the same between Ukraine and Russia. These are actually old conflicts that have not been resolved, because nobody is satisfied with the outcome. But sometimes, states become tired of fighting and the status quo is the new reality. The Åland Islands belong officially to Finland, but Swedes are living there, and there is no war there. Life just goes on, and I believe the islanders in Mariehamn are happy. Northern Ireland is another such example, perhaps. Nobody is completely happy, but they made up somehow because people were tired of fighting. They want to go to work, to live their lives. It’s not so important where the exact border is. Life isn’t just war. And family systems work the same way. I was with Maria in the countryside recently and I saw that she actually enjoys the country life. Every day, she sees what the animals are doing. For her, animals are characters, just like people. The hardest of course is that my eldest is so far away from me. It’s very strange for me and I have not gotten used to it. But I will forever be her father and that will never change. Naturally, they will become strong women. But I hope they will also be wise enough to know when to use their strength and when not to.

Right now you are writing My Viljandi, which will come out next summer. And you have started a new genre — novels. What is your novel about?

My Viljandi will come out in July 2020 at Viljandi Folk. We always planned that the new book would come out at Folk. I have worked on this book for three years. I have so much material and I don’t know how many pages. Actually, there are a lot of good books about Viljandi already available. Heikki Raudla has written very well about Viljandi, for instance. I advise them. This book is something else, definitely, but I hope these characters start to live in people’s hearts in the future, and become part of the lore of Viljandi.

People think that Viljandi is the bellybutton of the world, or at its end, but this is a town that breathes art. I think every person here is living in their own novel. Sometimes really because Romaan (“Novel”) is a favorite bar on Koidu Street. When I was in Reykjavik a summer ago, I bought Sjon’s books The Whispering Muse and Moonstone. I thought I would like to write the same kinds of novels. They are both beautiful books, but not very long. I just don’t have the time to write some huge novel but I could write shorter ones. I have different ideas. One takes place in Estonia in the 1960s, the other is set during Prohibition.

In addition to your books, you also write about genetics. Can you explain your interest in genetics?

As I wrote in my novel Montreal Demons, genetics is our new god. Genetics explains everything. Now they say that old traumas live on in our genes. All from genetics. I arrived to the genetics world in 2003 when I lived in Tallinn. The newspaper The Baltic Times sent me to Tartu for a genetics conference. I started to write about it, and that world pulled me in. I was already tired of politics. To write about politics is a dangerous profession. Politicians lie. That’s their job. They aren’t two-faced. They have 50 faces or more. A politician will tell you something in the morning and by nightfall will say that it never happened and that you haven’t done your work well, or you’re a liar, or you support another party. But scientists are actually cool people. 

I will gladly meet with Andres Metspalu or Lili Milani. Let’s have some coffee and talk about genetics. I am not a scientist myself, but I enjoy their company. It’s a colorful world. These are people who are really trying to change everything. A politician’s promise is that the pension will rise x percent, or that public transport in Tallinn will be free. But a geneticist is a person like Kari Stefansson in Iceland who believes he can predict everyone who is at risk for breast cancer in Iceland and, if the government will allow him, wants to alert people to that risk to potentially save their lives. In this way, they do want to play God. They are creating a new world for us each and every day. My articles appear mostly on GenomeWeb. This is a popular publication based in New York. I have worked with them since 2005. My first editor there was from St. Petersburg. For him, Estonia was a neighboring country and he was greatly interested in Estonia. So, thanks to Estonia, I got the job.

You also have a great interest in history. I believe you know more about Estonian history than the average Estonian. Does knowing history help to better navigate the present?

An interesting question. Recently I was reading about the history of Viljandi and understood better why people are afraid of Russia, because every 100 or 150 years, the Russians return, burn the place to the ground, and leave. Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great did it. So it’s easier to understand the trauma that is inside Estonians. I also have this in me now. If I hear a rattly motorcycle engine in Viljandi, or the fireworks go off, I immediately think, “Did the Russians come back?” Interesting that people don’t fear the Germans the same way, though they behaved the same. It’s also interesting to read old Estonian narratives that are a few centuries old and understand that things haven’t changed a lot. They had the same concept of life. I recently was reading about Jaan Tõnisson, and what a hardworking, industrious youth he was at his family farm out in the countryside, and then there were photos of him in a student corporation hat and I thought, “See, nothing changes.” It only repeats itself. Some Estonians die, others are born to take their place. Time is not chronological. It repeats and repeats. It’s a spiral.

I believe that knowing our family histories helps us to better understand ourselves.

Absolutely. I only recently learned that my great grandfather was once an anarchist in Italy, and his brother too. And on my other side, my father’s side, it was the same story. I have a relative, Attanasio Dramis from Calabria, who was a very influential anarchist in 19th century Italy. So we have never respected authority! Or maybe it’s more the idea that rules are meant to be broken. During Prohibition, they still made their wine, because a law is just a rule. My mother’s family, the Abbatecolas, are passionate people. Even on Facebook they are fighting sometimes about politics. Sometimes it’s even too intense for me! The Petrones are more melancholic ladies’ men, I think. They loved wine, women and song, but mostly women. It’s nice to think that, yes, I am a bit alone in this world, but once upon a time there were uncles who were just like me. Maybe they were a bit dumb at times, but that’s just who we are.

How do you feel in Estonia really? From an outsider’s perspective, it seems you’ve really taken it into yourself — You speak Estonian, know the culture and history. But do you feel it’s your home?

In some ways, it’s quite comfortable. I was in New York in the summer and it was hot and fun. I really enjoyed it. Then I came back, there was a brisk wind, I went to the market in Tallinn, the people were so beautiful, and Postimees wanted a column from me. So I pulled out the laptop and I wrote it up — this was the fantasy that there was a concentration camp for foreigners in Estonia. It was a satire, but I read in the comments that Lauri Vahtre said I had spit in the face of the Estonian nation. Really? So satire is prohibited then. But my soul brother Jaan Kaplinski liked it. That also counts. I often think of how we are different. It came to mind recently, that an Estonian’s first thought is, “What should I do,” followed by, “What’s the point at all?” I once told an Estonian woman that I had romantic feelings for her and do you know what she said? “That’s nice. But what’s the point?” And then she said, “It’s nice if you feel something, but you don’t have to talk about it all the time. Feeling and talking are two different things.” 

When an Estonian wants to relax, she does something. Picks potatoes. Goes mushrooming in the forests. Skis. An activity. For me, this is all backward. When a person relaxes, he doesn’t do anything at all. For me, life is absurd. There is no point or reason to life. I don’t know where that idea came from. Maybe a little Italian dolce far niente (“the sweetness of doing nothing”), but there is also a French existentialist influence. Not that I, as a youth, read Jean-Paul Sartre, but I think the French existentialists were very influential in culture in general in the 1960s and 1970s, so that it influenced me via the culture. The hippie phenomenon was very existentialist in outlook. So, dear Estonian lady, wherever you are at the moment, those feelings were great and wonderful. I liked them.

Estonian women. You have admired them, your children’s mother is an Estonian woman, but sometimes it seems that you still don’t understand them. Are Italian women different? Or is it just different from men to understand women’s logic, hormones, and behavior, and isn’t connected to nationality? For me it seems logical, we don’t have the experience of living in another gender’s body.

Italian women? Listen, it’s a damn good feeling to step inside a store in Puglia and have all these Italian women be friendly to you and smile and say, “Ciao, bello, ciao.” I love it. My whole body bubbles like hot chocolate. I need that kind of warmth, especially when these winters are so cold. It’s like a warm breeze. It’s something within me that I need at times, because that’s just who I am.

Most of my friends think I am a pretty mild-mannered person, but there is a crazy Mediterranean side, especially if I have some wine. Then I start to flirt and things get out of hand. I can be very intense. If I am sad, then I am very sad. If happy, then with a big smile. Once I got very angry and threw a container of milk against the refrigerator. Then a moment later I looked down and thought, “God, what an idiot you are,” and got the mop out. Damn.

The average Estonian woman, if she has a father, has not grown up with this kind of man. The average Estonian father is peaceful, does his work, comes home, eats some potatoes, goes back to work, and later puts up some shelves. Nobody’s throwing milk at the fridge! Once a whole stack of firewood collapsed on me and then I really started to curse. But then I felt better.

There are volcanoes in Italy, you know. Sometimes you need a good earthquake or explosion. Then things get better. It’s cathartic.

But in fact, I love Estonian women a lot, especially those wild Sami, Finno-Ugric types of women. I think that they have fire in their hearts too, and in a strange way complement Mediterranean men. This overly pragmatic, Germanic, city mentality doesn’t suit me because, for better or worse, I am not a logical German. But these wild Finno-Ugric women are full of vital essence, sisu. I would never say they are tepid or reserved. They are a force of nature, terrifying, passionate, wise, and insanely sexy. If you like extreme experiences, then I definitely advise one.

Women most certainly have a different perspective. My daughters are already as children far more intelligent than I am at the moment. How did they get so smart so quickly? It’s unbelievable, but I have a very rich life thanks to the fact that I have these smart young girls and women in my life who can explain to me what’s actually going on. Sometimes it is hard to understand how they see the world, because in their minds, all things are connected. It happens that I might do something wrong, but I don’t know what it is. They are angry, but later feel better, but I still don’t know what I did, and they won’t tell me. It’s a real mystery.

You have stayed single after your divorce, even though I imagine that for Estonian woman, a tall, mature Italian-American, who is still sensitive, is their romantic dream. Is that your conscious decision or are you too complicated to fulfill someone’s romantic image of you?

I have certainly had love interests after the divorce. Each one has been inspiring, intelligent, and beautiful. I have also communicated with a lot of women and have learned a lot from them. I take it that I am learning new things right now. This is a period in my life when I talk to a lot of people and have new experiences. This helps my writing too. It’s good when you have new characters. I should also acknowledge that I have learned a lot from younger women in particular. Often people think that young people are dumb, don’t know anything, are immature, unreliable. But actually women who are my age behave exactly the same way. Some things just don’t change and it is often young people who have a clearer picture of the world and how things actually are. They are the wise ones, we are the ones who are still confused. So I am grateful to them. In this context though, it would be very complicated if I just had one “new partner” if I want to wander, discuss, experience, listen. I no longer need someone at home. I am now looking for inspiration.

You get along well with Epp. Divorce is a painful process and many never make up or become friends. Why have you been able to do that? For the children, it’s very necessary. Perhaps you can give some advice?

I don’t think I am the right person to give anyone advice. I see a psychologist about once a month. That has helped and I advise that for sure, because, let’s be honest, our friends tire quickly of our complaining. As I see it, most conflicts are built on top of an old wound. Something that went wrong in the past. “You did this!” Even international relationships function this way. Take Estonia and Russia, for example. And also in Western Europe. I remember when I was 14 in Switzerland, someone said that the Swiss were worried about all the land the Germans were buying up. “See, they are trying to take over again, but this time without an army. They are just going to buy everything!” This is a conflict that is based on something that happened in the past. These wounds and traumas are sometimes quite difficult. They are real and they haunt you. At the same time, life goes on and they are exhausting. You have to think, do you really want it to be that when you die and go to heaven and God asks you what you did with your life, you answer, “I fought with my ex. But I won in the end!” This is absurd and stupid. This woman or man is also your children’s mother or father. In this way, you are joined to the end, because from you has come a new bloodline. Our children are part of me and part of her. We are therefore still a family. From a biological perspective, whether the paper says you are married or not doesn’t matter very much, honestly.

What are your creative ideals? What else would you like to do? Is the life of an international writer your dream?

I would really love to be in a band. Is it a midlife crisis or not, I can’t say, but I love to play music and supposedly I am a good bass guitarist. That is definitely a dream. I tried to put something together in Viljandi, but we all work and have children. It’s hard to do. I have a lot of friends who play, but they are professional musicians. It just doesn’t work this way that you ask Jalmar Vabarna, Silver Sepp, or Rauno Vaher, to put a band together. Because Silver is on tour in Uzbekistan, and Jalmar is playing in the Shetland Islands, and Rauno is … well, I am not sure where he is. Maybe in Jamaica? But I still hope it might happen.

The other thing is that I am a writer, not an Estonian writer I put my thoughts about an Italian trip on my blog once and it became one of my most popular posts. Thousands of people have read it. So I think it would be a good idea if I wrote something about Italy too. As a writer, I still feel I am very young and these coming years will give me plenty of opportunities to write interestingly and wonderfully. It would be great if some time in the distant future, I would end up like Henry Miller, who lived to be 88. All the other writers of his generation were long gone — Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, John Dos Passos — but every time they needed to wheel out an old man to spin some yarns, he would be there with an old cap on his head, a cane in hand, and twinkle in his eyes, to say, “Well, in those days, it was like this …”

Name some people who have inspired you.

Björk Guðmundsdóttir is a terrifically creative person, who showed me that art can be therapeutic. This feeling that when the shit starts to fly, you can always put out a new album and the sun will rise again. All the New York rappers have inspired me, I even listen to A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul when I write. Gypsy jazz has been a huge influence, the rhythm helps me to write a lot. The French guitarist Stephane Wrembel is my favorite and Django Rienhardt is our godfather. But you know, I have a lot of friends who are turning 50 this year. They are all born in the year 1969. I call them 69ers. When I worked in a music store in New York long ago, then my colleague Max was a cool hippie adventurer who worshiped John Coltrane, and I learned a lot about music from him in general. I was still a teenager and he was 28 or something. Already a wise old man! We sold a shitload of Spice Girls albums. And then when I came to Estonia, there was Steve Roman, my expat role model. All of my bosses in New York are born in 1969. I don’t know why this is. Why don’t I have a lot of friends who were born in 1968, or 1970? Why not? But since they are turning 50 this year, I ask you to pull out that bottle of wine and lift a glass to them too. Happy birthday, my dear friends!

I know you like old blues. I think the blues suit your personality. What do you think Justin Petrone’s blues name would be?

The Greasy Goose, because the water just rolls off my back.  A rolling stone gathers no moss.

You have said that you had your midlife crisis at 35. We have different crises in life. What did you learn from yours or are still learning?

The biggest thing was probably that you can’t control life. We’ve all heard that we are the masters of our own fates, but I don’t believe this, because I tried very hard to change my fate, but it did not work in the end. A person can control his or her own life, what he or she does. But not the bigger picture. I can’t change what my mother does, or what my father thinks, or how my wife feels. With this understanding came a great degree of surrender. It’s been an interesting experience for me, and I have to learn how to let go more every day, how to flow with my subconscious. It’s interesting, because actually you get some control over your life back. Because you actually do not control your own subconscious and at the same time, nobody else does either. It’s absurd, but a cool experience. I think that before the crisis, I lived more within frames or in boxes. Everything was constructed. Now the stuff of life is out of the box. Every day, I lie down, feel, think, dream. I see what’s in my heart. To where it flows, I don’t know, but let the water flow.

How do you feel about your 40th birthday? How will you celebrate? Will you make a tiramisu? I’ve heard your tiramisu is quite good.

My birthday is on a Wednesday, so I might go out with some friends. I’ve never liked big parties, especially in my honor. But this weekend I might go swimming with my kids. I think it’s a good choice to celebrate my 40th with my children.

Happy birthday and lots of inspiration!

apple preserves, two thousand seventeen

I WAS RECENTLY CLEANING out my refrigerator when I found an old glass jar buried deep in the back. It contained an intriguing gold-colored liquid and tiny white slices of apple that looked like sprats. Across the front, a faded, peeling piece of masking tape upon which some poor hand had written in marker, õunakompott, kaks tuhat seitseteist, “apple preserve, two-thousand seventeen.” I set it on the counter, not quite sure what to do with it. I assumed it was safe to eat, but I didn’t know and I have to admit it didn’t arouse my appetite. Those apple slices did look like dead fish. The truth was that I just couldn’t remember where the jar had come from. These Estonians were always giving me things that I didn’t know what to do with. I never asked, but they always gave.

Just a year ago I had to toss a whole bag of something called ebaküdoonia, a hard, bitter fruit that in English is translated as “flowering quince” but some also call the “nordic lemon.” We didn’t have ebaküdoonia where I grew up, and so I wasn’t really sure what to do with it. I took one of the fruits and sliced it and then tried to eat it raw. I imagined it was of some value for the Vitamin C content, and the fiber no doubt, and that it was perhaps a healthy food, maybe the healthiest, but I just didn’t have the time or will to chew through a whole paper bag full of ebaküdoonia.

This bag had arrived into my possession via the mother of my children, who had received it from an Estonian who lived on the prairies of southeast Estonia. It seemed odd how these Estonians seemed to be traveling the countryside with bags full of fruit in their cars. Then they would pull up to strangers at gas stations and offload the goods. “Here, here. Take it. Take it.” That twisted sparkle in the eyes. “You want some potatoes, man? Some homemade apple wine, man? I’ve got it all here. Some jars of sauerkraut too? And more ebaküdoonia? Just take it!”

I suppose for them, it was some kind of currency in those parts, as good as gold. Why, one could walk into, man a little general store in a place like Niitsuku and buy sugar or coffee with an ebaküdoonia or two. Three ebaküdoonia could get you a bag of makaronid from the Tartu Mill. They worshiped these fruity hunks of gold, but I had no use for the bitter things. Maybe they could be used for jams or juices? One or the other. The paper bag sat in the cold, limp and sad.

There was another situation in the summer where someone had gifted me a giant yellow squash. It was as big as a saxophone and delicate, so I didn’t want to just throw it in the back of the car. So I held it in my arms like a baby, and even buckled my seat belt over the squash, so that it would be safe in case of a collision. We drove like that, from one end of South Estonia to the other. The driver was an Estonian friend. When we neared Nuia, I turned to the driver and said, “Don’t you think it’s a little weird that we’re driving around the country with a giant squash?” The driver looked at me and the squash, shrugged, and said, “Noh, mina ei tea.” “Well, I don’t know.” It was all just normal, I guess. Normaalne.

If you ask the Estonians about these things, you’ll likely get a lecture about food shortages during the Soviet time (“It was all so hard, you know, so hard”) or they’ll even reach further back and talk about the old agricultural economy of the peasant days, how food actually was a traded commodity, sometimes more valuable than whatever the money of the day was. It’s also a symbol of trust and belonging. When the neighbor shares his apple wine with you, then you will know that you’ve finally made it and they accept you as one of their own. Being Estonians, they won’t actually tell you how they feel, but they will use free bags of fruit to express themselves. Then you’ll no doubt hear about the cold climate and the need to survive the harsh winter frosts. “That jar of sauerkraut could save your life!”

Meantime, I’m in the kitchen, staring at this archaeological artifact, a jar full of floating, shriveled two-year old apple slices that look like pickled fish. Yet when I told my friend, she thought I was joking. “Two-thousand seventeen?” she said. “But that’s fresh! I just found an old jar from 1997. By the way, do you still have that bag of ebaküdoonia?”

‘sober’ september; or, the desperates

WE DROVE BACK INTO TOWN on a Saturday evening in September. “Sober September,” I had been calling it because I hadn’t had one drop of drink since the wine festival at Õisu Manor at the end of August when I emptied perhaps two bottles of red wine and found myself seated at the “political table” on the estate grounds where I rubbed elbows with Helir Valdor-Seeder and pretended to have something profound to say about Estonian politics. “And you? You support Isamaaliit, don’t you?” I remember asking of Seeder. He had nodded and said, yes, indeed, he was a supporter of Isamaaliit. The lights of the Õisu Manor growing dimmer and blurrier, blinking. All that sloppy drunkeness, people slinking off toward midnight rendezvous in the bushes, and then that ride home with the party goers singing “Mustamäe vals.” That had been the summer’s last big soiree.

After that, I had pledged not to drink again. I looked forward to a month of clarity, of prolific writing, of pure sobriety, but just because I was having a sober September didn’t mean that everyone else in Estonia was. As we pulled up the hill, I spotted a solitary figure walking down its center, right in front of the old Orthodox Church that the Soviets once used as a morgue. A solemn, stick figure of a man, clothed in a black jacket. He was walking a bicycle up the hill. We waited and then I drove the car around him. I parked the car and my daughter got out.

As she did, the man reached the crest of the hill and collapsed. It was a stunning, dramatic fall. One moment he was standing, the next he was flat against the ground, the wheels of the bike were still spinning beside him. A crumpled pack of cigarettes had tumbled out into the street. The man was still.

“Let’s go inside,” I told my daughter, who watched the man with a curious but unconcerned look. “We’ll see if he gets up.”

From the window of my bedroom, I peered out the curtains to see the man had curled into a fetal position and was still sitting there beside his bike. I decided to call an ambulance. The dispatcher peppered me with questions. “Are you sure he needs help? Can you go and ask him if he needs assistance?” I went outside to check. He had a gash in his face that ran from his forehead down his nose and was bleeding. “Do you need help?” I asked the man. He just waved me away. “Does he need help?” she asked again. “I don’t know. He’s bleeding.” “How old do you think he is?” “I don’t know.” “Guess.” “Maybe 50.” Maybe. His hair was thinning, but he could have been my age too. He could have been younger or much older. Alcohol does things to your body.

Just then a jogger with a headband arrived, as if from some parallel universe. I handed the phone to him. “She keeps asking me if he needs help, I don’t know what to tell her,” I said. The jogger spoke with the dispatcher and with the man. The man just mumbled to us, “You people are too good for me. You don’t need to help me.” An ambulance finally arrived and three medics in red overalls jumped from its back. “We’ll take it from here,” one of them told me, “after you help fill out the accident report.” The jogger ran on, and I filled out the report and went back inside. The medics helped the man. He declined to go to the hospital though, and pulled himself up with his bike and walked off.

Years ago, I had tried to describe the people like this that inhabit every community in this country. I had used the word pööbel (riffraff) to describe them but it had been the wrong word. Watching that man saunter off, realizing that he was just a street or two away from another emergency call, the right word occurred to me. The man was desperate. These were the desperates. They collapsed in the roads of the land, haunted its parks guzzling bottles of beer in the summertime, sipping vodka in the winter. Once, when we were driving south through the mist, a man ran straight out in front of the car. He wouldn’t let us pass, so we drove around him. At first, I thought it was a moose.

My daughter reminded me of the “man in the fog” later. Something about both stories troubled me. My indifference, my lack of compassion. The man had said we were good people, but I was no longer so sure I was good. I had become too accustomed to the sight of a fellow human being in anguish. I searched my heart for some traces of kaastunne, but I couldn’t find any at all. It was buried in there though, somewhere.

It had to be.

the secret feminine world

WHEN I FIRST MOVED BACK TO VILJANDI after the split, I took a one-bedroom apartment in the Old Town. Then my second-eldest daughter decided to come and live with me. She slept in the bedroom and I slept on a pull-out couch. She was only nine years old at the time and still deep in her childhood. She would spend hours playing with toys. Later, she would go to take a shower and think nothing of me being there as I made food in the kitchen or did the laundry. One day though something unusual happened.

She asked me to leave. 

There is a kind of door that exists between fathers and daughters. When girls are young, the door is wide open. They come and go and the fathers come through the doorway and think nothing of it. There are no boundaries, no borders, and everything is open and fluid. As time goes on though, as the children grow, that invisible door starts to close, bit by bit, until one day it’s shut tight. Now the girls only come out to ask for some pocket money for ice cream, or if you can drive them to a friend’s house. Fathers never notice this until they reach for their daughters, only to notice that the door is shut. It’s not a depressing moment, only a bewilderment. It’s confusing. The door used to be open. 

Now it’s closed.

Living alone with one daughter though, I was subject to some new requests, ones that most fathers are perhaps not so familiar with. One day she asked if I could buy her a new bra, which I set out to do one evening at the local shopping center. I knew there was a lingerie store there, one that I had noticed many times because of the posters of half-naked women posing in various states of excitement in the display window. As you know, any man who stumbles into a lady’s lingerie store is immediately suspect. The seller looks you up and down. Who is this strange man fingering lacy brassieres?

I thought it would be easy. I buy shirts for my daughter all the time. I buy her pants, socks, shoes. With clothes, you can buy small, medium, large or, sometimes, according to age. Shirts for ages 10, 11, or 12, for instance. Here in the lingerie store, though, the bras had all kinds of interesting numbers. 65B, 70C, 75B? These are like apartment building addresses, not women’s bra sizes. At last, the seller came to help me. I told her my story. 

“But don’t you have anything for an 11 year old?” I said.

“I am afraid it doesn’t work that way. You will have to measure her.”

What?

“Or she’ll have to come here by herself.”

I forget how this particular situation was resolved, but I think her mother bought her everything she needed a week or so later. Still, every time I walk past that lingerie store I feel that something’s not right. It’s a place where I know nothing, a reality to which I do not belong. It’s an outpost of the secret feminine world, a door to their dimension. Sometimes my daughters come through. They come and act like everything is as it once was. After some time, they disappear behind the door and return to the other side.

This column appears in the autumn edition of the magazine Hingele Pai.

 

the final solution

AFTER CERTAIN DARK FORCES consolidated their power in Estonia, they hit upon a remedy for the most-pressing issue facing the country. All foreigners would be rounded up and removed to a single concentration camp on the Baltic Sea and forced to undertake national work projects. They called it the lõplik lahendus or the “final solution.” 

It was unclear who came up with this solution first, but many point to Member of European Parliament Jaak Madison’s statement in August 2019 that “die endgültige lösung ist erforderlich,” or “the final solution is required,” as laying the foundation for what came next. Madison referred to Eritreans, Kazakhs, and Syrians in his anti-immigrant outburst, but all foreigners in Estonia eventually were seen by the powers as suspect and confined to the camp.

They were arrested in the middle of the night and transferred in the backs of Cargobus vans. There had been no prior announcement. Americans, Chileans, Chinese, it made no difference. Each was awakened by a knock at the door and told to take along a few choice personal items.

Adam C., a translator from Minnesota, decided to take a few more Estonian books to translate. Stewart J., a comedian, hid his list of new jokes in his shoes. Louis Z., the Australian entertainer, hid his in his underpants instead. And members of BC Tallinna Kalev agreed to take a basketball. A local instigator who used the pen name Vello — widely considered to be the worst of the bunch — managed to bribe his guards and was allowed to take along several boxes of classic literature.  

These would form the backbone of the library of the first cafe that the foreigners opened at the new camp on the seashore, a charming little dive that its owners called “Cafe Final Solution.”

Each new inmate was given a number, a blue-black-and white uniform, and a new tablet. Each was allowed free and unfettered access to the internet. The camp had free wifi and SmartPOST. It was protected by a birch fence and heavily guarded. Many came in, but only few went out.

The work projects envisioned by the state — harvesting potatoes, cleaning and frying enormous batches of mushrooms, mass assembly of birch branch bundles to be sold in gas stations — were undertaken begrudgingly. The trouble was that the foreigners in Estonia weren’t particularly good at agriculture or Estonian national crafts. They had other talents though. Many. As the new forces came to recognize, almost all the best chefs in Estonia were actually immigrants. Alongside Cafe Final Solution appeared Swedish and Italian restaurants and bistros. The best Asian food was to be found on that pathetic little dirt street in the camp for foreigners.

After a hard day of frying mushrooms, the camp’s literary figures would gather at the cafe and write. Even the government started to outsource translation gigs to this assorted gang of foreign rapscallions. No one was ever in need of anything to do and each night there was a basketball game. Diego A., the Chilean barista, would be there making cappuccinos for whoever wanted.

The camp’s popularity, its peculiar success, would also prove to be its downfall. Word began to spread across Estonia about the hip scene at the Cafe Final Solution, the great food, the infinite delights. Old Estonian cassette generation hipsters wanted in. There was a special request for Vaiko Eplik to put on a free concert. Then other musicians wanted to perform there too. Rather than ending something, rather than bringing something to some final solution, the political powers now had to deal with lines of Estonians pleading for them to also be let into the camp. That’s how the camp finally met its end. The birch barricades came down and the foreigners returned to their humdrum lives of raising their Estonian kids and trying to make a living. 

It was all over.

I still have the wooden sign from the Cafe Final Solution though. I stole it before the camp was liberated and it hangs on my bedroom wall. Sometimes I toast it with a cup of kasemahl and cry.

background noise

AROUND A NEW YORK TABLE on a rainy summer eve a most intriguing theory is shared. “Everyone thinks it was the Russians,” says a cousin, raising an eyebrow. “‘The Russians, the Russians! It was the Russians,’ they say. But I have a friend who works for the airlines. He says he was taken to a bunker deep in the desert. It was a Donald Trump troll factory, row after row of computers. They’re the ones who hacked the election,” he folds his arms. “It wasn’t the Russians. It was us!”

No one quite knows what to make of my relative’s story, but it is not immediately dismissed. Anything is plausible in this era of conspiracy theories. In Britain, a certain Rees-Mogg is building a time machine to take people back to the Victorian Era. Italy is run not by the prime minister but by his deputy, a Kremlin fan boy named Salvini. Estonians are mystified by their politicians’ hand gestures. They wear broad hats and parade around like tsarist-era preachers.

Some are disowned for being soft on the new powers. Then disowned again for being too tough. Are you with the new government or against it? Are we all being played by Russian intelligence?

The gulf between the people and their leaders only grows. They are more like cartoon characters than politicians. Their boasts, absurd claims, midnight twitter storms only feed this alienation. The Estonians are despondent about their sullied national image. All major newspapers herald the rise of right-wing populism. Britain has a nervous breakdown. America has its mad king.

“Nineteen Eighty-Four!” an older uncle weighs in at last. “It’s coming to pass, just as they said. They are watching us through all of these new devices to control our thoughts. We’re in 1984!”

“You know, 1984 was actually a pretty good year,” my father says, looking up from his wine. Like his son, he’s been here all this time physically but mentally he’s somewhere else. “At least for me it was. Business was great. I had a great car. What was that band? With George Michael?”

“Wham!” I say.

“Yes, Wham! They were big in 1984. So was Van Halen. It was a great year, it wasn’t bad at all.”

“That’s not the 1984 I was talking about,” the uncle cocks an eye. “I’m talking about Orwell.”

Orwell. There is a deathly finality to the name and a sort of sullen agreement among the family members that things are trending that way. On the wall, the portrait of my long-dead Italian great grandmother watches over us with olive dark eyes. Deep sorrow. Mussolini has been resurrected. The lament of the ages.

The day after the Orwellian family dinner, I take a long walk to the end of a peninsula with all of the world’s troubles swirling around me. The sandy spit juts out into the Atlantic. It’s covered with near tropical greenery. Somehow it still seems impossible to get away from the noise. It’s everywhere, in everyone, a kind of contagious disease. Animosity, despair. People at each other’s throats. And yet the sea here is the same for now, as is the beach. The turtles still pull up on the sand to mate, and the crabs scatter before the seagulls swoop in and peck at their many thin legs.

If you wanted to, you could just turn the whole world off for a while, live and enjoy your time. Let your feet sink into the sand. Breathe, sweat, suck on the smell of the sea. Everyone is so worried, but their worry gets them nowhere. It only robs them of their lives. Let the background noise fade into the distance. Sooner or later, every Mussolini-sized ego is bound to implode. When it does, you’re far away. There’s a pretty world out there to be savored still if you want it.

the age of exploration

AFTER MY FRIEND FINISHED URINATING on a young tree in the parking lot of a major shopping center, I pushed him into the passenger’s side of a black sedan, shut the door, and the driver sped off into the blood-orange sunrise.

I began the walk home in the company of a woman I had only just met, and whose surname I never learned, telling her my life story. Across the street, a provincial scene played out in front of a ruined garage, where a group of men stood around several cars with arms folded, lights on, engines running.

“Maybe it’s a mechanic’s shop,” the woman whispered to me.

It was 4 AM.

There was something about the night’s events and the peculiar scene that appealed to my nomadic nature. And it reminded me that after all these years, nothing had changed. I had remained the same person I had always been, fully intact, given equally to melancholia, euphoria, and travel. I had wandered early morning streets in a similar haze, from San Francisco to Beijing, past blooming trees, earthy fragrances, glorious sunrises, singing birds. Life’s delicious dream. It was the same, for I had not changed. The idea that we progressed through life in steps or stages had been flawed. Our spirits, our souls were constant. The only difference was that I at last recognized this truth. It had all been part of the same long voyage. It was a kind of awakening for me.

A day later, with my hangover from Viljandi’s orgiastic Hanseatic Days fading, I took a train to Tallinn and walked the distance from the Baltic Station to Lennusadam to present from the publishing house that bears my name a set of books to a certain Mr. Pruuli, who was about to christen a sailing ship called the Bellingshausen before the vessel’s departure to Antarctica.

I came down Valgevase Street, passed the house I had once called home for a few months in a frosted, long-ago winter when I was a first-time father. In the backyard, a woman was watering the garden. She didn’t notice me when I stared up at our old window. I stood there and looked up into it a while, sighed, and continued on my way, turning left on Tööstuse, right on Kalju. Years ago this neighborhood was a real pommiauk, as they say, a “bomb hole,” but now it’s gone soft, gentrified. There are new buildings, the old ones have been refitted. Fine cars line driveways, some houses have swank address signs — 37B — as if they were hotels. The feral cats have diminished in number. Even the armies of the zombie drunks have fallen.

This time, I counted only two.

At Lennusadam, the land gave way to the port and the smell of the sea. A crowd had gathered around the spry adventurer Mr. Pruuli with his spectacles and seafarer’s earring. He would lead the expedition to the great white south, recreating the voyage of Saaremaa-born explorer von Bellingshausen two centuries ago. There was a priest, a choir, a broken bottle of champagne. Grave men with names like Tarand, Vähi, Kuuskemaa, Rumm, and Ratas were in attendance. Guests milled about silently. I got to board the vessel, feel its rise and fall.

I stared out at the expanse of water, the water over which I had first arrived to this country many years ago. For too long, I had tried to figure out the mechanics of how it had happened. What had brought me here of all places? This little remote country. I had tried to understand it, to pick it apart. At last, I gave up and surrendered to the odyssey of life, the sea drift. I looked around. Somehow I had wound up on the deck of an Estonian ship bound for Antarctica. Then it occurred to me. I could go with them!

“Huh. Loomulikult,” I thought. Naturally. How could it be any other way?

strangers

20190530_131521
From a mural by Jason Mario and Kim Pluskota in Viljandi

THIS HAPPENED TO ME not too long ago, in the winter maybe, when I was coming around the corner at a local shopping center and saw a group of young women coming the other way. There were three or four of them, most of them had blonde hair, which wasn’t unusual, but there was something about their posture, or facial expressions, or hidden vital essence that tipped me off. “Ah,” I thought to myself. “Finns. Soomlased.”

You can imagine my surprise when I heard them speaking Finnish a moment or so later, detectable even from some distance by the intonation, the way they tend to pronounce certain sounds, and how they enunciate loudly, rather than swallowing up all their words in a whisper like the Estonians. I was rather impressed with myself, but also unnerved.

I had really been living here for a long time. Not only had I started eating buckwheat porridge with salt, I had a sense of the neighbors. I could now tell an Estonian from a Finn just on sight.

Estonians think the differences are stark and tangible, but for outsiders, Estonians and Finns don’t actually seem too different from one another. I’ve spent plenty of time on trams in Helsinki doing double takes as some random fellow traveler happens to look like a relative or a friend of mine. “Silver Sepp? Is that you?” “Mitä?” One young woman on a Helsinki tram looked like my child. My own child. Think about that. This is how the Finns and Estonians have become my people.

In my mind, this expanse of our people covers not only Finland and Estonia, but Setomaa too, the Sami in the far north, and the Karelians on the lakes in the east. It’s like some submerged nation, split up by some political borders, divided by official languages, but really a continuum. My roots are not in this place, but I do get the chills when I understand something in Karelian.

How is that possible? How do I know?

While I recognize the Estonians and the Finns as kindred nations, things feel a bit different once you cross the southern border, because it’s there that you start to encounter Latvians, who to someone who is used to the company of Estonians, seem foreign. The terrain of northern Latvia looks familiar enough, all of those pine forests and moss, but soon you are bound to meet someone named Niks or Dace, someone who doesn’t look like an Estonian. They seem strange.

As an American, none of this should faze me. In fact, it bothers me a little that I would have picked up some local prejudices. I should feel just as close to the Latvians as I do to the Estonians. They are all Europeans. Somehow, living here though, I have developed a very deep sense of who is “one of us” and who is a stranger. How? I cannot really say. It’s not in how they look, or how they carry themselves. Yes, the language is different, and looks distinct to eyes accustomed to Estonian. But there is something else there. Something I cannot express in words but just know on sight. Recently, I confessed this deep suspicion to an Estonian friend of mine.

“I know I am not one of you,” I said, “but I just feel more comfortable in Tallinn than in Riga.”

“Of course, of course,” he said, patting me on the back. “They are strangers. Not our people.” Nad on võõrad. Mitte meie omad.

  • This column appears in the summer issue of the magazine Hingele Pai.

 

mysteries of the south

IT WAS A FUNNY PHENOMENON. In all my years living in Tartu, I would notice that when summer came, in the weeks after Saint John’s Day, the city would empty out and the streets would be mostly silent and a light breeze would scatter dust down the vacant sidewalks. There was no one around anymore, even though the city’s parks were their most lush and inviting. The peculiar scenes of the academic year — students in corporation uniforms standing on rooftops drinking mugs of beer — disappeared, and Tartu, like most other cities in the south, became a ghost town.

There still were people in the south of Estonia, of course, but they had dispersed to the countryside, and were living at their country houses and farms, scattered and hidden between the mossy forests and rolling hills and lakes. It was harder to see all of the people this way, and one got the sense that there were no people left in the south at all. From Tartu down to Obinitsa and the Russian border, the only evidence of life were the distant lights and smoke from the bonfires.

When you would go out to meet friends in the summer, the geography of the south revealed itself to you in its unknown forms. On the map, everything is spread out for you to see. Everything is held together by roads, intersections, gas stations, signs. On the map, you have a great sense of the distances between places. From Tartu to Võru it’s 73 kilometers, and from Põlva to Võru it’s 27 kilometers. Once you get off the roads though, once you venture into the forests, the distances between minor topographic changes — a hill, a valley — become enormous. One ventures down the steps of, say, Süvahavva to the Võhandu River, discovering forest trails and blue flowers along the way. There are endless discoveries to be made. Every tree here has its own biography.

You can walk for hours like this through the countryside and feel as if you haven’t reached any real destination. It’s one of those ‘the journey is the destination’ kinds of things. No matter where you go in the south, to the little Seto farmsteads in the hinterlands, with their midnight black smoke saunas, you will always find a little path behind the outhouse that leads to another farm, another sauna. There is always something new lurking just beyond those woods, over those hills.

Just when you think you have reached the edge of civilization itself, you spy a light on in a distant cabin window and hear the echo of an accordion. Once you reach the cabin, you realize you have stumbled into a wedding party. An old farmer with a scruffy beard offers you a shot of handsa and you drink it gladly, not really knowing how you got there or where you will go next. This is the true mystery of the south, revealing itself to you one intrigue at a time.

This column appeared in the spring/summer issue of Kõik Koos – Lõunakeskuse Ajakiri. Photos by my daughter, Maria Petrone.

never summer in april or may

hemingway and castro
Writer Ernest Hemingway and Fidel Castro chat in Havana, May 15, 1960

IT’S SPRING NOW, a real, genuine spring. Estonians think that if the ice cream is dripping in the sunlight it must be summer, but, no, it’s still spring. This is another one of their peculiar ticks: naming the season based on the weather. “Winter” arrives with the first snows, “summer” with the first warm days. Social media accounts buzz, “It’s summer!” Most trees here still lack leaves.

“It’s not summer yet,” I tell them. “It can never be summer in April or May.” No one listens.

Life continues, everything in the air, in flux. Trains crisscross the country, the ferries depart. Fires smoke in the distance. Men and women stare out windows dreaming. Men hammer roofs, chisel intersections. Women shake carpets. In parks, alcoholics regather. Outside the cafe where I work, someone has put out traps for the ants. Tere, jõudu. Back to work!

For me it should be as well, but I feel restless, listless. The urge to float away, to do nothing at once. All the great books written, everything seen and done, all eternal loves now lost for good. At the Tallinn Coffee Festival the other day, I drank five cappuccinos. It was wonderful, and I achieved for a few moments a state of ecstasy or bliss known only to the Indian tantra cults.

Sometimes I wonder if writing serves any purpose at all. Then there’s politics.

As a writer I have come to hold the dirty business or black arts of politics at arm’s length and with good reason. Too many great talents have been swallowed up by the political waves of their days. Recent history is rife with such tales. Writers who involve themselves in politics are played for fools or worse. Think of Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos falling out during the Spanish Civil War. Hemingway went on to host Castro on his yacht, Dos Passos became an enthusiastic convert to conservatism. Nobody won. The writers lost.

It was always the political instigators who actually benefited most from these relationships: they got to appropriate the aura and mystique of great writing, to anoint themselves with the creativity of others. The Soviets were no different, with their state-sanctioned “people’s writers.” Every time I encounter the works of Juhan Smuul, an Estonian writer who won the Stalin and Lenin Prizes, I wonder how he would have fared as a writer without the support of the Communist authorities.

The most notorious of them all is, of course, Mr. Johannes Vares, who led the puppet government during the Soviet annexation in 1940. A poet and doctor, he should have never had anything to do with politics. Nor should have the French writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline or the American poet Ezra Pound, both of whom supported the Axis Powers in the Second World War by writing pamphlets and producing radio broadcasts. As history has shown, collaboration with any authority, and illiberal authorities in particular, only harms the reputations and work of writers.

The best thing a writer can do, even in times of political upheaval, is to keep on writing honestly. The only words that matter are the honest ones. A writer should remain an island, an autonomous psyche. Never should we join hands with propagandists, never should we give ourselves fake political names. There is no ideology out there that can contain all the contradictions of a free mind, there is no movement that can summarize with a few cheap slogans the human condition.

There is no political force that can shut up free thought so long as we continue to think freely. Honest writers will always win too, because political parties and movements just come and go. They are as changeable as the weather. One second as hot as summer, the next a brisk spring. One honest sentence will outlast them all.