380 days that shook estonia

13 January 2022, the day the monument was dismantled

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.

don’t chase the lizard, live in viljandi

Don’t Chase the Lizard’s Lee Taul and Tomás del Real, photo by Annika Vihmann

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.

the black anchor

ONE NIGHT I DREAMT about a black anchor. It had been cast into the sea, in a place where the surf was calm, the water was clear, and the sand crystal white. There it stayed, at the bottom of the water, clear to the naked eye from the surface through the transparent ocean glisten, clean of all mollusks and other maritime creatures, well-forged iron, but a secret, for only I knew about it. Then once day I tried to conceal the anchor, and dove down into the waters, just a few meters, and tried to place a cinder block on top of it, and cover it up with sands. The Red Queen had arrived and sought transport to another isle, and I took her, even though I loathed the very sight of her but, as you know, I have an unfortunate weakness for arrogant, self-possessed women. We made it past the anchor and thankfully she never once looked down. At the isle, we parted ways, and I went into a cantina, where I met with Anouk and some other people I knew from the town. Anouk made some comment about me going bald and I was insulted, so I left the cantina and started to wander back down to the port along a dirt road. Ophelia came walking in the other direction and stopped me. She was in her black dress and seemed to be quite fine, girlish even. Her curly hair was loose around her shoulders. She held in her hands my journals, with the pages covered with notes about her. I was dismayed, shocked even, to see my mad ramblings held out into the light like that, and even more worried about what she would think of me if she was to read all of them. I felt bad for having written them, perhaps for having written anything at all.

winter light

I CAME HOME in the early hours through the vacant streets of the town. It was crisp and cold, and it surprised me that the air could be so dense on such a cold night. Usually, the cold has brought clarity to things, made things easier to see and understand, yet somehow all of the houses and streets and automobiles looked to be wrapped up in a weird swirling white mist. I was coming home from a young woman’s house where we were drinking tea, letting honey dissolve into cups from one of those big jars people gift you around the holidays. Big clumps of honey melting away and lots of talking. Then her child woke up and I decided to leave. I didn’t see a soul on my trek home, not even a bum sipping from a flask at the bus stop. When I arrived at the house, I saw most of my neighbors were still up awake, as all the lights were on. They were no doubt snuggled next to their loved ones chatting or watching a film. I went inside, took off my boots, stretched out on the couch, and pulled a blanket on me. It was January and soon it would be February. After February would come March. I hadn’t yet taken the Christmas decorations down. Why should I? It’s so nice to sleep beneath some twinkling Christmas lights. Recently, I visited an older friend, and she remarked to me that it was such a shame that I was still solo after all these years, for she has known me for a long time. “What a tragedy, and such a beautiful boy too.” “Nii ilus poiss.” The thought hadn’t even crossed my mind until then, and it seemed a strange and different kind of thought. I thought about her words as I stared at the Christmas lights on the verge of slumber. For most people, partnership is the default, and being alone is just a way station, a stopover, a foggy interlude between relationships. One partnership ends and you look around and another soon after begins. That’s how life is supposed to work. While talking with the young woman over tea, I tried to guess the names of her ex-boyfriends by calling out random Estonian names. There had been a Jürgen, she acknowledged, and, yes, a Tõnu, but no Tiit. Not yet. “It depends on how you define ‘boyfriend,'” she said. My life had once been like that. The women in my life were like monarchs. The way we can talk about the architecture of various periods in British history — Georgian, Victorian, Edwardian — I could talk about years of my life. “Yes, that was during the Francesca period,” or, “Those were the Christiana years.” But what was this current period? The “bachelor sleeping alone on a couch under Christmas decorations period?” The “drinking tea late nights with young women in lonely town” period. Whatever this current period was called, it had lasted some time. At last sleep arrived. I often descend through various states of arousal at night. This is common for men, and it may be the case for women. On this night, I kept thinking of a video a friend had sent me from a swimming pool in a faraway country. There she was, swimming away in a white bathing suit at night, and something about the idea of this stretched bathing suit filled out by a very full Scandinavian feminine figure was suddenly all around me. There was something quaint about these visions. It was as if I was looking at one of those postcards of happy beachgoers from the 1920s. Golden hair, white bathing suit, stretched full. I could hear the water being displaced, I imagined the water was warm, and I began to feel safe and well beneath my blanket. In the morning, winter light came pouring through the windows, and I could see there was fresh snow on the ground. The couple that lives upstairs, whom I call “the Norwegians” because they sometimes live and work in Norway, were warming up their car and preparing their children for a trip. The yard was full of neighbor couples shoveling snow, or linking arms to go for a walk. They have come to seem alien to me, the couples, and I wonder why they even exist. Two people, living together? Forever? What a silly idea. Who would ever want to bother with that? Do they really believe they are soul mates? Will they stay together? I still felt the warm waters from the night before and thought about the Scandinavian swimmer in the stretched bathing suit, but the memory of the dream began to fade with my first sips of coffee. I wondered if I did have a heart somewhere, and if it was still capable of love. Maybe it was hidden away in a sealed-off part of me, like Anne Frank, writing secretly into her diary in the Annex in Amsterdam during the Second World War. Maybe the heart was writing its longings into that diary behind those walls just as she once had. Maybe someday I would be able to read that book.

the soul of tallinn

IN SOME WAYS today is not the ideal day for Tallinn. The weather is gray, the snow and ice are melting together. The sidewalks are slippery. In a word, one might say it’s depressing. But I noticed how some pigeons flew out of a tunnel by the Baltic Station. That was funny and lifted my mood some. Again, the same Old Town, the site of the Puppet Theatre (and isn’t it absurd that the Puppet Theatre was so successful, and of such high quality? We are talking about puppets here. These are children’s toys. Yet many successful, great actors got their starts there). Then Hirvepark, a noteworthy place in Estonian history. All these houses. All these dwellings. What is it that makes Tallinn Tallinn? An Italian restaurant, an Irish pub? And which is my favorite place? Reval Café? A boutique, a jewelry shop, with Russian sellers. Old LPs in the record shop window, where happy ladies pose sometime in the 1970s, back when sex was still exciting. I searched for the soul of Tallinn everywhere, but it was hard to find. Is Tallinn in Vapiano, where they ask for your COVID pass and identity document, and a Nigerian makes me Insalata Deliziosa? Or in the Õhtuleht Building, where there are beauty salons, cafes, and wedding dresses on display in the first-floor windows? There are people in the streets who are headed somewhere. Russians, Germans. I suppose it’s always been that way. Tallinn. An international place. The trams move forward, the casino lights blink on, and company meetings continue. This is how one gray January day passes in Tallinn. Elegant ladies with small dogs. Young fathers with baby strollers. One even has twins. Somewhere at the edge of the Old Town, I see a poster for a play. There are lots of women on the poster, but one catches my eye. Who is she? I take a photo and then later do some research. I learn that she is a young actress. I just wanted to know what her name was, but so what. Now if I was to meet with her, I would have to tell her the embarrassing story about how I once took a photo of a poster that featured her, because I thought she was a beautiful girl. I am not sure if this is strange or not. At least I haven’t built a shrine to her in a corner of my house adorned with her photos. I was just curious. Good luck with your career, young Estonian actress! Naturally, I find my way back to Fotografiska. A safe place where one can get some work done. Some American dance music is coming from the speakers. A turmeric milk, also known as a golden latte. I hear all kinds of languages. There’s a Russian man at the neighboring table, but the others are Estonians. Women with children, with laptops. The girl behind the counter was born in ’97. Which is no surprise, as she is 25 years old now and works in a café. Completely normal. I don’t want to tell her that I came to Estonia in 2003. I don’t want to hear how she was in kindergarten back then. But at least she speaks with me and looks me in the eyes. It’s nice when a Tallinner looks you in the eyes. Soon I’ll go back to the book shop and buy that Icelandic chick lit I saw before for my daughter. I think she likes these kinds of surprises, that “Daddy brought me something from the capital!” For her, Tallinn is a fantastic place, full of second-hand shops, interesting cafes, new experiences, and friends. I am happy she can discover her own Tallinn this way. I’m not bored here, but where is the soul of Tallinn? Does it even exist? Honestly, I feel pretty lonely here in this café. One woman sits behind a laptop. The next one is behind her laptop. The third is the same. The fourth is looking at her phone. In the hallway to the toilet, there is a portrait of Scarlett Johansson on the wall. To think, I came all the way to Tallinn just to see Scarlett Johansson on the way to the WC. Maybe some people think that all of these trimmings make Tallinn more international, but they also make it more generic. I think I’ll go and have a look around in Kalamaja. Maybe I’ll find some old fat cat there, or see an ancient drunk between the renovated old buildings. At least something without elevator music, turmeric, and quinoa.

This piece was written originally in Estonian and appears in the Estonian magazine Edasi.

hawkins wigwam

LAST NIGHT, I went back to Hawkins Road with my youngest daughter. This is the long winding road that leads from the top of a hill down nearly to the Stony Brook Mill Ponds. At the top of that hill, I used to build makeshift wigwams in the forest with my friends many years ago. We had a little boombox and would listen to NWA, Guns N’ Roses, and the Beastie Boys and play Indian. Once I saw a great snake, and climbed into the trees, because I was so terrified. These aboriginal dwellings were mostly made of saplings bent to construct the frame of the wigwam, and then covered with mats of pine branches. We came up a set of snowy steps at the foot of Hawkins and saw a small wigwam at the entrance to a house, but this one was made up animal skins. This was a deluxe wigwam, in other words, and the house was also luxury. It seemed some changes had taken place on Hawkins in my absence. The hill had once hosted maybe 20 different houses but all of these had been razed and replaced by one over-arching McMansion. My daughter stayed behind to play in the wigwam, and I climbed the steps to walk down a series of long hallways. Beneath, I could see all the accoutrements of success, the indoor tennis court, the massive kitchen with colonial-inspired hearth. In one of the compartments, an older, gray-haired man sat in a button-up collared business shirt while several screens showed different channels’ coverage of the stock market. He seemed to be completely absorbed by his work. I wondered who his child was, the one with the wigwam, and if they really interacted in this enormous monster of a house. Instead, I turned, went down the hall, and came down the steps. My daughter was still playing with the wigwam. “This is somebody else’s house,” I told her. “We need to go.” She protested, but I told her, “We shouldn’t stick around on somebody else’s property. They might call the police.”

sleep cycle

THE NEXT THING I knew, I was back in Viljandi, riding through the winding back streets and tree-lined alleys with my youngest daughter and her mother in tow. The bicycle was absurdly large though, like something a clown might ride at the circus. I came terribly close to mowing down pedestrians and small children. “Watch where you’re going!” She shrieked. “Don’t you even know how to ride a bike?” “Hey, lady,” I said. “It’s a clown bicycle.” At last we got to the bus station. It was a dimly lit place, and there was an old Soviet-style cafeteria inside, with the steaming tins of cutlets and god knows what else. My daughter ran off to play in the playroom, and I went to get the tickets. But as soon as the bus to Pärnu arrived it drove away. I went back and informed the family. There would be no trip to Pärnu today. My daughter didn’t seem to mind, and her mother reconciled herself to the situation. Later, I went back to my apartment, which was on the top floor of a boarding house. Two little boys I knew came walking down the hallway searching for their mother. I told them I would help find her, and that I had just seen her downstairs in the lobby. Their mother appeared and pretended that all was well, and that she had known where they were the whole time. The boys looked worried, but went away with their mother. Then I went back into my small dingy room. Later, I found myself in the corner of one of the town’s many bistros. I couldn’t remember how I had wound up there, only that Gunna was with me, and I was giving her a foot massage right there on the spot. Gunna from the market, with her freckles and red bangs and weird humor. Gunna only smiled to me and said, “Oh my god, it’s so good, please don’t stop! Whatever you do, just don’t stop!” I kept on rubbing Gunna’s feet, but was really confused by the twist of events, or how any of this had happened.

mystery city

I HAD TO GO to the city, and there was some kid with me, no idea who he was. Maybe about 12 or 13, private school uniform, precocious, obnoxious, you know what I mean. From some wealthy Nassau family. We went by train, but had to disembark before the tunnel went under the East River. To get into Manhattan, we had to show our Covid passes. When we at last came up the steps, Posdnuous from De La Soul was there to great me. He seemed to recognize me, know who I was. He invited me to a concert, the other Hieroglyphics groups were performing, but I couldn’t figure out where the venue was, or what time it was happening. So I went back to Long Island. I don’t know what happened to the rich kid either. Last I saw, he was on his way toward Union Square. The mansion on Long Island had many staircases. There was a woman a few years older than me living there. She had reddish curly hair and was getting her PhD at the university. Various close female relatives were about. They were criticizing me. I shouted, “Don’t you realize how infuriating it is when other people try to rearrange your life?” Then I went to the wing of the house where the redhead was staying and apologized for the commotion, but she hadn’t heard us, she was doing an interview for her thesis. She seemed rather nice, though a little introverted. She was studying biology.

võrumaa blues

Morning in Obinitsa, Estonia

VÕRUMAA HAS IN RECENT YEARS become a major destination for people, mostly Estonians, who want to live more off-the-grid and delve into their collective heritage of closeness to nature and an agricultural lifestyle. Social media is full of images of freshly bottled pickles and jams, typically on an old-fashioned wooden table, hopefully surrounded by hectares of unspoiled wilderness. There are some reasons for this. One is that Võrumaa is one of the few places in Estonia where people still speak a dialect in everyday discourse, which has some stronger similarities to Finnish than standard Estonian, and the second is that it’s one of the cheaper places to live in Estonia, and trying to go off-the-grid on the north coast is often an impossibility for bohemian-minded families. This is the nook of the country where the country life is “more real” and you can buy that old farm house and fix it up. I suppose it’s how New Yorkers see Vermont, if Vermont is still affordable. “I’ll just go buy myself some acreage up there and live off the land.” Aye, that’s the dream. But in Võrumaa, as in Vermont, you run into, well, the locals, the truck-driving neighbors (not these neighbors here, other neighbors, elsewhere) the typical country problems of old grudges, eh, er, alcoholism, and stuff like that, though to be fair, that is everywhere in Estonia, from the pinnacle top to muddy bottom. Some people have told me that the “forest is strong” in Võrumaa. This is a really interesting idea that even my child has related to me on nature hikes. “Let’s go back to that forest, that one was more powerful, or interesting.” I must admit, I have never heard someone from New York tell me that the forest was particularly strong in any part of Long Island, though it makes sense, no? The vibration, the energy of those woods, speaks in louder volumes, or is more profound. I think Estonians intuitively grasp these things better because this is their land. As such, it’s a bit harder for me to hear what the Võrumaa forest is saying. I keep feeling like I have driven a bit too far north, and somewhere between Maine and the Atikamekw Reserves, there is this little pine-lined neck of the woods. This is lumberjack country, for sure. That is another thing my sojourns down here have proved, you can’t really do anything without a car, or better yet a truck. God knows how they got around in the old days. I can’t imagine taking some horse-drawn carriage down one of these country roads. Maybe they just stayed on the farm and married the neighbor. Seems an easier prospect.

hills of italy

I WAS BACK in San Giorgio Albanese, but all of the buildings were painted festive yellow, including the massive restaurant perched on a cliff overlooking the Sila with a 360 degree view. There were just some small boulders equally spaced along the edge of the cliff to alert locals not to venture too close. Then a straight drop down of Grand Canyon-like proportions. I was afraid to even look that way. There was a fine bar in the middle of the restaurant, and some of my Petrone relatives were there and I was eating interesting yellow pastries that made no sense to me at all, odd bulky shapes, and sweet but not sugary, so maybe polenta? Some Petrellis cousins showed up and one was the chief of police. I tried to speak Italian but just broken sentences came out, and felt so embarrassed that I couldn’t even string a sentence together. Then grandma died, but not my grandma, Rosaria, my father’s grandmother, and I was asked to make food for the funeral. I made this really nice fettuccine and, yes, there were some tiny clams and shrimp in the sauce, and then, when people started to arrive, someone asked, “Is it possible to get the pasta without the shrimp?” and then I thought, we might as well just order takeout. There was a decent Greek restaurant nearby. Surely they might cater. There was no way I could dislodge or dissect the shrimp from the pasta dish. As is the case in most structures, there was a haunted room in the restaurant, and I went into the haunted room expecting it to be dark, dreary, and full of loathing, but it was surprisingly well-lit and remodeled with skylights. I didn’t sense any ominous presence (usually the ghost of a woman who wants to destroy me). But my daughters were sleeping like angels in a bed in the room, and they said they had weird feelings there, and all was not as safe as it seemed. Later, we all went to visit their old babysitter, but she was not at home. The littlest one was jumping to look in the windows and so I held her up to the glass. All three girls were with me. Then the babysitter arrived, but she was very busy and there was a man waiting in the car outside. The girls looked around the inside of the house. Then we left together.