kolmapäev, oktoober 28, 2009

kaljukitse pöörijoon

I was looking for a belt. A brown one. Your regular old brown belt. I needed one to hold up my trousers. You need a belt there. It's like Jerry Seinfeld says, you feel naked without a belt.

I couldn't find my regular rihm, so I went searching for one in Tartu. A replacement. But if you are searching for something as simple as a regular brown belt in Tartu, you are out of luck.

I found some other belts at the Tasku shopping center. Tasku is kind of like the Solaris of Tartu, except the ceiling hasn't caved in yet. But what I mean is that the developer -- a patron of the local Reform Party, no doubt -- got the prime real estate of the old bus station smack in the center of town. In return, he promised to build the city a new bus station. That he did. He built a pint-sized bus station and a gigantic shopping center around it. "If they have to wait, they can wait in my shopping center." That was the line. I have nothing personal against the guy. He was out to make a kroon or two. They all are.

They have belts in Tasku. White leather ones. Big fat black ones with giant belt buckles. You 'd think only pirates or floozies shop there. But nothing for a boring, normal human being like myself. One belt I fingered cost 449 Estonian kroons ($42, €29). I thought that was expensive. Then I found another tolerable one. It was brown, alright, but fundamentally flawed. Flaw number one was that it cost 669 EEK. Flaw number two is that the belt buckle spelled out the brand name. C A M E L. Do you think I'm going to move around this city with a giant belt buckle that says C A M E L on it? As if I was Sean Combs or something? It's not going to happen.

I just wanted a belt. A simple brown belt. I wanted to look timeless. I don't remember seeing any photos of Ernest Hemingway hunting in Africa with a C A M E L belt. F. Scott wasn't wearing some white, false diamond-studded fashion accessory when he was putting up with one of Zelda's moods. Jimmy Joyce wasn't parading around Dublin on Bloomsday flaunting his designer jeans. I'm a writer, damnit, I tore into myself. I need a belt!


I didn't find a belt, but I found my book at Rahva Raamat. Minu Eesti. 352 pages of the lurid details of my life. How I met my wife. Our courtship. The highs and lows of bicultural marriages. What's it really like living with a person who eats smoked fish and blood sausage? This book will tell you. It's all true, and yet, when I look back on what really happened, Minu Eesti is quite tame. It's PG. The real story is so twisted and convoluted that I couldn't explain in 1,000 pages. Or even explain it all. Who really can explain the way things happen? Nobody can. All non-fiction is but a fairytale. All memoirs are lies. Vague recollections. We experience our own lives, but when asked to explain something, we're instantly all like Reagan up there on the witness stand, talking about Nicaragua. "I don't recall."

I started writing it in February and completed it in July. The first 50 or so pages just rolled off my fingertips. Then I had to blast through the middle of the book. That's how I envisioned it. "Ok, here's some dynamite, now WRITE!" Boom. Boom. Boom. I was blasting a way, hitting the hardest rock imaginable. But I knew I'd make it through to the end. Just one more stick of dynamite. The last week, I was racing to meet a deadline. I cranked out a chapter a day, but not more. The brain can only do one chapter. My brain at least. Then it's dry. It's a terrible feeling to be dry. You need some time to recuperate.

All through the process, my editor Bolling was rubbing my face in it. "What's this? This is a cliche, Giustino. We can't have a book with cliches." Or, "How many times are you going to use the word 'laughed' in this friggin' book? Grow a vocabulary, son." Bolling showed me tough love. He didn't even have to say it sometimes. He'd just take his pipe out of his mouth and glare at me in his study, as if to say, Don't waste my time with this nonsense. And so I'd go do another rewrite. I swear, it was like The Karate Kid. I wanted to learn the martial arts, but Mister Miyagi had me washing cars and sanding floors. Only now that I've done the crane can I truly understand the value of those lessons.

I was racing to complete it so that Raivo, the whiz tõlk, could translate away. Raivo did a great job, in my opinion, and I'm not just saying that because that's what you are supposed to say. He managed to render English-language scenes into Estonian-language ones. People of different linguistic persuasions react the same way to the same things at the same points in the book. Reading my translated work in Estonian has introduced new words and expressions to me. My favorite expression is Vatvat! I don't even know what it means. It just feels good to say it. It sounds boisterous, kind of like. "How's the wine, darling?" "Noh, Vatvatvatvatvat!"

Minu Eesti is about my life. But real life is more complicated. There are characters in that book that are maybe two people put together. Scenes in that book that took place, but in different locations on two separate days of the same week. I didn't lie to you, Estonia. I just wrapped the truth up in a nice chocolate box. Maybe call it a slightly fictionalized autobiography. That's how I think of it. But, whatever, it's all been printed now and is available for any pirate or floozy to read in Tasku while they wait for their bus. It's on its own now. It's got to learn to fend for itself. Live by its own wits. Next month it will be available in English. Then some of you can read it as well.

How to feel about it? I don't know. When I read it, parts of it still make me laugh. But at least I don't hate it, like most tortured artists come to hate their work. It can always be better, but, for me, it's good enough. This was the first volume. Another is coming. I'm patching together some ideas. I'm thinking of the time we visited Signe in Oslo and the first thing she said was:

"What are you, some kind of mama's boy?"

"No," I said.

"No," she mocked me. "Yes, you are, I can tell a mama's boy just by the way he stands. My ex-husband was one."

Signe drank all the vodka we brought her. She drank bottle number one the first day. That was the day we lost her at the Vigeland Sculpture Park.

Poor Signe. She used to associate with an Estonian television personality named Hannes back in the day. Hannes and I don't know each other, but the people we interact with do. I never see him, but I see his shadow, and if you know Hannes, then you know he has a recognizable shadow. Hannes. Peculiar fellow. He's off on vacation now. The only place where an Estonian celebrity can be free. You think that Estonia is so small that you can be a celebrity and sauna and swim with the rest. But you can't, because you're buying some Georgian wine at Selver late at night and some drunk comes up and tells you he wants to be a millionaire.

It happened to me the day after I came back from talking and singing about the book on Terevisioon. I stopped to get gas in Mäo and the attendant was looking me up and down. Then I saw she was watching ETV on the gas station TV. And I was wearing the same clothes, naturally. I took one look at that striped shirt and realized I might not ever be able to wear it in public again. Such was my first real brush with fame. "Hey look, honey," passersby might say, "there goes that writer who wears the striped shirt." But no belt, my dear Estonians. No belt.


I don't even know how I became a writer. I don't even know why I am writing this right now. It just spills out of me. The inner monologue bursts forth. It has a life of its own. It's not me in a way. Somebody else. I remember I wrote an article for the high school newspaper about the arrest of the entertainer, Pee-wee Herman. The kids loved it. They made their homeroom teachers read it to them. Then I got involved with an alternative newspaper and we got in all kinds of trouble. Those were the days.

Sometimes I think musicians have it easier. As a musician, all you have to do is sing a song. But then your song lyrics are misinterpreted and, before you know it, the Chinese have banned you because of some unintended allusion to Tibetan independence, or the CIA is smoking banana peels to see if they are bound to be the very next craze. That's just how it all is. It's inescapable. You try to lead a private life and then you wind up on a reality TV show with Flavor Flav.

You stand there on the rooftops of Manhattan apartments experiencing the hummingbird buzz of human existence, looking south towards the gaping space where the Twin Towers once stood, and you know, in your bones, that you make no difference. You lie in the snows of Karlova awash in the faint glow of the lights from Annelinn, and feel as lucid as a stone or spare tire. You can breath or not breath, swim or not swim. You can do nothing or anything, because everything is possible. And then you go and write a book, and people read it, even like it, and you still waste your time wondering about such things. Maybe the best thing is just to shut up and enjoy it and eat your piimasupp.

neljapäev, oktoober 22, 2009

the hardest working man in show business

I was asked earlier this week on Terevisioon, ETV's daily morning news and entertainment program, what I thought about Estonian politics, like I could actually muster an articulate sentence in Estonian about such things.

If I had been a bit sharper at 8.20 am, after zooming north through a snow storm in central Estonia blasting James Brown at the crack of dawn, I might have said something like this.

The most interesting dance in Estonian politics right now is taking place in Tallinn, where Edgar Savisaar's victorious Centre Party has invited Jüri Pihl's Social Democrats to negotiations on forming a center-left coalition in the Tallinn City Government.

Why is it interesting? Because if the results of the 2011 parliamentary election are anything like last week's municipal election results -- where Centre received 31.5 percent of all votes cast in Estonia, followed distantly by Reform at 16.7 percent, IRL at 13.9 percent, and SDE at 7.5 percent -- then a KESK-SDE coalition in Tallinn could be a trial run for a similar coalition in the next parliament.

In some ways, a center-left coalition in Estonian politics has been a long-time coming. For the past 10 years, Estonia has either been led by conservatives or liberals, partially due to to the success of their policies and partly due to a weak, polarized political left. But, as in all parliamentary democracies, the pendulum swings. Eighteen years of Thatcher and Major in Britain gave way to the past 12 years of Blair and Brown. If Estonia is to grow up politically, it must come to terms with the idea that the national idea is bigger than its right wing politics. It can't just have the liberals and the conservatives rotating seats until the end of time.

Savisaar has earned a lot of "political capital," as W. would say, but how he spends it will have a major effect on Estonian politics. Thanks in part to his victory many parties could have less reservations about cooperating with a political force referred to as roheline koletis -- the "green monster" -- both for its colors and its approach to governance.

For SDE, which was tossed out of the ruling coalition in May, it makes sense to at least entertain the idea of a center-left coalition in Tallinn. They are in a weak position, and yet, at a national level, they did better this time around than they did in 2005. Besides, the most common critiques of Savisaar's party -- that they are arrogant, uncooperative, and out to fill their own pockets -- are often lobbed at SDE's former partners, Reform, who fired them. So what exactly do they have to lose? That was the argument SDE founder Marju Lauristin made to the party list this week.

As for the agrarian Rahvaliit and the Greens, they are in an even less favorable position. Both of these parties are on life support, Any invitation to share power with the big vote winner will probably be welcomed. Having party members in power creates the impression of competence, and competence is a major factor in winning a person's vote. For all of these parties, the opportunity to have even a little power could translate to future electoral victory. Rahvaliit, as of my writing this, has already been asked to merge with the Centrists. That will give Savisaar's party a modicum of support in places like Jõgevamaa, where Rahvaliit, for some odd reason, continues to win.

At the same time, the Centrists still don't seem to get the point that they may have won the most votes, but that doesn't mean they have the authority of a national salvation committee. It's hard to pick the most embarassing moment so far, and it's only been a few days. Was it the call for early elections or Centre's clumsy overtures to form a coalition with IRL (which were immediately rebuffed)? Don't worry, there'll be more of them. And as they pile up, the people's memories will stack the decks in favor of the sweet boom years, paving the way for the eventual return of right-wing rule.

And what of the right-wing parties? It wasn't a total loss for them. In Tartu, Estonia's second biggest city, Reform solidly held onto its position as the leading party. It also won the most votes in Võru, Viljandi, Kuressaare, Haapsalu, and other towns. IRL, too, did not fare poorly. And, they should take any loss to Savisaar as a temporary set back as Savisaar's base includes two large divisions of people that continue to decline in numbers, pensioners and Estonian Russians.

The current crop of pensioners are people who spent most of their adult lives in service to the ESSR. But the next group of pensioners, those who came of age during the Singing Revolution, are unlikely to shift their allegiance to the roheline koletis. As for the myth of the Russian "fifth column," as of Jan. 1, 2009, but 36 percent of Tallinners identify themselves as ethnic Russians. Savisaar can continue to pander to them (I saw one advertisement strongly hinting at the relaxing of naturalization requirements), but it's not a recipe for a long-lasting majority.

The decline of the base is Savisaar's weak point. His political campaigns create the illusion of a state beset by anarchy where huge masses of have-nots join hands and overcome the starry-eyed Friedmanites that assuage everyone that, if we just follow the holy scripture of Saint Milton, everything will turn out alright. But, unfortunately for Savisaar, the masses aren't that huge, and he manages to capture their votes because they exist in places where rival parties dare not tread.

If Reform, IRL, SDE or even the Greens seriously put some efforts into attracting candidates that could compete in Centre Party strongholds, then they wouldn't get their asses so severely kicked in municipal elections.

So here are some suggestions for next time. These are very simple thoughts, forgive me. Ahem.

Reform's keyword is "reform." Once they get new leadership, they might be able to sell "reform," as most aspects of Estonian life require reforms. It's such a simple point, they themselves might have missed it. They can stick to their liberal principles, too, but also think of ways to attract voters who aren't wowed by references to economic theory. It's not unthinkable.

IRL? You'd think their keyword would be Isamaa -- "fatherland" -- but I would say their keyword should be "integrity." That's why people vote for Mart Laar -- because they believe he won't ever sell out the national interest. They should be the party of good governance. They should call other parties on every sleazy real estate deal, every sell out of Estonia. There are people who vote for Centre who know quite well how corrupt their politicians are. They just need to be called on it.

SDE? Their key word is "solidarity." If they stopped dressing up in bogus red and actually went door to door, they might be able to get people to believe in their values. They should spend less time at Tallinn wine and cheese events and more time in Estonia's shanty towns. Get a bus and go on a listening tour of Võrumaa or Ida Virumaa. I'm sure the people there will have a lot to share.

This will all take time. But I do believe a day will come when the green monster will lose big in districts it once held captive. And they'll deserve it.

esmaspäev, oktoober 12, 2009


Autumn in Setomaa to me is more appealing than summer. Sure, summer is just like one big sõir* and sauna party. But you can barely get any work done without being harassed by sweat and insects.

In autumn, you are alone with your thoughts and the pleasing cool colors of the northern foliage. From an American perspective, you might as well be somewhere deep in the mountains of Vermont. You develop a sudden urge to hear pedal-steel guitar licks and twangy vocal harmonies, even if you've never really enjoyed country music.

This is the mindset that sweeps in as you put up one wall of an outhouse. I said I was going to build one, and I am building it, even if it takes a really long time. Even if it falls over after its first Christening. I am building the outhouse to prove to myself that I am not only useful for writing funny blogposts and changing diapers. I am building it to show that I am capable of building an outhouse. Other people do sillier things -- run marathons, scale buildings, sail solo around the world -- to test themselves. And here I am with my powerdrill and saw. This is my test. The outhouse will be built. I can feel it.


Poor Indrek Teder. The chancellor of justice stepped it in earlier this month. He got up in front of the Riigikogu and did the Estonian political equivalent of asking for diarrhea. He suggested Estonia change part of its citizenship requirements for stateless persons. The procedure for naturalization in question concerns minors born to stateless parents. At the moment, the parents must request that their stateless child be given citizenship in order for the child to receive it. Teder suggested that the child be given citizenship automatically. Why deny the Estonian-born child a passport if his or her parents are too lazy to do the paper work?

Now, to be fair, it's not like it was his idea. When Thomas Hammarberg, the Commissioner for Human Rights at the Council of Europe, last visited Tallinn, he suggested the same change be made. That is because, in most of the world, statelessness is viewed as a problem. Diplomats undertaking human rights missions are mandated to urge countries to reduce it. Estonia officially says it is working hard to cut its number of stateless persons. It has, slowly and steadily. Over the past six years, the number of stateless persons has been reduced from 12 percent to 7.5 percent of the population, or around 100,000 people. An issue, though, is that many of the newly naturalized do not acquire Estonian citizenship. They acquire Russian citizenship which, if you take the Russians' moral imperative for intervention in Georgia last year, can cause big headaches for a state trying to maintain its sovereignty.

But proponents of the current policy say that they cannot force Estonian citizenship on anyone, even children without a passport. The Estonian state is run by nice people. They don't even force ice cream on anyone. It's up for the parents to decide, they argue. Of course, they might force an Estonian integration program on you in schools, or mandate a certain level of linguistic proficiency for you to hold certain jobs. But, that's just their way of helping you get along so that one day you can get that passport. According to this line of thinking, an Estonian passport is like the ripe, sweet cherry atop the multi-layered cake of integration.

The argument against naturalizing more people at a faster rate through the years has rested on several concepts. One is legal continuity and the idea that those who are currently stateless did not enter Estonia with the permission of its citizens, who were under a military occupation (and they were, you needed special permission to visit Hiiumaa). Plus many of those stateless persons were born in Russia and did not have longstanding ties to Estonia. A significant chunk of them went back to their mother country in the nineties (about 150,000 people, off the top of my head). But, from the vantage point of 2009, it looks like those who are still here are here to stay. They're not going "home." They are "home."

Another argument rested on loyalty. How could Estonians know that those stateless people were not Intermovement-backing saboteurs? How could they be trusted with the right to vote for the parliament at such a critical time in the nation's history? This argument also made sense, considering the large number of Russian military personnel and pensioners in Estonia in the early 1990s. And Estonia was trying to navigate its way into the EU and NATO, two Western clubs that didn't especially want it, but seemed like the best antidote to post-Soviet detritus.

That argument made sense for a long time. But then came the Herman Simm case, where a birthright Estonian citizen traded security secrets to the Kremlin so that he could buy up more land in Viljandi County. Those who opposed the merits of the "loyalty argument" in the citizenship discourse suddenly found themselves with a powerful counterargument: citizenship does not guarantee loyalty. Just look at Herman Simm.

For some one with nasty social democratic tendencies like myself -- and they are hard to shake -- I tend to be attracted to the idea of the state as a steamroller, or even a crazy monster from a Japanese science fiction movie. The Estonian Godzilla emerges from the Baltic Sea. Everywhere you hear air-raid sirens. People are fleeing this way and that. There's chaos on the streets of Tallinn. But the Estonian Godzilla does not care. It does not ask its stateless victims if they want to be citizens or not. There's no paper work. With a determined, pissed-off look on its face, it grabs them, tosses them towards its killer jaws, and gobbles them up. "Mmm, tasty," it belches as it breaths fire and heads towards Lasnamäe. "Who's next?"

And you can't help but cheer on Godzilla. I mean, why should the lizard just stay there lounging in the ocean when real fun can be had on the streets of Eestimaa? Sometimes, you need a little bread and circus. Entertain us, oh Estonian state. Then again, I never get eaten in those movies. I'm always sitting safely with my passport and loved one in the theater.

But Teder didn't sell the proposed change to his skeptical audience that way. He's too polite. He said that Estonia is too "nationality-centered" right now, and that he wants to build a happier country where citizenship, or state identity, is paramount. You're not defined by your language or the folk costume hanging in your closet, according to this line of thinking. You are defined by your nifty, society-leveling state-identity card. That's a sweet, bureaucratic thought, but the current coalition isn't going to change anything related to citizenship laws. And why would they? These are the kinds of issues that elicit hundreds of angry comments on Postimees' online edition. As I said, it's like asking for an intestinal disorder. Anybody who opens up that shit box is destined for ruin.

An interesting aside is that Estonia is "nationality centered" because Estonians actually are the largest group of people in Estonia. Seven out of every 10 individuals on the soil of this land speak Estonian with their mom and/or dad. And one of those 10 is loyal to Dmitri Medvedev or some other president -- typically Yuschenko, Lukashenka, or Halonen, so they aren't part of the parliamentary equation. That means that people speak Estonian in the Riigikogu because that's the language that most people speak. These days, the official language is de facto, not just de jure. But don't tell anybody that. It'll be our little secret.


When you are building an outhouse, you learn that life is a series of compromises. Oh yeah, you think you measured those posts correctly and spaced them evenly apart. You think that your outhouse frame is a model of geometric perfection. But then you take a few steps back and realize how badly you've messed the whole thing up.

So you hammer a bit here, and dig a bit there, and screw in an extra piece of wood here, and lean on it a bit there, and, when you look at it again, it's not perfect, but it's standing. It might even last the winter. And you see that every last piece of it is a compromise. The whole structure hangs on slight alterations, each fixed to the other. To put in another way, the sturdy whole is built on interlocking flaws.

I turn over mismatched concepts as I saw another piece of wood. Russia claims a "sphere of privileged interest" in the post-Soviet space, which includes Estonia. NATO reiterates that the cornerstone of the treaty is collective defense, which includes collective defense of Estonia. Nuclear-armed NATO also does not see little Russia as a real security threat, supposedly because if Russia did threaten NATO, the organization would drop an Article 5 bomb on Moscow. At the same time, Russia has decided that Ukraine will not join NATO, and there are some tremors of badness originating from the Crimean peninsula. I read about this everyday. I read about geopolitics so much I even dream about it.

Our friends regularly make the pilgrimage to the Russian side of Setomaa. I've even thought of getting a multiple entry visa so I can see what life is like over there in Asia. Supposedly, the bake shops in Petseri are not to be missed! But I'm worried they've got me in their secret files. I'm worried Russian Ambassador Nikolai Uspenski has a dossier that reads, Giustino: Enemy Blogger.

"I haven't written nice things about Putin," I told my spouse. "I'm sure they'll deny any application I put forward."

"Then why don't you write something good about him for a change?" she suggested.

"Good? About Putin?"

The other night, I dreamed I was in a beautiful European city filled with canals and fountains and outdoor cafes. I thought I was back in Turku, or Stockholm, or Amsterdam, but no, I was in St. Petersburg drinking beer at an outdoor cafe with Putin.

"I read your blog all the time," Putin says and guzzles his beer. "It's pretty funny, but why do you write so much nasty shit about Russia all the time, eh?"

"Nasty? Like what?" I feign innocence.

The waiter comes and asks if we want another round. Putin tells him we do, and that it's on him.

"You said our ambassador Nikolai Uspenski is incapable of smiling," Putin glares at me. "How would you feel if I said that your Estonian ambassador is incapable of smiling?"

"He probably is. I mean, he is Estonian."

Putin laughs, and when Putin is drunk and laughs, he really loses it. He's slapping his knees. He's pounding his fists on the table. After a minute, he wipes the tears of laughter from his eyes.

"You're not so bad, Giustino," Putin says. "You should spend more time in Russia. We have pretty girls. Old buildings. Great literature. Here," Putin rummages through a knapsack. "have you ever read The Brothers Karamazov?"


"Take it, take it," he hands the book to me. "How about," he dips again into his bag, feeling around, "Anna Karenina?"

"I haven't read that either."

"You haven't read it? My God. Here, here, take it. It's yours." Putin pushes the other thick book across the table.

"Thanks," I say, flipping through the Cyrillic text, "but I don't know Russian."

"Don't play with me, Giustino," Putin sneers. "Everybody knows Russian."


"Wait, I think I have something written in fascist, I mean English," Putin chuckles, feeling around in his book bag. "Here!" he thrusts a third book in my hands. I look down. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov.

"You'll love it," Putin says. "It's right up your alley. Sick," he chuckles again, "sick." He chugs his beer and slams the glass on the table.

I put the books aside and finish my beer. "You know, Putin, you're not so bad," I say, wiping the foam from my mouth. "You should come to Tartu sometime. We've got pretty girls. Old buildings. Great literature."


It snowed yesterday in Tartu and I was a little annoyed. I am enjoying autumn. I want it to extend for as long as possible. Some people are summer people. They're hedonists. Their idea of a good time is grilling meat in their swim trunks eight days a week. Other people like spring. The river ice is melting. The pollen's in the air. The girls are apt to try out exotic fashions. It's mating season. A third group of oddballs enjoy winter. It's so dark and sinister, and yet, by withstanding all that pressure, you are ultimately enlightened. For them, winter is like a really good Radiohead album.

But me? I am enjoying autumn, especially autumn in Setomaa. I want it to last. I want the trees to stay the way they are. They soothe me. Yes, I think I've decided. I am an autumn person. I want to finish the outhouse before it's too late, before it starts snowing every day from now to April 1.

In the distance, I hear a the muffled explosion of a gunshot. Our neighbor and some of the other locals have gone off hunting deer. It's all supervised by the state. When you drive into this corner of Võrumaa, you can see the hunt supervisors, dressed in neon orange vests, making sure nobody gets out of line.

I know I am not like the locals. They are country boys. They build outhouses that actually are geometrically perfect. The Estonian giant mythological figure Kalev himself could use it. The locals are different. They speak Võro language, albeit only when they are drunk or joking. But they don't mind me. Maybe they'll even compliment me on the outhouse when it's finished. Nothing like a New York tenderfoot greenhorn trying to manage in the Montana of Estonia. But I enjoy it. I could just stay here in this moment for a long time, powerdrill in hand, having a meaningful dialogue with a half-finished outhouse.


* Sõir is a kind of cheese popular in Võromaa and Setomaa,. The word sõir is of Slavic origin (the Czech word for 'cheese' is sýr) . The local varieties of sõir are soft, often with caraway (not rye) seeds mixed in. The Estonian word for 'cheese' is juust. It is of Germanic origin (the Swedish word for 'cheese' is ost). The etymologies of these words could be seen as examples of the different influences on Estonian and Võro/Seto culture.

kolmapäev, oktoober 07, 2009

enam ei ole

Estonian months carry a variety of names. For instance, July or Juuli is also referred to as heinakuu -- "hay month" -- a month where, I guess, you are supposed to make hay.

Oktoober's alter ego is viinakuu -- "vodka month" -- named so because of people's fondness for vodka making. But, if I were printing calendars, I would give it a different name, õunakuu -- "apple month" -- because it's the month when people are busy trying to think of creative ways to get rid of the avalanche of apples in their backyards.

Estonians treat apples more kindly than they treat one another. Harvesting begins not with ascending a ladder to pluck nature's bounty from your personal orchard, but with searching the ground for apples that have dropped over night that might still be good. Good apples are never wasted. Even the bruised ones can be sliced and made into jams or used to sweeten cakes.

Only after you have personally judged the quality of every grounded apple can you move to the trees. Using both methods, we collected about eight bags of fruit two weeks ago, resulting in liters and liters and liters of apple juice. We also have jars and jars and jars of sweet apple jam. But the apples kept coming. Last weekend, I scavenged, picked, and cleaned four more bags of fruit. A group of Estonian guys up in the Tartu neighborhood of Veeriku work morning til night every night making juice for Tartu residents for a fee. For 180 kroons our apples were turned to raw juice overnight. We boiled the juice and packed away even more jars of the stuff for the months to come. But there were still more apples. So this weekend I picked six more bags and brought it to the Veeriku õunavabrik. This time though, I went without my spouse.

The leader of the Veeriku pack is a guy who looks to be in his 50s or 60s. He wears an old sweater, and has a salt and pepper beard and a ruddy face that looks like he's seen too many saunas. He also suffers from south Estonian mud tongue -- that is, he sort of mumbles in a deep voice. Only other Estonians can truly understand the system of grunts and sighs that make up this variety of the language. I manage to make it through most of the conversation. Then he points at my apples and says something about "Antonovka." I figure that he thinks my name is Antonovka -- that I am an Estonian Russian. I do have a noticeable accent.

"No, my name is not Antonovka," I tell him.

"No, no, these apples, are they Antonovka's?" he grunts.

"No, they're our apples, not Antonovka's."

"I know they are your apples. But what kind of apples are they?"

Now, I attended pre-school in the United States, so I know the names of different apples. The big yellow ones are called Yellow Delicious. The big red ones are called Red Delicious. And the tart green ones: Granny Smith. How would I translate 'Granny Smith' into Estonian, I ponder. Vanaema Sepp? But the reality is that none of our apples look like those American apples. They're all a little different.

"Well, some of our apples are red and some are yellow," I tell the Veeriku õunamees. "Those are the kinds of apples we have."

He sighs and takes down my number. I give him Epp's name though. I don't even want to go through the process of spelling out my name or, even worse, being reminded that I share a name with American pop singer Justin Timberlake.

I ask Epp about Mr. Antonovka when I get home. She just laughs, and tells me that Antonovkas are a kind of apple. There is no Mr. Antonovka. My mistake! Later, when I bring my daughter to visit a friend, I discuss the dilemma of Estonia's overproductive apple orchards with her father. Margus is standing at the top of the drive way, twisting the top of a juice press. Beside him is one large wheelbarrow filled with apple pulp, another tub filled with raw juice, and then two more plastic tubs filled with apples.

"I've been drinking apple juice for weeks," he says proudly. "I won't need to buy juice from the store all winter."

I relate my tale to Margus. "I went to get the juice pressed in Veeriku, and the man kept asking me about Antonovka -- I thought he thought it was my name!"

Margus laughs. "There are lots of different kinds of apples in Estonia that you probably don't have in America. Antonovka apples come originally from Russia. They don't taste so great, but they last a long time."

I realize he's right. They probably don't have Vanaema Sepp apples in Estonia. And I haven't seen any Yellow Delicious at the store. I'm still a foreigner in a foreign country. It's like John Travolta's character says in Pulp Fiction. The funniest thing about Europe is the little differences. "I mean they got the same shit over there, we got here," he tells Samuel L. Jackson's character, "but it's just there's a little difference."


Making juice causes logistical headaches. When is the right time to begin boiling? Who will be on straining duty to skim off all the nasty foam that rises to the top? And worst of all, what do we do when we run out of jars?

You'd think the answer to the last question is just to head to the store. There are always more jars, right? This is a capitalist country. There is supply and demand. If the people demand jars, then the stores will order more. Sure, Estonia is on the east coast of the Baltic sea, but it's not the middle of nowhere, is it? Such simple things as jars must be as plentiful as, well, as plentiful as apples in a Tartu backyard.

I am sorry to report that there were no more jars at the Zeppelin shopping center in Tartu. Nor were there any at Eedeni Keskus. The Rimi Hypermarket was also out. And Selver didn't have any either.

Kas teil purke on? (Do you have any more jars?) We asked the sellers.

Enam ei ole. (Not any more) They replied.

Enam ei ole. Enam ei ole. I heard that line so many times. How could it be? This is a city of 100,000 people. There must be jars in it, somewhere. As we found out there are, just not at the stores. After searching around, friends began to volunteer huge bags full of empty containers. Apparently, there are ladies all around town that have jars stashed in their cellars. They have more containers than they can fill with fruit byproducts. And the best part of this social networking experience was that we got all our jars for free, though I did spend 51 kroons to buy 30 jar lids this morning. You see, even after boiling juice by the gallons, there's still one more giant aluminum canister to work through.

"Don't worry," our friend Pille tells me. "If you run out of jars, my neighbor has plenty." Pille spends her weekends in Võrumaa, in the southeastern corner of the country. I am informed that they have enough apple juice down there to swim in.

"How much apple juice do you drink?" I ask.

"I average about a half liter per day," she says.

And maybe I do too. I must confess, when I'm in the mood for something quick, I might just grab a jar of juice, a jar of chunky apple jam, and a spoon. They say an apple a day keeps the doctor away. But what about 40 apples? Am I adding years to my life?

As I write this, the sunny morning has given way to a gray, windy noon. The only bits of light that catch my eye from the second floor window are the golden orbs that are suspended before me -- the highest-hanging fruit of our personal orchard. It almost makes me sick to look at them. I feel guilty for not making use of every last goddamn apple. But there's only so much juice and jam a family in Tartu can make.

reede, oktoober 02, 2009

alati valmis

My wife sensed that our younger one had a cold coming on. The solution? Küüslauk -- garlic. But she didn't dice it up and feed it to her. No, she took a thread and stitched the slices of garlic into a necklace, which she hung around our daughter's neck to ward off evil spirits.

I never really thought of Estonians as the folksy east European gypsies one might encounter in 19th century British literature. They always struck me as slow and steady northern peninsula people with marvelous cheekbones. But the natural remedies they push anytime anyone gets sick makes me think twice. Maybe the garlic serves other, unspoken purposes.

I fell ill on the 20th, the day before my father's 62nd birthday. In Estonian, they call what I got angiin -- which should correspond to the English 'angina' but means something entirely different. My angiin meant acute tonsillitis plus four days of aches, pains, and recurring fevers. For those few days, all I could do is gurgle in a voice that, to me, sounded a bit too much like Humphrey Bogart's, and ask my abikaasa -- spouse -- to bring me some more throat-soothing Coldrex and Theraflu.

"Thanks for the Theraflu," I would murmur to my abikaasa. "Here's looking at you, kid."

Theraflu was the only kind of remedy I received that came in a paper box. The rest was straight from the garden. On the morning I fell ill we were in Karksi, a small town on the Latvian border where my wife's people dwell. Somehow my wife's cousin Helina got word that I was in bad shape. I was dispatched to see her mother, Randi, who had some ideas about how to mend me.

In Randi's kitchen I was given astelpaju berries mixed with honey. I have only encountered astelpaju derivatives -- jams, juices, et cetera -- in Estonia. In English, it's called sea-buckthorn, but I don't recall ever seeing sea-buckthorn juice on sale in Manhattan. Maybe it is, in some organic grocery in the East Village. But it's not the kind of thing you find in your American grandma's kitchen, which is a shame because it's supposedly high in anti-oxidants and vitamin C.

Astelpaju berries remind me of cranberries, just as powerful but lighter and softer and sweeter in every other way. While I swallowed the astelpaju and honey, I told Randi about a remedy I had seen for prostatitis at a country fair -- dead wasps floating in vodka. Supposedly, the double-punch of insect venom and vodka would wipe any prostate clean of invaders. I didn't try it though. You can question my masculinity all you want -- I'm not one for drinking dead bee juice.

Randi made for me something entirely different -- chopped onions and garlic in a jar.

"You should wait awhile until the syrup rises," she said, holding the jar of chopped alliaceae before me in the kitchen sunlight. "Then you have to take it. Three spoonfuls a day."

Mick, Randi's British beau entered the kitchen. His real name's Michael, but in Estonia it helps to have an Estonian name. Mick, or Mikk rather, it is. They met while she was working in the UK. Mick's the same age as my father. I am always intrigued by these guys -- the young men of the 1960s. I imagine that Mick was there on Carnaby Street in '67 with Dr. Strangelove and Austin Powers. Everything was just shagadelic and groovy, and people were guzzling beers out of those old-fashioned tall containers and smoking because, as everyone knew back then, smoking was good for you.

"I just got a new guitar," Mick tells me. "It's called Variax -- like a variety of axes." Using his 'Variax' Mick can get the sounds of different makes of guitars -- Rickenbackers, Gibsons, Fenders. He's one of these guys that really loves guitars. I have several -- an acoustic, a classical, and an acoustic bass guitar, but I think Mick belongs to a whole other caste of musicians, the type that really loves guitars and cannot resist the temptation of acquiring a new axe. Each time they pass the window of a music shop, they inevitably fall in love. So maybe Variax is the best solution for Mick. It's like buying several guitars all at once.

When you're sick, people are nice to you but nobody wants to shake your hand. And so I waved Mick and Randi farewell as they left to go visit relatives. But the talk with Mick made me realize that it had been too long since I had played guitar. Life has a tendency to interfere with joyful activities. But music is like that. It can't let you go. When you're in, you're in for life. It's a neverending activity perpetuated by a group of enthusiasts. Sure, sometimes you slack off, but then the others remind you that you and your guitars are headed in but one direction. If you fall out of rank, they'll step in and force you to pick up the pace. "Forward!" the guitarists charge, axes in hand, eager to conquer the world of sound. "Edasi!"


Later that day, we arrived in Suure-Jaani, the seat of my wife's childhood. Everytime we go to Viljandimaa, there are always little stories that pop up. The bubbles of memories just can't be suppressed. It's just pop, pop, pop. Here's the school house that my father-in-law attended a billion years ago as a child. And that's where my wife's grandfather was a school director. And over there, that's the place where one time ...

We had watched a film on Soviet Estonia a few nights back. It was filmed probably in the mid-1970s, but to me, as an American, the haircuts and clothing dated to 1964. There's a weird lag in time between American and Soviet styles. You think that somewhere in Los Angeles they came up with that look around the time of the Kennedy assassination and it took a whole decade for it to reach Main Street USSR.

In the film young Pioneers waded down the aisle of a gathering where they spouted Communist slogans and then, in a militaristic way, put their hands up and proclaimed that they were alati valmis -- always ready -- to defend their socialist superstate from the imperialists with their platform shoes and Mott the Hoople LPs.

My wife was one of those children. They used to have to sing songs about Lenin in school. Lenin. It's been 90 years and I still can't believe they killed the tsar and his family. I mean, ok, they killed the tsar. But his four daughters? Anastasia, Tatiana, Olga, and Maria - executed by one Yakov Yurovsky, later chief of the Soviet State Treasury. Yakov Sverdlov approved their execution. For that and other accomplishments, the city of Ekaterinburg was renamed Sverdlovsk in his honor in 1924. It reverted to its original name in 1991. But they sang songs to Lenin. And if you ask most Estonians of that generation today, Brezhnev's kids, they look back on their bizarre Red youth with a certain nostalgia.

I actually drove to Viljandi from Karksi, keeping an ill-man's pace on the Viljandimaa roads. But Epp's brother Aap had to take over for the trek from Viljandi to Suure-Jaani. Fortunately, Estonia's asshole drivers tend to stick to the Tallinn-Tartu road. We made it to Helle's apartment in one piece, but the first thing I did was make for the spare bedroom and collapse into delirium and pain.

This is the first bed I slept in when I moved to Estonia back in early 2003. That day was cold and life obliterating. I'll never forget how I walked on the ice with Epp towards her aunt Helle's place from the bus stop and took a spill on the frozen blackness, my whole body sliding down part of the street. Man, that was rough. But at least I was well back then. This time I was sick.

I guess my fellow travelers grasped by this point that I was done for. All Helle could do is pile blankets on me and keep her fingers crossed. There's nothing like having your wife's aunt tuck you in and bring you tea. Talk about extended family. "You actually care about me?" you ponder as she lays another blanket on top. "You care if I am well or sick?"

But Estonians care. If you get sick, there is a group effort to get you well. Aunt Randi contributed the garlic and onions and astelpaju. Aunt Helle kicked in the blankets and teas. And the next day, back in Tartu, I got a phone call. A phone call from Laine.

"Epp's downstairs," I croaked to her. I always have a hard time talking to Laine and Karl -- Epp's grandmother and grandfather. Maybe it's because I am insecure about my linguistic abilities. But their language is different. It's not the clipped, decipherable Estonian that you hear on the radio. It's this meandering stream of vowels and consonants, where the grammar is otherworldy. Somewhere in the back of my head, my brain is still deconstructing those phrases and reassembling them in English. I don't notice it, but it creates a slight strain on my thought process.

"But I didn't call to talk to Epp," Laine said. "We were worried about you. How are you doing?"

Worried about me? I was shocked. "I can barely talk," I told her of my condition. "But I don't have a fever right now."

"You should drink hot teas," said Laine. "Lots of hot teas." In the background, I heard Papa Karl mutter something. "Papa recommends hot milk," Laine added. "He says hot milk with honey works best."

That night I wished my father a happy birthday via Skype. I could see my unshaven, pärslane image on the screen of the laptop. I looked bad. And, you know, I was supposed to go on a business trip to the UK the next morning. I kept thinking that the illness would pass, but my wife pulled the plug on the whole thing as I lay in bed, molested by changes in body temperature.

"You're not going," she decided. "I spoke with the doctor. She said there's no way you can travel like this."

Could you imagine what would have happened if I went? If I had gotten to Stansted, sweating from illness, unable to talk because of the angiin. They would ask me how long I intended to stay in the UK, and I would respond in sign language or scratch them a few sentences on a sheet of paper. Maybe they would have denied me entrance, or shipped me off to wither away in some British hospital. It certainly pays to have an abikaasa. Someone who can talk sense into you. Someone who knows when it's time to cancel the business trip. Someone who brings you teas when you are down.

But still, hot teas? Garlic and onion syrup? Milk with honey? It was like firing arrows at a destroyer. The next day a doctor was called to the house. Heavy duty antibiotics were prescribed. We were going to napalm the shit out of my illness. No germ would be spared. It was curtains for angiin. Die, you bastards, die. It took two days, but finally the beast was subdued. I could swallow again. Given some time, I might even return to something resembling 'normal.'

I still don't feel that I am there yet.


As the autumn light filtered through the windows, I recovered and watched the news on TV or read newspapers and books. I have to admit it, I like Jüri Pihl, see mees kes teab ja välja veab. That's the electoral slogan of the Social Democrats -- it means that he knows things and fixes mistakes. I'm not really sure what he knows or doesn't know. I just like him because he seems amused whenever he is interviewed.

During one program, the reporters asked the Tallinn city council candidates random questions as part of a poll, things like, 'How much does a liter of vodka cost?' And there was Jüri, looking amused. "Everyone knows that a liter of vodka costs between 120 and 180 krooni" he shook his head from side to side, apparently entertained. And he was right. He got the most questions correct out of all the other candidates. It's like they say, Jüri teab ja välja veab. I guess that after decades in the security services, getting asked dumb questions by reporters is amusing.

But mostly I spent my recovery with Haruki Murakami and his book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. Not that I am about to pick up running. Murakami says that certain bodies, like his, are designed for traveling long distances via athletic shoes, and I've come to conclusion that my body isn't one of those bodies. Still, I enjoyed the simplicity of it all. The freedom of a mind traveling down a road, savoring ideas like the little tufts of clouds that float by above.

That's the hidden benefit of illness. Clarity. You realize that you've been spending 90 percent of your time engaged in full pursuit of counterproductive crap. You require a clean slate -- to disengage, to step back from it all, and see things as they really are. To not think in disjointed paragraphs, but to approach the world one perfectly crafted sentence at a time. It's like Jüri and the reporters. You can either be threatened by the outside world and its cascading waves of troubles, or you can enjoy it for what it is. Maybe you'll even find it amusing.