kolmapäev, veebruar 16, 2011


These have been days of contrasts. The sun and the cold. I welcome the sun. It has lifted us all up. People seem happier, friendlier. In November, the clerks at the A ja O wouldn't look you in the eye. Now they seem like they actually mean it when they say, Head aega! Strangers waved to us when our car zoomed past them on a country road on Sunday. Can you believe it? And they didn't even want anything.

Each day is longer than the one before by two or three minutes. It used to be dark when I brought my daughter to school. Now it's light out before we leave the house. It's been sunny for days now. I hope it never ends. Light is important. It soothes me, and I need a good soothing, especially since both taps in our office are frozen, as is the toilet, and I've been working from home.

I returned to the office on Monday to discover the heating system had broken. Ice and snow had accumulated around the windows. The Estonians keep track of the weather. They check the reports everyday. But I didn't know what the temperature was on Monday. Could have been -20 C or -30 C. All I know is that I could see my breath in the office and I didn't bother taking off my coat.

The tap in the bathroom was still working then. I managed to fill up a pot and put a bag of frozen gnocchi to boil for an early lunch. I don't know if they've kidnapped some Italians, but they sell fresh gnocchi at the local Rimi supermarket. Really delicious. I stood over the stove as the huge puffs of steam lifted off the boiling water, trying to stay warm. I kept thinking about Sir Ernest Shackleton's expedition to Antarctica in 1915; how they got stuck in the ice flows, eating penguin meat and drinking boiled penguin blubber. I imagined I would have no problems drinking the stuff on that day.

That's an odd side effect of the cold. It makes me hungry. After the gnocchi boiled, I fried them in a pan with olive oil, slicing the remnants of a hunk of Synnove parmesan cheese to sizzle among the dumplings. In summer, I would never eat such a heavy meal in the middle of the day. That day I ate the whole bag of gnocchi and sliced parmesan and then ran to the shop downstairs to buy some chocolate.

It was Valentine's Day. In the shop I also picked up the ingredients for an Estonian dessert called kirjukoer, "spotted dog," which actually has nothing to do with dogs. Our recipe called for cookies and cocoa powder and marmelaadid. Cookies? Check. Cocoa powder? check. But marmalade? I later searched three stores looking for marmalade jam, but couldn't find it anywhere. I found apricot jam and cherry jam, but no marmalade. I began to lapse into the foreigner's delirium. How come they don't sell marmalade in this goddamn country?

When I was a child, I watched a program about a British bear named Paddington who loved to eat marmalade sandwiches. That's how I learned about marmalade. But Viljandi is a long way from London. Haven't seen any bears here either. Exasperated, I called my wife to inform her that there was no marmalade to be had in Viljandi. Then she told me that marmelaadid are actually little jelly candies, which I easily managed to locate about 30 seconds later.

To make kirjukoer, you mix melted butter with sugar and cocoa powder and then add in the crumbled cookies and marmelaadid. Roll it up in wax paper and let it set in the refridgerator. When it's ready, long and brown, it does resemble something doglike, but it's still is worth the effort, especially on cold days when the sweeter and more filling the food is, the better.

On Sunday, I went cross-country skiing for the first time. It was a beautiful sunny morning, but there was nobody else on the course. At first I was gliding along with ease, but then, when I had to get up a small knoll, I realized how out of shape I was. I know nothing of cross-country skiing. My old downhill skiing tricks were useless. I tried to wedge coming down a hill and came down hard on my hip. Good thing no one was around to see my embarrassing spill. Only later I was informed that it is against the law to ski when it is that cold out. But I know nothing of Estonian laws or sports. I simply know nothing.

While I was lying on my ass on the course, I considered taking a teacher, but only for a moment. Then I realized that I actually have some prejudices against the Estonians, particularly against the males, who are the inverse of me. While I am glad to admit that I know nothing, they are keen to pretend that they actually know everything. I could imagine the look on my teacher's face. "You mean you're 31 years old? And you still don't know how to cross country ski?" Tsk tsk. But I felt great when I got home, and I've decided to go again. Energy begets energy.

My lack of knowledge of marmelaadid and cross-country skiing is amusing when considering I have now written two books about Estonia. A lot of people enjoyed the first one, but others complained that I wrote too much about my personal life. They wanted some kind of anthropological exploration of this intriguing land. "The natives are known to frequent warm dwellings and whip themselves with branches to repent for their sins. In summer they don colorful striped skirts and worship a deity they called leelo with songs." I got the first review of the second book from a reader today. He's already read it and it's not even in bookstores yet.

"How did you read it already?" I asked. "I don't even have a copy."

"I got it as an e-book," he answered proudly.

"Is it as good as the first?" a woman nearby asked him.

"It was a little different compared to the first one," he said. "But the ending was very moving."

An e-book? Indeed, the book is available online. You can get it digital form in Estonian from Apollo, Rahva Raamat, Krisostomus, and Digikogu.

The English links are here: Apollo, Rahva Raamat, Digikogu.

neljapäev, veebruar 10, 2011

the vanity of giustino

In the beginning, you just start writing. You write, and you write anything because anything is better than a blank page with its cursor blinking back at you. I started writing the second part of Minu Eesti, My Estonia, that same way — whatever came out, came out, and a lot of it stayed. Only later did the story begin to congeal and I could see it for what it was. But that was later, not at the beginning.

I wrote what became the prologue at Vello Vikerkaar's place in Nõmme. I stayed there for a day or two in December 2009, taking advantage of his hospitality and couch and free books and magazines. His wife Liina made me pasta and told me of how she had once hitchhiked to India. Terrific people, the Vikerkaars. This stay coincided with a photoshoot for Anne ja Stiil. It was just as one would imagine it, with makeup artists and stylists and lighting specialists.

Later I strolled over to the National Library on Tõnismägi to man the Petrone Print table at the Christmas Fair and sign autographs and listen to a recording of a cool jazz version of "Põgene, Vaba Laps" that was being played on repeat at a nearby booth. And while I was sitting there, listening to "Põgene, Vaba Laps," wiping the makeup from my face, I had to ask myself the question, how the hell did this kid from Long Island wind up writing a monthly column for a goddamn Estonian women's magazine?

It's not like it's a bad gig. I enjoy the challenge of trying to figure out whatever it is that Estonian women want to read about. But, let's just say that when I was eight years old, lying on the grass outside my home, staring up at the stars, longing, dreaming, yearning, I never thought about being a columnist for an Estonian women's magazine. Not once. So it had to be fate, right? It was my fate to be their columnist. I tried the fate argument with Vikerkaar, but the cantankerous Canadian cuss wouldn't have any of it. He's one of these literary frontiersmen who still refuses to admit that someone else is driving the bus.

And that set the framework of My Estonia 2. It's a debate. Fate versus free will. The dreaming boy in the grass versus the columnist for an Estonian women's magazine. Which side are you on? Since it takes place in 2003, it's a story about a 24-year-old father to be trying to adjust to the realities of his new life in a foreign land and wondering if they are what he longed for. It's why the Estonian title of the book is "What do you want?" -- Mida sa tahad?

The reason there even is a second book is because I never finished the first one. I was hundreds of pages in, closing in on my deadline, and the publishing house hierarchy was asking, "When will it be finished?" And I realized that I was only half done, and if I had kept on like that, I would have wound up writing a 700-page opus about an 18-month period of my life. So there had to be a part two, if only to finish what I started with part one.

This begs the question: Will I write a 350-page book about every year of my life from now on? The answer is no. This is a two-time affair.


While I was writing the first part and, especially after I finished it and became alienated from it, as it seems a lot of writers become from their work, I developed a reading habit. I had always read before, but not like this. I was just devouring books. As soon as I finished one, I needed another, and so on. Some stayed with me, others went right through me, leaving little residue.

One that stayed with me was Epp's book, Kas süda on ümmargune? It's translated in English as Around the Heart in Eleven Years, but between us it's just known as "The Heart Book." The reason this book stayed with me is because I read it at least half a dozen times, as I helped to edit the English version. Epp plays with time and memory, the storyline leaps back and forth through the years, and it creates a sense of disorientation, of timelessness. I enjoyed this lack of linearity and wanted to apply some of it to the second part of My Estonia.

Another book that stayed with me is Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller. After I wrote the first part, I developed a hunger for ex-pat fiction. So I looked up the regulars. Tried a little Hemingway. Delved into Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald. But bull fights and the riviera aren't exactly for me, if you know what I mean. Miller was far closer to my reality, and therefore easier to appreciate. He's known mostly for the obscenity trials. This was the man who carpet bombed his audience in the 1930s with the "c word," cunt that is, but I've never been roped in by a narrator like that. He was foul, at times, but he was also honest. And when you are frequenting the red light district of Paris, you have to be honest.

Plus, it was Miller who introduced me to the concept of the "fictional autobiography." And that is what this book is. It's nearly all true, and yet, it's a work of fiction. It must be, and you'll see why. But I bet that most autobiographies contain an element of fiction. People tend to not remember the same things the same way.

There were other books that served as guideposts: Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami, Tristessa by Jack Kerouac, The Father of All Things by Tom Bissell. Even Goldfinger by Ian Fleming. I am sure that if you squint at My Estonia 2, you can find traces of all these authors. I listened to Django Reinhardt while I wrote most of it, and revisited Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal and The Virgin Spring. So I had something in mind, but what was it?


There are many themes in this new book. Fate is certainly one of them, but the other is alienation, both from the country of origin and the new country. The main character returns to Estonia and tries to fit in there, even though he is deeply foreign, can't speak the language, doesn't get the humor, and can't even remember his new relatives' names. There is also the theme of alienation between people within Estonia, and how the narrator reacts to this different emotional climate.

Another theme is Europe and, especially, Estonia's new place in the pantheon of northern European countries as this limbo land – this gritty kid from the streets, to steal a line from Fletch — that has exited the post-Soviet orbit only to wake up to Scandinavian-style consumer culture. That's why a great number of the settings in this book are banks and office buildings and shopping centers. Those are the places where Estonians spend a lot of their time! When people hear "My Estonia" they think you are going to write a book about some old forest brother sitting in the woods somewhere reading Kalevipoeg. But Selver is just as Estonian as a song festival, isn't it?

There are other ways to look at this book, as a coming of age story, a clash of idealism versus reality, old versus new, past versus the future, America versus Estonia. Oh well. How much can you really write about a book that you wrote? That defeats the point of the book, doesn't it? I finished this book at our kitchen table on the day after Christmas, 2010, slightly over a year after I started it in Vello's living room. It's not easy to write a book when you have a full-time job and a family to look after. But I did it, and for that simple reason, I am satisfied. I hope readers are too. And since this book is due in stores on or around February 24th, it is dedicated to the Estonian people.

Elagu Eesti!

teisipäev, veebruar 01, 2011

talv on hea

The morning after we got back I went to unearth the car. It was like an archaelogical dig or one of those drilling endeavors in the Arctic. "Judging by these ice cores, an asteroid hit Earth 65 million years ago."

The vehicle was buried under a good foot or more of snow. Because there had been a thaw while we were gone, a layer of ice had formed in between the layers of snow. It took me two hours to get the car clean using a shovel and a brush.

I borrowed the shovel from my neighbor. When he came out, lighting a cigarette, blue circles beneath his eyes, I inquired as to why all the snow in the parking lot had been pushed behind my car.

"You were gone for a long time," he grunted, smoking. "We thought you had emigrated or something." Then he added, "The weather has been wild this winter." Actually, he used the word metsik which translated in my jet-lagged brain to "foresty" as mets means "forest." "The weather has been foresty this winter," he seemed to say.

Then I saw his domestic partner/girlfriend/wife/just friend (who knows in this country) and wished her a very big and boisterous "tere hommikust!" to which she replied with a very anemic "tere hommikust" and looked me in the eye for about a nanosecond. I was afraid I startled her. I felt as if I had been too forthcoming with my "tere hommikust." It occurred to me then that I was back in Estonia.

What to do?


When the girls got back, the first thing they did was put on the stereo, which still had a Christmas music disc in it. Estonian children's music. It had some kind of funky organ combo backing a chorus of little kids singing about snow being on the ground and birds going south -- linnud läinud lõunamaale -- and there was something so psychedelic about the recording. The organs. The reverb on the vocals. Music set in the middle of your mind. Estonian children's music is nutty. I haven't heard anything like it in the US or anywhere else. It's a big deal here. Taken very, very seriously.

I attribute this to masochism on the part of the adults. Their way of humiliating the children into obedience is to get them to sing complex, ridiculous songs, wearing silly national costumes. "Now, Krõõt, if you want a cookie, you'll have to sing radiridirallaa, pagane on valla three times and sing it like you mean it!""Joosep, if you want any Christmas presents this year, then repeat after me:

Taba-taba-taba-tamm, taba-taa.
Üks sula, kaks sula, talv on hea.*

Now, Joosep, sing it again and stand on one foot!"

*Talv on hea translates as "winter is good." And isn't it? I was hoping for all the snow to melt, but then I remembered that when the white stuff is gone, that just means it will start raining again. Hmm, snow or rain? What will it be? Maybe snow is good in this regard. Maybe the children's song is right.


At night, I shared a cup of coffee with my foreign Estonian friend and commiserated. "How does it seem to you just being back?" the väliseestlane asked. "Estonia, I mean."

"It's so quiet here," I told him. "All I see from my window is the lake and woods."

"I feel it everytime," he said. "Even going from Helsinki to Tallinn. Estonia seems so sleepy."

He's one of the good ones, this foreign Estonian. The Estonians themselves don't know how to regard their exile community. There is the perception that the exiles are stuck in the past. Probably true. Then there is the perception that the exiles, and those who have returned, have a propensity for talking down to the poor Estonians who had to actually live in the USSR. Also probably true. And then there is the perception that the exiles are fanatically conservative. Not sure if they are fanatics, but I would wager that a sizeable portion of the foreign Estonian community in the United States votes for the Republican Party.

I'm personally not a Republican, as every Republican who's ever tried to recruit me into the party has started his sales pitch with a little fear and loathing. Something like, "but would you let your daughter marry an illegal Mexican?" with an arm placed around my shoulders. To which I think silently, "I'd rather she marry an illegal Mexican than a guy like you!" Usually, I just blush and 'aww shucks' myself through these moments, maneuvering away from the uninvited arm. I am conflict averse. Better on paper or on screen than in person.

"I said 'tere hommikust' to my neighbor this morning and I think I frightened her," I confessed to my foreign Estonian friend as we drank coffee. "I forgot that people are a little shy around here."

"Oh, that?" he laughed. "I gave up on that a long time ago," he said, sipping his coffee. "That's why I don't say 'tere hommikust' to anybody anymore."