pühapäev, juuli 22, 2012

aegna notes

Aegna is an island in the Bay of Tallinn, one of Estonia's many islands (1,520 is the official count), but one of a handful that caters to travelers. It's a fairly recent tradition of mine to visit a new Estonian island every year. Last year, we ventured to Kihnu for my wife and daughter's double birthday. This year we picked something a little less touristy to visit together.

The boat to Aegna leaves from the Kalasadam ("The Fish Harbor"), which is situated beside the Linnahall, a Soviet monstrosity if there ever was one, that occupies prime real estate. Nine years ago when I was penning stories for the seminal regional newspaper, The Baltic Times, I wrote a piece about the possibility of a Tivoli-like theme park being erected on the site. Today, the vast hall, assembled for the 1980 Olympics, is in even more terrible condition, graffiti everywhere, small weeds writhing out of the cracks of the crumbling concrete. And for too many, this is their first impression of Estonia.

The trip to Aegna takes about an hour and 15 minutes. It was choppy both ways -- several passengers got sick. I saw one person yack in a garbage can, and a grown, fit woman lying in the floor with her hands over her eyes. But I managed to keep my breakfast down and was rewarded with a pretty island of thick forests, boggy patches, sandy soil, well-kept paths, uprooted pines, silence and serenity.

I think Aegna's greatest asset is its abandoned military installations, most of which date from the First World War. When Epp heard this she was truly impressed, because 1915 seems like a very long time ago (even though my grandmother was born a month after the Armistace and she's still alive). But, still, so much has happened since then, that walking among military ruins from 1915 is a bit like looking at those photos of Titanic lying at the bottom of the sea, that same, "Men really lived here? Who were they? What were they thinking?"

I've seen a few too many scary movies (and read too many Stephen King books) but these thoughts were racing through my head when I ventured into the forests to check out the beach battery installation alone. This may sound creepy, but the farther in I went, the more thoughts came to me, as if I could not see the shadows of the men who lived in those buildings, but instead feel their feelings, moods, sensations. I didn't see anything, but I felt lots of things, most of them somber, a few ominous.

Maybe it's because I recently read A Farewell to Arms, and something was similar, those men sitting on the Italian front so long ago, waiting for something to happen, those men sitting on this little island in the Baltic so long ago, waiting for something to happen.

There are several sandy beaches in Aegna, and this has to be the place's best-kept secret. While others drive down to Pärnu for the full effect or even tough it out at Pirita Beach in Tallinn, Aegna's beaches were, at least on that windy day, completely deserted, and we had one all to ourselves. We barely made it there, because wild strawberries abound, and my Estonian entourage went into foraging mode, as Epp (and Kaja and Anna) think that it is their duty to consume any and all wild strawberries they can find. I told them, "Look, you can't eat them all!" And Epp replied, "What do you mean, I can't eat them all?"

Like I was challenging her foraging skills or something.

esmaspäev, juuli 16, 2012

wild and crazy guy

They weren't from Estonia (or Scotland)
About a month ago I was offered the prospect of free drinks in Copenhagen, which I gladly took up, knocking down a few in the early evening and then en route to the airport until, like clockwork, I started mumbling half-remembered phrases from History of the World, Part I, stuff like, "It's good to be the king," and hanging out with the other inebriates at the back of the train, Danish travelers, who were also riding their own internal wave of, "Isn't life grand!" and scoping out the foxes. So, ühesõnaga, it was fun.

Then I marched up to the departure gate for the Estonian Air plane headed for Tallinn. Ah, Estonians! I figured I probably knew one or two of them, maybe one was my wife's cousin. We'd have a swell time, swapping funny stories about ridiculous dialect words and making jokes about Silver Meikar. So there I was, standing with my nth foamy Tuborg in hand, ready to embrace just about anybody with that aquatic-Finnish-meets-stern-German face, all wound up, like those swinging Czech brothers in Steve Martin and Dan Ackroyd's Wild and Crazy Guys 1970s SNL routine, and what do these Estonians give me but the silent treatment and awkward body language.

Nobody said a word, neither to each other, nor to the idiot in the corner with the beer in his hand. They sat as rigid as washed-up, sun-dried driftwood, not a bony elbow touching another's. It was painful, dreadful; so severe and austere was the ambiance that I had to go hide myself away amongst the Danes for some more mirthful exchanges before boarding my flight back to that sparsely populated morgue of a republic on the other side of the Baltic Sea.  

I share this tale so that my dear friend Flasher T at Antyx will grasp the nature of the North American critique of Estonian interpersonal relations that has set off many a philosophical treatise. This depends on the nature of the observer. I always thought of Vikerkaar or Mingus as middle North American cads accustomed to "have a nice day" sweety talk at ye olde greasy spoon, but I am from New York, actually Long Island (which is worse), where people are notoriously rude to each other. Yet even those tortuous interactions with, say, your local Department of Motor Vehicles official, do not find equivalence in the 19th century schoolhouse demeanor of the Estonians, who sit in agony at Copenhagen departure gates, as if an unanticipated hiccup could earn them a switching in front of the class.

With a birch branch, of course.

So I was silenced at the departure gate, took the quiet flight back to Tallinn, and tried not to chat up the taxi driver out to Vikerkaar's house (though failed). When I got there, Vikerkaar's son came out and shot me with a toy rocket launcher and Vikerkaar launched into a soliloquy about the lackluster quality of Estonian journalism. The afterglow of my trip wore off, we downed tea (not beer) and I started to feel less like a "wild and crazy guy" and more like an exhausted father of three with a permanent resident's card, thanks be to stiff Estonian civil servants everywhere.

kolmapäev, juuli 11, 2012


Our daughter Maria (right) and our friend's son Remi: the few, the proud, the babies.

I owe it all to my sixth grade teacher, of all people. We were assigned to give a report on different countries and I had my fingers crossed for Scotland so that I could write about blood feuds and kilts, but I drew Iceland instead. Oh, Iceland, lovely Iceland, desolate lunar island in the middle of the North Atlantic, glaciers and the stink of sulphur. The project on Iceland sparked my interest in peculiar northern countries, a few twists in the road and I'm here. That was back in 1992, when the population of Iceland was about 260,000. Today, its population is nearly 320,000. That's right. In 20 years, Iceland has gained 60,000 new people. 

Why does this interest us? Because in slightly more than half that amount of time, Estonia has lost more than that number. The preliminary census figures released in May showed that there were 1.29 million people resident in the country as of Jan. 1. That's down from 1.34 million in 2000, and 1.56 million way back in 1989. These days people in Estonia keep their fingers crossed for a month when they break even or even register population growth, if only by a few dozen new babies. It's a national preoccupation.

What's going on here? You are not going to convince me that Iceland has better weather, or its more centrally located, or it has a more diverse economy or less tumultuous history. It may have not been ravaged in multiple continental wars, but its population was decimated time and again by famine, volcanic eruptions, and plague. And even during this current Great Recession, where Reykjavik was ground zero, Iceland's population has continued to go up, while the Estonians, who are congratulating themselves for averting the worst of the crisis, continue to see their population decline, albeit at a slower rate than in previous years. "Estonia has proven itself as a country," says Prime Minister Andrus Ansip, except in the bedroom, I would like to add.

How can this be?  Someone must be to blame. In Estonia, some blame the women who emigrate in greater numbers compared to the men, the women who settle in foreign lands and work in foreign economies and make foreign babies. Some blame the men who expect the women to make them food and do their laundry, forcing them to seek happiness elsewhere. Still others blame the Soviets for knocking Estonia off course, because Estonia and Finland were on equal footing in 1940, and now Estonia has fallen behind, and its population declines while Finland's continues to grow. Or maybe it is just the hyper-individualistic Estonian attitude, that one must serve his or her own interests before society's. It's every man for himself!

I honestly don't see the population decrease firsthand. I am surrounded by babies. I have a new baby, our neighbor has a new baby, my wife's cousin has a new baby and her stepsister has a new baby. My pal Sven's got five kids under 13. He deserves the Maarjamaa rist! If somebody's to blame for population decline, it's not us. But who is it then? Who is selling Estonia short? And why? There is this feeling in Estonia that we are leaking water, and someone must put a stop to it, before the tünnisaun runs dry.

reede, juuli 06, 2012

up from the skies

It didn't happen here.
One of the most perplexing things for a so-called "Western" person resident in Estonia is the absence of "The Sixties," these arguments that have been raging for forty-odd years about things that younger people have to study up on to understand, but still make older people reach for their daggers, as if the Hippies were the beginning of the downfall of Western civilization or the heralds of a new age, an "Age of Aquarius," where blacks could be president, popular newsmen could be openly gay, and management entirely female.

It didn't happen here. There was no Estonian Watts, no Estonian Woodstock, no Estonian Stonewall Rebellion, no Estonian women burning bras. Or were there? It's hard to tell, given the population's desire to glance beyond The Sixties to The Forties, a truly contentious time in Estonian history that few have truly digested (nor it seems ever will). From what I have been able to piece together, The Sixties in Estonia arrived in The Seventies, with prog rock groups like Ruja, the "Estonian Beatles." Maybe it was the heady year of 1968 that started to shake things lose, so by 1980 you had The Letter of 40, this vast national reawakening climaxing in the summer of 1988 with the Singing Revolution.

But then, to make Estonia's "Sixties" understandable to those of us familiar with the American counterpart, then we should look beyond our own details -- civil rights, Vietnam, feminism -- and see Estonia's period of reassessing its values and ideals as one of national survival. I find it interesting that in the 1970s, the heart of the Soviet era, my wife's mother gave her children the oldest Estonian names she could find. That wouldn't happen today. The film Nukitsamees (1981) to me embodies the values of this era - a spooky film about witches with a fluid plot that if looked at through Western lenses, seems quite psychedelic. To think it was made only 12 years after the highly structured "classics" Kevade and Viimne Reliikvia.

To me, this shows that Estonia indeed was going through its own era of redefinition, its own "Sixties," just in its own, Estonian way.

esmaspäev, juuli 02, 2012

prangli dialogue

Prangli Island, where the blood is neither tip top nor superluks.
As the taxi bore us out to Mähe, my father asked about a strip of land in the distance that appeared to be disconnected from the mainland. "What is that, is that an island?" he asked.

"Maybe," I answered. Then I asked the taxi driver in Estonian if it was an island, perhaps the fabled Prangli Island, center of an excellent short story by the reclusive writer Vello Vikerkaar. That story, "The Inbred Bastards of Prangli Island," hinted at the lack of genetic diversity on Prangli, which prompted the following question.

"You're not from Prangli, right?"

"No," the driver answered, looking in the rearview mirror.

"Good. So, is it true that all the people who live there are relatives?"

"Well, yeah," he said. "You are stuck on an island, you want to keep the property in the family, so you wind up marrying your cousin. I mean, who else are you going to fuck?"

"You could go to Helsinki," I suggested. "Just row up to the port in the middle of the night, steal some women, and head back to Prangli. You know. Pirate style!"

The driver laughed. He thought I was kidding. "But, you know, we Estonians on the mainland are not inbred. We've been invaded so many times! Germans, Russians, Danes, Swedes,  Poles ..." he counted them out on his fingers so as not to forget, "... our blood is tip top!"

At this point I chuckled, not because Estonians are so proud that they carry the genes of a motley crew of rapists in their blood, but because they overuse the terms "tip top" and "superluks" in everyday speech. Both are English borrowings ("superluks"="super luxury"), and both are used to describe material things: a new car might be tip top, a swanky apartment could be superluks,  but this was the first time I have ever heard a person refer to his blood as being tip top.

Estonian genetic diversity was one of the selling points of the Estonian Genome Project, which billed the small country's genetic heritage as being as heterogeneous and representative of the larger European population, just as the older Icelandic project was sold on that small country's homogeneous population and tip top genealogical records, making it possible to trace rare diseases over many generations and, ultimately, identify the variants causing those diseases. But that's marketing. I honestly have no idea what real genetic impact Estonia's assorted invaders had on the local population.

Estonians were somewhat confused when it emerged in recent years that they were more closely related, in terms of genetics, to Latvians and Lithuanians, than to their linguistic brothers the Finns. "But Estonia has the euro!" they told themselves. I know, it makes no sense to me either. Still, it might explain why Finns just seem weird in any context, because, well, they are. At the same time, Finns are genetic outliers, meaning that Swedes are no more closely related to them than Estonians are. Or, rather, Estonians and Swedes are the Finns' closest relatives, but other northern Germanics (Danes, Norwegians) are the Swedes' closest relatives, and Latvians and Lithuanians are the Estonians' closest relatives. (Got that?)

I bring this up because an Estonian relative recently complimented my mother on my family's fecundity: I have aided in the production three new Estonians, and therefore deserve a medal, or something like that. Even though I am a foreigner, and have thus polluted the Estonian genetic well, it's okay because, hey, they speak Estonian, and two of them have blue eyes. This upset my mother, as you can imagine, who reminded the relative that they were American citizens too, and I had to wade in later, after the fact, and explain the Estonian psyche to her using American equivalents, such as, "This relative is very conservative, the Estonian version of a Tea Party activist, pay him no mind."

That got me thinking. Does every bit of Americana have a counterpart? If a relative can be the Estonian equivalent of a Tea Party activist, and Jaan Kaplinski can continously remind me of Peter Fonda, then surely there are other parallels as well. That's another post. But I have wondered from time to time what the poor Estonian geneticists will do if one of my offspring shows up in the biobank and they start picking up variants associated with Mediterranean populations, leading to some backward hypothesis -- "Maybe there was a Greek in the Teutonic Order?" -- when, all along, it was just little old me and my wanderlust.

Or maybe it will be cause for celebration, a vindication of the big theory that the Estonians are genetically diverse, that there is no risk in breeding with your neighbor, so long as he or she is not from Prangli Island. I can just see the beaming geneticist's face as she holds up a vial marked with my surname, the flash in her eyes as she yells out to her colleagues to share the good news. "Our blood really is tip top," she cries out in the lab, "superluks!"