It’s a fine line, but your space is mine

18 Jan

In New York, the “line” is holy.  In a city of 8 million, there is an understood and implicit respect for maintaining some semblance of order when large groups congregate to make their way through small bottlenecks.  Estonians on the other hand, seem to be lacking this subconscious guiding force on their behavior.

Whether it is standing in line at the grocery store, waiting to get on to some mode of public transport or pretty much any other sort of queue, you can be guaranteed that unless you are standing uncomfortably close to the person directly in front of you – you will be cut off.

This happened to me on several occasions just last week alone, but the incident that particularly stands out in my mind is that of a mother with a baby in a stroller cutting me off at the Säästumarket across the street from my office.

There I was approaching the line with my bag of cashews and cottage cheese (it’s hard getting protein here in the arctic north when you refuse to consume anything that had parents…) and while I was casually perusing the selection of cheap crap that was strategically positioned en route to the cashiers, a mother pushing a stroller literally cut me off.  If she had been unaware of her action and had it been an error in judgement, perception, attention, what have you, it would not have bothered me.  But it never is.  Invariably when something like this happens, I give the stink eye.  They know what they did was wrong.  They just don’t care.

And in response to my evil glare, there is the moment of awkward silence which follows the mutual recognition of their trespass.  In this particular case it was made all the more uncomfortable because mixed in with the sense of “I got here first – at your expense” entitlement which is always coupled with a sense of guilt on the part of the spot stealing transgressor, there was also an implied statement that was exchanged through a quick glance that escaped the glazed look of the typical stare that one encounters here. That expression said, “What?  I have a baby.  What are you gonna do about it?”  And she was right.  How could I argue for my place in line with a mother?  I am not that jaded… yet.  But don’t be fooled.  She knew what she did was wrong.  Just like all the line cutting rest of them.  This sort of behavior would start a fight in New York.  Here it is just another moment in your day.

But I must admit that the cold social graces of my arctic hosts are beginning to rub off on me.  And it came as quite a surprise.

While New Yorkers are by no means “Americans” in the traditional, Walmart sense of the word, we do share a great deal of traits.  None more so that the need to apologize for any possibly perceived social transgress (aside from line cutting, which would never enter our thinking).  In particular, I am referring to the accepted etiquette of quickly – even if insincerely – apologizing to those who we may bump into accidently on the street or in a store.  Or saying excuse me to someone who may be unwittingly blocking our way in an aisle at a store.  It is, however, very different here.

In Estonia, you walk where you will walk.  If another person is in the way… well, that’s their problem and is no concern to you.  This results in a high level of street bumping.  During my first few months here, such interactions were always seasoned with a quick and concise “vabandust” (excuse me) on my part.

But something happened.  Something which was so externally subtle and internally profound that I actually stopped in my tracks momentarily to appreciate it.

I bumped into someone on the street – and I said and did… nothing.  I didn’t even slow down.  In fact I barely recognized the incident.

Could it be that the cold breeze of the arctic social graces are slowly creeping into the drafty recesses of my soul?  Quite certainly, the answer is yes.

Vodka Soaked Babies with a Side of Fruit

23 Oct

The idiosyncracies of Estonia are beginning to shine through like the last rays of sunshine as we descend into the dark and ominous season – so inadequately – known simply as “winter.”  I mean, it makes sense that a nation who’s capital city is situated a mere 7 degrees south of the arctic circle would have certain habits that might seem strange to a neurotic New Yorker like myself, but that’s all part of the fun…

There seems to be an apparent lack of plant matter in the diets of my burly viking hosts.  While it’s true that I may be particularly aware of this issue being a vegetarian, the fact that ham seems to be straddling the distinction between meat and vegetable here in Eesti, is slightly disturbing.

In New York there was always easy access to an abundance of tasty fruit and vegetables.  Whether it was a bag of cheap fruit from Fruitman Bill on the corner of 87th and Lex (, or a platter of diced citrusy goodness from the aisles of Whole Foods, my daily dose of fresh nutrients was always assured.  Here in Estonia, however, we’re not so lucky.  There does, of course, exist fresh fruit, but it never quite looks right – it’s coloring is always slightly off and it’s either too firm or too soft, and always in the opposite manner in which you would hope it to be.

I was explaining my disgruntlement about the less than satisfactory condition of the fruit and vegetables offered here to my brother-in-law the other week, and he quite correctly pointed out that I shouldn’t be surprised by this.  After all, just think how far a pineapple has to travel to make its way this far north.  I couldn’t argue with his logic.

So where I used to eat fruit, I now enjoy kohukesed – sometimes with a delicious jam center and always in an assortment of flavors and varieties.  Kohukesed are a delicious Estonian treat with the unfortunate direct translation of “cheese curd snack.” And they have undeniably become a major staple in my diet here.  In fact, they are bordering on becoming an outright food group in my world.  But even with this tasty dairy treat, I sometimes find myself reading the label, just to make sure they didn’t mix in any vegetables – like ham.

Another emerging food group for me is beer, or õlu, in Estonian.  As the great prophet Homer Simpson once stated so eloquently, alcohol is the source of and solution to all of life’s problems.  And nowhere have I seen this philosophy so whole-heartily embraced as here in Estonia.  The variety of beers and spirits being produced within this small nordic nation is staggering.  My personal favorite at the moment is a concoction called mõdu being produced by the popular Estonian brewery Saku  (when I say “popular” I mean one of the two – of any significant size – that exist here).

It is a honey beer with a medieval brewer depicted on its alluring golden label.  I feel this branding adds authenticity to my drinking, plus the brew itself is quite sweet which works well for an ameeriklane like myself with an insatiable sweet tooth.  But even more dear to the heart of the Estonian nation than beer, is vodka.

Vodka is the magical cure all for anything which might be ailing you. It is imbibed, absorbed and generally splashed around haphazardly by Estonians – especially in times of illness.  And having recently suffered my first cold here I found myself sporting a vodka soaked gym sock  wrapped tightly around my neck and held in place by a garbage bag and a purple pashmina.  I must have been quite a sight to behold, despite my sense that my new attire would not have met even a raised eyebrow had anyone, besides my wife and two cats, seen me in that condition.

Perhaps my frailty in the midst of the increasingly harsh Estonian climate stems from the fact that I am not a native of this land, therefore having not been reared under the umbrella of its harsh customs.  In particular, I am speaking of the tendency of Estonian parents to leave their infants outside, relatively unattended and exposed to the cold of the arctic Estonian air.  I’ve seen this behavior now on several occasions and it seems that there is a proclivity towards the belief that “babies have to breathe.”

This, of course, is a logic with which no sane person could argue.  However, the manner in which parents here believe this should be achieved leaves an outsider like myself scratching their head.  Is there not enough oxygen within a building to satisfy the minuscule bronchial needs of an infant?  Maybe not.  As adults, I have often heard Estonians complain of not having enough air when spending time in places like large department stores or museums.

One friend of mine recently admitted that she once encountered a baby left outside in the snow around midnight while the child’s parents enjoyed themselves inside the adjacent lounge.  I can almost hear the explanation now, “Oh, don’t worry about little Ragnar.  He’s a viking baby – a little frost bite won’t hurt him any.” But all joking aside, this is apparently normalne here.  But why – I’m not quite sure.  At least there don’t seem to be any baby stealers here in Eesti like you might expect to find in New York, if one were to leave their progeny in similar circumstances.  I can only hope that my own wife doesn’t one day decide that exposing our child to the elements is beneficial to the development of their physical constitution.  She promises up and down she won’t, but that same friend warned me to be suspicious of this.

This pre-toddler exposure to the great outdoors does actually explain something that has been bothering me for a while.  I am always cold here.  Even in the summer.  But when it’s cold outside it seems that while my first reaction is to reach for the knob controlling the heat of our radiators, an Estonian’s first reaction is always to open the window and let the fresh air in.  In fact, the more I think about it, the more these two things must be connected…

Oh, Estonia, what other perplexing propositions do your prolific people hold for me in the coming permafrost?

a momentary lapse in recognition

2 Oct

This weekend I spent 6.5 hours in Tartu, one of the major cities of Estonia – with a population of about 100,000 (yes, that’s considered major here).  It was my sister-in-law’s birthday weekend and I was determined to get there and participate in the familyness of it (that being one of the main reasons we moved here), even if the ride there and back was a combined total of 5 hours.

While there I was shown one of the great wonders of Estonia; something not known to the vast majority of loll ameriklased like myself – the Tartu open air kirbuturg (flea market).  Once a week, in the heart of Athens on the Emajõgi (Tartu) there comes together a mass gathering of the hoi polloi for the purpose of offering their wares.  It’s like everyone coming together and having a yard sale all at once and in one place – once a week, every week.  And unlike in Manhattan, where such gatherings require permits, request participation fees from sellers, and are generally contained within abandoned parking lots downtown; this was spread out, permit-free and defined by a free flowing collage of natives offering everything from used headlights to vintage bags – all spread out haphazardly on the lawns, pedestrian paths and car hoods of a generally agreed upon area.

Before entering the haze of second hand booty, I did find myself experiencing a brief moment of skepticism – after all, in a small country like Estonia (where there isn’t even an H&M or an Ikea) what sort of bounty could one really expect to find in a market like this?  That moment passed very quickly, however,  as I saw mixed in amongst the used jackets, GAP hoodies and sneakers a myriad of treasures like vintage hand bags (I’ve been well trained in the art of vintage shopping by my wife), shoes, cuff links, pins, handmade socks and woolen gloves.  My favorite piece of the day was a small table made from the base of an old Singer sewing machine and a cross-sectioned slice of an old tree – it was both etno and vintage, all at the same time; and just the right size for my computer to perch on.

(As a side note) In case you haven’t guessed it, we are in need of some extra furniture. And while I tried to organize an Ikea run to Finland on Facebook this past week, I think all I succeeded in accomplishing was to act as the galvanizing force in the coordination of an Ikea run to Brooklyn. Not quite so useful in my case.

But enough about that, let’s get back to the kirbuturg – for a moment, in the maze of park blankets, garbage bags and old sheets strewn on the ground as make-shift selling tables, I found what I thought was a shofar (a ram’s-horn trumpet used by Jews in religious ceremonies).

I couldn’t believe my eyes.  Here I was, in the heart of the Arctic North, where there exists only one synagogue and where (until recently) I had actually believed there no longer existed any ethically Estonian jews (a misnomer, of which I was happily proved wrong); and I had spotted amidst the thousands and thousands of odds-and-ends an actual shofar.

Well that disbelief lasted for only a moment as I reached down to grab it and soon realized that what I had found was not a shofar at all, but merely a horn. Yes.  A horn.  Like a viking would drink out of.

Aside from the obvious and immediate realization that the only difference between these two things was a small hole at one end – it struck me how absurd it was for me to have even thought it could be anything else in the first place.  I had, for a brief moment, forgotten that I am living among hoards of smiley, pagan vikings.  Why wouldn’t they have an old horn hiding out in the storage room, behind the broken ironing board and the jars of pickled mushrooms? Yes, that’s right, Estonians are actually vikings, living under a thin veil of Lutheranism.  And in my book, they are the coolest vikings of all – because they’re stubborn.

(Allow me to interject a brief history lesson, courtesy of – and slightly adapted from – one of Mart Laar’s books on the history of Estonia.)

Long long ago, when all the other vikings of the Arctic North had basically settled down and retired their swords and horned helmets, the Estonian vikings of the islands of Hiiumaa and Saarema were still going strong.  But with everyone having basically jumped off the plundering bandwagon, these lone vikings felt the familiar itch to engage in some wholesome pillaging, but were at a loss for kindred spirits with which to spar.  But rather than be thwarted by the changing zeitgeist, they instead opted to invade Sweden!  And once there they laid waste to the now former capital of the now peaceful Scandinavian nation state.  Taken aback by an affront of what the Swedes of the time could have only thought of as “Baltic Pirates” they decided to move their capital city further inland, deeper into the nooks and crannies created by the many tiny islands of the region – so as to better fortify their capital.

And so Stockholm today exists because of the Estonians.  But that’s enough history for now…  The point to remember here is that I stumbled across a horn, not a shofar at the kirbuturg.

But maybe it’s not so odd that I experienced a momentary lapse in recognition of my surroundings.  This week was Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish new year.  Now I am far from observant – in fact I’m largely clueless about my Jewish roots and for years I have shied away from almost any outlet or experience that would bring me in touch with my heritage.  But my (non-Jewish, yet more-Jewish-than-I) wife often insists that we take some time out to honor the traditions of my lineage.  And so we did.

Rosh Hashanah involves the welcoming of the new year, according to the Jewish calendar.  And like with almost all Jewish holidays, the practical result of its celebration involves copious amounts of sweet and fattening food (which thanks to the delicious, but horribly-dangerous-to-the-waistline dairy products here in Eesti, there is never a shortage of).  So out we went to Solaris (a big supermarket down the street from our apartment) to shop for the new year.  And shop we did.

Through what felt like great strokes of luck we managed to find sweet wine and challah (the traditional bread eaten on the sabbath).  But the Estonian version of this traditional doughy treat was even better, being spiced with cardamom seeds. Once home, and with horribly mangled pronunciations of holiday prayers that were gleaned from the internet, along with our orange candles, sweet wine and bread, we welcomed in the Jewish new year – Estonian style. And it was good.

But sometimes I think Estonian food is too good.  Before moving here I was convinced, after looking at all the beautiful, skinny people, that somehow, despite the heavy and hearty foods and the abundance of alcohol and delicious dairy products, there was an underlying secret to the maintenance of the general population’s well proportioned physiques – much like the red wine to which the French owe their surprisingly low cholesterol levels, despite their notoriously fatty diets.

I was wrong.

I have come to realize as the weeks turn into months and the initial hints of rose tinting fade from the glasses through which I view the world here, that Estonians are thin for one of only two reasons: a) they work out like crazy, but still eat junk or b) they eat almost nothing at all.  I find that I am capable of engaging in neither of these two options, and so I find myself falling victim to the variety and tastiness of Estonian dairy treats.

Unfortunately it’s not only the dairy industry here that is contributing to my particular vices.  It’s the harsh reality of living life as a vegetarian in the midst of a viking culture, where viinerid (sausages), smoked fish and liha-everything (liha is ‘meat’ in Estonian) are so pervasive that I’ve even had to learn to read the labels of the local cheeses, just to make sure they are animal-free.

In New York I ate a wholesome diet where at any given meal the proportion of my sustenance would be about 80% protein/20% carbs. Here, however, I feel that a realistic assessment of my dietary breakdown would be 90% carbs/10% protein at any given meal.  I am starting to feel overfed, and under nourished. And with winter coming and daylight an already increasingly limited commodity, I am beginning to have concerns about how I will conquer the Estonian winter.

I have a slightly sinking feeling, and the words from HBO’s Game of Thrones seem to linger in my head as the days grow shorter and the weather cooler – “Winter is coming…”

a little bit of this and that…

4 Sep

September is here and it seems that summer in Estonia has left us.  I saw hoards of children all dressed up and carrying flowers to their first day of school, from the window of my fourth floor apartment; I often wear a hoody or a sweater, and have already started complaining of the cold.  Plus it’s actually dark by 9pm. Yup, summer has gone and fall is certainly upon us here in the Arctic North.

Estonia was named one of the least religious countries in the world.  I can confirm this to be true, as underneath the thin veil of Lutheranism it is quite clear that the native people of my new host country are, at heart, actually viking pagans.  This is reflected not only the spirit of the populous, but in the intricacies of the language.  For example, the genitive, or possessive form (the 2nd of the 14 cases), can be applied to inanimate objects – so in Estonian it would be quite normal to say that the chandelier belongs to the ceiling (thereby attributing some level of personification to what would otherwise be an inanimate object).  So it is not surprising that the weather here takes on certain characteristics that would normally be attributed to a living breathing person  – in particular, characteristics like moodiness and indecision (sound like anyone you know?).

In fact, there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to the weather here.  I have actually seen it raining on one side of the street and not on the other; or seen it rain when there’s not a cloud in the sky; and its not uncommon to start the day in a sweater, end it in a t-shirt, and have a rain coat packed away next to your sunglasses.

But maybe that’s over for now?  Maybe fall will bring a dose of sanity?

Probably not.


Kanarestoran (Chicken Restaurant)

Being vegetarian in Estonia is not the simplest trick in the book, although it is possible.  Being surrounded by beautiful (women) and burly (men) vikings on a regular basis pretty much ensures that you will be constantly exposed to the “virtues” of eating meat.  So it wasn’t much of  a surprise when I heard that my Saturday night would be spent at a one-night-only kanarestoran which both came into existence and faded from the world in the span of one evening, in the soon-to-be-renovated space of my wife’s future place of business – the Estonian Health Care Museum.  That’s right, for one night only, the soviet-era medical repository of the Estonian hoi polloi was transformed into a jiving, rhyming, kick-ass chicken restaurant – complete with barnyard theme and hay.

As we entered and were stamped at the door with the mark of a roasted chicken whose neck was shaped like a fork, reaching around to pierce its own tasty tasty flesh, all I could do was look down and my wrist and wonder – how did two vegetarians wind up in a place like this?

As we entered the twists and turns of the medieval building to get our bearings for the rest of evening we happened upon floor after floor of DJs and bars.  There was even a room with three (lucky) chickens (friends, not food) whose activities were being broadcast via a 90s-era camcorder to the hoards of chicken-dinner-diners on the floor above.  It was a bit grim to know that this particular family of fowls were not even an egg’s throw away from some cannibalistic exposure, but such is life.

The highlights of the evening were getting to know some of my wife’s friends, sitting in hay, watching a chicken lay an egg while I downed a Czech beer (one of many), maintaining my balance whilst in a shaking port-a-potty (multiple times), and making a fool of myself in front of my wife’s future boss (sorry hunbun!).

I did, however, learn an important lesson from the evening – the only thing more potent than Estonian beer is Czech beer.  I also discovered the joys of Orelipoiss (organ boy) – an extremely overweight Estonian singer with an amazing voice, adept at making complete nonsense sound like pure vocal bliss.


I love the Estonian language.  But I should tell you that as an American in Tallinn, its quite hard to actually speak any of it!  Work is in English.  Home is in English.  Friends are in English.  What’s an Ameeriklane to do?

In New York I was actually speaking more Estonian than here in Eesti.  Not knowing what your future will hold is an amazingly motivating force when it comes to learning a language.

Accordingly, our good friend stepped up to the task of being my personal tutor and worked with me intensively over the four months prior to our departure to bring me up to speed on many of the intricacies, both subtle and obvious, of the Estonian language.  I owe her a great debt of gratitude for her help, as my understanding of the spoken Estonian sõna (word) went from non-existent to somewhat competent in an amazingly short time.

However, landing here in the Arctic North just over three months ago, I find my progress is stagnating.  Try as I might to glean what I can from the brief stints of overheard conversations and the few stock phrases I am comfortable with (“minu eesti keel ei ole väga hea, kas me saame rääkida inglise keeles?” “my Estonian is not very good, can we speak English?”), my progress is just not progressing.

So, dear readers, I call upon your wisdom – aidake!  Consider the suggestion box open…

The Blog Post Without A Name

14 Aug

I haven’t blogged for more than a month.  There are reasons for this.  First we had no internet for most of the month of July and it finally took an angry email – in English – to the service provider for them to set us an installation appointment.  In hindsight, to really have motivated them to move faster I should have just invited them over for coffee to meet my wife who over the course of 27 days of media deprivation slowly became the muse for whatever movie M. Night Shyamalan is currently dreaming up.

Secondly – I’ve been suffering writer’s block.  This is unusual for me as I am known among those that know me for having an uncanny ability to not shut up; especially when it comes to recounting small and minute details in what would by all rights normally be short and straightforward stories.  I tend to like going on tangents.

Which reminds me, I’ve found what is perhaps my first grievance with Estonia.  The zebras!  No, this is not Australia (or for my American friends, Austria – don’t mind me while I poke fun at the American education system) where one might envision wild animals running rampant on the streets (even though I’m sure that’s not true… and I do know there are no zebras in Australia).  Zebras are what Eestlased (Estonians) call cross-walks.  And why shouldn’t they?  They are, afterall, black and white and striped all-over.

So what’s my beef with them?  That’s easy.  They’re always on the wrong side of the street.  ALWAYS.  If you want to get to the kauplus (store) just across the street from you, you can be sure as the arctic night is long that you will first have to cross the street in the opposite direction of the store, then wait 45 seconds  for the traffic to pass, then cross the main street that is separating you from your point of commerce, then wait again and finally cross one last zebra to get to the pood you intended.  (Pood is another Estonian word for store – there are many words for the same thing in Estonian, yet there is no definitive tense for speaking of the future.  It’s an interesting language…).

It almost seems as if the civil engineer, in whatever ministry is responsible for road planning, has a truly dark sense of humor.  There exist intersections where it is literally clear as day where the zebra should be, and the fact that it is on the opposite end of the intersection can only be the result of a warped and twisted mind.

Zebra’s aside, this past week was an emotional doozy.  I found out last weekend that my father was in the hospital having been admitted for what was found to be blockages in three of his main arteries.  He went in on Thursday and on Monday morning he was in the OR having open heart surgery.  He is 85.  I was freaked out.  My father and I haven’t had the best relationship and while physically present throughout my life, he was always emotionally absent.  But he’s my dad, and the news that he was going to have such a major procedure and the fact that I am more than 4000 miles away started to sink in.

I owe a lot to my wife for those few days when the info was spotty and the need for emotional support was great.  And she delivered.  My sister-in-law also happened to be in town for the week, and the availability of some extra familial support was very appreciated.

Thankfully, my father is a horse.  At 85 years of age (he was born before the Great Depression and was in the occupying forces in Berlin after the close of World War II!) he pulled through the more than 7 hour surgery like a champ and was sitting up and complaining in full force almost the next day.  He is supposed to be sent home this weekend (just under a week later).  I inherited his bushy eyebrows – and I pray to god the trade off for that is his robust health and endurance.

The rest of the week went by in a haze and on Thursday afternoon our good friend from New York arrived, coming home to Eesti for a long overdue visit.  By the time Friday evening rolled around, I was beat, and ready to recoup my energies at the bottom of a glass.  So out we went.

As the evening progressed and our friend’s desire to mingle with the party people grew – she’s an interesting combination of innocent and outgoing, which always makes for fun times – we found our way to one of Tallinn’s more infamous meat markets… Nimeta (or if you prefer, the Bar without a Name).  My wife warned us about this place as it’s known as a crossroads for prostitutes, drunken brawls and a generally sleazy atmosphere.  Who could resist a peak inside?  So in we went.

It turns out crowded meat markets are a great place to dance… they are so crowded no one is looking directly at you, and the people are so wasted that even if they were, they won’t remember your embarrassing dance moves anyway.   By about 2am my wife had had enough – not wanting to mingle on the dance floor with the party people.  Our friend, however, wanted to “shimey shimey” and having successfully convinced me to join her on the dance floor, we stayed chaperoning each other in the midst of a sea of debauchery and intoxication until 5am.

Just letting go and being able to move without care (and with a buzz from the overpriced drinks) was a great release for the week I had just had.  There were, however, some “highlights” of the evening, which I feel it’s only fair to share:

  • I witnessed a young couple who apparently just met on the dance floor and were dry humping to the point where even I was concerned they not chafe themselves.
  • A middle-aged vana krõbekana (old grilled chicken, a wonderfully descriptive and derogatory Estonian phrase for an overly tanned woman) hit on me, first by dancing against me (stupid me not realizing that while it was crowded, it wasn’t that crowded), then getting my attention by nearly kicking me, and finally kissing me on the ear when I explained that while the expression of her desire to kiss me was quite flattering (not really) I was married, there with my friend, and not interested in anything other than dancing.
  • My friend was befriended by a single-serve BFF who decided it would be great to hang out with us while we all danced and kept talking to her as if she had known her for years, dragging her around the dance floor and getting her to make song requests to the DJ (as a side note: what kind of DJ doesn’t like Lady Gaga?).
  • On the walk home we saw some drunken teenagers stealing flowers from landscaped city property and then smacking the still soil-heavy roots of the plants against the sidewalk before finally giving up and placing them gently at the base of a tree.

My lovely wife was a bit pissed about the krõbekana and that we stayed out till 5 without her, as one might imagine.  But she’s a good sport and all was forgiven soon enough.

The high point of the weekend was a visually stunning rendition of Verdi’s Attila.  It was performed within the ruins of the Pirita nunnery.  For those who don’t know, the ruins are a tremendous landmark, consisting of the exterior frame of the cathedral and no roof.  It is beautiful and for the purposes of the opera, a temporary roof was installed and stepped seating put in place.  If I hadn’t known I was actually sitting in the empty shell of a 15th century nunnery, I would never have known.

The performance itself was a modern rendition with a dazzling array of colors from bright whites, to greens and purples, reds and yellows.  And if I had realized sooner than 30 minutes into the show that there was a running translation of the words in English, clearly displayed on the monitors positioned at the sides of the stage, right underneath the Estonian version of the text, I might have even been able follow the story line a little better.  What I do know is that (spoiler alert) Attila is finally killed by his bride – who used to be a slave, and was probably never found cruising around a joint like Nimeta.

Round and round we go

20 Jun

How does one week end up feeling like a month? Easy. When you’ve traveled more than 11 hours by bus and car from nearly every corner of Estonia, had your first week of work at a new job, found yourself at a gay bar with two brits, three estonians and a fairly well known estonian public persona of new york origins, and traveled through three cities to celebrate two birthdays spanning seven decades, time seems to expand just a bit… So why don’t we start at the beginning.

It was Sunday afternoon and we were sitting on the bus from Narva heading into Tallinn to set up shop in our temporary accommodations in Nõmme, Tallinn’s picturesque woodland neighborhood on the outskirts of town. I was filled with the thrill and excitement of the realization that I was standing on the doorstep of my future, presented with the opportunity to take my dreams into my own hands and reinvent myself in whatever direction I chose. Then I fell asleep, as I usually do in moving vehicles, and woke up with that familiar crimp in my neck that comes from excessive bus travel.

With a little help from a new friend we made our way with ease to our short term apartment where we were met with nearly 90 square meters of beautifully maintained vintage herringbone floors. The apartment with its textured wallpapers and double windows, still with the original glass panes that are just a little bit wavy when you look through them, on the second floor of a truly pre-war building, to use a New York term, is situated in the middle of a large lot of well manicured nature, complete with a miniature pond on the front lawn. Estonians have loodus (nature) in their blood and tree saturated places like Nõmme or even Narva-Jõesuu only serve to reinforce my impression that they really are, delightfully so, forest people when it comes right down to it. And so there I was sitting in our first private space in nearly four months looking down at the set of shiny silver keys in my hand and the sense that we really were on our way seemed to permeate the air.

With work starting Monday morning I found myself learning the ropes of Estonian public transportation. In New York one doesn’t make eye contact on the buses and trains. This is usually because everyone is packed in so tight and uncomfortably that the lack of eye contact is regarded as a necessary and general accepted sign of respect for the personal space of others. Here in Estonia you also tend to avoid eye contact with your fellow passengers, but it seems that the normal flow of cause and effect as I knew it in New York has been flipped on its head, with the respect for personal space seemingly arising not out of the necessity resulting from obscenely close quarters, but out of an attempt to avoid social awkwardness at all costs. Maybe Estonians like trees so much because it is easy to hide from your neighbors when standing behind one?

Thursday evening came faster than I thought possible and in the morning I got a text from a fellow new yorker here in Estonia who I had been hoping to meet for a while now. Once we met much later that evening we picked up yet another expat who had just recently made the move here to the land of Saku, Kalev and ridiculously gorgeous women and we three ventured on to meet up with friends who were already drinking at a bar in the Old Town. We found them easily and took a seat at the outdoor table they had already commandeered.

I should have realized something was up when I saw the logo for the bar in the window was a purple unicorn with a star on its butt, but being the animal lover that I am, I just thought it was cute. Plus the name of the door read “Kapp” (closet) which I mistakenly misunderstood to be “Käpp,” which means paw in Eesti keel. So the whole animal theme was going strong for me… until I wandered inside and was greeted with a black and white photo of 5 men’s bare asses. I looked to the left and noticed the rainbow colored candles and bottles sitting prominently behind the bar and the tight fitted black t-shirts being worn by the staff and all of a sudden it clicked… “I’ve stumbled into a gay bar in Tallinn with a mini Estonian celebrity from New York. How cool!” As for the bar itself, it was quite empty but the music was good, the Saku was tasty and, in true Estonian fashion, they had free wifi. Plus the purple unicorn was sort of cute. But I think we can all agree that the real moral of the story is that the difference between “A” and “Ä” is not to be taken lightly.

Bowing out from the group around 1:00am (I did have work the next day) I quickly found myself a taxi and plopped myself down in the back seat. Well that was mistake #1. Apparently the Estonian way is to sit right up in front, in the passenger seat, almost as if to declare your intention to participate in the navigation from point A to Ä. In New York that sort of behavior is generally frowned upon as the taxi driving population would much prefer you sit comfortably separated from them behind the bullet proof glass dividers and their newly mandated GPS enabled credit card readers.

Now, I had been warned about the taxi’s in Tallinn by my wife and knew to beware and aware that they not take me for a ride, literally, as I still technically fall under the label of “tourist” to those who don’t know better. But I was ready. I had practiced. I was prepared. I even made sure to deliver my directions flawlessly and with the best Estonian accent I could muster. I even directed in Estonian, “vasak, paremale, siin” (left, right, here). “I was nobody’s fool tonight. This guy has no idea I’m an ameeriklane,” I thought to myself as I enjoyed the slight beer buzz and the pleasant car ride home past the wooded Estonian neighborhoods. Well, that lasted right up until it was time to get out and I leaned over to take a look at the meter and saw that it read €18.20! Shit. To clarify for my American friends, I had just bought myself a nearly $26 cab ride that by all rights should have cost me no more than $10. So much for my slick efforts. As my coworker told me the next day, “Yes. Everyone does that once. But don’t worry, you’ll never make that mistake twice.” I think I’ll have to ask him for a couple of takso telefon numbrid.

Before I knew it my first week at work was behind me and we were on the road again heading south to Tartu for my neice’s 4th birthday party. My sister-in-law and her husband recently renovated their house and garden, and as we sat outside on their beautifully designed, and built by hand, deck (Estonian men seem to just know how to build things… large impressive things, like houses and saunas), enjoying the cool summer breezes and the ridiculously tasty palatial spread of party food, also prepared by hand and from scratch, it occurred to me that summertime conversation in Estonia is continually interrupted by what is literally the sound of one hand clapping. “chat, chat, chat, CLAP. chat, chat, chat, CLAP.” No, Estonians are not all afflicted from some sort of a nervous tick that causes them to slap their legs, arms and other people’s heads almost randomly, they are just trying to kill those nasty little sääsed that seem to be everywhere (except, mercifully, for Tallinn). What is odd is that its become such a common and accepted part of life that the loud and very physical, sometimes full body motions, barely even register any more and people go on with their conversations unphased by the spastic contortions of their compatriots. CLAP.

Saturday, much like the rest of the week, came and went in a blur and soon we found ourselves waiting at the Tartu Bussijaam, this time for the Sebe Bus which would take us from Tartu to Narva for my wife’s vanaisa’s 76th birthday celebration. In an attempt to make a well timed pit stop before our next 2.5 hour journey cross country I took my 30 eurocents and made my way to the pay-per-use public restrooms that are the norm here in the Artic North.

All was well and good until it came time to use the papertowel dispenser. I pushed the metal bar once. Nothing. I pushed it twice. Not much. So I pushed it a bunch of more times until what I felt was an adequate amount of absorbant hand towels had been dispensed. Suddenly, the door of the men’s room flew open and like a bat out of hell I see standing there a very angry version of the restroom attendant I had paid my 30 eurocent to only moments ago, holding in her hand a large roll of paper towels. She stormed over to the dispenser, tried the metal bar herself and started a loud and berrating rant in my direction, in Estonian of course. From what I could gather the gist of her monologue was that I was an idiot and that I had to push once on the metal bar and then pull the hand towel out… and not to use too much next time! A few “vabandust’s” (sorry) and “ma tean’s” (I know) later I had managed to slip past this beast of a woman and headed straightaway onto to the bus to Narva to enjoy my traditional en route napping session.

And that brings us to tomorrow, the start of a new week. And that week includes Jaanipäev, the traditional Estonian celebration of the summer solstice, with an abundance of grilling, drinking and massive bonfires. And I can only imagine what new adventures are in store…


11 Jun

Today we went to the beach at Narva-Jõesuu. The weather was warm, even if the water wasn’t quite, yet. But that didn’t stop the throngs of people in thongs from spending their day under the warm arctic sun, cooled by the crisp nordic breezes.

In New York, a beach trip requires either forethought in regard to the layers of your wardrobe, or an advanced mastery of public towel-clad disrobing and always seems to make for a somewhat clumsy time at the beginning and end of a normal beach outing. Here, however, I was almost stunned to see a well thought out and sane solution: a freestanding metal orange colored privacy booth – smack dab in the middle of the beach. I could barely believe my eyes as I saw people line up, one by one, without annoyance or impatience and wait their turn to use this ingenious device. Having stepped inside to make use of it myself, I can only imagine that the reason I have never seen these amazingly practical privacy guards in use in the States is either because of a warped concern over possible liability, as one cannot see the goings on within it, or simply because no one has ever seen such a thing. I almost hope it is the latter reason.

I’ve said it before that the people of Estonia are beautiful, and in particular Estonian women are one of the best kept secrets of the north (case in point – my beautiful wife). And it is a little realized fact in the States that whenever you stumble upon an unusually stunning actress or model, with an almost unpronounceable name, the safe bet when guessing her national origin will be Estonian; i.e. Carmen Kass, Tiiu Kuik, Anett Griffel, Anna Torv, etc, etc… Technically most of the people on the beach here in Narva-Jõesuu were not ethnically Estonian, but rather Russian-Estonians. But having come from New York, and grown up in Brooklyn, I am no stranger to living with and among my Russian neighbors, so believe me when I say that there must be something special about the lifestyle, the quality of the food or even just the freshness of the air here in Eesti, because even the technically non-estonian women are unusually attractive here. Which brings us to the amazing paradox of today’s beach excursion.

It was an almost odd sensation to be on an open beach in the presence of barely clad bodies with an almost complete lack of self-consciousness or sexual tension. Maybe it is just me (and would probably be the same for my fellow nudity-sheltered Americans), but any trip to the beach in the States has always come with a slight underpinning of awkwardness when so many bodies gather in one place with so little fabric between them. But not here. It was almost as if there were an unwritten edict that had been issued, of which one was only subconsciously aware, that stated, “We are all just hairless apes. So get over it and enjoy the warm sunshine on your skin.” Or maybe it was just that nothing kills one’s hormones like a healthy sprinkling of babushkas mixed in among the beach-going populace.

Whatever it was, it was good. And I had a wonderful time, wading into the still icy waters of the Gulf of Finland, although I did not quite have the courage to venture in more than about knee high. And there was even a valuable lesson to be had on the crisp clean sands of the Narva-Jõesuu beach, with its mänd (pine) trees lining the shore. There are almost no sääsed in Narva-Jõesuu. This is because the closer you get to the sea, the less sääsed there are. This is a very important lesson to learn, because if you happen to be a hypochondriac inclined Ameeriklane, like myself, then you too would probably have sprayed yourself down with your newly acquired bottle of Diffusil Repelent before heading off to the beach, in order to ward off the blood hungry flying menaces that had quickly become the bane of your existence. And if you had, you too would have discovered that Diffusil and sea water do not mix. Or rather they mix quite well, if your intention is to create a green tinted coating on your skin. It must have been quite amusing to see me, a blatently loll Ameeriklane, standing there on the rand (beach), having just come in from the water, in my paikeseprillid (sunglasses) and H&M t-särk, which reads “Save the Fish!”, with green legs! Thankfully the tincture washes off in salt water, just as easily as it is made.

Tomorrow we are off to Tallinn with work starting on Monday. But we will be back here in Narva soon enough, and I am looking forward to the coming summer days when the water will be warmer and the crisp air all the more refreshing.

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