The floating head to your left is Ernest Hemingway. He is sort of your penultimate American expat - he enlisted to serve in the US ambulance corps in World War I and never turned his back on that continent. Hemingway's Europe of the 1920s appealed to his generation much the same way the Europe of the 90s and 00s appeals to mine - it's a new frontier, particularly "East" Europe, that is former communist Europe (because Vienna is farther east than Prague is). In the 1920s, the frontier of America, which had sustained America's adventurers for 300 years, was dead. Defeated. But in the cafes of Paris - well, there was a new adventure brimming.
Not only adventure, but a sense of homelessness drew me to Europe. I went there the first time in 1994. I was 15 and came from a country where I had to sneak pornography into my life and sneak a sip or two of alcohol while no one was looking. But in Zurich, I saw, you could read a nudie magazine in a barber shop. You could hand out flyers to strip shows in the street. You could shoot-up in the park. You could drink beer in the streets. You could let your guard down, let your heathenism run free, and then sleep it off on the train home. This was the Europe I tasted and I went back as a young man.
I went back to Reykjavik first, for three days. It was peaceful. I sort of wanted to lock myself in an apartment there with a life supply of beer and yogurt and watch movies for the rest of my life. Then I went to Copenhagen - for four months - to "study." Oh, what an education! Everything was soft. The drugs, the leather shoes. I was supposed to be studying - but I was getting, as we "yanks" say, "hammered" by life. In Copenhagen I met many like me, many other Hemingways that wore black (I wore brown) and liked the fact that their parents couldn't drive to see them. That they could keep their American world at an ocean's distance. There were no strip malls or nasty SUVs, less fat people, less homeless. Sure Denmark was made of sausage, blonde girls with thick thighs, a rotty tongue, and bad (BAD) pop music, but, it beat the hell out of the US's motor cities at the time.
When I got back to the tame post 9/11 United States I felt haggard, hungover, and out of place. Here was a country bordered by the great inland sea of Middle America and the Atlantic Ocean. My world was the Northeast corridor - Washington, DC to Boston - that's it. Everyone spoke English. Sex was concealed, drugs were bad, Kylie Minogue was foreign and pompous talking heads on television were God. And nobody cared about the wonderful world of peeing in alleyways, meeting strange people, enjoying old architecture and sucking down exotic beers of the other continent. They just cared about buying new shoes, and typical crap. Stuff I too quickly relearned to use to occupy my time. But the stimulation wasn't there. Everything was in English - what was the fun in that? And Americans are so into America. America America. I had to leave. I got out. I got to go to Finland. I had to get back to "normalcy." I'll never forget how it felt when I looked out of my window in Finland back in the summer of 2002. It felt like the best place to be on Earth at that moment. The trees were green. The sun was warm. There was a Valintatolo next door, and I was happy. Hooray for me.
I got back - and I stayed back. I married my wife. We lived there. And slowly the routine life I escaped in New York became my routine life in Tallinn, Estonia. I had to be places at certain times, I was responsible for doing things, producing things on time. I was in the toilet and my cell phone rang at Hansapank - it was my boss, he had a job for me. Oh, dear. I started to dislike the people sometimes. I grew impatient with the lumbering ways of communication affected by northerners. Suddenly, I wasn't getting away from anything. Anything was very much here. I missed the New York sense of humor, the American distrust and disregard for all authority. I was in a country full of students and young parents and old bums. And I could no longer slur my words or pepper them with "fucks" and "shits" like I used to. The excitement of going home with a strange woman gave way to looking at bars thinking "how did I ever think it was cool to go home with those ho's?" And I was satisfied with peeing in alleyways maybe three or four times a year, as opposed to every friday and saturday night.
Stuck in a land filled with elves that like to eat berries and jellied meats, I threw myself into the cuisine of my youth - pasta every night, substituting Estonian salami for the real thing. Sometimes, in the quiet of the day, I had the urge to scream "FUCK!" in the Raekoja Plats.
At the same time I got what I came for. I got gorgeous architecture. I got to love it at night. I got to say proudly to visiting American tourists that "this is where I live" as they paid a bank account full to stay here for a week, while I got to stay here all the time. And I started to enjoy the culture. I really liked Saku originaal, and I enjoyed watching Laulukarusel and Eurovision, shoveling vanilla pudding in my mouth. My wife's family did their best too. While I am not fond of salads with meats mixed in, I did eat a lot of mustard and potatoes. And I lost all that weight that I tried so hard to get rid of in the United States. Things were going good. I couldn't engage with a co-worker about the A-Team, but other than that I found things to talk about. I met other expats - from Belgium, Germany, Spain - they sort of were like me, swindled there by the allure of Estonian womanhood. Supposedly all Estonian women are sexy, but when my Estonian female doctor checked if I had a hernia once, I barely felt a thing.
So I realized that I had achieved the second stage of Hemingway - the 1930s stage - the part where you actually care about things other than poetry, sex, getting drunk, and new adventures. Now I cared about politics and NATO and the EU and Russia. I was fully prepared to throw myself into the gears of the continent. I was ready to pick up my machine gun to fight Franco's fascists. I had achieved expat version 2.0. I was so into version 2.0 that when my daughter was born, and I went to the pharmacy in town to get my wife a few things during her labor, I crossed paths with some American travelers, and I saw them as foreigners. They were only staying for a few nights. This was just a stop on the stimulation express. Things were often like this. I'd cross paths with weary, dirty North American travelers, and I had no desire to join them. Me? I was headed to Jarve Selver to pick up some home improvement supples. Then I'd pick up some Saku and Latvian cheese at Säästu Market. Then I'd go home and watch a movie from the 1990s - like Austin Powers - munching on my Latvian cheese and drinking down my õlut, and I'd feel like I had died and got to Jumala to "chillima" and "hangima" with Taara.
Occasionally somebody would mention something going on in America, like "who do you think will win American Idol?" and I'd have no clue what the fuck they were talking about. I missed 9/11, I missed the anthrax scare, I missed the DC sniper, I missed the blackout of '03. And now that I am back, I am proud to say that i have never watched American Idol. So don't talk to me about it.
Yet sadly, I never got past Hemingway version 2.0. I moved back to the US shortly after that. And that took getting used to. It took awhile for my slow European english to get up to date. I missed the coarse humor I had grown up with, and slowly the ca ca jokes came back too. And I began to see the different cultures in America from a new, almost anthropological perspective. Now I can pick up new accents the same way I could distinguish languages on the trains and buses of Europe. Now I can enjoy the US not as an American, but as an ex-expatriate - a traveler. I keep journals of my trips here the same way I kept journals of my trips there.
My fondness for the "old country" grows each day. Sometimes I feel like a dusty British academic the way I scour the news for "news," read early 20th century Noor Eesti poetry, and rejoyce when Andres Veerpalu shows the Norwegians he's the boss. And because I went and lived in Europe during some of the most important moments of my life, the moment where I realized, sitting sick in my bed in Copenhagen at the very late age of 21, that I should get off my ass and start making music, the total culture shock and intellectual rewards of being tossed from the UK to France to Italy to Slovenia to Ireland, the love of my soul mate and the birth of my daughter, I cannot say that it is a foreign place to me anymore. And so when we move back next time, I cannot say that I will be a true expatriate. I don't know what I'll be.