So I am back in New York after a whirwind journey that started at the Tartu bus station at 4:00 AM. We flew Czech Airlines this time, which isn't a bad airline. People in the US -- I suspect -- are a bit sketched out by the prospect of flying any airline that has the name of a former communist country in front of it.
Therefore Icelandair and Finnair are good, safe, wholesome, clean, Aryan airlines, while flying Czech Airlines, LOT, and others means you have to sit between chicken coops and sacks of potatoes. The truth is that there are many US airlines that are far more untrustworthy than anything that comes out of Prague, or as Vice President Dick Cheney still calls it, Czechoslovakia.
Anyway we met a nice woman on the first flight from Tallinn to Prague who was reading a romance-themed novel in Russian but spoke to my daughter in Estonian and played with her. Her name was Natasha, or as my daughter called her, 'Patasha' and came from Narva. I told her that I wanted to visit Narva and she seemed a bit interested in this because I have a feeling that in Estonia telling people you want to visit Narva isn't your average conversational topic. It's like saying, 'North Philadelphia? I always wanted to visit North Philadelphia!' But I do want to visit Narva. So there.
On the flight from Prague to New York there were many Lithuanians. I felt like every other person held a passport that said Lietuvos on it. Lithuanian is an Indo-European language. I know that you know this, but to actually hear it makes a world of difference. Because if you know Latin -- and I took three years of it -- you can guess the meanings of Latvian or Lithuanian words just by looking at them.
Also, subconsciously your mind digests languages differently -- I think. Because Estonian word order and its unique case system are so different, what happens in understanding Estonian is that you are literally thrown a series of random words that your Indo-European mind must then decipher, rearrange, and digest within seconds. With Lithuanian, even though you don't understand the words, your mind is more receptive to the pace and the sounds. It's hard to explain, but there is a difference.
I also got to travel with Estonians on the plane. This was interesting to me because I got to listen in on conversations and test my language comprehension. What could be a better place to learn Estonian than standing at the baggage retrieval in JFK and trying to figure out what jet-lagged Estonian teenagers are saying to each other.
One thing that has been difficult is that Estonian-speakers often start sentences but don't finish them. That is they say a few important things, then mumble the rest incomprehensively. This is followed by a series of 'jah's which are uttered as one sucks air in.
Another thing that is a bit odd about Estonian, especially among younger people, is the use of totally irrelevant words to get a point across. My niece does this all the time. Because the most important words are often at the end of the sentence -- the verbs -- I am left fishing for meaning through a series of 'tegelikult' (actually), sellepärast (because), 'noh, ma arvan' (well I think), and a few more 'tegelikult' just for good measure.
I think people do this in all languages. I do it too. I use the word 'like' and 'just' too much. But when the most important word is often the last one, it leaves me hoping that the speakers will just, like, get to the friggin' point already!
Two of the best Estonian words are 'onu' and 'tädi'. Depending on the context, your 'onu' -- which means 'uncle' but is synonymous with 'adult man' for children -- is generous and friendly, or standoffish and dull. Either way, the word has a hint of clumsiness to it.
'Tädi' -- or aunt, but again 'female adult' -- has similar undertones. I feel that your average 'tädi' though is the kind that is on time, has her own personal library, and drinks a lot of tea with her friends. That is, she is a bit older and perhaps does not want to be bothered. A generous tädi will perhaps stoop down to the child's level and give her a piece of chocolate and a smile. Because of this conservative image, it's kind of funny that our younger kindergarten teachers were called 'tädi'.
Either way, I am very grateful to all the onus and tädis that made it possible for me to travel with a three year old from Tartu to Tallinn to Prague to New York. Whereever you are, thanks for your assistance in making it happen. I will be traveling to San Francisco and Vancouver during this trip, so I will be sure to follow up with some California and Canada bashing in the near future.