The days are getting shorter and chillier here in Tartu. It's still brisk autumn weather -- sunny, comfortable, and clear -- but all know where this is heading, straight into the abyss of the Estonian winter.
A family member recently brought back with her from the UK a Brit by the name of Mick. Mick and I got on well enough at a family gathering where such questions were put forward as, "how difficult is the language?"
I had a bit of a sinking feeling after that one. Does this guy really want to learn the difference between otsima (to search), otsustama (to decide), and ostma (to buy)? Better not to let on about the up-hill skiing event ahead of him and let him find his way through the Estonian linguistic forest on his own.
Then there was the question about the winter, ie. how bad is it. That is another one to ponder. Let's just say it's more mild in Estonia than it is in Inari, Finland, right? More sweltering than Murmansk! Positively sunny compared to Nuuk! But yeah, it is a tad rough. I have never been one for extreme sports. Extreme weather on the other hand ...
Blue, Black, and White Butt
When I first moved to Estonia, it was the winter of 2002-2003. It was one of the coldest in recent memory. I spent the flight over learning my Estonian numbers, committing to memory that üheksa followed kaheksa, and not the other way around. At the airport I was greeted by my lady in waiting, clad in white snow boots. I, on the other hand, was wearing leather shoes, which were soaked deeply by the time my luggage rolled across the black ice to Kentmanni street: our new home.
I started out my career in Estonia doing private English lessons. We would get an appointment and I would be sent out to somewhere near Kadriorg by foot, someplace with a menacing name like Raua or Kreutzwaldi. There's something about dead 19th century writers with German names that don't exactly make you feel warm and snuggly inside.
Anyway, the lessons were a breeze compared to actually getting there. The ice was thick and black and if you didn't look where you were stepping -- whoomp! -- there it was. My butt was many different shades of black and blue that winter. Blame my boots or blame the ice. Every evening -- and sometimes during the afternoon -- I would fill the tub up with hot water and let it soak into my pores, restoring my composure in this frigid environment.
I recall I had just gotten a copy of Caetano Veloso's debut album from 1967, good Brazilian music, and walking up through the old town to find the office of Edelraudtee for my newest job -- freelancing articles for The Baltic Times. Yet no matter how sunny and cheerful Caetano crooned with his friend Gilberto Gil (as always) behind him, Baltijaam still looked melancholic. The Brazilian infusion was just not doing the trick. I would have to try harder.
We went to visit Epp's Aunt Salme in Õismäe, a neighborhood of Tallinn. This was where the Estonian history -- much of which I had remained blissfully unaware -- began to soak in. While looking through her old photo albums, I saw photos of an even more icy landscape. "Where were these taken?" I asked. "In Siberia," she replied. "Siberia!" I exclaimed. "What the heck were you doing there!"
When winter finally retreated though, halfway through April, stuff started to happen. People were nicer. Old ladies chipped away ice on the sidewalks, that thick black ice which took a good three weeks to finally melt and reveal there was indeed pavement down below. Later that spring, my Baltic Times relationship earned me a place in a car with Urmas Voolpriit, the singer-guitarist for Blind, on our way down to watch Vaiko Eplik, then with Ruffus, and Vanilla Ninja, then a four-piece, perform the songs of Eurovision.
There was a lot of beer consumed that night, and several pit-stops on the road back from Paide to relieve ourselves of the huge weight of consumed Saku, or was it A. Le Coq? Anyway, Eplik was a fairly interesting character -- still is. He spoke fluent English, with a bit of a British accent as well, and asked me, the American about global affairs.
"What is Bush doing in Iraq, man?" He said. "That war is just not cool. Those cats have got to cool it out." Anyway, after an evening with Urmas, Vaiko, and other Estonians who probably had named like Siim or Indrek, my mind began to thaw. It was if that whole Estonian winter thing had just been a long, dark dream. Estonia was actually kind of cool.
By the following winter of 2003-2004, we were expecting a little bundle of joy. We had also decided to leave behind the Soviet apartment blocks of Tallinn -- and you've got to say 'Soviet' like you would say 'stinky diaper' -- and move to Kalamaja, a neighborhood of wooden homes northwest of Baltijaam.
Ah, wooden homes. How sweet it was to see houses that looked like real houses, not just these faceless apartment buildings with their rows of windows and ancient mustachioed dwellers. The winter, too, was not the frostbitten hell it had been the year prior. The snow was soft, and I didn't slip on the ice more than two times.
In fact, winter didn't really show up until Dec. 21. Right on time. In the weeks prior to Christmas there was something extra -- Pöff, the black nights film festival. For days it seems we went to the movies. We saw Oliver Stone interview Fidel Castro, and saw a film about the making of Dogville because the actual Lars von Trier film was sold out. There was something so equivalent between Lars von Trier's world and the world I saw in Tallinn in winter. Make of that what you will.
Because my wife was pregnant she had cravings. And she was craving hamburgers. So we ate McDonald's every day for quite a few days. The little baby inside her -- soon to be called Marta -- had a strong developmental need for two all-beef patties with melted cheese, et cetera, et cetera. Anyway, winter entered peacefully and regally.
After the child had been born, we settled down to a placid existence of eating chocolate and cottage cheese -- both of which I later learned produce serotonin in your brain, that stuff you miss when it's not that sunny outside. We did not eat them at the say time mind you. They were consumed separately.
And even though it was dark outside, and sometimes cold, there were other remedies, like Laulukarusel and alcohol, of course. Nothing could beat away the winter blues like a cold bottle of Saku Originaal (strong) especially if you had some küüslaugu leiba to keep you thirsty. This was an especially mõnus time in our lives. And it happened during an Estonian winter. So much for being dark and depressing.
I was later told that the winter of '02-'03 had been especially nasty, and the '03-'04 winter was more normal for Estonia. I believed them.
Itching for Eestimaa
When we moved this past winter it was cold on the American front too. We lived in a section of Queens right on the ocean. On one occasion I went to throw out the garbage and was attacked in the little alleyway beside our house. The wind blew the gate shut, knocked me off my feet and then tossed over the two garbage cans, which went sliding along on the ice.
Because of weather-related delays we had to spend a day near the Warsaw airport, which was damp and Slavic -- ie. they served a lot of fried meat, cheese, and dough. We finally flew into Tallinn, which emerged from beneath the cloudy skies just the same as it had ever been, with Olaviste Kirik looming above all others.
Then there was the train ride to Tartu. When we finally inched into Tartu that evening, who knows how long after we left New York, it was snowing. As the taxi cab made its way down from the railroad station -- now finally being renovated -- you could see that Tartu was being covered by a blizzard. The snow sheeted in from all different sides. And you felt that you were no longer in a car, but more of a sleigh on wheels.
We were back in Estonia, and I suddenly felt the itch again for a rather strong bottle of local beer and some küüslaugu leiba. Not to mention a little Laulukarusel. If some little brat named Matthias from Raplamaa could serenade me with his rendition of "Tule Metsä" I would be just fine.
This winter I hope to take up cross country skiing, and to fully appreciate the Estonian national sport of uphill skiing. What gets you guys (and girls) through February in Eestimaa?