As our conversation wound its way around various topics, Tiina asked me about my experiences living in Estonia as a foreigner. Up until this point, the conversation had progressed in Estonian, but then things got complicated.
"Kas sa saad hakkama*?" she asked.
"Mida?" I responded.
"Kas sa saad hakkama?" she asked again.
"Mis hakkama?" I said.
"I am sorry," I continued in English. "Can I start what?"
"Can you manage?" she asked again in English.
The verb hakkama means "to start" in Estonian. When used with saada in a question form, it usually translates as "can you do x?" For instance, kas sa saad mängida? translates as "can you play?" while kas sa saad aidata? translates as "can you help?" But not kas sa saad hakkama? That somehow translates as, "can you manage?"
This reminds me of the time we were at Pille's and I rose to get some more food. Pille brought the plate to me and ordered me to tõsta ise. "Raise it up by myself?" I asked, somewhat foolishly. In English we would have said "help yourself," but in Estonian, apparently, one uses the fork to literally "raise" or "lift" or tõsta the food on to their plate.
But back to managing. That was an interesting question indeed. I gather from reading some of the comments on this blog that some people simply cannot manage dealing with the rednecks of Paide, and have opted to deal with the earthquakes and mudslides of California instead. But, I feel that given enough time, I could learn "to manage" anywhere.
Occassionally, I get a weird feeling when I am driving through the environs of Tartu, looking over magnificent, sprawling fields and endless blue skies, with the radio on playing some accordion-backed Estonian classic. I feel that this place is very special and endearing. And yet, at the same time, I know in my bones that I am not of this place, nor will ever be of this place. I am a foreigner.
Fortunately for me, Estonia is an anonymous, northern European country, where nobody really cares where you come from, or at least they won't tell you they care to your face. All social interaction is conducted at arms length, and so it is easier to manage here than, say, in Germany or France or even the UK, where one might feel they are stuck in cultural quicksand, sinking into an abyss of foreignness.
In the UK, one might feel that they are being suffocated by Britishness. I recall sitting next to a drunk Briton on a bus in Kidlington as he explained to me how Portuguese football coach José Mourinho's managerial skills left much to be desired -- as if I knew what he was talking about, or could bring my own anglo slang to the party. Thankfully, nothing like that would happen to you in Estonia, as people don't speak to each other on public transport.
So, yes, I can manage. It was nice of Tiina to ask that -- to imagine that I might too have feelings and sentiments about my own life. Honestly, I am so immersed in my daily routines, that these larger existencial questions often pass me by. But can some people not manage? And why? Those are interesting questions.
* This post has been updated to correct a spelling error. I originally wrote hakkada instead of hakkama. The Estonian language takes two verb endings -ta/da and -ma. I have generally learned the distinction of when to use them by ear. I have also learned to spell some words by ear. It should be hakata, rather than hakkada. Why does hakkama have two 'k's while hakata only has one 'k'? I don't know.