Thick gray clouds, fat and fluffy. Like migrating birds, they always seem to find their way to the Gulf of Finland at certain times of the year. I could feel the grayness of northern life consume me as soon as we got into Helsinki.
At first, it was sunny, but then the clouds began covering Vantaa as we waited for our plane. The shiny Moomin souvenirs and reindeer cold cuts and Marimekko plates; all were suddenly calmed by the serene clouds. The Finns are such stylish people, even if they are oppressed by the gray, even if they can't help but crack a perverted grin when they serve you at a café. Their mouths say "kiitos," but their translucent eyes hint at something more sinister. It's their subtle way of letting you know that everybody in that country is secretly nuts.
The gray followed us to Tallinn, but here other details caught my attention. While the Finns are stylish, many Estonians are garish. Supposedly, an Estonian man's kroons go first to the car, then the house. I would venture that an Estonian woman's most cherished bling is her expensive manicure. First the nails, then the hair.
I spoke to the cab driver in Estonian — the best way not to get ripped off, I'm told. His name was Sergei. I noticed his name when I saw his ID card in the car. He helped us with our bags, crammed with less- expensive clothing procured during a spree in the US, and was mostly polite, but he didn't say a word, even when I paid him or thanked him. Not a word. Not a 'How was your trip?' or 'You're Estonian's pretty good. Some people have been living here for 50 years and not one word.' Not a smile or even a grimace. Nothing. Sergei gave us nothing except a silent and efficient ride to our address. After a few weeks of warming up in the US, Sergei to me signaled that it was time to cool down. I was back in Tallinn and summer was coming to an end.
And then there were blondes. This subgroup of humanity walks the sidewalks of Estonia, totally unaware of how strange it looks to outsiders. We have words for these odd flaxen-headed creatures. We call them Vikings or Nordics or Scandinavians or Germans or even Aryans, but to me, these towheads are just different. Blondes. They make everything better. They look good. When Estonians need to print up travel brochures or postcards and they don't know what to do, they usually put a blonde on the cover. Come to Põlvamaa, they entice would-be tourists, we have blondes! And the people come.
Still, negative stereotypes do belong to groups of people, even the blondes. And even in Estonia, some people think the fair-haired are dumb. For example, the Estonian term sinisilmne – literally 'blue-eyed' – is a metaphor for 'naïve.' Blue-eyed Estonians use it regularly and don't get the irony. Once on Taarapuiestee, a minor boulevard in Tartu, we almost got in an accident with an erratic driver who ran a STOP sign. By the way the car blew through the intersection, I thought it was driven by a big drunk man, but when I saw the person through the windshield, I noticed it was a small, seemingly sober woman.
"Did you see what I saw?" I asked my wife.
"Yep," she answered. "She was blonde."
And we both knew what 'blonde' meant. In this scenario, it referred to a group of people that is unable to operate heavy machinery. No wonder there are so many traffic accidents in Estonia. It has one of the highest 'blonde rates' in the world.
"Teeme juurde, teeme juurde." When I first went to the local Säästumarket to buy some bags of milk, I accidentally said 'thanks' to the cashier before I corrected myself and said aitäh instead. I knew then that it was time to adjust again, to slip back into Estonian life and speak the local language.
And so here we were in a used furniture store on the outskirts of town, haggling with the proprietor who promised to build us a set of bookshelves for our growing library. Epp did 90 percent of the talking. I rifled through a Soviet-era book on Finland. Did you know that the 'ultra patriotic' right-wing Lapua movement got the Finns into a war with the Soviet Union twice, in 1939 and again in 1941? According to that book, published in the late 1960s, that's how it all went down. I'm keen to read about the rest of world history as the Soviets wrote it. Maybe it should be compiled into a single book, perhaps a new Russian history book for high school students?
But teeme juurde – that's what the shop owner said. Teeme means 'let's make it' and juurde, well, that means literally 'to the root.' 'Let's make it to the root?' No, that can't be right. It makes no sense. "It means 'let's make more,'" Epp explained. I struggle to grasp how the word for 'to the root' turned into 'more,' but who can figure out the etymology of phrases in this language where somebody's place is their 'root' -- Ma olen Jaani juures is 'I am at John's place.'
I close my eyes and try to imagine roots. What do they look like? Some are big and others small, but most are underground and twisted into terrifying shapes. Only the tree-minded Estonians would be able to fully understand how they've managed to give the word for 'roots' so many other meanings, but, whatever, teeme juurde, let's make some new shelves.
When I left to go the Konsum today, it was sunny. On the way there, it got cloudy. While in the Konsum, it began to rain. I asked the girl at the Apteek for some rubbing alcohol. Or at least I tried. This is what transpired:
Kas teil on alkohol mida ma saaks mu näole panna? (Do you have alcohol that I could put on my face?)
Puhastamiseks? (For cleansing?) She gives me a puzzled look.
Jah, üks hetk palun. (Yes, one moment please) She pulls out a key and begins filing through a drawer.
Asi on see, et putukas hammastas minu tutre ja ma tahaks, et see amps läheb kiiresti ära -- (The thing is that a bug bit my daughter and I would like that the bite goes quickly away)
Ah, nüüd ma saan aru. (Ah, now I understand) The clerk looks delighted and hands me a bottle of Mentool Piiritus.
'Mentool Piiritus'! See on täpselt mida ma tahtsin osta. Teate, et ma just tulin tagasi Eestisse ja -- .
(This is exactly what I wanted to buy. You know, I just came back to Estonia and --)
Pole hullu. (No worries) The clerk smiles and rings me up. I guess it's obvious that I am a foreigner, but I was understood.
On the way home from the Konsum, it stopped raining. When I pulled in the driveway, it was sunny again.