My wife sensed that our younger one had a cold coming on. The solution? Küüslauk -- garlic. But she didn't dice it up and feed it to her. No, she took a thread and stitched the slices of garlic into a necklace, which she hung around our daughter's neck to ward off evil spirits.
I never really thought of Estonians as the folksy east European gypsies one might encounter in 19th century British literature. They always struck me as slow and steady northern peninsula people with marvelous cheekbones. But the natural remedies they push anytime anyone gets sick makes me think twice. Maybe the garlic serves other, unspoken purposes.
I fell ill on the 20th, the day before my father's 62nd birthday. In Estonian, they call what I got angiin -- which should correspond to the English 'angina' but means something entirely different. My angiin meant acute tonsillitis plus four days of aches, pains, and recurring fevers. For those few days, all I could do is gurgle in a voice that, to me, sounded a bit too much like Humphrey Bogart's, and ask my abikaasa -- spouse -- to bring me some more throat-soothing Coldrex and Theraflu.
"Thanks for the Theraflu," I would murmur to my abikaasa. "Here's looking at you, kid."
Theraflu was the only kind of remedy I received that came in a paper box. The rest was straight from the garden. On the morning I fell ill we were in Karksi, a small town on the Latvian border where my wife's people dwell. Somehow my wife's cousin Helina got word that I was in bad shape. I was dispatched to see her mother, Randi, who had some ideas about how to mend me.
In Randi's kitchen I was given astelpaju berries mixed with honey. I have only encountered astelpaju derivatives -- jams, juices, et cetera -- in Estonia. In English, it's called sea-buckthorn, but I don't recall ever seeing sea-buckthorn juice on sale in Manhattan. Maybe it is, in some organic grocery in the East Village. But it's not the kind of thing you find in your American grandma's kitchen, which is a shame because it's supposedly high in anti-oxidants and vitamin C.
Astelpaju berries remind me of cranberries, just as powerful but lighter and softer and sweeter in every other way. While I swallowed the astelpaju and honey, I told Randi about a remedy I had seen for prostatitis at a country fair -- dead wasps floating in vodka. Supposedly, the double-punch of insect venom and vodka would wipe any prostate clean of invaders. I didn't try it though. You can question my masculinity all you want -- I'm not one for drinking dead bee juice.
Randi made for me something entirely different -- chopped onions and garlic in a jar.
"You should wait awhile until the syrup rises," she said, holding the jar of chopped alliaceae before me in the kitchen sunlight. "Then you have to take it. Three spoonfuls a day."
Mick, Randi's British beau entered the kitchen. His real name's Michael, but in Estonia it helps to have an Estonian name. Mick, or Mikk rather, it is. They met while she was working in the UK. Mick's the same age as my father. I am always intrigued by these guys -- the young men of the 1960s. I imagine that Mick was there on Carnaby Street in '67 with Dr. Strangelove and Austin Powers. Everything was just shagadelic and groovy, and people were guzzling beers out of those old-fashioned tall containers and smoking because, as everyone knew back then, smoking was good for you.
"I just got a new guitar," Mick tells me. "It's called Variax -- like a variety of axes." Using his 'Variax' Mick can get the sounds of different makes of guitars -- Rickenbackers, Gibsons, Fenders. He's one of these guys that really loves guitars. I have several -- an acoustic, a classical, and an acoustic bass guitar, but I think Mick belongs to a whole other caste of musicians, the type that really loves guitars and cannot resist the temptation of acquiring a new axe. Each time they pass the window of a music shop, they inevitably fall in love. So maybe Variax is the best solution for Mick. It's like buying several guitars all at once.
When you're sick, people are nice to you but nobody wants to shake your hand. And so I waved Mick and Randi farewell as they left to go visit relatives. But the talk with Mick made me realize that it had been too long since I had played guitar. Life has a tendency to interfere with joyful activities. But music is like that. It can't let you go. When you're in, you're in for life. It's a neverending activity perpetuated by a group of enthusiasts. Sure, sometimes you slack off, but then the others remind you that you and your guitars are headed in but one direction. If you fall out of rank, they'll step in and force you to pick up the pace. "Forward!" the guitarists charge, axes in hand, eager to conquer the world of sound. "Edasi!"
Later that day, we arrived in Suure-Jaani, the seat of my wife's childhood. Everytime we go to Viljandimaa, there are always little stories that pop up. The bubbles of memories just can't be suppressed. It's just pop, pop, pop. Here's the school house that my father-in-law attended a billion years ago as a child. And that's where my wife's grandfather was a school director. And over there, that's the place where one time ...
We had watched a film on Soviet Estonia a few nights back. It was filmed probably in the mid-1970s, but to me, as an American, the haircuts and clothing dated to 1964. There's a weird lag in time between American and Soviet styles. You think that somewhere in Los Angeles they came up with that look around the time of the Kennedy assassination and it took a whole decade for it to reach Main Street USSR.
In the film young Pioneers waded down the aisle of a gathering where they spouted Communist slogans and then, in a militaristic way, put their hands up and proclaimed that they were alati valmis -- always ready -- to defend their socialist superstate from the imperialists with their platform shoes and Mott the Hoople LPs.
My wife was one of those children. They used to have to sing songs about Lenin in school. Lenin. It's been 90 years and I still can't believe they killed the tsar and his family. I mean, ok, they killed the tsar. But his four daughters? Anastasia, Tatiana, Olga, and Maria - executed by one Yakov Yurovsky, later chief of the Soviet State Treasury. Yakov Sverdlov approved their execution. For that and other accomplishments, the city of Ekaterinburg was renamed Sverdlovsk in his honor in 1924. It reverted to its original name in 1991. But they sang songs to Lenin. And if you ask most Estonians of that generation today, Brezhnev's kids, they look back on their bizarre Red youth with a certain nostalgia.
I actually drove to Viljandi from Karksi, keeping an ill-man's pace on the Viljandimaa roads. But Epp's brother Aap had to take over for the trek from Viljandi to Suure-Jaani. Fortunately, Estonia's asshole drivers tend to stick to the Tallinn-Tartu road. We made it to Helle's apartment in one piece, but the first thing I did was make for the spare bedroom and collapse into delirium and pain.
This is the first bed I slept in when I moved to Estonia back in early 2003. That day was cold and life obliterating. I'll never forget how I walked on the ice with Epp towards her aunt Helle's place from the bus stop and took a spill on the frozen blackness, my whole body sliding down part of the street. Man, that was rough. But at least I was well back then. This time I was sick.
I guess my fellow travelers grasped by this point that I was done for. All Helle could do is pile blankets on me and keep her fingers crossed. There's nothing like having your wife's aunt tuck you in and bring you tea. Talk about extended family. "You actually care about me?" you ponder as she lays another blanket on top. "You care if I am well or sick?"
But Estonians care. If you get sick, there is a group effort to get you well. Aunt Randi contributed the garlic and onions and astelpaju. Aunt Helle kicked in the blankets and teas. And the next day, back in Tartu, I got a phone call. A phone call from Laine.
"Epp's downstairs," I croaked to her. I always have a hard time talking to Laine and Karl -- Epp's grandmother and grandfather. Maybe it's because I am insecure about my linguistic abilities. But their language is different. It's not the clipped, decipherable Estonian that you hear on the radio. It's this meandering stream of vowels and consonants, where the grammar is otherworldy. Somewhere in the back of my head, my brain is still deconstructing those phrases and reassembling them in English. I don't notice it, but it creates a slight strain on my thought process.
"But I didn't call to talk to Epp," Laine said. "We were worried about you. How are you doing?"
Worried about me? I was shocked. "I can barely talk," I told her of my condition. "But I don't have a fever right now."
"You should drink hot teas," said Laine. "Lots of hot teas." In the background, I heard Papa Karl mutter something. "Papa recommends hot milk," Laine added. "He says hot milk with honey works best."
That night I wished my father a happy birthday via Skype. I could see my unshaven, pärslane image on the screen of the laptop. I looked bad. And, you know, I was supposed to go on a business trip to the UK the next morning. I kept thinking that the illness would pass, but my wife pulled the plug on the whole thing as I lay in bed, molested by changes in body temperature.
"You're not going," she decided. "I spoke with the doctor. She said there's no way you can travel like this."
Could you imagine what would have happened if I went? If I had gotten to Stansted, sweating from illness, unable to talk because of the angiin. They would ask me how long I intended to stay in the UK, and I would respond in sign language or scratch them a few sentences on a sheet of paper. Maybe they would have denied me entrance, or shipped me off to wither away in some British hospital. It certainly pays to have an abikaasa. Someone who can talk sense into you. Someone who knows when it's time to cancel the business trip. Someone who brings you teas when you are down.
But still, hot teas? Garlic and onion syrup? Milk with honey? It was like firing arrows at a destroyer. The next day a doctor was called to the house. Heavy duty antibiotics were prescribed. We were going to napalm the shit out of my illness. No germ would be spared. It was curtains for angiin. Die, you bastards, die. It took two days, but finally the beast was subdued. I could swallow again. Given some time, I might even return to something resembling 'normal.'
I still don't feel that I am there yet.
As the autumn light filtered through the windows, I recovered and watched the news on TV or read newspapers and books. I have to admit it, I like Jüri Pihl, see mees kes teab ja välja veab. That's the electoral slogan of the Social Democrats -- it means that he knows things and fixes mistakes. I'm not really sure what he knows or doesn't know. I just like him because he seems amused whenever he is interviewed.
During one program, the reporters asked the Tallinn city council candidates random questions as part of a poll, things like, 'How much does a liter of vodka cost?' And there was Jüri, looking amused. "Everyone knows that a liter of vodka costs between 120 and 180 krooni" he shook his head from side to side, apparently entertained. And he was right. He got the most questions correct out of all the other candidates. It's like they say, Jüri teab ja välja veab. I guess that after decades in the security services, getting asked dumb questions by reporters is amusing.
But mostly I spent my recovery with Haruki Murakami and his book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. Not that I am about to pick up running. Murakami says that certain bodies, like his, are designed for traveling long distances via athletic shoes, and I've come to conclusion that my body isn't one of those bodies. Still, I enjoyed the simplicity of it all. The freedom of a mind traveling down a road, savoring ideas like the little tufts of clouds that float by above.
That's the hidden benefit of illness. Clarity. You realize that you've been spending 90 percent of your time engaged in full pursuit of counterproductive crap. You require a clean slate -- to disengage, to step back from it all, and see things as they really are. To not think in disjointed paragraphs, but to approach the world one perfectly crafted sentence at a time. It's like Jüri and the reporters. You can either be threatened by the outside world and its cascading waves of troubles, or you can enjoy it for what it is. Maybe you'll even find it amusing.