Estonian months carry a variety of names. For instance, July or Juuli is also referred to as heinakuu -- "hay month" -- a month where, I guess, you are supposed to make hay.
Oktoober's alter ego is viinakuu -- "vodka month" -- named so because of people's fondness for vodka making. But, if I were printing calendars, I would give it a different name, õunakuu -- "apple month" -- because it's the month when people are busy trying to think of creative ways to get rid of the avalanche of apples in their backyards.
Estonians treat apples more kindly than they treat one another. Harvesting begins not with ascending a ladder to pluck nature's bounty from your personal orchard, but with searching the ground for apples that have dropped over night that might still be good. Good apples are never wasted. Even the bruised ones can be sliced and made into jams or used to sweeten cakes.
Only after you have personally judged the quality of every grounded apple can you move to the trees. Using both methods, we collected about eight bags of fruit two weeks ago, resulting in liters and liters and liters of apple juice. We also have jars and jars and jars of sweet apple jam. But the apples kept coming. Last weekend, I scavenged, picked, and cleaned four more bags of fruit. A group of Estonian guys up in the Tartu neighborhood of Veeriku work morning til night every night making juice for Tartu residents for a fee. For 180 kroons our apples were turned to raw juice overnight. We boiled the juice and packed away even more jars of the stuff for the months to come. But there were still more apples. So this weekend I picked six more bags and brought it to the Veeriku õunavabrik. This time though, I went without my spouse.
The leader of the Veeriku pack is a guy who looks to be in his 50s or 60s. He wears an old sweater, and has a salt and pepper beard and a ruddy face that looks like he's seen too many saunas. He also suffers from south Estonian mud tongue -- that is, he sort of mumbles in a deep voice. Only other Estonians can truly understand the system of grunts and sighs that make up this variety of the language. I manage to make it through most of the conversation. Then he points at my apples and says something about "Antonovka." I figure that he thinks my name is Antonovka -- that I am an Estonian Russian. I do have a noticeable accent.
"No, my name is not Antonovka," I tell him.
"No, no, these apples, are they Antonovka's?" he grunts.
"No, they're our apples, not Antonovka's."
"I know they are your apples. But what kind of apples are they?"
Now, I attended pre-school in the United States, so I know the names of different apples. The big yellow ones are called Yellow Delicious. The big red ones are called Red Delicious. And the tart green ones: Granny Smith. How would I translate 'Granny Smith' into Estonian, I ponder. Vanaema Sepp? But the reality is that none of our apples look like those American apples. They're all a little different.
"Well, some of our apples are red and some are yellow," I tell the Veeriku õunamees. "Those are the kinds of apples we have."
He sighs and takes down my number. I give him Epp's name though. I don't even want to go through the process of spelling out my name or, even worse, being reminded that I share a name with American pop singer Justin Timberlake.
I ask Epp about Mr. Antonovka when I get home. She just laughs, and tells me that Antonovkas are a kind of apple. There is no Mr. Antonovka. My mistake! Later, when I bring my daughter to visit a friend, I discuss the dilemma of Estonia's overproductive apple orchards with her father. Margus is standing at the top of the drive way, twisting the top of a juice press. Beside him is one large wheelbarrow filled with apple pulp, another tub filled with raw juice, and then two more plastic tubs filled with apples.
"I've been drinking apple juice for weeks," he says proudly. "I won't need to buy juice from the store all winter."
I relate my tale to Margus. "I went to get the juice pressed in Veeriku, and the man kept asking me about Antonovka -- I thought he thought it was my name!"
Margus laughs. "There are lots of different kinds of apples in Estonia that you probably don't have in America. Antonovka apples come originally from Russia. They don't taste so great, but they last a long time."
I realize he's right. They probably don't have Vanaema Sepp apples in Estonia. And I haven't seen any Yellow Delicious at the store. I'm still a foreigner in a foreign country. It's like John Travolta's character says in Pulp Fiction. The funniest thing about Europe is the little differences. "I mean they got the same shit over there, we got here," he tells Samuel L. Jackson's character, "but it's just there's a little difference."
Making juice causes logistical headaches. When is the right time to begin boiling? Who will be on straining duty to skim off all the nasty foam that rises to the top? And worst of all, what do we do when we run out of jars?
You'd think the answer to the last question is just to head to the store. There are always more jars, right? This is a capitalist country. There is supply and demand. If the people demand jars, then the stores will order more. Sure, Estonia is on the east coast of the Baltic sea, but it's not the middle of nowhere, is it? Such simple things as jars must be as plentiful as, well, as plentiful as apples in a Tartu backyard.
I am sorry to report that there were no more jars at the Zeppelin shopping center in Tartu. Nor were there any at Eedeni Keskus. The Rimi Hypermarket was also out. And Selver didn't have any either.
Kas teil purke on? (Do you have any more jars?) We asked the sellers.
Enam ei ole. (Not any more) They replied.
Enam ei ole. Enam ei ole. I heard that line so many times. How could it be? This is a city of 100,000 people. There must be jars in it, somewhere. As we found out there are, just not at the stores. After searching around, friends began to volunteer huge bags full of empty containers. Apparently, there are ladies all around town that have jars stashed in their cellars. They have more containers than they can fill with fruit byproducts. And the best part of this social networking experience was that we got all our jars for free, though I did spend 51 kroons to buy 30 jar lids this morning. You see, even after boiling juice by the gallons, there's still one more giant aluminum canister to work through.
"Don't worry," our friend Pille tells me. "If you run out of jars, my neighbor has plenty." Pille spends her weekends in Võrumaa, in the southeastern corner of the country. I am informed that they have enough apple juice down there to swim in.
"How much apple juice do you drink?" I ask.
"I average about a half liter per day," she says.
And maybe I do too. I must confess, when I'm in the mood for something quick, I might just grab a jar of juice, a jar of chunky apple jam, and a spoon. They say an apple a day keeps the doctor away. But what about 40 apples? Am I adding years to my life?
As I write this, the sunny morning has given way to a gray, windy noon. The only bits of light that catch my eye from the second floor window are the golden orbs that are suspended before me -- the highest-hanging fruit of our personal orchard. It almost makes me sick to look at them. I feel guilty for not making use of every last goddamn apple. But there's only so much juice and jam a family in Tartu can make.