Sometimes I can't believe I am only 30 years old. Thirty. It sounds so young. But I don't feel young and I also don't feel old. I feel timeless, placeless. I feel like one of the UFO-like molecules that go zipping by your plane window over the cloud cover in the North Atlantic. Something catches your eye. You stare out at the wing and swear it was there. But it's gone. Gone, gone, gone. Nothing but a memory of something you once thought you saw, something you can't even bother to describe to the person seated next to you.
I'm in Viljandi now, and all I can say is that it reminds me of Tallinn and Tartu and just about every other Estonian place: the mishmash of medieval castle ruins, 1920s villas, Stalinist eyesores, and weeds growing through the cracks in the pavement. One guidebook I flipped through referred to Viljandi as a "gem," and our little part of it is certainly quaint. I informed Epp that we should make a coffee table book, a photo essay of Viljandi's spectacularly painted wooden doors. It would be called Viljandi uksed. I told her we could make "alotta money" (as my Virginian grandma puts it) on the book, but she was unconvinced.
Since my arrival, I've spent some time at the beach, maybe the only American there, but not the only foreigner: there were Latvians too and a Chinese couple. The radio played a very soulful version of "Proud Mary," so Ike and Tina were also there, at least in spirit. In Tallinn, the tourists somehow annoy me, but in Viljandi, I welcome them with open arms. I think this place is so bland, so homogenous, safe as milk, but everytime I go to the Tegelaste Tuba restaurant, there are people speaking English.
It was surreal to see so much life in what even Estonians consider a smaller town. At the beach, there was some kind of dance class going on: Estonian women were bobbing and weaving and kicking to Spanish pop music. The beach was thronged with naked torsoes. There was even a towering diving platform where young crazies could launch themselves into the lake. I began to realize that every tiny hideaway in Estonia has its own story to tell. You can drive through these places a hundred times and never actually know them.
I've been out of Eestimaa for exactly a month. When I left the mosquitoes were eating me raw, but now the heat seems to have tamed even the most insolent of summer's creatures. Instead it's just hot, all I do is sweat, all I do is drink. Our bedroom window faces the sunrise. The sun dries the sand in the corners of my eyes. I easily drink a bottle of water before I get out of bed, one of many I will consume during the day. The heat doesn't seem to bother the neighbors though. They don't need liters of water, for I am convinced that Estonians can survive on but coffee, beer, and strawberries. Estonian children meantime require only one thing to keep on moving: jäätisekokteil - "cocktails" of ice cream blended with fruit juice. I imagine that every night, all over this country, the children lie snoozing, dreaming about that one special thing.
Like a naive anthropologist I observed the tanned locals at the beach. I took note of the different types: the blond Scandinavians, the dark Inuits, the rolypoly Germanics. Estonia is both diverse and uniform. I've been to too many genetics conferences these days. I am aware of the perils of cosanguinity. And safe as milk Eesti is not so intimidating. Horror stories about intolerant Estonians abound online, but not one gave me nor has ever given me an awkward look. These people just don't care.
For me, at least, there are very few places in Estonia where I could even minorly feel "in danger," and here I think of a young Tom Hayden and the other "freedom riders" of the United States, traveling to Mississippi in the early 1960s to "get their asses kicked for civil rights." That was dangerous. Estonia in comparison is pleasant, genteel. At least until you see some middle-aged loser wearing a Panzerdivision commemorative t-shirt at the supermarket. I've heard the term "self-hating Jew" before. I gather such people are self-hating Estonians.
Here in Viljandi, I can't figure out if I'm in western Estonia or central Estonia or southern Estonia. It seems to network with Pärnu but also with Tartu. I guess it's its own thing or even the dreaded middle of nowhere. But Tallinn is nowhere too. And leviathan Finland? The navel of nothingness. Tallinn is to Helsinki as Viljandi is to what? Oulu? But Oulu has over 100,000 people. I can't keep up. Why even bother to compare? To many, cities are judged by the sum of their restaurants, hotels, boutiques, and museums. People take great pride in the place in which they live. When I was in New York, I met a gentlemen who was trying to sell me on Harlem. Harlem! Harlem! They've put up new apartment buildings, but kept the old, charming brownstone facades, he said. They've even retained the doormen.
"Do you really need a doorman?" I asked him. He had a pencil-thin mustache and suspenders. A real zoot suit riot.
"Of course you do! I mean, who else would get the door for you, or let you know if someone's left you a package?"
I took aliking to the Harlemite. He entertained me. I could imagine us as neighbors, sitting on a doorstep, swapping stories.
"Can you believe when I was in Mexico, a lady from Michigan asked me if I had seen any Olive Gardens there?" the Harlemite informed me. "I was like, 'Lady! You're in Mexico! You have your pick of great food and you're looking for an Olive Garden?' See, when my wife and I go on trips, we like to eat at the real authentic places. But people from Michigan, they go anywhere, even Rome, and they want to eat at an Olive Garden. You can't really hold it against them though. That's all they know."
Savory New York provincialism. I loved it. I'm so happy for that fella in Harlem. He seems to get out so much he needs a doorman to collect his packages. But me? I am an exile. Tallinn, when I lived there, was the apartment, the tram, and the office. Tartu on most days became my house and the local supermarket. Viljandi hosts the cultural college, which means that acting and musical talent finds its way to town; indeed I had a disarming experience at a Tagaq concert here, one that convinced me that it might not be a bad place to set up shop for awhile. But will I really go to those concerts? Maybe Viljandi will just wind up being our apartment and the lake. I mean, I wanted to be in Estonia during the winter so I could learn how to cross country ski, but the only thing I did in Otepää was consume some meatloaf at a local tavern. I bought into the idea of a Seto retreat so I could go hiking in the woods. So far I've painted and stained a lot of wood, but the forests have eluded me.
That's just how it is. Reality never matches your expectations. Every place I move I dream of different futures, but new ones always present themselves anyway. And, besides, I've no time for concerts. I've got things to do. I must finish a long-delayed master's paper on Estonia's June Communists, listen to Baden Powell and Vinicius de Moraes, and work on the second installation of Minu Eesti, trying the impossible, to marry Woody Allen and Rick Steves, in between slipping down to the lake for a dip.
Not a bad start really for a stranger like me.