esmaspäev, august 23, 2010

täis kuu

When I woke up, the sounds of some distant party were still ringing in my ears. I heard laughter, music, loud toasts, the clinking of glasses, the run of silverwear on plates, but all the time far away, far, far, far away, and yet close, just downstairs, but some place else. Where was it? When was it? Was it just a dream?

I opened my eyes. A full moon. The light shone brightly through the second-floor window of the Haapsalu Children's Library. My bed lay just below it. Nearby, my wife and children sighed in the darkness, sound asleep. I kept thinking about the music. The music and the fact that I was spending the night in the house where Gorchakov was born.

From 1867 to 1883, he served as state chancellor of the Russian Empire, but in 1798, young Alexander Gorchakov was born in the small seaside town of Haapsalu in a building that now houses a children's library, along with a room dedicated to Ilon Wikland, the Swedish Estonian illustrator who is something of a patron saint of Haapsalu. The walls to the upstairs office are covered with Nordic Council posters, and Ilon's corner is filled with her books, some in Estonian, the others in Swedish. The furniture is a sunny blond, the carpets a Baltic blue, and outside the cream-colored building, its roof tiled red, is Iloni aed: Ilon's garden, filled with comically oversized slides and swings.

Haapsalu is whimsical, rambling and child friendly. In fact, the first three people I met that day were children: two boys and a girl. When they heard me speaking English to my daughter, the little Haapsalu girl whispered to the others: "I think he's speaking Russian!" "Not Russian!" I informed them. "English." "English?" Oh, how fun it was to think that to their little Estonian ears, Indo-European Russian and English sound similar. A short while after the little girl fell. "I need a band-aid," she moped and showed me the tiny scrape on her elbow. When I fixed the band-aid in the right place a few minutes later, she kept on playing as if nothing had happened. For kids, band-aids have special healing powers.

That was Haapsalu during the daytime, when it's harmless. At night, it's different, not harmful, but dark, shadowy, hypnotic. You cannot help but stare at the moon and hear music. You look at the castle walls and think of the Valge Daam. You lie awake, your covers to your nose, and stare at the white ceiling. Maybe you just have an overactive imagination, you tell yourself, but then you pause: when was the last time you heard music like that? When was it? Your query brings back no valid response. You look up out the window at the angular shadows in the moonlight that fit into Haapsalu's puzzle-like, ancient downtown. Then you close your eyes and you try to sleep.

***


Estonia's western periphery is pocked with secrets. At the windswept, western-most end of Hiiumaa, I spied Urmas Paet, the foreign minister, walking in the rain. As he neared the coast, where rough seas hammered the rocky beaches, I turned my back on him just for a second. "You should go say, 'Tere Urmas' to him," the wife encouraged. "Do you think it really was him?" I double checked. "Of course it was Paet," she confirmed. Then I looked back towards the coast and Paet was gone. Vanished. Where to? That small, wooden, sea-weathered barn by the trees? What would the Estonian foreign minister be doing in there? Perhaps a secret passageway lies below? A hidden meeting place? Was Ansip in the barn too? Laine Jänes? "Maybe he just wants to get away," the wife shrugged. "Foreign ministers need to get away too."

In Hiiumaa, you encounter Hiiu humor, the "Hiiu" denoting that any given local joke will not be funny. A blacksmith friend here convinced us his wife was Hungarian. We later met this bird from Budapest only to praise her amazing Estonian skills. "She speaks like a native," said the wife, mouth open. The Hungarian lady meantime seemed confused. "Wait, you actually believed me?" said the blacksmith. "You really believed my wife was Hungarian? She's from Tallinn, of course." And why wouldn't we have believed him? He told us she was his best friend's sister, that he had seen his Hungarian friend die in Yugoslavia and later taken the girl as his bride. It was such a romantic story but it wasn't true. It was just "Hiiu humor" after all, a reference to the island's peculiar sense of humor, which, I'll add again, is not funny.

The residents of Hiiumaa and the residents of Saaremaa have something of a rivalry. The Hiiumaa islanders are criticized for their oddball brand of humor and general lack of seriousness. The Saaremaa islanders are skewered for being uptight workaholics. In their hearts, they are both survivalists, self-reliant last action heroes. I am still a Long Island boy, remember. I expect a gas station on every corner, a pizza joint on every street. Not in Hiiumaa. Not in Saaremaa. The Estonians are individualists. They live and die by D I Y. The Hiiumaa blacksmith told me that the electricity has a bad habit of going out on his island. He's prepared for everything, because every Estonian has to be prepared. He can only rely on himself, on his own wits, because there is no gas station on every corner, no pizza joint on every street. This brings us back to the main question: Why do so many Estonians still prefer wood heating? Because they fundamentally distrust civilization. I determine this as our ferry leaves Sõru harbor for Triigi on the northcoast of Saaremaa. They know that if the electricity goes out, they've still got an axe and there are plenty of trees around.

***


It's fitting that I have crossed water several times during this full moon, for the moon controls the tides and we are, after all, made mostly of water. The moon tugs at me. It makes me more aware, more reactive. The wind tends to whisper, colors bounce out of the wood, and womens breasts careen in and out of focus like forbidden planets. The full moon. I feel vaguely unhuman when its pull is at its strongest, like something is not quite right, something I should hide from the others. And then, as I turn a windy lane in the dark, I find the metaphor I'm grasping for: I feel like Michael J. Fox's character in Teen Wolf, and lament that I never tried to surf on the top of a moving car.

What happened to my youth, Gorchakov? Where did it go? Thirty is the adolescence of the middle aged. A friend, two years my senior, once was tormented by his wasted youth. "So much cocaine," he sobbed. "So many lost opportunities!" In comparison, one could say I have accomplished a lot in my three decades, but the spectre of a human high water mark still lurks in the distance. Then again, my wife's publishing career didn't take off until she reached the Jesusy age of 33. And Gorchakov wasn't state chancellor until he neared his 70th birthday. "Age ain't nuthin' but a number," Gorchakov whispers to me through the breeze. Then he commands me to return to his birthplace. "They have laid out some delicious porgandi pirukad for you," he's again cheerful. "Free coffee!"

At the library, I spoke with the director about Gorchakov, naturally. She seemed buoyant, satisfied, content, like most people in Haapsalu. "Oh him?" she smiled, "he probably wasn't even born here."

"Then why is there a sign on the wall outside?"

"This was his father's official residence. He was probably born out in the countryside, in Taebla, perhaps."

"Taebla?"

So much for sleeping in the house where Gorchakov was born. But the pies were tasty. The coffee was delicious. And the music? What music.

33 kommentaari:

Tanel ütles ...

"They know that if the electricity goes out, they've still got an axe and there are plenty of trees around." --- Hmmm it seems so logical that it's amazing that someone does find it strange. We all know that civilization is something that you cannot rely on. (and last strong wind days that leave several households without electricity - how much did Eesti Energia declare profits last year? - prove our point). Everyday news about Peak Oil and such tell also that you cannot trust modern civilization. So, keep your axe ready...

Giustino ütles ...

It is strange when Estonians prefer to do everything else online. Remember the cyber attacks and how crazy everybody went because they couldn't log in to do their online banking for -- oh my God -- a few hours. Plenty of faith put into online banking and telecommunications networks, little faith put into electricity grids.

Rainer ütles ...

Haapsalu is the metaphysics capital of Estonia, no doubt about that.

Piimapukk ütles ...

Last time I was in Haapsalu someone stole all four wheels from my car. No kidding. 2am when returning to my car, I found it standing on bricks. Talk about magic. But then again, it was in 1985. MTV made them do it. I can picture these Estonian close-shavers rolling the wheels from my 1979 Lada humming "... touched by the very first time ... like a vöö -öö- rdzhin"

Oop ütles ...

Well, actually, there is a little app for lighting your oven online, so your room will be warm when you get home. I think it only works on Estobuntu, though.


***

Somehow, this funny humor thing reminds me of Adso of Melk. It went something like that...

"That was another strange thing about William: you could never tell whether he was joking. When he was talking about serious things, he often laughed, and he told the most absurd things with a serious face. In my homeland, if someone told a joke, he laughed the first and loudest, so everybody could understand it was funny."

Piimapukk ütles ...

too Oop

Americans in general have a nervous habit to laugh at their own jokes for fear of being misunderstood whenever they joke. I see this every day at my work. Estonians do not do that. Neither do Irish. Maybe all Europeans, I don't know.

Oop ütles ...

Well, Adso was intended to be German, I guess, although Melk is now in Austria. Obviously, Germany/Europe=Saaremaa/Estonia.

Joshua ütles ...

Rainer: "Haapsalu is the metaphysics capital of Estonia, no doubt about that."

What does it even mean? Can you elaborate on that? How does this being "metaphysics capital" look like? And what criteria did you use to come up with this statement? What does Haapsalu do differently that it is a "methaphysics capital"?

Just curious.

viimneliivlane ütles ...

Yeah, here we'd been led to believe that Tartu was the metaphysics capital of Estonia, where the elusive 'Tartu vaim' is there for you to discover while it is actually nowhere to be seen... please elaborate about Haapsalu which I think of as the best kept secret about Estonia so far, if only because it seems like you have to drive forever before you get there.

Sharon ütles ...

Nicely written.

The way you talk about Hiiu humour sounds like the way Americans often talk about Australian humour. It's what we call a "dry" humour, in that you aren't supposed to find it funny, just amusing in an "All right, you got me this time. You'll get yours in due time" kind of way. One long game of "how gullible are you?"

It's irony, rather than sarcasm. There's no real mocking, and no real warning (like a tone of voice), just a deep cultural understanding that what is said is not to be taken literally.

Piimapukk ütles ...

Sharon explained it very well. That's what it is.

Martasmimi ütles ...

Piimapukk ütles...
Americans in general have a nervous habit to laugh at their own jokes for fear of being misunderstood whenever they joke. I see this every day at my work. Estonians do not do that. Neither do Irish. Maybe all Europeans, I don't know.

* Yeah only those self consumed giddy American's do that.
I am Irish & Italian
(1st. generation from Italy)and both sides laugh while they tell a joke..
I didn't think Estonians told jokes?

Oop ütles ...

"I didn't think Estonians told jokes?"
No, they don't. They just lure one to misinterprete facts.

In thew context of current discussion, it is quite strange actually that The Onion is made in America. They never laugh.

(On the other hand, I once translated a news excerpt from The Onion for a "serious" channel. It made quite a scandal. Go figure.)

Piimapukk ütles ...

That's the thing. A person who is not immediately breaking into laughter in the middle of his own joke can be very confusing. How do you know that what it is said is supposed to be a joke, right?

I'd be really surprised to learn now that the laughtrack for TV sitcoms was invented in Europe for the benefit of Europeans.

Oop ütles ...

Actually, I rarely laugh while the laughtrack is playing. It feels impolite, just like I'd be interrupting something.

Piimapukk ütles ...

On the other hand, it could be argued that people from Hiiumaa for example, or the likes, have their own personal laughtracks playing inside their heads all the time. They just don't show it. Just stay smug all the time. Tonque in cheek.

Giustino ütles ...

I don't think Estonians "get" American humor. Go watch that Teen Wolf trailer from 1985. It's hilarious to me, but most Estonians would probably just find it "stupid": that is the key differentiator between Americans and Europeans. Americans embrace their inner stupid, Europeans are terrified of appearing stupid. In Europe, you must appear as if you know everything, even if you know nothing. In America, if you know something, you mustn't let on that you do. In Europe, braininess is embraced to a fault. In America, nerds are outcasts who build financial empires to make up for the emotional and physical beatings they took in grade school.

Rainer ütles ...

A city best known for its resinent ghost (=Valge Daam) is metaphysical par excellence. And then there is this fluid, strangely enticing and placid atmosphere. I'm sure Giustino can testify to that.
There is hardly anything metaphysical about Tartu in my opinion. This famous "Tartu vaim" is a slightly misguiding term, it should be "Tartu vaimsus" instead, for it is an intellectual phenomenon (university, professors, etc). For that reason Tartu is a very "masculine" city (Emajõgi, the Mother River only confirms the rule), while Haapsalu is decidedly "feminine".

Rainer ütles ...

Resident, not resinent...

Rainer ütles ...
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Joshua ütles ...

"I don't think Estonians "get" American humor."

Come again? I think you might be falling into one of those "Eesti on ainult mina ja minu tutvumisringkond" traps.

And we all know that Estonians are not that socialising, so their social circles tend to be small. Very small.

The thing is that every 20-something these days has been raised up on Hollywood films. 99.9% of our modern enterntainment comes from Hollywood. And there's also computer games culture and internet. And isn't internet humor pretty much the same thing that american humor is?

So the question is - if modern youth is raised on american films and tv shows, internet and computer games, haven't they pretty much learned the necessary cultural codes to interpret this american humor?

For the record, I find this funny - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=avaSdC0QOUM

And aren't Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart and Bill Maher all american humor? Every self-identifying progressive watches those these days - http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/mon-april-19-2010/these-f--king-guys---goldman-sachs

And then there's of course the internet culture and it's creation itself.

The Guild - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=grCTXGW3sxQ
Dr.Horrible - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=avaSdC0QOUM

And I won't go into the dark secrets of internet like all those motivational pictures and 4chan.

It's pretty universal these days. But I guess the immersion within these cultures depends on age.

I also imagine that your "estonians" in this case are those late-20, early-30-something estonians that talk about being northern or almost germany all the time, but since estonians are considered to be eastern europeans in those circles and actual modern-day Scandinavia and Germany are quite different from the mental image estonians have in their heads, then estonians have no other way to build up their europanity but by following the lead and look down on americans.

A la "American humor is so primitive, not like our european humor, amirite my northern-germanic brothers with whom I want to desperately belong? Cause we europeans are, you know, culture... and stuff. And I would know because we estonians are also northern europe with close cultural ties to Germany. Not like latvians. So, what do you think of me?"

But for those of us who are younger, this doesn't seem to be that much of an issue anymore. We were raised on anglo-internet culture from childhood. And how I'm going to be condescending towards something, if has produced 99.9% of entertainment in my life.

And I also find Teen Wolf funny.

Martasmimi ütles ...
Autor on selle kommentaari eemaldanud.
Joshua ütles ...

"Dr.Horrible - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=avaSdC0QOUM"

Wrong link. This one is right - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=apEZpYnN_1g

Martasmimi ütles ...

A bit of "American" humor making it's way around fb and my office
today..

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dg7X5_K7LhE

Joshua ütles ...

That was awesome.

Rainer ütles ...

"A la "American humor is so primitive, not like our european humor, amirite my northern-germanic brothers with whom I want to desperately belong? Cause we europeans are, you know, culture... and stuff. And I would know because we estonians are also northern europe with close cultural ties to Germany. Not like latvians. So, what do you think of me?""

LMAO :D:D:D

Giustino ütles ...

And aren't Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart and Bill Maher all american humor?

You are correct here. I have met Estonian Daily Show fans.

but since estonians are considered to be eastern europeans in those circles and actual modern-day Scandinavia and Germany are quite different from the mental image estonians have in their heads

Not to start a different argument, but when I say the term I had to ask, how is "Eastern European" any more definitive or meaningful than "Scandinavian" or "German" these days? I get your point, that that is what Estonia is considered to be, but all the things that tie Eastern Europe together (bad haircuts, denim jackets, screwy politics, bad dance music that never goes out of style) pretty much tie all of Europe together. Sometimes, I feel like its Western Europe that is stuck in a time warp.

And I also find Teen Wolf funny.

God bless you.

Kristopher ütles ...

" Americans embrace their inner stupid, Europeans are terrified of appearing stupid."

Another great and accurate sound bite. Pointed up to perfection by the heckler at last night's comedy open mic in Tartu, who was even terrified of other people appearing stupid.

Rainer ütles ...

"I have met Estonian Daily Show fans."

There's one right here.
But has anyone seen it recently on Elion-provided CNN? Not me. It's scheduled to air, but somehow never happens any more.

Piimapukk ütles ...

That is true, when an estonian encounters a person who is making fun of himself or herself, he is likely to be a bit confused. This kind of "clowining" is not considered humour off-stage in most of Eastern Europe, Russia and Asia.

Martasmimi ütles ...

Justin said:

Americans embrace their inner stupid, Europeans are terrified ...

*perfect analogue

Rein Batuut ütles ...

Wow, I looked throught those links and I did not laugh. I often get the same feeling on youtube where there are videos with tons of views and I just dont get it. It does make me feel that Americans are a very happy people if it takes that little to make them laugh. But that's just my sentiment there. Being a 20-something Estonian, I mostly relate to all the British humour that ETV used to air.

Joshua ütles ...

Someone must have a real dislike for Jon Stewart here. I've been trying to help out a fellow Stew Beef fan for two times now with helpful information.

First I thought I just imagined it. But now I personally saw it happening in real time.

What gives? Why are my comments deleted? I fail to see the reasoning behind it. It's not like I'm providing pornographic links.

Jesus.