laupäev, september 10, 2011

exile on tallinn street

I am a foreigner here. I am many other things, but this is my chief designation in the eyes of society. This is perhaps the situation of anyone who is a foreigner anywhere. Now I regret all the times I inquired as to the source of a person's accent in the US. "And where are you from? The former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia?"

Foreigner. This is not necessarily a burden. It lifts you above the others, singles you out from the pack. Anyone can be a writer, but not everyone can be a foreign writer. Anyone can play guitar, but not everyone can be a foreigner playing guitar. Some of Estonia's most successful musicians are foreigners: see Dave Benton or Ruslan Trochynskyi from Svjata Vatra. Anyone who's seen Ruslan yield his scythe and croon about sexy time in Ukrainian remembers him for his foreignness. But who are the guys backing him up? Ah, just a bunch of Estonians. So, there you have it. Foreigners are special. When you walk down the street, my fellow foreigners, hold your heads up high!

And yet, just as being a foreigner sets you apart from the lumpenproletariat, the "flotsam" of Esto society,it also makes you invisible. Conversations typically revolve around language acquisition or reactions to the local cuisine. Few people really talk to you about anything important, because few people really know how to talk to you. Whole conversations cascade around you of which you can play little role, maybe because you don't understand everything being said, but mostly because you have so little to contribute. I recently watched two acquaintances have a deep conversation about forestry. Forestry! What the &%¤£ do I know about forestry? Even if we were speaking the same language, we'd be speaking different tongues. Do you catch my drift?

This was an issue in my second book. Most of the main characters, the deep characters, the ones who carried around with them meaning, were foreigners. The Estonians were like cardboard cutouts of people, two dimensional, but not only for my lack of ability to translate them into text, but because so few of them had shared any shred of their souls with me. This was perhaps less because of the national character of the Estonian people, than because of the simple fact that I was an outsider, a foreigner, and somehow disconnected from the reality around me. Being a foreigner gives one the unique ability to walk down the street in one land, and still simultaneously, metaphysically, be in another.

Not like it would be any better there. I feel the same claustrophobia around most of my countrymen. Just as Estonia is too quiet, America is too loud. When I arrive home to New York, I snake through the sweaty bowels of John F. Kennedy International Airport, only to cross through the gates of US customs, where I am always made to feel as if I have done something wrong, though at last check, I have committed no crime. I get nervous standing there, wondering if my name has somehow wound up on some kind of list. "No Teen Idols!" "But I'm not Timberlake, I'm not Bieber!" "Guards, take him away!" "I swear, hey, what are you doing? Get your hands off of me! I'm innocent! I can't even dance, watch me, I'll prove it to you." "Mmm. Resisting arrest? That's another 10 years." "No, no, there must be some mistake!" "Tell it to your lawyer, kid."

America. The over-saturation of stimuli, the clamor of the crowds, the thousands of TV sets suspended from the ceilings blaring the day's misfortunes, pundits yelling over one another, people climbing over each another, the aroma of fried chicken and pizza, old newspapers, Andean flute players, Penn Station, New York City! One never feels so alive as when he's cruising the 6, drunk as a skunk, standing next to some punk Wall Street broker with a flattop who is singing along to The Supremes on his iPod. "You can't hurry love. No, it just has to wait ..."

And when you finally emerge from the swampy mess, battered and chafed, and you land back in Estonia, you exhale. I feel this every single time I make the journey between the two countries. The heat of America, the coolness of Estonia. The more I think about it, the more it reminds me of the Estonian sauna, running between the oven-like conditions of the saun to the ice waters of the lake, only to find peace somewhere in between for a few fleeting moments.

Just as the Americans annoy me with their 24-hour cable news networks, the Estonians annoy me because they don't know how to live, they don't know how to enjoy themselves. Each day I watch construction workers slave late into the evening, 10, 11 o'clock at night, cigarettes dangling from their lips, blue circles beneath the eyes. There is this incredible urgency to everything they do, because summer only lasts so long, and soon it will be too cold to work anymore. I am sure that it all makes sense, but at the same time I feel that they are committing suicide, that never-ending work and drink and smoke are the Estonian version of harakiri.

I cannot change anything though. I cannot advocate a mezzogiorno for my neighbors. I cannot organize one for myself. Could you imagine in Estonia stopping work at around 1 pm to rush home and eat a prolonged, savory meal until about 5 in the evening, lounging around, munching on olives and fennel and telling pointless jokes and stories? No. Here it would be condemned as rape, a brutal, graphic violation of the Protestant work ethic. It just doesn't happen. Even when Estonians do relax, it involves the consumption of hard liquor, stuff that hits the bottom of your gut like a fiery asteroid. There must be moving, doing, consuming ... The more I think about it, I don't fit into America or Estonia or anywhere. I have become a perpetual foreigner. I will be a foreigner everywhere I go.

16 kommentaari:

siimonrampe ütles ...

"Amonia"?

Lingüista ütles ...

Well, foreigners are always, well, different from us, so reactions to them tend to be seasoned by whatever stereotypes one does (or worse, doesn't) believe in. The Dutch are always overly careful with foreigners, who of course know nothing about the Netherlands. They think they have to tell you that the queen is Beatrix and the prime minister is Mark Rutte. And if you want to talk about politics, they'll be surprised if you can keep from confusing the PvdA with the CDA.

But basically, you do have to find some other level at which contact can be made, so that your interlocutor 'forgets' you're a foreigner. Maybe you could go to a club or a course on something that you like -- pop music, history (maybe reminiscing about the Nõukugude aeg?), cooking, some sport -- and then have actual conversations with the other members? (It helped me to start learinng Greek here in the Netherlands. I happened to land in a group of people that were actually quite nice, orgainzed a few parties and outings, and we always had a handy topic of conversation, Greece and our experience -- or lack thereof -- with it.)

Liivimaa parim ratsutaja ütles ...

Ah! Finally! You've come to that same realization. Now you feel that incredible lightness of being. Something I've come to call "being and island". It took me two decades to figure out what the heck is it.

We belong everywhere and nowhere in particular. We are passionate, yet detached. We are passing through life making tons of friends and getting attached to no one in particular.

Ah, you made my day, G!

I am not alone. (Not that I'd care that much. Right?)

Thank you. Thank you.

George ütles ...

As a writer, Giustino, you're in good company in terms of your perpetual 'foreignness' -- with Conrad, Nabokov and that ultimate 'NYC foreigner' Susan Sontag:

“I like foreigners. I feel like a foreigner in New York. I like not being too comfortable.”


"I don't like America enough to want to live anywhere else except Manhattan. And what I like about Manhattan is that it's full of foreigners. The America I live in is the America of the cities. The rest is just drive-through."

-- Susan Sontag


“And there was the notion of the foreigner. I have done a novel about English people in southern Italy, a novel about Poles in America, and the next one is going to be about French people in Japan. I say it's a privilege to be a foreigner, it's such an intensifier of experience.”

Dzen ütles ...

As someone with significant ties to Estonia who just relocated back at "home" to Washington, DC, I couldn't have related more to your post. Thanks for sharing your personal insight--it's shared.

meerkatz007 ütles ...

Dear Giustino,

as for the construction workers: they slave away because their boss usually tells them that if they don't do that there will be a long queue of applicants waiting to take their place ... and unemployment benefits are non-existent, as you know. Booze and cigarettes are often the only way to deal with the stress and feel a brief release.

As to the rest of it ... you're such a nice lad that I'm sure people love talking to you. They appreciate your effort and yes, your kindness and compassion. I remember, when working together with Americans at one time, and with Finns at another and then with Spaniards - myself being Estonian - we were talking all the time, not just to pass the time but real deep stuff. I also remember that basically the only time I felt a wall of misunderstanding between us was when the subject of Russians (and everything related to it: WW II, the Soviet occupation, the language issue, our relations) came up. They just didn't get it. But we always put it down to them coming from big nations.

Now I'm a foreigner myself in a country that's even smaller than Estonia. So the situation is pretty much the same for me ... but like yourself, I have great liking to the people here and I'm making an effort. And people really warm up. Sure, I don't expect to be integrated right away but I think we will be able to look at each other some time in the future and not just see two-dimensional figures but real people. Well, mayebe not entirely, but that will have to do :)

A strange thing though. The people of this country (I mean the natives) have no problem identifying Estonia (as opposed to one big East-Europe) and they are very sensitive to our history. But it's a small nation! That's what always happens with people from small nations, we can relate in these matters. They have been occupied by God knows whom in the past so they understand :)

McGon ütles ...

As an Irish person who spends a lot of time in Tallinn, I actually like the feeling of being a foreigner. It gives a unique vantage and awareness of the people and the society. I am very lucky to have a large network of family and close friends in Tallinn so at this point I feel a real connection is available, although I do identify with the coolness of strangers. Making friends in Estonia takes longer, but the friendships made are usually less fickle than in the west.

Syntax of Seaweed ütles ...

I hear your, bro. I tried to apply for a loan yesterday. Was told I haven't been here long enough to quaify, despite being here four years working and studying...

Doris ütles ...

ah yes, the conversation that goes on and while you understand every word, you've no idea what they're talking about. Netherlands-specific topic for this is the Water and dyke politics. They have a whole separate government/political elections for that.

But one thing I've noticed that's more of a watershed between Western and Soviet people is the childhood stories and mass media. Nobody ever knows about Siil Udus or Briljantk2si ("I fell, passed out, woke up: gips!") and I really don't know much about the Power Rangers or My Little Pony. That will be better for the generation just now in their teens and early 20's though: they can reminisce together about the Teletubbies at least.

Lingüista ütles ...

Doris, my wife (who is Russian) tells me the same thing about childhood stories (I got to see Siil Udus -- or rather Ezhik v Tumane -- through her...). Which of course creates a picturesque conflict between her and our Dutchified daughter who is growing up with My Little Pony and the Power Rangers (though she has a special liking for Avatar). They connect on a lot of levels, but this ain't one of them...

Liivimaa parim ratsutaja ütles ...

I imagine hearing estonian males relate to each other through construction and forestry discussions must be just as boring as hearing the american males do the same, endlessly discussing college basketball or football. I could care less and I cannot show it. How do I hide my boredom?

I just grab my beer and walk away to see what else is happening at the party. Which is pretty much nothing. Hey, it's suburbia. Middle age. All these people are so boring ... Hey, nice digs, nice cars, nice jobs, nice vacations ... but the emptiness ... wives starting to look like old ladies ... kids are getting brattier ... nothing to talk about with anyone.

I am beginning to feel like Kevin Spacy's character in the "American Beauty" more and more.

I should start working out i guess ... see what happens.

I am no Nabokov or other high flying intellectual so what else is there for an average guy lik eme to do?

Spawnie ütles ...

"The more I think about it, I don't fit into America or Estonia or anywhere. I have become a perpetual foreigner. I will be a foreigner everywhere I go."

Yeah, I don't think that the way you feel has anything to do with Estonia, but rather with your own inability to feel like you belong anywhere. Not saying it's a bad thing, but I believe you'd probably feel out of place anywhere you'd go.
in my case it was quite strange, I felt very much at home in Estonia from the beginning, and then when going back to my own country for a while I actually missed my "Estonian home", and all that despite the challenges one faces when relocation to a foreign country.

Kristopher ütles ...

I get really sleepy/tired around 2pm. The morning coffee wears off, I eat and then eat some more, can't bring myself out of it until around 5pm. An hour of work at that point, at best, and then I start cooking dinner, which IS usually savory.

I'm sure I'm not the only one.

jule ütles ...

tsau! minu nimi on jule ma ma olen vahetusõpilane Eestis aastaks - ma olen pärit Saksamaalt. ma saain te esimest raamatut sünnipäevaks - inglise ja Eesti keeles - ja see on nii hea! ma armastan kui imelik te kirjutate, ma naeran nii palju ;-) ja see aitab mind eesti keelt õpida. ma tõesti pean osta teine raamatut! suur tänu!
(ma loodan et ma ei tegi nii palju viga, ma tõesti pean õppida rohkem.)

DGC ütles ...

"The more I think about it, I don't fit into America or Estonia or anywhere. I have become a perpetual foreigner. I will be a foreigner everywhere I go."

Seega "ei lind ega loom" ("То ли птица, то ли зверь", this is also name of an old soviet cartoon http://mults.spb.ru/mults/?id=2164. You should see it).

I think you just have to decide where you want to belong and act accordingly.

I still remember how surprised I was when I readed your post about black bread, noticing, that you have wroted it after living here 7 or 8 years. Where had your eyes and ears been so far? Maybe you want to step out from your box and start to listen people to understand how they think. You are not able to change all the others, but you maybe are able to change yourself.

Estonia has one of the world's highest forest coverage and forestry isn't any more rocket science than growing whatever else. Therefore forest it's quite natural part of our lives.

I know some foreigners who doesn't seem to have obstacles to speak about whatever topic with estonian (not counting estonian russians - they are enough local anyway). Few days ago I discussed with my neighbour with foreign origin - after livin more than 10 years here he is still having heavy accent- about our building basement and he mentioned me during conversation "vasara lukk". I was slightly surprised and and for me this was sign that this guy knows everything. Do you recognize something as "vasara lukk" when you see one?

meerkatz007 ütles ...

How did I miss the part about *munching on olives and fennel and telling pointless jokes and stories?* I INSIST on the implementation of a mezzogiorno!