|Prangli Island, where the blood is neither tip top nor superluks.|
"Maybe," I answered. Then I asked the taxi driver in Estonian if it was an island, perhaps the fabled Prangli Island, center of an excellent short story by the reclusive writer Vello Vikerkaar. That story, "The Inbred Bastards of Prangli Island," hinted at the lack of genetic diversity on Prangli, which prompted the following question.
"You're not from Prangli, right?"
"No," the driver answered, looking in the rearview mirror.
"Good. So, is it true that all the people who live there are relatives?"
"Well, yeah," he said. "You are stuck on an island, you want to keep the property in the family, so you wind up marrying your cousin. I mean, who else are you going to fuck?"
"You could go to Helsinki," I suggested. "Just row up to the port in the middle of the night, steal some women, and head back to Prangli. You know. Pirate style!"
The driver laughed. He thought I was kidding. "But, you know, we Estonians on the mainland are not inbred. We've been invaded so many times! Germans, Russians, Danes, Swedes, Poles ..." he counted them out on his fingers so as not to forget, "... our blood is tip top!"
At this point I chuckled, not because Estonians are so proud that they carry the genes of a motley crew of rapists in their blood, but because they overuse the terms "tip top" and "superluks" in everyday speech. Both are English borrowings ("superluks"="super luxury"), and both are used to describe material things: a new car might be tip top, a swanky apartment could be superluks, but this was the first time I have ever heard a person refer to his blood as being tip top.
Estonian genetic diversity was one of the selling points of the Estonian Genome Project, which billed the small country's genetic heritage as being as heterogeneous and representative of the larger European population, just as the older Icelandic project was sold on that small country's homogeneous population and tip top genealogical records, making it possible to trace rare diseases over many generations and, ultimately, identify the variants causing those diseases. But that's marketing. I honestly have no idea what real genetic impact Estonia's assorted invaders had on the local population.
Estonians were somewhat confused when it emerged in recent years that they were more closely related, in terms of genetics, to Latvians and Lithuanians, than to their linguistic brothers the Finns. "But Estonia has the euro!" they told themselves. I know, it makes no sense to me either. Still, it might explain why Finns just seem weird in any context, because, well, they are. At the same time, Finns are genetic outliers, meaning that Swedes are no more closely related to them than Estonians are. Or, rather, Estonians and Swedes are the Finns' closest relatives, but other northern Germanics (Danes, Norwegians) are the Swedes' closest relatives, and Latvians and Lithuanians are the Estonians' closest relatives. (Got that?)
I bring this up because an Estonian relative recently complimented my mother on my family's fecundity: I have aided in the production three new Estonians, and therefore deserve a medal, or something like that. Even though I am a foreigner, and have thus polluted the Estonian genetic well, it's okay because, hey, they speak Estonian, and two of them have blue eyes. This upset my mother, as you can imagine, who reminded the relative that they were American citizens too, and I had to wade in later, after the fact, and explain the Estonian psyche to her using American equivalents, such as, "This relative is very conservative, the Estonian version of a Tea Party activist, pay him no mind."
That got me thinking. Does every bit of Americana have a counterpart? If a relative can be the Estonian equivalent of a Tea Party activist, and Jaan Kaplinski can continously remind me of Peter Fonda, then surely there are other parallels as well. That's another post. But I have wondered from time to time what the poor Estonian geneticists will do if one of my offspring shows up in the biobank and they start picking up variants associated with Mediterranean populations, leading to some backward hypothesis -- "Maybe there was a Greek in the Teutonic Order?" -- when, all along, it was just little old me and my wanderlust.
Or maybe it will be cause for celebration, a vindication of the big theory that the Estonians are genetically diverse, that there is no risk in breeding with your neighbor, so long as he or she is not from Prangli Island. I can just see the beaming geneticist's face as she holds up a vial marked with my surname, the flash in her eyes as she yells out to her colleagues to share the good news. "Our blood really is tip top," she cries out in the lab, "superluks!"