laupäev, september 29, 2007

Vana Meremees

I have only been to Saaremaa once in my life. I was warned by my wife that I was entering a special zone within Estonia, where all the people lack a sense of humor. That is, Saarlased were allegedly principled to the point that principles came before all other things: eating, laughing, sleeping: if it was against their principles, then it wasn't for the Saarlased.

We traveled to Kuressaare by bus and ferry. On the ferry we met up with an acquaintance of Epp's who knew that we had only recently been married -- this was 4+ years ago. So we took the time to get acquainted, all the while loading our mouths with Kalevi chocolate that we had bought on board the ferry to pass the time.

"So you are in Italian?" Epp's friend asked.

"Well, actually I am an American," I said.

"But your name is Italian," she pressed on.

"Well, both of my grandfathers were Italians."

Even this is not true. It's more complicated than that. Both of my grandfathers were born in America, but were the children of Italian immigrants. So my maternal grandfather didn't learn to speak English until he was seven years old or so. What do you consider such a person? In America you'd call him "first generation."

This happened to me elsewhere in Europe. In the Dublin airport while trying to get a place booked to sleep for the night, the Irish lady behind the counter asked where I was from. "New York," I replied. "But before that?" she asked, pointing at my surname. "Oh ..." I said. "Um ... Italy."

In Kuressaare, Epp had an interview with a painter. I took some photos for use in the article, and then was sent away to spend some alone time while the serious interviewing took place. I decided on a nice pub with a windmill motif where they were playing sea shanties over a PA -- songs about meremees [sailor] this and meremees that and "oh meremees, meremees, meremees" blah blah blah.

The sunset in the distance was gorgeous. The castle at Kuressaare was also impressive. Yet it was so hard to drink my õlut in peace without being reminded of the meremehed in all their glory.

Later on though we got to meet one of these Saaremaa sailors when we went to the place where we were staying. It was a two-home property converted into a guesthouse. The house in front was where the guests stayed, while the smaller house in the back was for the owner and his wife. Such arrangements are common all over western Estonia, perhaps in eastern Estonia too. I forget the name of our host, but for the sake of this story we shall call him Arvo.

Arvo was very interested in us. He was about 55 years old, slightly balding with a curly mustache, and Finno-Ugric eyes. He also had been, at one time, in the Soviet navy, and showed us a photo of himself in one of those familiar Cold War costumes, still sporting a mustache, but with more hair.

Arvo said that he was going to go out fishing that evening and that if we wanted to come we should dig up some worms so we could catch some fish. This made my stomach crawl but made Epp -- then about five months pregnant -- unusually excited. Arvo departed from the home to run an errand, and Epp set about digging into the earth to try and find some bait for our evening adventure.

Maybe it was the beer in my stomach or my simple repulsion at snakes, slugs, slimey things of that nature, but I began to feel oddly queasy at the notion of collecting worms, and then at the notion of dropping them in the sea, catching some gilled creature, chopping off its head, soaking it in butter and dill and eating it down to the bone. Why not go to the supermarket and buy something there instead?

Epp was really annoyed by my lack of enthusiasm in worm hunting. And you can imagine that she was also despondent when Arvo returned and informed us that his wife had told him he had spent too many nights out fishing and that there was no way Arvo was going anywhere in a boat tonight.

So instead Arvo invited us back into his home. I guess his wife was visiting friends, so it was just us and this old sailor who looked like Robert Shaw's character from Jaws. Like most Estonian homes, the interior of Arvo's was all wooden. He stood bent over a stove, pouring frozen prawns into boiling water out of a bag and adding dill for additional taste. Then while the prawns steamed on the stovetop, he returned to talk to his guests.

My Estonian skills were not so good at the time, and his language took on that muddy, gurgling sound that you hear in south Estonia. Allegedly, Saarlased have a rolling, Scandinavian accent due to their proximity to Gotland, but I wasn't hearing it from Arvo. Instead he continuously referenced me by calling me "the Yankee" when he talked to Epp, presumably about our life.

Then he began to talk to me and his words became more clear. He said that:

"You don't look like an American. You look Portuguese."

I informed him that I wasn't Portuguese but had Italian roots.

"Ah, Italian," he answered. "There is an Italian from Sicily coming here tomorrow to visit," he said.

Just what I needed. A Sicilian to chill with because 80-odd years ago men bearing my name escaped from the impoverished boot of a European peninsula. Still, Sicilians were likely to be friendlier than most Estonians you meet at the supermarket. And, like me, our Sicilian friend had probably also started shaving when he was 12 years old. So we might have some things in common. When the prawns were ready we ate them gladly.

Arvo drank a "cup" of coffee that was really the size of a large bowl with a handle. I just couldn't believe he was going to drink that much coffee at 9 PM. But I gather that caffeine is a drug, and you need more and more to get the same high. After years of drinking it by the cup, Arvo had moved on to drinking it by the bowl. I was terrified to imagine what could be next.

During the conversation Arvo also asked me about my impressions of Estonia. One question I get asked often is what words did I learn first. The problem is that I learned some Finnish words first. One sentence I learned in Finland was "Minä olen mies" which translates too -- the exact same thing in Estonian. When I tell Estonians this, they usually say nothing.

But Arvo also asked me an unusual question: is there anything you don't like about Estonia. I was afraid of insulting his country, but I had an answer on the tip of my tongue. I explained to him how as wonderful as Estonia was, the folk music, particularly the songs about sailors, were driving me a little crazy. "Ah," he replied sympathetically. "I can see how that might get annoying."

Minding your 'Õ's and 'Ö's

One reason I felt good on Saaremaa was that many people had told me I had a Saare accent. That is, I found it impossible to make the Estonian 'Õ' sound, which is hard to phonetically represent in English. It's sort of a very tight-sounding combination of 'e', 'o', and 'u'. Instead I said words with more of an 'Ö', which is supposedly how Saarlased say them. So if anyone ever wondered about my strange Estonian accent, I could just tell them that I was from Saareemaa.

Before we went to bed after eating the prawns, I was sent out for a late night snack. I walked along the water towards the castle, and stopped in a shop that was still open. Epp had requested a certain kind of open-faced sandwich, but I was hungry too. I looked at the signs, and decided I would have the one with the salted ham on it, the one with the Italian-sounding name: forelli sai. I ordered perhaps six of these forelli sandwiches and headed back, passing a campsite where tourists were out sitting in lounge chairs and drinking beer.

As their words drifted into my ears, I determined that they were not speaking Estonian, nor Russian, nor German. That was Italian, alright. These were Italian tourists. And once again I was reminded that Estonia is indeed part of Europe, and in summer time, the European tourists flow into Estonia like any other natural part of the European Union.

When I got back to our room at the old sailor's guest house, I opened the bag to discover that what I mistakenly thought was some sort of prosciutto was really smoked fish, a food that I am not too fond of. I was scolded for buying so many forelli sai, but Epp ate them all in the end.

You see, Epp doesn't mind sitting in front of the TV, holding a smoked fish by its tail and consuming the animal like corn-on-the-cob. If we visited Greenland, I am sure she would have no problem downing seal blubber if it was handed to her. For me though, I might have to hold my breath before leaning in to kiss her after she has feasted on whatever creature from the bowels of the sea.

The next day on the way out of town we stopped in a cafe for some coffee and met up with a friend of Epp's who now lives on Saaremaa. Out of the corner of my eye I spied the Sicilian, on his way to meet Arvo at his guesthouse, and maybe, if he was lucky, to dig up some worms and go out fishing this very evening.

The Sicilian did not look like me though. He was about a quarter of my size and smoking a cigarette. "That's right," I thought to myself. "Most Italians are short!" The Sicilian was immersed in writing a postcard, perhaps to his home village of Corleone, about the exotic land he was visiting where people listened to accordion music ad nauseum and drank bowls, not cups of coffee.

I decided that I of all people should not randomly break the spell of Saaremaa for some Italic backslapping. So I slipped out the door with my wife, and left our Sicilian to continue along his merry way. I hope he enjoyed his stay in Kuressaare as much as I did.

4 kommentaari:

Eppppp ütles ...

I di not say that saarlased lack the sense of humour.
I said that hiidlased (people from Hiiumaa) think so.
Its the neighbours stuff, you know.

v. ütles ...

And actually (continuing the neighbour thing) we, saarlased, say that hiidlased have everything better, even better neighbours :-D

LPR ütles ...

Eh, I envy your short list of things that you find not so likable in Estonia.

Might be the age difference.

When growing up there, I rarely found anything wrong with the place. Except the fact that some teachers at school were total jerks.

KRISTIN ütles ...

Hey, it's hard for me to pronounce "good" correctly (I tend to make it sound as GUUD), but when I try and say it more like GÕÕD, then it might sound just right ;) So that could get your closer to our "Õ"