pühapäev, august 30, 2009

teeme juurde

Thick gray clouds, fat and fluffy. Like migrating birds, they always seem to find their way to the Gulf of Finland at certain times of the year. I could feel the grayness of northern life consume me as soon as we got into Helsinki.

At first, it was sunny, but then the clouds began covering Vantaa as we waited for our plane. The shiny Moomin souvenirs and reindeer cold cuts and Marimekko plates; all were suddenly calmed by the serene clouds. The Finns are such stylish people, even if they are oppressed by the gray, even if they can't help but crack a perverted grin when they serve you at a café. Their mouths say "kiitos," but their translucent eyes hint at something more sinister. It's their subtle way of letting you know that everybody in that country is secretly nuts.

The gray followed us to Tallinn, but here other details caught my attention. While the Finns are stylish, many Estonians are garish. Supposedly, an Estonian man's kroons go first to the car, then the house. I would venture that an Estonian woman's most cherished bling is her expensive manicure. First the nails, then the hair.

I spoke to the cab driver in Estonian — the best way not to get ripped off, I'm told. His name was Sergei. I noticed his name when I saw his ID card in the car. He helped us with our bags, crammed with less- expensive clothing procured during a spree in the US, and was mostly polite, but he didn't say a word, even when I paid him or thanked him. Not a word. Not a 'How was your trip?' or 'You're Estonian's pretty good. Some people have been living here for 50 years and not one word.' Not a smile or even a grimace. Nothing. Sergei gave us nothing except a silent and efficient ride to our address. After a few weeks of warming up in the US, Sergei to me signaled that it was time to cool down. I was back in Tallinn and summer was coming to an end.


And then there were blondes. This subgroup of humanity walks the sidewalks of Estonia, totally unaware of how strange it looks to outsiders. We have words for these odd flaxen-headed creatures. We call them Vikings or Nordics or Scandinavians or Germans or even Aryans, but to me, these towheads are just different. Blondes. They make everything better. They look good. When Estonians need to print up travel brochures or postcards and they don't know what to do, they usually put a blonde on the cover. Come to Põlvamaa, they entice would-be tourists, we have blondes! And the people come.

Still, negative stereotypes do belong to groups of people, even the blondes. And even in Estonia, some people think the fair-haired are dumb. For example, the Estonian term sinisilmne – literally 'blue-eyed' – is a metaphor for 'naïve.' Blue-eyed Estonians use it regularly and don't get the irony. Once on Taarapuiestee, a minor boulevard in Tartu, we almost got in an accident with an erratic driver who ran a STOP sign. By the way the car blew through the intersection, I thought it was driven by a big drunk man, but when I saw the person through the windshield, I noticed it was a small, seemingly sober woman.

"Did you see what I saw?" I asked my wife.

"Yep," she answered. "She was blonde."

And we both knew what 'blonde' meant. In this scenario, it referred to a group of people that is unable to operate heavy machinery. No wonder there are so many traffic accidents in Estonia. It has one of the highest 'blonde rates' in the world.


"Teeme juurde, teeme juurde." When I first went to the local Säästumarket to buy some bags of milk, I accidentally said 'thanks' to the cashier before I corrected myself and said aitäh instead. I knew then that it was time to adjust again, to slip back into Estonian life and speak the local language.

And so here we were in a used furniture store on the outskirts of town, haggling with the proprietor who promised to build us a set of bookshelves for our growing library. Epp did 90 percent of the talking. I rifled through a Soviet-era book on Finland. Did you know that the 'ultra patriotic' right-wing Lapua movement got the Finns into a war with the Soviet Union twice, in 1939 and again in 1941? According to that book, published in the late 1960s, that's how it all went down. I'm keen to read about the rest of world history as the Soviets wrote it. Maybe it should be compiled into a single book, perhaps a new Russian history book for high school students?

But teeme juurde – that's what the shop owner said. Teeme means 'let's make it' and juurde, well, that means literally 'to the root.' 'Let's make it to the root?' No, that can't be right. It makes no sense. "It means 'let's make more,'" Epp explained. I struggle to grasp how the word for 'to the root' turned into 'more,' but who can figure out the etymology of phrases in this language where somebody's place is their 'root' -- Ma olen Jaani juures is 'I am at John's place.'

I close my eyes and try to imagine roots. What do they look like? Some are big and others small, but most are underground and twisted into terrifying shapes. Only the tree-minded Estonians would be able to fully understand how they've managed to give the word for 'roots' so many other meanings, but, whatever, teeme juurde, let's make some new shelves.


When I left to go the Konsum today, it was sunny. On the way there, it got cloudy. While in the Konsum, it began to rain. I asked the girl at the Apteek for some rubbing alcohol. Or at least I tried. This is what transpired:

Kas teil on alkohol mida ma saaks mu näole panna? (Do you have alcohol that I could put on my face?)

Puhastamiseks? (For cleansing?) She gives me a puzzled look.

Juust. (Exactly)

Jah, üks hetk palun. (Yes, one moment please) She pulls out a key and begins filing through a drawer.

Asi on see, et putukas hammastas minu tutre ja ma tahaks, et see amps läheb kiiresti ära -- (The thing is that a bug bit my daughter and I would like that the bite goes quickly away)

Ah, nüüd ma saan aru. (Ah, now I understand) The clerk looks delighted and hands me a bottle of Mentool Piiritus.

'Mentool Piiritus'! See on täpselt mida ma tahtsin osta. Teate, et ma just tulin tagasi Eestisse ja -- .
(This is exactly what I wanted to buy. You know, I just came back to Estonia and --)

Pole hullu. (No worries) The clerk smiles and rings me up. I guess it's obvious that I am a foreigner, but I was understood.

On the way home from the Konsum, it stopped raining. When I pulled in the driveway, it was sunny again.

teisipäev, august 25, 2009

noormees ja meri

"Kaka." It's a universal word. French babies say it. Estonian babies say it. American babies say it. My daughters say it. The younger one said it on Friday on the beach.

She was following me out of Provincetown harbor, her legs still in the water, when she cried out in surprise: "Issi, kaka!" I turned and saw the stripe of brown sloping down her leg towards the sea. She stared at her leg in panic too.

"Oh shit," I looked around at the other beach goers to see if they had noticed my daughter's 'surprise.' "What do you do when your kid shits on the beach?"

I decided that I had no choice but to give her a good rinse in the Atlantic-fed bay. I was ashamed to pollute in public, but there didn't seem to be any other option. I grabbed her by the arms and dragged her through the tide. To my horror, clouds of brown plumed in the still harbor waters, only to dissipate into nothingness. Within seconds, all was clear again. It was as if nothing had ever happened. As if there had been no "kaka" incident. The water looked fit to drink. Standing there with two legs in the mix, I had to ask myself: How much shit is actually in here?

I rolled her up in my t-shirt and made for my wife who was at a beachfront café. She was lost in verse when I approached her bearing our bundle of joy, now oblivious to her condition, who was pleased to see her mother. 'Tsau, emme,' she chirped. 'Tsau!' her mother responded, her hand gracefully finishing the last line of a well-thought out sentence.

"Kaka," I explained. We hurried to the public restrooms. After some emergency surgery, mother and daughter emerged clean, with a plastic bag bearing her unfortunate swimsuit and my unfortunate t-shirt. And there I stood in nothing but a bathing suit in downtown Provincetown surrounded by tourists and locals, many of whom also have nothing on but swimwear. My wife was soon joined by two Estonian friends, who were sympathetic to our 'kaka' incident. They have kids too. They understood.

I stood waiting in the hot August sun with our stroller and the ill-fated plastic bag while the Estonians discussed our agenda for the rest of the day. After awhile, I noticed them glancing at me.

"What do you think? Could he be one of them?" my wife gestured at the half-naked guy with the mysterious plastic bag. The trio of eesti naised turned and looked me up and down.

"No, his shoulders are too broad," concluded one.

"And he's too hairy to be gay," the other offered her expert opinion. "If he was one of them, he would have had that stuff waxed."


We came to Provincetown at the end of Massachusetts' Cape Cod for a carnival. Epp found out about it and put it on our list of things to do. It was advertised everywhere, a real local event. Carnival! It sounded so quaint. I imagined there would be cotton candy and a Ferris wheel, live music and lobster rolls. It would be a child-friendly happening. Maybe there would be pony rides too, face-painting, and funnel cakes. But this was Carnival Week in Ptown. Instead there were rainbow flags and gangs of roving mostly-nude males holding hands and discussing European fashion trends. Yes, there was a touch of Europe on the main walking street of Ptown that day; I hadn't seen that many guys wearing thongs since my last trip to the Aura Keskus water park in Tartu.

The first shops I saw as I parked our car on Commercial Street were of the European persuasion. 'Simply Danish' hosted a inventory of Scandinavian designs: futuristic vases and metallic ashtrays. Across from the Danes was 'Red Square,' which employed crimson motifs. I stopped to look at Danish vases as gaggles of bare-chested, hairless males passed by on the street.

"I'm going to go have dinner," said one to his friends.

"Ok, we'll meet you at the café later," a friend responded. "Just remember: no carbs after 6 pm!"

"It's 5.50," the first one chuckled. "I've still got 10 minutes!"

As we waded through the masses down this walking street, I noticed that, other than a few curious couples with kids and perhaps family members of the carnival attendees, Ptown was overwhelmingly gay and lesbian. Instead of people staring in confusion at two men holding hands, they shot odd looks at my wife and me as we pushed our daughter in a stroller down the street, as if to say, Wait, you're married? To a person of the opposite sex? Why would you go and do a silly thing like that?

This is what the world would be like if gays ran it. There would only be elegant shops purveying the finest in interior design and men's apparel or wild discotheques playing the best of the 1970s. There would only be well-manicured gardens and trendy cafes serving the yummiest of treats and tastiest of drinks with a pinch of this and a hint of that. And, most of all, couples with young children would be kept to a bare minimum: at least couples comprised of one male and one female.

This is how they must feel in straight society, I deduced as I watched a guy with pierced nipples sorting trash from a cafe into a variety of recycling bins. A world where everything is its opposite. We walked down to an ATM in a parking garage. The wall was covered with posters for different local events. Someone was screening a film called Two Boys in a Bed on a Cold Winter Night. On the other side of the garage, I spied a deck on the water and a swimming pool filled exclusively with dudes in fluorescent-colored thongs. Somewhere a radio was blasting Patrick Hernandez' 1979 hit, "Born to Be Alive." For me, all stereotypes about gay culture were justified in that one moment.

In Estonia, there are two takes on how to handle this phenomenon of the West. Persons to whom I am tangentially connected sit at opposite sides of the debate. There are passionate social activists like Lisette Kampus who would be happy if Estonia was a bit more like Ptown. Then there are conservative newspapermen like Priit Pullerits who would prefer if carnival took place at some place in the woods, rather than on Main Street. Most of us probably sit somewhere in between, turned off by the moral absolutism of the gay community and the social conservatives. Curmudgeonly misanthropic writers like me just want to be left alone, thanks.

It was this yearning for isolation that drove me to Ptown in the first place. It sits at the end of an eastern extremity of America. To get there, you have to drive through miles of mountainous sand dunes that shift with the winds of the sea. I see dunes like that when I go to sleep in Tartu. The sands of the Atlantic coast may be the one thing I miss about the place where I grew up. In Tartu, the nearest body of water is the Emajõgi – the 'mother river.' That meandering vein through southeast Estonia is persuasive in its own way, but it's no substitute for the ocean.

It's probably this longing for lonesomeness that's drawn so many strange characters to Ptown. "The gays wind up here because this is a place you have to decide to come to," Epp told me as we rolled along. "You can't just pass on through. You have to have this place as your destination." Before it was a gay haven, Ptown was home first to pirates and Colonial ne'er-do-wells and then Portuguese fisherman before the homosexuals seized cultural power, starting in the 1940s, and later political power, starting in the late 1970s. Indeed, in Ptown, gay political power was apparent. As we strolled through, a gentleman dressed in a one-piece pink body thong ala Borat alerted me to the reality of politics in Ptown while soliciting signatures for some particular local cause. In any other town, the gentleman in the pink body thong would be an oddball. Here, he just might wind up as a town councilman.


While Carnival Week in Provincetown was not exactly what I expected, it was fun. I'm not the type to go skydiving and I loathe roller coasters, but there's nothing more exhilarating than the masochistic shattering of one's own homophobia. Homophobia – the fear of gays. It's not easy to walk past a row of half-naked males in your swimming trunks and pretend you don't notice them eyeballing you. It's harder still when you are carrying a thick book entitled Gay Lives, Straight Jobs. My spouse bought it, along with other treatises on Ptown life for use in some future essay or book chapter. She must have bought a dozen books in Ptown's used book shops. I bought one: The Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller.

I kept Miller's travel book on Greece on top of Straight Jobs, Gay Lives in one hand so no one would get the wrong idea as I pushed the stroller down the street. Epp had left me to go feed the parking meter. I got tired of the one-handed pushing and put the books on top of the stroller. Then, as I neared a group of guys at the entrance to the Prince Albert Hotel, we rolled over a bump and the books went flying. Straight Jobs, Gay Lives landed front-cover up for all to see. Humiliated, I bent over and picked up it up along with the only book I had bought. It's not what it looks like. I'm like Miller, I wanted to shake my fist at them. I desire women!

Some women at least. Later that night, the Estonian ladies quizzed each other as to Estonia's sexiest politician. "Margus Tsakhna," one ventured. "Or maybe Silver Meikar."

"How about Savisaar?" I asked. "Some ladies think he's sexy."

The Estonians looked nauseous. "How about our president?" one changed the subject. "He's looking better these days."

"Who do you think is Estonia's sexiest politician?" they asked me.

I couldn't decide on who was Estonia's sexiest female politician because there seems to be something inherently unsexy about politicians, like they'd only sleep with you if you'd vote for them. I decided to keep my mouth shut.

But there in front of the Prince Albert Hotel, I was ready to endorse just about any Estonian female for sexiest politician to prove that Straight Jobs, Gay Lives was not my book. Even if I had done so, those guys probably wouldn't have cared. After all, it was my phobia I was dealing with, not theirs.

Why are people scared of gays or any particular group of people? When I lived in Tallinn years ago, I was intimidated by the Russian kids who hung out near the Säästumarket in Kalamaja. They were big and loud and usually drinking something alcoholic outdoors, even in January temperatures. They wore puffy black jackets and were boiling with machismo: if they were ever with women, their arms were draped protectively around their females' shoulders. When I passed them, I looked straight ahead as not to arouse their attention. That was Russophobic me. But what about homophobic me?

Maybe fear isn't just drilled into us by our family and friends or by films and books. Maybe there are certain instances in our lives that lead us to adjust our instincts a certain way. Nobody on Commercial Street in Ptown tried to touch me or said something suggestive. But when I was 15, I had a friend who had just come out of the closet that did so several times. Each time, I pushed him away. But he came back three or four times. To him, maybe it was funny, but to me it seemed like sexual harassment – that thing they were always talking about on TV. It was harder to determine how harsh my 'no' should be because he was my friend, or at least he had been. Such is the painful confusion of human sexuality.

Probably because of that one guy, I felt intimidated in Ptown. It's not something I intended. It was just a natural response, one that said, Please, whatever you do, don't invade my personal space. This was the fear I faced. It felt good to deal with it because nobody there bothered me in any way. I understood then that it's wrong to link one individual's behavior to a whole group of people. These guys meant no harm. They just wanted to wear thongs and listen to Patrick Hernandez in peace. Once I had identified the root of my fear, I was able to let it all roll off my back. I could walk down the street with my head held high holding a copy of Straight Jobs, Gay Lives.

Epp's response to the scene seemed different. She's a kind of cultural bon vivant. She learns about gay culture the same way if we were in Japan she might develop an acute interest in Shintoism. She's hungry and the world's her buffet. She fears no one. She savors it all. While I enjoyed the shock therapy of carnival in Ptown, she loved its vibrant colors and exotic characters. She fell in love with the place at once. It was a respite from the banality of American consumer life. For me, it was looked like a lot of fun, but not designed for my personal enjoyment. Instead it took time and a trip to the Portuguese Bakery for Provincetown to win me over.


I am not Portuguese. I only know a handful of phrases I learned from listening to João Gilberto records. But in Ptown, I felt like the Portuguese community was my life preserver, keeping me afloat in a storm not only of a gay vibrancy, but also in the icy terrain of Yankeedom. Remember, this was still New England -- a place where people's surnames often mean things – Bush, Ford, Starbuck.

Even if it was Carnival Week, I could escape to the Portuguese Bakery. I knew that there they would understand. They would have rich, delicious Mediterranean pastries, made with the love of people who appreciate the sweet life by guys with names like Fernandinho or Gilberto and women with names like Carolina or Teresa. If Epp fantasized about blending into Ptown's dissident culture, I imagined getting on a first-name basis with its Portuguese fishermen and bakerwomen. Maybe they would even one day take me as their own: Justino.

The woman behind the counter didn't wear a name tag. Instead she had on a t-shirt that read The Crazy Portuguese One. I took a sample of the best-looking treats, giant frosted malassadas, cream-colored pastéis de nata. They were all good, but one stole my heart. It wasn't the crazy Portuguese one. It was called trutas: a fried, sweet-potato turnover shaped in a crescent and covered in sugar. I bought and ate one. Then two. Then I had to have three. I bought one for my youngest daughter, but she got frustrated with the sweet potato filling and threw part of it on the ground. I've spoiled her. She doesn't yet appreciate that her father keeps her supplied with cannolis and trutas. One day she'll learn.

In a nearby bookstore, I Told You So by Kate Clinton, political commentary from a gay/lesbian point of view, was on display. I flipped through the essays on gay marriage, the Bush White House, Hillary Clinton, and Ptown, but felt bored. It looked like another artifact from America's never-ending culture wars. But who wanted to think about Karl Rove on a hot August day? I wanted to read about something delicious. I made for the more captivating Provincetown Portuguese Cookbook to find out how to make my beloved trutas.

Dough made with whiskey and orange juice, filled with sweet potatoes, sugar, and cinnamon. Why didn't Estonians make things like this? In every bakery in Estonia, they'll give you moskva sai and dallase sai and mooni sai and kohupiimakorpid. But nobody cares enough up north to mix whiskey and orange juice with their dough or fill their pastries with sweet potatoes. Only the Portuguese are crazy enough to do something like that.

What Tartu really needs, I decided, is a really good Portuguese bakery. Maybe I could start it. Sure, I would be a fraud, but if the 19th century Estonian writer Viidri Välma could take a German as his wife and be known to the world as 'Friedrich Robert Faehlmann,' then maybe I could pass as a Portuguese baker in south Estonia.

Sometimes I wonder what I will be like when I am an old man. I imagine there may be sand dunes. I can hear the Estonian being spoken around me. And now, after Ptown, I can see myself standing over a counter, kneading in the whiskey and orange juice, mixing up the cinnamon, sugar, and sweet potatoes. You have to do things that make you happy. It's like they sing out in Provincetown: You were born to be alive.

neljapäev, august 13, 2009

naistest lihtsalt

"Are you the one who ordered the blowjob?" The sultry eyed Asian hostess ran her hands over my shoulders as I shimmied into a seat besides my comrades. I was late for dinner. The restaurant was thronged with humanity. I could see why they picked the place.

"I'm too jetlagged for a blowjob," I told her. "Better just bring me the menu instead."

If I had been 15 years old, I might have blushed. But I am cruising in on 30. The word 'blowjob' to me sounds like 'pretzel' or 'anchor.' It's as desirable as a chocolate chip cookie, and I usually don't blush when someone offers me chocolate chip cookies, even if that person is a transsexual. That's what she was. A man with mascara and implants. This was a transvestite-themed restaurant in San Francisco's Mission district.

"So glad you could make it," my British comrade holds out his hand and then fills my glass with white wine. "We were beginning to worry about you."

The Britisher loves this restaurant. He comes here every time he's in town. Why, the transsexual help even know him. This married father of three gladly lets them unbutton his shirt and massage his pectoral muscles. Later on, they escort him up to the bar to do a shot out of one of their bikinis as the crowd cheers him on. By that time, we're all liquored up.

"You know, if I were really drunk, more than I am now," slurs another Britisher, "I wouldn't be able to tell that she's, you know, not really a she." He points at the cute Filipino tranny with the chocolate-colored ponytail who just gave up the shot. Now she's feeding a banana from her mocha-hued 'bosom' to a genuinely female guest at a nearby table. This guest is special: not only is she just about to turn 30, but she's also about to get married. Two bananas!

She's accompanied by genuinely female friends. It's a bachelorette party. They are real women with real boobs and rotund backsides. They are real women with master's degrees in linguistics and area studies. They'll tell you about the plight of the Peruvian sweatshop workers, or their work to create clean energy jobs. They drink fair trade coffee. Yes, real American women. Not men with mascara and implants.

"Those are real women," I tell the Brits. "These trannies have no cushion. It's like what that British group Spinal Tap sang about in 'Big Bottoms.'"

"Those girls are ugly," my comrade declares. "And Spinal Tap were not real Englishmen," his lips shrivel. "They were Americans."

Some American ladies of my generation like to celebrate their impending marriages in the company of transsexuals. I've been to places like this in New York before. They are always chocked full of bachelorettes. They seem to be ridiculing gender stereotypes of the 1950s. The problem is that nobody in the audience was actually alive in the Eisenhower era. We must familiarize ourselves with the old stereotypes in order to mock them. This is the mindfuck of the liberal arts.

"Do they turn you on?" I remember one of the New Yorkers asking me about the men in mascara.

"No," I told her. I remember she was big all around, a real woman shaped like the Liberty Bell.

"Are you sure? You can tell me." She was puzzled. How could it be? I mean, the 'waitresses' did look like Barbie.

If instead I had confessed to her that I really did like transsexuals, maybe she would have let me crawl up in her lap and given me comfort. "I can't help it," I would sob, "they look so real." "That's ok, sweety," she would stroke my head like a wounded animal, "you're not alone."

But if I had confessed that I was secretly attracted to her, her Liberty Bell shape, all that estrogen swimming around, if I had pulled the curtain back and revealed all that ugly biology to her, she would have made quickly for the door, her face contorted, mouthing, "the horror, the horror," like Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now.

This is the mystery of American sexuality. These are the issues with which we grapple, the incomplete feminist upheaval, the aborted sexual revolution, the poorly defined notion of desirability, fed by a Hollywood that tells you that if one puts some makeup on a man and give him implants, he's attractive. Like us stupid American guys can't smell the difference. And they wonder why we run away in droves to Europe to rejoice in post-feminist bliss, to bathe ourselves in the blue lagoon of nature, where a man is attracted to a woman because ... she's a woman.

"A Swedish woman expects her mate to do 50 percent of the work," my friend Ingmar once told me. "If you only do 49 percent one day, then you're on your own."

See, clearly defined rules. I may be American, but I can follow rules. I am frequently asked why, why do so many foreign guys wind up with Estonian women? Is it because they look like Barbie? No, it's because they abide by stated rules. These American Odysseuses were lost on the jagged postmodernist seas of transvestite pirates and college-educated harpies. Then one day they washed up in the soothingly geometric cities of Northern Europe. Like a well-played game of the videogame Tetris, the shapes fit. At last, everything fell into place.

"How was the shot?" I ask my British friend as he returns to the table from his conquest.

"Frothy," he grins. I think I know why he's so happy. They just don't do it like this out in the Midlands. He's like Walter Raleigh or Francis Drake: an intrepid explorer. He speaks the local languages, can tell a breadfruit from a pineapple. He's worldly. This Britisher speaks San Franciscan.

According to Jüri Estam, Estonia is "bleeding brides to the West." Inga is one of them. She calls the San Francisco Bay home, but she grew up in Ida Virumaa. She says she's from Jõhvi, but, according to Inga, most people in that area claim to be from Jõhvi, even if they only go to school there or pass through on their way to work. Nobody wants to be from Kohtla-Järve. Jõhvi it is.

Inga's pinginaaber at one point was Kristiina Ojuland. For Estonians, the pinginaaber – your bench mate in school – is an institution of intimacy. The pinginaaber knows everything about you, your fashion catastrophes and high school crushes. If you fall anywhere on Earth at any time, your pinginaaber will be there to catch you. And so it is between Inga and Estonia's new representative in Brussels.

"Ojuland?" I say. "Didn't I see her on Dancing with the Stars?"

"Kristiina doesn't take shit from anybody," says Inga of her friend's relationship with fame. We're crawling across San Francisco. It's the night after my encounter with the transsexuals. "I don't care what anybody says about her. She's successful and she deserves it."

Sometimes it seems in Estonia that Ojuland is everywhere. I once shared a plane with her. Another time I bumped into her at Abakhan Fabrics. Then there was that encounter at the foreign ministry. You can't go berry picking in north Estonia, without coming home with a bucket full of Kristiina.

"I remember some of the local journalists liked to run her photo," I say. "They had a thing for her."

Inga looks away in disgust. "The reason you saw her at Abakhan is because she makes her own clothes," she pivots. "She's always been her own boss. The teachers in school gave up on her. They punished others for trying to act the same way she did. There was no use in trying to tame Kristiina."

Ida Viru ladies like Inga and Kristiina walk the tightrope between east and west. They grew up in a soup of population transfer and multilingualism. Many of them come from mixed families. Who is an Estonian? Who is a 'Russian'? And where, perchance, are the elusive 'Soviet people'?

I personally don't care who you are. If you claim to be Estonian, then I'll vouch for your self-diagnosis. I'm fine, so long as you don't soak me with 'great Soviet Union' nostalgia, with sepia-toned yearning for the years of the Politburo gerontocracy and the wild parties and ice cream orgies at Jurmala. Like an old hombre down on his luck, the Soviet dreamers still slip a wrinkled dollar into a Saloon jukebox and request Bryan Adams' "Summer of '69." You told me it would last forever, they tell Brezhnev's ghost as their tears drip into their beer foam, those were the best days of my life.

Brezhev's ghost was not to be found at the North Beach Saloon later that night, just old sinewy gray ladies who looked as if they had been high every day since that first Country Joe and the Fish concert back in '66. They've been living the 'style so long, they've become Hippie incarnate. Their brains are made of hemp. Patchouli oil flows in their veins. Their eyes tear LSD. The San Francisco grannies have come to see a co-ed blues band, one with a female guitarist and bassist, or at least, musicians that appear to be female — you can never be sure in this city.

The horn player starts bearing his soul, the girlie rhythm section kicks in, and I am overcome by Delta blues melancholia. I am saturated with guilt. Poor Inga, poor Kristiina, I rub my face. Poor Ida Viru girls growing up at Fast Times at Lenin High, contending with male pig dogs everywhere, male pig dogs that only know them for their dance moves or put them on the cover of their newspaper because they look nice.

But it doesn't matter, because they are Estonian soul sisters, pinginaabrid. They stand back to back, pistols out, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. One of them lines the haters up, and the other one mows them down. Never mess with an Estonian woman, these northern birds caution, or you'll wind up with her pinginaaber's mushrooming knife in your back.


The night before, we left the cross-dressers at the Asian restaurant and ensconced at a trendy bar down the street, one with soft red lighting and gurgling electronic music. We were served by a real woman this time. There were no offers of blowjobs or pectoral massages; no bananas or frothy shots. I ordered club soda though, lest I pass out in the Brits' laps.

"Did you see the photos of Putin in Siberia?" asks one. He's not really English but Scottish. And not really Scottish but Glaswegian. He's from Glasgow.

"You mean Genghis Putin?" I remark. "Vladimir Khan?"

"He just can't keep his shirt on," he says. "Is that some kind of Russian thing?"

"The Russian ladies adore him. He's in good shape and he's not a drunk. He's their ideal man."

"Are there a lot of drunks in Russia or something?" he asks.

Are there drunks in Russia? Are there stars in the sky? I want to tell him. Though I have never been to Russia, I have heard the screams of the hungover from across the border. Hell, the Estonian drunks even built a pipe across the Narva River to funnel moonshine from our neighboring Putinate.

"Are there a lot of drunks in Scotland?" I counter.

He shakes his head. "No drunks," he says. "None at all. We all get on just fine."

"Functional alcoholics then."

"Aye, functional alcoholics," he nods. "That better describes us. I have done some business with Estonians. They seem a bit like Russians, but they make it very clear that they are not. Just a wee bit different."

"It's like the Irish and the Brits," I tell him. "Would you dare call U2 a British rock band?"

"No," he shudders. "Never."

"Besides, they are different," I pull out my identity card, my isikutunnistus. "Here, try and read this."

He holds it up to the candle light. "What's that say?"

"Ameerika Ühendriigid," I tell him. "The Unites States of America."

"I've never seen a language like this."

I'm pleased. Never again will this one soul mistake Estonians for Russians again; only several billion more souls to go. "It's like Finnish. Know any Finnish?"

He shakes his head in the swirl of red lights and electronic music. Frothy shots from transvestites? Genghis Putin? Ameerika Ühendriigid? It's more than he bargained for on a Thursday night. I feel like a guy with an odd hobby, an insidious stamp collector, a bird-watching savant, or reclusive spelunker. Then I realize I am in the company of British molecular biologists.

I stagger back to my French hotel and take the lift up to the sixth floor. Each floor is decorated with the artwork of one artist. Chagall's on four. Toulouse-Latrec is on two. Mine's Modigliani. Sprawled across every wall are nude French women from 1918. 1918! The year one. Nude after nude after nude after nude. Breasts and blank stares. Women thrown across beds or seated stoically in chairs. That's all Modigliani could paint. Give a Parisian a paint brush, and he'll give you a naked woman.

"This Modigliani's on to something," I think as I tuck myself into bed. "Maybe I should get myself one of his coffee table books."

esmaspäev, august 10, 2009

vähi pöörijoon

When my cousin flew from Las Vegas to New York last year, airport security was waiting for him at the arrival gate. He was stoned out of his mind and had been watching a boxing match on his personal TV on the airline JetBlue. So invigorated by the stunning camera work and liquid human motion was he, that my cousin began to box the seat in front of him with his fists, annoying his fellow passengers, and he was eventually escorted out of JFK by security and banned from JetBlue for life.

I thought about my cousin as our plane glided across the country this week. The two passengers seated beside me -- a man and a woman, both middle aged -- were following a New York Yankees - Boston Red Sox game with passion. As I tried to traverse one of Tropic of Cancer's thick interior chapters, they yelled at the miniature umpire on the screen or clapped their hands when someone scored. Yes, there was a loud little baseball game going on in row 6. The flight attendants were passing out concessions. The crowd smelled blood. As our plane approached our destination I wondered, if you can get banned from an airline for being a boxing enthusiast, can they also ban you for being a baseball fan?


It took a long time for our luggage to snake through the organs of the airport. I was hungry and thought of the mouthwatering cafeteria I passed upstairs before descending to the baggage claim. Here there were limited opportunities to find nourishment, unless sustenance meant donuts or candy bars. Up there one could eat passable Mediterranean or Asian food. When I approached the door to the escalators I met a security guard.

"Can I go back upstairs to the cafeteria? I am really hungry."

"What does the sign say?" she swallowed once, wrinkled her nose, and looked at her shoes.

"What sign?"

She pointed to a small red sign on the glass door. No Entry.

"Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't see it," I said.

She said nothing and looked away again. I felt so sorry to trouble her. Terribly sorry. If only I had seen that little red sign and not bothered her. Ashamed, I found relief at a nearby bookstore, tinkering with a new book on how childhood memories define who we are. According to some of the useful charts, older siblings are more responsible and ambitious, while younger siblings like me are more entertaining and carefree. For every Bill Clinton, there's a Roger Clinton, according to the author, or, for you Estonian readers, for every Rein Raud, there's a Mihkel Raud.

The night before started at a German restaurant called Suppenküche in San Francisco where I ate schnitzels and slammed beers with Mike and Inga, an Estonian-American couple. I was desperate to talk about the Second World War in a Teutonic joint like that, but somehow I felt like if you mentioned totaler krieg in such a boisterous establishment, you deserved a swift kick in the pants.

"Nobody ever changes," Inga opined after a few beers. "My son, he's 20 years old, but he's the same as he was when he was two." She sipped her beer again. "The girls at work think their boyfriends will change. They say, 'He'll mature.' But he's never going to mature, honey. He's always going to be that way because nobody ever changes."

Everybody dumps their personal problems on Inga. She says she's like a greasy goose, the water just slides right off her back. It's all just water, and Inga never gets wet. We got another round of beers and I raised my glass.

"Elagu eesti!" I proclaimed.

"You're more Estonian than you know," Inga said. "You're like half Estonian and your wife is half American."

I don't even know who or what I am anymore. Not an American. Not a European. Not a New Yorker nor a Tartlane. It's all just water. It rolls off my back. Later that night we are joined by some old college friends in North Beach. I haven't seen them since I left university. Now they work for the unions, though none of them are steel workers or carpenters. But they love unions. In fact, one of them is doing his master's on Brazilian steel worker unions. Lula is his God. He's from Missouri but now speaks Portuguese and has lived in São Paulo. I order cannollis and limoncellos, talking about a Noor Eesti poet.

"I can't help it, I love crazy writers," I explained my selection in mate. "In class, we were shown a photo of Marie Hedberg. I saw her face and I felt that I knew her. I thought, 'What is it about this woman? Why do I feel drawn to her?' Then the professor told us she had schizophrenia and died in a mental institution. And I said, 'Ah, now that explains everything!'"

I've been to this restaurant before. The manager's name is Giovanni. He sings along to Andrea Bocelli or Renato Carosone tunes. I am the only one at the table who knows "Tu Vuo' Fa' L'Americano." I am pleased because Giovanni's limoncello tastes only a little better than mine. I fantasize about becoming a limoncello magnate. I would use Estonian vodka, of course, because it's the best in the world. Typically, I use Saaremaa. It's accessible; not for snobs.

Inga's husband Mike is a chameleon. With a big bushy mustache and broad smile, he could be anything. If he told me he was a German, I could picture him in leiderhosen. A Frenchman? Just add a beret. A Mexican? Give him a sombrero and he's the boss at the hacienda. Japanese? Well, he does belong to a San Franciscan sake club. Mike's older. He knows things. He's been places.

"I saw Van Halen, before and after," he informs us.

"Before what?" I ask.

"I mean with David Lee Roth and with Sammy Hagar."

"What did you think?"

"They were both good," he meditates. "In their own ways."

David Lee versus Sammy. Estonia versus America. West Coast versus East Coast. From JFK, I traveled to Penn Station. With a half hour to kill I tried to find dinner. My trick in locating suitable food is to look at who is standing in line. The problem in Penn Station is that all the people are enormous. I spied a woolly mammoth in front of the hot dog stand, a pack of polar bears buying pizza. And then there were the blue whales with their buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken. At last I saw a cafe that looked vaguely European: Au Bon Pain.

I picked out a chicken asiago salad wrap and cranberry juice. I handed it to the cashier who was talking to her friend. After a few moments I noticed that the cash register had a number on it: $9.83.

"So does my food cost $9.83?" I interrupted the cashier and her friend.

"What?" she looked at me.

"Does my food cost $9.83?"

"Oh, yeah," with an absent stare she checked the register.

I handed her my card, she swiped it, and handed me the receipt, all while continuing her conversation with her friend. They were talking about boys. I felt as if we had traded places, as if I somehow for a second had become the cashier at Au Bon Pain, informing myself how much my food cost. I could have stamped my own drink card. Thanked myself for shopping. Maybe if I had some useful relationship advice, I figured, I might have been a more attractive customer.

In Estonia, it's different. Paying at a cash register is a high-intensity affair. There's the frenetic ringing up of items, the question of whether or not you have a discount card, the queries on how much change you may or may not have in your wallet to make the transaction as efficient as possible, and, finally, the rabbit-quick deposits in and out of the clinical plastic dish, the pressure from the drunks behind you to hurry it up so that they can pay for their liquid breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

In New York, its best not to trouble the security guards or cashiers with your queries. Read the signs. Read the registers. Do it yourself.


"So I was like and she was like and we were like and like and like and like like like ..."

They were American girls on a train in Secaucus, New Jersey. The final leg of my journey was nearly over. I couldn't understand what they were talking about, but I knew it was infectious. If I stayed on that train with them, it could happen to me, and soon I would be like and they would be like, and we would all be like like like like.

On the train before, I had a riveting dialog with a Nigerian about music and weather and life and stuff. I felt like Femi was my African brother. We could talk all night about West Africa, about the Anglophone and Francophone countries, and, if things got more personal, broach the topic of religious strife. He's a Nigerian San Franciscan. It's always all cool. I wasn't worried about his laid back African attitude seeping into my soul. But the Jersey like girls? They were dangerous. I could enjoy Nigeria. I didn't want to become Secaucus. Have I become Estonia already? Is it in my Elagu eesti?

People ask me funny questions about Estonia. "I'm afraid of going to Eastern Europe," a colleague confessed in Silicon Valley. She's going to Tallinn for a conference next month. "I'm afraid of the crime."

"The only criminals you have to watch out for there in Tallinn are Brits attending stag parties," I told her.

"I resent that," said a third colleague from London.

"That's how it is," I tell him. Maybe he believes me. He said its hard to be English in America. Everyone either thinks you're a villain or gay, like Morrissey or Andy Bell or Boy George or George Michael or Neil Tennant or.

"Gay?" I believe him. Americans are a bit hung up on sexuality. They smolder about health care reform. They erupt over gay marriage. Everyone has to have a well-refined opinion on these topics. You must consume and consume information, then offer up some witty insight to the never-ending math equations of the day. One simply cannot avoid it. You must participate.

"Is Estonia developed?" asks another colleague. I tell him yes and no. The kids all have wireless. They can take digital photos with their eyes and upload them to Flickr telepathically. But vanaema and vanaisa are still out in the outhouse, partying like its 1939. I've become the bearer of the Two Estonias. I tell the people what Ivari Padar wants them to hear. I'm a sots.
I hate the street people and desperately want them to stop bugging me for change. They call government handouts entitlement, but aren't I entitled to not being stuck up for a quarter everytime I use public transportation? Mayor Bloomberg, I adopt the same tone with which Reagan told Gorbachev to tear down that wall, give these people some frigging quarters.

It's getting late as our train winds north. I let all the water roll off my back and shut up and eat my sandwich. Who am I? Just a writer. A greasy goose. It's just me, the night, my jetlag, and Tropic of Cancer. To me, it's the last book, the coup de grâce. It's colossally pretentious and yet I feel as if I wrote it. It shatters me.

reede, august 07, 2009


Plastic utensils, plastic drink containers, paper napkins sealed in plastic; every meal is disposable, you can only hope that someone somewhere sorts this junk, because there is no other place where to put it other than in the trash.

Not that I am angry about those vanilla frappuccinos or falafel salads or spinach-feta wraps I consumed en masse upon arrival to the United States this week; they were all quite tasty, a welcome respite from the ubiquitous saiakesed of Eestimaa. But my revulsion to clinical plastic ware confirms the diagnosis: I've become a filthy European.

I had the misfortune of catching a glimpse of FOX News' Sean Hannity on TV while I was in search of child-friendly cartoons at the hotel. All it took was that brief exposure and the poison of the cable news channels consumed me, a rush of shit to the head.

To balance a nanosecond of FOX's Hannity, I had to watch 10 minutes of MSNBC's Keith Olbermann. Hannity's casus belli is liberal hypocrisy. Olbermann's is conservatives – the worst people in the world. My brain's gone soft on Estonian political discourse. America's cable news blood sport is too much. I hold the cool plastic of an iced frappuccino to my temples to soothe the pain.

Today's shouting match is about health care reform. For me, the idea that we still don't insure all our people is a stain on our American nationality, nay, our Westernness. Most other Western democracies do it. We don't. Why? Is it because we are exceptional? Just like we don't buy into the metric system or learn second languages, we don't guarantee you the right to a bed if you get sick?

Maybe we're still Anglos deep down. In the same way that our British cousins can extricate themselves from being Europeans, Americans can convince themselves that everything is fine with a system where a sizable chunk of the population isn't covered. It's your own damn fault is a resilient strain of American thought. Maybe we have not yet come to see ourselves as a country because there's always more where we came from. If we run out of healthy people, there are always more over the border. We're disposable. Use us once. Throw us away.