reede, oktoober 02, 2009

alati valmis

My wife sensed that our younger one had a cold coming on. The solution? Küüslauk -- garlic. But she didn't dice it up and feed it to her. No, she took a thread and stitched the slices of garlic into a necklace, which she hung around our daughter's neck to ward off evil spirits.

I never really thought of Estonians as the folksy east European gypsies one might encounter in 19th century British literature. They always struck me as slow and steady northern peninsula people with marvelous cheekbones. But the natural remedies they push anytime anyone gets sick makes me think twice. Maybe the garlic serves other, unspoken purposes.

I fell ill on the 20th, the day before my father's 62nd birthday. In Estonian, they call what I got angiin -- which should correspond to the English 'angina' but means something entirely different. My angiin meant acute tonsillitis plus four days of aches, pains, and recurring fevers. For those few days, all I could do is gurgle in a voice that, to me, sounded a bit too much like Humphrey Bogart's, and ask my abikaasa -- spouse -- to bring me some more throat-soothing Coldrex and Theraflu.

"Thanks for the Theraflu," I would murmur to my abikaasa. "Here's looking at you, kid."

Theraflu was the only kind of remedy I received that came in a paper box. The rest was straight from the garden. On the morning I fell ill we were in Karksi, a small town on the Latvian border where my wife's people dwell. Somehow my wife's cousin Helina got word that I was in bad shape. I was dispatched to see her mother, Randi, who had some ideas about how to mend me.

In Randi's kitchen I was given astelpaju berries mixed with honey. I have only encountered astelpaju derivatives -- jams, juices, et cetera -- in Estonia. In English, it's called sea-buckthorn, but I don't recall ever seeing sea-buckthorn juice on sale in Manhattan. Maybe it is, in some organic grocery in the East Village. But it's not the kind of thing you find in your American grandma's kitchen, which is a shame because it's supposedly high in anti-oxidants and vitamin C.

Astelpaju berries remind me of cranberries, just as powerful but lighter and softer and sweeter in every other way. While I swallowed the astelpaju and honey, I told Randi about a remedy I had seen for prostatitis at a country fair -- dead wasps floating in vodka. Supposedly, the double-punch of insect venom and vodka would wipe any prostate clean of invaders. I didn't try it though. You can question my masculinity all you want -- I'm not one for drinking dead bee juice.

Randi made for me something entirely different -- chopped onions and garlic in a jar.

"You should wait awhile until the syrup rises," she said, holding the jar of chopped alliaceae before me in the kitchen sunlight. "Then you have to take it. Three spoonfuls a day."

Mick, Randi's British beau entered the kitchen. His real name's Michael, but in Estonia it helps to have an Estonian name. Mick, or Mikk rather, it is. They met while she was working in the UK. Mick's the same age as my father. I am always intrigued by these guys -- the young men of the 1960s. I imagine that Mick was there on Carnaby Street in '67 with Dr. Strangelove and Austin Powers. Everything was just shagadelic and groovy, and people were guzzling beers out of those old-fashioned tall containers and smoking because, as everyone knew back then, smoking was good for you.

"I just got a new guitar," Mick tells me. "It's called Variax -- like a variety of axes." Using his 'Variax' Mick can get the sounds of different makes of guitars -- Rickenbackers, Gibsons, Fenders. He's one of these guys that really loves guitars. I have several -- an acoustic, a classical, and an acoustic bass guitar, but I think Mick belongs to a whole other caste of musicians, the type that really loves guitars and cannot resist the temptation of acquiring a new axe. Each time they pass the window of a music shop, they inevitably fall in love. So maybe Variax is the best solution for Mick. It's like buying several guitars all at once.

When you're sick, people are nice to you but nobody wants to shake your hand. And so I waved Mick and Randi farewell as they left to go visit relatives. But the talk with Mick made me realize that it had been too long since I had played guitar. Life has a tendency to interfere with joyful activities. But music is like that. It can't let you go. When you're in, you're in for life. It's a neverending activity perpetuated by a group of enthusiasts. Sure, sometimes you slack off, but then the others remind you that you and your guitars are headed in but one direction. If you fall out of rank, they'll step in and force you to pick up the pace. "Forward!" the guitarists charge, axes in hand, eager to conquer the world of sound. "Edasi!"


Later that day, we arrived in Suure-Jaani, the seat of my wife's childhood. Everytime we go to Viljandimaa, there are always little stories that pop up. The bubbles of memories just can't be suppressed. It's just pop, pop, pop. Here's the school house that my father-in-law attended a billion years ago as a child. And that's where my wife's grandfather was a school director. And over there, that's the place where one time ...

We had watched a film on Soviet Estonia a few nights back. It was filmed probably in the mid-1970s, but to me, as an American, the haircuts and clothing dated to 1964. There's a weird lag in time between American and Soviet styles. You think that somewhere in Los Angeles they came up with that look around the time of the Kennedy assassination and it took a whole decade for it to reach Main Street USSR.

In the film young Pioneers waded down the aisle of a gathering where they spouted Communist slogans and then, in a militaristic way, put their hands up and proclaimed that they were alati valmis -- always ready -- to defend their socialist superstate from the imperialists with their platform shoes and Mott the Hoople LPs.

My wife was one of those children. They used to have to sing songs about Lenin in school. Lenin. It's been 90 years and I still can't believe they killed the tsar and his family. I mean, ok, they killed the tsar. But his four daughters? Anastasia, Tatiana, Olga, and Maria - executed by one Yakov Yurovsky, later chief of the Soviet State Treasury. Yakov Sverdlov approved their execution. For that and other accomplishments, the city of Ekaterinburg was renamed Sverdlovsk in his honor in 1924. It reverted to its original name in 1991. But they sang songs to Lenin. And if you ask most Estonians of that generation today, Brezhnev's kids, they look back on their bizarre Red youth with a certain nostalgia.

I actually drove to Viljandi from Karksi, keeping an ill-man's pace on the Viljandimaa roads. But Epp's brother Aap had to take over for the trek from Viljandi to Suure-Jaani. Fortunately, Estonia's asshole drivers tend to stick to the Tallinn-Tartu road. We made it to Helle's apartment in one piece, but the first thing I did was make for the spare bedroom and collapse into delirium and pain.

This is the first bed I slept in when I moved to Estonia back in early 2003. That day was cold and life obliterating. I'll never forget how I walked on the ice with Epp towards her aunt Helle's place from the bus stop and took a spill on the frozen blackness, my whole body sliding down part of the street. Man, that was rough. But at least I was well back then. This time I was sick.

I guess my fellow travelers grasped by this point that I was done for. All Helle could do is pile blankets on me and keep her fingers crossed. There's nothing like having your wife's aunt tuck you in and bring you tea. Talk about extended family. "You actually care about me?" you ponder as she lays another blanket on top. "You care if I am well or sick?"

But Estonians care. If you get sick, there is a group effort to get you well. Aunt Randi contributed the garlic and onions and astelpaju. Aunt Helle kicked in the blankets and teas. And the next day, back in Tartu, I got a phone call. A phone call from Laine.

"Epp's downstairs," I croaked to her. I always have a hard time talking to Laine and Karl -- Epp's grandmother and grandfather. Maybe it's because I am insecure about my linguistic abilities. But their language is different. It's not the clipped, decipherable Estonian that you hear on the radio. It's this meandering stream of vowels and consonants, where the grammar is otherworldy. Somewhere in the back of my head, my brain is still deconstructing those phrases and reassembling them in English. I don't notice it, but it creates a slight strain on my thought process.

"But I didn't call to talk to Epp," Laine said. "We were worried about you. How are you doing?"

Worried about me? I was shocked. "I can barely talk," I told her of my condition. "But I don't have a fever right now."

"You should drink hot teas," said Laine. "Lots of hot teas." In the background, I heard Papa Karl mutter something. "Papa recommends hot milk," Laine added. "He says hot milk with honey works best."

That night I wished my father a happy birthday via Skype. I could see my unshaven, pärslane image on the screen of the laptop. I looked bad. And, you know, I was supposed to go on a business trip to the UK the next morning. I kept thinking that the illness would pass, but my wife pulled the plug on the whole thing as I lay in bed, molested by changes in body temperature.

"You're not going," she decided. "I spoke with the doctor. She said there's no way you can travel like this."

Could you imagine what would have happened if I went? If I had gotten to Stansted, sweating from illness, unable to talk because of the angiin. They would ask me how long I intended to stay in the UK, and I would respond in sign language or scratch them a few sentences on a sheet of paper. Maybe they would have denied me entrance, or shipped me off to wither away in some British hospital. It certainly pays to have an abikaasa. Someone who can talk sense into you. Someone who knows when it's time to cancel the business trip. Someone who brings you teas when you are down.

But still, hot teas? Garlic and onion syrup? Milk with honey? It was like firing arrows at a destroyer. The next day a doctor was called to the house. Heavy duty antibiotics were prescribed. We were going to napalm the shit out of my illness. No germ would be spared. It was curtains for angiin. Die, you bastards, die. It took two days, but finally the beast was subdued. I could swallow again. Given some time, I might even return to something resembling 'normal.'

I still don't feel that I am there yet.


As the autumn light filtered through the windows, I recovered and watched the news on TV or read newspapers and books. I have to admit it, I like Jüri Pihl, see mees kes teab ja välja veab. That's the electoral slogan of the Social Democrats -- it means that he knows things and fixes mistakes. I'm not really sure what he knows or doesn't know. I just like him because he seems amused whenever he is interviewed.

During one program, the reporters asked the Tallinn city council candidates random questions as part of a poll, things like, 'How much does a liter of vodka cost?' And there was Jüri, looking amused. "Everyone knows that a liter of vodka costs between 120 and 180 krooni" he shook his head from side to side, apparently entertained. And he was right. He got the most questions correct out of all the other candidates. It's like they say, Jüri teab ja välja veab. I guess that after decades in the security services, getting asked dumb questions by reporters is amusing.

But mostly I spent my recovery with Haruki Murakami and his book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. Not that I am about to pick up running. Murakami says that certain bodies, like his, are designed for traveling long distances via athletic shoes, and I've come to conclusion that my body isn't one of those bodies. Still, I enjoyed the simplicity of it all. The freedom of a mind traveling down a road, savoring ideas like the little tufts of clouds that float by above.

That's the hidden benefit of illness. Clarity. You realize that you've been spending 90 percent of your time engaged in full pursuit of counterproductive crap. You require a clean slate -- to disengage, to step back from it all, and see things as they really are. To not think in disjointed paragraphs, but to approach the world one perfectly crafted sentence at a time. It's like Jüri and the reporters. You can either be threatened by the outside world and its cascading waves of troubles, or you can enjoy it for what it is. Maybe you'll even find it amusing.

18 kommentaari:

Lingüista ütles ...

With a Russian wife and Russian in-laws, I've had a comparable experience. First, the movie with the pioniry who say alati valmis (except, of course, in Russian, vsegda gotov!), a wife who also learned to read and write under the aegis of a respectful-looking Lenin (big board in the English classroom: "Study as Lenin Studied!") and who even was a komsomolka in her mid-teens... (I tease her about that every now and then, because she's probably the most anti-communist-"ethos" person I've ever met; she answers that it was already near the end, nobody took the Komsomol seriously, it just meant surviving through a couple of stupid boring meetings and wearing a badge every now and then and getting a reccommendation on her CV, and about the vsegda gotov! gig she only giggles about how the boys gave it a different interpretation.).

As for the whole family becoming interested in your health problem (in my case, I had some kind of lung infection that produced a lot of mucus)--of course they all paid respectful attention to what the doctor said, but as soon as he left all the family babushki and tëty came to see how I was doing, armed with garchishnitsy, lots of garlic, and very specific ideas about how I should lie in bed (in what position, with how many blankets, etc.). Sincerely, I found it all both endearing and amusing, at times even quite funny. ('He did what? Went out to buy a maazine without a cap and a scarf?
In his condition? Bozhe moj! Quick, get the thermometer!')

One thing I wonder about when I think of Soviet Estonia is whether there were any differences between the ethos there and in Soviet Russia itself, or in any of the other Soviet republics. What I've seen--a few magazines from the time, photos, a few websites--sounds so similar to the Russian equivalents, you'd imagine the local culture simply had no impact whatsoever on it.

Giustino ütles ...

What I've seen--a few magazines from the time, photos, a few websites--sounds so similar to the Russian equivalents, you'd imagine the local culture simply had no impact whatsoever on it.

From what I understand, all of that stuff was scripted in Moscow. Good to know your relatives care about you, Lingüista.

Unknown ütles ...

Hi Justin,

Me: Long-time listener, first-time caller. Have you ever read anything by Mati Unt? His "Brecht ilmub öösel" was published this year as "Brecht at night", and I found it really enjoyable. Something tells me you would too. Not that I know you or anything. I've just been following your blog for, like. 18 months.

Isn't the Internets strange?

BTW, do you know of any Finnish or Swedish blogs comparable to your own? Estonia is lucky enough to have you and Vello Vikerkaar. Finland has.. Finland-for-Thought =/. What gives?

Lingüista ütles ...

Giustino, but I thought they might at least play on part of the local history and culture -- song festivals, literature, Estonian heroes, Estonian myths... But no, it was all the same. (To be fair, they didn't use any Russian motifs either, just the communist aesthetics.)

My Ukrainian relatives and I have a pretty good relationship, as such things go. After they recovered from the shock of Tanya, my wife, actually wanting to marry a foreigner (and from far-away Brazil), and after they got to meet me in person (my then future father-in-law even did have the traditional "what are your intentions for my daughter?" conversation with me), they quickly 'adopted' me.

LPR ütles ...

It's like a version of Anthony Bourdain's "No Reservations" on Travel Channel with a bit of Andy Zimmern's "Bizzare Foods" mixed sprinkled in. The kicker is that this is someone's everyday life. Keep it coming G.

Giustino ütles ...

What was really interesting is that the remedies my mother and brother in the US recommended were entirely different.

Mom told me (at least five times) to gargle with salty water. My brother told me to eat red meat because it's "high in iron" and "supplies vitamin B12, which helps make DNA and keeps nerve and red blood cells healthy, and zinc, which keeps the immune system working properly."

Giustino ütles ...

Hi Matthew,

I'll keep an eye out for that Unt book.

As for Swedish and Finnish blogs, I've got a list of some here, but, you're right, there seems to be deficiency. Finland for Thought does have some interesting analysis on occasion (I love following all the Vanhanen scandals).

The Iceland Weather Report is a really good 'Nordic' blog. Alda manages to combine her personal outlook together with political analysis and weather updates, of course. I wish there were similar blogs for Sweden and Finland. Maybe there are somewhere.

Martin-Éric ütles ...

I can really connect with your bit about longing for your guitar. Here, I long for my 6-string bass. When I was involved in "Türgi tegema" last year, one friend working at the Eesti suursaatkond in Ankara who actually is a cello player by training and I were considering putting a cello and 6-string bass duet together. My current inability to travel has put that all on ice.

As for blogging about Finland, I suppose that I've been here for so long by now that I find less and less things to blog about, probably because everything that was once odd or mysterious about this country has become a part of me in one way or another. Thus, the few things that I bother blogging about these days amount to very practical items such as the apparent contradiction between expecting everyone applying for a job in the public sector to know Swedish (in addition to Finnish) in a situation where there's no Swedish for Immigrants classes being offered via the Integration Act measures.

I suppose that going backwards to my two previous blogs, I used to be a lot more vocal about my daily life in Finland and about the charming quirks that make this country what it is.

Not anymore.

I might still get around writing a book about my first 10 years in kuradne Soome, since there's been repeated requests for this, but when it comes to my daily life, I've become as terse and resigned as the average Finn can be. I sometimes ponder whether that's a good thing or not, but then someone always gets around rousing me into attending yet another immigration policy workshop before I get around reaching a conclusion. Olkoon niin!

Martasmimi ütles ...

Giustino ütles...

9:20 AM
Sorry I told you 5 times about salt water gargle but you seemed rather out of it.

Next time you should just hang some garlic around your neck to keep the evil Tonsillitis Gremlins away...

...and the red meat idea came from your concerned brother because you are sick all of the time. You now eat a very different diet then you did when you lived here where you weren't sick all of the time.. I guess that is why he gave you his thoughts..

Eppppp ütles ...

I have not heard about red meat as remedy but the gargling with salt water is pretty common here, too - even the doctor told this.

Martasmimi ütles ...


As you know Epp we don't eat a lot of red meat but there are some healthy resons to include it in your diet.

I think it was what Ian was trying to say.....

stockholm slender ütles ...

My wife's remedy of garlic sandwich (sliced garlic on rye bread) has felt like actually working on sore throat, but there is nothing to compare with traditional Irish folk remedies - hot whiskey will keep anyone going...

LPR ütles ...

I remember seeing something on Estonian television regarding the entire country having only three pharmacies that are open for 24 hours. They are all in Tallinn. One on Tõnismägi.

Makes you wonder if they exist only for the benefit of foreigners. Ah, the foreigners, the weaklings!

Real Estonian does not drink water or take aspirin.

He'd rather go see Vigala Sass or do what Vigala Sass told him to do. Eat grass or something.


Doris ütles ...

There's also the Raekoja apteek in Tartu that's open 24/7, or was a few years ago.

also, a good old joke: What's the difference betweekn a pelmeen and a pioneer? A pioneer is always ready but you have to boil a pelmeen...

Manona ütles ...

My doctor didnt prescribe ANY antibiotics 9she said that they only would make me feel worse), but gave me this Vigala Sass´s remedy: garlic mixed with horseradish, onions, pepper and honey. I quess no bug could survive this mixture...

As in Russia: better not be sick at all. Sickness is a tool to eliminate weaks in here. ER-mobiles are stuck on traffic hours. Public healthcare is expencive, dirty and no one cares if you live or die. If hospidalised, you have to wash your own bedwear and hospidal room.

If it looks like a serious problem, then better hope there are seats for morning flight to Tallinn.

LPR ütles ...

There was some happiness poll conducted recently, said some 86% of estos are happy with their lives.

I guess people have properly calibrated expectations.

So drink kummeli tee and avoid black cats and you'll be alright.

viimneliivlane ütles ...

As with all nostalgia, the involuntary flashbacks do not mean there´s a wish for an actual rewinding to a previous time, just that there was something very wonderful going on that unfortunately couldn´t be preserved because it had to flow off with the changing times.

Indeed there was a double standard in Estonia during the occupation - the obedience to all things Lenin in public and the maintenance of all things Estonian in private. At one point Mati Unt was quick to point out that the whole country was one big underground movement. It´s no wonder that Estonians now consider Finns boring, though you can´t get over or around the fact that they are first-cousins.

When you look at faded photographs or films from the Soviet era the greyness of the 50-year occupation comes across very clearly. There seemed to be a perpetual haze because the air was badly polluted. I don´t recall any clear sunny days during my many summer visits. I fully enjoyed the rich sense of being in an underground culture while having to endure the Soviet presence and bad air. The nostalgia is neither clear nor rosy, just persistent, and certainly includes the Jüri Pihl look of ´I know all but don´t tell all.´

You’re right on the money Giustino.

Adam Mullett ütles ...


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