reede, november 06, 2009


"My people were entirely Nordic, which is to say idiots. Every wrong idea that has been expounded was theirs ... They were painfully clean ... After dinner the dishes were promptly washed and put back in the closet; after the paper was read, it was neatly folded and laid away on the shelf ... Everything was for tomorrow, but tomorrow never came."

I am digging through Tropic of Capricorn and I am reminded of my neighbors. They are all Estonians, eestlased, every single one of them. I don't know most of their names. Maybe they know mine, but they never use it. We only see one another when we are working outdoors, because that's all Estonians do outdoors. If they see me working, they look genuinely pleased and grunt out jõudu, which means "strength." Then I grunt back tarvis, which means "needed," and continue moving. There must be constant movement.

An Estonians' idea of a good time is digging up root vegetables or examining fallen apples for worm holes or bruises. When an Estonian wants to relax, he grabs two poles and goes for a walk. It's called "Nordic walking." All across the country you can see them, poling down some highway, their neatly hung reflectors glimmering in the flash of headlights, a catatonic expression on their Finno-Ugric faces.

The odd thing is that I want to join them because they look so satisfied with themselves. It's the Estonian smug. It hangs in the air, caressing the islands' coasts and blanketing the drumlins and potato fields and berry patches and apple orchards and country lakes. You can't escape the smug. You breathe it in through each nostril, and after awhile you are patting yourself because the state in which you dwell is not dead last, ie. Latvia. As long as Estonia continues to measure its success by comparing itself to Latvia, then the air is likely to be choked with smug. It's in all the weather reports. It'll be 10 below tomorrow with a 99 percent chance of smug.

I've tried to fit in as best I can. I spent last weekend raking frosted leaves and examining frozen apples for worm holes. And yet, at some point, I got tired and I made for our hammock and just couldn't help but to collapse into it, to lay there with the November sun on my face, to feel my heavy body suspended in air, to relax and breath and feel human, to savor the pleasures of existence. I was almost smiling when I suddenly realized that one of my neighbors might spy me slacking off, so I leaped out of the hammock and was back scavenging for apples in no time.

You may think I've become neurotic, northern Estonian. But then I caught my neighbor patrolling the front yard at dusk to make sure that every stray leaf had been raked and removed to the backyard to be burned. His yard is tip top. Ours? Well, let's just say that ours is getting there. I saw the Estonian neighbor crane his neck around, too, while he was on leaf patrol. He gave our yard a quick inspection, like I could work with all that smug in the air, stinging my lungs. And I knew what he was thinking. Italians. Lazy, sloppy, careless Italians. It doesn't matter if I've got an American passport or an Estonian wife. Our work is tainted by our Mediterranean work ethic. It's in the amount of olive oil we consume. We're not real northerners. We're something else.


What is the defining attribute of a northern country? Social capital? Gender equality? Personal happiness? No. The defining characteristic of northern countries is the cold. Supposedly it is 10 below outside. All I know is that Kuperjanovi Street in Tartu might as well cross the face of the moon.

The cold wrestles with you. Your fingers and toes burn with blue, every digit succumbing to the pain. Your teeth chatter and your eyes glaze over, but that's nothing compared to your chest, which shakes and rattles like a busted carburetor. It's brutal what the cold does to you. People wonder why Estonians seem so immune to it all. There's a reason for it; every winter they fight a personal war with winter, beset by a hostile climate that seems bent on eradicating all signs of life from the face of the earth.

The Estonians have a saying: there is no such thing as the wrong weather, only the wrong clothes. Well, gloves, hat, scarf, thermal wear -- it's really nothing up here at night. Your fingers atrophy and your eyes hollow out and your chest shakes in anger as it tries to adjust to the temperature. And then to make it worse, you notice an Estonian guy parading down the street without a hat on, or the sight of an Estonian gal in a short skirt taking money from an ATM, oblivious to her environment. Estonians are fashionable people, you see. They don't let little things like Arctic temperatures stand between them and looking good.

There are only a handful of remedies for this kind of weather. One's alcohol. Another's chocolate. I've been leaning on chocolate. Supposedly, it fires up the neurons. All I can say is, fire away! Chocolate. It keeps you moving. It quickens your pace while you do yard work. But I ate 200 grams of it the other day in one helping and it went right through me. I even ate more. No effect. I've eaten so much chocolate recently I have had to compensate by joining a gym. And in the gym I found a third remedy for the cold: a sauna.

Saunas are magical places. They can cure any ache or pain. Broken arm? Go sit in the sauna awhile. It'll heal more quickly. I always thought that saunas were just for fun, a sort of outdoor pub for woodsy drunks. I've come to learn that, during the winter at least, a long stew in the sauna is exactly what you need to defrost those frigid digits. You can cancel out the damage done by the northern climate in a sauna. By exposing yourself to extreme cold outside, and extreme heat in the sauna, you may finally arrive at a normal body temperature. Or so the logic goes.

But what of summer saunas? Now that's interesting. If winter saunas are therapeutic, then summer saunas are like Woodstock. There's nothing but nudity, lake swimming, and cool vibes, man. You sit there covered in sweat and silt, and feel as if you are truly one with nature, as if you should have moss for eyebrows and snails hanging from every appendage. In fact, after a co-ed sauna in the summer, it's kind of hard to justify wearing clothes anymore. I mean, if you've already seen everybody in their birthday suit, and it's hot out, then, what exactly is the point of wearing trousers?

One July day, I asked our friend Mart why people sauna in the summer. I told him I understood the rationale behind winter saunas, but wasn't quite sure what purpose summer saunas served. It was hot already. Why get purposefully hotter? Could it be just for fun? No. There had to be some really good Estonian reason like, "It helps us work harder."

Mart's eyes bulged at the question as if to say Does not compute. In reality, he just repeated my words back to me. "Why do people sauna in summer?" I remember the puzzled expression on his face as he said it. He was stunned. I could have asked him why he breathes air or why he sleeps at night. But he might have actually had reasonable explanations for those activities. But why sauna in the summer, when it's hot? What a silly question. Mart shot an odd look at me again, then took another sip of his beer. He never answered.


Onu Leo gave up the ghost on Halloween. 80 years old. For years he'd been in and out of hospitals. And yet when I met him last year, the only time I actually met him, he was in good spirits. He was born in the year of a great global financial crisis and he died in the year of a great global financial crisis. But it probably didn't faze him. These old Estonians don't worry themselves with the world. They are simply content. They are content to eat and drink and read and sleep and wake and live. I envy them.

The funeral took place at a wooded grove in the outskirts of Tartumaa. Tall pines reach up into the heavens there. Small, modest stones mark the graves of the departed. Even in this weather, Leo had an outdoor funeral. He was laid out in a small, half-open stone house. Relatives and friends gathered around and sang songs about candles and angels and heaven. There was a long speech about Leo's life. He was a good worker. An industrious man. I didn't know how to feel there. Another person I know is dead. Leo's granddaughter cried though. She sobbed. She really loved the guy.

I envied her expression of emotion. When my grandfather dropped dead almost 14 years ago, I didn't shed a tear. Not one drop. I was numb during the whole thing and felt like a real shithead because of it. I wish I could have been like Leo's granddaughter, open about my feelings. But for some reason, I feel uncomfortable at funerals. Maybe it's the lousy music.

Still, as I watched Onu Leo's relatives cry, my eyes moistened, and my mood turned somber. I thought about how Leo was someone's son, brother, father, and grandfather. I thought about how, 80 years from now, towards the end of this century, people will be gathering around to say goodbye to the babies of today. I decided that there was still a bit of humanity left in me after all.

The pallbearers bore Leo's coffin to his final place of rest, below a giant pine. After he was lowered in, and a few more songs were sung, the vicar invited able-bodied men to grab a shovel and finish the job. I was surprised, but accepted the offer. Six or so shovels lay beside mounds of dirt. I grabbed one, and we began to fill in the hole. When dirt hits a coffin, it makes an uncomfortable "thwumpf" sound. After the coffin was covered though, we began to fill the gaping hole in the earth at a rapid pace. I was thinking of Siberia while I was doing it, how men like Leo's father, Aleksander, who spent 10 years in that rotten Russian hellhole, must have felt as they worked with others to move soil. And I liked the feeling. It felt right. I felt as if, even though I had only known Leo for one day, I was doing him a favor. It was up to us to tuck him into eternal rest.

The reception was held at a nearby hotel. We sat at a long table, and shot glasses were filled with vodka. Then Leo's oldest son stood and thanked everyone and lifted his glass in memory of his father, for whom a seat was left empty at the table. The funny thing about Leo is that his father was Russian and his wife was an Ingrian Finn. So these people are actually only one-quarter Estonian, and yet their language, their customs, everything about them follows the description of classical Estonian literature. Whenever I hear the term "ethnic Estonian," I chuckle and think of families like these.

Estonian parties are dreadfully predictable. At first, nobody talks. No one. After some alcohol is consumed, there will be some light chatter. That's it. And then comes the dreadfully predictable food. What will it be this time? I asked myself. Pork and potatoes or potatoes and pork? But those schnitzels were delicious. And the sauerkraut? It hit the spot. Of course, afterward, when my belt was about to burst, they brought out the kringel, covered with chocolate and laden with raisins. I ate some of that, too. By this time, conversations approached what I considered to be a normal volume. Yeah, you can really get fat in Estonia. All the more reason to have a gym membership.

After dessert, Leo's son approached me and gripped my hand.

"Do they do it different in America?" he asked.

"How did you know I'm from America?"

"I know," Leo's son grinned but didn't let go of my hand.

"I've never done any digging before," I mustered. "And, of course, the songs are different."

"We should get together some other time, in happier circumstances," Leo's son tightened his grip. "We can have a drink and go to sauna."