teisipäev, august 31, 2010

black comedy

Just passing this along:

Americans needed for Estonian feature film „Kormoranid“

We are looking for Americans or foreign people looking like Americans who would be interested of participating in a new Estonian feature film „Kormoranid“. The role will be to play companions or follower of an evengelist. No dialogue lines, we just would like you to move around on a stage and play happy Christian people.

The shooting takes place on the 1st of September in Tallinn, in Nokia Concert Hall from 10.30 – 12.30 and 21.00 – 22.30

The film „Kormoranid“ is a black comedy about a rock band which was famous in Estonia in 1970s and they are trying to make come-back nowadays. This is a funny story about the guys who never die of rock´n ´roll even though they are already 50 years old.

The directors are famous and well known Estonian film-makers Andres Maimik and Rain Tolk. They have also made the box office hit „186 kilometers“ („Jan uuspõld läheb Tartusse“).

Our team would be very very thankful if you could come!
If you are interested, please let me know as soon as possible and I will talk about the details.

Eva Kübar
„Kormoranid“ casting
+372 53 820709

laupäev, august 28, 2010

life in fiction

This is the part of our radio broadcast where we interrupt your usual programming to bring you the following message from our sponsors: Epp Petrone's debut novel in English, Around the Heart in Eleven Years, available now at an online store near you.

Officially, and personally, this is my favorite book from our publishing firm Petrone Print, but it was a bittersweet, sometimes bruising experience for me as an individual, because it is Epp's story, and Epp's story obviously has hooked me in a way that no one else's story ever did or could. I'm an addict, in other words, a junkie husband.

Its most terrifying moment? For me, it's when Jura, the Russian sailor, leads his kidnappee to a hotel and lays some currency down at the reception desk. "A room for two please."

Its most sensual moment? The sands of Gran Canaria blowing through the windows with the morning breeze. The island, that island, the volcanic magnet, bringing you in and blowing you out. It stays wih you.

Its most ridiculous moment? The voice of our young heroine as she tells the Slovenian arms dealer at a hotel in Minsk that she doesn't feel well, and won't be accompanying him to lunch.

Its most brainwashing moment? Listening to Harri Hommik, the itinerant peddler, as he explains the intricacies of fish breeding and how wars are good for genetics. If you listen long enough, you'll start to believe him, and if you listen even longer, you'll start thinking like him.

In the end, it all comes back to Eve Kivi, the Estonian sixties sex kitten. She recently gave an interview where she calmly informed the journalist that fresh sperm is her beauty secret. Other than some obvious questions -- where does a 70-year-old woman obtain regular access to fresh sperm -- I felt pangs of deep respect for Eve Kivi, because she was brave, brave enough to say the things that most people don't say, to tell, in her own way the truth.

I respect the truth, because we all live the truth but often conceal it from one another. And so I respect and encouraged this book, even if some of it is rough going, because to me, Epp's story is not just her story, it is the story, in different ways, of many people, and it needs telling. We, at least we writers, need to tell the truth. Only through these coded texts called books can we reach other humans in need. Books are like life preservers. I feel as though Epp, with this book, has crafted a whole lifeboat of a book. From her jagged wanderlust brought on by a tormented loneliness, she has finally assembled something sturdy, something that cannot sink.

But, speaking of the truth, is it all really true? Names and details have been changed, sure, and I have to squint at my own lines in the book for them to appear to be wholly mine. Officially, it is a travel novel: fiction. For me, this novel is the truth as reflected in a funhouse mirror of memory, and this book is at its core about memory. What is true and what is remembered falsely and what is just fiction? People want so badly to put everything in little boxes, but life is unfortunately one big oozing, slithering, gelatinous mess of sensations.

The Estonian title of the book is Kas Süda on Ümmargune? - "Is the Heart Round". We played with many English-language titles for the book and none seemed to fit, but Epp liked this title, a play on the classic Jules Verne adventure novel. I think the reference to Verne, and an earlier era of continent hopping, suits it perfectly.

esmaspäev, august 23, 2010

täis kuu

When I woke up, the sounds of some distant party were still ringing in my ears. I heard laughter, music, loud toasts, the clinking of glasses, the run of silverwear on plates, but all the time far away, far, far, far away, and yet close, just downstairs, but some place else. Where was it? When was it? Was it just a dream?

I opened my eyes. A full moon. The light shone brightly through the second-floor window of the Haapsalu Children's Library. My bed lay just below it. Nearby, my wife and children sighed in the darkness, sound asleep. I kept thinking about the music. The music and the fact that I was spending the night in the house where Gorchakov was born.

From 1867 to 1883, he served as state chancellor of the Russian Empire, but in 1798, young Alexander Gorchakov was born in the small seaside town of Haapsalu in a building that now houses a children's library, along with a room dedicated to Ilon Wikland, the Swedish Estonian illustrator who is something of a patron saint of Haapsalu. The walls to the upstairs office are covered with Nordic Council posters, and Ilon's corner is filled with her books, some in Estonian, the others in Swedish. The furniture is a sunny blond, the carpets a Baltic blue, and outside the cream-colored building, its roof tiled red, is Iloni aed: Ilon's garden, filled with comically oversized slides and swings.

Haapsalu is whimsical, rambling and child friendly. In fact, the first three people I met that day were children: two boys and a girl. When they heard me speaking English to my daughter, the little Haapsalu girl whispered to the others: "I think he's speaking Russian!" "Not Russian!" I informed them. "English." "English?" Oh, how fun it was to think that to their little Estonian ears, Indo-European Russian and English sound similar. A short while after the little girl fell. "I need a band-aid," she moped and showed me the tiny scrape on her elbow. When I fixed the band-aid in the right place a few minutes later, she kept on playing as if nothing had happened. For kids, band-aids have special healing powers.

That was Haapsalu during the daytime, when it's harmless. At night, it's different, not harmful, but dark, shadowy, hypnotic. You cannot help but stare at the moon and hear music. You look at the castle walls and think of the Valge Daam. You lie awake, your covers to your nose, and stare at the white ceiling. Maybe you just have an overactive imagination, you tell yourself, but then you pause: when was the last time you heard music like that? When was it? Your query brings back no valid response. You look up out the window at the angular shadows in the moonlight that fit into Haapsalu's puzzle-like, ancient downtown. Then you close your eyes and you try to sleep.


Estonia's western periphery is pocked with secrets. At the windswept, western-most end of Hiiumaa, I spied Urmas Paet, the foreign minister, walking in the rain. As he neared the coast, where rough seas hammered the rocky beaches, I turned my back on him just for a second. "You should go say, 'Tere Urmas' to him," the wife encouraged. "Do you think it really was him?" I double checked. "Of course it was Paet," she confirmed. Then I looked back towards the coast and Paet was gone. Vanished. Where to? That small, wooden, sea-weathered barn by the trees? What would the Estonian foreign minister be doing in there? Perhaps a secret passageway lies below? A hidden meeting place? Was Ansip in the barn too? Laine Jänes? "Maybe he just wants to get away," the wife shrugged. "Foreign ministers need to get away too."

In Hiiumaa, you encounter Hiiu humor, the "Hiiu" denoting that any given local joke will not be funny. A blacksmith friend here convinced us his wife was Hungarian. We later met this bird from Budapest only to praise her amazing Estonian skills. "She speaks like a native," said the wife, mouth open. The Hungarian lady meantime seemed confused. "Wait, you actually believed me?" said the blacksmith. "You really believed my wife was Hungarian? She's from Tallinn, of course." And why wouldn't we have believed him? He told us she was his best friend's sister, that he had seen his Hungarian friend die in Yugoslavia and later taken the girl as his bride. It was such a romantic story but it wasn't true. It was just "Hiiu humor" after all, a reference to the island's peculiar sense of humor, which, I'll add again, is not funny.

The residents of Hiiumaa and the residents of Saaremaa have something of a rivalry. The Hiiumaa islanders are criticized for their oddball brand of humor and general lack of seriousness. The Saaremaa islanders are skewered for being uptight workaholics. In their hearts, they are both survivalists, self-reliant last action heroes. I am still a Long Island boy, remember. I expect a gas station on every corner, a pizza joint on every street. Not in Hiiumaa. Not in Saaremaa. The Estonians are individualists. They live and die by D I Y. The Hiiumaa blacksmith told me that the electricity has a bad habit of going out on his island. He's prepared for everything, because every Estonian has to be prepared. He can only rely on himself, on his own wits, because there is no gas station on every corner, no pizza joint on every street. This brings us back to the main question: Why do so many Estonians still prefer wood heating? Because they fundamentally distrust civilization. I determine this as our ferry leaves Sõru harbor for Triigi on the northcoast of Saaremaa. They know that if the electricity goes out, they've still got an axe and there are plenty of trees around.


It's fitting that I have crossed water several times during this full moon, for the moon controls the tides and we are, after all, made mostly of water. The moon tugs at me. It makes me more aware, more reactive. The wind tends to whisper, colors bounce out of the wood, and womens breasts careen in and out of focus like forbidden planets. The full moon. I feel vaguely unhuman when its pull is at its strongest, like something is not quite right, something I should hide from the others. And then, as I turn a windy lane in the dark, I find the metaphor I'm grasping for: I feel like Michael J. Fox's character in Teen Wolf, and lament that I never tried to surf on the top of a moving car.

What happened to my youth, Gorchakov? Where did it go? Thirty is the adolescence of the middle aged. A friend, two years my senior, once was tormented by his wasted youth. "So much cocaine," he sobbed. "So many lost opportunities!" In comparison, one could say I have accomplished a lot in my three decades, but the spectre of a human high water mark still lurks in the distance. Then again, my wife's publishing career didn't take off until she reached the Jesusy age of 33. And Gorchakov wasn't state chancellor until he neared his 70th birthday. "Age ain't nuthin' but a number," Gorchakov whispers to me through the breeze. Then he commands me to return to his birthplace. "They have laid out some delicious porgandi pirukad for you," he's again cheerful. "Free coffee!"

At the library, I spoke with the director about Gorchakov, naturally. She seemed buoyant, satisfied, content, like most people in Haapsalu. "Oh him?" she smiled, "he probably wasn't even born here."

"Then why is there a sign on the wall outside?"

"This was his father's official residence. He was probably born out in the countryside, in Taebla, perhaps."


So much for sleeping in the house where Gorchakov was born. But the pies were tasty. The coffee was delicious. And the music? What music.

teisipäev, august 10, 2010

karmoška plahvatus

It's a human being out of his element. A hangover the day after consuming handsa homemade vodka. An awkward dialogue in a shop with a clerk who speaks Seto, a tongue that could either be a dialect of Estonian or a language in its own right -- the jury's still out, and the arguments yea and nay are inherently political.

I am an adaptive type, but when in Setomaa, I sometimes feel like I am being pushed and pulled, squeezed back and forth like a local musician's karmoška. I don't know what I am doing, I don't know where I am going, and I have absolutely no idea what they are saying. Setomaa. It's a completely foreign place to me, and I say that as an American who lives in Estonia.

Where is Setomaa? Setomaa is a sliver of land that straddles the Estonian-Russian border. The shape of the land is one of thick forests, sea-like fields, and rolling hills. Setomaa is different. It feels wild, untamed, while much of Estonia has a bit of a royal hunting grounds aesthetic, with its orderly fields and state forests. The official point of demarcation between Lutheran Eestimaa and Orthodox Setomaa is the Piusa river, which, coincidentally, runs about a kilometer northwest from our country house. Offically, we are on the Seto side but the border here and between Estonia and Russia in general is like most borders, porous, impossible to truly delineate, populated by bilinguids and free thinkers, people who are used to saluting contrasting regimes.

I would add that Setomaa is the forgotten backyard of both Estonia and Russia. Politicians go there to scare up extra votes and maybe indulge themselves in its cultural idiosyncrasies, but the region is of little real geopolitical significance; there is no oil shale, no ice-free harbor, no gold. While Estonia is led by Tallinn, which is shy of 300 kilometers northwest from Setomaa, Russia is led by Moscow, which is about a thousand kilometers away. Setomaa itself is, forgive me, devoid of significant human development. There are no gas stations, for instance, between Värska, on Lake Pihkva/Pskov in the east, and Vastseliina, at one time a frontier outpost of the Teutonic Order on the west, nor are there major opportunities to procure material goods. Instead, you will find small "villages" of farms, and sometimes even just three families will comprise a village. And in these villages live Seto people, who are not Estonians.

To be an Estonian these days means increasingly to simply hold Estonian nationality. To be an Estonian, one must own the latest technology, consume the domestically produced products, and be attentive to the national debates as broadcast from Tallinn. The Estonian language, once a great source of ethnic pride, has become commoditized, generic. It's the language of politics, of economics, of sweepstakes and one-time offers and lotto jackpots. If archaic Seto language is homemade apple juice in a jar, then Estonian language is a multivitamin fluorescent fruit drink in a plastic bottle. If Seto is a choir of old ladies singing runo songs in Obinitsa, Estonian is a topless DJ spinning electronic beats in Pärnu. The Estonians are from the Skype-struck future. The Setos themselves are from somewhere that seems vaguely like the past. And who are these Seto people anyway?

They are goddamn party animals. I am sure they would like to put on like they are hardworking types, the real salt of the earth, but for every hammer lifted in Setomaa, several liters of handsa vodka are consumed. For every fence mended, several loaves of local sõir, a soft cheese spiced with caraway seeds, are digested. If there is an opportunity for Setos to throw a party, they throw one. They'll blame the poor condition of some of their homesteads on the economy or the break up of the Soviet Union, but the real reason is that most days they hang around outside singing, playing tunes on the karmoška, drinking handsa, and arguing about what makes a Seto a Seto, or how võro kiil -- the southern Estonian dialect-language spoken north of the Piusa -- is different from seto kiil.

The Setos call Estonians tsuhknad, which is related to the old Russian word chud, indeed, Lake Peipsi is known to Russians as Chudskoye ozero. It's not a term of endearment, but not an insult either. Instead, it denotes a sort of polite, aloof, clunky northern person. Setos and Russians see Estonians the way Estonians see Finns. I imagine that to Setos, an Estonian is the kind of person it might take several shots of handsa or several helpings of homemade beer to start having a good time. From the Estonian viewpoint, the Seto are wayward Estonians in Russian national costume, linguistic relatives but bohemian to a fault. There is a touch of envy there too, as if the Seto have preserved the traditions that the Estonians themselves have lost.

Of course, I am exaggerating. My impression of Setomaa are forged mainly from attending events big and small, a local wedding, an annual gathering. The latest one, Setomaa Kuningriigi Päevad, held in Mikitamäe last week, witnessed a parade of the Seto "army," where brigades of men and women armed with shovels and hoes and other implements of destruction marched before their newly chosen ülemsootska, King Ahto Raudoja, and vowed to politically unite Seto lands on both sides of the border. Raudoja, age 35, is a piece of work, a living legend. Known throughout his kingdom for his ironic sense of humor and his Cossack dancing ability, he is now the face of Setodom.

Some might look at Estonians and Setos and judge them to be basically the same, and they are. In fact, Setos are Estonians, in that they hold Estonian nationality, play the lotto, sunbathe in Pärnu, do everything else the Estonians do. But still, I have attended song festivals in Tallinn. I have attended weddings and funerals in Estonia proper. I am familiar with Estonian culture. And so maybe I have some ability to compare Setomaa and Eestimaa and to say it's a little different. Seto society is conservative, old fashioned, but still not wholly exclusive. One can, given time and dedication, join this lump of humanity. Such people are called isetehtud setod -- self-made Setos.

What do you need to be a self-made Seto? Well, you need your own talo, or farmstead. You also need to befriend a Seto in the know who will guide you along the way. He (or she) will instruct you as to where to put your religious icon, how to cut your pork with a spoon (as Setos don't use forks), and how to make sõir a magic ingredient in most of your cuisine. Your Seto guide will introduce you to people in the 'hood so that they know you are kosher. You may not be a real Seto, but at least you know a real one. To fit in, you'll also need a Seto flag, Seto national costume, and your own Russian accordion, the karmoška, to play during festivities, which always seem to be happening.

I haven't bought into the whole package yet, but I did succumb to making Zetod my favorite band. These guys, four kids from Värska, have mixed traditional song with blue ska beats and rock'n'roll guitar hooks. When they get going, they can really shake a concert hall. There is a bit of pagan thunder to their sound, so I would compare them to Led Zeppelin, the English rockers who mixed Celtic lore with Delta blues. A Seto friend disagrees. He thinks Zetod are the Creedence Clearwater Revival of Estonia, bringing back that oldtimey born on the bayou funk that is lacking from the Estonian Top 40. Either way, I am a fan. Their new disc is called Lätsi Sanna -- in Estonian, I believe it's Läksid Sauna, in English it should be "Went to the Sauna." It's perfect music for when you are lost, driving through some unpaved country road at night, low on gas, trying to get back to your talo.

It's fitting that I found my way into Seto identity via the music, because I actually know something about music. I don't know much about anything else. A number of alien-looking spiders have esconced around our talo, and I had to ask my Seto guide Mart if they were poisonous. You could call me paranoid or just cautious, but I sincerely don't know. I don't know about spiders and I don't know about well water and I don't know about electrical wiring. I am, you could say, a Seto know-nothing.

I wonder, though, about the locals' gung-ho approach to life. On the road, I mostly drive the speed limit, tend to avoid spoiled foods, and prefer metal, factory made ladders to the wooden, homemade ladders that are common in Eestimaa and Setomaa. One could call such cautiousness cowardice. Others might call it common sense. I bring to your attention the fact that the average Estonian male's life expectancy (68.7) is among the lowest in the European Union, and is 11 years behind the average Estonian female's life expectancy (79.5). Why is that? It's not because of smoking and drinking and eating too much sour cream: it's because Estonian, and presumably Seto, guys get killed in accidents, doing really stupid things.

Here, I pause to spit three times over my shoulder and knock on wood. Setomaa has claimed me as a music fan and property owner and kindred spirit. I do not wish for it to claim me as anything else.