Justin Petrone has lived in Estonia for 15 years and written several books about it. “Estonian Stories” is a collection of tales about Estonia and its people. World travelers, nudists, geneticists, writers, politicians, hitchhikers, fishermen, drunks, folk musicians, backwoodsmen, construction workers, and sarcastic smiths are all brought to life in this vivid and engaging work.
This one wore a blue handkerchief on her head with white polka dots. She wore a white blouse and blue skirt, and had a bucket and was filling it with wild strawberries. Her fingers were crooked but tan and stained red with strawberry mash. Her face was equally tight with sunburn and she had fine high cheekbones.
I studied her from my perch on the side of the road but she didn't acknowledge me, but went about her business of picking, hunched over. There was something so delicate and soft in her movements and I felt very vulnerable inside.
“Noormees,” she said, displaying a mouth full of white teeth. “What are you doing there?”
“I am writing a book,” I said, showing her my sweat-stained notebook. “See.”
He stared at his tea for a second. "Just think of all the flags I have seen in my long life, this life! First, there was the blue, black, and white Estonian flag," he held up a finger. "Then came the red Soviet flag, and then the red German flag, and then the red Soviet flag again, and don't forget about the red and blue Soviet Estonian flag."
"Oh yeah, I've seen that flag. It has the little waves on it. Kind of pretty. Not bad for a Soviet flag."
"It was okay," he shrugged. "But then the blue, black, and white Estonian flag came back, and now we have the blue and gold European Union flag and the blue and white NATO flag. What is that? Seven?"
"Or eight, if you count the Estonian one twice."
Fred adjusted himself in his seat and leaned in across the table. "Listen, I have seen this country change so many times in my life," he said. "The way people think. It's like a weather vane. It goes like this and then like this," his two fingers spun around each other. "One day everybody believes in one thing, the next day they have completely changed their minds and say that they never believed in it at all. But I can tell you one thing – this Estonian state, the current Estonian state, is not the same Estonian state that existed when I was a child. That was something special, different. It has been irretrievably lost."
It was a city that seemed built for drunkards. Those windy cobblestone streets giving way to grand avenues with their trams and taxis. You might come out of Hell Hunt, then work your way down narrow and enchanted Hobusepea (Horse Head) Lane, then back up Lai Street and then somehow over to Balti Jaam, the train station. But then you might remember how Balti Jaam at this hour was dangerous and plagued by angry drunks and recall the Postimees meteorologist who was bludgeoned to death recently by a psychopath just over there, and come back toward the Raekoja Plats and then snake your way down from Town Hall Square all the way to the Viru Gate, just for the warmth and security of walking alongside Brazilian tourists.
The Old Town was like an elaborate board game for staggering joodikud, a real-life labyrinth. Those infamous pubs: Nimega, Nimeta, the Depeche Mode Bar, where they only played Depeche Mode, really. The metal toilet urinals that ran the length of the walls, with the water always trickling. Down it went and then back to the bar. I probably drank at all of them and can recall but 5 percent of the revelries.
But the best parties were the private parties.
I was proud. Top scientists from Silicon Valley and Cambridge were in town. From now on, I would no longer need to avert my gaze when people asked where I lived. When the common man heard “Estonia,” he probably thought of Elton John’s old “Nikita” video. Maybe a few had heard about Skype, but those were the few who read things other than science journals. Now they were gathering in the modern hotel conference center. From its glass windows, the scientists and businessmen could watch the good-looking youth of Tallinn run the annual Sügisjooks, the Fall Marathon, and inform each other with wide eyed astonishment of the miracles of Estonian life.
"Can you imagine? You can get wifi in a park here!"
"No, you can't!"
"Yes, you can. And it's all free."
"No. It ... it can't ... it just cannot be free."
"Tiiu, are you still working at the tourism farm?" I ask from Tiiu when she arrives back in.
"Yes," she answers. "I am."
"How is it going? Do you like it?"
Tiiu shrugs a bit and starts washing some plates in the sink. End of conversation. I reach for a battered and greasy copy of Õhtuleht so I can read more about the exploits of Anu Saagim. She's fiftysomething now, but still seems like a fun-loving girl with Hollywood blonde hair, an exuberant expression and a revealing dress. I get kind of grossed out by all the fake celebrity pics at Tallinn parties though. All the makeup and swanky clothes. Estonian celebrity life is like masturbation. They do it to themselves. They're their own paparazzis. And what for? For this moment when I crumple up their images and feed them into the fire. That's city life, I sigh. So far away from Karksi.
"Džastin," Akko said. "Look, Estonian nature."
I kept on painting. No, I did not like having a viper in my face.
"Don't you want to hold him, Džastin?" Akko chuckled. "Oh, he's a nasty one too, I can feel it. ‘Don't you even think about escaping,'" he squeezed its head. "Sure you don't want to try?"
"Nah, that's okay. Can't you see I'm painting?"
"Suit yourself, Džastin," Akko grinned and walked toward the woods to set the viper loose.
Akko never discussed renovation plans with me. He always turned to Epp. At first, I thought it was just about the language differences, but later I began to suspect there was something truly wrong with me. He looked past me as if I wasn't there. Maybe I was inadequate? In another land, I might not have these feelings. But not this land, Setomaa. No, this land would make sure to let me know every damn day that I did not belong here.
Every now and then somebody catches a fish and a group forms around the lucky man or woman. Because there are women fishermen here too, as tough and go-getting as their brothers. When the fish is finally tugged from the ice hole, the crowd begins to whistle, cheer, even scream. “I´ve got one! I got a gold fish!” someone will cry out.
“No, you didn´t, you jerk, you jobu!” another crew of fishermen will call back. “You lie.”
“I did too,” the fisherwoman will display the catch, the flashing tag of gold. Or at least I think it is gold. It’s kind of hard to see on a frozen white lake with the sun in your eyes. “See for yourself.”
“You put that tag there yourself, you dumb jobu!” the rivals hiss back. “What a liar!”
"Now," he pushed his spectacles up his nose. "The reason I am telling you all this, is because I really hated making hay when I was a kid. I thought it was so boring. It was summer, I wanted to play with my friends. But we had to make the hay, so that the cows would have something to eat in winter. Nowadays, things are different. Everything is done with a tractor, so there's no need for all that hand work. My grandfather is dead, and my grandmother got rid of the cows a long time ago. But when I am out driving in the countryside sometimes, and I smell freshly cut hay," he lifted his nose in the air, as if he was smelling it. "It just makes me want to make hay. And that's when I realize, that it wasn't about the end result, the hay. It was about the process."
That same night, we were visited by a tall man with a long billy goat's beard who is known locally as "Beard," and "Beard" (or Habe in Estonian) just might be his real name. I have met Habe a few times. Once he gave me a jar of honey, just gave it and said „Palun! Take it!”. I have heard that Habe repairs roofs for money, he is an expert in such things. When he entered this time, he gave me a hug. Habe began talking to us about Yin and Yang energy.
"You mean like on the flag of South Korea?" I asked, puzzled.
"Yes, for example," Beard gestured in a mystical teacher kind of way. As I recall, Habe said the world is divided up into masculine and feminine energies. Lakes have one kind, rivers another. "You'll notice that when you are standing beside a lake, it's quite a different feeling from when you are standing beside a river," Habe went on in the candlelight. All of our eyes were on him.
Walking beneath the yellow and red trees of Tartu later, already wintry coldness in the wind, and the faintest hint of chimney smoke making it just more nunnu, I thought that it was a shame that Estonia didn't have its own volcano. If the Icelanders could have them, and the Japanese, too, then why not Eesti?
It wasn't fair at all.
But Estonia's own volcano. Hmm. What would it look like? Surely it would be somewhere down there in Võrumaa, Haanjamaa, toward the Latvian border highlands, towering over Suur Munamägi, Big Egg Hill, elevation 318 meters, or 1,043 feet above sea level. As the dirt from my feet kicked up along the paths beside Tartu's silent snaking Emajõgi River and I passed some old fishermen, I mulled it more. If Estonia ever did get its own volcano, there would certainly be a competition to name it, like there was with the home improvement store Ehitus ABC or the new shopping center in Viljandi – Uku Keskus. Then I could submit my cool new word to the review board for evaluation.
“What do I think?” I repeated the question. Then I reached for that eternal wisdom that had been passed down to me. From my grandfather to my father, from my father to me. From my great grandfathers it came.... Some time deep in the past, some wise old Italian shepherd had no doubt said it.
“People are idiots, Jaan,” I offered, shaking my head as if I had revealed my greatest secret. “Don’t waste your time worrying about them. Just drink your beer. Get on your way. Be happy.”
"But he threatened to kill me!"
“So what? Let him try to kill you in here with all of these shoppers. That guy’s probably crazy.”
Jaan stood there watching me. He was shivering so much it was if he was dancing.
"Don't worry about that idiot. Worry about getting to Tallinn. Worry about Mari. She likes you."
"You mean if Päts hadn't sold Estonia to the Soviets," Andrus says.
"He didn't sell it to them," I say.
"Oh, yes, he did."
"He most absolutely did. Everybody knows it."
"I think that Päts thought that the Germans would invade, so why bother fighting. Then he could negotiate with them. Too bad his calculations were off by a year. And the Soviets deported him!" I make a sad face.
"Well, he wasn't in the worst labor camp, you know," Andrus says. "Psh. Some psychiatric hospital outside of Moscow? I am sure a lot of Estonians wished they could have been sent there instead."
"Kon-stan-tin," says Ülo, rapping his knuckles on the table. "A Russian name. He was one of them."
Then something unusual happened. Instead of feeling frightened, I began to detect a bit of a sick thrill within. What was the worst that could happen to me in this situation? One of them could break his beer glass and slit my throat? I could already see the headline in the following day’s tabloid. “MY ESTONIA AUTHOR JUSTIN PETRONE DIES IN BAR FIGHT AT SKI CAFE.”
Wait a second, I paused. That wouldn’t be tragic if that happened. That would be totally awesome.