This collection of entertaining columns captures Estonian life as experienced through the eyes of a foreigner. Inside you will find tales of mobile phones and wood-heated furnaces, jerks and drunks, Estonian blood and foreign men, homemade pickles and nuclear winters, blood sausages and jellied meats, celebrities and unzipped pants, Soviet nostalgia and Fish Fridays, prostitutes and porn addicts, pregnancy and dementia, moving and renovation, dress codes and tribes, secrets and saunas, drug wars and flying couches, Facebook and voyeurism. Not to mention other important characters, including the infamous Bunny and Blacky.
“There’s a guy outside your window. His head is bleeding,” I told her in Estonian.
“There’s a guy outside my window,” she murmured, still mesmerized by her mobile.
“Can you help at all? I mean do you have any tissues, paper towels?”
“Paper towels are over there.”
“No, I don’t want to buy them. There is a man getting blood all over your wall outside!”
“Oh, OK.” She finally put her phone in her pocket, and pulled on a jacket. “Where is he?” We went outside together with some tissues for the man’s bleeding head.
But when she leaned over to give the man some tissues, he threw an arm in her direction.
“I have a passport!” he screamed.
The wonders of this strange new planet have astounded them since they first set foot on it almost 10 years ago. Every moment has bred questions, questions I have struggled to answer. “Why does milk come in plastic bags?” “Why is the toilet in a separate room from the bathtub?” “How come so many people hang their clothes out to dry?”
Most of the time, the only thing I can tell them is, “I don’t know.”
In some cases this has been an educational lesson for me, a glimpse into previously unknown family history, because my parents used to hang their clothing out to dry before the discovery of dryers, too. “I used to hate it so much,” my mother told me. “My pants would freeze in the winter. It would be like wearing cardboard.”
And discussions over wood heating brought up the fact that long ago, before the switch to oil, most people heated their homes with coal. “Oh yeah, we used to have a big coal-burning furnace in the basement…”
The leader of the Veeriku gang is a guy who looks to be in his 50s or 60s. He wears an old sweater, and has a salt-and-pepper beard and a ruddy face that looks like he’s seen too many saunas. He also suffers from southern Estonian mud tongue—that is, he sort of mumbles in a deep voice. Only other Estonians can truly understand the system of grunts and sighs that make up this variety of the language.
I managed to make it through most of the conversation. Then he pointed at my apples and said something about “Antonovka”. I figured that he thought my name was Antonovka—that I was an Estonian Russian. I do have a noticeable accent.
“No, my name is not Antonovka,” I told him.
“No, no, these apples, are they Antonovka’s?” he grunted.
“No, they’re our apples, not Antonovka’s.”
“I know they are your apples. But what kind of apples are they?”
The young woman approaches me. Kas te saate mind aidata? (“Can you help me?”) she asks. Mul on aku tühi. Kas teil krokadiilid on? (“My battery is empty. Do you have any crocodiles?”)
Now, my brain is a bit slower than usual, perhaps because I have just consumed a giant glass of melted ice cream at La Dolce Vita, Tartu’s famous Italian restaurant. Still, it processes that she needs my help and that her car battery is empty.
It’s the last bit though, about the crocodiles, that throws me off. In the distance, my children are running wild in front of a sculpture of the revered semiotician Juri Lotman’s profile. Kristjan is watching them from beneath his adventurer’s fedora hat and maybe wishing he was back in Panama or Venezuela.
Krokodiilid? (“Crocodiles?”) I ask the woman, just to be sure.
Jah, krokodiilid, (“Yes, crocodiles”) she answers me and blinks with those false pearls.
Then I mumble something like, “I’m sorry,” to the young woman and walk away toward my car. And as I walk I start to think about crocodiles. I think about their big jaws. A certain poem by Lewis Carroll comes to mind. I think about how if the woman’s car battery is empty, someone will have to jump the car. To do that would require jumper cables.
Then something clicks in my tired, ice cream-iced-over brain. The jumper cables resemble the jaws of a crocodile!
Sven and I don’t have much in common. He’s a builder. I’m a writer. He hates spas and swimming pools. For whatever reason, I find myself in them all the time. Sven is brave; he’s a war veteran. I’ve never been in a war and, as most of my friends would agree, I am a coward. Sven is in his mid-sixties, and I just turned 33.
But there is one thing that connects Sven and me. Our wives are the same age.
The year was 1974. The Soviet Union was stagnating, Nixon was resigning, and most of the men in the world were experimenting with facial hair. Sven was closing in on 30. I was minus five.
When the meal was ready my children lined up like youths in a 19th century British orphanage. I ladled a serving on to each one’s plate. Then the eldest made for the refrigerator.
“What do you need?” I said. “I’ll get it for you.”
“Ketchup,” she answered.
“Ketchup? For what?”
“For the pasta.”
“Are you joking?”
“No.” And she went to grab the handle on the refrigerator door, so I stepped in front of it.
“No child of mine puts ketchup on her pasta.”
Copyright: Justin Petrone
Editor: Epp Petrone
Copy editor: Stewart Johnson
Designer: Anneli Akinde
Cover photos: Maiken Staak
Publisher: Ajakirjade Kirjastus AS
Print: Print Best OÜ