The year was 2003, the country Estonia. Great changes were blowing across this small land perched in the fringes of the north – a vote to join a union of European nations, a blizzard of Western consumerism, a feverish demand for real estate. Bankrolled by Scandinavian moneymen, it promised to draw a sheet over the corpse of the socialist economy and make everything shiny and new.
While Estonia pondered its fate as a new member of the glittering West, I wrestled with my own fate as a husband and father to be, at the age of 23. I had been drawn to northern Europe by its gem-like allure but now had to deal with the permanence of my decisions. I was being pulled apart, tugged back and forth between this land of forest people who were hard to be friend and the needs of my own big Italian-American family. As the days grew crushingly short and the polar night set in, a tense debate between destiny and free will stormed within me.
Was this what I had wanted?
I went to pick my older brother up at the train station. It was a humid, rainy summer day, and the ride back to our parents’ home seemed like the ideal moment for a brother to brother chat. Eight years older than me, my brother was single, again, and, according to him, “loving every minute of it.” I meantime was a young newlywed and, in most people’s minds, in need of some mentoring.
“So,” he buckled his seatbelt. “How are you doing with this whole thing?” He whispered the question.
“I’m fine with it.”
“Are you sure?” he looked more deeply into my eyes. “Because, you know, it’s a lot of responsibility.”
“Yep,” I turned my eyes back to the road.
“Dude, you’re 23 and you’re going to have a kid!”
“What? People my age have kids.”
“People your age had kids. Like in the forties.”
“Look, I’m fine with it, ok?”
“I was hit on the head. I was bleeding,” said Anne Helene. “I am lucky when you think about it,” she looked out the window at the sea. “And I’ve never flown that route again. I always take the ferry now.”
“But what happened before you crashed,” Epp ventured, “when you were in the air?”
“It was confusing,” Anne-Helene frowned.
“I was once on a bad flight,” Maret suddenly cut her off, her fingers fluttering with inspiration. The islander Maret had been quiet all this time, sharing nothing except for a peculiar grin. Now she sat up, her grey, birdlike eyes moistening behind her spectacles. “It was so bumpy. We were frightened. And all the time, we were looking at the one man on the plane and wondering why he wasn’t helping. ‘You are the man!’ we cried, ‘can’t you save us?’ And he did nothing, can you believe that?” she folded her arms and sat back. “The man did nothing!”
Anne Helene looked across the table at me. She made eye contact. I looked back at her. And for the first time all day, I thought we connected. There was a glimmer in her eyes, a quiet understanding passed between us. We said nothing but we shared the same thought: feminism had not yet reached Estonia.
“Hey Justin, is it really true that Arnold Schwarzenegger is going to be the next governor of California?” Helina’s young son Ken tugged at my shirt in the forest.
I looked down at Ken and was reminded of his mother. He had her blond hair and healthy smile. He also reminded me of the main character in an Estonian children’s book I had seen: Little Jussike’s Seven Friends.
In the book, a young, blond school boy named Jussike wants to go to Sundayland, but to get there he must pass through Mondayland, Tuesdayland, Wednesdayland. And what does young Jussike do in such far-flung locales? He is put to work, naturally. In Mondayland, he gathers hay. In Tuesdayland, Jussike lays bricks. In Friday land, he does the laundry. And so Jussike works his way towards Sundayland, a do-good smile on his face the whole way.
The Estonians had a word for such honest, hardworking children: tubli. For a boy like Jussike, work was fun, something you did with a wholesome grin on your face. Maybe if you worked especially hard, you might be rewarded with some yummy treats. And Ken reminded me of Jussike. He was a tubli poiss, a good boy, studious and pleasant, a little more tubli than the rest. Ken was gracious and interested in the world. Nine years old, he already spoke enough English to ask about Californian politics.
Later, I found myself standing beside my driven, active, pregnant spouse as she dug passionately through the Old Sailor’s garden looking for fish bait. The Old Sailor helped at first too, between him and Epp, the two frenetic diggers easily filled up the bottom of a bucket with worms. Then he took a rest, lit up another cigarette, and explained that he needed to run a few errands and would be back around nightfall, which was quickly approaching. He climbed into his old car in the driveway and sped away towards town.
“I was a little child when I already learnt how to dig in our yard, we grew most of our food ourselves and needed to take good care of our yard, and sometimes we would dig up worms for fishing, too,” Epp said as she continued her frantic search for bait.
“Don’t you think that’s enough?” I said, plopping a fat, dirty worm into the bottom of a small tin bucket.
“Ha, that’s only like 20!” Epp turned and looked in the bucket. “We’ll need more than that if we’re going to catch anything good. And I want to catch eels. Mmm. So delicious,” she licked her lips.
I meantime eyed the 20 pink worms, each covered in dirt and excrement, writhing on top of the other. I still didn’t feel well.
“Prime Minister Parts, I see here that you can speak English,” a British journalist with long red curly hair asked from beside a camera tripod.
“Huh?” Parts grunted and leaned into the microphone.
“I said, your CV shows that you speak English fluently,” she said, this time very slowly.
“Yes,” Parts grunted again, and when he hit the ‘s’ in ‘Yes,’ he lisped, so that it sounded more like he said “Yeth.”
“How do you feel tonight?” she asked.
“How do I feel?”
“How do you feel that your country has voted to join the EU?”
“This shows that Estonian democracy has survived a test of maturity,” Parts said, lisping all the way. Rüütel meantime looked on, silently smiling and staring into the audience. His only foreign language was Russian.
“How do I feel? One could very well say that spring has arrived in Estonia,” Parts continued. Yes, yes,” he nodded, as if to agree with himself. “Today, it is springtime for all Estonians.”
“Then how come we don’t see the Estonian people celebrating their decision?” the British journalist asked.
“What?” Parts grunted into the microphone.
“I asked, How come we don’t see the Estonian people celebrating their decision to join the EU?”
It was a valid question. In Parts’ mind it may have been springtime in Estonia, but outside the walls of the Foreign Ministry the city of Tallinn was silent, dark, the air cool and calm, not a soul in the streets.
“Huh?” Parts grunted again into the microphone.
“I was in Vilnius a few weeks ago when Lithuania voted to join. People were driving around waving EU flags and singing songs and celebrating. How come we don’t see the same things happening in Tallinn?”
Parts relaxed in his seat for a moment as if in deep thought. Then he leaned back towards the microphone, tilted his head, and squinted at the British journalist.
“You don’t know us, Estonians,” Parts told the British journalist and bared his teeth for a rare smile. “We are slow to get started, but once we get started, we can’t be stopped.”
Tanel led us to one of these houses, a first-floor, super fixer-upper with an advertised “sea view.” Its occupants were an old man and his pet dog. The old man barely took notice of us when we entered, his eyes fixed on some old, Russian military documentary. Tanel spoke to him, politely, professionally. He looked like he should be selling new offices on Maakri Street. Instead, he peddled ruined apartments.
I looked out the window into the night, at the lights of ships twinkling in the bay. A sea view, yes, but from where? Inside, the dimly lit apartment, the dog continued to bark and jump at the man’s feet. It was angry, frustrated. Why are we living here, old man? The dog seemed to say. The apartment was dim, dank, musty. It smelled like it hadn’t been cleaned since Khrushchev’s Secret Speech. The old man just kept watching television, the tanks rolling by in black and white, the grainy sounds of ancient air sirens and machine guns and grenades, ignoring the intruders, his hair sticking up over his ears. The little dog barked and rolled in the dust, miserable. Where did this man come from? I wondered. Where was his family? How long had he been here? How much longer would he stay? “This place stinks,” Epp whispered to me.
“I guess you don’t want to take it?” I whispered back and winked. It wasn’t like the old man could understand us. I just didn’t want to offend our real estate agent.
“I’m sorry,” Epp told Tanel. “It’s not for us.”
Tanel shrugged and blinked behind his glasses and said sbasibo to the old man who nodded and kept watching TV. Judging from Tanel’s expression, the apartment had been on the market for a long time. The little dog barked at our heels on the way out the door. What would happen when the man died? I wondered. What would happen to all the others like him, packed away in these crumbling apartments, watching military documentaries?
Reeli called on one in the back, a teenage boy with a bowl of potato brown hair and big saucers of glasses. “Did you support the war in Iraq?” the inquisitive youth asked.
A collective gasp in the room. We looked at each other. “No, I did not,” my mother finally answered, and I saw her bite her tongue in the side of her cheek in order to navigate through this minefield of school auditorium diplomacy. “I did think that the Iraqi people would welcome US troops more than they did, especially after all those years under Saddam. But, well, you can see how things are on the news.”
Then a little girl with golden pigtails and a purple dress in the center: “How come your president sounds so dumb when he talks?”
“Young lady!” The girl was scolded by one of the teachers, but the scolding was overruled by the peal of nervous laughter that bounced off the walls and then rained down from the ceiling. When it subsided, my father smiled. “You know,” he said. “I ask myself that same question every day.”
More laughter, more questions. In the front row, another boy asked the very important Americans, “Can you speak any other languages?”
“UUNO!” Leena cackled, drawing out the ‘u’ in the name. “Uuno’s a fucking great name! Uuno Petrone. It sounds fantastic, why, it could even be Finnish. Like Uuno Turhapuro! Right, girls?”
“Jo, jo,” Päivi and Virpi agreed, nodding their heads, “jo, jo.”
“Uuno!” Leena said it again. “Maybe I should have called my boy Uuno instead of Antti. Oh well, too late now.”
“But we are talking about moving to New York,” I said. “How’s a guy with a name like ‘Uno’ or ‘Uuno’ going to get by in New York?”
“Well, Justin, how exactly is a girl with a name like ‘Epp’ going to get by in New York, huh?” Leena asked. “You think that it will be any easier for her over there than it has been for you in Estonia?”
Copyright: Justin Petrone and Petrone Print, 2011
Editor: Epp Petrone
Cover design: Anna Lauk
Cover photo: Remo Savisaar
Map: Kudrun Vungi
Photo gallery: Justin Petrone, Raivo Hool
Layout: Aive Maasalu
352 pages + 16 pages of photos
Printed in: OÜ Greif
ISBN 978–9985–9996–7–7 (set)
ISBN 978–9949–9076–5–6 (part 2)