“It’s so romantic, it’s so romantic” Some people have told me this book is romantic and maybe it is: a young lost American falls in love with an intriguing Estonian journalist and embarks on a journey that restores his faith in himself and the world. I agree. It is romantic.
But it was never easy. A foreigner arrives in the middle of a dark winter and must survive in Estonia, the least fortunate Scandinavian country, a land where people eat blood sausage and jellied meat, drink warm bread, and are always on time; a place where every family is haunted by the past and is struggling to catch up to the present.
Over one year, so much happened in this tiny land that it stopped being foreign. Estonia and I became intimately acquainted. Inseparable. And in the end, I came to love it, and I loved it even when they did not want to let me back to their country.
“Maybe you should come with me back to Tallinn tomorrow,” ventured Epp. “Maybe it will help you somehow?”
“To Tallinn?” I said, looking at the ghostly boats glowing in the night.
I had heard of Estonia before. When I was a boy my grandmother had given me a book of children’s stories from the Second World War. One of the children was from Estonia. I can still remember how the little girl in the book described rationing, and how she liked it when she had a runny nose, because the flavorless soup she ate would be extra salty. Whenever I thought of Estonia, I thought of this story.
One day during the trip, Sara and Florent, the French journalists in our group, announced that they had visited Tallinn. If they could go, I could go too. I was also told that Estonia would “soon be part of the EU” which somehow made it seem more safe.
I had never heard the name Tallinn before, and I felt a sort of unease when I realized that Estonia – this very Estonia where Epp was from – was only an hour and a half’s boat ride across the Gulf of Finland. I knew the location of both places, but somehow Finland’s consignment to the “Nordic countries” and Estonia’s location in “Eastern Europe” kept them far apart in my head.
At that moment, when I figured out how close these two capitals are, the idea of actually going to Estonia revolutionized my internal sense of geography. Estonia had seemed civilizationally different.
“And why are you visiting the UK?” he asked. I could not tell a lie.
“I am supposed to meet someone here,” I croaked in a tired voice. “A girlfriend.”
“And is she a British citizen?”
“No. She’s an Estonian citizen.”
The British officer’s eyes lit up.
“Estonian, eh?” he said “Is she living here or visiting?”
“Visiting,” I said.
“And what is she visiting here?”
“She’s visiting her uncle,” I said. It was partly true – Epp had an uncle in Britain, although I was pretty sure she wasn’t visiting him at the moment. “He lives in Gloucester.”
The British officer furiously scribbled notes into his pad. I thought about which parts of the truth were the least threatening to divulge if he kept questioning me.
Epp actually had been working with some illegal Estonian construction workers. If I wanted, she said, I could work with them, too. I didn’t feel like telling the passport control officer about that. But what I really didn’t want to talk about was that she was interviewing members of an Ibiza Ecstasy smuggling ring for an article – or possibly a book - she was writing. And what about that south London Pakistani gang she had befriended and whose houses she was cleaning - getting paid illegally, of course?
“How do you feel?” Epp asked.
“Tired and a little lonely,” I admitted, looking at the cold, gray buildings.
“No, I am happy to be with you,” I said, pulling her closer. “But you are the only person I know here.”
“Don’t worry,” she grasped my hand, “I am sure you will make friends.”
“Well, I’m not an Estonian,” I said, looking at the piles of ashy snow on the curb. “But I’m here for the next five months. I’ll adapt.” We had agreed to stay until June: Epp would get her graduate degree in journalism by the beginning of summer, and then we could go to India or Brazil.
Looking around on our way to bus station I started to understand why Epp did not plan to stay in this city for the rest of her life. This side of Tallinn looked nothing like the fairytale medieval city I had visited in summer. There were no Nordic maidens beckoning me to buy roasted nuts or postcards. There were no fat Scandinavians drinking beers in cafes. There were just gray people walking over black ice past the city’s schizophrenic architecture.
Here there were no Hansa palaces, just granite Soviet headaches and smoky 19th century dwellings and tacky post-modern office buildings lined up alongside one another. Ladas and BMWs rolled by. It was interesting, but not pretty. It was getting hard to see Tallinn by now anyway. Even though it was only 3.30 pm, it was almost dark.
At the bus station, I climbed aboard the Tartu-bound bus with Epp and looked down on its passengers, many of whom looked back at me with steel-blue eyes and expressions of almost menacing indifference. What was their problem?
I complained to Epp about these Estonian “Time Nazis,” but she explained that Estonian time allowed no substitutes; 10 am was 10 am, not 10.06 am. That was six minutes late. “Late” seemed to be a dirty word; if a person was “late,” they were irresponsible. One could simply not be “good” and be “late.” These were mutually exclusive words.
So any Tallinner could see me hurrying across the icy streets to my appointments, checking my watch to make sure I was on time.
“Oh no!” I looked at my watch one morning, “I’m going to be late!”
I came down hard on my ass, followed by my back. The hard Tallinn ice offered no support. It only gave out pain.
“Oh Christ,” I sighed as I pulled myself off the ground a few seconds later. I rubbed my rear. “That’s going to leave one hell of a bruise.”
My mission was to meet three Estonian TV journalists to figure out what it was they needed to learn. After surfing the ice for a few more minutes, I walked into the large, gray, Soviet-style building; this was the house where the “Eesti Televisioon” was made. My students were already waiting for me.
There were three of them: Anu, Marko, and Kadri. Epp told me that they were pretty famous, but none of them looked familiar to me as we had no TV in our apartment.
At first I wasn’t even sure what this mellow-tasting brownish substance was, least of all that the reason it was brown was because it had been made from the blood of once-living creatures. And this was the Estonian national dish? These people were vampires.
“Blood sausage is good for you,” Epp said. “It’s a good source of iron.” When she wasn’t eating blood sausage, Epp would also chew on hematogeen, which were sort of like blood candy bars. I decided I would love Epp unconditionally, no matter how much blood she ate.
Epp would fry up the blood sausage in our barely functional kitchen, douse it with lingonberry jam or sour cream (an ingredient that seemed to be served with almost every Estonian dish) and mämu mämu, it was time to dig in.
Each morning, as the coffee brewed and I heard my overactive partner hustle from one end of the apartment to the other, I would be served a heaping bowl of tatrahelbed – a salty, slightly bitter, dark-looking porridge.
Epp would dump a mountain of it on my plate. I could usually eat about half, if I pretended it was something else, but the other half would not budge.
“Why don’t you eat your porridge?” Epp would say.
“But that’s how it’s supposed to be,” she said, with the finesse of a culinary expert. “In Estonia, we eat this kind of porridge with salt and butter,” she explained. “It’s good for you. A plate full of tatrahelbed, and you won’t have to eat until dinner.”
I could not stomach the idea of one more spoonful of salty porridge.
“Well, in America, we eat our porridge sweet, with jams or raisins or maple syrup,” I said in response. I felt like a snob for turning down her salty porridge, but was it so wrong to have some control over what I ate?
“Syrup?” she said, turning up her nose at the suggestion. “That’s gross.”
“Well, this porridge tastes like the Atlantic Ocean. You might as well feed me a bucket of seaweed.”
“I cannot cook us a sweet porridge,” Epp shook her head. “What would I eat then?”
“I’ve been living in Europe for 20 years. I know a couple things.”
“20 years?” I had thought that Rick was my age. Turned out he was a veteran expatriate, even savvier than San Francisco Steve.
“I was at the Olympic Games in Sarajevo in ‘84, when you could walk down the street without getting your head blown off. That city was so cool. Who knew there’d be a war there?”
“So did you see the games?”
“Games? Heck no. I was too busy getting laid. Those Yugoslav bitches really know how to take care of you.”
I paused a moment to digest the fact that Rick had just shared with me. Thanks to a series of feminist girlfriends, and Epp, who called herself a “post-feminist,” the word “bitch” had been eliminated from my vocabulary.
Not know exactly how to respond, I decided to play along. “Don’t you mean those Bosnian chicks?”
“Serbian? Bosnian? Croat? They’re all the same,” Rick chuckled.
“But Estonian girls are the best, right?”
Rick paused, as if he were looking around to make sure no one could hear him. “To tell you the truth,” he whispered. “I’m a little bored with them.”
“Why?” The question slipped from my lips, and I realized that, in my own way, I was interviewing Rick. It was a habit I picked up in journalism school. All my conversations eventually morphed into interviews. I just had to hear more, even if I already had started to hate Rick, for his attitude, for his vocabulary, and, especially, for saying bad things about Estonian women.
“The problem with Estonian chicks is that they are too big down there,” said Rick. “Their asses are too big, I mean. And they are so cold. Latvian girls are much friendlier. Those bitches in Riga? Wow. But the hottest girls are farther east. My friend just got back from Ukraine. He said the chicks there are even hotter.”
“You know it!”
Onboard, the Estonian conversations hummed quietly along. The guests stuffed their faces with the avocado and artichoke hors d’oeuvres and drank wine. After a few glasses though they actually started to stand and talk to each other. A few glasses after that, they were cracking jokes.
“We Estonians are slow to get going, but once we get going, we are hard to stop,” mumbled Onu Tiit as he helped himself to more wine. Suddenly, he jogged to the back of the boat and pulled off its Estonian flag.
“Estonia is free!” he yelled, waving the flag in the air like he was at a song festival. I was surprised. Everything about Estonian nationalism so far had seemed so serious, the wars, the deportations, why, you could even get beat up if your song didn’t fare too well in the Eurovision song contest. Tiit didn’t seem like he took it so seriously. Being Estonian could be fun.
“Dear Estonian people, we are free again!” Tiit swung the flag in the air. The sound of his deep voice spread along the waters of Viljandi Lake. It climbed the hills and echoed around us. The other party guests surrounded him. Reeli wrapped her arm around her husband and helped him wave the tricolor. I put my arm around Epp.
“Estonia is free!” they all chanted. “Long live Estonia!”
I got in the line for border security and tried to relax but my hands kept shaking. I held them up to the light and tried to stop it, but I couldn’t control the nervous energy that ran through my body.
The line wasn’t long. There were about a dozen people ahead of me. None of them had any problems. I hoped that maybe the border security would get lazy. Maybe they would just have a look at my American passport, deem it of good quality, and wave me through, just like the British border guard in the morning.
They were now the only people who stood between me and my wife.
“Passport, please,” a woman said. She wore glasses, had dark brown hair pulled back into a ponytail, and looked incredibly bored.
I handed her the document and she flipped through its pages, past the stamps for Iceland, the Danish student visa, and the blue British crown, and multiple other ones I had picked up in my short but eventful life as a traveler. The passport was due to expire in eight years. I imagined it could get full before then.
The officer ran it through a scanner. Then she stared at her computer screen.
I stood there waiting, thinking: Just do it, take the stamp, put it in my passport, and wave me through. Just do it, just stamp the passport and let me see my wife.
“It says you entered in January and exited in June,” the officer said. “Why are you spending so much time in Estonia?”
“My wife is Estonian,” I pleaded. “She is expecting a baby.”
“But according to this data, you cannot enter. You stayed longer than you are allowed last time.”
“But the migration board has issued me a living permit. Doesn’t it say that in your database?”
“There is nothing here about a living permit,” she shook her head.
“Please, my wife is waiting on the other side of that door.”
“They said my permit is in the Hansapank office in Old Town. Let’s go there together. Let’s go and get a cab and I can show you—”
“Sir, I’m afraid—”
“No, I’m not going anywhere!” I cried out. ” You are not going to keep us apart!”