It happened the other day. I was walking down Kuperjanov Street in Tartu and I walked past two teenage girls. I caught them looking in my direction, to which I responded with a glance. At this, they both snorted and began to chuckle.
Is something wrong with me? I wondered. Is my fly undone? I checked and it wasn’t, so I decided to forget about those two girls on Kuperjanov Street. But then I walked into the University Cafe to buy some chocolate. The November darkness brings on a chocolate craving like you wouldn’t believe. I’m like a drug addict. And while I was paying for my fix, I noticed two completely different girls staring at me from a table. “Look,” one whispered. “It’s him.” When I looked in their direction, they started to giggle. And to make matters worse, an old guy who was reading a newspaper nearby looked me up and down, too, as if he had seen me before.
Am I famous? I don’t know, or rather, I am beginning to suspect that I might be, at least just a little bit. My life doesn’t yet resemble the opening sequence of the first Austin Powers movie, where the international man of mystery is chased around a city by screaming girls. But I do have a lot more empathy for the well-known, including my wife.
For years now I have walked by store windows seeing her name in print from behind the glass “Epp Petrone.” I’ve seen magazine interviews and newspaper articles about her. When our second daughter was born on Epp’s birthday, it warranted a headline: Epp Petrone Gives Birth on Her Own Birthday. I even noticed people staring at us on the street from time to time, though mostly in her direction.
Still, I was unaware of what it meant to be semi famous until recently. And this new challenge, of navigating the line between what is personal and what is public, is one of the issues I hope to address in this column going forward: to make sense of the changing views on social boundaries in this era where everybody has their own blog, where people tell me they know all about me at parties before I can even say a word about my life myself.
I wonder, what is the difference between being famous and not famous? In New York, from where I come, it’s not just a matter of being on TV or on the cover of a newspaper or magazine. No, the well-known live an entirely different lifestyle. They don’t fly commercial, they take private jets. They don’t eat at the corner restaurant, they dine at exclusive clubs. They don’t suntan at the public beach, they tan at their own estates. There is a huge gulf between the famous and the average. If you are lucky enough to actually see one of these famous people in person, you might tell all your friends at the office.
In Estonia, it’s different. Here, the famous and lesser known do almost everything together. They do their shopping at the local department store. They take the same package trips to the same exotic destinations. I’ve been told that Estonia is such a small country that there is a very thin line between being well known and unknown, and I think it’s true. Estonians rub elbows with public figures all the time. You go to the store in Tallinn, and a quarter of the parliament might be in there picking up groceries. That’s just how it is.
But while the relationship between so-called celebrities and non-celebrities in Estonia is different from the US, the channels through which celebrities are made are the same. How did people figure out who I was to begin with? They saw me on television or heard me on the radio or read about me in a magazine or newspaper article. And after several TV appearances and radio interviews, the local taxi driver is looking in the rear view mirror and saying, “Hey, I know you, you’re the guy that wrote that book.”
How to react to this new-found awareness of my existence? I’ve tried to think about it, but I keep failing to settle on any profound thought to guide me through scenarios where diners at a cafe drop their forks and start laughing when they see me at the cash register. I’m told that experienced celebrities tip their hat or smile or even go and introduce themselves. I’m not there yet. After the experience at the cafe, I turned and got out of there as fast as I could. And I checked my zipper again, just to be sure.
Still, I’ve come to see celebrities in a new light. They really are just people like you or me. So, if I ever meet someone genuinely famous, I’ll make sure not to burst into laughter or give them a weird look or chase them down the street. No, I’ll let them go on their way. And if we happened to be introduced, I won’t feel nervous. Instead I’ll feel pleased. I’ll feel like I am meeting anybody. I might also feel that we have something in common.