the good old days

Aitüma entered my vocabulary at some point in the recent past. I don’t know when and I honestly have no idea what the etymological difference is between aitüma and aitäh because as far as I can tell they mean the same exact thing, “thank you.”

So I started saying it to everyone, to the cashiers in Tallinn and the telemarketers trying to sell me cookbooks and the guy who delivered my boots. They didn’t seem to mind but a few were amused to see this foreign guy standing before them saying this archaic word.

My guess was that aitüma was just one of those funky South Estonian words making a comeback like hüva and hää and too. I asked my friend Silver about this and he explained that I was only half right. “Only ökoinimesed say aitüma,” Silver said. “Why?” I asked. “Because it’s so cool and old,” he said, “and ökoinimesed love anything that is old.” (Ökoinimesed translating as “ecopeople,” people who wear old-fashioned clothes and eat only organic foods, people like a lot of our friends, people like us.)

I liked this dialogue with Silver because it was the first time that someone in my group of friends had expressed irony about the popularity of anything aged among the young people of Estonia. But it’s true. Call it the öko lifestyle or just retro infatuation, the adults around me seem obsessed with traditional life. Öko in this sense is nothing new, but rather old, öko is the food your grandmother’s grandmother ate, öko is the clothes your grandmother’s grandmother wore. In Viljandi, they advertise dance nights at the Pärimusmuusika Ait (the happening folk music center) with images of men and women who look like they could be characters at a wedding from a hundred years ago with their old caps and whiskers and braids and granny dresses.

Mind you, not just anything ancient will do. No one is trying to harken back to the days of the Black Plague or the Napoleonic Wars. Instead, Estonians have settled on an optimal period of nostalgia centered on the 1920s. I hypothesize that this makes life more convenient because the Estonians of the 1920s lived in a sort of limbo betwen the archaic and modern eras. That is to say that they lived in wooden houses and spoke their various local dialects and largely ate food that they grew on their own and had homespun clothing and milled around drinking homebrewed beers and moonshine, but they also had radios and cars and bicycles and tennis rackets and went swimming in Pärnu and sometimes even holidayed outside of the country. And I think this is what these öko people are aiming for: the 1920s plus wireless Internet, for the Internet is the one modern thing that öko people will never abandon.

There is a deep irony here. To hear oldtimers tell it, nobody wanted to live in the dark, crooked old wooden houses of Kalamaja and Karlova and Supilinn in the 1950s and 1960s. They dreamed of a life beyond those ramshackle old neighborhoods, in newer projects like Mustamäe or Annelinn, a comfortable existence of organized building maintenance and central heating with vacuum cleaners to pick up dust and gas-heated stoves to do the cooking, and television to entertain.

Now their grandchildren boast about the virtues of wood-heated furnaces, think the crooked old wooden houses are charming, clean the house with brooms and wet rags, gave the TV away long ago, and cook pork and potatoes or porridges or bread in the fireplace. And it’s the pensioners, the very people who were the little children during this vaunted golden age and the only ones who actually remember it, who are living alone in the apartment blocks of Estonia with their eyes glued to Latin soap operas eating canned meats and vegetables and factory-made bread.

This has led me to wonder — will any of our current creature comforts become fashionable in the same way, 50 or 100 years from now? Maybe our grandchildren will astonish us by trying to imitate life as my generation lived it as children in the 1980s, with no Internet (because there was no Internet), no mobile phones (because there were no mobile phones), no piercings or tattoos (because only junkie guitarists had tattoos), no GPS (only foldable paper roadmaps), and no bicycle helmets (because nobody wore bike helmets back then). Some might argue that this has already happened. As my friend Hannes, a former music label owner, informed me, nobody wants to buy CDs anymore, but vinyl is making a comeback. I haven’t relied on vinyl for music since I was eight years old, but chances are I will be playing records again.

Or maybe the 1980s will be forgotten, and it is the 2000s we will aspire to recreate, the “good old days” when people had laptops for computing, mobile phones for calling, and iPods for listening to music, not just one high-tech instrument for doing all of these things. In Estonia, future generations may yearn for “good old” euroremont, ah, those vinyl floors, those styrofoam ceilings, those plastic windows, “just like grandma and grandpa.” Or maybe they will scower the Internet looking for “vintage” versions of programs like Skype, not the modern one, but the first version, just so they can feel like an earlier, more idealistic, more genuine denizen of the web.

I am sure such sights will elicit a few chuckles from old geezers like us, and maybe more than a little Déjà vu.

Striving for Perfection

There is an old Estonian saying, “Once we get going, we can’t be stopped,” and the same could be said of me, in any endeavor. I love traveling, and once I get traveling, I just want to keep on going, every few days a new hotel, a new city, more planes, trains, buses, boats, cable cars. When I get home I am disappointed. I don’t know what to do with myself until the glow wears thin.

Eating is the same for me, that insatiable appetite. Bring me a salad, bring me a main course, and dessert, and a few more drinks. Ah, yes, drinking, now that’s a real disaster. One beer leads to another. By early morning, I don’t want to remember, though I always do.

Some say I lack self discipline, and I have to say that I agree, 100 percent. But I don’t want to be this person. I dream of the perfect, balanced week, a week of measured consumption and regular exercise. I think we all dream of such a life, for this is the modern ideal, the image of what is the perfect person of our era.

Maybe for our grandparents the ideal person wore certain clothes and lived in a certain neighborhood and had a nice car, but we’ve taken it a step further, the ideal person of 2012 is so much more than clothes or possessions, he is everything, always working and yet always enjoying life to its fullest, always consuming delicious and exotic foods and beverages, and yet — most of all — always physically fit.

Here I am reminded of our dear friend Kaja who runs marketing for a telecommunications company, has six children, goes mountain climbing, and is remodeling her apartment in her spare time. Or our neighbor Janek, who manages a beverage company, goes on business sojourns to Japan, and makes sure to run around Viljandi Lake at every opportunity, even when it’s minus 30 degrees Celsius outside, because Janek is smart, he has special clothes for running in Arctic temperatures, and special shoes for running on ice. This modern woman won’t let work or home life keep her off mountain tops. This modern man will not let mere weather get in the way of his quest to fulfill his ideals.

I am jealous of people like Kaja and Janek and all the others who are in better shape than me. I tell myself that they are older, and that one day I might wake up and start running every day, eat only healthy foods, enjoy a good drink or two but know when to stop, work like a machine, read my children to sleep, surprise my wife with something romantic, and smile all the time, as any ideal person does, because regular exercise does wonders for the find and so the ideal person is always happy.

But, alas, I am not there yet. I lack the self discipline to see the project of “me” through, to master all elements of being an ideal modern human being, including getting in shape. While Kaja repels off of mountains and Janek charges up another hill, I am trying to convince myself to not eat that very delicious piece of pepperoni pizza, to not log in to my time-sucking Facebook account and instead go out for a jog, though I never find the time.

Years ago the English band Radiohead included a track on their seminal album O.K. Computer where a modulated electronic voice recited the words, “Fitter, happier, more productive, comfortable, not drinking too much, regular exercise at the gym (3 days a week), getting on better with colleagues at work …” Singer Thom Yorke called it the most depressing thing he had ever written, but I saw it as a satire of us, modern adults, and our ideal images of who we should be, happy people who work hard and then take off for luxurious holidays, where we can refresh our tans and take wonderful photos of our bodies in the sun to show everyone at home just how fit and perfect we are.

It’s easy to be a mocker, and I am, but I also accept that without some ideal vision of who I should be, I would probably still be living with my parents. Early on in life, I developed my own idea of who the ideal person was, largely pieced together from my father’s stories and books and Hollywood films. My ideal person was some kind of hybrid of an action hero and an artist, taking off for remote areas of the world where he got into memorable adventures and perhaps fell for a love interest before spinning the tales into fiction.

These ideals got me this far but, unfortunately, when I was developing my ideal self, I left out a few things. I forgot to code in moderation, and, especially, moderate, regular exercise, something I now yearn for, but never seem to find the self discipline to attain. Like a lot of people, I see other people doing it every day, but can’t find the will to just wake up and do it myself.

Here, I wonder about my friends Kaja and Janek. Maybe they were different. Maybe when they were children, they had different visions of who they would become. Maybe little Kaja had fantasies of mountain climbing. Or perhaps young Janek looked wistfully at the lake on extremely cold days, and dreamed of the day when he would run around it. But young Justin was too busy stuffing his face with pizza and watching Indiana Jones movies and now he can’t manage to do what millions of other people do every day: get out of bed early and go for a run.

So now, later in life, I have to reprogram myself to fulfill these new ideals, so that I too can be “fitter, happier and more productive.”  And it’s not just a matter of going down and running around the lake, because you know I’ll wear the wrong shoes and overdo it (like everything else) and hurt myself in the process. No, I am going to need to do some research into proper foot attire and training methods, how many minutes to do it every day, what kind of terrain is most suitable for beginners. I’ve got to tackle this thing the way an ideal person would.

My friend in Belfast who is a runner says that it makes sense to go to a special shop where running shoes will be selected by a computer based on the shape of my foot and the way that I run. So, it’s going to take some time. But, sooner or later, I am sure that my new ideal will be fulfilled —  albeit it a moderate, perfect, 2012 kind of way. So watch your backs Janek and Kaja. Soon enough —   I hope — I will be right behind you.

saved by a volcano

I came through a crowd of protestors on a hot day in Philadelphia, it was the Republic National Convention, the year was 2000, there were anarchists breaking things, and socialists selling newspapers, and college kids chanting. In the melee, I saw her face on a t-shirt, like some kind of albino seal pup. The slanty eyes. Those fat cheeks. It was her! The man wearing the shirt began to converse with me, we discussed our love of the singer, her music. He was chubby, in his thirties, wore glasses, and looked like a mole.

But there was something different, soft about his demeanor, elusive, as if he was afraid of me. The man was peculiar in other ways. His shoulders weren’t very wide, he talked with a lisp. He asked me if I wanted to get a cup of coffee. And then I realized that he was gay, and I had to tell him no, there would be no coffee. I was renaissance enough to admit I loved the singer, but that didn’t mean that I was playing for the other team – maybe he wanted to be Björk, you see, but I wanted to be with her.

A poster of the singer hung on my dorm-room wall, naked, tongue out, covered only in a leaf, like some nymph out of Eden. But I was afraid of her because she was like some kind of vaginal Icelandic volcano that could erupt at any time and bury my soul like Pompeii in hot lava. To hang her on my wall, to see her flesh each day was to me a political statement, a weapon, a way of retaliating against commercial ideals of feminine beauty around me.

As men we were told to worship Baywatch, to drool over Pamela Anderson, buy her posters, hang her on our walls. Maybe our real-life girlfriends bore no resemblance to the curvy models, but we were supposed to be thinking about them secretly, kissing our girlfriends in New York or Washington, DC, but really thinking that we were on a beach in Hawaii or California locking lips with Pamela Anderson. It was a lie and it disgusted me because Pamela Anderson never did anything for me, never has, this embodiment of these sort of livestock-like qualities within with Western womanhood has been constrained, a world of faces and torsos and measurements and nail jobs, the ideal of the perfect bone structure and hourglass figure, a regime under which all females will be ranked according to their conformance to the babe ideal, like cattle ranked for milk output, and our role as men in the equation was not to ask any questions and to support the commercial ideal of what a woman should be. It was our duty.

And then along comes Björk, a little wrecking ball who sang of “big time sensuality” and “emotional landscapes.” She wasn’t “perfect,” sometimes she was actually quite grotesque, and I couldn’t really look at her without thinking that her breath must smell like that fermented whale meat they eat in Iceland, but at least she was genuine, creative, honest — a genuine communicator, an immediate vision of primitive femininity, this kind of womanhood that is buried in the back of each man and woman’s brain. I knew on first sight that the woman liked to have sex, such a wonderful, sugar-glazed feeling for any man, not that she was flaunting her sexuality like Madonna with her stupid conical bra just to prove something, but that she simply liked sex, the way we all like strawberries because they are delicious.

And the problem was that there were far too few of her. There was just one Björk. There were some imitators, but, mostly, she was considered some kind of demented freak. Maybe it was because she was inbred, or her Hippie parents smoked too much pot, or she was dropped on the head as a child. And did you see how she attacked that journalist? Or that music video were she sewed pearls into her skin? When a friend saw her singing Dancing in the Dark, he thought she was a mentally handicapped person. “What the hell is this shit?” he grunted. “Turn it off.” He wanted to watch a football game on TV. My friend was a sergeant in Pamela Anderson’s army, you see. The pint-sized witch from the big island with no trees had no place in mainstream society.

But when I fell ill with depression in college and didn’t leave my dorm room for two weeks, the little volcano came to my rescue. The days came and went. It would be dark and then light and then dark again and I would still be in bed. One morning though I happened to open a magazine beside my bed, one that I hadn’t looked through before. And she was inside it, dressed up like some kind of surrealistic flower. And I thought, “This is a person who is not afraid of life.” Then I got out of bed, took a shower, and went outside.

An Earthworm and a Rhinoceros

There are a lot of good reasons not to have sex with your cousin, but probably the best reason is that you put your potential offspring at a higher risk of inheriting a genetic disease. I know this because I spend a lot of time at genetics conferences. These events are always fun – you get to see old friends and drink wine and eat stuffed mushrooms and listen to talks about the genetics of different forms of cancer.

The liveliest sessions though concern what the geneticists politely call “consangunity” – the sharing of blood, the state of being inbred. This is actually a big headache for clinicians. They run the child’s sample to identify the genetic variant that might be causing the disease, and then they run samples from both parents to see if they also carry the variant. Then, to their surprise, they discover that significant blocks of the child’s genome and the parents’ genomes are the same. A child born of an incestuous relationship, say between a father and daughter or a brother and sister or a mother and son, may carry 25 percent of the same genome as the parent. This, the geneticists say so politely, is an example of “consanguinity in the first degree.”

Watching all these presentations about incest gets me thinking about my Estonian friends. How come so many of them look the same? And, more importantly, how do they know that they aren’t related? Especially today, when so many children are born out of wedlock, it is entirely possible that some randy wayfarer could father a child in Pärnu and one in Jõhvi and they would grow up and have a midnight tryst in a parking lot somewhere in Paide and unwittingly have a kid with a genetic disorder.

I ran my suspicion of Estonian inbreeding by my friends Enn and Kaari, but was rebuffed when I insinuated that it was possible that they might be related. They know they are not closely related said Kaari, because they had genetic ancestral testing done. At the time, there were two main tests for ancestry in the market. Men can have their Y chromosome tested: tracing their paternal line back, as well as their mitochondrial DNA tested, tracing their maternal line back. Women, having no Y chromosome, can only trace their maternal line back. According to their test results, Enn’s forefathers apparently got to Estonia by way of India, while Kaari’s mtDNA was found in highest percentages in Sami women. They weren’t related afterall. See, Enn is actually Hindu and Kaari is actually Sami. Viljandi is a diverse town!

I have always been a little proud that there is little chance that Epp and I are related. Some people are proud of being all one thing, but my kids count among their ancestors Estonians, Italians, Irish, Scots, Russians, English, Germans, Dutch, Greeks and Albanians. Sometimes, when my father drinks his coffee and gets excited, he starts adding others to the list. “You know, my German great grandfather came from a town on the Czech border,” he says. “We could be Czech!” He says it as if I should go out and buy a six-pack of pilsner and place a framed picture of Vaclav Havel on the shelf.

Needless to say, no one can say what nationality my children most resemble. One of our friends, a world traveler, says that it is impossible to say what they look like. “Your kids are like an earthworm crossed with a rhinoceros,” he says. Still, after hearing Enn and Kaari’s story, I decided that we should also get tested, if only to have something to talk about in their cafe. I tested my Y chromosome first, tracing my forefathers back to the beginnings of time. These men were from southern Italy, so I thought that the results would show a migration through Greece or Turkey. Or maybe even Africa! Wouldn’t it be terrific, I thought, to discover that I was actually black? Perhaps it would explain my love of African music.

Instead, my forefathers apparently came from northern Italy, southern France, or northern Spain, where the same results are found in the highest percentages. I do have a geneticist friend named Ernesto whose family comes from northern Spain and I have always noticed how we have a similar appearance. At last, I had an explanation! We descended from the same dark-haired, spear-chucking barbarian. Then I ordered Epp’s mtDNA test. Her friend, the same world traveler, has seen a photo of Epp’s grandmother and insists that she is Jewish. It’s in the curly hair, the eyes, and, most of all, the nose, he says. This friend is from the same part of Estonia on the west coast, and tells tale of a caravan of Jewish families who settled long ago north of Pärnu and over time became Estonians.

When asked about it, Epp’s grandmother said she had never heard of such a thing, and expressed a general disinterest in our modern genetic adventure, but Epp remained very excited by the idea that she could be Jewish. While waiting for Epp’s results, I took long walks near Viljandi Lake and pondered what the discovery of my wife’s Jewish ancestry would mean for our family. Would I have to familiarize myself with the Torah? Start eating unleavened breads? Could we still celebrate Christmas? Maybe it would be good for us, I thought, because once Stephen Spielberg found out you could count on seeing My Estonia the movie in every theater in the world, starring Adrian Brody and Natalie Portman.

But, alas, Epp had the same results as Kaari, a maternal lineage suggesting an origin in Finnic populations and found at its highest percentage in the Sami. We were confused. What about the Jewish settlers in Pärnu? But Kaari was very pleased to know that she and Epp both descended from the same little Sami woman.”You know, I always knew you were Sami,” Kaari said putting an arm around my wife. “You did?” Epp said. “Of course,” said Kaari. “You look just like one!”