the terrible truth about extreme estonia

It's unconventional.
It’s unconventional.

THE TERRIBLE TRUTH about the book Extreme Estonia is that I didn’t take it very seriously when it landed on my so-called desk. I was too biased, too doubtful, because the word “extreme” to me carried with it unwritten references to tattoos, piercings, snowboarding events sponsored by fast food companies, and bungee jumping.

And the pathetic thing about Estonia is that so much of it is not extreme in any way. There’s nothing particularly extreme about gazing at some fluffy white sheep under some fluffy white clouds on Saaremaa, is there, unless you happen to contract Lyme disease while doing it. Honestly, I almost fell asleep when I wrote about Saaremaa for Minu Eesti 2, because it was just such a relaxing place. But fortunately the extreme in Extreme Estonia refers more to the idea of being remote, outermost, farthest removed, and in this sense it is a very credible title for such an interesting book.

What Terhi Pääskyla-Malström does in Extreme Estonia is take readers to the extremities of this intriguing northern land. And what one learns while flipping through these 192 pages, is that there is a hell of a lot to experience up here. Sure, I have been to Haapsalu and to Narva and to Võru and to Pärnu, but I haven’t managed to get out to the Pakri Islands (and I probably never will). And given the pace of the book, the terrain covered, and the author’s wonderful sense of humor, one gets the sense that he or she has hitched a ride with Terhi and is finally going to all of those distant-feeling places, locations and settings I would bet that many Estonians have not even visited.

My favorite section of this book dealt with humorous place names in Estonia. Feel  a sudden urge to visit Urge? Mustvee? Of course, we must! And why not say “I do” in Aidu? Good old Terhi! She’s a tremendously sympathetic writer. She can be honest and sarcastic at the same time, and her buoyant  and informative text obliterated any doubts I had about this book. Doubt. It’s a peril that all writers face, that irritating question of who are you and why do you have any business writing a book about anything? Many readers ask authors this question, and the authors restrain themselves from answering back, “Well, if you have such doubts about my abilities, why don’t you go write a book yourself?”

But maybe Terhi doesn’t have these doubts. She seems like a courageous person, and her book inspired me to be more courageous too. Get out a bit more. See Estonia, see the world. Time to set away the laptop and trek out to that remotest, farthest removed, outermost point. And don’t forget to take along your copy of Extreme Estonia.

independent people

Independent People is also the name of a 1935 novel by Icelandic Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness. It has been sitting unread on my shelf for two years.

SEPTEMBER 1 it is and so so long to a summer of zero play dates. In New York, this was the key phrase, connoting two heavily supervised children comingling for a set period of time. “Daddy, can we have a play date?” How I rued the phrase, how it turned disgust over in my guts. When I was a kid, we never had play dates. We just got on a bike and rode away. As it is here in Estonia, where kids just come over and then they leave. Most have their own telephones and are reachable by them. I ran into my own daughter the other day on the other side of town. She was crossing the street with a friend. “Oh, hi Daddy, I’m going to so-and-so’s house,” she said. “That’s fine with me,” I said. And off they went. Just like that.

When I was in Orient, which is a little seaside village at the easternmost edge of Long Island, I did talk about my Viljandi friend Enn and his five children once in the general store, and about how Enn’s sons would climb a ladder up to the roof and then dive off onto the trampoline below. And the lady behind the counter said, “Oh, my, that does sound like Orient of yesteryear.”

I’m sure it did. I am sure that the children of decades ago played just as I played, and had those rough and tumble childhoods. Like I told my therapist, when I was a boy we would roam uncharted woods for hours in an attempt find our way back home. “It prepared you very well for this life,” she said. And hasn’t it. I’ve been lost everywhere, Helsinki, Beijing. I got lost outside the Summer Palace among the little stone shanty houses and cages of tiny yipping dogs kept for some special canine stew. And yet I’ve always found my way back home. But what of those children of today? I have wondered. Will they be able to find their way anywhere?

The fear culture has not yet gripped Estonia, and maybe it never will. Too small, too familiar, too many eyes, too many cameras. Sometimes here I think people know more about what’s going on in my inner life than I do myself. But there is also fatalistic trust in things, and in a free childhood, and with that freedom comes responsibility. Small, properly dressed children tote student identity cards on their first day of school, a document that will get them a discount anywhere when displayed. They learn to carry it with them, to identify with it, and to wield it out of self interest. This staircase of responsibilities leads upwards, so that my friend’s 15-year-old daughter spent most of the summer alone in Tallinn living with a friend.

“My friends in the States can’t believe it. They said, ‘Wait, you let your daughter live in Tallinn alone for the entire summer?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.'” My friend is an American too, but our childhoods happened a long time ago before the suffocating embrace of the play date clung tight. “Yes,” his wife said, with a bit of a satisfied smile on her face, “We do raise children to be independent and self sufficient in this country.” They do, that’s true. Estonia has its problems, as do other countries. Independence and self interest can lead to egomania and the complete abdication of any kind of social responsibility.  I admit that I have thought from time to time that the personal motto of too many an Estonian is, “But, hey, what’s in it for me?” 

Still I am impressed by local attitudes toward children in this little country. Help to self help. Sounds about right to me.