picaboWHENEVER SOMEONE brings up the word Olympics, two things come immediately to mind. One is Tõnis Mägi’s famous song for the 1980 Olympics, “Olimpiada,” a disco classic, with a solid beat, stirring runs of strings (and in Russian!) The video of him strutting around with dancers and Misha the Bear in the background is not to be missed.

One of his best.

The other thing that comes to mind is how I once wanted to be an Olympic athlete. This was not just a fleeting thought that came to me one day, but one that I invested some time and emotions in. I even had a poster in my room for the 1998 Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan. I put the poster on the ceiling above my bed, so that each morning, when I opened my eyes, I would see it. That was my goal when I was 15 years old. As anyone who has ever watched the Olympics knows, you have to set your goals. Then you can talk about how you achieved them when they interview you after you win. “It’s about self-discipline,” you tell the reporters. “About getting up every morning and thinking, ‘I want to be an Olympic champion.’”  A montage of images of you working out with a determined look on your face follows as the media recounts your path to victory.

This is how you become a winner, a hero, a man beloved by all.

I wasn’t after the fame though. I was after some girl.

This was a downhill skier, of course. I always go for the skiers. She was raised in the Rocky Mountains by hippies who rather than give her a name, decided to wait until she was old enough to name herself. For the first few years of her life, she was known as “Girl.” This “Girl” won the silver medal at the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer in 1994, which is how she became known in all American households at the time. Including my household, where I became captivated by her winning spirit, strange family story, and curvy figure.

One must acknowledge the backdrop however. Frost-crusted Norway with its lovely folk dancers from the opening ceremony. The reindeer, those red Scandinavian cottages. The chill of the mountain air seemed to waft from the television set. The Olympics get under your skin this way, in that you fall in love with the Games’ gestalt: not just a charismatic athlete, but the entire picture. Whether it is Lillehammer or Vancouver or London or Athens, we become enraptured by this idea of how life could or, rather, should be. Instead of political corruption, military occupations, and a migrant crisis, the world could just be a cute village of beautiful and interesting athletes, where people whiled away the day enjoying world class catering and engaging in sporting competitions.

It was definitely a world I wanted to escape to and there was a chance that I could. At that time, there were commercials for the American luge team. I’m serious. There were videos of men on tiny sleds shooting down icy tunnels, gripping the sides of their toboggan at every slippery turn. “Dial 1-800-USA-LUGE” the man said on the commercial. So I did. I picked up the phone and I called and was sent pamphlets in the mail about the sport and about competitions to be held at Lake Placid in Upstate New York that spring. It meant that I would have to prepare.

I put the poster for the Nagano Games above my bed to keep me inspired, and told all of my friends that I would probably not be attending university because I intended to become an Olympic athlete. (Even today, some of them send me letters asking about what became of my career). It was winter, so I spent my time practicing my moves on my sled, imagining myself one day up on that podium in Japan with the coveted medallion suspended from my neck, only to descend into the soft embrace of my hot new girlfriend, the hippie daredevil downhill skier from the mountains.

As gossip spread in the school that they had a new member of the Olympic luge team in their midst, it reached other students beyond my immediate social network. It turned out that one of them, a less dreamy, immensely more physically fit youth named Chuck, was also going to Lake Placid to take part in the luge contests. In fact, he had already been training for the luge team since he was 10 years old. Chuck took one look at me in the hall and told me my career was over.

“They’ll never take you,” he said, looking up at me. “There’s just no way.”

“What do you mean? Why not?”

“You’re way too tall,” he said. He held a hand up in the air. “It’s all about the aerodynamics. They want shorter guys like me, because we weigh less, meaning we can slide faster,” the hand curved down an imaginary luge course. “But your long legs will dangle over the toboggan. It won’t work.”

I was crushed but I knew he was right. I went home and tore the poster off the ceiling, and never said a word about the Olympics to my classmates again. I still do check on that skier from time to time though to see how she’s been doing since she retired with all of her gold and silver medals. Some bits of Olympic magic never fade.

escape to latvia

MiksAFTER A JOINT birthday party held for our daughter and her mother — both of whom were serenaded with candles and desserts — I took a car south to Latvia. Social media was just awakening to the news of my official change in relationship status, and though I tried to ignore it, now embarking on a new stage in life I had not especially sought out, I could feel the curious mind of the Estonian Nation pursuing me, and knew I must leave the country at once.

I was headed to Cēsis, what some Estonians still call Võnnu, if only to remind themselves that they once won a battle there against the German landeswehr in 1919, and for the first time in my life, actually happy to be going to Latvia. The truth was that I was never that interested in the other two Baltics — Latvia or Lithuania. I regarded them as a New Yorker might regard New Jersey or Pennsylvania. The fact that they spoke languages of a completely different origin only made them seem more distant, reinforcing my idea of Estonia as a lonesome island floating in the sea.

The Estonians, too, had this ambivalent and ambiguous relationship with Latvia, I had learned over time. It was as if Latvia was a partner it had been assigned in a folk dancing class, forced to dance together through time without any true chemistry. So much had been made of the idea of the Baltic countries as a geopolitical unit, and Western newspapers often ran articles about “The Baltics,” as if it was one contiguous place, the borders merely cosmetic, yet most Estonians’ knowledge of their southern neighbor’s language after centuries living beside each other seemed to be one word: saldējums, ice cream. There were exceptions, of course, like the poet Contra, who has written the book Minu Läti — “My Latvia” — and even penned poems in Latvian. But few people I knew had Latvian friends, and it seemed that the only reason they went to Riga was for a concert, or to pass through the city on the way to Jurmala to swim and eat more saldējums.

I did have a Latvian friend to visit in Cēsis, but he was also not local. Mike Collier, also known as Miks Koljers, is the author of the satirical novel The Fourth Largest in Latvia and the excellent new collection Baltic Byline. He wears a flat cap and has the ruthless dry humor the British are loved best for.  I didn’t burden him with tales of my personal life, but welcomed the opportunity to sleep at his country estate with its majestic views of rolling hills. And eat saldējums. According to Mike, the Latvians do hold the Estonians in higher regard, “because they think that all Lithuanians are crazy, which, based on my own experiences, does seem to be the case.”

The Latvians preferred the company of their northern neighbors, even if they were only interested in their southern friends for their rich, creamy ice cream or, on occasion, exotic women?

A fair trade, I guess.

For me, as an American who had absorbed a lot of Estonia’s prejudices about people and places, plus that sense of superiority they have over all the other ex-inmates at the geopolitical prison called the Soviet Union, I had to say that I enjoyed being in Latvia in this time, pleased to be distracted from everything else going on, titillated by the tiny differences and architectural curiosities and funny words. Imagine a bar called Miks. “Should we go in?” “Miks mitte?” (“Why not?”) Imagine a river called Seda (“That” in Estonian). “Vaata, Seda.” (“Look at that.”) “Mida?” (“What?”) “Seda. The name of this place is Seda.” “Mida?” “Seda!”

Latvians remain a mystery. Women named Ginta and Gunta. Men named Dzintars and Gintars. I have so far not been able to grasp their perspective, though it became more apparent with my visit. There is much in Latvia that is similar, the houses, the history, the cadence of the voices on the squares. Yet Latvia remains apart from Estonia with its Indo-European tongue. There are more brunettes in Latvia, too, so at times I got the sense that I had stumbled across a long-lost Latin settlement, another one of those vanished Roman legions, gone missing in the curling mists and berry bogs of the north woods.

It was these Indo-European roots, I at last grasped, that divided the Estonians from the Latvians, that feeling of connections to the Finns, and, especially to the Sami, that is only apparent in some place names in northern Latvia. As soon as I recrossed the border a few days later, sensing less scrutiny from the Estonian Nation on the back of my neck, feeling more fluid and optimistic about my future, less worried about what might come and content to live life day by day, and saw that sign with the strange word Tahkuranna written across it, I understood that I was on different terrain. Estonian terrain.

I felt like an English trader crossing the frontier, preparing to live among the Cherokee.

a good crisis

Kirju-Eestist_kaas-220x316“A good crisis will bring your work to the next level.”

  — from the chapter “Naised Köögis,” Letters from Estonia

WHEN WE ARRIVED to America with our overstuffed suitcases at the end of the summer of 2013, we moved to the very tip of Long Island, nearly 170 kilometers to the east of New York City. There, in a seaside village, I began working in cafes on much of the material that became this new book.

I was, in retrospect in crisis in every way at that time. Emotionally, physically. Too overwhelmed to work toward some great literary goal, I just borrowed an approach from some of my favorite musicians. Instead of composing perfect pop songs and then going into the studio, they would enter the studio every day, record whatever came to mind. Some of the greatest albums of all time have been recorded in this chaotic, spontaneous, loose way. Think of the eighteen messy songs on The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street. Or the 36 tracks on The Clash’s Sandinista.

That’s how you accomplish great things: improvise.

So the “letters” in Letters from Estonia were envisioned by me really as “song demos.” Every day I would begin work on a different song. Whatever idea came into mind, it was written down. I think the first two chapters I wrote this way were “Kid Sirts and Surfer Taavi” about two bohemian friends of ours, and “Tea with the Icebreaker” about the naturalist Fred Jüssi. I remember when I showed the Jüssi chapter to Epp, she was really pleased with the outcome.

My favorite scene in this chapter is hovering outside Fred Jüssi’s window in the 1980s and watching him write the book Jäälõhkuja and then floating outside my window at the same time.  

That was fun.

I was inspired to write more and to try new approaches to writing, each time focusing on a person, or a place, or an experience in Estonia. This process continued after we moved back to Tartu. “Andres Metspalu’s Elevator Speech” was one interesting result of this experimenting, a new journalism style profile piece, while “Naised Köögis” was one of the more challenging projects I worked on, because my source material was a notepad full of scribbled thoughts from the night they recorded their video in our old house in Viljandi. For this project, I used a new technique, where I inserted “images” into the story, so that the reader could imagine snapshots of the scene without ever seeing them. I love the idea of using imaginary images to accompany text.

As I wrote on, I also started to dig through my older “demos” to discover stories or pieces of dialogue I had written years ago but never finished. A beat up old notebook of conversations from Viljandi that evolved into some great chapters, like “Vastlapäev Arithmetic,” or “Kuldkala,” where I literally wrote down the scenes as they happened, or “Tree Balsam,” from Obinitsa, where I would take breaks working on the farm in November to type my feelings with cold, shaky hands. The project gave me the opportunity to at last complete them.

The desire of anyone involved in such a project is that once it is done, it will all fit together. A song is a song, a chapter is a chapter, but put them all together, and you may get a great album or a great book. I am sure that anyone who reads this book will understand what my life has been like during the past years. It is at times humorous, at times playful, at times melancholic, at times just sad. It begins with a ghostly encounter in the forests of Vormsi, and ends with a man losing his family on a beach at sunset in Narva-Jõesuu, his own idea of the “End of the World.”

These have been the toughest years of my life. This book documents them best.

terrific player


“I know Mart Poom personally,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. “Terrific player.”

ONCE,  WHILE I WAS attending a conference in England, I went to visit my wife’s relative. The taxi took me out into the suburbs of Cambridge, where I walked to the door and pressed the doorbell.

{“I should warn you, he’s had a stroke”}

I did notice that one of his hands was clenched when he greeted me, and when he spoke, it did sound like he was struggling. He told me how he had staggered to the neighbor’s house one night, and the neighbor had understood. “Oh, you’re having a stroke.” But he was still very active. The television was on and he was watching football on the couch. Gamely. Leaning forward a bit. His name was Enn, and he had an Estonian flag on top of his TV set. It was beside a framed image of him with Mart Poom, the famous Estonian goalkeeper.

“I know Mart Poom personally,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. “Terrific player.”

His childhood story had been pretty dramatic, full of war and refugee camps and new beginnings. I had even seen the photo of the two little boys in old-fashioned flat caps fleeing the great disaster.

They were relatives, sons of my father-in-law’s uncle. One was named Tiit and the other was named Enn. Tiit, who became a professor, called himself “Tim,” out of convenience. Enn was just Enn. For his life he remained a man with a name that sounded like a letter of the alphabet.

James Bond had M. Cambridge had Enn.

He wasn’t a big guy, kind of wiry, had a face that was believably English with a little bit of Estonian Lord of the Rings mixed in. He had a working man’s inflection, the cadence of a person who spent a lot of his time hanging out with friends on the corner. There was nothing posh or stiff-lipped about this Brit. And he loved football. I mean, he really loved it. This was obvious from the second you met him. Just watching the movements of the players, sizing them up. “Ooh, look at this bloke, covered with tattoos, seems arrogant though. Ooh, look at that one, he’s pure muscle, isn’t he?”

I tried to appreciate it, but the truth was that organized sports always bored me a little. I never fully understood the pleasure of watching little men run back and forth on a screen. This is probably because I had been raised by people like Enn. In my house growing up, my father, mother, and older brother had gathered just like him at the lip of the couch to watch the little men run, and sometimes get angry and throw things at the TV set and curse the referees.  Whole years of my life passed by like that, with them watching games and me in my room, tinkering with a guitar or something. Once we went to a real game and tried to follow the plays from our stadium seats. It was like watching fleas on the moon. Everyone else was having fun. They had painted their faces. They were crying, laughing, and, predictably, a few were drunk. I asked Dad for more popcorn.

Enn looked up at me from the couch. “I used to play too, you know.”

He had a whole stack of cool old photographs, with a recognizable young Enn standing with various football teams consisting of other players with determined looks on their faces. I remember that one photo was dated 1959. It seemed like so long ago. And yet, it was probably the period of his life that best captured his energy. He seemed to have — even after suffering a stroke — athletic impulses. He showed me photos of his wife, too, who had died, but whom he still adored, and of his parents and his brother, these Estonians that had somehow escaped their native soil and wound up in postwar Britain. Something seemed off about it, like one of those TV shows where they bring in the cast of another TV show for an entertaining, but truly weird special episode.

Enn’s father had been a professor, a musician, and an all-around renaissance man. Many of the men and women in this family were learned people. There were old photos of them with violins and fine suits and dresses, playing in unison, a prewar family, with a well-stocked library in the house, full of musty books. In a word, they were nerds. They were the kind of people tossed around words like filoloog like table salt. And then there was Enn, who didn’t care much for those things, but loved football.

“My parents were good people, they helped us, but they just never took an interest in my games,” he said, tracing a finger around an image of his teenage face in an old picture. “I kept playing for years. I never really quit. If it wasn’t for this stroke, I’d still be playing.”

It was true, his daughter told me later. He had played football up until he was 61. His favorite team was Estonia, but he also supported Cambridge United.

I felt compassion for the man. In my family, it had been the opposite. In my family, it was my older brother’s football heroics and cousin’s baseball victories that filled us with pride. Playing guitar was seen by some as rather regrettable hobby. Enn had experienced the opposite. He had discovered life’s true thrill in athletics. While relatives fiddled, he sweat, he kicked, he knew that full-throttle adrenaline rush.

We should have just switched families.

I didn’t tell Enn this. I watched his game from then on with more interest though. Watched it like I listened to music, or read a good story. It was an art form, too, wasn’t it?

I heard some more tales of football field glory from Enn and, as I did, I remembered that I had also enjoyed running back and forth on a field when I was boy. I realize now that I owe him for that, since word has reached me that he just passed away after Euro 2016. He went to sleep and didn’t wake up. A peaceful way to go. I don’t know what team he had been rooting for but I am sure he was watching.