the estonian aesthetic

ON THE ROAD between Sõmerpalu and Sangaste, I stopped my car and got out to take in the view. No matter how many times I travel this stretch of highway, the effect is the same, especially in spring. I love the grassy hills that roll like seas, the trim green forest line, the air that’s so fresh it hurts to breathe it, the farm buildings clumped together here and there, each one forming a perfect minimalist island. This is the Estonian aesthetic razed into the landscape: pure, sparse, spread out. It reminds me of that famous Arvo Pärt quote, “In art, everything is possible, but everything is not necessary.”

This point came up recently in conversation at a cafe with a newer arrived foreigner who wanted to know about the origins of the peculiar local names “Tiit” and “Priit.” “Tiit,” I told him, probably comes from the German name ‘Dietrich.’ Maybe one of the Order knights was named Dietrich, you know, in the 13th century? The Estonians probably called this knight ‘Tiidrik.’ Then they shortened that to ‘Tiit.’ It’s the same with Friedrich. Friedrich, Priidik, Priit. The Estonians are practical people. They only need one syllable.”

Practical yes, but that’s only part of it. Rather, Estonians value the beauty of efficiency. In trying to describe the national aesthetic to outsiders I have often relied on the metaphor of the Japanese zen rock garden, where rocks are carefully selected and arranged in order. It’s an assembly where every component serves a purpose, and any part that does not complement or support that specific purpose detracts from it. It idealizes restraint. Simplicity. Less is more. Everything is possible, but everything is not necessary. This is their philosophy. It governs all. It’s why people won’t return your letters if there was no overwhelming reason to. It’s why people won’t go to the same store twice in the same day if they can help it. It’s just too much. The ideal Estonian day would hum along with tones of minimalist perfection ringing out like one of Arvo Pärt’s compositions.

As clean and tidy as the Estonian countryside itself.

How strange then that this fondness for less is more hasn’t carried over into the commercial culture. For if the nature of the land and its people is one of restraint, of austerity, of less is more, the world of commerce has embraced the exact opposite. In the supermarkets of this country, more is simply more, and you must have more and more of it. Every holiday centers on total excess. Come Saint John’s Day, not only are the bonfire piles stacked high with wood, but the shopping carts are full of products and packaging.

Who knows how many plastic tubs full of fatty kebab meat, or how many cans of lukewarm amber beer, pass through the intestines of the Estonian nation on these feast days of gluttony. I imagine mountains of pork, lakes of alcohol, or swamps of greasy salads. When it’s all over, the cans and plastic containers and utensils are tossed away, removed to somewhere out of sight.

Yet just because it’s out of sight does not mean that it’s out of existence. It just goes somewhere else in Estonia. So that even if you stop on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere to marvel at the countryside, you may be rankled when an empty bag of potato chips happens to float by in the wind. Which is what happened on the road between Sõmerpalu and Sangaste.

I chased the bag down and picked it up, and put it in my car to throw out later. There was already a ton of trash in there anyway. An empty plastic bag of popcorn, a plastic container of nuts. There was even an empty bag of olives. Then I looked at the scenery of the Estonian countryside again, breathed in that wonderful air, so heavy on the lungs, and understood better why I enjoyed it all so much. The land was natural, ordered, and (mostly) spotless. It was uncluttered and ascetic. Everything that my life wasn’t.

greenport before the storm


IT’S WEDNESDAY NIGHT in Greenport and a storm is about to hit. Deserted streets, dusted in snow, most of the shops shuttered. This is the winter off-season out here. The most vibrant signs of life are the strings of Christmas lights that rustle in the wind.

In the summer, Greenport is crowded over with tourists. All the restaurants are open, the boutiques bustle, the ferry horn honks. There’s no parking and city people roller blade down the street on new skates. Yet I prefer Greenport, and other summer spots like it, in winter. I like it cold and vacant because then I can savor its true character. Any summer destination is best experienced in the cold season, when there are only locals around.

On Front Street, Aldo Maoirana is closing up. He runs his cafe out of an old wooden building with a cream-colored facade. Here Aldo sells homemade biscotti and roasts his own coffee, filling the streets with a stinging white smoke. The floors of Aldo’s are true maritime Greenport distressed wood, and fishermen come in here daily, but the walls are a Mediterranean red, and Aldo plays Italian folk music for his clients. This is where the New World meets the old. Out beyond Greenport‘s piers, it’s just ocean and ocean.

All the way back to Europe.

The man himself has a mop of curly white hair and sports a dark turtleneck. He is known all over by his first name alone. His staff are often newer arrivals to Greenport from Central America — dark-haired Salvadorans, Guatemalans — whose happiness is contagious. “I’m more used to speaking Spanish and English now than I am French and Italian,” Aldo says and shrugs. Aldo was born in Sicily, raised in France. So why is he out here at the tip of this island, in what feels like the middle of nowhere, in deep winter?

“But this is the best time to be here!” he insists.

Aldo’s good company, but even he is closing up and heading home before the storm hits. He pushes some crisp biscotti my way though before he goes. “Here, take two,” he says.

Outside the windows of the coffee house, a kids’ hockey team is making use of the rink, which is set up right next to the harbor. There are only eight kids on the team — there aren’t that many kids who live around here year round. Round and round they skate under the white lights. Greenport hockey. Beside them the old-fashioned carousel, a never-ending source of summertime amusement, is nothing but a stable full of ghosts.

Few ever see Greenport as it looks tonight, so desolate and stark. It’s the last major settlement on Long Island, the largest island in the continental United States. Known for its fish shape, the island’s tail terminates in two peninsulas, the South Fork, home to the glitzy Hamptons, and the more subdued North Fork, known for its farms and dairies, as well as the many vineyards that line the road all the way to its terminus — Greenport.

It’s a mostly easy ride from Manhattan here, and buses will take you out here for a good price and give you wireless Internet and free drinks along the way. Locals soak up the tourist income all summer long, and farmers even sell jam on the road sides at extortionate prices. Then the winter comes and the farmers huddle by their fires and most of the shops shut. That’s when you get to know who really lives in Greenport.

If you ask any of them, they will tell you, they prefer it lonesome. They came out here to get away from people. They came for the silence, for the solitude. They put up with the tourists, just so they can last the dreamy winter with some money in their pockets.

By the pier, an old fishing shop has been converted to an oyster bar. All of Greenport is closed now, but Little Creek Oysters is still steaming shellfish and serving up bowls of scallop chowder. Outside, little boys play on frozen puddles in an alleyway. “Don’t play too rough,” a mother scolds them through a window and then shuts it and the boys’ game goes on. It’s the most Old World, European thing I have seen in New York.

Inside, there is warmth and music and hospitality. Patrons in old sweaters and coats huddle around rough wooden tables and the puckered gray oysters come out on platters. Then someone announces that school has been cancelled for the following day on account of the coming storm and great cheers ring out. Supposedly the storm is supposed to hit at midnight, but that’s hours away. That means there’s time for more oysters, beer.

The bartender, a young woman with hair as rich and dark as chocolate pudding, tells me how much she loves living here, especially at this time of year. She is from Queens, I think she says over the music and voices, or Brooklyn. She’s another urban refugee in search of that elusive mix of fishing village silence and genuine camaraderie, another Greenporter waiting for the storm to hit. “It’s still the same island,” she says. That’s true, but so far from its other, busier end.  I can’t help but like her as she takes my order and I sit down in a corner with a notebook and pen. Soon push them aside. I don’t want to write any more about Greenport tonight, I decide in the corner. I want to enjoy it as it is.

A shorter, Estonian-language version of this piece appeared in the spring-summer issue of Traveller, Estravel’s new magazine, out in shops now.