coastal people

A nautical chart of Montauk Point, Long Island

PEOPLE WHO GROW UP by the seaside are a bit different from those who grow up deep in the country. How exactly, I am not yet sure. I have been told by islanders from Hiiumaa and Saaremaa, for instance, that it was hard for them to acclimate to life in Tartu when they went there as teenagers to study. I know this feeling well, because I also used to live in Tartu, a city where the only major body of water is a long river that overflows from time to time. There was something about being nestled among those hills that left a coastal person feeling cooped up, claustrophobic, off balance. You would roam the parks and forests around the city, but still felt you hadn’t really gone anywhere. What you really yearned for was an infinite stretch of unknowable wet silver blue spreading out in every direction, the howl of maritime wind, the sight in winter or in summer of the Christmas-like lights of a distant ship passing along the horizon.

I grew up in such a place, about an hour east from Manhattan, on the Atlantic coast. It used to be a fishing village that bloomed into a summer resort in the early part of the 20th century. Then, at some point after, Italians discovered this sandy paradise and settled there in droves. They held endless parties and forgot all about Mussolini and the cobblestone streets of Europe. As a child, the blue-green shimmer of the bay was visible from my second-floor bedroom window. I developed an intimate relationship with the sea from the earliest age, and came to know the stink of low tide, when the water went out, and the strange artifacts the sea left behind, clumps of fermenting seaweed, the skeletal remains of crabs, and discarded buoys.

In the summers, we would eat bowls of steamed mussels with garlic and butter, or huge red lobsters and even deep-fried soft shell crabs with lemon juice and marinara sauce. My mother or father would buy the lobsters during the day and they would remain in a paper bag — alive — in our refrigerator until the moment they were dropped into the rushing, boiling waters, from which they tried in vain to claw themselves free. I thought nothing of it.

My father had been a clammer for sometime in his youth. He would take his boat out to a good spot, rake up the clams, and sell them on the side of the road for good money. When I was a child, he acquired a larger vessel, and we would explore the coves and bays around our home. I wore a yellow life vest and kicked happily in the bath-warm salty sea waters. I remember the first time I saw a starfish and I remember how I could still feel the flow of the tides in my veins, even safely back on dry land.

Jacques Cousteau would have approved.

Once when we were out on the boat, we got caught up in bad weather and another captain towed us to a private dock, where we spent some time in the home of his mother. She made us tea and gave me a great chest of old toys to play with that had belonged to her son, the captain, when he was a boy in the 1950s. I remember being fascinated by that treasure chest of old toys. Another time, my grandfather came out on the boat and the wind blew away his old-fashioned white flat cap. My father retrieved it with a net, and Grandpa put the cap back on his head.

I tell these stories because I know that the countryside is deep in the hearts of the Estonian people around me. For them the country — which they simply call maa, as if it was an uncharted ocean itself — is a rejuvenating or regenerative place. There is no greater pleasure than picking mushrooms or harvesting potatoes or swimming in a murky lake. Sometimes I get so lost in this country life though that I forget my own origins on the coast. I forget how well I knew the water, I forget its mysteries, I forget its treasures and its allure of adventure. That’s when I head to somewhere like Pärnu or Haapsalu or Kuressaare, and stare out at the water, and regain my sense of balance.

Just the sight of a coastline and I’m home.

An Estonian-language version of this column appears in the winter 2018 issue of the magazine Hingele Pai.

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