From a mural by Jason Mario and Kim Pluskota in Viljandi

THIS HAPPENED TO ME not too long ago, in the winter maybe, when I was coming around the corner at a local shopping center and saw a group of young women coming the other way. There were three or four of them, most of them had blonde hair, which wasn’t unusual, but there was something about their posture, or facial expressions, or hidden vital essence that tipped me off. “Ah,” I thought to myself. “Finns. Soomlased.”

You can imagine my surprise when I heard them speaking Finnish a moment or so later, detectable even from some distance by the intonation, the way they tend to pronounce certain sounds, and how they enunciate loudly, rather than swallowing up all their words in a whisper like the Estonians. I was rather impressed with myself, but also unnerved.

I had really been living here for a long time. Not only had I started eating buckwheat porridge with salt, I had a sense of the neighbors. I could now tell an Estonian from a Finn just on sight.

Estonians think the differences are stark and tangible, but for outsiders, Estonians and Finns don’t actually seem too different from one another. I’ve spent plenty of time on trams in Helsinki doing double takes as some random fellow traveler happens to look like a relative or a friend of mine. “Silver Sepp? Is that you?” “Mitä?” One young woman on a Helsinki tram looked like my child. My own child. Think about that. This is how the Finns and Estonians have become my people.

In my mind, this expanse of our people covers not only Finland and Estonia, but Setomaa too, the Sami in the far north, and the Karelians on the lakes in the east. It’s like some submerged nation, split up by some political borders, divided by official languages, but really a continuum. My roots are not in this place, but I do get the chills when I understand something in Karelian.

How is that possible? How do I know?

While I recognize the Estonians and the Finns as kindred nations, things feel a bit different once you cross the southern border, because it’s there that you start to encounter Latvians, who to someone who is used to the company of Estonians, seem foreign. The terrain of northern Latvia looks familiar enough, all of those pine forests and moss, but soon you are bound to meet someone named Niks or Dace, someone who doesn’t look like an Estonian. They seem strange.

As an American, none of this should faze me. In fact, it bothers me a little that I would have picked up some local prejudices. I should feel just as close to the Latvians as I do to the Estonians. They are all Europeans. Somehow, living here though, I have developed a very deep sense of who is “one of us” and who is a stranger. How? I cannot really say. It’s not in how they look, or how they carry themselves. Yes, the language is different, and looks distinct to eyes accustomed to Estonian. But there is something else there. Something I cannot express in words but just know on sight. Recently, I confessed this deep suspicion to an Estonian friend of mine.

“I know I am not one of you,” I said, “but I just feel more comfortable in Tallinn than in Riga.”

“Of course, of course,” he said, patting me on the back. “They are strangers. Not our people.” Nad on võõrad. Mitte meie omad.

  • This column appears in the summer issue of the magazine Hingele Pai.


mysteries of the south

IT WAS A FUNNY PHENOMENON. In all my years living in Tartu, I would notice that when summer came, in the weeks after Saint John’s Day, the city would empty out and the streets would be mostly silent and a light breeze would scatter dust down the vacant sidewalks. There was no one around anymore, even though the city’s parks were their most lush and inviting. The peculiar scenes of the academic year — students in corporation uniforms standing on rooftops drinking mugs of beer — disappeared, and Tartu, like most other cities in the south, became a ghost town.

There still were people in the south of Estonia, of course, but they had dispersed to the countryside, and were living at their country houses and farms, scattered and hidden between the mossy forests and rolling hills and lakes. It was harder to see all of the people this way, and one got the sense that there were no people left in the south at all. From Tartu down to Obinitsa and the Russian border, the only evidence of life were the distant lights and smoke from the bonfires.

When you would go out to meet friends in the summer, the geography of the south revealed itself to you in its unknown forms. On the map, everything is spread out for you to see. Everything is held together by roads, intersections, gas stations, signs. On the map, you have a great sense of the distances between places. From Tartu to Võru it’s 73 kilometers, and from Põlva to Võru it’s 27 kilometers. Once you get off the roads though, once you venture into the forests, the distances between minor topographic changes — a hill, a valley — become enormous. One ventures down the steps of, say, Süvahavva to the Võhandu River, discovering forest trails and blue flowers along the way. There are endless discoveries to be made. Every tree here has its own biography.

You can walk for hours like this through the countryside and feel as if you haven’t reached any real destination. It’s one of those ‘the journey is the destination’ kinds of things. No matter where you go in the south, to the little Seto farmsteads in the hinterlands, with their midnight black smoke saunas, you will always find a little path behind the outhouse that leads to another farm, another sauna. There is always something new lurking just beyond those woods, over those hills.

Just when you think you have reached the edge of civilization itself, you spy a light on in a distant cabin window and hear the echo of an accordion. Once you reach the cabin, you realize you have stumbled into a wedding party. An old farmer with a scruffy beard offers you a shot of handsa and you drink it gladly, not really knowing how you got there or where you will go next. This is the true mystery of the south, revealing itself to you one intrigue at a time.

This column appeared in the spring/summer issue of Kõik Koos – Lõunakeskuse Ajakiri. Photos by my daughter, Maria Petrone.

never summer in april or may

IT’S SPRING NOW, a real, genuine spring. Estonians think that if the ice cream is dripping in the sunlight it must be summer, but, no, it’s still spring. This is another one of their peculiar ticks: naming the season based on the weather. “Winter” arrives with the first snows, “summer” with the first warm days. Social media accounts buzz, “It’s summer!” Most trees here still lack leaves.

“It’s not summer yet,” I tell them. “It can never be summer in April or May.” No one listens.

Life continues, everything in the air, in flux. Trains crisscross the country, the ferries depart. Fires smoke in the distance. Men and women stare out windows dreaming. Men hammer roofs, chisel intersections. Women shake carpets. In parks, alcoholics regather. Outside the cafe where I work, someone has put out traps for the ants. Tere, jõudu. Back to work!

For me it should be as well, but I feel restless, listless. The urge to float away, to do nothing at once. All the great books written, everything seen and done, all eternal loves now lost for good. At the Tallinn Coffee Festival the other day, I drank five cappuccinos. It was wonderful, and I achieved for a few moments a state of ecstasy or bliss known only to the Indian tantra cults.

Sometimes I wonder if writing serves any purpose at all. Then there’s politics.

As a writer I have come to hold the dirty business or black arts of politics at arm’s length and with good reason. Too many great talents have been swallowed up by the political waves of their days. Recent history is rife with such tales. Writers who involve themselves in politics are played for fools or worse. Think of Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos falling out during the Spanish Civil War. Hemingway went on to host Castro on his yacht, Dos Passos became an enthusiastic convert to conservatism. Nobody won. The writers lost.

It was always the political instigators who actually benefited most from these relationships: they got to appropriate the aura and mystique of great writing, to anoint themselves with the creativity of others. The Soviets were no different, with their state-sanctioned “people’s writers.” Every time I encounter the works of Juhan Smuul, an Estonian writer who won the Stalin and Lenin Prizes, I wonder how he would have fared as a writer without the support of the Communist authorities.

The most notorious of them all is, of course, Mr. Johannes Vares, who led the puppet government during the Soviet annexation in 1940. A poet and doctor, he should have never had anything to do with politics. Nor should have the French writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline or the American poet Ezra Pound, both of whom supported the Axis Powers in the Second World War by writing pamphlets and producing radio broadcasts. As history has shown, collaboration with any authority, and illiberal authorities in particular, only harms the reputations and work of writers.

The best thing a writer can do, even in times of political upheaval, is to keep on writing honestly. The only words that matter are the honest ones. A writer should remain an island, an autonomous psyche. Never should we join hands with propagandists, never should we give ourselves fake political names. There is no ideology out there that can contain all the contradictions of a free mind, there is no movement that can summarize with a few cheap slogans the human condition.

There is no political force that can shut up free thought so long as we continue to think freely. Honest writers will always win too, because political parties and movements just come and go. They are as changeable as the weather. One second as hot as summer, the next a brisk spring. One honest sentence will outlast them all.