the very picture of nordic anonymity

AFTER A LONG STRETCH of gray mornings, could there be any better fate than to crack an eye open and spy a patch of blue in the sky? Especially when you are living in the older part of the town, where a custard-colored horizon is flavored by the wondrous silhouettes of chimneys and spires? It makes you happy to still be here alive, to know that somewhere a good cup of coffee awaits. Yes, there is a God, there is a Santa Claus, and all the good things in this world are real and true.

I can imagine Interior Minister Mart Helme felt the same way the other day when I spied him sipping a frothy drink in the back corner of the Maiasmokk Cafe in Tallinn’s Old Town, the very picture of nordic anonymity. It was the day after the Sanna Marin “sales girl” controversy broke and Helme had again become an international news item for his words about the new Finnish prime minister. The American and British press had picked it up and it had gone both global and viral. People in New Zealand were even reading about it.

It’s hard to imagine that many were rushing to Helme’s defense, but no matter, there was still good chocolate and coffee and it was still December after all, just a few days before Christmas. Minister Helme sat in the corner of the cafe alone. He sat alone and no one disturbed him and his hot drink. Down the way at the Tallinn Christmas Market, they were selling spicy glögi. Children were singing, there was a beautiful tree. Seeing Helme, I suddenly found myself chock-full of Christmas cheer and at once wanted to rush into the cafe to wish him good tidings. “There, there, Helme,” I would say with a jolly, good-time wink. “There, there. This too will pass. It is still Christmas!”

Of course, I didn’t go in. Something inside me repressed that convivial, joyful Christmastime feeling. Instead, I watched the solitary man enjoy his drink alone and then take the long solemn march back to his offices, his distinguished profile obscured by the brim of his trademark cap. There was such isolation, such lonesomeness in the scene that triggered a memory of the old Hans Christian Andersen story about the little match girl, whose father made her sell matches on the frozen streets of old Copenhagen, and who was afraid to go home out of fear of being beaten.

One by one, the little match girl lit her matches, watching each flame burn out with sad, Scandinavian eyes. Within each flame she saw happy memories though, the memories of her grandmother, in particular, who was waiting for her in heaven. When the locals discovered the frozen girl the next morning they knew not who she was. “She only wanted to warm herself,” the people had said. Yet no one imagined what beautiful things she had seen, or how happily she had gone with her grandmother into the light.

For the life of me, I couldn’t understand how the sight of a friendless government minister in Tallinn and Andersen’s fairy tale girl in Denmark were linked, but the feeling of the two was similar. I thought of how the little girl in the story had pressed her nose to the glass of the warm houses of the Danish capital, seen the Christmas trees through them, smelled a goose roasting, and then I thought of the glass between me and the minister at the Maiasmokk Cafe, the reflective mirror-like glass on the Russian Embassy across the street, the glass in the windows of the Swedish Embassy a bit further down.

Between all us here was that impenetrable glass. Even in the warmth of Christmas, it kept us apart, prevented us from that sense of camaraderie, togetherness, of amity. That thick nordic glass. It was just everywhere. Even a Swedish friend had reminded me of the glass in a recent conversation. “You’re too much like an open book,” he said. “Everyone knows everything about you. But we northerners are not open. We are closed. It’s because of the cold weather. You should learn to be more like us now that you have been here so long. You should learn to be closed.”

I tried to change the topic, but I started to look at people a little differently after he said it. I watched the people on the streets of Tallinn at Christmas and saw them differently. I started to fear that he was right.

hail and full moon

I WAS COMING BACK FROM RAPLA of all places, traveling that curvy road south through Türi and on to Viljandi. I know the dark woods of northern Viljandimaa well enough, but the forests of Raplamaa, Järvamaa, those are true mysteries. Eerie shadowy little orchards and pine forests spread out alongside the roads, then big bundles of hay. Up there in the gray clouds, that big full moon. People in Viljandi kept messaging me. “Where are you?” “Why aren’t you at the party?” “You’re in the wrong place!” They were all drunk. Down at the Ugala Theatre, a major party was underway. People had come from as far away as Karksi-Nuia in their finest to take part in the scene, the socializing, to rub elbows at the bar. I didn’t want to go anywhere near that place.

I was done with it, and the thing was, I had just left another big party behind in Rapla too. There a funky band called the Kangelased was playing in an industrial yard to the local youth. But I just wanted to be on my own, to think things over. I’ve been there, done that, the drinking scene, the music scene, the one-night-stand scene. I wanted to breathe a bit. My daughter’s birthday was coming up and my 40th birthday too just months away (but now passed as you read this), and I didn’t know what to think. Had it all been a big party, a glorious triumph, or a bloody disaster?

There was this sensation as if I had been fleeing a crumbling bridge, like in some adventure movie. You run and the bridge just crumbles beneath your feet into some abyss as you head toward the safer ground. All of that was over. The big traumas, the big changes, the upheaval. That was all done, they said. So this is it, the safer ground, the vantage point. I had reached it and it looked like a tree-lined road outside of Rapla. Looking back, looking down that ravine of the past where the bridge fell was terrifying though. That moon hung in the clouds like an owl.

I put on some music to take my mind off things and it began to hail. Big glassy chunks of the stuff came hammering down out of the sky and pummeling everything. That lovely musical tinkle. This godforsaken beautiful country, what a mess. No matter the season, you could count on a freak hailstorm. The way grew icier and soon I could barely see, so I decided to pull the car over onto the side of the road and wait out the storm. Down it came still, in thick crystal flurries. It wasn’t freezing though, but it was moist enough that I could see my breath. Soon all the windows were obscured by fog. It was me there alone in the car and the sound of mother nature.

A song came on there in the dark. It was an old song that reminded me of my childhood, but it reminded me of something else. There had been another night, a humid, sumptuous evening in the hot summer. On that night, there had been another party, and there had been a lot of drinking, and when our wine glasses were empty we refilled them and refilled them again. Then, in the thick of it, a young woman I admired walked into the party in a red dress. As soon as I saw her, I leapt to my feet, as if animated by some supernatural power. I went at once to her and we began to dance to the same song that was now playing on my tiny car stereo in a hailstorm near Rapla.

A great gush of love began to flow through my body as we danced together that night, and it lingered even when the song ended, and we held each other briefly and I kissed her on the side of her head and embraced her just one moment more. “Thank you for the dance,” I had said to her, and she had looked at me and thanked me as well. “But now I must be going,” she said. “I know,” I said. Go now and live. Let the dream of life carry you forward into never-ending ecstasy.

For a few moments, everything had been worth it.

This column appears in the winter issue of the magazine Hingele Pai.

read it in books

I’M GRATEFUL NOW, when I think about it, that I was exposed to Estonia’s eldest generation when I came here years ago, through the mother of my children, whose older relatives were all still quite alive, and came to visit and be photographed with our eldest daughter when she was born. These were people who were born in the 1920s and whose entire youth was anchored in the prewar Estonian state, that time when AH Tammsaare was mass producing literature, not just Truth and Justice (1926-1933), but I Loved a German (1935), and The Misadventures of the New Satan (1939). It was the radio era, when books were treasured and families would sit around the fire on winter nights reading for pleasure, without any disruptive technologies.

My understanding is that books continued to be valued in the Soviet era, and that they were quite cheap. As such, though they needed special permission to visit the islands of their own country, the elder generation was still able to amass a trove of good books at minimal cost at that time, so that even though their options were limited in the physical world, mentally they enjoyed more freedom, and the walls of their homes were still overflowing with volumes when I came to visit them, old books everywhere.

The book age was all supposed to come to an end though with the digital era, and we were supposed to abandon paper books for glowing flat screens. Yet something strange happened. We continued to invest in and buy books.

As someone who is deeply involved in the creation of these products, I have to say I am mystified. Why do we still buy them? A visit to a bookstore in Estonia today can be overwhelming. Have we ever had such choices? Even the series of Minu books takes up several book cases. There is Estonian literature, and then foreign translations. But there is also a wonderful selection of English-language books (yes, I prefer to read in English) which was not available 10 or 15 years ago. Recently, I was given a gift card to a bookstore and spent a good hour perusing all of the new offerings because I couldn’t decide which books to take home. In the end, I bought two obscure Ernest Hemingway titles — Death in the Afternoon (1939) and To Have and Have Not (1937) — which are, 80 years after the radio era, still in print.

Books (and gift certificates for books) remain one of the most cherished gifts that Estonians give each other during the holidays. I used to think this was because people had limited imaginations, and couldn’t think of what to buy each other, and books seemed like a respectable gift, but others say it is because Estonians treasure books as they have for many decades in the past. They were the literate peasant people, they say, able to read since the Swedish monarchs established a system of schools many centuries ago. Yet I think one of the reasons books remain a popular gift, especially at Christmas, is just because they are wonderful items to share among people.

Books are paper and print, true, but, if they are well-written, and their authors have worked their special author magic, they are also filled with a substance — sisu, as the Estonians say — that is lacking in new ski boots, cinnamon-smelling candles, or loaves of gingerbread dough wrapped in plastic. Is there really a gift out there that measures up to a new, good book? I no longer have any doubts. If you come to my house, it’s starting to look like one of those old Estonian relatives’ places. The titles are stacked up on the shelves by my bed. Old books, new books, favorite books. I don’t even need to read them all. Just looking at all of those books makes me feel good.

This column appeared in the winter issue of Kõik Koos – Lõunakeskuse Ajakiri.