little reykjavík

IN THE SPRING last year, I finally got my hands on a new bicycle from a shop on Kaalu Street in Viljandi, the one located above the laundry. It sat patiently for me in the corner, just the right proportions, just the right price, and inscribed with the tantalizing word Adriatica. The Adriatic is the sea between Italy and the Balkans, and it so happens that my forebears came from the coasts of these turquoise waters. That is how the bicycle spoke to me and we reached some agreement. Cash between me and the owners quickly changed hands. Adriatica was now mine.

This spring, I have used Adriatica to explore Viljandi, this town in which I have been anchored for all of the crisis. Days turn into weeks which turn into months and then turn into years. My children ask me questions like, “Do you remember anything that happened in April?”  I have my favorite routes. I know that if I take the bike down the hill to the lake, and then ride it all the way down to Huntiaugu at the foot of Männimäe and then back, my mood will improve. Even if I see some small town tragedies. Once I saw a Russian man sleeping in the grass, drunk. He was still clutching his mobile phone. Two Estonians passed him, discussed whether or not they should give him a hand and then decided to do nothing about him and walked away. 

I didn’t feel like doing anything about it either. 

If I take the bike into shady Uueveski, down streets like Lembitu or Ilmarise, my mood depresses. There are personal reasons for this, but it’s also harder to navigate in Uueveski. Uueveski also has more foliage, and so even on those few sunny days, it is dark in there.

A recent route has been through Uueveski and into Peetrimõisa, which is still unexplored terrain for me. The road into Peetrimõisa is dangerous, but if you hang to the side of the road and stay focused, you can turn quickly up streets like Sõstra or Kreegi. These streets are fun to explore. The neighborhood has both a rundown shantytown feel, but also is the site of relentless renovation and improvement. There are greenhouses where locals grow their own produce, ancient rusting Soviet trucks rotting in backyards. At one intersection, swings have been hung from a tree in a public park. Every other yard features a trampoline or batuut, the status symbol of any Estonian family. You must have a trampoline if you are going to pretend to be someone. 

There is no other say in the matter. 

On the weekends, when the Estonians are out, they try to find ways to occupy their time. We are told that life is short and time is of the essence, but it seems they have to find endless ways to entertain themselves with overly ambitious renovation projects that go nowhere, or just the never-ending act of burning brush, so that the streets are filled with the sting of white smoke. These scenes I encounter from the perch of my bike, which seems somehow decadent here. Shouldn’t I also be fixing or burning something? How can I waste my time just cycling around?

But I live in a town apartment, you see. The only thing to burn is old paper bags from Rimi.

From Peetrimõisa, I cycle up and around toward Karula, pausing at that old German graveyard down by the lake, the one with the mossy crosses and mossy stones. Du bist meine rettung. “You are my savior.” All this talk, all this talk about the Soviets and the Soviet era, and all through it these Germans have been sleeping here watching wistfully over Lake Karula, dreaming in eternity. No one minds them, no one thinks of them, and their graves are a mess. 

From there, I take the road back into town, past a military installation and some car dealerships. This angle of town also makes me feel lonely. That wind is blowing through and there is hardly anyone around until you get to Uku Keskus, that former prison that now brings so many people such joy. During the lockdown, if you waited and watched, you could even talk your way into Hawaii Express to pick up a bicycle pump, if you needed one, though technically they were only on call for orders. I remember how I used to come up here last year during the last lockdown and wear rubber gloves and a mask, as if I was doing maintenance on the International Space Station. Marek Strandberg had a YouTube video about how to decontaminate products. People were afraid you could get the virus from touching a magazine. I’m not as careful now. Maybe I should be, but in any case, I get back on Adriatica and ride.

I go to Paalalinn too, sometimes, to get some good dark chocolate from the supermarket there. I tend to avoid Männimäe, but not for any personal reasons, but because it’s not on my route. There is also Kantreküla, which yields surprises. There is always a street or house you somehow missed all the other times you have been through it. So much packed in a small town.

Then it’s down to the lake again, where I cruise along that cluster of modern houses in what I have been told was once a sheep pasture. I call this neighborhood “Little Reykjavík” because there are almost no trees there and it looks like the suburbs of Reykjavík, Iceland, that I’ve explored. Seldom do I see people in Little Reykjavík, and only if I peer through the windows can I see a family watching the news from a big screen TV, or maybe a man tinkering with a leased car. By the lake one day I encountered some Finns who were camping. Finns always seem a bit more robust and even a little eccentric. They are like the Estonians’ weird cousins. “Oh, yes, don’t bother with him,” they say about them. “Always been a little strange.”

There by the lake, I look up at all the houses on the hill and wonder if I will ever get back to the real Reykjavík. The hot public baths, the volcanoes, the funny cafes, the tasty soups, all those pretty girls. I suppose I could go, but it still seems complicated and there is always the danger that you might not be able to get back so I’ll have to settle for Little Reykjavík for now. 

It’s really not so bad here in Viljandi. We have the lake and we have our bikes. Sometimes I wonder if there is any difference between being there, here, or anywhere anymore.

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