the town that time forgot

EVERY TIME I am in Riga, I have a car accident. This is because the traffic system, if it can be called that, is a little confusing. I type the address into Google Maps — Igaunija — and the little voice starts directing me, “go left, then go right, then make a left, and then a right, then go back,” and I look down at the screen, just to see this weird geometric pattern I have drive to get out of Riga, and in the meantime traffic has stopped and my car has hit the one in front of me, which is driven by either a Latvian Latvian or a Russian Latvian, either of whom is displeased. 

Fortunately this time, there was no damage, and the driver, a Latvian Latvian, I think, drove away looking miserable, but not miserable enough to call the criminal police, or the traffic police, or whomever is responsible for such mishaps in this country. The driver was an older man in a sports jacket with white whiskers and sharp eyes. He looked like a wolf. I was left to drive away, to “turn left, slight right, turn left,” all the way back to Igaunija. Actually, I saw no sign for Estonia. Instead, there was a sign pointing to Ainaži. Heinaste. That was where I needed to be.

There is actually a pleasantness to Riga, though, with its lush spring greenery draped across the colorful buildings that remind one of Prague and other points south. Once you get out of Riga, you encounter the forests that seem to guard the border areas between the countries. It had never occurred to me that forests could also be a physical border, but we were driving through this area. After being in Denmark for the week, the sight of such vast misty pine forests was stirring. I thought of those Teutonic Knights who once rode on horses through this landscape. 

How did they even do it?

I HAD SPENT most of my week in Copenhagen, where I once studied as a young undergraduate two decades ago. Not much has changed in Denmark’s capital city since then. There is a new metro system, and many of the old restaurants have changed hands. The people look the same though, posh and blonde, and somehow very satisfied with their lives, and the feel of the city is exuberant, and lively, more so than Tallinn. Copenhagen is walkable and thick with diversity and somehow true to its Danishness. The pretty girls on bicycles are still there, except now they are texting and cycling at the same time. The smell of cannabis and sizzling falafel is in the air. Something about Copenhagen reminds me of Tallinn though, the same way that something about Amsterdam reminds me of New York. It has the same feel, and I could only conclude that Estonia was still in its soul a Danish colony. But the Estonians are not Scandinavians, they are something else. Just weeks ago I had stood on Uus Street in Viljandi and passed by a house where the entire roof had collapsed. How long would it stand there, rotting in the weather? Until someone approves a renovation plan? Or the owners have enough money to fix it? Would the Danes allow their country to fall to pieces like that? Wouldn’t it break some safety ordinance? 

I HAD SOMEHOW forgotten of this poverty while in Copenhagen, which has a different kind of poverty, the poverty of old trains covered in graffiti, of city street sidewalks littered with trash, of indigent people who smoke hashish, rather than drink vodka, and sleep on benches, undisturbed. Even when we passed over the border into Estonia, where the traffic situation seemed to snap back into place, and I felt everything was more efficiently run, familiar, comprehensible, we still saw nothing really, even on the road past Kilingi-Nõmme, and then up through Kõpu to Viljandi. Our first sights of Viljandi were the waste station, the police station, a gas station, and then some derelict houses of Kantreküla, then the Old Cemetery, and Ugala Theatre, and the road back up toward the center. Our street, Posti Street, is riddled with holes, the sidewalks are broken. Piece by piece, the city is being put back together but this zest for restoration has not yet reached us. There have been projects on Tallinn Street and on Pikk Street, but one has to ask, how did it even get this way? Was it a lack of money or consensus? It’s been 30 years since 1991. How long can we blame Communism for this shantytown life?

Through this well-lived-in shanty town called Viljandi, the town that time forgot, drifted some strange and exotic characters, whom I recognized as the läänemeresoomlased, the Baltic Finns. They were all actually the same big nation, the Estonians and the Finns and Karelians and others. I was back in their nation, and would have to readjust my mindset to theirs, the same way one moves the arms of a clock. The cool wind toyed with the straw-colored hair of the young women of the town, who walked by aloof, each in her own world. Packs of young boys roved the lanes on bicycles, yelling out “Satan,” Kurat. In the evening, I went for a walk by the lake. It was mid-May and still so cold. The wind moved the waters of the lake and the castle hills were growing greener. I came up by the Airplane Factory, and the old building across from it, which is being renovated into apartments. Slowly, ever so slowly, things were coming together. Viljandi felt like the sleepiest, dreamiest place there was though. Perhaps a good place to write a novel, or do anything creative. To disappear from the world, to focus one’s energies within.

Something like that.


This article appears in Estonian, translated by Triin Loide, in the 19 May 2022 edition of Sakala.

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