three years away

THREE YEARS I was away. Almost exactly, to the date. The last days I remember being here were in July. It was the time of the Green Corn Festival, hosted by the local Indian nation. I went to the powwow and talked to the head woman. We both knew her predecessor, Chief Ted. She told me she was disappointed in him, because he died and left her to run things.

I knew not what to say, but that was three years ago.

In the August after my return to Estonia, I traveled to Stockholm, and that fall, the fall of ’19, I turned 40 years old and took a ship to Helsinki the following day to participate in Slush, a major meeting of startups. I was supposed to have a meeting with an important source regarding a book, but she stayed in Paris and changed her plans. I don’t even remember coming back on the ship. It would be the last time I would leave Estonia for almost three years.

Then the new decade dawned, and the pandemic with it. I welcomed the first lockdown and slept through those weeks in late March and April. But there were others, and I cannot really say where the time went. 2020. 2021. It was only in May 2022, that my car crossed the Latvian border, and we drove all the way to Riga and flew to Copenhagen, like normal people, like the way it once was. And in June, they finally allowed American citizens to travel to the US without showing any kind of COVID-19 test result. So our flight back went smoothly. There were no additional hurdles. There we were, after three years, in John F. Kennedy International Airport.

THE FIRST THING that I probably noticed in New York that struck me as strange was the clerk at the airport shop asking me about my shirt. He asked me where the North Fork was, and I explained to him that Long Island, the same island we both stood on at the time, had two forks at its end, and one fork was the North Fork and the other was the South Fork. The North Fork had Orient Point and the ferry to Connecticut and the South Fork had the Hamptons. It occurred to me that in Estonia, nobody would start a conversation with a client like that.

The following day yielded a few more surprises. In the liquor store, I watched as a man greeted the owner with, “God bless you and God bless this great country!” The seller was taken slightly aback but welcomed the blessing. I was then trying to determine the price of a bottle of prosecco with my father. Almost as soon as I had stepped off the plane, the US Supreme Court had repealed Roe vs. Wade. “Oops, we were wrong about that one.” What was going on in this country? Later, former President Donald Trump was quoted as saying the ruling was the will of God. How did he know what God wanted? And what did God have to do with a Long Island liquor store? None of these things seemed to make sense. These were my thoughts as I stood outside Carvel beneath a great poster celebrating the 45th birthday of Fudgie the Whale.

“A whale of an ice cream cake.”

MOST NEW YORKERS are foreign in provenance. The Republican primary for governor was between Lee Zeldin, a “Trump won” denialist who is Jewish, and Andrew Giuliani, who is Italian. New Yorkers don’t notice these things. They are trained to ignore them or to pretend that they don’t matter. For someone who has lived abroad for many years, you cannot help but notice that nearly all the inhabitants of this place arrived, mainly by ship, within the past 150 years. Within a generation, they had stripped themselves of their languages and roots, and became Homo americanus. Zeldin won, but Giuliani got to raise his profile in the press. Their signs were everywhere on the island. Giuliani, Zeldin. Zeldin, Giuliani. They love America. Did we love our predecessor countries as much? Was there once a contest featuring an ancient Zeldin proclaiming his love for Minsk, or a Giuliani kissing the blessed vineyards of Tuscany?

The land my parents live on was part of a land grant to British settlers made out by the local Indian nation in the 1660s, the same one that celebrates the Green Corn Festival every July. They are still here. For the ensuring three centuries, it remained mostly undeveloped farmland and forest. The postwar boom brought city dwellers east. The land was carved up into small estates of an acre or two. Each homestead has a manicured lawn, carefully placed trees and shrubberies, often a swimming pool. Food is imported from local farms or from California or Mexico. To get anywhere, you need to drive there, but rising gas prices are starting to bite. It is an inherently unsustainable way of life, but it limps forward, nurtured by sprinkler systems, tended to by cheap Central American labor. Hefty trucks, driven by contractors, rule the roads. Nobody wants to accept that it is unsustainable, even if it is. They want lower gas prices and a Fudgie the Whale the cake. They want god to bless their prosecco and this great country too.

It certainly is great, but how and in what ways, that I cannot yet discern. More vast than great. That’s how it seems to me.

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