coffee with mati

ALMOST EVERY MORNING, I have coffee with Mati in town. We have no set arrangement; we just happen to visit the same cafe when it opens. Mati likes to drink his coffee black and gets it refilled in his own half-broken mug. I typically have a cappuccino. We look quite different. He looks like an old painter, with his long beard. But we are growing more similar over time. We both make absurd jokes to the women behind the counter who smile but don’t understand us. I must admit that sometimes, most times, actually, I don’t understand Mati’s jokes. He tells me that I am incapable of understanding them though because I am not a native Estonian speaker.

“Your small Indo-European mind is incapable of understanding the deep nuances of Estonian,” Mati has said. He may be right. If my Indo-European mind is so different, how could I ever grasp the intelligence of the Baltic Finns?

These are the kinds of conversations you have in Estonia though. In the United States, I don’t recall having these kinds of conversations. What did we even talk about when I lived back in America? For starters, I never even thought of myself as being back in America. America was a vast, sprawling entity, consisting of different regional identities, each with its own history. One commonality in American thought though, is the idea that the United States is a kind of great social project. More than being a country, consisting of the people who live there, America is an idea, a concept, and the United States is supposed to be the greatest country to ever exist, or so I am told.

As such, a lot of American discourse revolves around how this greatest country disappoints, or has not yet lived up to its promise. This is why you have these strange far-right vigilante groups, like the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys who ransacked the Capitol when Trump lost the election. On the left side of the spectrum it’s the same. How can the greatest country in the world have once enslaved a sizable part of its population? Could it be that it is actually not so great? We are all living in an imaginary world, where a mythical America has been promised to us. When we gather together at cafes, people talk about how the country is going in the wrong way. And baseball. Nobody talks about the small minds of Indo-Europeans, or ancient Finnic beliefs.

Estonia instead is very tribal and that word rahvas, which gets translated as “people” or “nation” seems to have some greater meaning that I can’t fully intuit, given my own pathetic Indo-European roots. When someone says that a person is of different ethnicities, or nationalities, or peoples, for Estonians, it’s almost as if a cow and a pig got together and had a baby. A Norwegian? And a Greek? Got together? And had children? I don’t understand what the reason for the surprise is. Even in the town where I live, a new race of Estonian children has emerged, who are half Swedish, half Japanese, half Argentinian, half Ghanaian. As I have predicted, in the future, the most popular Estonian names will be Trochynskyi, Keränen, and Petrone.

Of course, to be an Estonian, they say all you have to do is know the Estonian language. Once you speak Estonian, you become one of them, in which case, I am well on my way to becoming a member of this superior race, the Estonians, the Finns, the Karelians and Veps. I find it funny that the word for language and tongue are the same: keel. Estonians might say that someone has “keel suus,” meaning they know the language. But in English, this would translate as the person has a tongue in their mouth. Mati keeps telling me over coffee, but you still don’t have the Estonian tongue in your mouth, “Sul pole veel eesti keel suus.” I tell Mati that I have had plenty of Estonian tongues in my mouth, just not my own tongue. This makes him laugh so hard that he nearly chokes on his drink and even has to wipe away a tear of joy.

“Oh, you Indo-Europeans,” says Mati, “with your stupid Indo-European jokes.”

the last dispatch for the time being

12 NOON, AN ESTONIAN CAFE. The last dispatch for the time being, as my attention returns to work and creative projects and other things. Traveling is a good way to shake up one’s perspective, even in going to a country as close and as similar as Finland is to Estonia. I forget that while Finland is about five or six times larger than Estonia, and has had a less complicated story of statehood, it’s still a small country. Helsinki feels like a metropolis, and there is a certain kind of local aristocracy, or at least wealthy old families, but it’s still the capital city of a nation of 6 million. Helsinki also has a stronger Scandinavian influence, and I don’t even mean official bilingualism, but just seeing the name “Vasa” here and there, or encountering the Swedish Theatre at the head of the Esplanaadi. In Tallinn, we have the Russian Theatre across from Freedom Square. Finns are not exactly a friendly, outgoing people, but they are at least polite in their indifference. In Estonia, one thing I noticed on the train was that people seemed a bit brusquer, or just annoyed by each other. I didn’t notice this on the trams in Helsinki. People keep to themselves, but I do get anxious on the trains here, that I might overstep some invisible boundary and get a lecture on what is “normal” and what is “not normal.” Yesterday I went to a restaurant and got the feeling that the server was doing me a major favor by even taking my order. I understand that most of these workers do this work temporarily, that it doesn’t pay well, and that they would rather be somewhere else, but it’s still a restaurant, and there is a menu, and it’s open. Do you want my money or not? Of course, that’s just one instance of shitty service. Actually, it snowed the day before I got back, and I begged them to change my tires the next morning. They relented and offered me 8 am, and I put my phone to charge, with the plan to set the alarm. I fell asleep within second. When I noticed the light behind the curtains, it was already 8.20 am. I had a strange dream that I had gone outside to put the winter tires in my car, but in my underwear. So, there I was, half naked and standing in the snow, when a whole bunch of mardisandid showed up seeking candy. This is a holiday in November somewhat similar to Halloween where girls and boys dress up like Saint Martin and go around telling riddles and singing songs in exchange for candy. I let these little Saint Martins serenade me and challenge me with riddles and dispensed the chocolate. Then one of their mothers, whom I did not recognize, showed some interest in me, and so I wound up cuddling with one of the Saint Martins’ mothers in a wood barn. She was a fine woman, with curly brown hair. Attractive, I guess. Everything was quite affectionate, if not a little weird, until I woke up and realized that I was late for the tire appointment. I went there and the mechanic was quite understanding and friendly. When I went to pay, he presented me with one of my books and requested my autograph. How strange, to come from a country where no one knew me to one to one where even the mechanics knew me. I didn’t know what to think about it. Then another driver, a middle-aged woman who was quite cute and rosy-cheeked had a bit of a country lilt to her voice came up and asked if she could get her tires changed within an hour and the good-humored mechanic assured her that she could. There were nice people in this land, I thought, and whatever the history had been, they had always been here, getting their tires changed, and wagon wheels before that. I left feeling rather content and relaxed about things.

with bourdain and my new helsinki friends

BEFORE I MET BOURDAIN, I used to live somewhere else. Where exactly that was is not important to this story. Okay, it was in Estonia. But for various reasons I had to leave that country. That was when I hightailed it across the Gulf of Finland on the Tallink Megastar, and walked down into my new adopted home of Helsinki. That same night I met Bourdain at a burger restaurant on Lönnrotinkatu. That was how I fell in with Bourdain and his crew of Finnish degenerates. Gutter punks. Motorcycle gang rejects. Venture capitalists and angel investors. Tony always rolls with his crew, you see. Even if he hates people, even if he detests them, Bourdain needs to surround himself with a circus. Most of my free nights after that were spent right there in that madcap company, with Bourdain and my new Helsinki friends. 

***

Obviously, there is a problem with this story. Bourdain is dead, so they say. He hung himself in some provincial French town a few years ago. His last known meal was a Choucroute Garnie dish, which contained sauerkraut, sausages, and roasted ham. They said Bourdain was in low spirits when he took his own life. He hated his celebrity, his fame, and his relationships were struggling, especially one with a younger Italian actress who shall not be named. All of which is very true. However, if you hate everyone in your life and your life itself, there is actually no reason to commit suicide. Bourdain did not need to hang himself to get away from these pressures. He just needed to disappear to a place where nobody cares if you’re alive or dead. Helsinki, the capital of Finland. Bourdain recalled a newspaper story about an accountant named Otto Nieminen, aged 64, who had died at his desk in his office from a heart attack and had been left sitting there for days because nobody could tell if he was alive or dead. Nieminen was in the same position as always. That, Bourdain thought, is where I need to be.

*** 

If you have ever read Bourdain’s memoir Kitchen Confidential, you know that when Bourdain was young he worked in Provincetown, the bohemian enclave at the tip of Massachusetts’ Cape Cod. You may also recall that some rival chefs in 1970s Provincetown had affected an 18th century buccaneer swagger, and that Bourdain watched them with elements of terror and awe. This was exactly the new persona Bourdain took on with his new Helsinki friends at the burger restaurant. He even kept a colorful parrot, called Papukaija, or Papu for short, who would sit peacefully on Bourdain’s shoulder while he fed it crumbs of Gruyere cheese from his pocket. Then he would announce, in a pirate captain voice, “Seppo, Pasi, me thinks we should go to the A-Plus Karaoke Bar tonight and set us up with some buxom wenches. And fetch me my rum!”

Bourdain and his Helsinki friends had numerous scrapes with the law. Such as that time that they punched out an R-Kioski cashier because he put too much mustard on the kabanossi. Another cashier who worked at Aleppa was tarred, feathered, and forced to drink Lapin Kulta. All because the karjalanpiirakka or Karelian pies were a little undercooked. The Finnish police came around the burger joint on Lönnrotinkatu that night. I was seated with my favorite chef, a young Finnish woman who wore a t-shirt that read, “count orgasms, not calories.” I was having the double burger when they questioned me, while Bourdain fed Papu some fries with pesto aioli. But when it came down to it, I lied. I felt uncomfortable about Bourdain and his Finnish convenience store ultraviolence antics, but I valued our new-born friendship even more. When you are in with Bourdain’s gang, you’re in. There is no turning back.

***

This is all just background information, because what I am about to tell you might seem a little unbelievable. You might even be shocked. Even though Bourdain was hiding in plain sight in Helsinki, a cold city where he was free to indulge all of the sinister elements of his dark side, he was still Bourdain of course, which meant he loved to eat. Often, we would go to Mr. Lee’s Great Wall Kitchen across from the A-Plus Karaoke Bar, enjoying hot bowls of beef or chicken noodles, heavy on the chili. Bourdain swore by the broth, claiming it to be as rich and satisfying as the homemade stuff he had tasted in villages along the Yellow River. Whenever Bourdain tasted the broth, he would start quoting Lao-tzu and rambling on about Wu-Wei. “When your body is not aligned, the inner power will not come. When you are not tranquil within, your mind will not be well ordered.” And so on and so on, etc.

There was a little TV on in the corner of Mr. Lee’s and it showed an image of the surface of the Baltic Sea frothing white as the methane from the Nord Stream pipeline made its way up into the atmosphere. Swedish investigators had concluded that the explosions were caused by sabotage, the report said, but they did not name the perpetrators.

Bourdain watched the news report quietly, spearing out some noodles with a pair of chopsticks. He sucked the noodles down and licked his lips. Then he said to me, in a very quiet voice. “Do you remember a few weeks ago when Pasi and Seppo and I went on that booze cruise to Mariehamn in the Åland Islands with Henna and her girlfriends?” 

“Yes, of course,” I told him. 

“Well,” he said. “The thing is, we didn’t actually go to the Åland Islands.”

“Really? Where did you go?” 

“Actually, we went to Bornholm, that island in Denmark. Then we took a boat out into the Baltic Sea and blew up the Nord Stream pipeline.”

***

It was just Bourdain, Pasi, and Seppo that carried out the mission, as far as I understand it. They put on their diving gear, synchronized watches, swam down, and laid the explosives. By the time they were detonated, they were back in bed with Henna & Co. at a quaint B&B.

“But why did you synchronize watches?” I asked Bourdain.

“That’s what you do when you blow shit up.”

I stared at the TV, then back at the world-famous undead chef.

“I must admit, I am a little hurt,” I said.

“Hurt? It’s not like you were benefiting from those pipelines.”

“No, no. It’s just. I thought I was one of your new Helsinki friends.”

“That’s why I am telling you this! Do you think I told anyone else?”

“Then how come you didn’t take me along!”

“Have you ever blown up a pipeline before, kid?”

“No.”

“Well, I have. At least now I have,” Tony said. He pinched his nose. I suppose it all bothered him, just a little bit. The faked death, the escape to Helsinki, and now this, international espionage and acts of terrorism. No matter where he went in this world, Bourdain just couldn’t stay out of trouble. If there was a red button, he pushed it. If there was a hot sausage, he ate it. If there was an explosive, then he dove to the bottom of the sea and nestled it nicely alongside concrete-coated steel pipes. Bourdain reached into his pocket with his gnarled chef’s hands and pulled out a few crumbs of savory Kaltbach. Papu the parrot dipped his head down and Bourdain fed him some of the cheese. Then Papu did something unexpected. He hopped on my shoulder. I could feel his claws and adjusted to the weight of the bird. 

“He’s warming to you. Papu doesn’t just sit on anybody’s shoulders. You have to be in the gang, be one of Tony Bourdain’s Helsinki Wild Ones.”

I said nothing but beamed with pride.

“Here, here, feed him some of the Kaltbach.”

“I thought Papu only ate Gruyere.”

“Papu’s like me. He’ll eat anything.” 

I held my hand up and Papu pecked at the chunks of Kaltbach.

“Tell you what,” said Bourdain. “I’m sorry we didn’t invite you. Next time we blow up a Russian gas pipeline, I’ll make sure you come along. They have other pipelines, you know. We’re planning a Turkish holiday.”

“Okay, okay,” I said. “It’s nothing really.” I smiled at Bourdain then, and he gave me a weird look. Bourdain doesn’t like being smiled at, you know. He hates people, detests them really, and honestly only likes parrots and food and vintage horror movies. And karaoke sometimes.

“Why are you looking at me like that? Are you happy I blew it up?”

“I don’t care about the pipeline,” I said. “I’m just happy you’re still alive.”

the 8:30 pm train ride home

THE 8.30 PM TRAIN RIDE HOME. Back in Tanel Padar Land. In some ways, Tallinn reminds me of Tanel Padar the musician. It used to be kind of grimy and edgy, but it’s cleaned itself up and grown respectable. The port area is symmetrical, logical, and beautiful in some ways. I feel an odd pride in stepping down a ramp into the city and not feeling like I am entering the hood. I used to feel so disappointed whenever I traveled from Helsinki to Tallinn, to see the wealth of the north dissolve into the gulf waters the farther south we sailed. Now I can see almost no difference between the west terminal in Helsinki and D terminal in Tallinn. It’s about as seamless as two countries can be. It was cold, of course, and the water looked nice. A young woman was walking her dog, who was bundled in a sweater. They both walked so quickly. I tried to prepare myself mentally for being among the Estonians again, speaking their language, thinking their thoughts, distinguishing their thoughts and ideas about the world from my own. At the conference, I met an Estonian and he asked me, as if on cue, what my “nation” or “people” was. He described the Russians as an imperial people, bound up with the idea of empire, so that no matter where they go, they are part of one moving organism, born and bred to follow their leader. The Estonians though have been the help for centuries. They served the Danes and the Germans, the Swedes and the Russians. They built the grand estates, but they did not sleep in the master bedrooms. Theirs was a peasant democracy. “How long, how long does it take,” he inquired, “for a people to change their mindset?” I told him of the Greeks who sailed the Mediterranean, and who brought Greek life with them wherever they went, to the south of Italy, along the riviera, and up the Black Sea. Every port is home, and you can never not be at home because you take your home with you wherever you go. That’s how I feel about this world I live in, and these places I travel to, on a ship from Helsinki to Tallinn. Something feels very comforting about traveling between cities on a ship. And knowing that the one you left behind was your home, and that your arrival city is your home too. It’s probably not true and just some nonsense I made up, but I liked that idea, of being some reincarnated Argonaut, sailing around, looking for good adventure.

helsinki, 8.30 am, restless

HELSINKI, 8.30 AM, RESTLESS. My hands are so cold and tight from being exposed to the dawn elements, I can barely type. This is a budget hotel, if it can even be called a hotel. In the center, there are two types of lodgings: high end and low end. For about €300 or €400, you can rest and eat well. For the rest of us, it’s the low end, the R-Kioski coffee at 7:30. Actually, I stumbled into a hotel, but they agreed to give me a filter coffee for €2. In Estonia, I would pay more. I am not so concerned with prices. Numbers are numbers, but the server, Henna, was even engaging and friendly. Finland is colder than Estonia, but the Estonians are colder than the Finns. So, as I said, it’s the low end for me, and that also means The Low End Theory. Walking up and down these avenues and down and up these boulevards with A Tribe Called Quest in my ears. Watching those green trams glide away. There is something about the neon lights, and the iconic Ravintola sign that I recall from my first visit here 20 years ago. I remember I called my parents from a payphone to let them know that I was alive. I left a message on the answering machine and that was it. Internet was doled out on an hourly basis at a cafe. People composed messages beforehand to send them to anxious lovers and relatives. This morning, I noticed a few gray hairs. It’s happening to me too. Time. But how should I manage or think of this time? Or should I pay it any attention at all? I don’t want to think about it. I just want to write some more. I think of ideas as wreaths of a kind, or necklaces. I mean this in the sense, that they are put upon us, or made to hang around our necks. However you conceive of yourself, that conception probably comes from someone else. Maybe it came from your family, or from a film you saw, a book you read. You learned to think of your life a certain way. You learned to position yourself against a background, the same way one of these granite or metal statues stands before a gleaming Helsinki department store. I walk by giant images of hulking men sporting luxury watches and ecstatic women in sheer brassieres. This is what it means to be a man. This is what it means to be a woman. This is what it means to be. We have all become characters in some kind of soft pornographic film. This is the essence of existence, a €2 coffee to go at 8 AM on a Friday morning in Helsinki. Back and again through the Esplanaadi, pausing at the corner for the Number 9 tram to make its way back up to Pasila, I decided it, that I would have to finish the book, and the other ones I had planned. Even if nobody ever read them. Even if it came as a great loss of time and energy. The books needed to be finished, I decided, they were worth more than money or time. They required respect and devotion. I would see them through to the end.

7:30 am, the ship to helsinki

7.30 AM, THE SHIP TO HELSINKI. Tallink’s modern bourgeois travel experience. Perfumes, liqueurs, chocolates, mirrors, gurgling electronic music. It makes you just want to strip naked, gorge on Fazer, anoint yourself with Dior, douse yourself in cognac and set yourself on fire. I am wearing one of these shirts that I always hate wearing, and only wear when I suppose others might be wearing such shirts, or when I run out of clean clothes. In my cup, Starbucks Americano, tall. For breakfast, buckwheat snack breads with seeds. I am preparing myself; I am preparing my soul for the big startup conference. I know that once I go in there, I will be drowning in startup people, with stars in their eyes, talking about changing the world with a mobile phone application. Or something like that. The startup people are a different breed, but I cannot say I dislike them. I sense, I intuit, our apartness, and yet I am an outcropping of their scene. There will be good environmentally conscious food there, for one. I am also expecting some kind of smoke and strobe lighting. I do not fear the startup people. Rather, I fear that I am becoming one of them. It gets back to the core matter, the core question. What does it mean to be a person? An unintentional early age exposure to existentialist thought has made me a cranky morning person. I work to live, but do not live thoroughly and fully enough. What I am getting at, is that I am not completely satisfied with this life of duty-free shopping. I would like to enjoy myself more. I do not wish to be arrested, but perhaps to come close to being arrested. Maybe get off with a warning. I have diverse heritages, but there is a sort of madness or impulsiveness common to the Mediterraneans that seems to be winning out over the others. If you ever wonder how I wound up on a ship on the foggy gulf between Finland and Estonia, you can blame him, that aspect. I had nothing to do with it. Last night, as the first snowflakes were fluttering down, I stopped into a folk music dance in Tallinn. There were some older fellows there with long beards who looked like Lord of the Rings characters. And a couple of floozies, as my grandfather would say, were hanging around the entrance. When I asked one girl what her name was, she told me it was Tuuli, but then changed it to Madli, but then back to Tuuli. I got the sense she, Tuulimadli, was lying to me, but the thing is, I rather enjoy being lied to by women. I think being lied to and toyed with by women is among my most favorite things. Oh, well, the cup has run dry. Time to get another. Back to work. Back to work, fog, duty-free shopping, and the churning sea. Helsinki, see you soon.

just not today

YESTERDAY, I got to thinking about Hackett.

It happened like this: I was walking back from the supermarket in the evening, which for Estonia in early November is actually late afternoon. The temperature was about 39 degrees Fahrenheit, 4 degrees Celsius. The weather was, more or less, miserable. A faint mist, a faint fog, some sluggish traffic. I crossed the intersection, came up by the other shopping center and past the apothecary and looked into the windows there, and saw my own reflection.

I could see my German officer’s jacket and the flat cap I bought at H&M, the one that makes me look like my grandfather. But for a split second, I saw 1995-era Hackett there, vintage Brendan. When he had that weird in-between yellow afro, not long, not short, and would gesture with one hand, as with a pipe, and talking out of the corner of his mouth about things, as if he actually knew things. Hackett’s always was a deeply philosophical soul. He liked to listen to Robert Johnson.

What also struck me was how alike we still were. We were both then and now terrifying. Was there anyone in our class who hadn’t turned out terrifying? Denzler was inarguably terrifying, but then there was Cover, who was an entire other class of terror. DeVerna, the attorney, had aged into respectability, but he was certainly still terrifying deep down, and Grande, as good-natured and friendly as he was, no doubt hid some kind of dark side. He moved to Maryland. Nobody who moves to Maryland lacks a dark side. Then there was Hackett, gesturing with his hand, his shoelaces always untied. Why were the shoelaces untied? He tied them, but they came undone.

***

I had never listened to his EP, Just Not Today by The Bern Band. I had promised him that I would. Somehow, I never got around to it. You know how you buy a book and intend to read it, but you never do? That’s what happened with Hackett’s EP. So in homage to this spectre of young Hackett, I decided to give it a listen. The time had arrived.

The first thing I can say is that the guitars are plump. This guy knows his guitars. He is painting this masterpiece with guitar. There are bold, emotive, Picasso-like strokes. Spiralling earworm blackhole cosmic grooves and fills. Vintage 1995 Hackett could not play like this with his crappy Ibanez with the Grateful Dead sticker on the smashed-up part. We played covers of the first-year guitar player canon, such as “Sunshine of Your Love” and “White Room,” “Pinball Wizard” and that’s really about it. Hackett was not actually a wunderkind, prodigy kind of guitar player. I met plenty of musicians who could outdo anyone when they were 14 years old, but he was more of a disciplined devotee of the instrument. He worked on it every night. He rehearsed. And, over time, he got really good. Hackett was also an incredible listener. Hackett listened to people. He had a lot of empathy. He applied this empathetic ear of his to the craft of music. He listened to songs the way a bank robber might put his ear up to a lock, waiting for that tell-tale click.

This record has plenty of classic rock influences all over it. What I think is great about it is that you can’t really tell where it all came from though. It’s almost like that classic William S. Burroughs “cut up method,” except The Bern Band did this to classic rock radio. The Beatles mixed with Led Zeppelin crossed with maybe some Grand Funk Railroad and Thin Lizzy and The Jam? Am I leaving anyone out?

I just can’t figure this one out. Where did this all come from? He’s also honed his vocal delivery into I don’t know what. Some kind of Robert Plant meets Steve Miller meets the Eagles? Who the hell are you, man? Hackett has become a rock and roll shapeshifter.

The other piece of The Bern Band, the Bruce Foxton to Hackett’s Paul Weller, is Dave Trump, who is also an old high school friend, yet not terrifying in the least. He plays bass on this record and apparently contributed 100% to the project. He is clearly an old pro on the instrument. My favorite stretch is on the track “Midnight Run,” where Trump cranks out beautiful, melodic basslines that will remind any player of why they first fell in love with this understated but incredibly fundamental instrument. The drummer, whoever he is, is also good.

***

Years ago, I almost connected with Hackett in Stockholm. I had an afternoon to kill while I waited for the ship back to Tallinn, and he was there with wife and baby. But they were on a boat somewhere out in the archipelago. I told him though about a great music shop near Slussen, where they sold vintage guitars and basses, including a Rickenbacker I like to visit and gaze at, and the next day Hackett went down there, sized up the same Ric, and bought some t-shirts. So if we play our cards right, we might all wind up back in the music shop in Stockholm one of these days. Until then, old friend, many rocking riffs.

Catch you again in the apothecary glass.