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.”
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.
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.
IT’S A GRAY DAY IN TOWN today, and I still haven’t ordered firewood for the winter. I keep waiting for the price to drop, but there is no drop in sight, and so I wait and put it off, as I do with most things. At an intersection, I paused to watch a half-torn paper bag float down the sidewalk in the wind, along with some rustling red leaves. There is an old house there that hasn’t been renovated, a grand 19th century ruin, and someone has spray painted an image of a man screaming on it.
On Sunday, I was in Treimani down on the southwest coast for a friend’s birthday. We went into the forest, and he brought along a friend who knows about forestry and what the names of the trees are and how to manage them. Treimani is a peaceful place, and I like that nearby there is a village called Metsapoole, “into the woods,” because I can think of no better name for a village, or the circumstances of my life. We learned about ash trees, and there were a few baby spruces we were urged not to step on. My friend recently inherited his farm, and when we went there, relatives turned up and gave him buckets of potatoes. My friend is different from me; he still lives with his family. In the field there in Treimani, there are mushrooms as big as saucers.
Recently, I had something like a panic attack. I did not know what to call it, because I was never taught words for these things. This is actually a problem for men, naming our feelings. We certainly feel things, we just were never taught what they were. This is why the default emotion shown by men is typically anger. This feeling though I have decided to describe as a panic attack. First, there is a wave of energy that makes it hard to focus on anything else. It can happen after being reminded of something or seeing someone you’d rather not wish to see. There you are, trying to write, and it just appears in the distance, a storm of bad feelings, then swoops in with lightning. I try to ignore it, but to manage them, I go home, lie in bed, and caress myself, rubbing my arms, and saying soothing things. I talk to myself — it’s almost like another person is speaking to me. Then I say, “Don’t worry, this will pass. Of course it will! You’ll get through this, you always do.”
For whatever reason, thinking of Wes Anderson films helps me to survive these situations. I like to think of Isle of Dogs and Rushmore, I like to think of Grand Budapest Hotel and The French Dispatch. Sometimes I think that I am just one of these characters from one of his films. My life is just a film, and so I don’t need to worry about what happens in the film and should rather enjoy it as an observer. I think of Federico Fellini movies too, like 8 1/2. That one is my favorite. The main character might as well be me, lost in fantasy, memory, reality.
Flying up in the air.
In a world shaped by external circumstances, in which there are few certainties, and role models are hard to come by, any kind of help I can get is therefore appreciated. One day, I came across an old article about the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, who underwent a special procedure at the age of 69 that reinvigorated his sexual appetite, and he spent the rest of his days bedding young radical poets and journalists. His erotic adventures fed his creative output and he died happier, if not a truly happy man. Something about this story helped me to imagine a future in which I was not a dispossessed soul at the whims of panic but one who could enjoy life. Maybe there was another way, the way of Yeats, the way of the debauched and lascivious Irish poets. History might remember them as bastards, but to survive in this cold, cruel and windy world, one has to be a bit of a bastard it seems.
An Estonian version of this column appears in the November 2022 issue of the magazine Anne ja Stiil.
FOR MOST PEOPLE, COVID-19 was a negative experience. It was the virus that made them ill. It kept them bedridden. They could not go to meetings, or on trips, or perform at concerts. It took away their senses, made it hard to breathe, left them fatigued to the point where they could barely walk. It obviously killed many people, including my cousin, who would not get vaccinated, made a trip to visit her sister in a different state, and died in a hospital intensive care unit after being on a ventilator for weeks. My experience last autumn was mild in comparison to what so many have gone through, but it was an intense two-week-long journey. It also changed me in profound ways.
To begin, I didn’t even know that I was sick. I had somehow made it through the Harvest Party, an annual folk music event, where I had heard from friends that many had been infected, and came out unscathed. I had started to believe that I was immune, or that I had already had the infection. I had, after all, been sitting in cafes throughout the pandemic while visitors coughed and sneezed their way to their next espresso or piece of cake. That Friday, I went to see the new James Bond movie at the cinema. I have a feeling that it was there that I met the virus. The name of the film was No Time to Die.
Two days later, I drove down to Karksi to deliver some supplies to my former father-in-law and his wife, who were laid up with the virus for the second time. I left the small bag of vitamins at the doorstep, called to them, and got into my car to drive home. It was then that I began to start coughing. It was a strange, dry cough. It felt as if all the oxygen had been sucked out of my lungs. It was worrying enough for me to get a rapid antigen test done the next day at a shopping center. That evening the result came back. I was negative. Of course, I went back to the cafes the next day, even as I began to develop a tremendous head cold. But something else was wrong. I just did not feel completely myself. I felt slower and a little sad. My doctor helped secure a PCR testing appointment, and the following day I walked, yes, walked, to the white tent to have my nose swabbed. Later I got a call informing me of the result. I was positive.
The next 10 days are a blur. The only other person I interacted with was the Bolt delivery man, who left orders of hot curry on the other side of the door. I did not lose my sense of taste or smell, and I credit that spicy curry with helping me get through the experience. I binge watched old James Bond movies. Hours and even days were swallowed up by sleep. I could do, at most, three things a day. Wash a few dishes, maybe a load of laundry. I tried to write. The rest of the time I slept in my bed or stared at the ceiling. At one point, I was almost certain that a young woman I knew was in the room and had brought me a glass of water. I even remember taking the water from her hand and drinking it. When I awoke, she was gone. I also thought I was driving Bond’s Aston Martin DB5. This turned out to be a sweaty blanket.
At some point, I became so disoriented, that I only had a marginal idea of who I was. I knew, in a sort of roundabout way, what my name was, and where I had been born and when, who my parents were. I had some memories, but these memories seemed irrelevant to who I was. My name was just a bunch of sounds put together. Memories were just things that had happened. Thoughts had originated from beyond me. Those were things that other people had told me, or that I had read. As such, thoughts, ideas, and theories had nothing to do with me. They were fake, pieced together in elaborate ways, but not really tied to the act of being alive.
Almost a year later, this transcendence of consciousness has had a positive impact. I can no longer judge others by their words, because I know that their words, or attitudes, are not really who they are. They are just words. They come and go. Likewise, I can recognize connections with others that are significant and powerful, but do not need words to define them. If you do feel for someone, what is the use in telling them, because they probably feel the same. I remember the morning the virus left me though, and the sensation of it leaving my body, as if it was tired of messing with me and was hungry for a new victim. It was like possession. The spirit sat up and floated away out the door. A few days later, I came out of isolation and went to the shop. The girl who had brought me water was there, looking at me. I told her about my vision and thanked her for bringing me that glass of imaginary water. The girl gave me a weird look, but I think she understood that I was just grateful that she existed.
An Estonian version of this column appears in the September 2022 issue of the magazine Anne & Stiil.
EVERY OTHER DAY I catch sight of Tomás del Real leaving the house on Posti Street. It’s a sprawling, timber, 19th century structure across from the courthouse, and the South Americans have settled into the apartment at the far end. In the evenings, I can hear them singing through the windows. Sometimes I peek through to watch them play. I am not sure if Tomás is actually living in the house or visiting. Del Real turned up in town with his guitar and some other Chileans maybe a year ago. Suddenly, there were these dark-haired musicians milling about, the kinds of nomads who carry the winds of Los Andes with them wherever they may venture.
Del Real was one of them. He’s got thick hair, a scruffy beard. He likes to wear sunglasses. I know almost nothing else about him, other than that he is one half of Don’t Chase the Lizard.
The other half of this indie folk duo is the Estonian violinist and vocalist Lee Taul. I see her around town too. Usually she is either coming from rehearsal or going to rehearsal or getting coffee while taking a break from rehearsal. Sometimes she prickles with electric enthusiasm. Sometimes she is frustrated with the slow pace of a project. Sometimes it is raining and she is taciturn. Sometimes it is sunny and she looks more vibrant and Latin than Tomás the Chilean. Sometimes she has been rehearsing with her fiddle all day and yet no new ideas have arrived. Sometimes Lee has a really brilliant idea.
Taul and del Real met at some kind of musical camp or event years ago somewhere in Europe. When del Real found himself in Viljandi, a town of about 20,000 people steeped in culture that serves as a kind of Glastonbury or Roskilde for this Northern European country, they reconnected. Del Real had just washed up on Estonian shores after leading a peripatetic existence that took him from Chile to México to the US, then back to Chile before embarking for Europe.
“I spent a year without performing and filling myself up with anxiety, not being able to develop much as a person,” he says of this time, which coincided with the Covid-19 pandemic. “I decided that I needed to explore other possibilities, so I moved to Europe with one of my friends.”
During this period, they decided to reach out to old friends they had made at ethno music camps, including from Estonia, which del Real had visited years ago. “I had good memories of Estonia from my past, so we decided to hang out here,” he says. “I connected deeply with the place, the culture, the people and the nature, so that week turned into a year, and here we are now.”
Del Real also got a residency at the Pärimusmuusika Ait, or Estonian Folk Music Center, a converted manorhouse barn that serves as the hub for folk music. It was here that he and Taul began to compose the songs that feature on Don’t Chase the Lizard’s debut album Huracán.
ESTONIAN WINTERS ARE WEIRD. Anyone who has ever lived through one can tell you that. From about November through April, the ground is covered in snow and ice. Sometimes it melts a little, only to be reinforced by double the amount of white cold. Days dawn and end with sheets of the sticky stuff falling all around. Time doesn’t stand still during an Estonian winter. There is no time. In a way, the hypnotic character of the Estonian snowfall found its way into Don’t Chase the Lizard’s songs. It is this strange yet appealing overlap between northern natural elements and Latin rhythms that colors the group’s music, like João Gilberto mixed with a little Hedningarna.
Del Real wrote most of the songs early in the morning. There was an almost monastic quality to the composition process, steeped in solitude and peace. He would wake, work, and send his ideas to Taul, and the two would build on them. “I was the winter resident at the Ait, so we started to work while being very much in isolation from the world,” says del Real. Because of pandemic restrictions, there wasn’t much activity at the Ait, which is located adjacent to the ruins of 13th century castle and a wooded lakeside landscape. With few visitors, they were especially isolated.
“All the tracks from the album come from that experience,” says del Real, “being in our little bubble and around nature.”
Within two months, they had an album’s worth of material. “Huracán” was the first song written for what would become the group’s debut album. “It was very early in the morning and I couldn’t sleep so it was almost like having a conversation with your subconscious,” he says of the song. “Lobos” was the last composition. By the time it was written, the duo had started to play live.
THE GROUP’S FIRST CONCERT took place in the Ait itself in February and by March, they had released their first single, “Buscar la Luz.” The single has a soothing, undulating quality, held together by del Real’s splendid guitar work and the droning quality of Taul’s violin, which adds color and depth to the melody, topped off with sincere lyrics and beautiful harmonies.
The duo appeared on several Estonian radio programs in the early spring before making their Tallinn debut at Philly Joe’s in May. From there, they flew over the ocean to take part in Folk Alliance International, where they had an official showcase in Kansas City in May and performed at the Kansas City Folk Festival. Once back in Estonia, they played the Seto Folk Festival in July and opened for Rita Ray in Tallinn the same month. They are also scheduled to play at the Ait’s Harvest Party concert this coming October.
In the meantime, Don’t Chase the Lizard racked up more than 30,000 streams on digital platforms with its singles “Huracán” and “8,” incidentally the eighth track on the album, which was released in July. “8” features more intricate guitar work, with a hushed, almost prayer-like quality to the vocals. The violin work takes its time, no note is wasted, every tone is supple and adds to the sound. Credit is due to Kaur Einasto, who recorded the album in Viljandi, as well as to Jorge Fortune, who edited, mixed, and mastered it at Estudios Triana in Patagonia, Chile.
According to Taul, the concerts have gone quite well, and the crowd’s positive feedback has surprised the duo. “I don’t know if it’s the fact that the folk audience is used to a different kind of music, and ours has had a refreshing effect, or that the songs, mainly in Spanish, give the program a special flavor,” she says. “In any case, we have been satisfied with the results.” Taul notes that audiences in the US received the group warmly and that the group made new contacts. “We met amazing musicians, producers, and agents,” says Taul. “We can only hope that some future cooperation will come out of those interactions in the future,” she says.
“I think people have been reacting very well to the live performances,” agrees del Real. “It seems that people connect with feelings and sounds that seem genuine to them,” he says. People have particularly been intrigued by the combination of Chilean and Estonian sounds. “It’s attractive to see how two people from opposite regions of the world have a sound that might fit together very well and become something quite unique,” he says.
GOOD ALBUMS are likethe best novels, of course. They have a way of effortlessly reaching you on their own time. Someone might give you a book and urge you to read it, but you put it aside until one day, out of boredom, you pick it up and devour it all at once in a few hours. Likewise, someone might give you an album and ask you to listen to it, but it might take time for the right moment for listening to arrive. In my case, it was a Sunday morning in August when Huracán presented itself to me. The sun was already shining, I was about to take a shower and go to the cafe to get some coffee. Many of the big milestones of the summer, such as the annual Viljandi Folk Music Festival, had passed. I myself was in a calm morning contemplative mood.
Each song on Huracán is a treasure to be savored in its own way, unwrapped slowly and delicately. The voices reach out to you. While well produced, it’s a bare bones recording yet with stirring atmospherics. It sounds like it was recorded in an old church in the Andean Mountains. There is del Real’s guitar and Taul’s fiddle, plus their exceptional voices, del Real’s intimate delivery and Taul’s intuitive and sensitive harmonies. There are no electronics gurgling in the background. There are no distractions. It’s as if they are right there with you playing in the room.
I will always recall that moment of putting on those songs and letting them play. They seemed like the best way to start a quiet Sunday morning in the first week of August. It was kind of funny as well. This music, written in isolation in the winter, somehow made sense in summer. Huracán, the ultimate winter album, had unwittingly become the ultimate summer album too.
THURSDAY IS THE first day of the Viljandi Folk Music Festival. I have decided to do this year’s festival sober, which may explain my melancholic mood. Also the rain, which sends me and my youngest daughter to seek refuge beneath some trees, only makes things less joyful. The rain is heavy and floods the streets, soaking the kebabs and donuts. I bailed on the opening ceremony because of the rain. Of course, the Folk people are starting to trickle into town. You can spend all year in Viljandi and never see these people, but then suddenly they are back and swarming in. Where do they go for the rest of the year? Maybe they sleep in the hills behind the castle ruins? When people do come, you look at them. I think lingering eye contact is the currency of Folk. Somehow a look is more meaningful than any words. What does that look mean? Sometimes different things. It can mean I like you, or think that you are beautiful. But it can also mean that I don’t want to have anything to do with you, leave me alone. Sometimes people just look familiar though. “Don’t I know you from somewhere?” Maybe that is what all these looks mean. I have learned to trust people’s looks. They are meaningful moments, moments that linger and haunt you, even while the accordions are blaring and the Cubans are performing. I wonder how many stories start with just a look in a crowd at a music festival.
The highlight of Thursday night is inarguably the Korean ensemble, whose name nobody can say, even though they have a special language lesson in the middle of the concert. (They are actually called “Ak Dan Gwang Chil“). They have great costumes and I can make no sense of the structure of their songs or melodies. I cannot name most of the instruments they are playing. This is exactly how the best music must be, challenging. I am surprised by the turnout for the Koreans, even on a Thursday night. I can only guess that pandemic-era restrictions have increased people’s appetites for live music. Afterward, I head to Romaan to hear Gilly Jones and the Evocations playing in the new samasama.studio in the back. Gilly Jones is from Ghana and leads a band of the “cream of rhythm players” in Estonia. They play afrobeat and highlife music. Even I have to dance to this music. The best dancer is of course Pepi, who manages this creative space. He is from Argentina and has the moves. I am studying Pepi to improve my dancing. The night ends in Joala Park, drinking wine from a plastic bottle with DJ Jaanika and Inxu. Inxu is a vivacious and sharp young woman who is giving an impromptu lecture about US domestic politics. A few young men are seated across from us. One of them is especially proud that he is seated on the spot, more or less, where the Joala Monument was. “And it was located right here where I am sitting,” he says.
AT ABOUT 7 PM on Friday night, Marko Veisson from Puuluup undertakes a stage dive. It is in the middle of their set on the Second Cherry Hill, or II Kirsimägi, and happens while the duo is performing “Roosad suusad,” “pink skis,” which is a song about pink skis. The dive is a success and the crowd is pleased by Puuluup’s performance. The band’s reggae-inflected repertoire is stunningly ridiculous. Even old people like Puuluup’s music. Especially old people. The show ends with applause, unanimous cheers, joy, whistling, and this “three, four, good band” cheer.
At 8.30 pm, there is a young man in a kimono grooving to the guitar licks of a Malian performer called Samba Touré on Kaevumägi. Three kids in Pokemon hats walk by and I see them again at the Hempress Sativa concert, which is pure Jamaican reggae, along with some speeches about the sacrament of marijuana. There is a funny mood. In general, the music on Friday night is good and satisfying like that. By 11.30 though, I walk by a teenager who is leaning against a tent and watching Geneza, a Ukrainian band, play rock music in Freedom Square. There is something about the blank look on his face opposite a rock band that speaks to the exhaustion of Folk. Even the young get tired. I can’t tell if he is burned out or sleepy, but fatigue has set in. It’s the bagpipe music. I think. It gets to you. But how much bagpipe music can you hear? How many dances can you dance? How many old friends can you greet?
Of course, there are the real Friday night stories. The real thoughts you think while you are wandering around at the festival. The real feelings you feel when you see certain people you know. The memories you have. The ones that you can’t forget. The people you have lost in the crowd. The impossibility of dreaming of anything, and yet the bravery to still be hopeful in life, if only because you have no other choice than to be hopeful. There are secrets you can never tell. Even on your most honest and forthcoming day, you can never tell the complete truth.
SATURDAY DAWNS the same way that every Folk Saturday dawns, with flies tickling your nose. You walk to the café, any café, to get some coffee. Strangers emerge from tents, cars, and apartments, wearing those little quasi-religious “Folk hats.” One wonders about the true lives of these devotees. Maybe they lead a humdrum existence in Tallinn border towns like Jüri, working as accountants, pushing along in drudgery through the year. Now and then they spot the Folk hat in the back of the closet and sigh to themselves, knowing it will be maybe half a year until the next festival.
The peak of Folk, I think, is the slow Saturday afternoon before the bigger crowds show up. This is when you can take time to eat with your kids, sit around and reflect. You hear church bells chime, the creak of the hammocks tied between the trees. You have time to sit and think. Teenage fry cooks struggle to fill all of the orders for fries. And sometimes people forget their orders. “Maarja” has apparently disappeared to see Polenta, a Finnish group. The cooks keep calling for “Maarja” to pick up her fries, but “Maarja” never comes to claim them.
At 8 pm on the First Cherry Hill, Black Bread Gone Mad takes the stage. This is one of my favorite local bands. During the encore, bassist Mati Tubli asks people to sing along, but the lyrics to their songs go, “u-ja-ei-u-ja-ei-u-ja-ei,” or something like that, and then the next one is “ayibobo.” Okay then. After that, Zetod storms the Second Cherry Hill and the crowds are stricken. Much longer after that, I decide to see Untsakad which, believe it or not, I have never seen. There is a long table behind these Untsakad fellows — it is their 30th birthday celebration — and notable musicians like Ruslan Trochynskyi and Brad Jurjens are at the table. It reminds me a bit of King Arthur’s Roundtable, with Sir Galahad and Percival. I confess, I am jealous. Who wouldn’t want a seat at the Untsakad’s table? The music is Estonian traditional song, but I am surprised by the numbers of young people who are dancing boldly to tunes like “Metsavendade Laul,” a song about postwar guerrilla fighters. This year it is especially relevant.
ON SUNDAY AFTERNOON, Imar Kutšukali, a Dutch adventurer and part-time folk musician, informs me in the yard of the Green House Café that he understands most of Untsakad’s lyrics. This is perhaps the highest level of Estonian comprehension you can have. The next level is understanding what drunk men mumble to you outside the bottle returns and trash bins. Imar is wearing a cowboy hat he picked up in Louisiana, and plucking at a friend’s mandolin, then switching to his own fiddle. Kutšukali is so embedded in Estonian Folk culture, he can name the members of Untsakad. Later, I drag my acoustic bass guitar out of my house, making sure to wipe the dust off it, and dive into a jam session with some other musicians. Folk music operates according to other rules. It has a repetitive, spiraling quality, almost like a cyclone, and it can billow up high or swirl down deep. Providing the bottom end is a challenge, what to play, what not to play, but it seems my fellow musicians welcome my contribution. We even joke about forming a band. Later, at another concert, I run into Ramo Teder from Puuluup who informs me that he also wanted to stage dive during the performance of “Pink Skis,” but there weren’t enough strong men in the audience to support both him and Marko. Maybe next year.
The evening ends in the company of Silver Sepp and Kristiina Ehin, who cannot walk a few paces without meeting old or new friends. Talking with both of them is a challenge, but Silver more so. We just can never manage to have a straightforward, average conversation. It can only go from absurd to more ridiculous. Dancing is easier with this cultural power couple. Kristiina is a sensitive dance partner, and Silver slips me some pepper vodka during VLÜ’s set, most of which I spend dancing frantically with a Swiss psychiatrist. By midnight, people decide to move to the upper floors of the Ait. Within this confined space, there are constricted dances, and there is some kind of guitar, fiddle, accordion jam. I had promised myself this would be a sober Folk, but it is proving once again to be impossible. Kutšukali is seated with Ando Kiviberg. They are drinking cognac and I pour myself a big glass. Veisson is there too. I am asking him if women are constantly trying to seduce him on account of his fame. Veisson assures me that this is not the case, but I am doubtful. A guitarist named August is seated with Lee Taul, and they offer me wine. I inform Ms. Taul that I’ve had too much to drink and am perhaps enjoying myself too much this year. She responds that you’re actually supposed to enjoy yourself at Folk. “Come on, it’s a party,” she says. “You’re supposed to have a good time.”
An Estonian version of this article appears in the 3 August 2022 edition of the newspaper Sakala.
IT WAS SUMMER and splendidly hot. The white tower of the town hall looked like one of those old colonial administrative buildings in the Danish West Indies. If you’ve ever heard that old Muddy Waters tune, “Good Morning Little School Girl,” then you have heard this story. But I actually didn’t know she was a school girl, I swear. I thought she looked interesting. In retrospect, the skirt should have tipped me off. It looked like it had been stitched together from old curtains. And then the worn red blouse, the messy blonde hair. She was not one of those bank clerks. She was holding something in her hands too, bearing it in front of her, but whatever it was, I couldn’t see. I decided to follow her but to keep my distance, as if I just happened to be headed in the same direction. If she looked back, I could inspect a hedge, or stroke the little dog of a passerby. Pretend to be a legitimate pedestrian. She walked through the park and then down Hollow Street. At one of the old houses, she paused to chat with a young man who was sipping his coffee in the doorway. She laughed at his joke. Then she came up Trench Street and arrived to the intersection with the main road. It was here that I caught up to her. I felt guilty for following her. I should have just glanced her and let her go. Yet she waited for me there. It was as if she had known I had been following her. We stood there and she looked forward and then turned and cleared her throat, but said nothing. Instead, she showed me what was in her hands. A small container enclosing a honeycomb. “Would you like some of my honey?” the girl asked. She had such a pleasant air, and I said, “Of course, I’ll have some of your honey.” She smiled at me and pulled a dripping hunk from the container and handed it over. She took a separate chunk and slipped it in her mouth. “It is good, isn’t it?” said the girl. A touch of golden honey was on her lips. From the crest of the hill looking down the road, I could see the lake in the distance. I could see the beach and the pines. “It is,” I said. The youth said nothing and we crossed the street. The wind blew and toyed with her sunshine hair. It was that kind of day. Disarming. Innocent. Bluesy. Honeysweet.
I CAME TO VILJANDI years ago because I was really in a hard place. I felt that I needed to leave Tartu, where I was living, to create some space for myself. I really felt like the rabbits in Watership Down, who have to avoid the predatory bears and foxes and weasels to stay alive. Viljandi became a sort of rabbit hole for me then, a place where I knew I would be totally safe.
At least, I thought I would be safe, at first.
Back then, I was exhausted. I remember I drove into Viljandi one night, probably in November, that now infamous November when I turned 37, and I sat down in the Green House Café. It seemed like such a relaxed and welcoming environment, and I remember thinking, I could just sit in this chair here in the corner forever. There was no place else I wanted to be or to go then.
Of course, Tallinn was always an option. Tallinn promised some kind of job and some kind of career. But Tallinn also required some major startup capital just to get going, several months worth of rent money, which was hard for me to put together, because I was totally broke, and also educational issues. The school system in Estonia is complex. Kid A, who lives next to one school, has to travel across town to go to another school, where there is space, while Kid B, who lives next to that school, has to travel across town to go to the school next to Kid A.
It makes no sense to me either.
IN TARTU, this situation was somehow more ideal, because most of the schools were located within walking distance. But Tartu is also a bit like Los Angeles, in that you have to drive everywhere. Multiple times a day in Tartu, I had to drive to take a kid to swimming lessons, or to pick one up from kindergarten, or to take another to her zoology course after school. There were a lot of logistics involved. So, to imagine living that kind of life in Tallinn was more challenging, especially since my kids had a habit of going on their own adventures and calling to have me pick them up from, say, McDonalds at 7 pm after their zoology course. How did they get there? We walked! But now should I expect them to hike across Tartu in the dark in December? No. Imagine these incidents happening in a place like Tallinn. Imagine your child getting lost in Kopli or Lasnamäe? It just didn’t seem like the kind of setup I needed in my life at that moment.
In this sense, Viljandi emerged as a strong contender as a place to live. It had affordable rents, multiple cafes to work from (if you are a remote worker like me), lots of green space around, and it was entirely walkable. My child could walk to school, and to all of her activities, and even to the cinema or supermarket, all by herself. It really was, in some ways, the perfect place to live, at least for someone in my situation.
I NEVER COMMITTED myself fully to Viljandi in my heart though. It always seemed like a temporary base camp from which to launch future expeditions. Yet the fact is, my kids are tied to this place, and one of them was even born here. Viljandi, in this sense, will never leave our lives, even if we did move very far away. As you see, there were a lot of moving pieces that led to the decision to live in Viljandi. I suspect for anyone who comes to live here, they have their own reasons, both practical and personal. I am not by any stretch some kind of cosmopolitan, who absolutely must dine at the finest restaurants and pretend to be someone of importance by attending various showy public events. I think some people in, say, Tallinn, would feel less of themselves for living in a small provincial town. I couldn’t care less what people think of me. I don’t even do these things in Viljandi. I rather prefer how exiled I feel living here. The loneliness suits me at times though in winter it can really get to you, and you can get severely depressed. You won’t even know you are depressed, that’s how depressed you can get in winter. Not sad, mind you. You are not actually sad. Just somehow detached from your own feelings, detached from the joys of living this life.
Viljandi’s community is both a blessing and a curse. In Tartu, I did not know my neighbors very well. I still get this anonymous feeling when I go to Tartu, that people give each other space, distance, room, because in their minds Tartu is a big city, and such anonymity is normal. In Viljandi, I cannot walk down the street without bumping into multiple people who know me very well, almost too well. Sometimes they know more about me than I know about myself. This has real value. If you have a problem, for example, your car won’t start, you can always go ask the Krishna devotee upstairs and he will come down with a fist full of krokadiilid and get your car going. If your child doesn’t come home, there are at least five acquaintances who saw her heading toward the Castle Ruins. Having eyes everywhere is really helpful. It creates a social safety network. On the other hand, let’s be honest, having people around you all the time, who involve themselves in your business, can be tiring and make you yearn for the anonymity of a larger city. It seems at times like people in Viljandi even know what color underwear I have on, even when I don’t. This is why it is a relief to leave Viljandi at times, to get away from all of those prying, curious eyes.
WHEN I THINK BACK to that decision I made, to move to Viljandi, I have to say it was an emotional decision as much as it was a practical one. Obviously, I could have gone to Rakvere, or even Pärnu, or Kuressaare, and enjoyed many of these things that I enjoy here. I had strong personal reasons though for setting up a new life here. My best friend was going through his own strife, and we were supporting each other in a way. He was living here then, and he sort of pulled me back into Viljandi, though he has since left. I also was really in love with someone at that time, which was a unique and compelling feeling I had not felt often in my life, and still do not feel often, or encounter, at all in my daily life. I suppose I just do not feel love that often or am bereft of romantic love. After dealing with complicated situations, hers was a light that shone as bright on me as the north star. She also left Viljandi behind, very long ago. So that was also bubbling away inside of me. The illusion that life could be different. It was an illusion, of course, but even those of us with the strongest constitutions can be led on by an illusion. My daughter’s best friend in Tartu had also moved to England, and life felt so hopeless then. Viljandi promised at least some kind of new experience, some way out of what was going on, and a way toward something new.
At that moment in time, staying awhile in the Green House seemed like the best decision I could make.
I DO NOT REGRET coming here at all. These have been very creative years for me as a writer, and I have to thank Viljandi and its dreamy landscapes for it. Someday I will probably pack up and hit the road again, but Viljandi has fulfilled at least some of its promises. It has been supportive.
An Estonian version of this article, translated by Triin Loide, appears in the 27 May 2022 issue of Sakala.