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.
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?”
“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. 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. 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. 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.
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 like the 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.