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.”