with bourdain and my new helsinki friends

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

***

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

*** 

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

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

***

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

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

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

“Yes, of course,” I told him. 

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

“Really? Where did you go?” 

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No.”

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

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

I said nothing but beamed with pride.

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

“I thought Papu only ate Gruyere.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

the 8:30 pm train ride home

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

helsinki, 8.30 am, restless

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

7:30 am, the ship to helsinki

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

just not today

YESTERDAY, I got to thinking about Hackett.

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Catch you again in the apothecary glass.

a gray day in town; or, the irish poets

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.

like home

WHAT I REMEMBER about Bari Centrale is the tall palm trees outside, even in November, and the graffitied frescoes of the saints on the walls outside the tall apartment houses. I remember the carabinieri milling about outside the doors, and that smell, that awful beautiful smell of life and filth that is everywhere with you when you go to Italy, and I remember the girls with the black hair and black jackets. I remember the fresh fruit markets, where they sell juicy persimmons, and the roast chestnut sellers. Bari is just one port city, and nobody really goes there on purpose. Italy for outsiders is Rome, Milan, Florence, Naples, maybe Palermo. Italy is the blue grotto, Italy is checkered tablecloths, and the singing gondoliere of Venice and famous nude statues. Bari is on nobody’s list. But I have to go to Bari, because Bari is where my cousins live. I cannot go to Italy and not go to Bari. Sometimes I take the train all the way from Rome to get to Bari. Sometimes I fly. In the airport, you can buy mafalda and red wine. For me, it’s like home. 

This is the food I grew up eating, these are the manners I learned from my elders. When someone says the party starts at 2 pm, that means it really starts at 4 pm. When someone says goodbye, they don’t mean it. For Italians, or at least southern Italians, saying goodbye is a lengthy process. It can take an hour for the goodbye to fulfil itself. I forget these things when I am away, but it always comes back to me here. Once an Estonian girl complained to me that she could never live in such a place. “All they do is sit around and eat and do nothing and nothing happens,” she said. I thought, what’s wrong with that? That sounds like the ideal way to live. That sounds perfect.

But what to eat? In the evenings in Bari, you can hear the fishermen in the ports calling out their daily catch. Customers huddle around and go home with some dead fish. Some of the fishermen play cards while they are waiting for clients. In the cafes in the evening, you can buy anything, so long as it is dripping in marinara sauce and stuffed with cheese. In one cafe, you can even buy baked octopus, and see the tentacles emerging from a mountain of sauce, cheese, and pasta. I think at some point, you just have to stop worrying about what you are eating in Puglia. You just have to eat it. There are the small mozzarellinis, and then the large loaves of mozzarella. There are the small cubes of polenta baked in sauce, and then a custard-filled pastry that my cousin Michele calls sporcamuss, “because it makes your mouth all messy.” The dialect around Bari has Greek, French, and even Arabic influences. Phrases and words you learn in Puglia are totally useless outside of Puglia. If you try to speak Barese to someone in Rome, they will blink at you. Younger people speak Italian, but the older people here retreat into dialetto at the kitchen table. This is one reason why Italians in New York and other places switched to English so quickly. They could not understand each other’s dialects.

Down the coast from Bari, there are some real gems and pearls hidden in the coastline. Places that time forgot. Places like Polignano a Mare and Monopoli. Ostuni, the white city. Boats sleep in the harbors. Castles bear witness to the waves and winds of the sea. On the other side of the water is Albania, Greece. Sometimes ships go there. Here you are free to wander. Here you are free from the noise of the world. Here there is always something good to eat and people wave to you from balconies. Here the old men stand around eating gelato, sipping espresso, with their hands in their pockets. Somewhere the tricolore is fluttering above. Whenever I am down there, I always think, this is the place. This is the place that made us. This is where we all came from.

fossora

FOR A BIG PART of my life, this was the woman against whom all other women were measured. Others perhaps wanted the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition cover girl, on the back of a motorbike, with a case of beer, I wanted this one. I wanted someone explosive and a little grotesque (which invites the remark, be careful of what you wish for, no additional comment needed). I was actually in a room with her in New York, but was too nervous to approach her, but could not help but think, “What’s a nice Icelandic girl like you doing in a place like this?” The new album is really a treasure, like a cache of pirate’s booty, hidden in the back of a wet cave (let’s see how deep we can go with these metaphors). Something genuinely needed these days. Thanks.

the tartu shopping center scene

YESTERDAY, the Tartu shopping center scene. Tartu is the epicenter of south Estonian shopping. When I arrived to this second largest city in the distant year of ’03, the bus station was a mottled parking lot, the “big department store” looked like one of those makeshift research stations at the South Pole, and they were unearthing the land that would eventually host the new “big department store” across the street. The gaping muddy wound in the earth revealed ancient wooden structures that I am sure were thoroughly sampled and photographed. That was always a fun part about Tartu, no matter where you dug, you were bound to unearth a skeleton or two. Now all of this territory has been submerged in capitalistic wonderland of massive billboards showing taciturn models (the square-jawed Viking, the vacant-eyed maiden) in Baltic bling. There is Tasku, Kvartal, and the now “old” Tartu Kaubamaja (Kvartal, the large shopping complex, now sits on top of the area of the “old big department store”). When I am in the new department stores, I feel utterly poor. Where are my shiny new shoes? Why aren’t my pants as nice as those ones? Maybe I should work more with my hair? Perhaps it’s time to buy a car I cannot afford and get a mortgage on a home I cannot afford either? Maybe the beatnik life is not the life. Maybe it’s time to sell out? Who needs poetry when you can binge watch it? If you don’t get paid to do it, then why do anything? Isn’t that what life is, a big commercial, a giant dangling billboard showcasing the sweetluck apparel of the northern high life? And how come, no matter how hard I try, nature wants me to look like a Greek fisherman? I could straighten everything out, but tomorrow I will be just as messy as the day before. It’s been bothering me when I go out recently. I am the oldest person there. Where are all the other people my age? At home? Watching TV? What do they do with themselves at 9 pm? Beats me. Being in Tartu, this university town, one can’t but help but feel ancient. The median age is about 22. I kind of like being around all of those 22 year olds. It’s not even about eyeballing pretty youth, it’s just that, they didn’t live through most of the forgettable things I did. NSync? Who was that? Bill Clinton? Never heard of him. Webster? Didn’t he write the dictionary? They never had to see what happened to the cast of Diff’rent Strokes, and have never heard of Todd Bridges. If they ever heard of 2 Live Crew, it was because of TikTok. Maybe that’s a good idea. Let’s just wipe the last 40 years or so from memory and start over. Sure, a pandemic and war, but, we’re just getting started anyway. Surely things will get better. Everything is new again, shiny, sparkling and new. It’s a new dawn.

a ghost in the machine

SOMETIMES PEOPLE VANISH from your life. People you are close to. People you thought you knew. People you thought knew you. People you trusted. People whom you thought trusted you. People with whom you shared vivid memories. But then, one day, they went away. They did not die. They just erased themselves from your life. They had good reasons, but at one point you looked over, and all you saw was an empty chair. These people are not dead but have become ghosts. It’s a strange phenomenon, how the living can turn themselves into phantoms. Vague and amorphous. Almost tangible. We actually always talk of the dead. We remember the dead. But when a person becomes a ghost, it’s not just as if they don’t exist, it’s as if they never existed, so there is no need to speak of them, and even if you do, it’s as if you are talking to a wall. What difference does it make? They are no longer there. This creates havoc in your mind and memory. You begin to question if they ever existed, or if they were just imaginary. You begin to suspect that you have become like that troubled mathematician in A Beautiful Mind. At some point, you just have to shed them from your own memories, like yesterday’s clothes. You take them off, and they are there lying coiled on the floor. Not only are they gone from your life, but you are no longer you anymore. You have to become someone else. You have to rewrite your story. It’s like one of those dried up distributaries in the Nile River Delta. It used to be there, but it’s gone. Where there was once water, there is now just yellow sand.