Sketches of Estonia
She was some kind of world traveler. But not Rome, not London, not New York. Instead, she usually traveled to places where other like-minded people gathered. There were bare-chested men around with beards and tribal tattoos and bongo drums. Plenty of smiling, plenty of hugging. These were the Love-Ins of the 21st century. And to think it all started out for Sirts in some innocent spot in the countryside, a little railroad junction town like Viljandi or Rapla. Sirts, once I had met her and knew her, would tell me about her long-ago Soviet childhood, how she never learned a word of Russian until she came to Tallinn and the little old flower sellers would pester her, and that she still didn’t speak Russian, but how she had loved those creepy fantastic Russian cartoons that they used to watch as children, and how every Soviet Estonian child’s dream was to get a pen pal in Finland who would send her some cool stickers.
At some point in her journey over to the love side, the nude global a go-go, Kid Sirts side, she met Taavi, who was a surfer, and who was referred to at least once in a magazine as “Surfer Taavi.” In the magazine photo, he was standing on a beach in a wetsuit beside a surfboard. Taavi was the embodiment of a pagan hero. Tall. Sinewy. His skin was brown, his hair golden. His face looked as if it had been carved from bone, and he had strange eyes, sunken a bit deeper that they should have been, a little more alert than they should have been, and each time I looked into his eyes when he was telling me about his adventures I knew that he was far removed from me in almost every way, and that if we shared ancestors, they had parted ways a long time ago.
Sirts’s manner of speech was quick and inspired. She called me kallis, sweetheart, as if I was some orphan that she intended to care for. Her spirited sentences reminded me of bubbling water. Taavi had adopted the Australian surfers’ twang. He told me of the beach life Down Under, where Sirts earned her wages as a masseuse, and he painted fake tattoos. They usually had a wealthier, older patron upon whom they depended for shelter, often in a bungalow by the sea. “And he says we can stay there whenever we like!” Sirts would giggle. “And you guys should come and visit! Stay as long as you like! Wouldn’t that be great?!”
To get to Taavi’s parents’ house you had to go to Ahja. You had to leave Tartu from its northeastern vector, taking the winding Tartu-Räpina Road southeast. Eventually, you cleared the remaining warehouses and misplaced suburban developments and entered what could properly called the countryside. I always liked leaving Tartu because the land around it was so uneven and charming, and there was something to interest you – an abandoned barn straight out of a mystery, a lake nestled beyond a grove. It felt good to see these new things because Estonia was so small, and so you cherished every new find. The odor of the manure stung at the back of your throat and for some reason you liked it.
Ahja was a little dusty town with the ancient Lutheran church and the mossy stone walls and run-on, big-brick-chimneyed, 19th century homes that flowed with the land. Taavi said to turn left and take it over the river and then up the hill and around and through – but stay to the left! – And then we had to go down and beyond and stop just before.
Somehow the car pulled up to a frontier-looking wooden fence. Several hairy dogs gathered at its gates, howling before a young man with dreadlocks of about 18 with an amused look on his face arrived and let us in. He didn’t say much, but I understood that he was Taavi’s much younger brother. Something about the kid was off, though. He didn’t say a word, and was smiling all the time, as if content with his thoughts, except his eyes were too intense to be those of the peace-loving hippie.
And I had thought that Taavi and Sirts were weirdos.
But that was okay, because at the house, there was much rejoicing and kalli kalli, huggy huggy, and Sirts embraced me and called me kallis as she always did. There were other bohemians there – Ibiza Kati and her boyfriend Peeter as well as their son Taavi-Mikk. There was also Marko, whom I had met in Taavi and Sirts’s Kalamaja apartment once before, and some young woman whose name and eyes I remembered well from earlier days in Kalamaja but whom I couldn’t say I knew as a person.
The girl was an artist and she was very pretty, with gems of faintly Asiatic blue eyes and smooth and round features. Like everybody else, she was good looking. It annoyed me that the Estonians were so good looking. Why were they so lucky to have such good looks? And if they had the luck to be so good looking, then how come they hadn’t been gifted other kinds of good fortune, such as historical luck? Also, where did the good looks go when they got older? The older generations of Estonians were not as good looking. Had they once been beautiful, too, or had the Soviets robbed them of their beauty? Or could it just be that Sirts and Taavi’s generation, our generation, had been exceptional in its blessedness, and took for granted not only its rare beauty, but its restored independence, and the freedom to travel and pose naked everywhere?
The scene in Sirts and Taavi’s Kalamaja apartment had been Dostoyevskian in its sloppiness and full of such lucky good-looking bohemians. I recall how one tenant, a fellow named Lehari, had kept his room in the apartment bare, and that he slept on a plain mat out of respect for some philosophy he had taken up with in Japan.
I asked about Lehari at the party in Ahja, but no one had heard from him in a while. They were all too distracted with each other and with their respective new children. There was much cooing over our cute peach-fuzz-blonde baby daughter Anna. Sirts and Taavi’s child Iti was also there, and she was as golden and curly-haired and otherworldly as her two parents. She clung to Taavi’s chest and eyed us with caution, and I remembered how much trouble Sirts and Taavi had encountered in Australia, where the Anglos had thought their daughter’s name was “E.T.”
While the Estonians talked, I drifted about the room. There was a great brick fireplace and a kitchen full of sausages and potatoes and fried onions and juice from concentrate. I put some onto a plate and ate it and washed it down with the smooth strawberry juice and walked to the alcove to where I had seen Taavi’s brother sit at the computer. There I began to look through the stack of books. These were heavy volumes, some older and musty, some newer and glossy. Some were in Estonian, some in German, some in English. They all had images of German soldiers on them, and the authors had all managed to work “The Third Reich” into the titles.
Oh my God. I touched an image of goose-stepping soldiers. Taavi’s brother is a Nazi.
I glanced over to the youth who was following the discussions with interest but few words. He didn’t seem right. The way he never spoke. That sinister look in his eyes. Those strange dogs of his. Something was wrong with the boy. At the same time, it was hard for me to figure out how a young bohemian could have Nazi sympathies. He looked like an Estonian Bob Marley. But what kind of Bob Marley devotee enjoyed reading up on the Third Reich?
“You like my books?” Taavi’s brother said.
I pulled my hand to my side. “What?”
“I asked if you like my books.”
“They’re interesting. By the way, do you know who Kalev Rebane is?”
Taavi’s brother snorted a bit at the name. “Yes, I know him.”
“Oh,” is all I could say. Then I made my way into the other room. I still eyed Taavi’s brother warily. How could it be? The kid looked like a white Bob Marley. And yet he was friends with Kalev Rebane, the skin-headed, rabble-rousing ringleader of the Estonian right-wing nationalists.
The sauna was a little wooden structure on the edge of a murky manmade pond. Taavi had put a yellow plastic “Warning! Sharks!” sign beside it and the sign had a little black outline of a shark on it. He told me he had brought it back from Australia.
Inside it was me and Taavi on one side, Peeter on the other side and Marko on the other side of them. Taavi’s brother had elected to stay in the house. The strange kid said he had already taken a sauna that day. We shared the top bench and Taavi ladled the water onto the stones that let off the steam. When you heard it sizzle, you had to lower your face and clench your fingers and toes because the steam stung your ear tips and made your fingernails and toenails ache. It really hurt, and it was a smoke sauna, where the steam stayed in the room and the smoke blackened the walls. Taavi said his father was a park ranger. He said the old man took a smoke sauna every day.
“I wonder what his lungs look like,” I said.
“Ha. I am sure they are as black as these walls,” Taavi said.
Some time passed. “So, I saw your brother’s book collection.”
“Yeah,” Taavi answered.
“He seems to have an interest in Germany.”
“Yeah, he does.”
“I mean, he seems to have an interest in Nazi Germany.”
“Oh, yeah, I know, man.”
“He’s, like, totally obsessed with the war.”
“Totally, for sure, dude.”
“I would have thought he’d be more into Bob Marley than Adolf Hitler with hair like that.”
This made Taavi laugh a bit, but only Taavi. The other men in the sauna were very still.
“I know what you mean,” Taavi said. “When I first saw he was collecting those books, I thought, ‘What the hell are you doing? Are you turning into a Nazi or something?’ But a lot of World War II battles were fought near Ahja. My brother is working on the farm and digging and he’s always finding belt buckles and helmets and bullets. And some of these things are worth a lot of money.”
“Did they mostly belong to German soldiers?”
“Not all. It’s like – the Soviets invaded, then they retreated and left their things, because when you are retreating, you don’t have time to pack up every last helmet or bayonet, you know. Then the Germans came and then they had to retreat and leave their things. So the fields are full of war memorabilia.”
“But your brother said he knows Kalev Rebane, too,” I said after the steam had passed.
“Who’s Kalev Rebane?” Peeter said and turned to me.
“He’s that skinhead who was stirring up trouble with the Bronze Soldier,” Marko said.
“Oh, yeah, him,” Peeter said. “Wait – Taavi, your brother knows him? That’s scary.”
“No, no, he probably said he knows of him,” Taavi said. “Not that he knows him. I think many Estonians know of him, especially after what happened. That was crazy. What did you think about that? Riots and cyber attacks, and all over some old war monument.”
“It’s like you said. It was crazy.”
Taavi stared at the hot stones in the sauna a bit. Then he said, “Okay, I’ve had enough,” and made for the door. We followed him out into the night and jumped into the pond. I was the last one to jump in because I didn’t really want to go in it, but I was still soaked with sweat and my skin was hot and everybody else expected me to do it. I launched myself and came in up to my neck and felt for the bottom with my feet but could sense nothing, no reeds, no mud, no sand. I paddled across the cool dark waters to its muddy banks, eying the Warning! Sharks! sign as I did it, and though I knew no shark could live in a manmade pond in Ahja Parish, I felt my pulse quicken, as if I was surfing with Taavi in Australia and a Great White had just bitten into my board. When I climbed out, I shivered a bit and wiped the dirty water from my skin and looked around at Taavi, Peeter, and Marko. The dogs were barking out there and some unseen lambs bleated. It was dark and the only light came from the house windows.
Inside, when we returned, the girls were chatting and still radiant from all of the heat.
“Kallis Justin!” asked Sirts with her bohemian clown face. “How was the smoke sauna?”