Sketches of Estonia
“Good,” I said, “if you don’t mind sitting in a dark, hot room with a bunch of naked guys.”
“Haha! Exactly, exactly! It’s really weird, isn’t it, kallis?” she said. And this was coming from Rüblik Sirts, the woman who bared her breasts at the Sydney Opera House.
On the way home, as our car twisted through the dark runs of pines, and our little angelic daughters slept like dormant volcanoes, the warm glow of the sauna and the good company stayed with us.
“I love Sirts and Taavi!” Epp said. “Aren’t they the best people?”
“Yeah, I like them.”
“And they have such good energy. You know, Sirts said we can come and visit them in Ibiza. She said that they have an old friend who has a house and we can stay there.”
“Old friend, huh.”
“She says he’s really cool and that Ibiza is full of cool old hippies.”
“Maybe it is worth a visit.”
“We could get rid of our Tartu place and go there.”
“Get rid of it? Wait, what? But we just moved in a few months ago.”
There was a very long and unsatisfying pause.
“You know, Taavi’s brother keeps finding war relics on the farm,” I said.
“What does that have to do with us moving to Ibiza?”
“Oh, now you have us moving there? What the heck am I going to do there then?”
“Whatever you want to do. Come on! Who needs another cold, dark Estonian winter?”
“But do you really want to go live with some old hippie guy who thinks he’s Jesus?”
“But Sirts says he’s really cool. You saw the pictures. You saw how ideal it is there.”
“Please, all of those guys think they are Jesus. It’s like the moment the beard grows in.”
“Could you stop being so cynical! These are good people. These are our friends.”
“Yeah, but... She’s a masseuse, he paints fake tattoos.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“You’re really negative, you know that?”
“I’m not negative. I’m just trying to be realistic.”
“That’s what you call it.”
I knew she envied their lifestyle and, though I didn’t admit it, I admired it, too. But I was still just cranking out news articles in those days. My own little bohemian monster had yet to break free.
Years later, when Sirts was hitchhiking through America, she contacted Epp, hoping to somehow visit our home out on Long Island before making her way to New York’s JFK for a flight to Ibiza. That we were living two and a half hours east of the airport didn’t seem to factor into the equation and why should it have? This was Kid Sirts! It was morning and her flight left in the afternoon. When I asked Epp to ask Sirts where she was, that maybe we could come and help her, the answer came back: Maryland. “Maryland? That’s four hours away! Her flight leaves this afternoon and she’s still in Maryland hitchhiking? Just forget it. She’s never going to make that flight.”
But she did make it. It was hard to believe it when I heard it, but Rüblik Sirts was right on time.
Tea with the Icebreaker
Fred Jüssi was king of the Estonian beatniks. At least that was my first impression of him.
Even if his bebop was bird calls, there was always a touch of the hepcat about the naturalist. Maybe it was that beret he was so fond of wearing. Epp told me that Fred had been born to Estonian parents in Aruba in 1935, which I never believed until I saw a magazine with a grainy black and white image of an infant Fred in the Caribbean sands.
That was when Fred’s life began, back before the war when Estonia was free, long before he ever picked up a camera, ages before he wrote the book Jäälõhkuja, and eons before Mr. Jüssi crossed paths with me.
It was a fortuitous crossing, one that probably changed my life. Not that I decided to pick up a camera and become a naturalist myself, but whenever I saw the images of Fred Jüssi out at work in the woods, I felt a sort of solidarity in our lonesomeness and our dissatisfaction with rote, routine, professional life.
Jüssi just couldn’t help doing what he did. And as journal after journal filled up with handwritten notes scribbled in planes, trains, buses, against city walls, I knew I couldn’t help it either.
First I should tell you a bit more about Jäälõhkuja, that fetching and crazy-looking Estonian word. It was the title of his book.
In the early days of the publishing house I did a lot of the errand work, but I wasn’t exactly proud of it. Dropping off books, receiving books. Meh. I still did my online journalism job, so the money was coming in, but with all the book business buzzing about me in Tartu, with all those fascinating ladies in my kitchen, I wanted to get in on the action, and for me the first way in was in helping to transcribe Fred’s book. I would cozy up beside Epp late at night with the book across my lap and work while the children slept. Epp was impressed that I could do it.
I’m still a little proud.
When I say “transcribe,” I do not mean that I translated it into English. I’ve been learning Estonian for a dozen years as I write this and I still couldn’t do that. It would have been impossible back then, at the very dawn of our book business, because I didn’t even know what jäälõhkuja was. It just looked like an accidental word to me, as if a three-year-old had gotten hold of an Estonian keyboard and typed it out. Even when Epp told me it was a kind of bird that cracks or breaks the ice, an “icebreaker,” it didn’t help me to understand the other long words I found in that book, originally printed years earlier and now so rare it could only be found in a few libraries.
Dog-eared and yellowed, our paperback copy looked as if it been recovered from the belongings of an old woman who had died a century ago. But on the inside, it said it was published in 1986. Only 1986! Or maybe that was already a long time ago? I thought sometimes while I was typing about my own 1986, how I had gone skiing in Vermont that winter and how my friend Brent Usher and I played cards in our bunk beds while the snowflakes glistened outside through the house lights. At the same exact moment in 1986, far away as the globe spun, snow was also falling outside the window of the middle-aged Soviet naturalist Fred Jüssi, who was seated at his desk, enjoying the radiator warmth of his Tallinn apartment, sipping hot tea and stringing together this book with its crazy words.
Like the snowflakes they fluttered by. Words like:
Estonian words! Sometimes our niece Simona would show me comic strips and within the bubbles there would be just one or two words, each of which was about 17 letters in length, followed by some exclamation points. You would see Donald Duck’s familiar grimace and then some absurd statement above his head with many ö’s and ä’s and ü’s, words that looked a lot like, well, like jäälõhkuja. It reminded me of an old LP I had of Greenlandic children’s songs. Track 4 on Side A was called “Sialualaarluni.” Track 5 was called “Kalingaarpoq.” Track 8 on Side B was “Ikinngutinga Naasunnguaq.”