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my estonia 2


justin petrone

berry junkies, nordic elves and real estate fever

part 2


Copyright: Justin Petrone and Petrone Print, 2011 Editor: Epp Petrone Cover design: Anna Lauk Cover photo: Remo Savisaar Map: Kudrun Vungi Photo gallery: Justin Petrone, Raivo Hool Layout: Aive Maasalu Printed in: OÜ Greif ISBN 978–9985–9996–7–7 (set) ISBN 978–9949–9076–5–6 (part 2)

www.petroneprint.ee


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my estonia 2

contents

Prologue Hiiu Humor Out in the Forest One Life The Old Sailor From Student to Teacher “Springtime” in Estonia A Look in the Mirror Jewels in the Night Old Women’s Summer First Snow Real Estate Fever Language School Searching for a Nest Scofflaws Toompea is Under Attack Old Town Maestros Life on the Margins Thanksgiving at Bonaparte One Leg Here, One Leg There No Key Little Aliens

8 17 42 60 74 94 114 137 157 173 181 194 208 222 235 247 263 275 291 297 314 338 5


contents

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prologue

prologue

“… And the worst part of the book was that he kept asking me what I wanted in life. ‘What do you want? What do you really want?’ And I was like, ‘What if I don’t know what I want?’” “You mean you don’t want anything? You just take life as it is? Go with whatever is before you?” I stood in front of the Olümpia Hotel with my good acquaintance Vello Vikerkaar. It was a brisk December day at the end of the year 2009, and the snow flurried down from the gray skies. I watched the snow bounce off the towering hotel and felt pangs of nostalgia, but only just for a moment. Then I was distracted again by the very big question at hand: What do you really want? The talk during the ride into Tallinn that morning from Vikerkaar’s home in Nõmme had been about that question; as Vello turned the wheel to his jeep, we veered from one 8


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philosophical conundrum to the next. Estonia’s most controversial columnist wouldn’t let up. And now, all was laid bare. “You have no wants, no goals, and no desires? You seek to achieve nothing?” Vikerkaar raised his bushy gray eyebrow and I knew the old guy had me. “Alright, I have goals, but they are more like emotional goals. It’s not like I want a particular job or car.” “But some people here really want certain cars. For them, a car is like a moving advertisement that they’ve finally made some money. It’s like they say, first the car.” “And then the house,” I sighed. “So you have certain ways you want to feel, and to feel that way you have to think about how to get there. Not to knock cars though. When I was 25, I definitely wanted certain cars.” I tried to think if I had ever wanted a car. I couldn't remember. “You know after our daughter was born I thought I knew what I wanted, where I wanted to go. But I never thought I could really control everything.” Vello stared back at me but didn’t say anything. I suspected that, in some way, he pitied me. Then my pocket began to vibrate. I picked up my phone. “Justin, are you coming? We’re waiting for you.” “I’m right in front of the Olümpia. I’ll be there soon.” “Great. We were beginning to worry. See you.” I glanced at the clock on the phone. 10.06 am. I was six minutes late. “Who was that?” asked Vello. “Merle Liivak, the editor of Anne ja Stiil magazine.” “I remember her. She was a host on the Estonian ‘Dancing with the Stars’. ” 9


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“You watched ‘Dancing with the Stars’?” “Oh yeah,” Vikerkaar snorted. “My wife Liina loves that show. And I remember Merle. She’s pretty, right?” He said it with indifference, as if he had said “she’s religious, right?” or “she’s got leprosy, right?” “You could say that,” I nodded. “But I have to go,” I held out my hand. “It’s always fun.” I left Vello at the Olümpia and walked past the new cylindrical headquarters of Nordea Bank. Years ago, when I first moved to this town, the mouth to Maakri Street in downtown Tallinn was dotted with crooked wooden buildings and abandoned lots. I used to walk it all the time to go visit Epp when she worked at a magazine called Anne. But now there was no more Anne. Well, there was, but it had been combined with another magazine called Stiil to form Anne ja Stiil*. And the magazine’s office was no longer on the sixth floor of the publishing house. It was now on the eighth. I opened the glass door to the publishing house and the heat hit me, but what struck me more were the lingering hints of the past. Where there once had been a nail salon that saturated the air with fumes, there now stood the lone desk of the Russian-language magazine Jana. Where there once sat a perky, redheaded security guard named Irina, there now was a cranky, bald one whose name tag said ‘Peeter.’ And, other than the flashbacks, all I could think about as I rode the elevator up to the eighth floor was Estonian motivational speaker Peep Vain and his thought-provoking questions. * “Talent and Style”. (In Estonian)

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Peep Vain (yes, that’s his real name) is well-known in Estonia for encouraging businessmen and athletes to do even better than their best. Tall and thin, his light hair shorn nearly to the scalp, Vain struts across the stage of his esteem-building conferences, summoning the inner courage of attendees who enter losers and leave doing jumping jacks. Vain had caught my attention and his ideas intrigued me. I had seen Vain compete on the Estonian version of “Dancing with the Stars”, watched a documentary about the man’s self-help summits, and spent the previous week digesting the important questions in his bestselling self-help book, The Most Important Question. “What do you want, Justin?” Vain ambushed me again as I stepped into the elevator and took the ride up. “Look inside yourself. Tell me.” Was this really what I wanted? Seven years after I had taken photos of designers and actresses and writers for Anne, I was now back in the same building getting my own picture taken for the column I had agreed to write for Anne ja Stiil. It had all happened by accident, naturally. Someone had suggested me as a new columnist, the magazine liked the idea, and within a few seconds I said yes, not even knowing exactly what I had signed up to do, let alone weighing if it was a job I truly desired. Somehow it had happened that I had become a best-selling author in Estonia. For months, I had donned make up to give early morning interviews on TV, entertained magazine photo shoots in my home, and even was chased down by a journalist eager to learn my pasta recipes. But I was a little anxious about the impending photo shoot, probably because of a Stiil cover I had once seen, one that 11


prologue

featured an up-and-coming actor who had been done up with mascara, lipstick, and pink fluff y wings, like an emasculated angel. I even remembered the name of this enfant terrible: Juhan Ulfsak. I wasn’t sure if the angel wings were his idea or not, and I didn’t know what the stylists had in store for me, but I was determined that morning to not wind up looking like him. The interior of the publishing house was just as I remembered it, but I remembered the soul of the place more, that buzzing of media egomaniacs, of painfully stylish men and women stabbing each other in the back to make it to the most coveted position of all: editor-in-chief. When you were editorin-chief, you could get first dibs on new creams and lotions. You could take off to opulent spas and bill it to the company. Maybe write an article about it, if you felt like. And the women here knew what they wanted. They wanted to run the show. Everybody wanted to be editor-in-chief in the publishing house, so you had to look down when you walked, just to make sure you didn’t trip over anybody’s purposefully outstretched stiletto heel. I arrived at the office at the end of the hall, and plunged right into the small crowd of colorful magazine people. The room was long and brightly lit. The air smelled of cosmetics and plastic furniture. I reached out first to shake Merle the editor’s hand. Standing there dressed in a dark tunic with her angular cropped hair, like a ghost from the ’20s, Merle was just as Vello had described her. Pretty. “Good to see you again,” I said.

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“Yes,” she glittered, pushing her raven-dark bangs away from her eyes and moving closer, “I believe we’ve met before. How do you like your new job as a columnist?” I ignored the question and told Merle I was working on some great pieces on alcoholism, infidelity, pornography – everything Estonian women wanted to read about. I decided not to say how I actually felt about sharing these ideas. As I spoke, I noticed Merle’s apple-red lips part, framing a luminous smile. “Those ideas are perfect!” she clasped her hands together in delight. “Our readers will love them.” Merle then introduced me to the two men standing behind her: the Stylist and the Photographer. The Stylist was long, wiry, a specimen of urbanity whose perfectly arranged shirt, jeans, sneakers all looked fresh out of the bag; The Photographer was stocky and square, dressed in a modest sweater and jeans. I looked at them. They looked at me. We both knew that I was now in their hands. “So, um, what will I be wearing, guys?” “Here,” the lanky Stylist displayed an innocuous black sweater. “Let’s start with this and then we’ll try the other shirts.” I glanced down at the wardrobe that had been selected for me. Besides the sweater, there was a gray button down and a white shirt with a herring-bone pattern. “What’s the matter?” the Stylist ran his hands through his perfectly coiffed brown hair and then scratched at his goatee. “I was worried you were going to make me look like somebody.” “Like who?” “Like that actor… Juhan Ulfsak.” 13


prologue

“Ulfsak?” the Stylist folded his arms. “What about him?” “There was a Stiil cover a few years back. They dressed him up in angel wings.” “Oh, right, the angel wings,” the Stylist clicked his tongue and turned to the Photographer with a grin. “They should be arriving any minute now.” “What?” “Calm down,” said the Photographer. “No angel wings,” he leaned down to adjust his tripod, “at least not this time.”

I put on the sweater and sat on a chair while the Stylist and Photographer discussed the appropriate lighting. It had been seven years since I was last up here in the publishing house. Seven years is all it took to go from a person involved in the assembly of a magazine to a character inside its covers, from the content provider to the content itself. I never had the ambition to be here this morning getting my photo taken in a strange pullover. Or had I? Maybe I had been secretly lusting after moments like these all along. So many things happened in life. Sometimes it was hard to remember what you had wished for. “Turn your head a little to the left, now a little to the right,” the Photographer said in his deep voice, the camera flashing four times. “Now, cross your arms.” “Like this?” I crossed them. “Try to relax more. You should look like you are saying, ‘Hi, I’m Justin, and I really want you to read my new column.’” “Ok.” 14


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“That’s it! Don’t move.” The camera flashed three more times. “Super!” To the others, it looked like I came alone. But Peep was there the whole time, buzzing in the air like a mosquito, a question mark on his forehead. And no matter how many times he asked me what I wanted, I just couldn't answer. I didn’t trust Peep because I didn’t trust myself. People like him tried to inspire us to an almost religious quest for personal achievement. And here I was, a writer, a columnist, a husband and father, but, at my core, an individual who apparently could not answer the most important questions. “Ok, last photo,” the photographer made a funny face and I cracked up. “There you go!” the camera flashed one, two, three, four more times. “Super!” “Those flashes are kind of bugging me,” I blinked. “Don’t worry, it should only take about four days for the flashes to wear off,” the Stylist quipped. “What?” “My God,” the Stylist said to the Photographer. “He may be the most gullible one we’ve had yet.”

In the elevator, Peep began whispering in my ear again. But this time his voice was smooth and relaxed, like the disc jockey of a jazz station. It was as if we were in an Old Town café having a chat. Peep wasn’t the enemy. He was a motivational speaker. He just wanted to help. 15


prologue

“Is this what you really wanted, Justin?” Peep asked one last time. “Of course it is, Peep,” I conceded as the floors clicked by. “I’m here, aren’t I? It has to be.” “Good,” he crossed his legs and smiled. “Then I never, ever, want to hear you complain.” December 2010, Viljandi, Estonia P.S. Some names have been changed in the following story to protect the individuals’ privacy. While most of the following really happened, this book must be considered a work of fiction.

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My Estonia 2-sisu