Category Archives: Tallinn

Paying it Backwards

Or How I Got a Gypsy Blessing, Lost All My Money and Had it Returned to me, Lifted a Peugeot, Encountered a Catholic Folk Saint, and Caught a Girl Flying Through the Air Within Eight Standard Estonian Hours.

My grandmother used to say, “When you got it, give it.  When you don’t got it, don’t think about what you gave because it’s not healthy to hate yourself.”  I generally follow this advice.  In spite of all the people, things, countries, foods, religions, and family members my grandmother hated passionately on a regular basis, she was still a very decent, wise woman.  She just came from a world where spite was a virtue and holding a grudge for more than 20 years was considered a mark of character.

Like all the old Italians I knew as a kid, grandma did for others, sometimes without provocation.  You might get an orange as a Christmas present or a crate of oranges on your doorstep one morning for no reason at all.  That’s how the Italians living in central California were, how their parents and grandparents had been back home.  It’s how they’d translated their village life across the Atlantic.  Mess with them and you were in for a world of hurt.  But wave politely from your front porch a few times and say something nice to their kids, and one day they might refer to you as “okay”—which, in that culture, meant “nice guy / not an asshole.”  High praise.

If they had it, they gave it.  And they didn’t keep checking for the good fu to come back around like a golden boomerang.  They gave and then they went about their business.  And if you knocked on their door with the donation cup, they might toss something your way if they felt sorry for you.  But they’d inevitably make the observation that there’s always somebody somewhere who needs their back room swept.  You know?  Brooms are easy to come by, I hear.  I’m not (usually) that old school.  But I can say that I’d rather carry pipes in a shitfield than take someone’s charity.  And I think it has to do with spending every summer of my life up to age 18 around the old folks.  In fact, I can say this because I have carried pipes in a shitfield.

But pipes and shitfields were far from my mind when I woke up today.  It was a typical morning in what I’m learning to accept as the beginning of a standard Tallinn day: slightly overcast, a crowd of models in miniskirts waiting for the bus across the street, and behind them, behind a guy who looked like The Zohan in a hot pink sweat suit with a beard that zigzagged like a lightning bolt, a middle-aged couple ran through tango steps on the grass.  Yes.  At 7:15 on a Tuesday morning.  Tango practice.  When the bus came, they both ran and got on with all the rest.  I sipped my coffee, watched the whole thing, and smiled at the universe, thinking the same thing I’ve thought every morning since arriving in Estonia: I really like it here.  It’s a weird place to be sure, but gently so—everything cast in a quiet, self-amused sort of absurdity, as if to say: I fought for this cabbage.  Now I’ve got it.  It’s mine.  And guess what I’ve discovered?  It’s a cabbage. 

Like most Americans, I’m normally not that subtle.  Still, I had no idea that today would meet and exceed my personal standard for weirdness and improbable synchronicity.  Today, as Basil Ivan Rákóczi might say, was a painted caravan.  And, like most Americans 6-of-pentacleswho’ve read the tarot every morning for 30 years (more than you might think, Harry), I shuffled up my Hanson-Roberts and pulled a card.  Now, without getting too far into my theory of how the cards work (which is a book I’m currently writing), I can say that I believe divination systems, like good short stories, show us what we already know (and perhaps cannot face at the moment) and give us the opportunity to think about what we should be keeping in mind (that maybe we don’t want to think about).  So when I drew the 6 of Pentacles, after watching Tango at the Bus Stop, I wondered what the hell it could mean.

Of course, I knew what the card meant in itself.  When I give readings, I tell people that 6 is the tarot number of beauty, grace, and style.  The 6 in the Major Arcana of the tarot is the card of The Lovers, which is the abundance of The Empress magnified until Venus is so radiant, so present, that victory is the inevitable next step.  Translated into the suits of the Minor Arcana, the 6 brings that beauty and grace into more specialized elemental contexts.  So one way of translating the 6 of Pentacles from the symbolic language of the cards is to call it “the beauty of earthly concerns” because pentacles, as a suit, deals with earth, with materiality of all kinds.  In a more literal sense, it is often called the card of alms-giving, patronage, generosity.  Sitting in the window with my coffee and the first light rain of the day coming down, I had reason to question what sort of generosity I should have been keeping in mind.

It wasn’t long before the universe, in her usual gentle, relaxing way furnished the answer.  My wallet disappeared somewhere between a vanilla ice cream at Rimi and me dropping my daily .50€ into the cup of the old gypsy lady who gives me a blessing every morning.

Like grandma, I give it when I have it.  My mom used to call it, “paying your way.”  And that’s how I’ve always thought of it—paying your way on the street, on any street, means giving a little.  Only today, I gave with that image of the 6 of Pentacles in my thoughts.  The old woman in her black cloak straightened up, bowed to me in a very dignified way, as always, and made the sign of the cross over my head.  This morning, I decided to take her picture.  She didn’t seem to mind.

It was only several hours later that I discovered my wallet was missing.  I immediately began blaming myself, wondering whether it was the old woman or someone else or whether my credit cards were currently floating out to sea; turning my suitcases inside-out; cursing; vowing to never leave the house again; developing cruel theories about my upbringing and DNA that would explain this stupidity.  I have never lost a wallet.  Ever.  This is because I fear it like a fat boy fears P.E.

Trembling, vehement, cursing myself and all creation, I thought, 6 of Pentacles my ass.  I’m the one who needs some goddamn charity now, huh.  I spent most the day doing exactly what grandma always said was unhealthy: hating myself.  I was in a foreign country on limited funds (which probably had already been siphoned out of my bank account down to the last cent) and my dreamy drifting around Tallinn—thinking about short stories and tarot cards and birds and why we think we see pictures in clouds and wondering whether someone could walk in the exact same footsteps as someone else all around a city and what that would mean—had gotten me destitute and ashamed.

After going back to the market (“What?  Lost found?  Can you please again speak in Russian if no Estonian?”) and retracing my steps around town twice in the rain (“Mama, looka the man.  He all wet!”), I went home and did what every stupid person does in my situation.  I wrote to the US embassy:

Dear Duty Officer— I seem to have misplaced my wallet and will need to cancel my credit cards.  Can you advise me on how to obtain an emergency money wire from my bank in the States so I can set up a PO Box here in Tallinn?  I do not have a mailing address and will need one to receive replacement cards. Your advice is most appreciated.

I had to resist signing off with And, yes, I really am this stupid.  Two more hours of self-loathing and introspective angst ensued.  And then something very interesting happened.  I was about to go to bed and just consign myself to spiritual darkness, but I thought I should maybe check my email one last time.  Given my previous experiences with the US embassy in East Africa, I didn’t have high hopes that they would even write back to me.  But they had written back! In fact, they told me that an Estonian citizen had found my wallet and phoned them with his information.  Does this happen? 6 of Pentacles?  Talk to me, 6.  You can’t just be all “beauty of earthly concerns” and leave me hot and bothered with an address on Lootsi street in my hand and a Borgesian fable in my head.  Can you?  You bastard!

After calling and talking to the man’s grandson on the phone, I looked up his house on Google Maps and plotted a course.  I was actually quite close.  In 15 minutes, I was there.  The place was old and the top panes of the front windows were completely missing—a crumbling green bungalow in the same unpaved lot as an auto garage.  It had a rusted metal door and so much water damage on its front wooden steps that someone had laid a narrow strip of particleboard over them like a ramp.  Everything sagged with rain.  A diamond-shaped yellow sign had been nailed beside the window: Hoiduge Koer!, beware of dog.

After knocking and waiting and knocking again and waiting again, I began to wonder if this wasn’t some elaborate Estonian prank: unintelligent American drops wallet in the city center and is led on a merry chase while funds are siphoned and many beers are toasted to the goddess Schadenfreude.  But eventually someone did come—one of the mechanics from the garage: completely bald with a wicked scar laterally across his forehead and a tight, controlled smile.  He squinted at me and we began the laborious process of communication in broken German.

By the time I was holding up the Peugeot for him, I discovered he spoke perfect English and had perhaps feigned the broken German to get me to help him out—which I would have done anyway had he but asked.  There is something about someone grinning at you and saying Komm mit! Komm mit! that is entirely more persuasive than saying, “Look, I don’t know when the old man’s coming back home, but could you give me a hand in here?”

I came mit.  I gave a hand.  I even gave two hands.  The jack he was using to hold up a Peugeot hatchback looked like it had seen better days.  For that matter, so did the car.  He showed me that part of the jack had been crushed.  And I wondered, if the car could do that to the jack, how could he possibly expect me to lift it?  And would my spine look like the jack if I tried?

Stark,” he said and winked, doing imaginary bicep curls.  Yeah, right, I thought.  Stark but not Tony Stark.

Only after I was grunting and holding the rear fender of the car with both hands and thinking deep hernial thoughts did my new best friend say, “That fucking jack was bullshit, man.  You can let it down now.”

“Bullshit?  Bullshit?  You can speak fucking English?  Why didn’t you tell me?”

All I got was a bashful smile and another wink.  And I thought: it’s not that I’m stupid and gullible, I mean, I am those things, certainly, but it’s more that people don’t know how to ask for help.  If he would have only asked, I would have helped.  And then I thought of myself, broke in Montana one summer, working day labor so I wouldn’t have to ask my parents for money.  When I applied at the Ready Labor office in Missoula, the woman behind the desk asked me, “If someone said go plunge all the toilets, would you do it?”  “I guess I would,” I said, “if I were getting paid.”  She nodded and checked a box on the form.  Later that day was my first shitfield experience.  So maybe, provided certain exigencies of time and space had conspired to make me an Estonian auto mechanic instead of a pissed-off grad. student with an over-exaggerated sense of pride, I’d be the one fronting the broken German and some other fool would be holding up my Peugeot.

Still, he wasn’t a bad dude.  He helped me get ahold of the old man, who’d been called away suddenly (I never got an explanation) and was on his way back.  I sat in the auto garage beside the hatchback while the guy worked and told me all about how shitty Peugeots are.  He gave me a bottle of water and things weren’t so bad after that.  The rain made interesting noises on the corrugated metal roof.  And my new friend’s deep abiding disgust with all things Peugeot was a thing to behold.

When the old man arrived, he was like nothing I expected.  He stood about 6’6” in khakis, a white button-down, and a red beret.  He was extremely thin, and smoked a pipe.  His grip was so strong that, when we shook, I felt like he could lift me up that way.  I went into the bungalow behind him.  It looked as water damaged inside as it was on the outside.  The ceilings were falling in.  Everything inside was particle board.  And it occurred to me that this wasn’t where he lived.  It was an office or a workshop.  He was far too well-put-together to be living in a place where the top windows had been blown out and half of the living room was a puddle.

But specifics at that point didn’t matter.  All my money was in my wallet.  My credit cards.  My Communication Workers of America union card.  My 1st Gup membership  card in the United States Soo Bahk Do Moo Duk Kwan Federation—awarded to me in 1997 by the famous Tang Soo Do master Lloyd Francis which I have kept in my wallet everyday since then out of respect for that great teacher.  My drivers license. My House of Rice frequent diner card.  Everything that defines me.  Still there.  I would lift 10 crappy Peugeots for that.  I thanked him profusely.  And, after a few minutes of me grinning at him, he lit his pipe and I took my leave, still smiling.

Expedite1Could the day get any stranger?  Yes, yes it could.  Drifting home in an existential haze, trying to figure out what it all meant, I came across a slightly larger-than-life size statue of Saint Expedite completely made of marzipan in a glass case in the center of a mall.  If I’d had my camera, I would have taken a picture of that, too.  Suffice it to say, I was shocked because underneath the statue was the motto “Patron of Emergencies Lost Items, and Financial Needs.”  I stared until people started to give me funny looks, which granted, in Estonia, is not that long.  But still.  But still.

Yet stranger: almost home, a girl tripped and I caught her before she knocked her head against a concrete pole.  Good?  Saving the populace?  Lifting cars?  Interacting with marzipan Saints?  I’m Billy Dee Williams, son.

Now I’m home.  It’s late and I’m blogging this.  But somehow I don’t feel like I’m doing the day justice.  Every one of these experiences had enough emotional tender to merit a post all on its own.  And I would be dishonest if I said I didn’t feel a bit overstimulated.  So, okay 6, I think I understand by now.  I think I finally get it.  I can look over at my wallet on the table and say, I fought for this cabbage. Now I’ve got it. It’s mine. And guess what I’ve discovered?

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From Estonia with Love

I love Tallinn.  It’s ancient and modern at the same time.  The people are cultured and willing to forgive me for being a stupid American.  In fact, an Estonian friend recently gave me the option of being an apprentice Estonian, which I took as a compliment—even though I am and will always be a child of Southern California.  Represent.

But after 14 hours of work—writing, teaching, promoting my business, applying to ESL instructor positions—I feel the need for a beer.  That’s good.  Estonia is deeply in love with beer of all kinds.  Unfortunately, the country is also deeply in love with rules—specifically, the rule that no beer is sold after 22:00 (that’s 10 PM for all you yank readers) in stores.  Alright, so the intrepid internet laborer who loses all sense of time must go to a bar if it’s 22:27, which it is.

Naturally, in moments like this, I invoke my Irish ancestry and pray to St. Patrick to leave me the fuck alone so Satan can find me the worst, most decadent drinking establishment in Tallinn.  I wind up drinking in St. Patrick’s pub in Old Town.  It’s okay—fairly standard Irish format with a jovial Irish manager slinging drinks and several nymph-like Estonian waitresses who don’t know how to make a half-and-half.  So okay.  I can handle that.  Guinness it is.

I drink my Guinness.  And I am content.  It is only after the third pint that I am approached by the poor man’s Cate Blanchett—tall, blonde, blue eyes, and post-apocalyptic survival instincts.  Apparently she is Russian because she says, “Do you speak Russian?” in an accent that can only be Russian.

“No,” I say, “I’m an American.”

“You are a beautiful American.”

“Yeah?”

“I would like a cocktail.”

“I voted for Obama.  I would like a cocktail.”

At which point, she makes a face at me and says, “Oh, you are not buying me a cocktail.  I’m sure you are used to fat disgusting monsters in America.”

I laugh at this for at least 15 minutes.  Then I dance by myself amid several married, middle-aged Estonians while a Rod Stewart lookalike sings “I Just Called to Say I love You” with a drum machine and a Peavey 6-string.

Have I mentioned that I love it here?

She takes a new position on the other side of the pub and shoots me a lot of nasty looks while I finish my drinks.  I want to say, it’s okay.  You should go to the States.  And you will find a wonderful guy with a spray-on tan and gold chains who will buy you cocktails.  But I don’t say anything.