Our first winter in Estonia was cold, confusing, magical… and talk about an accelerated jaunt up the learning curve.
Within a few months I learned: When no one is out and about in a Nordic town on a sunny winter day it’s best to stay inside, because clear days tend to be colder than cloudy days and temperatures can easily dip to 40 below zero. When this happens people stay inside. It’s an unwritten rule or maybe just common sense. If one doesn’t know this rule, however, and doesn’t own a thermometer and goes outside in these low temperatures—oh let’s say to go sledding—when one rubs one’s tingling nose (which is a sign that body tissues are freezing) said nose can actually bend and stay bent off to the side until one bends it back. Apparently this is an early sign of frostbite. I also learned that -40 Celsius is the same as -40 Fahrenheit, although it doesn’t actually feel that different from -15 Fahrenheit. The injurious affect -40 has on the human body, however, is noteworthy and the speed at which this severe cold does its damage is remarkable. I also learned that contact lenses can freeze in your eyes at these incredibly low temperatures. I won’t share the details of how I learned these lessons. I’ll simply say: I survived with little more than a shattered contact lens and a nose that stayed red for many months.
Avto, the postman, bought me a thermometer after the bent nose incident (from the thermometer store, no doubt) and said something like, “You know everyone vill sink you need AA, now, because you look like drunkard wis zat red nose.”
“I’ll explain that I went sledding in -40 weather and got pre-frostbite,” I replied.
“Great plan, Hol! Zen everyone will sink you are only stupid and zere is no cure for stupid…”
I held my head high, walked very straight lines and used a lot of foundation makeup that winter.
Both girls picked up Russian language quickly since we lived in a Russian neighborhood. I studied Estonian language in an attempt to fit in with the Estonian population (who didn’t like speaking the language of their oppressors). It seemed like the polite thing to do.
Unfortunately Estonian language is (arguably) considered the third most difficult language to learn (just below Cantonese) when coming from English; this, combined with my uncooperative 44 year-old brain, created a pathetic mish-mosh of vocal sounds that bore little resemblance to Estonian language. I learned words, albeit with a terrible accent—bread, milk, shampoo, sorry, yes, and no—as well as simple phrases—pardon me, how much does this cost, when is the next train—and how to count from one to a thousand. Speaking with any level of fluency or understanding this language when spoken by locals, however, forever remained a pipedream.
Aside from studying Estonian language, my life was busy learning simple things like where and how to shop in a country that appeared to have invented the specialty shops: the meat market sold only meat, the vegetable market sold veggies, the chemical shop sold chemicals, the light bulb store had the strangest array of light bulbs imaginable but nothing more. The chair store, which sold only chairs, was across town from the table store. We’ve already covered the thermometer store…
Then there was figuring out how to do laundry—which I ultimately ended up doing in my bathtub with a little scrub board my mom sent me. Within weeks I realized that unless I could add a few hours to my day, home-schooling the girls wasn’t going to happen. So, since they were already picking up Russian language, I enrolled them in Russian schools.
Each day it seemed that one or both of the girls came home with a story about what they were learning beyond the school curriculum. Erin learned to love Borscht topped with sour cream and served with hearty black Russian bread, every single day for lunch. And then one day Jessica learned what a patronymic was and how to create her very own…
Tanya, a classmate of Jessica’s, spoke some English. With Jessica’s quickly developing Russian language skills, and the occasional pantomime, they enjoyed fair communication. On this particular day Tanya, with an audience of several other girls, announced that she was going to give Jessica her patronymic.
(FYI Patronymics are names used instead of last names in Russian culture. They are created by taking the father’s first name and adding the ending Ovna for a female and Ovitch for a male. For example: if a father is named Ivan (which is actually John in Russian), his daughter’s patronymic is Ivanovna and his son’s is Ivanovitch.)
Before I continue with this story I should mention that John Morrison, my late husband and father of my four children, loved to laugh. Since he married into a family of people who also love to laugh and have an incredibly irreverent sense of humor, all was well—within the family, that is. Frequently, our humor was considered inappropriate outside of our family, however…
So on this particular winter day Tanya, with her less than perfect English, said to Jessica: “Today we give you patronymic.”
“Okay,” Jessica said, expecting a gift of some sort since she’d never heard the word patronymic before.
“What is you father’s name?” Tanya asked.
Confused at the question, Jessica said, “He’s dead.” I have no idea why this seemed like the time to share this particular information.
Tanya, who was unfamiliar with all of those weird American names, thought carefully for a moment and then said, very proudly.“Uh huh… Okay… so your patromymic is Jessica Hesdeadovna.“
After a short, confusing hesitation Jessica said “No, he’s dead. I mean literally he’s dead!“
“Yes, I know; I understand. This is you correct patronymic. Hesdeadovna,“ Tanya was adamant.
“No; what I mean is he died!“ Jessica said emphatically.
“Oh!“ Tanya said, now certain that she truly understood, “Yeah, yeah, now I see… So you name is Jessica Hediedovna!“
With this Jessica heaved a sigh of resignation, crossed her arms in front of her chest, rolled her eyes back in her head and said, “My father is dead,“ clearly making her point. Unfortunately she was not beyond finding humor in the situation and she began giggling uncontrollably as her Russian friends looked on in horror before walking away. Within Russian culture laughter and death don’t mix. Ever.
That evening Jessica told the story to a more appreciative audience—namely her family—all of whom shared both the pain of the moment as well as the undeniable humor.
“Your dad would have loved this story,“ I said as I wiped my eyes.
“He is loving it,“ Jessie said. “Right now he’s laughing his butt off; I feel it!“ I couldn’t disagree. There’s just way too much mystery in life for me to have any clear opinions on such things.
When I look back on that winter afternoon I think that was the beginning of my understanding of the strange, solitary journey my daughters and I were on—for better or worse. We would never be Russian, Estonian or even European. But neither were we typical Americans in any of the ways I could readily identify. We were blazing new trails without role models or mentors… I had wanted a new beginning after John’s death but I’d gotten a newer beginning than I’d ever imagined.
That is a wonderful story, and yes I would have giggled too. Having a sense of humour is an essential survival skill for those who live in other cultures. My Azeri friends named me shortened my name to Judik (although it’s one extra letter from Judy, so not quite sure how that works) and my husband calls me that still.
Judy (Judik), Indeed it is essential to have humor 🙂 I’m not sure we could take that step out of our own cultures without a fair share of humor but I’m certain we could not embrace another culture without it. My daughter, Jessica, shared this story in an essay in Uni. It’s one of our favorite stories and actually one of the more appropriate ones; I’m sure you can imagine how crazy life can get single parenting two girls in a “foreign” land.
True story! 🙂 Nicely done, Holl.
And you would know, Vincentovitch! BTW Thanks.
I hope you tell the story of when Erin dreamt in Russian with English subtitles.
Wow remind me how it went!
Hol, how did I never hear this story before! I love it and am enjoying, all these years later, sharing this time in your life!
Wow that was strange. I just wrote ann extremely long commet but after I clicked submit my
comment didn’t appear. Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again. Anyway, just wanted to say