Tag Archives: Estonia

Who Actually Makes These Rules Up, Anyway?

Avto was a postman from Georgia.

“Zee country, not zee state,” he explained—immediately upon meeting my nephew Dave and me, one winter morning in Estonia—just in case the thick accent wasn’t clarification enough.

Avto spoke many languages, presumably, all with a similar poetic license that left his English understandable, although not necessarily in any rational way.

Since Avto pronounced my name Holy, the nickname he gave me was Hole. I intended—from his first mention of my new nickname—to nudge him away from it. But he said it with such endearment, like he’d bestowed me with something heartfelt and personal … So I postponed voicing my opposition.

“Your need is fresh air, exercise and light, every day. But present you have no zis,” Avto announced, shortly after our first meeting. He then added, clapping his hands, as though this thought had just surfaced from nowhere, ”Oh my God! I can solve you zis only problem you has, Hole.”

“Um … about that name … never-mind, we’ll talk later;  just how will you solve this problem, I didn’t know I had?” I asked.

“I vill let you walk wis me on my mail route when I deliver every day post and pension money one time in month. And sometimes I help zese old people wis life. You vill see inside of houses and pet cats and maybe have tea wis us … .”

Looking back, there was an uncharacteristic heave-ho to caution, followed by a gigantic leap of faith, that led me to even consider this proposal. But Avto’s simple approach to life and complete lack of malice were apparent in every gesture and intonation.

So I surrendered, almost immediately to his plan, after all I had no real plans of my own: I had no roadmap in this strange new life I was creating after my husband’s death; no role models …  My life in Estonia was, at times, confusing and frightening, but it was also supremely exhilarating. I was writing a new book—as opposed to a new chapter—in my life. What better vehicle to begin a new journey, than my feet? And what better co-traveller in those early years, than The Postman?

Estonian sunrise, in late November, is said to occur between 8:00 and 8:30 AM. My experience was, however, while there may have been a glimmer of daylight at that hour, to call it sunrise was wishful thinking.

tartu

Getting out from under my woollen blankets, at 6 AM, in -30 degree Celsius (-22 F) temperatures, so that I could meander through the streets of Souptown, helping deliver Avto’s post, in the dark, pretty much shattered my middle class American comfort zone. In spite of the discomfort, however, I donned as many layers of clothing as would fit beneath my bulky arctic jacket, pulled on my warm LL Bean boots, and a hat my mother gave me, ignored my frequently frozen eyelashes and numb appendages, and silently made my way up and down the streets of Souptown almost every morning the winter of ’97.

Avto was born and spent his youth in Georgia. He’d come to Estonia to attend university. During his time in University, the Soviet Union collapsed and he was now, more or less stuck in Estonia. He longed to go back to his motherland, it’s sweet wine, warm weather and gregarious culture; his emotional life was a mixed bag. While he frequently referred to Estonia as “Zis cold, fucking Soviet country,” it was very much a love/hate relationship. He loved the  all night sun of summer, the saunas, and the calm, peaceful nature of the Estonian people. He did however, complain almost daily in the winter; “One day, zese balls in my pants vill freeze off! People vill say, ‘Oh look! Vhat that is lying in ze snow over zere? Oh never-mind; zey is just zee balls of zat underpaid postman.”

Avto and I began our mornings on a specified corner, after he had collected his post, organised his pouch and begun his route.

We had followed this same routine for about a month when, one morning, Avto failed to show up on our designated corner. I went from annoyed to worried after ½ hour or so of waiting in the cold. I walked through Souptown on my way home but there was no sign of my missing postman. I waited to hear from him; or perhaps the police …

On one of my future visits to the States, an elderly fundamentalist pastor would ask me if the Estonian people were religious. Not knowing one Estonian who professed a belief in God, let alone one who had probably ever seen the inside of a church, I would say, “No, they aren’t,” But then feel compelled to add: “But I’ve never lived in a more spiritually attuned society.”

Later that evening, Avto showed up at my flat, looking exhausted and 10 years older.

“I’m apologising and sad for my late self …” he began.

“I can only assume there was a reason that I stood on that corner alone and froze,” I interrupted.

Avto began his explanation slowly, as though the energy it took to speak was being borrowed, from somewhere outside of himself, a word at a time. “When I was early walking street zis morning, wisout you, a grandmother came running to me wis tears. She say her husband he died in zis night. She was alone and crying all night …  alone wis zee body of her man. All night …” he repeated.

“What did you do?” I asked, my tone transformed.

“I say, ‘Babushka, vhat  I can do for you?’ and I hold her cold hands. When such terrible sings happen, hands are wery cold,” he explained, in case I didn’t know what shock was. Then, “Also it vas -25 degrees in zis cold, fucking Soviet country,” he added, in case I hadn’t noticed.

“So what did she ask for?” I could barely speak.

Avto then explained that the old woman had tried to clean her husband’s body, herself, but had “wery old hurting bones” and lacked the strength …  So he, The Postman, had gone into her home, made tea, and spent the next several hours helping the grieving widow clean and prepare her husband’s body for his funeral.

When he’d earlier claimed  “I sometimes I help zese old people wis life,” I’d not understood what that meant. How could I have understood, when my life had never included most of the day to day experiences that lived in my new world?

I looked at My Postman, in fact my world, differently after that day.

“Hole, I is so sorry you poor little feet froze off, waiting for me.”

“My feet are not little and you have no need to apologise. I admire you so much,” I said.

Avto looked at me inquisitively. “Huh?”

“What you did today, was so beautiful and so loving … so sacred. What you did was what religion tries to instil in people … .” I stopped; words failed me.

He continued looking at me with his compassionate, exhausted, still puzzled, face.

Suddenly I wanted to offer something useful. And expensive. The best I could do, when someone was in crisis, was offer something of material value; it was how I supported people; the more expensive the better. “Hey, I think I’ll give you my LL Bean Boots. Your boots are shot and I have another pair I can wear.”

I instantly felt better for having offered.

“Um, zose boots are wery not cool …” he said sheepishly. “I did not tell you but you embarrassing me in zose boots.”

Huh! I thought. So my do-gooder self is out-a-luck, today,  since My Postman has a fashion sense that doesn’t allow for pricey LL Bean boots because they’re uncool. Interesting!

“It doesn’t matter, Avi,” I said. “I made soup; do you want some?”

“Oh Hole, you know I do! You is zee soup master!”

It was about this time that I realised: I was in the process of a rebirth. And, so, actually a new name was called for; even if it was Hole.

 

 

 

One Summer in The-Middle-of-Nowhere

Victor had five fingers. All told.

On both hands.

He surrendered the other five to a half bottle of vodka and a nap on an icy walk home from the post office cum liquor store, one exceptionally cold winter evening. Or so the story went, according to the post office ladies (about a mile from our cabin). He also had one mean reputation in the nearby village …

 

1.

I Vant To Be Alone … Oh Wait, No I Don’t

In 1996, in the throes of an existential crisis—convinced that, as a single mother, once my two young daughters were grown, I would enjoy a life with no electricity, no running water and no heat source—I bought a log cabin on 10 acres of land, in The-middle-of-nowhere, Estonia. At the time of my purchase, I was living, in the quaint university town of Tartu, Estonia, which I loved. But I envisioned, spending my post child-rearing life in absolute seclusion in my rural homestead: lighting a lot of candles, firing up a wood stove and writing, longhand, until the cows came home …

In 1998, I met a Latvian man who took my breath away.

In fairly short order, my daughters and I moved down to Riga, Latvia, and bought the upper half of a Tsar Russian mansion, as a restoration project. Goodbye solitary life in The-middle-of-nowhere, Estonia; hello exciting new relationship in the hopping metropolis of Riga, Latvia! It was a far cry from the changes I’d envisioned for myself, but I was over the moon with discovering a new city and a new love, at this stage of my life.

A year later, in the midst of gutting our kitchen, in Riga—which coincided with the beginning of the Baltic region’s very short summer—I remembered my log house nostalgically and decided that it would be a great summer retreat for the girls and me, with my partner visiting when his work schedule allowed. We could live free of noise, dust, navigating-debris-on-our-way-to-the-bathroom, and all of the other inconveniences of construction. Besides, we wouldn’t need heat in the summer, just some sleeping bags; the white nights of summer would furnish more than enough light; and all we needed was a decent bucket and rope, for the well, to have water. We were set for our log cabin adventure.

Well, I was anyway.

Ignoring the moans and groans from my tween and teenage daughters, Jessica and Erin, I packed our minimal earthly needs, for an entire summer, into our 15 year-old BMW: clothing, towels, wash cloths, sleeping bags, a tent (just in case the mosquitoes got too bad inside the house), silverware, dishes and some limited personal items, most of which were packed into a large Rubbermaid tub which I planned to use for bathing. We hoped for an adventure that would not include snakes, venomous spiders or criminals roving around the countryside (as an American I had deep-rooted fears of bad guys with guns behind trees and in bushes).

So with a prayer, for our old car, on my lips, we headed north to our tiny log cabin, the all-night sun and—unbeknownst to us at the time—some gentle shifts in perception.

What we were not expecting this adventure to include was Old Victor.

 

2.

Life In the Grass Lane

The narrow, mile long, meandering dirt lane that led to our cabin, began just past the village post office, and was barely distinguishable from the wild land that it slightly interrupted. Completely impassable, by car, from late autumn through spring, it took all of my driving experience to negotiate, even in summer. A few ruts and some barely visible rocks were the only reminders that there may have once been a road to our house.

Several meters past our cabin, on the opposite side of the lane, was a dilapidated shack that had been almost entirely reclaimed by nature.

Initially I’d thought this neighbouring shack was abandoned and asked the sellers of my property if I might buy it; more for the property than the building. I was informed that it wasn’t for sale and that a fiercely private hermit lived in the shack. I was further told not to bother him and he’d show me the same courtesy; he was unfriendly and pretty much lived in a bottle of vodka. I was assured that I probably wouldn’t hear from him. Ever. And certainly shouldn’t count on him for anything. I remembered, however, at the settlement table, almost as a footnote, the seller had said, with a chuckle: “Your well is the only access Victor has to clean water, so you might see him occasionally scurrying across your property.”

So the hermit had a name: Victor.

A Side Note

When my parents visited me in Estonia in 1996, my mother’s most shocking observation, on day one of her visit, was the complete absence of laughter and smiles on the streets of Tartu. I attempted to explain to her that this was a cultural norm; it was not indicative of unhappiness with their lack of material possessions or depression and she had no need to feel sorry for them. I told her that if she watched carefully, she’d see subtle smiles and expressions of enjoyment everywhere in Estonia. My mother, however, ignoring me and determined to let her little American light shine walked through the streets smiling broadly at everyone, for the remainder of her stay. She said she was giving them permission to smile and be happy as they worked their way out of their poverty. She was letting them know that the USSR was gone and they could leave their depression behind because life would improve … When I told my Estonian friend, Peeter, what my mother was doing, he replied, quite seriously: “Did you explain, to her, that they only think that she’s mentally unstable?”

I had not.

It was challenging for Americans to understand the facial expressions of Estonian culture, as well as, how a country in the midst of reinventing itself and living in relative poverty, could actually be happy. I was not prepared to spend hours attempting to enlighten my seventy-three year-old mother on her two-week holiday. I understood the belief that her worldview was correct: people need lots of material things to be happy and a broad smile is a universally accepted sign of happiness. With an underlying belief being: Once they see the light all people eventually come around to experiencing and expressing joy in the way that my mother expected them to.

 

2.

Life in The Grass Lane

(continued)

 

Image 16-08-2018 at 16.09

Erin And a Visiting Friend Playing in Our Rhubarb Patch.

 

My daughters and I moved into our log cabin, for the summer, in late spring.

We cooked over a camp stove and bathed in our Rubbermaid tub beneath blue skies and the midnight sun, on the side of our hill. We didn’t need a bucket or rope for our well; Victor had that covered, although the knot needed an occasional tug to keep it tight. I imagined this was a difficult task to undertake with so few fingers …

The mosquitoes were delighted with the infusion of new human blood in the neighbourhood; so much so that we quickly assembled our tent in the cabin’s main room and slept tucked safely inside our sleeping bags, behind our tent’s mosquito netting. We played Uno, harvested and cooked down rhubarb, told stories and drove to a nearby town to check email from time to time. Life was quiet, slow and good.

Then one summer evening, as the three of us sat outside singing (was it Amazing Grace?), Victor came around the corner of our cabin and sat down.

My first inclination was to approach him as I would a feral cat; slowly and with caution, or maybe not at all. But almost immediately I noticed, to my astonishment, how presentable he was—his hair carefully combed and clothes wrinkled but clean. I even sensed a slight twinkle in his eye, much like my Grandpa Joe …

Grandpa Joe

My precious grandfather, with that twinkle in his eyes.

My oldest daughter, Jessica, forever the extrovert of the family, has yet to meet a stranger who’s not a friend just waiting to happen. “May I speak with you in Russian language?” she asked, in Russian. We knew Victor was Estonian, but none of us had been able to master the extremely difficult Estonian language. These language barriers—speaking Russian, the language of their oppressors, with Estonians—were frequently awkward.

“Yes, certainly you can,” he replied, And then continued in somewhat broken Russian, “But I’m afraid my Russian language is rusty.” And, suddenly, there it was, most definitely: Grandpa Joe’s twinkle in the eye along with that Estonian smile … so sweet yet so subtle, that a few years back I would have missed it.

Victor spent the better part of that evening with us, chatting and chuckling softly. Jessica and Erin interpreted for Victor and me (my Russian language skills were even worse than his) as we asked and responded to each other’s questions. He seemed amused much of the time; but completely at ease and happy to be with us. I was impressed by his soft gentle manner and acceptance of life.

Victor joined us for evening chats or sometimes just sharing space. At times there were great gaps of silence between us but, oddly, they were never awkward.

I didn’t ask about his missing fingers. I’d already heard the story. He didn’t ask me how an American woman ended up in The-middle-of-nowhere, Estonia, in a beat up BMW and two daughters. It was a silent understanding.

One evening, as the chill of autumn was clearly moving in, Victor said, “I pick mushrooms and preserve them. I’ll bring you a jar.”

“That’s such a generous offer; but I can’t possibly accept,” I said, meaning it from the bottom of my heart.

I’d watched, from afar, as Victor navigated through his life: struggling through the woods and fields with his old bones; slowly pulling the water bucket up from the deep well with so few fingers; mushroom hunting … I’ve always had reservations about the safety of eating wild mushrooms but I couldn’t imagine any canning process, in the absence of a pressure cooker, let alone running water, that wouldn’t kill me within days (yep, one more of those American sensibilities rearing its head). Most importantly, however, I couldn’t bear the thought of those painstakingly collected mushrooms going to anyone but Old Victor.

“But thank you so much for the offer!” I said.

Victor smiled, very slightly, nodded and walked off towards his home.

The following morning there was a jar of mushrooms on our doorstep. I imagined a twinkle in his eye, as he slipped over, in the early morning hours, and left us his gift.

Summer was nearing its end as we packed up our old car, prayed it would get us back to Riga, and headed south for the winter. I wanted to say goodbye to Old Victor but he’d, once again, disappeared behind the thicket, trees, shrubs and miscellaneous weeds. His home was just like his life: almost invisible, insulated from all things that interrupted his almost imperceptible smile.

Initially I’d hoped that Old Victor would cut back on the vodka and find a companion: a woman? Maybe a dog? Or cat?  Over the summer I decided his life was precisely as he’d designed it and within that life he was happy. I also knew that making my way through the brush to his door, even to say goodbye, would have been intrusive.

I locked up my cabin, but before leaving, I walked down the dirt path to the well. I pulled up a full bucket of water, gave an extra tug to the knot (maybe it would hold all winter?) and left it sitting on the side of the well, for Victor. One last bucketful of water and a tight knot was my goodbye. I knew it would bring one of those imperceptible smiles to his lips.

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Jessica Lifting Water From Our Well … Not An Easy Task, for Victor with His 5 Fingers!

3.

Upon Our Return …

Baltic winters are long and cold; frequently hitting -30 or lower. I looked forward to a spring thaw in April; I continued looking forward in May. When winter finally lost its grip in early June, I packed up my daughters, and car, and we headed north.

At the end of the three and a half hour drive, our old BMW chugged and meandered down the narrow lane towards our cabin. Every icy spot I slipped on was a reminder that, although the winters in Riga were hard, they were even more severe in The-middle-of-nowhere, Estonia.

As we pulled up to the cabin, I noticed that the pathway to the well looked almost unused.

My heart sank.

Jessica shared my observation: “Huh, I wonder if Old Victor got his own well?” she asked.

“Let’s go back to the post office and ask,” I said, trying to sound casual, as I turned the car around and headed back down the road to the post office.

“Oh he finally died! He froze to death, outside in an ice storm last winter; they say that’s a painless way to go once you get past the first bit…” the woman behind the counter said matter-of-factly. “It wasn’t much of a life he had anyway: waiting for his next pension money, walking here to collect it and buy supplies … particularly vodka. Poor old soul (she flicked her throat with her middle finger and thumb: an Estonian indication of a drunk person). Then he’d go back to that wreck he called a home, all by himself … He had a family once, you know: a daughter, a wife… an actual proper house, he did.” She shook her head in disapproval.

If I’d had the courage I’d have defended Old Victor. I’d have said, “Hey, he was at peace with his simple life; he was actually happy. Did you know that he could collect mushrooms with only five fingers? He could also fill and lift a bucket full of water up a 30 foot well without spilling more than a drop.

“Oh yeah! And he wasn’t totally alone: for at least one summer he was … Old Victor was my friend.” If I’d only had the courage, I’d have done just that …

Instead, I silently got in my car and with my eyes full of tears, and drove back down the dirt lane, remembering Old Victor, as I knew him, with his almost imperceptible smile and twinkle in his eye.

 

 

Land of the Free

Human beings are prone to rhetoric. We all are, no matter our culture, language, age, or sexual orientation (I just thought I’d throw that last one in there to make my blog hip and current)…

Rhetoric probably makes life feel easier. We can have a few things that we hammer into our psyches, simply by saying them repeatedly, and we don’t really need to think about them. They simply exist unquestionably; kind of like gravity.

One of my all-time favourite rhetorical clichés is, “We’re the best country in the world.” I love this one because virtually every country I’ve ever lived in, or spent appreciable time in, has a version of this one. They also have certain inner stories, based on vague cultural perceptions, which support their beliefs.

America

Americans think they live in the “Best country in the world” because they are powerful in terms of military. They also think they pretty much single-handedly won WWII and Europe is forever beholden to them. They believe that everyone in the world can’t wait to live in America because it’s … well as previously stated: It’s the best country in the world. Americans think the only reason they have enemies is because A. People are jealous of them or B. People are insane terrorists. Americans believe that all other countries either hold American democracy up as their ultimate goal, or they would do so, if their oppressive governments allowed them to. We cannot imagine that our own government possibly set any of these oppressive governments up in power … that would simply be unthinkable of any Christian nation. And first and foremost America believes it is a Christian nation. Land of the free … home of the brave …

England

The English believe they are the Best country in the world because they have, at various times, dominated some part of almost every continent. They have an ancient culture with a powerful history of assisting less developed nations in ways that will help them to be more English (although some would say: assist them in ways to serve England). And of course these nations should have eventually thank England for this assistance in becoming more English because … well, England is the Best country in the world. That nasty word Imperialism is so open to interpretation, isn’t it? The English also have high tea and fox hunts; wonderful words like cheerio (which has nothing to do with breakfast), bonnet and boot (both found on your car, not your body), and cute terms like balls-up and Bob’s your uncle. Google these terms for more information or just for entertainment. These amazing English people have also developed a way of living fairly long, healthy, and productive lives with almost no help from sunshine or vegetables.

Scotland

The Scots believe that they are, by far, the Best country in the world because they fended off the Imperialist English army starting as far back as 596 AD in the Battle of Raith (fought near what is now Kirkcaldy) and successfully beat this superpower back until 1707. Not bad for a bunch of poorly armed, passionate warriors dressed in kilts. The Scots also have gorgeous accents, haggis and, as previously mentioned, men in kilts. I could go on and on about what makes Scotland the best country in the world but I’ll leave it at that; I will add, however, that, the kilts, alone, won my vote.

Latvia

The Latvians believe that they are the Best country in the world because they have survived invasion after invasion but still speak in their mother tongue and miraculously, have kept their heritage— via ancient stories, fairy-tales, legends and songs—intact. Every year Latvians join together in a magnificent song festival and present their oral history to the world— with more than 10, 000 voices braided together—in song. In a country with a population of just over 2 million, this probably proves the Latvian love of country—and pride in history—more than anything else I can write.

Estonia

Ah … And now to Estonia. Estonians actually don’t think they are the Best country in the world; they know they are. Estonians are free thinkers who don’t join groups of any kind. The Mormons as well as the Boy Scouts—and probably Tupperware— have all but given up on the Estonians. The story is, after early missionaries came and converted as many Estonians as they could, and then left, there were mass migrations to the rivers, where the converted Estonians unbaptized themselves. Estonians are courteous and polite (hence pretending to become Christians prior to returning to their pagan ways) and they are impeccably honest, with a work ethic to die for: Thank you, Estonia, for Skype, TransferWise and the Minox camera—although technically Walter Zapp, the inventor of the Minox spy camera, was born in Latvia, but who really cares, right? Then Walter went on and produced his invention in Germany. Big deal; hardly worth mentioning … Walter did, however, patent his subminiature camera in Estonia. So there you go. It’s yet another claim to fame for Estonia.

Here’s the oddest part of all of this, though: Each country thinks that behind closed doors, everyone else has only the highest regard for them and down deep inside everyone wants to be them.

My daughter Jessica dated a young Estonian man while we were living in Latvia. He came for a visit one weekend and met the family. After a lovely visit he shared this with Jessica as though it was hard for him to admit: “Estonians make fun of Latvians all the time; but I actually really like your stepfather.” To which Jessica laughed and casually replied, “Yeah Latvians make fun of Estonians, all the time, too.”

The young man looked at Jessie, in wide-eyed bewilderment and muttered, “Wow, really? Seriously?” He then sat silently dumbfounded for some time.

For several months after this event our family laughed when we discussed this naïve young man’s reaction to having his world-view shifted. He believed his We’re the best country in the world rhetoric so strongly that he couldn’t imagine anyone making fun of his peeps. He was equally sure that the superior Estonians were making fun of others because these non-Estonians actually were inferior. He was surprised to meet a highly educated, friendly, well travelled Latvian among the dim-witted, poorly groomed, unfriendly folks that he was certain inhabited the rest of the country.

It was with a smile and over many years that I came to understand: There is no Best country in the world. It simply doesn’t exist. It can’t objectively exist.

There are different countries and cultures with different histories— all of them rich, wonderful, sad and tragic. None of them deserve to be demeaned or the punch lines to anyone’s jokes. We all have our strong points and we all need to move forward together—especially now—with open hearts, into this new frontier …

When I arrived in Estonia in 1995, I was certain that I was going to love my adventures but that I would probably be called upon to give up some of my freedoms. I didn’t even know that I thought this until I was speaking to my late mother-in-law, Julie, who asked, “Why on earth would anyone want to leave the freest country in the world to move to a Soviet one?” And my liberal, broadminded, well-intentioned reply was, “It’s just the price one pays to travel and have new experiences.” (Insert shudder) It didn’t cross my mind to ask, “What exactly does freedom mean,” or, “What makes America the freest or best country in the world?” America simply was the freest and best country in the world. It was like gravity; it was beyond question.

After several months in Estonia I came to a shocking conclusion: Estonia was actually the freest country in the world. Hands down. Maybe it was even the best …

We were permitted to drink a beer on the streets or while sitting in the park, any time we wanted to do so. We could sunbathe without clothes—by the riverbank that ran through the middle of town, or sitting in our tall windows—shamelessly facing the sun, and the whole neighbourhood. No one batted an eye; no one even noticed. We could smoke cigarettes in restaurants and train stations. We had good national healthcare. Although we were in a university town, there were no curfews or bans on noise after certain hours. Fireworks were legal and—it turned out—smashing Champaign bottles all over the town on New Year’s Eve was perfectly acceptable.

Initially my new life—sans almost all restrictions, rules and regulations—was spectacular. I loved sipping a cold beer in the park on a warm afternoon. I enjoyed an occasional cigarette, when I wanted one, not when I was in a legal or designated area. I loved feeling the hot sun on my entire body, watching myself turn brown as a berry. Everywhere. This was living! This was freedom.

I was extremely uneasy, however, when I walked across the snow covered Town Square on New Years day, 1996, after having spent New Years Eve celebrating there with hundred’s of others, including more than a fair share of students from the university. The snow was splattered with blood in many places and more than one large spot was actually melted by what must have been a puddle of blood. What had seemed, the night before, like an organized smashing of bottles—which I’d assumed was some customary ritual managed and carefully carried out by some responsible folks (yeah, what was I thinking?)—had actually been a chaotic attempt, by a bunch of drunks, to make a lot of noise. And there had been injuries. Some serious injuries.

After careful thought and consideration I decided to avoid gatherings of students because … well … students were notoriously irresponsible.

I still, however, didn’t see this as a societal problem.

Then one beautiful autumn day, as I sat in the park reading a book, a man walked by me. He was drinking from a bottle—which was perfectly legal—and seemed to be weaving a bit. Suddenly he stopped directly next to me and vomited, splashing the park bench, my book, and me.

And that’s when I formulated the question: What exactly is freedom?

Is allowing everyone the right to drink in public places freedom, when some of us can’t relax in the park without fear of being vomited on? I was responsible. I never drank more than one beer and most definitely didn’t puke on people. But that was me; the man in the park lived by different beliefs and standards than I did. He needed restrictions and rules to keep him in line. I needed those rules to keep me safe from his bodily fluids.

Societies need rules, laws and regulations to guide—and protect the majority of us from—the lowest common denominator. That’s how societies have always worked.

When we say: We have the freest country in the world, that’s meaningless rhetoric. And it’s also literally impossible to do. We don’t want a completely free country: A society where anything goes; where people can vomit on you or smash bottles into your head … I’m pretty certain that this was actually never anyone’s goal.

Estonian laws began changing quickly. Within that year, all smoking was banned; even in the parks. Alcohol was not allowed in public places and various other laws restricted behaviour.

I think most of us were glad to watch the changes happen.

Rather than seeing new legislation and policies as restrictive and stealing our freedom, we saw Estonia as growing and expanding. The government was keeping us safe and allowing us to live in harmony. Although I don’t hold Estonia up as the Best country in the world—since no such country exists—they have my respect and admiration for a job very well done.

America is at a crossroads right now—as is the rest of the world—with some of our issues being exclusively ours, while others we share with our planet. We have some major questions to answer: How important is climate change, gun control, women’s rights to govern their own healthcare and bodies, a cohesive national healthcare system, equal pay for equal jobs, ending corporate control of our government and thereby us, ending racism and all discrimination? How do we see our future? Who are we as a nation?

Is being a Christian nation quite possibly just more of our meaningless rhetoric?

Sadly the most prominent Christian belief of many Americans isn’t “Do unto others.” Nor is it, “Helping the least of these, my brethren…” and most definitely it isn’t “Judge not lest ye be judged.” The predominate Christian belief of many seems to be this: The world is coming to an end. So arm up, batten down the hatches and let it all go to hell in a hand basket … oh yeah, and hope that you personally, cut the mustard and wake up on the right side of the pearly gates. Screw everyone who doesn’t buy your brand of religion because … hey … they’re all goners anyway and (and this one saddens me the most) to hell with this sinful planet—our beautiful home with all of its wonder, abundance, promise and bliss has been diminished to a waiting room for someplace that quite possibly exists only in ancient myths and the human mind … but, regardless, to hell with it all.

Question the rhetoric! We have time to turn this train around but not by following the old models. We must question everything and move forward in a new direction.

Let’s do it. Let’s move out of the box and make a pact to become the best plant in the galaxy! Let’s become the land of the responsible and the loving home to all life and humanity regardless of religion, colour or culture.

We can do it. In fact, it’s way more possible than becoming the freest country in the world… And look how long we’ve been trying to nail that one.

Signing off from my little corner of Planet Earth here in UK.

On good days my mother sits in her wheelchair…

 

I am in the USA right now, recovering from some health issues and visiting with friends and loved ones, one of whom is my mom who is now in a nursing home.

On good days my mother sits in her wheelchair—on bad days she lies in her bed—staring out her window at a hillside where she remembers playing with childhood friends. My aunt says this is a false memory; she never played on that hill. Mom has a lot of false memories; this isn’t new. She created a world that met her needs. She was the center of her endlessly theatrical universe; it was clearly an alternate reality—generally high-drama—that separated her from others. I had hoped for something more from her as the years marched by. As a teenager I hoped that Mom would snap out of it and join reality so that we could connect and truly communicate.

Ours has always been a complicated relationship; I found it difficult to relate to someone living in a different world than mine. In many ways her endless theatrics frightened me; to this day I hate to be afraid or see others frightened. It’s a painful reminder…

Last week, after my brother and I explained to our mother that she was financially broke, she suddenly inherited millions of dollars—in her dramatic alternate world. She’s now planning to build a hospital for people with arthritis. Mom always admired altruism and so she created a persona of selflessness many years ago… someone to be admired and adored. Even now she’s planning to use her imaginary money to help others and be adored. My sibs and I will be in management positions. She doesn’t want to spoil us by handing us any of her millions. We need to understand the importance of a strong work ethic in spite of the fact that we have all worked hard and are now of retirement age or close to it.

When we ask questions about her newly acquired fortune she wonders why we don’t know all of the details; haven’t we read about her huge windfall? Certainly it must be in all the papers!

Mom would be as hard-pressed to tell you what her children did throughout their lifetimes, as to tell you where her millions came from. She was never involved enough in our lives to know what we were doing. She was much too busy caring for those in terrible crisis and worrying about the less fortunates. Obsessively. In all fairness I must say that my mother helped thousands of people—men, women and children. Now at the end of her life she worries and obsesses about her children and their salvation. She knows her place in heaven is secure; not only has she worried as much as anyone on the planet (an absolute prerequisite to gaining entrance to her heaven) but her good works alone should afford her passes for at least a hundred guests to escort her through the pearly gates. I tell her not to worry about us: You will not live in heaven without your children, I say. It’s a safe statement. If there is a heaven, we’ll be there; if not, well… she’ll be none the wiser.

Mom once told me that one of the reasons she married my father, at eighteen years old, was because he promised her they would travel the world. Being from a poor family she couldn’t imagine seeing the world on her own. She felt eternally blessed to meet a man who shared her travel priorities. Once their children started coming and bills piling up, however, my parents’ travel was put on a back burner. Her life was much like mine would one day be.

And so my mother created a fantasy world to live within—or maybe she lived within her imagination from the day she was born; I’ll never know. I do know that, within my lifetime, she lived in a reality that differed greatly from the one my sibs and I lived in. Her memories of her life experiences—even incidents that we experienced together—had little resemblance to our reality. Our childhood home—driven by the whims of a mother whose extraordinary mood swings within an alternate universe dictated her behavior—was a confusing, frightening environment, lacking any emotional security.

Mom remembers me as a perfectly well behaved child, silent and cooperative—this is quite possibly because I spent my early childhood hiding from her—avoiding her unpredictability at all cost. Then again, it might be a false memory; it’s impossible to say.

My sibs and I grew and matured, spent time in therapy and developed a wicked sense of humor. It was how we survived. As an adult I hoped and prayed for a healing for my mother. Instead she remained consistently herself—stuck in her own ever-increasingly dramatic reality, without any desire to join the rest of us, dreaming her dreams and living within them. And I remained frustrated, waiting for a magical age, revelation, or miracle that would bring us to a common ground.

In 1997 my mother lived one of her greatest dreams: She experienced her first real travel when she and my father visited my daughters and me in Estonia. In the middle of their visit Mom requested that she and I take a trip down to Latvia (where Soviet mentality and culture were much more obvious than in Estonia) without my dad and stay somewhere that would truly reflect the Soviet culture—not a Holiday Inn. I agreed but with reservations: This translated to two full days of Mom Time with nowhere to hide.

We took a night train down to Riga, the capitol city of Latvia, and checked into an inexpensive, dimly lit, damp, Soviet hotel called Sport Viesnīca (or perhaps Monika Viesnīca; I knew of several cheap digs that were almost identical to one another that most definitely reflected Soviet culture). Neither the rampant cockroaches nor the rusty bathtub that drained onto the cracked ceramic tiled floor—then down a central drain in the middle of the room—dampened my mother’s spirit. She said they were interesting, even exotic because they were part of an experience she’d awaited all of her life. Some might think she had a low expectation of life. But I believe that she just wanted the rush of being somewhere completely different from where she normally lived… in her head. The roaches, rusty tub and newspaper-instead-of-toilet-paper reality shook her world, demanding that she live in the moment. She was there in that Soviet hotel— not writing a story, altering her reality, or living within her imagination—she was completely present in every single one of those dark, mildewed, moments as they ticked by—smiling the smile of a young girl falling in love for the first time.

Several hours into touring the city, on the day we were to return to Estonia, a policeman grabbed my arm and yelled at me in Latvian language, of which I spoke almost none. My attempt to speak Russian with him gave my English language away and he shouted back at me in perfect English, “You must leave immediately! There is a bomb in this building,” as he pointed upward at a building looming above us. In my preoccupation with showing my mother the city, I’d failed to notice the bomb squad and others converging on the building.

Mom’s seventy-two year old legs were limited and her stamina had long been reduced to less than a child’s. “It’s okay Mom,” I said calmly, as I took her arm and ushered her quickly away from the crowd of firefighters and policemen. “We’ll be fine. I’m not at all frightened so don’t you be afraid. We just need to get down the street quickly.” What I wanted more than anything was to spare my mother fear. I reasoned that if we died we would hopefully go quickly and if not… well… this would be a life experience. The one thing I couldn’t bear was to see my elderly mother frightened.

As we walked away from the building she looked at me and smiled elatedly, “Oh, I’m not at all frightened. I was just thinking what a monumental event this is. I’m here in the former Soviet Union. There’s a bomb in that building. This is real and I’m here; it’s all so exciting!”

I held her hand as we walked quickly down the street towards safety. If I’d been alone I probably would have taken a few pictures before retreating. I truly believe if she’d approached this building without me she might have stuck around, just to see a real live explosion in a former Soviet city… We were sharing a bizarre reality with some skewed emotional responses but I understood her in that moment—although I knew many people would not have—and I loved her with all my heart.

Last weekend my brother and I went to visit our mother in the nursing home. We said goodbye and walked out to the lobby to leave, when I realized that I’d left my car keys on her bed. I walked back to her room and entered it. She was sitting in her wheel chair looking up at the hill, her back to me.

“I forgot my keys, Mom,” I said, as I entered, not wanting to frighten her.

She didn’t turn around but kept her gaze out the window.

“There’s a big black bear waddling up that hill,” she said, pointing her crooked pointer finger at the hill. My mom’s finger is crooked because it was caught in a coffee grinder or a flourmill or the wringer in her mother’s clothes washer or stepped on by a bully in boots… her story, about how her finger became crooked, changes; the bent finger does not.

“Yes, of course there’s a bear,” I replied, as I turned to leave. Then on second thought I turned back to kiss her head one more time. As I bent down to kiss her I glanced out the window, there was indeed a black bear lumbering up the hill.

“Mom, there really is a bear, there,” I whispered, in amazement.

She looked up at me and smiled. Maybe she was relieved that I saw it, too. I don’t know. I put my hand on her shoulder and we watched silently as the bear made his way to the top of the hill.

“I used to play on that hill when I was a girl,” she said, as the bear vanished into the woods.

“Of course you did,” I said. And I thought: There could be much worse alternate universes to live in. She could be frightened; she could be seeing spiders or demons…

But she’s not; she spared us that. She’s enjoying memories of playing on hills and inheriting millions of dollars.

A big fat Hollywood ending isn’t going to happen… there will be no magical age, revelations or snapping out of it for my mom. But there might be closure for me… Mom and I have been blessed with occasional moments of overlapping realities in which I’ve seen an essence of her and realized ways that the apple actually fell quite near the tree. And then there was that one extended overlapping reality in Riga… in 1997. And, oddly enough, today, I’m thinking these simple blessings might be enough for a quiet, low drama closing to our story.

 

Lessons Of The Body, Mind, And Soul

 

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.

Winter

Winter in Baltics

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…

Jessica Ivanovna

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.

 

The Postman

 

We arrived in Estonia in mid-November 1995. The entire Baltic region was in the throes of a massive blizzard upon our arrival; I didn’t actually see the ground until late April.

I love snow, cold weather, and winter sports (my favorite of which is sitting in front of a blazing fire with hot cocoa or wine—yes, that’s a sport in my book). What I was not prepared for was the lack of sunlight at 58 degrees North Latitude. Although there are rumors that Estonians enjoy the sun from around 9 in the morning until 3 in the afternoon, in the winter months, it clearly depends on how you define sun. And enjoy for that matter. With the combination of a sun hanging so low in the sky that it barely peeks above the horizon and almost daily snowfall, dawn seemed to extend into dusk. And we called these gray hours in between the two: Daytime—more out of habit than appearance.

My step-daughter, Debra, stayed with us for the first few weeks in Tartu, before moving up to Northern Estonia for several months to teach English as a second language and then returned to the States. My nephew, David, also stayed with us for about 4 months before returning to the States.

Very early in the morning, within the first week of our arrival, the phone rang; Debra answered it.

“Hello,” she said, as I jumped from my bed, assuming that only an emergency from the States would have our phone ringing at such an hour. Debra’s expression was quizzical as she silently listened for what seemed like forever before handing me the phone. “Some guy is singing Rain-drops keep falling on my head in English but with a strong accent and off-key. I have no idea…” As I took the phone, Debra returned to her bed.

The assumption was that I had some idea. I did.

20 hours earlier (more or less)

It was perhaps our second, possibly third, day in Estonia, that I began what became my daily routine of crawling out of bed, despite the darkness, and going out for a morning walk. On that first morning walk I dragged David out of bed to join me.

Estonia was pristine and quiet in the dim November light as we walked through the falling snow, laughing and inspecting our new world. We didn’t know it at the time but we were walking in an area of Tartu known as Souptown. During Soviet times, the government attempted to change all street names that reflected national heroes from the country’s past. In fact the Soviet Empire liked folks to pretend that they had no past; instead they were all created on the day they were kidnapped by—whoops, I mean incorporated into—the USSR. So when Moscow looked at the tiny country of Estonia and saw a section of Tartu that had streets apparently named after their heroes—who just happened to have last names like Potato, Cabbage, Carrot etc.—Moscow demanded that Estonia change the street names to more appropriate names like Lenin, Stalin and Lucky-us-to-be-in-this-great-new-experimental-fuster-cluck. The Estonians, however are a clever lot—at least when compared to the drunken Moscow bullies. They replied to this request for name changes with a seriously innocent letter that said something like: “Our Dearly Beloved Comrades Who Art in Moscow: We see no reason to change the names of these streets since they are named after our favorite soup ingredients. And you know how we love our soup! Surely you will agree that this would be a great nuisance and expense for no reason.” Moscow agreed and the name Souptown was born, living within the quiet chuckles of the Estonian people. In 1995, pensioners and very poor people inhabited Souptown but it was clean and quaint; a great place to walk.

Okay, I broke tangential there for a minute … now back to the story.

So David and I were walking down the street, when I heard someone address me in English.

“Hello, Madame; are you French?” A male voice asked.

I looked above me and standing on a slight hill was a young man grinning from ear to ear wearing a leather mail carriers pouch—bulging with letters—slung across one shoulder

“No, I’m American,” I replied in English, partially because he’d spoken to me in English but primarily because it’s the only language I spoke.

“Sprechen Sie Deutsch?” he asked.

“Um… nein.”

“Parlez-vous français?” he asked

“Non,” I replied. “Didn’t we already establish that I’m American and I speak English?” I asked.

“Did we?”

“We did in my mind.”

“Hm… Okay. I’ll speak English wis you but I speak many languages,” he said with a notable lack of modesty.

“Apparently.” I wasn’t impressed; I was slightly amused.

“What is your name?” he asked.

“Holly.” I have no idea why I answered him.

Seemingly unaware of David, he said, “Do you has a man in your flat?”

“I can’t imagine anything that might be less your business.” I turned to walk away.

“No wait. Wait! I’m sorry. I never see so interesting people as you and I’m so exciting to meet such foreigners in zis cold, fucking, Soviet piece of shit country.”

“Nice language,” I said.

“Sanks!” he replied enthusiastically. “I also speak Russian, Estonian, Ossetian and Georgian.” He thought I was complimenting his English. I chose not to correct him.

He turned to David, “I didn’t mean you weren’t man but you are … hm… a boy really. Skinny and um… I don’t know…” He looked somewhat disapprovingly at David.

“We might discuss his social skills at some point if we get to know him,” David whispered, a chuckle clearly lodged in his throat.

“There’s no if, Dave,” I said. I honestly had no intention of seeing this man again. Ever.

“And vhat’s your name?” he asked my nephew.

“David and I’m Holly’s nephew.”

“Oh I so love zis name! Okay, I am named Avto and you vill be my new best friends from America,” he said resolutely, suddenly clapping his hands and laughing loudly. Apparently owning the name David (or perhaps being my nephew) bumped David up a notch in Avto’s opinion. “I vill call you Hole and Davidito. Americans love nicknames so zeese vill be your new names, from me: Your new best friend, Avto.”

“So can we call you Avtomobile?” David asked.

Avto laughed from his belly. “Of course, if you want, but the real name is Avtandeel. I am from Georgia, the country not zee American state,” he finished. It was good to have that potential misunderstanding cleared up early on.

“We don’t actually want to call you Avtomobile,” I said, feeling slightly uncomfortable about humour made at Avto’s expense.

“Yes, this is very long. Perhaps better would be Avi.”

“Okay, then,” David said, “We’ll see you around, Avi. Nice meeting you.”

“Give me number of phones,” Avto said grabbing an undelivered envelope from his mail pouch, and a pen from his pocket.

“Dude, you can’t write on someone’s mail!” David said.

“Oh yes; it’s okay. I know all of zeese grannies and granddaddies. Zey are like my family.” He handed me the envelope.

I have no idea why I gave him our phone number that morning; destiny, I suppose.

Fast Forward 20 Hours Or So

“Some guy is singing Rain-drops keep falling on my head in English but with a strong accent and off-key … I have no idea …”

Debra’s assumption was that I had some idea. I did.

“Good morning, Avi.” I said into the phone. I didn’t have to ask who was on the line. Such eccentricity was scarce, even in my life.

“Brilliant morning, Hole! I can call you Hole, right?”

“Um, well I need to think about that. But, meanwhile, please don’t ever call before 7 AM, okay? And don’t sing into the telephone because it’s kinda … it’s just weird,” I said. I recall thinking This might not be the weirdest thing Avto does but if it’s all this harmless, I can deal with it.

“Uh huh… Okay,” he said, in a way that led me to think he’d been given advice like this before.

After a short conversation, in which he outlined my only problems in life being my need for fresh air, sunshine and exercise, Avto said, “I vill let you wis me on my mail route when I deliver every day post and pension money every month. And sometimes I help zese old people wis life. You vill see inside of houses and pet cats and maybe have tea wis us … .  We must can begin today.”

I’m not sure why that idea was even up for debate—given the early hour and the improbability of my enjoying Avto’s peculiar company—but I threw on my clothes and joined him that morning and almost every morning after that for many months, as he delivered his post. I drank tea with the pensioners, pet their cats, warmed myself by their woodstoves and I learned what Avto meant when he said he “helped zem wis life.”

Anyway… I wanted to introduce you to Avto before I went further into this blog because he was such a character in my life and I enjoyed my time with him immensely—for the most part… Eccentric relationships are seldom the easiest but they can be incredibly rewarding and they make for great stories.

 

I’m an American, Damn it

 

In 1993 I was widowed with two young daughters. Broken and bereaved, I dreamed of rebuilding a simpler, less cluttered life. After months of debating possibilities, I decided that the newly independent country of Estonia was a perfect location to construct this new life. Some said I was overreacting and should continue living in my rural Virginia community. I chose a different path: Within 2 years I packed up all of our earthly necessities and, with my daughters, moved to this tiny Northeastern European country. It never crossed my mind that my goal wasn’t achievable. I believed that anything was possible; so it was.

By 1996 I had bought a small flat and was settled into my new life.

As I walked through an outdoor market in Tartu, Estonia, in 1998, a Russian man yelled: “Hey, American, say us about Clinton and Lewinsky!”

“There’s nothing to say,” I replied. “You read the news and know as much as I do.”

“No, no; say why Americans think this story so big interesting?”

Before I could reply, his friend answered him in Russian, “Because they’re Americans,” as a small crowd nearby laughed.

Typically, Americans are thought to be judgmental and have puritanical attitudes towards sex. But, I walked away with my head held high, that day, because I knew something he didn’t know: I was not a typical American!

Three years into my Estonian adventure, tightened immigration policies dictated that I apply for official residency. Because there was no I love the simple life I’ve created here box to tick on the form for requesting a living permit, I couldn’t even begin the process of applying. I was quickly asked to leave the country.

Wait one damned minute, here… Hasn’t this government been encouraging foreigners to buy property for years? And now, are they just expecting me to walk away from my friends, my life and my property?

I knew I’d emerge victorious, as I entered my battle with the immigration department, stubbornly fighting against what I saw as injustice. More than one time I heard a supervisor say, “She is American!” in reply to a head scratching subordinate asking questions like: “Why does she keep coming back acting like we’ll change our policies?” and “What exactly is she doing in our country, anyway?”

In this context, she’s American meant she’s a warrior and doesn’t surrender easily. It also meant, she has reasons for her choices and behavior that are not necessarily logical. I wasn’t about to explain that my crusade for fairness had nothing to do with being American (certainly not with my pathetic Estonian language skills, since Europeans endlessly ridicule Americans for not mastering foreign languages!). So I allowed the bureaucrats their beliefs, that I was a typical American, as I continued challenging their system.

A few weeks into my battle, a well-known local magazine published an article about my daughters and me, asking pointed questions like: How can Estonia evict a poor widow and her children? And Are these what we call enemies of our state? This was the magic bullet I’d been waiting for, instantly piercing and rewriting the immigration department’s ironclad policies. I was later told—although I never received official confirmation on this—that the country of Estonia adopted a new criterion for immigration based solely on my needs: Anyone owning property in Estonia has the right to request residency thus providing a box for me to tick on my application for a living permit.

I lived quietly in Estonia for several more years after receiving my residency permit—traveling, writing, home-schooling and teaching English as a second language—before moving to Latvia in 2001.

One day while browsing a bookstore in Riga, Latvia, I found a series of books, describing—in sweeping stereotypes—different cultures. I laughed out loud as I read What Is An Italian? Oh those Italians… God bless ‘em. They’re just so Italian… And on to the French… how can you not laugh at, and love, the French?

Then I saw it: What Is An American? The thought of reading about those Americans had me laughing before I opened the book.

Number 1: All Americans think they’ll die of cancer and worry about it constantly.

Wait a minute; I stopped in mid-chuckle. That wasn’t actually funny… I thought of how many things I ate, didn’t eat, supplemented with, and didn’t smoke, in hopes that I’d beat the big C.

Okay, so maybe I had something in common with those Americans.

Number 2: All Americans tell you that they are not typical Americans.

My late mother-in-law once said to me, “I just can’t stand people who speak with accents. I have worked very hard to speak proper English with no accent.” This was said in a refined New York accent. When I attempted to tell her that, to a Midwesterner—or even to me, for that matter—she had a significant accent, she impatiently replied, “That’s simply not true. You, however, do have quite an accent and you might work on that!” I loved my mother-in-law, but I despised her horribly limited worldview—so restricted that she couldn’t see that she was exactly like the people she couldn’t stand.

So there I stood in a bookstore in Riga, Latvia, reading: All Americans tell you that they are not typical Americans, in my decidedly American accent, thinking: Oh shit!

Another widely accepted fact: Americans have coarse vocabularies.

That day—standing in the bookstore—the shutters surrounding my worldview slammed open. And I began the process of embracing my inner-American.

During our time in Estonia and Latvia, we washed our clothes by hand, shopped in open-air markets and lived in some extremely tight quarters. For many years we didn’t own a car; we used public transportation and bicycles. Our minimal wardrobes fit in four drawers and one closet. But through it all we had affordable, if not free, medical care and my daughters had free dental care until they reached 18.

The good times in Estonia and Latvia looked a lot like hard times in America. We struggled financially just to live very simply. Without a high expectation imposed by society, however, there was no stigma on living simply and small, making our modest life manageable, sustainable and joyful—until the time that it ceased to be any of the aforementioned.

It was 2008 when Latvia collapsed economically. The political system, always dodgy, quickly followed the economy down the tubes. Americans can’t imagine the depths of depression reached by New Europe during those hard times.

In the midst of this societal implosion, my Latvian partner, Egils, and I packed up our tiny car and fled to the west, landing in Scotland. Both daughters had relocated—one to begin a family in England and one to attend university in the USA. Egils and I moved in with friends, Jim and Thilda, who opened their home to us until we found work. Although we loved Scotland and our dear friends, being without work, money, or our own home—while looking into the face of our golden years—was an abysmal prospect.

So here I am, living in Scotland, adjusting, learning, and reflecting…

The UK has an interesting relationship with America. They find us fascinating—frequently in a WTF-are-they-thinking kind of way—a bit like parents viewing their teenagers.

Our household is watching BBC news. President Obama is discussing his ideas for building a new healthcare system to replace the broken one… cut to the next frame: A group is protesting in the street against Obamacare. I’m not paying much attention until Thilda turns to me, her mouth slightly open, and says: “Holly, they make it sound like some Americans dinna want free healthcare.”

“Yes, that’s right,” I reply.

“No, I mean, like they don’t want to have a national healthcare system … like they’re not entitled to be healthy …”

“Yes, that’s correct. Some Americans don’t want that,” I say. Then realizing Thilda is having trouble wrapping around the fact that there are people on this planet who believe children are entitled to an education but not healthcare, I continue, “Those very people, who are protesting national healthcare, point to you guys and the way you gripe about the NHS [National Health Service], as a reason not to have national healthcare.”

Thilda’s mouth opens wider, “Surely you’re joking! We want to improve our system, no doubt, just like we want to improve everything. But no one wants to do away with our healthcare, altogether! That would be insane…”

Thilda turns to her husband: “Jim are you hearing this? Do you ken there are some folks who dinna want national healthcare?”

Jim doesn’t look up from his paper. “They’re Americans,” he mutters.

I know what Jim means: Americans are impossible to understand. They are illogical and stubborn as mules. There is no explaining why they vote against their best interest and create horrible messes while declaring they have the best country in the world; of course, in America everything is declared. Loudly. Life is one big fat overreaction…

At least I think that’s what Jim means…

I stop trying to explain Americans, as I feel myself sliding down that slippery slope that begins with explaining, before plummeting into a defense. Why should I defend American insanity? What the hell is wrong with them, anyway? Those stubborn, emotional, opinionated, incapable-of-managing-their-own-lives poor excuses for… I seethe at the images of these Americans on the BBC.

Suddenly I’m aware that I’m sitting in someone else’s living room, because the country I chose to live in for the past 14 years just collapsed; a fact that came as no surprise to most folks, but blindsided me. Some might say that I was incapable of managing my life… Hm … I’m also aware that my stubborn, emotional, opinionated thoughts about Americans, a moment ago, were delivered in an American accent. Shit!

“Is there any hope that this can be solved?” Thilda’s voice interrupts my thoughts.

“Of course,” I say, unsure if I’m referring to my shattered life, my relationship with my motherland or the broken American healthcare system. Or all three.

“There’s really hope?” Thilda sounds skeptical.

“Yes!” I say and, oddly, I mean it.

Because as an outsider looking in I’ve learned a few things about myself from observing my country:

Americans are crusaders, believing in an abundant, safe, clean, country that will be proudly handed down to their grandchildren, although they seldom agree on how to achieve their goals. Americans are emotional, opinionated and extreme, with a stubborn refusal to compromise. This keeps us moving forward; it also plagues us with endless conflict along the way. But, our common denominator is, Americans believe we can forever survive—to dream new dreams and make them come true—and so, somehow, we do.

We believe in alleviating the suffering of others; by now it’s probably a marker in our DNA. The Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore DNA Sequence… And so we will.

Americans are… um… just so American: Frequently crude and loud, forever opinionated, illogical and stubborn. But we are also mighty warriors, capable of creating great change and endlessly reinventing ourselves, particularly when we stop fighting with one another. We are the youngsters of the Old World cultures—high-energy, impetuous children—bumbling, stumbling, as we barge head long into virgin territory, unwilling to take advice from our elders… It’s what makes us innovators and leaders. With youthful exuberance we believe in ourselves—for better or worse. So when we fall we hop up. After behaving badly, we reconsider, undo and reinvent—forever rushing into the unknown with a passion that often destroys us and recreates us simultaneously. We do not believe we can be broken beyond repair; and so we can’t.

I sit here in Scotland watching Americans fighting against national healthcare, with 50 million uninsured Americans and an abysmal economy. They’re broken and battered, in need of a reinvention on many levels—just as I am. But as hopeless as we seem, I know, in my bones, that we will somehow survive these hard times and live to fulfill new dreams and fight another day, because we’re Americans, damn it. We believe in our power to find solutions, rise above challenges and flourish; so—in spite of who we are and because of who we are— we always do!

 

The Accidental Immigrant

My life felt like cheap, poorly designed boots, back then. Not that it was a bad life; it was just an ill fit. I had a much higher opinion of myself than to think I would have created such a mundane life as mine was; surely this was all some cosmic accident. I should mention that I believed in accidents, back in the day…

I longed to travel from the time I read my first book about far off places; the first of which was a sci-fi book set on Mars. At the age of seven Mars seemed like an exciting holiday destination other than the lack of oxygen thing. Within my imaginary adventures I was already setting the bar for my future travels: heavy on the excitement, light on creature comforts. Reading about far away lands allowed me to create myself in a different life—a life that excited and engaged me. I studied both French and German when I was eight years old; by the age of ten I regularly dreamed of traveling abroad.

I married young, and started my family; a life choice that pretty much put traveling in an indefinite holding pattern. My husband John assured me that we would one-day travel and I knew that I would; I felt it in my bones. Meanwhile, I built homes and had babies; I baked bread and wrote songs; I started businesses and planted gardens.

And I continued dreaming of travel although I engaged in few activities to support my dream, other than reading.

When I was 26, I stepped into a plane—a tiny Cessna 152. I excitedly signed up for flying lessons that same day. Within my first month of flying, however, I had two realizations. First: I actually didn’t want to pilot my own plane; I simply wanted to experience a sense of travel and adventure—however brief and illusory. It was the second realization, however, that ended my career as a pilot before it began: My lack of any sense of direction would likely hurl me into a missing persons’ file if I attempted the solo flight required for a pilot’s license. Since going missing was more of an adventure than even I cared to experience, achieving a pilot’s license disappeared from my bucket list. Flying solo was not an option.

A married, homeowner, mother of four, living in rural Virginia, singer in a family band, owner of several small businesses over the years, I appeared more or less average in print, in spite of my burning desire for something else. Something more. Something different. But through it all, I had John: My husband, soul mate and for better or worse (and trust me there were plenty of both) the cornerstone of my life. We had a passionate, elaborately interwoven relationship that began when I was eighteen years old. Ours was not always an easy relationship, but it was always… perpetual… constant… predictably unpredictable…

In the summer of 1993, I was 41 years old. Our children were ages 20 (Morgan), 16 (Jonathan), 8 (Jessica) and 4 (Erin). Our family had outgrown our home the day Erin—our treasured surprise baby—was born; four years later it was bursting at the seams. Buying a new home, however, was out of the question as we robbed from Peter to pay Paul just to cover our basic bills that year. The recession of the late 80’s early 90’s had taken its toll; we had yet to bounce back although we knew we would, as we excitedly planned our next business venture. We were struggling on many levels when, out of the blue, John became ill and suddenly died. Within his long final breath my entire life turned inside out before plummeting into an abyss that took me two years to find my way out of.

With a life that revolved around my husband, I searched franticly for an identity beyond wife. I couldn’t imagine being anything besides the other half of We: We built our house. We had a family. We sang and played music together… I had no clue how to be an Ihow to fly solo with absolutely no sense of direction—but I had no choice but to do so.

I spent two years wandering around within the abyss; I longed for what I had once considered my ill-fitting life. It was near the end of this time that I truly connected with my—as of yet unexpressed—inner traveler. And she was one pushy, impulsive, little bitch! She was also a survivor who led me out of the abyss and into a life that ultimately fit me like a pair of custom-made Italian leather boots.

By 1995 Morgan was living on her own and Jonathan was enrolled in a school in Arizona. I was down to two children living at home, with no idea where we were going.

Initially I thought I’d take my two youngest daughters, Erin and Jessica, and visit Estonia for 6 months before returning to the USA and finding my niche within American society. I was enchanted with the idea of spending time in this newly independent state. Having become a part of the Soviet Union in the 1940’s, Estonia gained her independence in 1991. I liked the idea of visiting a brand new country before it became commercialized. Both Estonia and I were struggling to find ourselves; we were both creating a new identity, while in a healing process.

I packed up my daughters and headed east in 1995. We flew to Reykjavík, Iceland before traveling to Stockholm, Sweden. From Stockholm we took a Ferry to Helsinki, Finland and then a second ferry down to Tallinn, Estonia. After an exhausting 3-hour train ride from Tallinn to Tartu, Estonia we settled into a cozy two-bedroom rental flat.

Estonia was in the process of creating herself in front of our eyes—changing appreciably, every day. In spite of having no hot water for months on end, no clothes washer and no car, our life was exciting and fulfilling; heavy on excitement and light on creature comforts. It was a perfect fit.

When our flight back to the USA came around, 6 months later, we ritualistically destroyed our tickets after deciding we would buy a place of our own and remain in Europe “for a while longer.”

I am now entering my 18th year of living abroad—currently in Scotland. My youngest daughters are grown and living on their own: Jessica graduates from Temple University, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, this spring, and Erin lives with her husband and baby girl in Nottingham, England. Morgan is a musician and mother living with her husband and daughter in Virginia and Jonathan, also in Virginia, owns his own business and lives with his wife on the side of a mountain.

I never consciously intended to immigrate; I wanted to travel and explore the world before returning “home”… But my choices led me down another path and I’ve come to realize that my “home” resides within me. I have lived a rich, although often solitary, life. I feel blessed that the Universe has supported me so well, allowing me, thus far, to avoid trips to Mars…

This blog is about raising my daughters in foreign lands, the people who have touched my life (including one special person who joined me on my journey), and my ever-changing worldviews. But it’s also about my inner-travels—those accidental revelations and realizations that accompany becoming an accidental immigrant.

A few of the more important realizations being: There are no accidents. No life is ever an ill fit. We are all travelers—whether or not we’ve ever stepped on a plane, ridden on a train or left our hometown—because life is the ultimate journey!