Tag Archives: Estonian

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.

He suddenly became aware of David and 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 good naturedly.

“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, you vill be my new best friends from America,” Avto 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 Hol and Davidito. Americans love nicknames so zeese vill be your new names, from me: Your new best friend, who is named, Avto.”

“That’s your name?” David asked. “Avto? Like Avtomobile?”

Avto laughed from his belly. “Yes, Avto, but it’s for Avtandeel not Avtomobile; you can call me Avi. I am from zee Georgia, the country not zee American state,” he finished. It was good to have that potential misunderstanding cleared up early on.

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

“Give me phone number,” 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 we 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 is scarce in life.

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

“Uh huh. But don’t call before 7 AM anymore, 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. “I sought you might like to come wis me on my mail route and meet some of zee grannies and granddaddies of Tartu. I deliver zeir mail every day and pension money every month. And sometimes I help zem wis life. You vill see inside of houses and pet cats and maybe have tea wis us…”

I’m not sure why that idea was so enticing—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 mail. 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.