Tag Archives: Tartu

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.

 

 

 

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.