Tag Archives: winter

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.

 

 

 

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.