A funny thing about us older guys. We no longer meet at bars, or for that matter aktused. Our offspring are way too old to go to Seedrioru, grandkids not quite there. It takes something like the Sportsmen’s Show in Toronto to have three old friends meet, who had not seen each other for a while. Living in three different cities makes that a reality. Bumping into each other at Suvihari occasionally is not unexpected but is often unplanned. This time, explorative e-mails made the meeting an event to book and to anticipate.
Two of us, with but a week’s difference in age just that they could be twins, for both were conceived in Estonia but fled in utero and made their first earthly noises in Sweden. The third was also conceived elsewhere, but not in war-torn Estonia (de jure still free). Still, a common thread, for even if not “made in Estonia”, then where the parents ended up, and born in yet a third country, Canada. Just three musketeers growing up with Estonian names in a foreign culture, learning to speak the language of the new homeland, chosen by their parents, only upon reaching school age. English as a second language. Not the immigrant experience, but the refugee one. An experience that Toronto’s multicultural enclaves know very little about today with cosseted immigrants demanding treatment that our parents could not even conceive. Freedom, self reliance and hard work formed them, our communities and us.
The Sportsmen’s Show allowed the testosterone generous movement. The wives, natch, stayed at home. We suspect that they welcome these trips more than they let on. We looked at lures and rods, guns and tents, and were young again. Free for a day or two, from the routine of retired life and almost-there-to-retirement. We could not do otherwise but end the evening not in a bar, but in a bakery. Once owned by the family of a Liberal ex-MP, who once also ran a bar with Lenin’s name.
Just coincidence, that barley sandwiches were on tap. And that university students frequent the place, allowing for not-too-guilty ornithological pursuits. No loons, geese or ducks, but pretty warblers and songbirds abounded, to be heard and seen. But as often is the case, the young birds twittered energetically, and in order to talk at our beer-soaked table English was the only language that made it through the filters just as it does in the bush, or on the lake, when we are about to bag a buck, land a walleye. Eventually the noise got to us, and we headed out to the patio, to join the guilty looking but restrained smokers.
And then a strange thing happened. We three automatically switched to Estonian, the language of our pre-school years, our homes, and our aktused. Just like that, a switch was pulled. One of us caught on, and remarked, that it was also emakeelepäev, or as the President of Estonia’s bureau translates it, Mother Language Day. (Huh?) We argued a bit about how to translate some uniquely Estonian words and concepts – emakeel, isamaa, vendlus, and õelus. Were these words sexist? Were we sexist; is the world sexist, why does Estonian lack gender distinction or whatever linguists call noun identification, second person identification ja nii edasi?
And then the sage spoke. That would be the oldest of us, to whom we defer. Well, sometimes. He noted that there is no such creature as a purebred Estonian. That we have a drop - if not a pint – at least, of Russian, Finnish, German, Swedish, Polish or any other neighbouring if not occupying people’s blood in us Estonians.
Those red-hot Saaremaa girls with the famous curls, and sweet, begging to be kissed non-botox lips?
Shipwrecked Moors contributed genetically to their beauty. And the conversation took on an interesting slant. It was finally agreed that eestlased have their hybrid energy to thank for their survival – through the seven centuries of serfdom that followed Christianity’s arrival thanks to the sword.
During the Vabariik we were tolerant. Of all of our people. We identified our neighbours as eestlased first, then by their religion. Enne eestlane, siis juut, an Estonian first, then Jewish. Kuressaarlane, siis õigeusklik. Citizen of Kuressaare first, then an Orthodox believer. Not a survival strategy by any means – this was just the way we were, and many still are. Russians are wonderful people – it is the ideology of communism and its inevitable horrifying result that is utterly repugnant. Who guarded the Bolshevik leadership because they were competent and reliable? The Praetorian Guard was none other than the Latvian Red Rifle regiments, most of which were eventually liquidated by Stalin as their reward. Kronstadt revolt? Where do you think the Baltic Fleet conscripted their sailors? And, unlike our brother nation the Finns, we never had a civil war.
Once Koltchak, Yudenich and Denikin entered our conversation we knew that whatever history we learned at our parent’s knee, the most important lesson that was still with us was the one of belonging. Why then do the divisions seen not only in Eesti, as the government wrangles (Wrangells? pardon the pun) incessantly but abroad as well, remain central to our identity? Why do we fight the unification of our Lutheran Church – or agree to it? Are the secret lodges of the freemasons as strong as we are told? Who are the members?
And what about the revelations of that same week, by the former Estonian KGB deputy chief Vladimir Pool in Päevaleht, about sleeper KGB agents, still in position. Add to this the Herman Simm and Riga-born Aleksei Dressen spy scandals. Dressen, who worked for the KaPo, Estonia’s security police, was arrested only three weeks ago on treason and espionage charges. He was not assuredly the sharpest knife in the FSB drawer but still… And Edward Lucas’ new book about Russia’s deception, espionage and lies, how Russian still dupes the West was to be released the next day, March 15th – with a chapter devoted to Simm.
But at our age we tire of politics. Still, we found it hard to shake questions about our countrymen and their actions. It may be part of that baggage that every Estonian carries. And in the luggage there are good things as well as less savoury ones. But we know no other way.
Or do we, and that muleheaded stubbornness that allowed a family to farm the same piece of scrub rocky land in Saaremaa for generations upon generations is part of our hybrid energy? We know all the jokes, learned in various fraternities, (we all belong to different ones) and we are aware of the divisions that we create intentionally in the polity. But we honour belonging, language and culture more than perhaps any other people that we are aware of. And we concurred that perhaps that is what we should drink to on emakeelepäev. And we did.
Thanks to the internet we will remain in touch, but nothing replaces a face-to-face conversation. Next year again? At the Sportsmen’s Show? Or will our health still allow us to escape from our spouses into that sometimes make-believe-land of being an eestlane abroad.
One thing for certain: we will not shed the baggage that we have carried throughout all these years.