Filed under: travel versus unravel
While working as a dogsbody in a chalet in summertime Switzerland in 1991, I happened to meet an Estonian Canadian who also happened to be the assistant to the foreign minister of the brand new republic of Estonia. I asked what it was like there, and Peeter said, “great, come over some time”. He was a tall, energetic, opinionated, charismatic man who was giving his all to the new nation. A year later I turned up on his doorstep.
Peeter promptly got me two jobs, one rewriting the blurb about Tallinn for a publication called Tallinn This Week, the other teaching English at the Pärnu business school, a fresh-eyed establishment in the country’s premier seaside resort town, run by a former swimming coach. The publisher of Tallinn This Week, the former playmaker of the Estonian basketball team, who’d made a reputation for himself by writing a book called Basketball Novel, asked me if I’d look over the English version of an Estonian travel guide he was putting together. I did.
Written by Estonians and translated into English, German and Finnish by Russians, it was one of the funniest things I’d ever read. I pointed out to Mihkel that it was unpublishable. He announced that he’d already published the Finnish and German versions. I said if he paid all my expenses I’d travel round the country re-doing the book for him. In English instead of Estglish. He said yes. I soon discovered: that Estonian is one of the world’s more difficult languages (unlike Russian and Sanskrit, it’s in a different language group to English); that you need to take a comb when you visit the swamps to comb out the constant invasions of elk fly; that wherever there was a spare 700 year old building, the Estonians would put in a bar; that the chocolate is delicious, except the cheapest kind which tastes like pure pig fat; that winter comes early but the longest day of the year, St John’s Eve, is the day all the traditions come together at once; that Russians are very sexy and Estonians very resilient; and that whenever Estonians spoke English, and only then, they smiled.
I was there when the Kroon (abbreviated EEK) came in. The inflationary rouble disappeared, crisp new kroons appeared, the economy started to look up. It was a basket case country, but the least baskety of all the former Soviet lands. And there I was, re-writing, touring manor houses, ruins, universities, beaches, army bases, not quite succeeding with my abominable Estonian (Mina ei räägin eesti keelt! Vabandage!).
The book sold out. I did a new draft after I’d arrived back home, based on information posted to me by Mihkel. The Foreign Minister became President. Peeter moved to the Education Ministry. I put some Estonian Australians to sleep with my extensive slideshow. And I haven’t been back.
It’s strange being an expert on a country hardly anyone goes to where they speak an impossible language and harbour fabulous mediaeval towns of a hanseatic nature. I often think about the place – some wonderful moments, some weird ones – must tell the story of my mugging some time, for example – and I can’t imagine that it’s changed much, though I know it’s now the bachelor party/brothel of every second pommy bloke, and produces decathletes and cycling stars. I don’t feel I ever fully penetrated the place. But I’m not sure that I didn’t penetrate the place either. Nor that it didn’t penetrate me. Knowing a country is an amorphous impossible undertaking, for inhabitants as well as visitors. My outsider eyes could see things the locals couldn’t. And theirs could see me right back.
Of which more, soon enough.
Filed under: Nobody Loves A Thinker
So the family trooped off out of the house for an hour, leaving me to type or whatever it is I do when no one is looking (play computer games probably). They trundled into the forest to see how the path we’ve been making for the last six years or so was going. And they came back all excited, they’d gone the back way to the “sweet spot” with the sandpaper figs and the part-time creek, through the extra bit of lantana clearing we’d accomplished last time, seems like months ago. They’d counted steps on their pedometers – like most kids the lads have been given pedometers as part of Australia’s Olympic celebrations – and pruned some bushes, and the dog had run off and been re-found, and got their heart-rates up. It was the kind of everyday adventure that we don’t have often enough.
And I was stuck here, wondering. Thinking about – the adventure you didn’t go on – the missed opportunity – the concert ticket you didn’t pick up that everyone decided was the greatest gig ever – the girl you didn’t kiss – the road not travelled – the once-in-a-lifetime chance to bungee jump. Am I a fool or is life so packed with adventures you can’t make it to every bloody one? Well, both, probably, really. But if I look outside, right now, at the glimpse of garden framed by the curtain in the office, one of our few surviving rosemaries, the red-hot pokers out of season, the geraniums that remind us of Italian cemeteries, the struggling grape vine, the weeds growing up through the pavers, and beyond them at the valley, the gums, the blady grass, that perfect winter light, I have to admit that a glimpse is better than nothing, hanging the washing out is better than working at the computer, and hearing about an adventure is better than trying not to listen.
But I obviously have to make time for some more adventuring, more glimpsing and more fresh air. I know travel is fabulous, but it really is too easy to miss out on the tiny little adventures that you can do any hour of the day. My advice – walk outside now, do something to a plant, frame something with movie director’s fingers, breathe deep, spread the arms wide, walk with no purpose. It will put the timetable back five minutes – ha! I’m off to do it. Bye.
Filed under: Nobody Loves A Thinker
This is the cloudy hill in action. See how its colours are gloomy and musty; there’s mystery but there’s also something sugary about it, something sweet. When we first moved here we’d rush outside to photograph such moments with whatever camera we had on hand. The mist was beautiful and we’ve never completely taken its swirls and miasmas for granted. What shifts and changes though is our emotional energy to respond to the beauty.
You move somewhere with the intention of being happy. A new home gives you the freshness, nature provides invention and new experiences, people are all challenge and welcome and indecipherability. The grass that was greener – well you’re in amongst it. It’s easy. It seems easy. Even struggle seems easy. Old friends visit and sigh and palpitate. You feel good just to be there in the clover. Here in the clover.
That’s home, that’s the happy dream. Why can’t we hold onto that forever? Why can’t I be that “I” forever? I guess it’s because happiness itself is like that very Australian, misty view. We catch sight of it whenever, we know it’s beautiful, we appreciate its soft edges and the way it sometimes feels like us. The kids get lost in it. Our parents grow wrinklier, and so do we, and the jobs just breed and multiply. It’s like poetry – it wouldn’t work if it was always joyous or always the same. It’s like meditation – it requires an effort to lose the effort. And it’s like young love – which is all hope and fog: you have to get over the beauty of it if you want to find your way through to something solid and lasting, something you can build a house on.