So Long Is the Road: Pärnu After Christmas

by Justin Petrone, PÄRNU

Pärnu is Estonia’s most beautiful city. Airy parks, giant trees, and castle-like villas that call out to you with their back staircase secrets. This glowing gem on the bay is the nation’s fourth largest at 44,000, although it’s hard to count heads in a city where visitor numbers rise and fall with the tides.

They call it the summer capital of Estonia, and it is. In summer it is full of tan bodies playing volleyball and you can hear bossa nova music in the cafes. But to me, the idea of Pärnu is not about summer but about escaping. People seek refuge in Pärnu, to get away from their troubles. Some go in summer to swim, others go in the spring or fall to visit the spas and to enjoy the scenery.

We almost went to stay. We looked at real estate and acquired a grand apartment not far from the beach. The plan was to live there full time, to retreat to Pärnu forever, but something happened and then it wasn’t so. So we were stuck with the grand apartment. It had wooden floors, a bathtub, and a comfortable kitchen with good light where I would type at a table.

For a while this became our writers’ studio. It was the retreat to which we escaped for weekends.

I often went alone to write. But maybe, just one time, you would like to come along with me?

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***

26th December. Now all is white and pleasant and the Christmas hump is past. It’s the day after, and I’ve come to Pärnu to write again. No kids, no wife, no worries. And yet, no mojo, no desire, no yearning to get going. What I need is to forget everything. I need to loosen up a bit. Then I can write. What else to do but get rip-roaring drunk? I have a bottle of tequila, so I decide to go all Mexican, load up on chips and salsa, and maybe get some mariachi music going before heading out to see what’s what. But when I get to the apartment I am just so tired that I take a bath and plan to go to sleep with a good book in my palms. Old man.

Before I nod off, I call to my Pärnu friends Katrin and Andrus to see if they would like to get together and sample my debut homemade apple wine. Katrin is friendly and tall enough to look me straight in the eyes, I do not see these kind of women so often. A long, curly mane of long dark hair, sharp features, light eyes. Andrus has milder, ruddier looks, with reddish brown tufts of hair. Their baby is a platinum-haired angel called Ingeborg. (It’s a fun name to yell on the beach.)

“Wait, Justin – you actually made your own wine?” says Katrin through the phone when I call.

“First time.”

“And you want us to try it?”

“I brought two bottles.”

“Oh,” a long pause. “I guess we will have to try it then. Maybe tomorrow night? Is Epp with you by any chance?”

“No, she’s doing some soul searching at the Petseri monastery.”

“Petseri?”

“Epp’s in Russia.”

“Oh.” A puzzled moment. “I see.”

“Yeah.”

“And Marta?”

“She’s in America.”

“Oh. Hmm.”

“Yeah, both of the older girls went to New York for Christmas this year.”

“Oh. Really.”

“Yeah.”

“But what about little Maria?”

“She’s with a babysitter in Viljandi.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah.”

“So you are all alone in Pärnu?”

“I am all alone in Pärnu.”

“Oh,” a pitiful laugh. “You must feel really lonely then. All alone in Pärnu on the day after Christmas. Of course come over.”

“It’s not bad. I can have two glasses of wine. Or even three.”

“Or even four!”

We make plans to meet the next day. But until then I am all alone here with my heart and dreams.

***

27th December, morning. Only a few days left of this godforsaken year. Why am I alone here like this? Why is my wife in monastery? Why are my kids on the other side of the planet? Why did we buy this apartment here and yet not move here? Why are we changing our plans all the time? Am I in crisis? Not that all crises are bad. You get to know yourself in a crisis, to trust yourself in a crisis. You learn to stay afloat. To try to stay true to your ideals. It’s not easy. I’ve thought of the sea a lot this year. I feel like Ulysses. I’ve told my men to tie me to the mast of the ship so that I won’t be seduced away by the sirens. When you read The Odyssey, you think the sirens must be calling out some seductive, sensual song. “Come lie with us, Ulysses!” But I think they were really trying to entice Ulysses into getting himself a nice mortgage in New York, or to buy an extra car. Complacency, financial ruin.

Before you know it, you’ve smashed on the rocks.

I’ve thought about giving up writing sometimes, you know. That maybe I am not good enough. That I will never be enough. Those days where you write all day long and feel like it’s all just junk.  And yet I have to stay true to my heart, to my adventure. Like Ulysses.

You can hear the sea from our window. It makes a gorgeous sound.

When I am near the sea, I sleep well. Like Ulysses on his ship’s deck under the blue sky and stars. That calming swooshing sound.

And now Ulysses is hungry. I grind the spice into the breakfast as I cook it. Extra greasy. I need the grease for the walk ahead. There is black outside my windows this morning. Beautiful northern winter black, with only silence and some street lamps. Most of Estonia feels like an abandoned ski resort at this time of year. It just needs a lift (tõstuk). If you press your face up to the glass, you can make out the roofs of the nearby villas, and if you are so brave as to open the window and stick your head out into the moon chill frostiness, you can see the white Christmas lights in the neighbor’s windows.

As I am doing right now.

After my greasy breakfast of eggs, potatoes, and memories, I head out and it is snowing strong. Light flakes coming down in ordered sheets. I watch the snow in the lamp lights on Tammsaare Puiestee, which is the main avenue that runs through this part of Pärnu that includes its roomy parks and Rannarajoon, the “beach region.” This is the district of Pärnu that is most prone to flooding, but not today, although once outside I can hear the crash of the sea again, a heavy gasp in the distance, like an airplane, but too off-rhythm to be mechanized. I turn toward the beach, to get closer, but a gale pushes me back. It’s strong. Don’t mess with mother nature, it says. I want to see the sea, but in a matter of seconds my navy coat turns white and I am coughing snowflakes and slime. I listen to the sea some more, and think about the poor mariners who might be out on the bay.

I don’t mind being alone, but Pärnu does cast a shadow of lonesomeness after Christmas. People had warned me about it when we were thinking of living here full time. These Estonian sirens said, “Pärnu? Are you crazy? Pärnu is a summer place, but it turns into a ghost town in winter. It’s deader than dead. You might as well go live in Haapsalu in winter. Yeah, it’s that bad. You should come and live in Tartu. Stuff goes on in Tartu all year round. Concerts, plays, ballets. There are multiple major universities and colleges. In Tartu, life is on all the time. There’s absolutely nothing there in Pärnu after August. You should just forget about it. You’ll turn into a drunk.”

Nothing now except a solitary stick figure moving down the avenue. In another reality we could all be here. I had imagined our Christmas in Pärnu. A Christmas tree would have looked wonderful in our apartment with three children gathered around.

A beautiful vision.

But they are all around this planet, and I am the only one, still here in Pärnu. At the corner of Tammsaare and Supeluse I pause to look up at the reassuring glow of the Spa Estonia’s blue neon sign and tried to write in my notebook, but the snow attacks the pages, making them all wet. I try again outside of the Supelsaksad Cafe on Nikolai and Supeluse, managing a few lines with cold fingers shaking until giving up completely. Let me think instead. Walk into town? Maybe I will encounter some entertaining local drunks, and you know they are out now. The Christmas lights are on inside the cafe and I can see a woman removing the tablecloths and shaking them out and replacing them.

The sign on the door says the cafe will open at 9 AM on December 27th, which it will be in a few hours. Later I plan on sitting at one of those old tables under the grainy portraits of Pärnu bathers of the 1920s. A good cappuccino, with the foam served up in a heart shape. And those delicious cakes for company. The servers are all beautiful too, with their old-fashioned gowns and their hospitality doubles for real friendship among lonely men.

I leave a bit of fog from my breath on the cafe window then I write my initials into it with a glove.

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***

Sooner or later I’ll have to pass Sütevaka. I don’t want to see it and yet it still has that sea current pull. Sütevaka is the impressive art school on the corner of Lõuna and Pühavaimu, which translate as South and Holy Ghost streets. Once, maybe not so long ago, we parked there and Epp went in and spoke at the school. She had been invited by the students to go and speak about environmental issues. When she came out her cheeks were rosy because she was so enraptured. Then I watched a stream of girls exit and ride away on their bicycles. Unique, well-dressed, eye-catching girls. Pretty girls. Shiny bikes. When I was a younger man, I would ride away with those girls into dreams. But now I see a young beautiful girl and I think of my daughters. My daughter could be one of those beautiful Pärnu girls on the shiny bikes!

That’s how little escapist fantasies germinate. With cool art schools and girls on bikes and streets named after the Holy Ghost. And don’t forget the sea. Ulysses needed his sea and Circe needed her sea too. Such watery people we are. Not long after, we were looking at real estate. This is always so much fun.

The most memorable apartment from that real estate tour was the one  I didn’t like at all. This was the woman who was living with her ex-husband, a Russian character who was sitting in an upstairs room smoking and watching television. Later, after more searching, we bought an apartment on Karusselli Street and started renovating it. This was a fine old wooden house, the kind that Pärnu is famous for. It had a back staircase and attic rooms under the eaves and we imagined many summers with our children sleeping soundly there with sand still on their feet. We were in love with that cozy place.

“I’ve always dreamed of having an apartment on Karusselli Street!” the mother of our family gushed. “And you know,” Epp added, “we could even have Christmas here together if we wanted.”

But it did not happen. Instead, one of the neighbors – an older, wealthy “foreign” Estonian from Stockholm – executed his right to purchase the apartment. This is a right that neighboring apartment owners have in Estonia. They get first dibs. This daredevil neighbor wore all black and rode a motorcycle. The neighbors of the house didn’t care for him much because he neglected to mow his section of the back lawn. As he was in Sweden riding around on his bike most of the time, and getting richer, he had little time to. This meant that three-quarters of the grass in the back yard were cut and the rest was overgrown. This is how some Estonians solve their problems.

I offered to cut the guy’s patch once, but was halted. “No, that’s his grass. It’s against our principles to cut it!” But rather than fight for it, knowing the work it needed, and knowing too well who our neighbor would be, we just let it slip away.

And so another Pärnu dream dissolved into water. A year and a half later though, we found a finer place, one close to the beach on the attic floor with smooth wooden floors. We bought it and considered moving there full time.

***

The way to Sütevaka is guarded by villas and churches. Jugendstil. Art nouveau. The signs proclaim the miniature castles. The Villa Wesset. The Ammende Villa. The Villa Johanna. There are houses of worship too. Lutheran Eliisabet and the Russian Orthodox Katariina, ancient and deliciously colored, like birthday cakes. They say that most of the houses in Pärnu are haunted. I can’t see these ghosts, but I can sense them.

And here stands Sütevaka, Pärnu’s greatest school, our vanished hope. I stop to admire the student graffiti on the neighboring buildings. A manatee. A mermaid with a fisherman’s head, beard and cap. A Victorian lady and umbrella. Three 1920s bathers in those old-fashioned full-body bathing suits.

Cool kids go to Sütevaka.

It’s one of the best in the nation, which means it’s one of the best on the planet. Two years ago, the OECD ranked Estonian students eleventh in the world in terms of math and reading skills and tied for fourth to seventh place with Japan, South Korea, and Finland in natural sciences. They also were among the most miserable students in the world, along with the Japanese, Koreans, and Finns. Strange, no?

More, interestingly, the happiest students – the Indonesians, the Albanians, the Peruvians — came from countries with the poorest academic results. And isn’t it odd that the Finns and Estonians — categorized by the 19th century German anthropologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach as members of the so-called “yellow” race on account of the shape of their skulls — should produce students as well-learned and unhappy as their alleged Asian brethren?

The geneticists now tell us that the Finns and Estonians are European as European can be, and the yellow race theory has been disregarded as quackery but results like those make me wonder.

So, Sütevaka. Marta was supposed to go here and Anna, too. We were all supposed to become self-made Pärnu residents. But life, which is the name I have given this aquatic force, tugged us back to Tartu. I can’t even tell you the mechanism by how this happened, but it did. Our daughter wasn’t ready for the entrance exams. Our business was on the other side of the country. There were open places at the Tartu Catholic School. Neptune lifted his staff.

But I can stand and admire Sütevaka school in the snow, can’t I?

***

December 27, still. My 5 AM jaunt ends here on Rüütli Street, the main commercial hub, with the snow coming into my shoes and the packs of young Pärnu casino goers spilling out into the lanes.

There are big guys in puffy winter jackets, young ladies in blue coats speaking up between cigarette drags. You can see the smoke and steam curl. They speak the common Estonian, the one you hear between old disco songs on the radio. Not everybody speaks like that in Pärnu though. The city is stuffed with Finns – tourists, retirees, people who just like living there – and then there are the south Estonians who hitchhike in from Võru to Sangaste, and from Sangaste to Nuia, and from Nuia to Kilingi-Nõmme, and from there straight on into Pärnu’s rannarajoon.

Their accents sound like Finnish, and now that I can distinguish them, I love to sit and listen, just to try to pick out who’s who from where. Once I heard a girl in one of the cafes speaking Estonian with a Finnish accent, and was mesmerized to hear her say “mies” instead of “mees” for “man.” Minu mies on hää mies.

I couldn’t write, because I just had to listen to that girl with the accent speak. It was like something out of an old movie. Her raspy, direct tone. It was a sea captain’s daughter’s voice. Hardened and feminine. I sat in the corner with my journal, like Fred Jüssi out there in the Hiiumaa forests recording bird calls. My heart beat a bit faster. I was just infatuated with that voice. I could listen to her read business news. When I turned around I saw she looked normal though. Harmless. Freckly. Sea blue eyes. Dark hair in bangs across the front. Red wind breaker.

A Pärnu summer girl.

I have all kinds of these odds-and-ends memories of Pärnu. Even if we sell this apartment soon, which we probably should, unless I want to keep driving three hours from Tartu to take care of plumbing, I’ll still have these memories.

I pass a liquor store on the way back near Steffani Pizza, which looks like a Bavarian biergarten crossed with Alice in Wonderland, with lamps that glow orange and a wacky cartoon-yellow fence. This is the landmark restaurant in Pärnu. In summer, they have a second restaurant down on the boardwalk. You have to wait in line and listen to Latvians boss the waitresses around. People drive up from Riga to have pizza here.

This is also where I meet some true Pärnu alcoholics, both of them dressed in beat clothes and hats. Trousers with tears in them. Ancient checkered collared shirts showing through tattered coats. And the smell of vodka, so strong you can almost get drunk by breathing in the vapors of their breath. Supposedly, this is what I would have turned into had we decided to live in Pärnu.

“Hey, you, where is a young man like you headed at this hour?” one calls out to me.

I brush some snow away and walk. I can hear one of them vomit. That gross spilling sound.

“He’s on the long road home, don’t you know?” the other says. “Nii pikk, nii pikk on võitlejal tee kauge kodu poole minna!

Nii pikk, nii pikk jah!” the other one laughs.

The first one starts to sing in a low, baritone, “Nii pikk, nii pikk on…”

The other one joins in with an off-key tenor, “Ta jõuab, ta jõuab sinna!” It’s a military song. The kind that men sing together while they are on leave from the war front in occupied bars.

It has been a pikk teekond, a long journey. They’re quite right. The song haunts me all the way home.

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***

Nii pikk, nii pikk?” Herk says later and drums his fingers on the table. Then he looks me at me through his glasses and blinks at me, smiles. When Herk smiles, he’s all teeth. He has short clipped hair, thin, long arms. He’s a professional drummer. He taps the rhythm to the song and hums below the pub’s music.

“Oh, this is an old, old song,” Herk determines.

“You know it?”

“Of course I know it.” And I thought he only knew heavy metal.

“But where do I know it from? That is the question tonight,” he drums his fingers more. “Hmm.”

“It sounded like a military song,” I say.

“No question about that. It’s got to be from at least the War of Independence. Maybe even the Tsarist time. In any case, that song you heard those men singing this morning is about a hundred years old,” Herk grins. “Old!”

Good old Herk. A fine Pärnu man and not a drunk. What the Tartu sirens were telling us was not wholly true. He runs percussion workshops, and his son, Rassu, has also shown an interest in picking up the sticks. He was named after the fictional detective Hercule Poirot, but Hercule didn’t have that special local kick. Herk it was! He was born and raised in Tallinn, and after a troubled rock ‘n’ roll youth, Herk retreated into Christianity, sobriety, and – most importantly – to Pärnu, for a new crack at life. He seems happy here with his drummer’s limbs and great white grin. We could have met like this every week to discuss what songs the drunks of Pärnu sing at 5 AM outside the liquor stores. But it wasn’t to be. Anyway, it seems like the mystery is solved, but later, my friend Andrus disagrees with Herk’s view.

Nii pikk? No. This is definitely a song from the Soviet time. It’s not a War of Independence song.”

“He said it might have been a tsarist song.”

“No, no, no!” He thumps a fist on his kitchen table. “No, no. This song is in one of those famous old Soviet movies. The soldiers are all singing it. That’s what your drunken Pärnu friends were singing at the liquor store this morning at 5 AM.”

Andrus is a lawyer and so I believe him. With a practice in Tallinn, a home in the big city’s leafy Kakumäe district, and a second home in Pärnu, he seems castes above Pärnu’s 5 AM revelers. And yet he disappears later to the same exact liquor store to restock on his preferred maker of vodka.

As dinner turns into something else, Andrus pours us all another shot glass full of vodka. Some Ukrainian brand. I can’t completely understand the text on the bottle. Something like “Meneya” and then underneath it, “No Moloke.”

“It means it was cleaned on milk,” Andrus says. He speaks English to me mostly, and with confidence. When he speaks Estonian to me, it’s as if he’s joking. He’s going to be 50 next year, and most of the members of his so-called “Winner’s Generation” — because they were just the right age to capitalize on the opportunities provided by independence and the free market – have that same dry humor. These are people who are both joking and serious. I cannot explain it. I guess they have just lived through a lot of nonsense, and so they regard every phenomenon as suspect.

“I’m a winner, yeah,” he says and smirks when I ask him about it.

I can roll with the irony but retain a foreigner’s naivete. I don’t get all of the jokes. And forgive me, Andrus, but I am unsure of how vodka is made, so I don’t know how one “cleans” vodka using milk. But all the same, we finish off that new bottle, just like we finished off the bottle of Absolut before it. “You just have to drink good quality vodka,” says Andrus.

“We have had Swedish vodka and Ukrainian vodka. But why no Estonian vodka?” I ask.

A careless shrug at the table. “But, you know, a lot of Swedish soldiers have died in Ukraine.”

“Poltava,” I say. “The epic battle of 1718.”

Just. Let’s drink to the dead Swedes of Poltava.”

And the shot glasses are emptied again.

“But what about the Estonian vodkas, huh? Viru Valge? Liviko? Where is your loyalty?”

“It’s fine vodka, but it’s not the best. You have to drink the best. It will clean you out. All of those worms and germs inside of you? Well, oh, ho, ho, they’re all dead now.”

“I hope so.”

I place a hand on a belly that contains a lot of vodka, not to mention too many helpings of Katrin’s potato salad, which is made with beef and not pork. It is the best Estonian potato salad I have ever eaten. And I let my hosts know this. Our company includes Katrin, and Katrin’s father, Ülo, a pensioner with wild eyebrows who is focused on finding himself a pruut, a girlfriend.

Ülo may still be married to Katrin’s mother, but they live separately. And I am not sure if Katrin and Andrus are legally joined. One never knows in this country. Things like documents, business meetings, school assignments, these are treated with laser precision. Personal relationships though? Not so precise.

My wine, by the way, now sits on the shelf beside liters of Italian and French specialties. When Andrus received it, he studied its label and the consistency of the clear liquid within and winked.  “So you went and made your own apple wine at last? Tõeline eesti mees!”

Andrus encourages me in my Estonianization. He says that when a man marries a woman he joins her tribe. “See, I am drinking with my father-in-law,” he gestures toward Ülo. “It even says something about this in the Bible. You have joined the tribe of Estonians. You should accept this. Then all of your pesky inner contradictions will melt away,” he stares at me through his shot glass. “Justin, you must accept that you are one of us now.”

I nod and accept this. It’s something I now know, but didn’t always understand. It took time to appreciate how futile it was to swim against the currents of tribal politics and Biblical family systems. But Andrus knows. He’s older. He is a fine specimen of my new tribe. Andrus is always doing something Estonian around here, whether it’s sorting apples or loading and unloading wood. Yes, he has his attorney’s life, but what he really enjoys is driving up to Ülo’s place and restocking the sheds with timber for winter fires. Lawyer Andrus wears a suit, true, but the real Andrus lives in sweaty t-shirts and eats apples off the ground. And he loves Pärnu, truly adores it, even though he and Katrin say they could not live there year round. “Too provincial.”

“Everybody knows everybody’s business,” says Andrus. “We are big city people.”

Their second home is a pink wooden cottage with a Dutch country roof. We met them because they rent their upstairs rooms out. That’s how our family wound up staying here a few summers back.

“I still remember that night,” I say. “We stayed up, looking out that old fashioned porthole window. And Epp was whispering to me. ‘How old do you think this house is? Do you think it’s haunted?'”

“But it is haunted!” Andrus laughs. “It really is.”

“It is,” Katrin agrees.

“In the morning I came downstairs and thought that Marko Mihkelson was in the kitchen,” I say.

“Hey, I don’t look anything like Marko Mihkelson,” Andrus squints. Marko Mihkelson is an influential politician with a knack for foreign affairs. I usually see him on the morning news programs. Andrus doesn’t look exactly like Marko, but he does look a lot more like Marko than, say, Barack Obama or Vladimir Putin. He has the same reddish hair and pleasant face and there is youth in his eyes. Like Mihkelson, he is rather tall.

Katrin is almost as tall, too.

“You Estonians are such giants, you know. You’re tall, she’s tall, Marko Mihkelson is tall.”

“Is he?” Andrus asks.

“Once I was in an elevator with Marko Mihkelson and Boris Nemtsov. It was at a foreign policy conference. They were both enormous. Marko is even taller than me I think. Ansip was tall, Aaviksoo was tall. Even Mart Laar was tall, and I thought he was just this little round teddy bear.”

“Now, now. Laar is not so tall.”

“He looked tall.”

“No, no.”

That’s what drunk people in Estonia argue about.

“Well, he’s not a little round teddy bear either.”

“Okay, you win.”

“See, this is why the Russians really hate the Estonians,” I say. “It has nothing to do with NATO or minority language rights. It’s because every time Medvedev or Putin has to meet with an Estonian politician, he has to look up. Did you see the photos of Ilves and Medvedev? Ilves towered over Medvedev! Ansip is tall, I think Taavi Rõivas is tall. That’s the real reason why Russians never visit us.”

“You may have a point there,” Andrus says after some thought.

“Have you read Laar’s new book?” asks Katrin. “It’s about what might have happened if Estonia had fought back against the Russians in 1940. Like the Finns did. I really want to read it.”

“You mean if Päts hadn’t sold Estonia to the Soviets,” Andrus says.

“He didn’t sell it to them,” I say.

“Oh, yes, he did.”

“No.”

“He most absolutely did. Everybody knows it.”

“I think that Päts thought that the Germans would invade, so why bother fighting. Then he could negotiate with them. Too bad his calculations were off by a year. And the Soviets deported him!”

I make a sad face.

“Well, he wasn’t in the worst labor camp, you know,” Andrus says. “Psh. Some psychiatric hospital outside of Moscow? I am sure a lot of Estonians wished they could have been sent there instead.”

“Kon-stan-tin,” says Ülo, rapping his knuckles on the table. “A Russian name. He was one of them.”

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***

Ülo is everything you expect a 75-year-old Estonian man to be. White hair, gray eyebrows, black glasses, blue suspenders. He drinks the vodka and keeps on mumbling to himself about getting that girlfriend. He thinks we should all get a few of them.

“You too, Andrus,” Ülo says. “You’re still young. Get yourself a pruut!”

“But I have a woman,” he gestures to Katrin, Ülo’s daughter.

“The more the better!” Ülo says.

“Father!”

“And you, you should get yourself a pruut, too,” Ülo tells me.

“But I have a woman,” I say.

“Pssh! That doesn’t mean you can’t have a pruut. Your naine is away in Petseri. In monastery? With a bunch of untrustworthy monks?” He raises one of those eyebrows. “And you are here in Pärnu all alone. So be a good boy and go get yourself a pruut.”

“You can go get yourself a pruut, Ülo.

“Really? Where?” He cranes his neck around the table.

“Well, I just saw a cute girl on Rüütli Street,” I say.

“Oh yeah? What kind?”

“Blue dress, blonde hair.”

Ülo whistles.

“Just right for you.”

“Oh really? It’s settled then.” Ülo raises both bushy eyebrows. “So, where do I find her?” He laughs.

I shrug. “She was standing outside a casino smoking a cigarette. Looked about 15 years old.”

“Hey!” Andrus groans.

“Sorry. I meant 18.”

Ülo folds his hands in disappointment. Then he looks at me and raises another glass. “Oh well, boys. Here’s to girlfriends. Terviseks!”

The drunken conversations swirl through the evening. I don’t even remember the walk home in the snow, although my boots are soaked the next morning. And though I gave them my bottle of apple wine, they still refused to drink it. Out of politeness, I guess.

“We are going to let it age,” I recall Andrus saying. “We’ll save it for a special occasion. You have made your own wine, good sir. As I said, you have become a real Estonian man.”

Tõeline eesti mees.

Tõeline eesti mees. “A real Estonian man.”  This is what Andrus called me years ago when I drove from Tallinn to Tartu, even though I had just returned from an overnight flight. I drank an energy drink. In Estonia, it’s acceptable to push yourself to the limit. A “real Estonian man” doesn’t get tired, drinks good vodka, and makes his own apple wine. But such an attitude can also be dangerous. It was this same, “I can do anything” attitude that led me to try and drive home from Tallinn a summer ago after that satanic Robbie Williams concert. Unwise. If a drunk asks me if I am a “real Estonian man” in the street, then of course I say yes, and then I tell him, no, I do not have a cigarette because I do not smoke. But I know inside that I am not and will never be. I am just a happy-go-lucky loser Italian. We look good standing beside things. Make fun company. And excellent tomato sauce.

It does feel good to drink like a “real Estonian man” though.

Sometimes.

***

December 28th. Another day, another storm. The first time I stayed in Pärnu years ago there was a blizzard. I remember all the white powder on the roofs, the way the smoke curled from the chimneys. It made me so hungry. Then I walked down to the sea, as I do this morning, studied the way the boulders of sea ice lay scattered at the lip of the bay like moon rocks. Pärnu may be a provincial place, but I still feel loved here. Wanted. Necessary.

Epp texted me this morning from the monastery and asked me if I think we should keep the Pärnu apartment. I told her that it probably doesn’t make sense to keep an apartment in Pärnu if we aren’t going to use it like Andrus and Katrin use theirs. We are too tied up in other places, and if we feel the need to escape to Pärnu, we can always just stay upstairs in Katrin and Andrus’ haunted house.

She agreed. “Okay, gotta go. Five AM cave church liturgy!”

Later on, I will start packing up my belongings and begin the long journey back to Tartu. I’ll drive past Kilingi-Nõmme to Kõpu and then onto Viljandi, where I will pick up our youngest daughter from her auntie, and then at last on to Tartu. Home.

Part of my soul will stay fixed here in Pärnu though. He will wander its streets all the time that I am away. And I will have to come back and visit him from time to time just to make sure he is doing okay.

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Justin Petrone is a journalist and the author of half a dozen books, including the My Estonia trilogy. He is a columnist for Postimees and has contributed to Eesti Päevaleht, Estonian World, and other publications. He also maintains the blogs North! and Itching for Eestimaa. This piece is part of his new collection, Sketches of Estonia.

Nii pikk, nii pikk on võitlejal tee kauge kodu poole minna!” – “So long, so long is the soldier’s road to his far-away home.”

Ta jõuab, ta jõuab sinna!” – “He arrives, he arrives there!”

© Deep Baltic 2016. All rights reserved.

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