I run into the Catalan on a brisk wintry Wednesday afternoon in Viljandi’s Old Town. At first glance of the man through the window of Restoran Ormisson, I can’t tell that anything is amiss. This writer used to have a dense jungle of black hair growing on his head, but now it’s turned gray and he’s shaved it down to a beard-like stubble, though it’s still thick and coarse. The Catalan wears comfortable jeans, a loose shirt. He looks as he always does. The Catalan will surprise you because he’s not always around Viljandi. He haunts, lurks, appears, vanishes. He comes and goes, and you’ll never know when you’ll feel like someone is watching you and see him staring at you in some cafe in town. Then he will give you that mischievous grin as if he’s been watching you all this time.
Beware of the grin.
The other day the Catalan came into Ormisson and when he walked past, I greeted him with fanfare and shook his hand briskly. To me, this was a sign of respect — we were fellow writers after all, and some might say competitors — but to this son of a military officer, it made him suspicious.
“Why did you shake my hand like that, huh?” he sneered over a cappuccino. “Like I’m a general? Like we’re in the damn army or something?”
And here he is again, as I open the door and walk in his direction. Ormisson has a good mature smell now. The chalky texture in the air from the construction has dissipated and it has the aroma of candle wax, plush upholstery, the perfume of the girls behind the counter. It smells of quality, like the ice in the Catalan’s champagne bucket.
As soon as the Catalan opens his mouth, I can tell it hasn’t been his first bottle. I can also tell it is going to be impossible to get any work done because the Catalan wants to talk when he drinks. These two things go hand in hand. He is as much a philosophizer as a writer, you see. He wants to engage, probe, to distract. Drinking and talking with the Catalan. There is no avoiding his mountainous Iberian shoulders, his panther gaze. He wants to talk, and, most importantly, he wants to talk about how he’s done with Estonia and he’s leaving this godforsaken godless land. Maybe in an hour. Maybe tomorrow. He scrolls through his smartphone eyeing deals. “The most important thing is that I am going,” he says. “Where? I do not know. Maybe Bangkok. Maybe Istanbul. Then back home to Barcelona. I like being in Barcelona. I have so many friends in Barcelona. Here, there is nothing for me. Let me tell you something, put your laptop away. I see you, Petrone. I see you, always writing, always in and out, put it away and talk.”
I set the computer aside.
“First, let me be honest, because I am an honest person. We are both writers and we must be honest. It is our sacred duty to be honest. Everyone else is just ‘blah blah blah,'” he waves his hands in the air, “‘blah blah, blah.’ But no! No! We are writers, so we have to be honest, because if you write something that’s not honest, that’s dishonest, it’s just ‘blah, blah, blah.'” (More waving of hands in the air.) Let’s be honest, because we are writers, and we are honest writers. Are you honest?”
“Good! So, let’s be honest this time. Where was I? Ah, yes. The Estonians.” The Catalan turns. He leans in and he speaks in quick, percussive phrases. “Honestly, these people, the Estonians, Petrone, are small people. Very small.” He holds out two fingers, as if the average Estonian could fit between them. “They are small and they are fake. Twenty-five years of capitalism — 25 years! — and they still have no idea where they are going. They are lost.”
“There is an over-reliance on soothsayers,” I agree.
“That’s because they don’t know what to do with themselves, Petrone! Let me ask you a question,” the phone begins to buzz. “Hold on a second, shh, shh, hold on. It’s Mama calling.” There is a sudden flush to the Catalan when his mother calls. A childlike innocence comes over him. “Hallo? Mama! Yes, it’s me, your son! I am right here talking to Petrone here in the cafe. Yes, Mama. Yes. Yes, I am your son, Mama. I love you.” He hangs up. Sets the phone on the table. “In my country, I have Mama,” he says, his eyes suddenly moist. “I have Mama. I have Papa. I have all my sisters, brothers, cousins. But here? Estonia? I don’t belong here anymore. I belong there, with Mama and Papa.” His eyes tear up again. “Forgive me, Petrone, but I am emotional. I am an emotional Latin man, just like you.” Now he’s crying. “But we can show our emotions because we are Latin men!” he growls through more tears. “We can be emotional, we can be honest, and you will always get honesty from us for we are true Latin men! As I was saying. Let us be honest and let us be frank.” The phone buzzes. “I hope you don’t mind if I take this again, Petrone.”
“Is that Mama?”
“She actually calls me 15 times every day.” He trails off. Another short but cordial exchange. Then more tears. The phone is set back down again on the table. “She is my best friend, you know. My family are my friends. These Estonians? Ptui! They are nothing! But I love Mama.” He strikes his heart with a fist, making a thud. “See, she needs me! She is a Southerner. I am a Southerner. My people need me. But this country? “Eestimaa, Eestimaa!” Ha! All they do is sing! They have no philosophy. Their only philosophy is pragmatism. That’s not a philosophy.”
“They do,” I say, “but it’s hard to explain.”
“Try to explain it to me.”
One night another writer named Mikita had come to the bookstore to answer questions about the philosophy of the Baltic Finns, the läänemeresoomlased, and deliberated over the questions of ladies around him as he expounded on his latest philosophical tome, Kukeseene kuulamise kunst, “the art of listening to chanterelles.”
The Estonians no doubt had a philosophy, that vague, almost Shinto philosophy, that less was more, that there was beauty in restraint, or divinity in mushrooms. These were ideas that were hard to put into words – Mikita himself had to hole up in the woods to write them. He had to disappear for weeks at a time into nature just so that his fingertips might summon a profound sentence or two. He took long walks by himself through the trees, thinking, thinking, stopping to examine some mushrooms, then to converse with a squirrel. It was tough work, this Estonian philosophy business, tougher to explain to someone like the Catalan with a belly full of champagne.
“So, what’s the philosophy?” he asks me.
“What is it?”
“It’s hard to say.”
“Of course it is, of course it is. Who can explain something that doesn’t even exist! But let me ask you something, Petrone. Do you like Viljandi? You’re from where, exactly? New York City? How does an American like you live in a place like this?”
That was the question, wasn’t it, though I rarely considered it anymore. As I saw it, Viljandi was just the place I happened to be. I just happened to be here. Juhuslikult1, that’s all. I didn’t even believe I could go anywhere else anymore. I had this feeling that even if I tried to leave, I’d probably make it about as far as Paalalinn before turning back.
“‘Like’ is the wrong word,” I say. “The question is if I am satisfied here. I believe I am satisfied. When I am no longer satisfied, then I will leave Viljandi.”
“I didn’t ask you if you were satisfied! You are trying to change the question. I asked you if you actually liked living here. Answer the question then. Do you like living here in Viljandi?” I try to answer but then the phone rings. This time it’s a business partner, not Mama. When the Catalan is done, he calls the server over and orders us up two glasses of wine. Then he eyes me with those panther eyes. “You look disappointed,” he says. “Have I disappointed you?” “It’s just …”
“Tell me, Petrone.”
“It’s just that I came here to write, but it’s impossible to write in Viljandi anymore because I keep on getting interrupted.”
The Catalan just shrugs and takes a sip of his champagne. “You don’t need to write a story today. I am giving you the story. I am giving it to you, do you understand? Today, you don’t write anything. Today, you get the story. All right?”
It’s my story. He met an Estonian woman (“I believed in a woman!”) and had some children (“I love my children!”) but Estonia’s pragmatism, its tuim2 taciturn character slowly drove him to despair, madness, to drink. I do not dare to ask about his marriage. I know there was an altercation at a local cantina when a Viljandi outlaw mistook him for a Spaniard and pulled a knife on him. (“I am not a Spaniard! I am a Catalan!”) That was the night something ended for the Catalan. (“That was the night it all ended,” he says.) The night it all changed. (“That was the night it all changed”). The Estonians were indifferent that he had been threatened.
“For them, this kind of nonsense is … normaalne,” the Catalan says. “Normaalne, normaalne, all normaalne. Everything is normaalne here in Viljandi, but nothing is really normaalne. Pragmatism, you see. Pragmatism!” The Catalan shakes his head again, he taps at his temples. His phone rings again. It’s Mama. “Hallo, Mama? Here, talk to her. Say ‘hello.'”
I take the phone and say a few words to the concerned woman. She sounds very sweet but there is a touch of concern or alarm in that sweetness. When the conversation is over, he sets down the phone and stares at the photo of Ormisson on the wall. Ormisson looks back at him. Then the Catalan turns to me and exhales.
“Come with me tonight, Petrone.”
“Come with you?”
“Yes, come with me.”
“Who cares where! Anywhere, so long that it not be here, Little Viljandi!” “My daughter gets home from school at 3 PM.”
“Nonsense! Of course you can come, Petrone! Of course you can! I’m either going to Bangkok or to Istanbul and you’re coming with me. It’s agreed. We leave tonight. It doesn’t matter where to. Anywhere but Little Viljandi. Anywhere!”
“But my daughter gets home from school at 3.”
“I just can’t come with you.”
“Nonsense! You already are coming. It has been agreed.” The server now arrives with two glasses of wine and sets one before me and another with him. Later I find out that the Catalan has been downing champagne since the wee hours, and slept on a friend’s couch, and has been on a spree for days. The server is very pretty, with dark hair and bird-like features, but hesitant to approach the two strange foreign men. The Catalan watches my eyes as the server turns and leaves. He studies my eyes.
“Oh, you like her, don’t you,” says the Catalan, nodding. “I see you, Petrone. You do like her, yes.” The Catalan stands and walks to the bar, where she is standing stiff and quiet. “And I don’t blame you. She looks good, no? Very beautiful, no?” He glances to the server, who eyes me with her gray distant eyes. Every day, there are drunks here. Every workday and on weekends too. “But you see this face of hers, this pretty face?” he waves a hand before her, like a magician. “There is nothing behind this face. She is just stupid. All of the people in this country are stupid.”
“Tell me something,” he says to the server. “Do you actually like Estonia?”
“I think it’s time for you to leave this place,” I say to the Catalan approaching him. “What do you mean, Petrone? We just ordered the wine!”
“Forget the wine. Let’s go to Harmoonia now.”
“I see you, Petrone,” he laughs. “I see you. Look at you, so macho today. A real Barese.”
“Let’s go to Harmoonia. We’ve been here too long.” I link his arm in mine. We go.
Harmoonia is intimate, with candles and beautiful servers in black aprons and old ladies having lunch. The Catalan is a bit quieter here, more subdued and he orders a bottle of red wine — Sicilian — and downs a big glass of it as soon as the server fills it. Then she refills the glass, but he lets this one sit for a moment. The Catalan gets a salad, I get the soup. Then he starts up again.
“Please allow me to be honest. May I be frank with you? Would you allow it?”
“Let’s be honest.”
“Good! Let us be honest then,” the Catalan leans in. There is fire in his eyes, but his wine is untouched. “I think you should leave this goddamn place!” He stabs at the table with a knife.
“Leave Viljandi!” he growls. These people are not worthy of your talent! For who are you for these people? I will tell you who we are for them. For the Estonians, we are just clowns.” It must be said that our friend the Catalan is right, at least in this regard.
“Goddamn foreign clowns! Circus performers! We come here and they make us write for fucking women’s magazines!” he snarls. “Has there been any foreign writer who hasn’t been on the women’s magazine circuit? Tell me. Is there one? No there isn’t one because we all have. It’s a joke. We are a joke to them. That’s all.”
His phone rings again — Mama — but this time he doesn’t pick up.
“I’m not done with you yet, Petrone!” He commands me waving the knife before me. “Leave this place! Leave it at once! Come with me tonight!”
He bangs his other fist on the table now and some of the old ladies in the corner are startled and starting to take note. The phone is buzzing. Mama! Mama! The screen flashes. Mama is calling! “Leave this goddamn hellhole!” he shouts. “Get out while you still can! While you are still alive!” I stare into my glass and see the Atlantic Ocean frothing around inside. Mama! I see the sandy beaches lining the water, my childhood beaches. The phone continues to ring. Mama! Mama! Could I go back? Is the Catalan right? Am I mistaken? Mama! Could I pretend I was never here? “Leave!” Pretend that none of this ever happened? That it was all a weird dream, or some kind of detour? Mama! Mama! The phone rings. The Catalan is still growling, but he has that mischievous grin. He sees me. The Catalan sees that I understand.
All images credit – Justin Petrone
Justin Petrone is a writer and author of the new book My Viljandi: Small-Town Blues about his life in a small Northern European town. He contributes to the e-Estonia and e-Residency blogs and writes for Research in Estonia. He is also the author of the My Estonia trilogy and maintains a literary blog called North!
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