augustus died in 14 ad
this is almost two millennia ago
a long time
yet to form a continuous chain from that time to today less than thirty 70-year-old men are needed
try to picture thirty people forming a chain on a field
August 10, 2013, Puurmani
There are many antique shops in my neighborhood. Lots of middle-aged middle-class couples from Northern Europe and the US; not so bored husbands. Lots of small coffee shops, with façades and interiors like those my Western friends like to photograph. My favourite restaurant only 30 meters away; the menu is oral, for 13 liras I get the most delicious chicken with coriander ever, and much more. Orhan Pamuk and the Museum of Innocence. Lots of fashionable people. Beards and strong calves. A terrace with a view on Hagia Sophia, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque and Gülhane Park. I have figured out where I can buy bread in the morning and fruit at night, where the closest tantuni place is, where I can get sunscreen (it is around 30°C every day, and I discovered I have sun allergy). Börek with meat; somebody said it is very Turkish to eat it at your front door in the morning. I have a doorman; he is always there somewhere, but I never see him. A local guy (probably a drug addict) who asks foreigners for one lira and when they say they don’t have it accuses them of trying to trick on him. A transsexual bar next street. The loud music from the street that up to three million people pass every day occupies my room at nights, but when I go out there is more or less peace and quiet. Every day at around 11 AM and 11 PM a pss-pss-pss: a woman whose window opposites mine calls a cat. Construction workers interacting loudly, even now, at midnight. Phones ringing on the street; I often mistake them for a doorbell. Laughters and quarrels. A guy singing a melancholic song in vibrato. Three days ago, not far away, I saw a sheep on a small side street.
July 15, 2014, Istanbul
I am at a café where a lot of university people are having their breakfast. A man comes, greets in English a girl he seems to know, and then, either because their level of acquaintance is poor or because her Estonianness becomes apparent – she responds politely but then shuts off and goes on writing something –, sits at a table far from hers.
I wonder how he will leave the café. What will he say to her? Will he say anything at all? What gestures will he use? Will she reciprocate as before? Will she show any initiative as well? Will I witness his leaving? A shudder runs through me when I think of his leaving. Where should I go to not see his leaving?
I know that it will be to no avail. All these questions are meaningless, because even though I don’t know what he will say and how she will respond (although it is not difficult to guess), he will leave anyway. His future act of leaving cancels all the details, all the motivations for it. I am paralyzed by this imminence, and this paralysis is total, making everything even remotely probable seem unavoidable, underlining the absolute unavoidability of my own death and the end of all things.
He leaves the way I thought he would. I am alive.
(It appears to me that she, too, could have left first. The consequences of that leaving would have been cosmic.)
August 3, 2015, Tartu
I am working at a small café on Jakubská Street. Two women come in. The older one, blond, about 1.65 m, dressed in black, with a black walking stick, addresses the waiter in a British accent, confidently, as a retired stage actress. Her voice is very smoky. She speaks loudly, so much so that a British family at the next table seem to feel intimidated by her and lower their voice. I like her. Very much.
I write my friend on Facebook that her appearance relaxes me, in contrast with the annoying small talk of the British family. I tell him that she reminds me of Marianne Faithfull.
She says something about the Czech version of Edith Piaf’s ‘Milord’ that is playing in the background, about someone called François. Then her phone rings. I hear: ‘…the film Ghost Story I made years ago…’. So she is an actress! I become curious. I google Ghost Story. A film from 1974… oh, she is Marianne Faithfull!
Marianne Faithfull is having lunch with her assistant. Marianne Faithfull is eating a tuna sandwich. Marianne Faithfull has a massage tonight at nine. Marianne Faithfull gave a concert last night in Prague. Tomorrow Marianne Faithfull will sing in Düsseldorf. Now Marianne Faithfull is here, next to me.
I feel awkward. Like the British family, I become more aware of my movements. It is as if she knows me, as if we have had a conflict in the past and now we are trying to ignore each other. I get up. I bump my head against a lamp that illuminates a painting depicting a labyrinth.
I walk on the streets of Prague with a big smile in my face. I curse myself for being too shy but I cannot suppress the thought that perhaps she would have liked me.
October 30, 2015, Prague
Today I woke up early and set out for the busiest square near the hotel where I was staying to witness how Istanbullus commemorate the death of Atatürk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey. I am in Kadıköy, a large and densely populated neighbourhood that has strong Republican traditions and where there are more people that oppose the authoritarian and Islamising tendencies of the ruling AKP party than those who support them. Many people here have hung the Turkish flag with the picture of Atatürk from their balconies. Not just today. Every day. As the time was approaching, people who were alone checked their watches to see if it is 9:05 already (the moment when Atatürk died), whereas couples and those in groups just waited. At 9:05 a loud death wail was heard. All the cars stopped. Some honked their horns. Because I was on a relatively small square I mistook it for the impatience of those going to work. All the people stopped as well and stood in solemn silence for a minute. One or two didn’t. (Why not? I asked myself.) I stood too, not so much out of respect for Atatürk but in admiration of the people to whom Atatürk still means, 77 years later, much more than an average European can imagine. I feel very much out of place in Istanbul this time but this one minute of general grief touched me deeply and I forgot my unease for a while. Then the cars went on, some people lingered and then went on as well. In front of a school nearby where about 50 people had gathered, Turkish anthem was heard and a boy delivered one of Atatürk’s famous speeches. When I returned to my hotel, John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ was playing at the lobby.
November 10, 2015, Istanbul
The apartment in Ortigia where I am living is located on the main street of an old working-class neighbourhood. There are a number of former aristocratic residences around, most of which were built after the 1693 earthquake and the façades of many of which show traces of neglect, even though they are generally inhabitable. Elio Vittorini, the author of Conversations in Sicily, was born a few houses away and the part of the waterfront located behind the street is named after him. The eastern waterfront of Ortigia – often described as dangerous and wild – is from where one can admire the endless blues of the Ionian Sea. This is probably most beautiful sea view in a city centre that I have ever had. I walk here almost every night to look for constellations in the sky. Because Syracuse was a major centre of the Ancient Greek Civilization – and the most beautiful of them, according to Cicero –, and because the names of many celestial bodies as we know them in Europe have roots in Greek mythology, I think Syracuse is the most natural place for stargazing. When I come home from the other side of the city and the weather is windy, like today, the whole neighbourhood smells of the sea.
It is the people that live on my street, though, that fascinate me the most. Even though I see some couples, young families and groups of – mostly European – tourists walk past my house to go to the beach or do some sightseeing every morning, and I hear their steps and tired chatter at night when they head back to their B&B’s and apartments, it is the long-time inhabitants of this street that give it a shape and face. I have figured out by now that my house is located at the busiest section of the street, and because it is an old Sicilian house with thin walls, I am, even when at home with all the windows closed, part of the hustle and bustle of the city.
First, there is a lady across the street that has set up a shop in her living room. She is usually sitting and knitting at her window, around which she has hung bright-coloured woolen skirts, dresses and jackets for girls. Sometimes, especially in the afternoon, I see her pins fallen on her lap and her dozing with her mouth slightly open. The lady usually opens the shop early in the morning, then closes it around 11, probably in order to prepare lunch, and then, after, opens its again and remains seated on her chair until the news on TV, until the sun sets or, if there is a celebration taking place in the city, until around midnight. She has grey curly hair and she is often dressed in black. She has a proud posture and a coarse voice, which makes her look and sound a bit intimidating, but the way her intonation changes when she asks ‘Capito?’ reveals that she is actually a kind-hearted and generous lady. Sometimes her daughter takes her place at the shop or helps her. During the two weeks that I have lived here I have seen only two customers that have bought something from them. The last one was an Englishman named Henry who bought two dresses for 12 euros. They didn’t have any change but the lady next door who seems to do laundry every day and who happened to be hanging shirts and bed sheets on the rack in front of her window was naturally willing to help. While the shopkeeper was changing money, her daughter was trying to do some more business or just have a small talk by showing Henry their other products. ‘È bella?’, she asked proudly at every skirt that she took from a hanger, to the embarrassment of the silent Englishman. Sicilians are very expressive and they want foreigners, too, to say what they think and feel, right here and right now.
Secondly, there is an old lady with glasses that lives in a house next to the shop. She is always standing at her door, her back towards the street, watching her cat play on the floor. A week ago a group of Spanish women stopped at the cat and began to pet it, but when they left disappointment was written in all of their faces – the lady had asked them for money! After she thanked God for His mercy by making the sign of the cross three times and raising her hands towards Him. A real Caravaggian character, I thought, when I saw her theatrical gestures in the framing of the door, daylight dramatically highlighting her features while her body remained in the nearly-absolute darkness of the kitchen. The lady also has a dog named Ulisse that she and her son constantly call and command. People living on our street, especially men, greet her gallantly and ask about her morning when leaving their houses to go to work, and she patiently wishes all of them a good day or a good trip. I have seen her very angry as well. Two days ago I flinched when heard her shout compulsively almost at my window. ‘Non mi interessa! Non mi interessa! Cento anni! Cento anni!’ She was having an argument with the owner of her house, but what exactly it was about I didn’t quite get. Many women living nearby stuck their heads out of their windows or appeared on their balconies when the argument began to take higher notes, either to side with the owner or to try to calm down the lady. But she went on, furious, for two hours! I thought that she was angry to have to take orders from a woman that is so much younger than she, that perhaps she was trying to convince the others and herself that she is actually one hundred years old and deserves respect (she looks 70), or at least that her family has lived in that house or in that neighbourhood for a long time and that they had never had any problems so far.
I have witnessed other incidents as well. On my second day in Ortigia, a couple living above me had what I thought was a big quarrel, but when I heard they were shouting words such as ‘pappardelle’ and ‘fettuccine’ I figured that they were just discussing what to prepare for lunch. (The wife won, of course.) Some days later I heard a man whose voice was such that obese people often have, shout angrily ‘Vaffanculo!’ seven times in a row, quickly, as if he had a time limit and he wanted to insult his interlocutor as much as he could before his mouth is sealed. Last Wednesday around midnight I heard a man barking (!) under the window of his prospective girlfriend. Or, if they were already a couple, the incident was most probably caused by jealousy, another thing very common in Sicily…
I really like it here.
October 22, 2017, Syracuse
‘They should be kicked out of the country,’ the man at the table next to mine said categorically, having in mind the people like the Russian they had just met, who, according to the woman, had refused to address them in Estonian, ‘because they all can speak it, they just don’t want to’. They did not dwell upon this topic just like they did not turn into a discussion any of the remarks that they exchanged in a dry fashion, like the man’s observations about the weather, the best shortcuts in the Old Town that the woman was proud of knowing, and the taste of the Pavlova cake they were having, their interaction being governed by a codex that defines how conversations should start and end, how often the topics should be changed and how profound a discussion is permitted – a whole set of rules that they were, in their age, incapable of not following.
They were both in their seventies, the man perhaps older, he a Swedish Estonian, possibly one of the refugees of September 1944, she most probably from Tallinn. They conversed in Estonian, and while the man spoke it with no accent and had a decent vocabulary – I didn’t hear any obsolete words and expressions that many Estonian émigrés and their descendants still use –, there was something very peculiar about the way he ‘carried’ the language. Almost every time before he took a sip of coffee he exclaimed, ‘Ja, bra!’ in Swedish, to conclude a topic once and for all. The woman was somewhat girlish, and in that she looked very different from most of the women of her age that can be described as such, as, in contrast to the latter, to whom youthfulness is returned by the nature, generously, with a hint of irony, before their cycle of life ends, she seemed to have managed to carry it continuously through the years until the present day. Something made me think that she had been well-connected to the higher strata of Tallinn’s society, but not born into it, not entirely part of it, and not having gained access to it through an achievement.
It was clear to me that they were on a date, long before all the formalities of small talk were exhausted, long before the man asked the woman if she wanted to live together. He stressed the word ‘together’, to express his wish for a companion, knowing that these are the last years of his life, just like hers, and it is probably in her interest, too, to have him as a companion, just as a companion, not as a husband or a lover, that goes without saying, as they are both too old for such things. It wasn’t the first time they were talking about this, as his question sounded less like a proposal than a hurried attempt to arrange things by someone who is about to leave. So naturally he became impatient when she answered that, yes, she would like to live with him, but went on to find reasons, utterly insignificant reasons in his opinion, why she cannot do it like this, why she cannot accept the proposal under his conditions. Of the argument that ensued I heard nothing, as they lowered their voices, except for the mentioning of a document that he had asked her to sign (and she standing firm in her belief that that document is not what he says it is), the flats that he owns in Stockholm and the house in Australia, his son named Oscar, and a planned visit to somewhere.
It is one of the last occasions that they would argue about this, I thought, each occasion bringing them closer to the awareness that despite their mutual sympathy the points where they stand in life make them totally incompatible for each other – he having crossed the line after which one lives in anticipation of death, she, still alive, and also seeking to feel alive. Would they be able to make a compromise? Can one make a compromise between life and death? Do they have any time left to give it a go? Do they have any time left to even ask such questions? They decided to drop the subject and finished their coffee in silence.
A young couple entered and sat at the table next to theirs. When the man heard that the couple spoke Swedish, he went on to exchange a few casual words with them. He didn’t think it worthwhile to try to engage the woman in the conversation nor to translate the conversation for her. She didn’t mind.
November 12, 2019, Tallinn
I had a long walk along the Main this morning. Spring was in full bloom and birds were playing their love games in the sun. After weeks of rain and wind I noticed for the first time how beautiful the red Gothic spire of the Frankfurt Cathedral was in the background of the light blue sky. It was like a quiet Sunday morning in August, when most people are away and those who are left have a stroll with their children, try to get some tan in their face, or jog along the riverbank. The only thing that reminded me of the current state of things was a police car making sure that there are not any big groups of people around.
I had taken a book with me, but couldn’t focus on it and kept scrolling through the news instead. I had nonetheless a light feeling, and I was almost able to forget about the current events, at least for a while. I felt I had recovered from the paralysis that I had over the weekend, when I could not do or decide anything. When I went back to my hotel I talked to the receptionist and we both expressed our hope that it will all pass soon.
I thought until this afternoon that it would be more reasonable for me to stay in Frankfurt during the Coronavirus crisis. I thought that, under current conditions, I would be more isolated from other people here than when travelling to and being in Estonia. I didn’t worry that much about me getting the virus or the discomfort that my staying here would mean as about me inadvertently transmitting the virus, should I have it without knowing it, to other people, including to my close ones in Estonia. This was not what many people recommended that I should do, but I thought that it would be a wise decision for common good. As a digital nomad I don’t really fall into the categories of a tourist, whom the MFA of Estonia urged to immediately go home, nor of a permanent resident, who, it said, could stay if they can. So I had to make the decision myself.
A few hours ago Bundeskanzlerin Angela Merkel declared that to stop the virus Germany would implement a number of drastic restrictive measures all over the country, including the closure of hotels for touristic purposes. There was no information regarding Airbnb apartments, but considering that the situation was changing every hour I knew that very soon I probably could not count on them either. Should I remain in Frankfurt, I would eventually have no place to stay. A friend of mine wrote me on WhatsApp that one of his friends who works at a hotel in Frankfurt had received the following instructions: ‘All the hotel employees are ordered to stay at home. Breakfast will no longer be provided. The rooms will still be cleaned. Check-in will take place at the neighbouring hotel. Check-out will take place without the reception staff.’
I feared that I would be kicked out of my hotel immediately, but I was told that these measures are valid only since Wednesday. So I have at least a place to stay tonight.
Lufthansa still flies between Frankfurt and Tallinn, despite having cancelled about 90% of flights, as announced today. The airports of the both cities still operate. I have a ticket for tomorrow morning (for a price that I have never paid for a flight). If all goes well, I’ll be in Estonia soon.
March 17, 2020, Frankfurt
As I am interested in Estonian manor houses I found your photo of Välkemoisa and your website. I liked your posts very much. Your insight into next table or next house people remind me of the way I observe when I’m in Amsterdam and watch people, sitting on a bench on a market or on a terrace.
I live in a very matter to fact small house in a row with others, but luckily in a very beautiful neighbourhood. I came from Germany more than forty years ago to stay in the Netherlands.
I would like to live in a house like Välkemoisa.
I’ts great to have discovered your photos and writings.
Kind regards, Andrea
Thank you so much for your good words! Yes, sometimes the most intriguing novels are taking place around us, or in our heads if we keep our senses open!
What makes you interested in Estonian manor houses if I may ask?
There are so many of manors here, and the most atmospheric of them are usually the abandoned ones in my opinion. The Väikemõisa manor seems to somewhere inbetween, not entirely taken care of, not fully abandoned either…