Honorary Estonian

I was an honorary member of the Estonian Club in Manhattan, where my Wednesday-night salon overlapped with practices for the Estonian Men’s Choir. Another Estonian family – two young blonde kids and their blonde mom – were staying in my Westkill home while I worked in Manhattan. I brought an Estonian family with me to my high-school reunion in Vermont. I even bought several books by what I thought was an esteemed Estonian pop psychologist, and some CDs by the Estonian composer Arvo Part.

My Estonian peak came in late Spring of 1999. My Estonian life happened suddenly, without planning. I’d lost my position editing a northern Catskills weekly newspaper and started working as publicist for a Dane who ran a workshop of apprentice glass painters. I was creating a website, flyers, a catalogue, news releases.

The former Miss Denmark, a Jayne Mansfield lookalike ran the business hiring only the most classically beautiful of apprentices, whom she would then belittle relentlessly.  Among those apprentices was an Estonian woman with two teen daughters, run away from a drunk husband and looking for help as she attempted to resettle, to create a new family. We became friends, not as close as I wished at the time. But through her I started meeting more Estonians, who I introduced to my crowd of Catskills friends.

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I helped the apprentice’s daughters find work, then college scholarships. The woman with young kids needed a place to stay. I had room. Among the friends was a sweet couple with a 14-year-old son. We had deep discussions, fun adventures. They lived in a four-story walkup deep in Brooklyn. Ragnar, the husband, worked in a Ph.D. program in biology.

My actions, initially prompted by yearning and a modicum of lust, settled into my longer-term appreciation for learning a new culture. My Estonian Club membership included use of a basement clubhouse that served Estonian food and ales. It was the perfect spot for a weekly gathering of writers, artists, publicists and filmmakers.

This all bred big plans for a while. I might move to Tallinn, maybe legally adopt a broken Estonian family. But life moved in other directions.  Within a year I was married to Fawn and living Upstate in new digs.

The apprentice woman kept falling in love with flashy men from her home country who would make off with whatever she’d saved. Her daughters ended up going to college and living in the Boston area. The young mother with the two young kids started a relationship with the manager of a local strip club, and then she disappeared. The family living deep in Brooklyn returned to Tallinn and we corresponded for a decade, then lost touch.

My salons petered out. Some had too much work to allow for such frivolity. My new life took away my enthusiasm for organizing others.

My friends the Estonians told me about a large island off the mainland with major drinking problems among the male population. Were there interesting rural bars where they gathered? No, the men would drink in the forest, I was told. Very Estonian.

The other is of the men’s choir who would practice while we talked art and commerce. Down the Estonian Club’s stairs painted with dark images of faceless men and women pushing rocks and hauling heavy objects sat a dozen blonde codgers gathered around a long plank table, beers in front of them, their voices joined as one. They’d sing dirges for hours.


Read more installments of Village Voices by Paul Smart.