It’s April 15th, 2013 when I land in Tallinn. I am 25 years old. Traveling makes me anxious, airports feel foreign and ungraspable, leaving home leaves me with a feeling it (i.e. my home) will fall apart in my absence, as if the only thing keeping it together would be my gaze.
I arrive as a writer in residence, not yet knowing I won’t be able to write here, or in any other residency I will ever attend, unable to write in captivity. But then – there are so many things I don’t know yet. That I will hold my only 9-5 job for less than two years. That love isn’t easy even when mutual. That I will become one of those Eastern Europeans that contribute to the depopulation of Eastern Europe by migrating West. Or that in my migrating West, understanding the depopulation of Eastern Europe will become my profession. I don’t even know that six years from now I will find myself in Tallinn again.
The universe of what I don’t know is infinitely larger than the universe of what I do know. I am just a girl in a taxi, driving through the empty streets of a city that has not yet been fully consumed by neoliberalism. Like me, this will soon change.
The taxi is an old Volvo. The houses are covered in dust, on the ground there are black layers of old snow. The thaw is still some days away.
This is a time when Tallinn and Ljubljana, my hometown, still feel different. I am upset by how foreign things are – the cars, the products in stores, people’s behavior in bars – but I am ashamed of feeling this way, knowing I should learn now to be more open and interested, to overcome my fears and not be a dick.
Six years later I am upset by the uniformity of touristification that made the entirety of Eastern Europe feel the same, but I am not ashamed of feeling this way. This is exactly what the young leftist intellectual I have become should be feeling.
Käsmu, where I am staying, is a white fishing village north-east of Tallinn. I approach it with my unfocused millennial curiosity that pays great attention to surface details but lacks the time and commitment to linger with the content. There is Arvo Pärt’s summer house. A small maritime museum. Statues of white deer on the coast. The Baltic sea is still frozen. I wake up early to watch the geese fly across it. I take hundreds of photos in white and blue.
On the list of the things I don’t yet know, being alone presents the biggest problem. At first, there is another poet in the house. She has a saluki called Rumi and an engineering husband who believes the Estonian economy would have surpassed Finland’s if it wasn’t for the Soviet Union. After a few days they leave, and I am on my own. A child of controlling parents, formed by concepts like responsibility, duty, or care I should welcome this newly gained solitude and independence with joy, but instead I am beginning to learn the true meaning of the open doors in Sartre’s No exit. Alone, I feel decontextualized and vulnerable.
I cook and watch Game of Thrones. It’s Season 5 and Ramsay Bolton is torturing Theon Greyjoy in his dungeon in what will become one of my most traumatic TV experiences. There’s a couple of things about it I can’t handle: the thought of somebody who presents himself as your savior proving to be your tormentor instead, the amount of physical and psychological violence, and the fact that somebody might be tormenting you not for some sensible reason like interrogation or revenge but just ‘cause, are some I can name.
I soon begin to understand my occasional isolationist fantasies don’t amount to an ability to withstand factual isolation. The internet tells me there’s a bus to Tallinn almost every day. I begin to take it regularly.
On the 23rd floor of Sokos Viru, in the first foreign owned and operated hotel in Tallinn (opened in 1972), there is a KGB museum. It is a cluster of rooms, said to be left intact from the day the Cold War was won and the KGB left in a matter of hours, leaving the remains of their interior design and unfinished plans for the future behind. Like a sonic specter, The Wind of Change lingers in the air. The tourists appear affected. There is a turquoise phone, a gas mask, an ashtray full of cigarettes. I am affected myself, but unsure what exactly is it that I feel. There’s an eerie artifice of authenticity to the place, like an English garden. The word that comes to mind is ephemeral. But what? The KGB? This interpretation? My interest in it?
Leaving, I find myself wanting to write a novel about it, but I don’t yet know how to write novels, convinced that I would have to be a man or at least a Westerner to do it right. Formally this means I am insecure and trained to believe novels look a certain way – that they are composed of certain subjectivities and plots married with a flawless causality that bring a sense of divinity into this godless world. I will learn how to train myself out of it, but this will take time.
Training begins with reading. On the boat to Helsinki, I read John le Carré’s The Spy that Came in from the Cold and I fall in love. I now know I will spend the rest of my writing days trying to recreate his narrators, simultaneously in the world and outside of it, conscious of the fact that no moral man, or woman, will ever firstly tell the story of themselves. I still don’t know how to write this way, nor do I know how to live like that. Wherever I go, everything is always full of me. Like this ferry, a red ship on gray waters you are unable to see through my introspection.
There is another thing I love about le Carré, and it’s political. I won’t notice it until I will have moved out of Ljubljana and into to St. Louis, Missouri to become a temporary (or is it permanent?) American, looking at the divide between the East and the West from the elevated perspective of a frequent flyer. There are ways in which people on both sides of the Iron Curtain talk about Western secret services and there are ways in which people on both sides of the Iron Curtain talk about Eastern secret services. As the CIA or MI5 defend democracy, their methods are always to be understood as a complicated means to just ends, but the KGB, defending authoritarianism, is always to be understood as strictly murderous. Le Carré, a professional, knows ideology too is a profession. Not precisely beyond good and evil, but definitely not divided into the Angelic West and Demonic East.
At the end of Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy, Bill Hayden, wearing Mr. Darcy’s face, says the West has become so very ugly. He’s a villain, we are told, but there is something in how he delivers the phrase, that makes him come across as the bearer of the truth.
In the background Julio Iglesias in singing La Mer.
Returning to Tallinn six years later I firstly notice the presence of Soviet heritage in space. I am here for a summer school on the late Soviet era and I live with an architectural historian now, so I am predetermined to turn my eye to certain things, but still. It feels I would have noticed it anyway.
Worried about how little we talk about continental colonizations and decolonizations on European soil, I have been paying close attention to the monuments of liberation and victims of World War II violence. What I noticed is that, built by nations and cultures that have been locked in the position of ontological insufficiency, they all strive to perform dignity. Noticing this, I am deeply moved. I also notice that others, namely the citizens of Eastern European states that had been swallowed by the Soviet Union in the aftermath of World War II, feel differently. They feel like it is their patriotic duty to look at these same monuments and read them as moronic.
Convinced that antifascism is a skill we should not allow ourselves to forget, I am insulted by this, but I also understand. That is to say – I understand because I find myself confused and unwilling to take sides. I am angry at the Estonians who are angry at antifascism and socialism because they find them synonymous with Soviet imperialism, and I am angry at Soviet imperialism for presenting itself as imperialism with a human face. I’m angry at it for tainting a noble idea by misusing it for a murky cause. I am also angry at the West that nobody in this story is willing to talk about.
But I can’t really handle anger, unable to linger in it for too long so I am left wondering: a) why do people hate solidarity as if it would have been solidarity that had sent them to forced labor camps and b) why are people (states, countries, nations, empires, unions) so unwilling to let things (people, cultures, land), that clearly don’t want to belong to their concept of belonging, go?
I find myself thinking: If you love somebody, set them free.
But then, I would probably be terrible at winning wars.
And then there are the animals.
In 2013 there is a dog. I get lost on my way through the woods and find myself standing on the shore of a lake when a German shepherd approaches. I am frightened because of how big and unannounced he is, but he is calm and aware of boundaries, so he sits beside me, but not too close. He must be a demon, I find myself thinking, and this thought calms me down as if he would be less of a threat to me if he were a demon and not an animal.
Six years later there is another dog, like the dog in Tarkovsky’s Stalker, walking beside us as we walk towards an abandoned Soviet submarine port. He must belong to somebody as he is wearing a collar and seems comfortable around people but the shabbiness of his coat and the tick on his face give the impression there are dogs more thoroughly loved in this world. But then – who am I to know?
There is also a cat, in front of an orientalist dacha in the woods, she is young and trusting, her black coat shining in the sun. As I stroke her back, she climbs my arm and settles behind my neck, giving me the false confidence I must derive from folktales that claims animals will come to those who are pure and without malice. For a second, I allow myself to believe this is true and I am as good as I was before I became the snappy, anxious young woman I am today, emulating most of my parent’s least appealing qualities I despised as a child. Or at least that there is a way back.
And then there is a bird, trapped in the kitchen of the dorm I am staying at. A sparrow, I suppose, small and nervous, trying to get out, aiming for the window in the golden light of the golden hour. It must have been a story I read as a child, or a film that I saw, or maybe it was an anecdote somebody told me a long time ago, but looking at that bird I know for a fact that birds trapped in rooms are destined to die. In panic, they will aim for the window and crash. I feel preventing this horrible death is somehow my duty, so I open the windows and the balcony doors and leave. When I come back, the sparrow is gone.
If you love somebody, set them free.
Finishing elementary school, a sentimental teenager non-aligned with realism, I found myself in love with Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. One of the most captivating things about it was the idea that in the endless multitude of universes, there might be a universe where, as you reach maturity, your soul materializes as an animal. Not only as fulfillment of the eternal desire for comfort one can only offer to oneself, but as an opportunity for a self-understanding we, unable to see our souls externalized, are deprived of. Only by seeing your soul, can you truly know what you have become. Not being able to see, I used to think, I will never be able to know. But now, almost a grown up, I am beginning to think I was wrong.
There are sailors – or fishermen – in His Dark Materials, men, whose lives have been formed by seascapes, by rivers, by water. Their souls now come to them as fish so they will never be able to leave the waters they have become one with. At thirteen, this thought filled me with dread. The idea of being so tied up with what you do that it became ontologically impossible for you to do anything else, left me gasping for air, like a fish out of water.
I still find it terrifying. But now I know it is terrifying because of how accurate it is.
A home-bound, home-sick, home-driven homie listening to The Smiths walking the streets of my boring hometown I hated with a tender love, I never thought I would become a person who lived out of a suitcase. But I became her anyway. Not out of wanting or needing to travel or claim a cosmopolitan identity. I moved because Eastern Europe is dying out and becoming a haunted carnival for the tourists that can’t accommodate the natives anymore. I kept on moving because that became the only way I knew how to live.
Some catch phrases come to mind: globalization, uneven development, semi-periphery, neoliberalism, economic migration, cosmopolitan youth. They feel true and false simultaneously. I never fled war or poverty. I fled boredom and insignificance. What I discovered were multitude and instability. Land-locked, my soul never became a fish but amidst all the airfare I think it must have become a bird of sorts. Perhaps the sparrow I set free the other day.
In the game of repetition and change I see Tallinn become a crack, a place in between, a gap between tectonic layers, both intimate and political, crashing against each other, threatening an earthquake. I see it become a metonym for the Iron Curtain, the thing people are always either behind or in front of, but the curtain, this strange borderland stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Adriatic, itself remains as ungraspable as Lacanian desire. I blink and it disappears, like the KGB leaving overnight, their ashtrays still full, their minds still attached to the world dismantling before their very eyes.
On the bus, at the airport, I begin to understand that the places of transit, once so alien and agonizing, have now become places of attachment. They feel like home. The word harbor comes to mind. I start packing for Anchorage.