Thursday, July 17, 2008

And Nice to Meet You, Too

My first instinct was to be angry with my wife for not introducing me. Second, I thought I might introduce myself, but they already somehow knew me, my name, my connection to the few I knew in their group. They even made me feel like I should know their names. They asked me polite questions: “So, you’re back for good in Estonia?” “How’s the job working out?” There were eight of them at the table, only three of whom I knew. And one of the three was my wife.

Perhaps atypical of Estonian dinner parties, the conversation—on their part—flowed. But I couldn’t take part. I could only sit and wonder: Who are you people?

I had more questions, too. What do you do? What is your connection to everyone else at this table? And how in hell do you know me?

But I didn’t ask. I didn’t want them to think I was an American. The type who’ll pry with invasive questions. The American style of questioning can go out of control, the asker soon demanding to know what kind of car they drive, how much money they earn, and which celebrities they’ve slept with.

I know it’s not the Estonian custom to be known. Some say this is a Finno-Ugric trait. Some say it’s Soviet. My theory is that breaking bread in Estonia is not a grave enough act to warrant introductions. Despite the trappings of modern dining, food is fuel, and even if we were eating seven courses, somewhere deep in the Estonian soul a peasant voice is urging them to hurry back into the fields.

I often think Estonians want to introduce themselves but are too shy. So they employ subtle tactics. “My name is Eed,” said one at the table. “People think it’s a man’s name. I get lots of mail addressed to Mr. Eed…” I like to think that Eed sensed my discomfort and found a clever way to introduce herself, without derailing a thousand years of Estonian dining tradition.

As an outsider in this country, I try to accept the folkways without question. I will nip from the community bottle. I will tie the string and nail around my belt at a wedding. Were I to worry over introductions too much, the question would cease to be Who are you? and become What’s wrong with you?

Still, I sit frustrated. In my head, I have prepared the full text of a speech on the importance of dining. I imagine rising from my chair, throwing down my napkin, and citing examples from the world’s dining history. Jesus knew the names of his twelve guests. Ovid’s Olympian gods were acquainted. Bartenders at the Folies-Bergère knew dozens.

At the end of the evening, after much discomfort, I resorted to my first instinct and got angry with my wife. In the car, I told her if she wanted me to come to any more dinner parties, she’d better introduce me to the people I didn’t know.

“But I didn’t know them either,” she said.

I sat in silence, brooding.

“Oh, there was that one,” she said. “I think her name was Eed.”