Saturday, July 3, 2010


Summer brings me out from under my suburban rock and into the city to witness life once again in my self-appointed role as an amateur anthropologist. I’ve followed the economic decline in the newspaper, but by the looks of Old Town on a sunny day, you’d never know a crisis had visited. Many of the fashionable restaurants are still around, interiors still sleek and modern enough to make a Finnish designer blush. The streets are still packed with Mercedeses, Audis, and the occasional Bentley or Maserati. True, there seem to be fewer locals in the cafes, but those present don’t seem to have lost the spirit of the boom—Hugo Boss all over the men, and women sport more D&G sunglasses per capita than in places on earth where the sun actually shines.

Each new season, much like the black storks who return to Estonia, I begin a search for a café nesting site among my own species, what I call the “normal” people. This means a search for people like me, whose clothing is worn around the edges, who don’t have trophy mistresses, and who can’t remember the last time they went to a nightclub. I search for a place where there is the absence of a thirst for more, where those who sit among the tables appear merely content, without an agenda to impress. I look for those, who, as Marcus Aurelius put it, are not “studious of the popular applause.”

I used to like the Noku klubi, though to get in I had to wait outside until someone leaving let the door swing open long enough for me to enter. (My wife Liina is a member, but she lost her card, and out of principle refuses to pay 100 kroons to replace it.) I’ve thought of applying for membership myself—I know two members who would recommend me, but rumor is they reject everyone who applies who isn’t pals with the owners. More importantly, if I happened to be accepted it would take the fun out of sneaking in. And if I were rejected, my enthusiasm would be soured, sneaking into a place where I am officially unwanted. Also, as Liina pointed out recently, the “No” of Noku stands for “young,” and by Estonian standards, I no longer fit that description.

Another haunt where I look for normal people is the little cigar shop tucked away on Dunkri Street—La Casa del Habano. Its name rings of a place where you might bump into revolutionaries and spies, two types I’m naturally drawn to, if only because I’ve fantasized since youth about being recruited by MI6 and issued a Walther PPK. La Casa, as its known to regulars, is Estonia’s spiritual heir to Rick’s Café Americain. Sans Nazis, as far as I know.

Among La Casa’s regulars you’ll find Belgian Jacques-Alain, a former circus performer. He now makes his living selling WMDs to Arab nations, but after a drink or two you can always persuade him to show you a few moves from his days as a contortionist. His specialty was enterology, which he’ll explain is the practice of squeezing one’s body into a small container that appears to be impossibly small for the human body. I once saw him get almost his entire body inside a cigar humidor no bigger than a footstool. After he did it, others tried it until the humidor broke into a dozen pieces and they had to chip in to pay for it.

There’s a Persian called Shah by his friends, because he could be the doppelgänger of the Bollywood star Shahrukh Khan. Shah always has a CD in his pocket in case a local establishment is playing techno music. It disappoints him when young Estonians think the throb of techno is a danceable beat, and so he flies from table to table recruiting Estonians to join impromptu Bollywood dances. I once saw him lead thirty Estonians as they flexed and gyrated to the Hindu classic “Nimbooda Hum Dil De Chuke.”

There’s another Persian, far more mysterious, who always seems to have a cigar in his mouth and be talking at the same time. This man’s story is never the same twice. One day he’ll claim to be a Zoroastrian descendant of Darius I, the greatest of the Achaemenid kings. The next he’ll regale you with stories of fighting alongside Sir Bart Fitzroy Maclean, though he’s roughly my age which would mean he, at best, fought battles with a toy sword. Darius, as they call him, was educated in English public schools and his favorite parlor trick is to recite poems in Brythonic, a predecessor language of Welsh, which he does without any prompting after his third Campari.

There’s a nubile twenty-three-year-old who is already on her fourth man this season, and she makes no bones about only wanting them for their money. “I’m not interested in Taivo anymore,” she told me while bouncing on the knee of the guy she dumped Taivo for. “Taivo’s credit card got me only as far as London, and by the third shop I visited it was maxed out. I had to buy my own plane ticket home.” I’d met Taivo a couple of times, and I have to believe he’d planned the whole thing, figuring she’d be stranded in London and have to learn humility by sleeping in the tunnels of the Underground. But everyone likes this woman, perhaps because she’s unabashed about her greed. I find her honesty refreshing but on the other hand don’t see how she’s much different than a prostitute. I haven’t yet got around to asking her that.

Another regular is Rein, who is some kind of high-level policeman, probably connected to KaPo or the CIA, or maybe even the KGB. You can always find him in a dark corner smoking strong Spanish cigarettes. He never moves from his seat and quietly surveys the room. I once asked him if he always sat with his back to the wall in case there was a gunfight. He only stared at me, his expression unchanged. After a while he told me he thought guns were overrated, that it was much more fun to kill with your bare hands. Not sure if he was joking, I said that that was also my experience, though I occasionally liked to use a garrote for a little variety. Since then, we haven’t talked much.

Oddly enough, none of these people I gravitate toward fit my definition of normal, and I’ve begun to consider revising it. I’m told by a friend from a village on Estonia’s north coast that they have one resident referred to by the villagers as the normaalne mees, the normal man. This normal guy happens to be the only sober working-age man in the village, and he’s the one called upon if a leaky roof needs repaired. I’ve begun to think the villagers have a point, and perhaps I’m asking too much of “normaalne.”

I’m not sure how I fit into my decidedly abnormal crowd, nor am I sure why the proprietors of the joints where I hang out don’t run me off for being too boring. One reason could be that I always pay cash for my drinks. Or perhaps they like the idea that I one day might write about them and make them legends in print. I suppose the next best thing to having a song written about you is to cut a romantic figure in someone’s newspaper column.

It’s also possible that after this is published the thrill will be gone and I’ll no longer be welcome. Shah will complain that I didn’t properly describe his strapping, youthful figure. Or Darius will be angry that I didn’t mention he also has an excellent singing voice. People are impossible to please.

The frustrating thing is that while I’ve never found the normal people I seek, I am not uncomfortable around this whiskey-swilling band of bullshitters. And if the birds of a feather thing is actually true, then I’m merely nesting with my own kind. And that is the scariest thing of all.