Thursday, December 30, 2010

Animal Planet

Playing in the snow-covered yard were a bear, a fox, and a hedgehog. Drinking vodka on the porch was a tropical bird. An owl answered the door to the house.

“Uhhuu,” the owl cooed, both eyes blackened like she’d been beaten by a husband. If not for the familiarity of the hoot I would not have recognized Liina’s mother in the dark of that Estonia winter.
“The rest of the animals are in the forest,” she said, pointing into the trees. “Look for the bonfire.”
It was New Year’s Eve 2000, and I’d arrived late from Tallinn to Liina’s family’s country house. I hadn’t known Liina long, and she’d invited me to join friends and family to celebrate the New Year. She’d said it was animal party and that I should dress the part.
Twenty animals, Liina somewhere among them, danced at around the bonfire, stopping occasionally to literally howl at the moon. It was something out of Indiana Jones, with me, the western anthropologist, peering over a rock at jungle natives about to engage in a ritual blood sacrifice.

Liina has always been a bit different. In some cases, I have chided her for not being more normal and the trouble it has gotten her into.

Her driver’s license was revoked for several years for reasons, in part, of drawing extra attention to herself by defacing her license with a indelible marker, adding horns and a beard to her otherwise attractive face to give it a Satan-crossed-with-a-female-werewolf look. In most parts of the world policemen are not known for their senses of humor, least of all in former Soviet republics.

Traveling in Iran, she was jailed for a night for being seen in the company of a local man, an unauthorized tour guide. She narrowly escaped getting caught with a bottle of wine in her bag, which, in Iran, still carries a minimum penalty of being buried to your neck in sand and stoned to death.

In a nature reserve in India, she ignored signs telling her to stay on the trail and not touch things. When she exited the park, two armed guards awaited her. “What’s in the bag?” one asked. “Oh, just a few books,” she replied. “And a Bengal tiger skin.” Lucky for her, they actually thought she was funny.

It is as if Liina is on a mission to test the limits of patience and sense of humor of everyone she meets, taking copious notes so that she may one day, like an audit office, release a report to the world, providing us all with more accurate portraits of ourselves.
Several years ago in the tax office, unable to figure out how to manage an ID card reader, Liina and I sat before the unfortunate, humorless woman assigned to assist us manually file our documents. “Do you have any family or dependents to list?” the ametnik asked. “How recently do they need to have been alive?” Liina queried, adding some vague remark about an avalanches and bad luck in general.

For me, situations like tax filing are ones I want to enter and exit as quickly and smoothly as possible. But in Liina’s world all events have equal standing and are part of life’s rich tapestry. “Really,” she rebutted my scolding once we were safely outside the tax office, “why would you want to cheat a bureaucrat out of an interesting day?”

When I suggested that bureaucrats were in fact bureaucrats for the reason that they wanted all their days to be more or less the same, she shot me a disapproving look. “You’re wrong,” she declared. “There’s nobody alive like that.”

I will say this for her: she is never guilty of conscious Bohemian affectations or, as is common with some, trying to be different in the same way. She would never tattoo her body or adopt the Goth look. To her, these people are not at all genuine, and are, in themselves, walking contradictions.

To get on Liina’s good side, it is helpful to one-up her. Had the Estonian policeman checking her license understood this he would have offered her the chance to change into a werewolf, run into the forest, and slay a deer with her teeth and fingernails right before his very eyes. If the tax bureaucrat had been more aware, she might have topped Liina’s avalanche story with a better tragedy, such as an accident with tropical quicksand.

That New Year’s night I observed the animals dancing around the fire for some time. At other parties I’d gone to, it seemed people would sit around a table staring at their feet until the first was drunk enough to engage another. But these dancing animals. . . I didn’t think there was enough alcohol in all of northern Europe to do this to people. (And I would later learn they were mostly sober.)

Finally, I had to play my part, and I stepped into the light to present myself. Eventually they noticed my presence. I wore knee-high boots but was otherwise dressed head to toe in camouflage. Slung behind my back was a BB gun.

“What are you?” came Liina’s voice from a floppy-eared, purple creature. I could have asked her the same, though she appeared to be Barney the dinosaur.

“Take a guess.”

“You’re a praying mantis,” offered someone who was clearly a squirrel. “A chameleon on a branch,” suggested a rabbit.

I unslung the BB gun and raised it high over my head. “I’m a hunter,” I shouted, “and I’m here to take hides.” And with that the animals fled into the forest, correctly playing their parts. I would have my hides soon enough when they got too cold and returned to the fire.

Ever since the birth of our son Robert, we don’t dress up as animals for parties anymore. Partly, this is because we’re too tired, but I think it’s mostly because Liina can dress Robert up. He has already attended one very formal Christmas party dressed as a miniature Santa Claus. He owns a coat where the hood morphs into an elephant trunk. And he has webbed duck feet, shoes which slip on over his regular shoes.

We haven’t happened on any ametniks or policemen yet when Robert is in tow, but I can only imagine it when we do. “We found him in the countryside being raised by a family of wolves,” Liina will say. “Does that mean we can keep him?” And we’ll just have to hope the ametnik has a sense of humor equal to ours. Well, equal to Liina’s, that is.

Visit the Vikerkaar family duty free shop on our mezzanine level.